Empower our children to be independent

We usually tell our children to listen to, and trust teachers and authority figures, without question (to be good and respectful).

But what if this teaching is at the core of the political leadership crisis that we are presently experiencing globally? Or what if it plays a part in the stories of sexual harassment and abuse by authority figures?

Hohentwiel Castle
Hohentwiel Castle

What do Trump, Zuma, Mugabe and al-Assad (to mention a few) have in common? In brief, they are egocentric leaders who have no ethical values in how they conduct themselves and lead their countries. They are bullies who never consider the ideas and perspectives of others. In fact, any perspective that may be different is considered a threat that needs to be nullified as quickly as possible. In the process, they are leaders that create conflict and polarize societies.

The sad story from a societal perspective is how these leaders manage to get into power.

It all starts with a promise – a promise of a better life (but only if you listen to ‘me’ and follow ‘me’).

The promise is conveyed in an emotionally, persuasive way to generate the necessary emotive energy that overrides rational and independent thinking. The promise has to first highlight what is wrong and bad about the situation that the people find themselves in at that moment. The promise then casts blame on all past leaders, as well as the historical processes, that have led to the present demise. Linked to this, the promise activates the powerful energy of fear.

The promise then offers an answer (or solution). In short, the answer is that the messiah has arrived who will singlehandedly change things. More importantly, the promise offers protection and care. In their seductive and fanatical rhetoric, these con artists sprue out simplistic solutions to complex human struggles.

Once in power, these leaders demand unwavering loyalty and obedience from everyone. No dissent or opposition is tolerated. At best, any dissonant will ‘be fired’, at worst, be tortured and killed. They re-activate fear, only this time, with them being the source.

Frightened baby hyena
Frightened baby hyena

If we teach our children to be independent thinkers, to curiously question all things being said, to have courage to stand alone without harming others, to take responsibility for one’s actions, to take care of the environment and all living things, and to not fear any challenge that life may throw at one; we will raise individuals who will not get seduced and/or bullied by authority that only aims to disempower one.

Children need to learn that they have the necessary power to create a life that is meaningful and productive, despite the ups and downs that may occur. And if every human being endeavors to do so (and be optimistic in the struggle), there will be little or no need for an authority figure or political leader to protect one and/or tell one what to do and how to do it.

As a way to help prevent self-centered bullies from usurping and then abusing power, I feel that we need to have conversations with our children about how they relate to authority figures. In the process, our children will become more aware of the potentially harmful power dynamics that exist in such relationships.

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Moving into an uncertain future

In my previous article on vision and framing, I took a predominantly past-orientated perspective of how we construct frames around our experiences, and in particular, around our problems.

In this article,  I would like to focus on the power of how you can use frames to create and mold a meaningful future for yourself.

Walking into an uncertain future

By nature, the future is both uncertain and unpredictable. From an evolutionary perspective, a range of possibilities (outcomes) may exist in the future, but nothing is definite. However, the potentiality of these outcomes are influenced and determined by what has unfolded in the past and what is presently occurring in the present.

As part of creating a frame or focus for your future, you need to consciously prime yourself to move into your future with optimism. You can do this by activating an internal process that playfully entertains possibilities that have not yet materialised, but which you can see or imagine.

During play, children transport themselves into a new domain of experience through the power of fantasy and imagination. When next you watch children play, see how easily they are transport themselves into a ‘new place’ during play. Imagination is the vehicle for the transportation.

In consulting with elite athletes, I create frames for future performance through the process of visualisation. This helps to transport the athlete into the future in a way that conditions the mind to be prepared for an upcoming competitive event. An expectancy of how the future will unfold is very much part of the visualisation.

Meditation and mindfulness help a person mentally connect to the present moment that is unfolding. While these processes do not provide actual frames with which to guide you into your future, they paradoxically open up the future for you by asking you to carefully notice the present moment unfolding before you (be it on a mental, emotional or physical level). This heightens an inner awareness that assists you in dealing with life’s demands more effectively. As a spin-off, you will begin to feel more emotionally relaxed about your future, thus neutralising the anxiety that tends to get activated when dealing with uncertainty.

There are times, when I will sit and write a reflection about a particular experience. As part of the reflection, I will tease out what I have learned, as well as, consider possibilities of what else could have unfolded, or what I may have done differently to facilitate a different outcome. In particular, I look at my patterns of behaviour that may have blocked me from achieving what I had set out to do. This helps heighten my awareness regarding my own functioning, offering me alternatives of how to interact in the future. This is how journalling or reflective writing offers a frame of how to move into the future more effectively.

Finally, I believe that your perceptions of what you think your future may hold are determined by your philosophy of life (see my article on viewing life through your personal lens). This philosophy is self-recursive; connecting your experiences with your beliefs and assumptions in an ongoing, unfolding way. On another level, your personal philosophy also influences your anticipations and expectations of your future. Do you have a general feeling of optimism as you journey in your life? Do you see yourself as having the necessary courage to walk into an uncertain future? (See my article on being optimistic in the struggle).

Part 5: Learning

Learning
Learning

The little boy was absorbed in what his father was showing him. The father was explaining how the motor worked.

Human systems are learning and evolving systems. Formal and informal learning occurs as knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.

As we move into the future and encounter more and more complexity, we need our children to know that there are two distinct types of reasoning when dealing with problems.

Firstly, we need to teach them that there is technological knowledge which is embedded in Newtonian physics where there is a right answer in trying to solve a particular problem. The reasoning processes that are applied in such cases, usually requires linear cause and effect thinking. Such thinking and knowledge is the predominant teaching in our formal educational settings.

On the other hand, we also need to teach our children to think in terms of processes and patterns that occur in nature and in people’s lives. This type of thinking is generally referred to as systems thinking and is best applied to ecological and human problems such as poverty, pollution, global warming, migration issues, war and terrorism (to mention a few). There are no absolutes in the world of ecologic, so in order to resolve an issue, one needs to apply ‘both/and’ type thinking to the dualistic conflict that is being encountered.

Gregory Bateson contended that the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and how people think. On this point, our children need to know when to apply technological thinking and when to utilise ecological thinking. What type of thinking and reasoning in turn, is determined by the nature of the problem that needs to be (re)solved.

Applying more and more technological reasoning to complex global issues is not working. Helping our children to think in terms of the unfolding processes in a holistic, inter-connective way will provide them with the necessary reasoning skills to help heal the fragmented, intense and conflicting world we live in.

Responding to major change

Adapting to a major change process is a challenge, especially when it comes to having to deal with a foreign language. I have recently re-located to Germany for an indefinite period, and have had to deal with many administrative processes that require not only knowing how the system works, but also having to understand a foreign language and all of its subtleties.

As I encounter those around me, it feels like I am enveloped in a sea of ‘gibberish’. Nothing makes sense. There are no anchors to hold onto, no cues to connect with. It makes one feel powerless.

My work as a therapist is all about language, stories and the creation of meaning. My struggle with not being able to ‘converse’ effectively with others was therefore acutely heightened. I was having first-hand experience of the power of ‘not having language’.

As I thought more about my situation, the image of a one-year-old responding to his(her) environment came to the fore. This image offered me ‘an attitudinal approach’ to how I should respond to the major change that had occurred. Four ideas were activated by the image, which helped align me to a clearer philosophy and methodology going forward.

In time

‘In time’ suggested that I need not rush or panic about the new unfolding process. I needed to be patient with myself. With consistent practice, it would only be a matter of time, before I would be acquiring new knowledge and the necessary language skills. This realisation helped to settle me.

Beginner’s mind

A beginner’s mind is an inquiring mind that engages the environment in a non-judgemental way. It is also a responsive mind that acts spontaneously. Unlike the mind of a one-year-old which does not have any previously ingrained knowledge and language codes, I was filled with an old established pattern of language. I now needed to let go of the ‘old’ and embrace the new input in order to acquire a new set of codes and meanings.

Being present and playful

To be effective in any learning situation, you need to be fully present and focused in the unfolding moment. In helping babies perform on television commercials I have always been amazed at how concentrated and focused a baby is when playing and exploring. As I thought about this, I realised that I needed to lighten up and become more playful in the process. I had become too intense. I needed to laugh more and not take myself so seriously.

Appreciation

Joy and appreciation are linked. Without appreciation, there can be no joy. As I thought deeper about the challenge of learning a new language, a part of me started to feel excited. The situation was offering me a gift to expand myself and to encounter the true diversity of life.

Concluding remarks

On a general level, internal resistance is activated initially, when encountering any change. The greater the change, the stronger the resistance. In dealing with change, however, adjustment is required. Adjustment and resistance are inversely related: the more the resistance (the more the rigidity), thus reducing the ability to relax, which in turn, impacts on one’s ability to adjust.

Letting go of resistance, and aligning yourself with the attitude and playfulness of a one-year-old allows you to embrace change in a flexible way. Opportunities to learn more about yourself occur and new knowledge and skills can be acquired more effortlessly.

On a therapeutic level, dealing with the change has offered me insights into the intra- and interpersonal complexities of what it feels like to be an ‘outsider’, due to the inability to access and utilise the vehicle of connection, which is predominantly language (for adults).

Watch me play
Playing

Absa Bank – Save the marshmallow!

I was approached by a film director to consult on a television commercial for Absa bank that was based on the marshmallow test conducted at Stanford University. As part of my brief, I was given a link to watch how a group of American children handled the situation when they were given a marshmallow and told that if they waited and did not eat the marshmallow they would be given another one when the instructor returned. The child was then left alone for a time period.

The main aim of the Standford test was to examine whether a child was able to delay his/her gratification.

ABSA bank decided to do a number of television commercials based on the ideas of the Standford experiment. The fundamental message of the commercial was to use the process of delaying gratification that the child was encountering and to link this with the delayed gratification that adults require when saving financially. In other words, if you save you will gain the benefits later.

In order to try and replicate the Stanford experiment as best as possible, we decided to:

  • Not brief the parents and children about the message of the commercial during the casting phase.
  • Select children between the ages of 4-7 years old; the younger the child the more difficult to delay gratification.
  • Inform the parents in detail about the filming process that their child will be going through only once they had arrived on set for the shoot; and were then given the option to withdraw their child if they wished.
  • Keep the experimental room where the child will be filmed free of any visual stimulation (no distractions).
  • Film behind one-way mirrors; so that the child was not aware of any cameras.
  • Keep the film crew out of sight and quiet.
  • Leave the child in the room with the marshmallow for around 15 minutes to film his/her reactions.
  • Allow the parent (separate from the child) to watch on a TV monitor how their child was responding in the experimental room.

While the children were being filmed during the casting phase; no indication was given to them about what was going to be required on the film day. The parents were asked not to mention that a film was going to be taken; but instead to tell their child that they were going to ‘play a game’. Parents were also asked not to feed their child an hour or so before coming onto set (in order to ensure that the child was a little hungry).

As the child psychologist, I was responsible for looking after the emotional well-being of the child; in particular, to watch for any signs of stress and anxiety. If any such behaviours occurred I would remove the child from the situation. In this way, the child was kept emotionally safe throughout the filming process.

The shoot was a success and each of the 32 children that were filmed responded in their own natural and unique way to the dilemma of either eating or waiting. Take a look at the splendid job four-year-olds Misha; Naledi and Timothy did in conveying an important message to all adult South Africans about financial saving. A longer version of the commercial was also edited with a combination of a number of children’s reactions.

Despite the emotional struggle (at times), and the necessary discipline that is required; there are huge benefits to financial saving – you get another marshmallow!

On the look out for food
On the look out for food