Wednesday, 18 May 2016

How on earth do you motivate yourself?

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Every so often life seems to reach an impasse for me. Days seem to stretch and the next day brings the same old routine. These days and the hours that make them up can be categorized as 'Boring'. But doesn't it sound childish to, as an adult, find life boring?

When children say they are bored we tell them to be resourceful, to find something to do as if being bored is a weakness. Doing something and filling your time is presented as the antidote to boredom. Well I have things to do on a list that is as long as my arm and then the other one too but I still feel bored.

For the first time I Googled what the remedies for such a condition would be and have found the following sites. So if boredom afflicts you from time to time the answer seems to be couched around the key words of optimism and positivism.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Should the level of stress over exams taken by children be tolerated?

I am living a paradox when it comes to my daughter. Much as I hate the neoliberal system that we live under I am, nevertheless, priming her to become a successful citizen of the system which I detest even though I have to function according to its rules. Exams are a big feature of this system as a way of demonstrating one's intellectual capability but let's never underestimate the enormous strains and stress that these methods of sifting the supposed best from the rest places upon our kids.

Below are two pictures of my daughter. The one on the left was taken last night (16 May) on the eve of her first AS exam and the picture on the right is how she normally looks. The face that she is pulling, as seen in the photo on the left, was a spontaneous reaction when I asked her how she was doing. I told her to hold the look of despair while I reached for the phone and snapped her.

While there is wide spread reigned acceptance of exams being a necessary tool for testing someone's knowledge and ability it is a flawed system.

The level of pressure being exerted is top down and leaves little room or no room for debate over an alternative system of testing. The Government's push on SATS, STEM (science, technology and maths) subjects and for a comparative calibre of British students to emerge to rival those from South Eastern countries e.g China creates a layer of a hard push narrative that operates on a downward motion. It is much like a horizontal thick black cloud that does not stop pushing down till it reaches its' intended victims, our children.

Consider this, ChildLine has reported a rise in the number of calls that it is receiving from children taking exams. A total of 3,077 cases have been dealt with which represents a 9% rise on the previous year. Obtaining good grades and a fear of not having revised enough are some of the issues being raised by these children.

Some exam questions do not even seem to be age relevant and this was revealed last week in the form of a maths SATS question that even parents were unable to answer. Last year a GCSE maths question even made it onto Twitter because it was deemed impossible to answer by thousands of children around the country. Sky news brought a maths expert on who taught the nation live on TV how to answer it. We expect 15 year olds to be able to do these things?

Consequential to all this exam taking comes a host of other problems such as children suffering from low self-esteem because they perceive themselves as 'not being good enough'; fear of not being able to get into the university of their choice because their grades don't match up; or having to resit papers and feeling ashamed of this because it marks them out from their friends who are progressing onto another year of education.

This is the culture that I grew up in in Asia and it is rotten. The 'Tiger Mother' method is just plain stupid primarily because not every child is capable of getting straight A's. Also, exams are outcome based and the problem with this approach is that it ignores any inherent problems with the system or any structural issues, such as inequality, that arise from the same system that devises education.

In a scenario that reflects the latter would a child who lives in an overcrowded situation or who is homeless and is living in a B&B be able to give his or her best to her exams when they are constantly being interrupted by other people? Conversely should a child such as my daughter who is able to revise in the comfort of an encouraging home environment be expected to do better? Does she deserve the same amount of praise if she receives A grades as a child who battles through his or hers harsh living conditions to also obtain As? Is overcoming physical and mental adversity a factor at all that should be considered when the grades are being dished out?

We put our children through a lifestyle that has no boundary in the way we seek a balance between work and life. Even top corporations are constantly looking at ways to shift their work culture in order to accommodate staff needs for a life outside of work. Yet, we foist just the opposite on our children.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

How I learnt about the politics of Afghanistan by witnessing the beating of a heckler

I attended a speech giving event by the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, at RUSI in London and left about 5 minutes after the speech began because I could not bear to watch a heckler being beaten by the President's security men. On so many angles I could not understand why this was happening in a reputable establishment, on British soil and by security not sanctioned by the British authorities. Am I naive to believe in the Rule of Law? I would like to think not.

Watch the video below and make up your own mind.

There were a number of press folk present and enough TV cameras for the incident to have received some amount of coverage. Instead, the first video to see the light of day was listed as a link in a tweet by Colonel Richard Kemp the day after the incident. I recommend that you watch this video for a fuller picture, literally, of what took place. I am not able to embed it.

I understand that the hecklers (there were more than one but I have only chosen to feature this particular man) raised issues to do with corruption within the Government, the state of insecurity within the country and a controversial energy project. From the 5 minutes only that I spent at the event I have learnt so much more as a consequence. If the protest had not happened I would probably have come away with a sanitised version of Afghani politics.

The hecklers were Hazaras who, allegedly, are discriminated against when it comes to the distribution of government services. Primarily among this is the energy project referred to as TUTAP (Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan) which aims to reform the current energy system by building infrastructure that will allow energy to be traded. The controversial bit that concerns Hazaras is the fact that the project has been rerouted away from their region, Bamiyan, thus, allegedly, depriving them of the benefits of energy efficiency. Numerous protests have taken place in Kabul and continue to occur over this proposed change of route.

As always with Middle Eastern politics there is a minefield of divisions which occur within and between different factions in the regions and I don't claim to understand all of it. I was, however, shaken by the incident and only wish that an opportunity to delve into contemporary Afghanistan politics had not quite presented itself in this way.

As I walked back home the words of Immanuel Wallerstein came to mind. In his book 'The Modern World System' Wallerstein wrote that "In general, in a deep conflict, the eyes of the downtrodden are more acute about the reality of the present. For it is in their interest to perceive correctly in order to expose the hypocrisies of the rulers...". 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

On International Mother's Day let's consider what mothers need

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It is so easy to simplify the needs of mothers by viewing women only in terms of their biological ability to reproduce. Viewed in this way the needs of mothers are pared down to childcare, help with domestic work and the purported desire to look and sound like Mary Poppins who finds every thing absolutely delightful and magical.

Some of us mothers, however, have needs that are more in keeping with the real world we live in. We work because we have to. We prefer to put frozen meals in the microwave because food processes have advanced so much that we don't have to stand over a stove everyday anymore. We run the hoover around the home about once a week because the heavy lugging required seems that bit more cumbersome after a day spent juggling whatever it is we juggle.

The question of 'What do mothers need?' is the title of a journal published by Demeter Press in 2012 and produces answers for a modern world where mothers assume many diverse identities and play multiple roles. The term 'multitasking' extends a mother's ability to do many different things simultaneously to imbuing the concept with layers of abilities and identities as evidenced in the journal and to how mothers are judged.

The first chapter in the journal starts off with a powerful account of a single mother who constantly feels judged by her shopping list. Do you feel that other people are passing judgement when you go shopping with your children and pick up chocolates and biscuits instead of having more healthy eating food? I do and I am not being paranoid either. I almost feel embarrassed when my daughter insists on putting chocolate covered cereal into the trolley instead of the healthy muesli stuff. This scrutiny of mothers is enhanced by ridiculous labels like 'Tiger Mom', 'Yummy Mummy' etc. I referred earlier about mothers having multiple identities and such labels do not capture the fullness of our mother personas. What the hell is a 'Momzilla?'
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Another chapter explores the concept of 'Helicopter Parenting'. I must admit to being one myself and have never quite found a valid reason for not being one. My daughter seems well-adjusted and has good values. My 'Helicopter Parenting' has not reaped negative dividends. However, I had not extrapolated my parenting methods onto a wider structure. The author concludes that 'Helicopter Parenting' is designed to maintain and reproduce elite status but that discussions of helicopter parenting rewrite class reproduction only as bad parenting. The other aspects of helicopter parenting which are acts of personal parenting are not seen as being bad parenting. In other words, 'Helicopter Parenting' is only derided for producing children who will not be able to be independent to deal with adversity. I can feel a blog post coming on dedicated to 'Helicopter Parenting'.

The chapters in the book are organized under six themes: 'Redefining Motherhood', 'Empowering Mothers', 'Mothers, Children and families: Health and Well-Being', 'Mothers, Education and Social Change', 'Mothers, Partners and Parenting' and 'Mothers and Work'. All of which demonstrate the diverse and varied experiences that we have.

Happy Mother's Day.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The word 'budget' has become a condescending term

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The definition of a 'budget' by common standards is an estimate of income coming in and expenses going out. This is a definition that suggests a large degree of self-responsibility, financial prudence and all very 'responsible citizen' type behaviour.

In recent time, following the financial crash of 2007, the word has been framed in political terms. While the government's budget was always a political vehicle and tool for managing the country's economy, of course, what I am talking about is the personal. The conflation of the personal and the political took place after the 2010 election and was a top down political response. We were told that in the same way that households had to budget to be able to pay the bills the country had to budget to live within its means. Margaret Thatcher was a proponent of the same, scaling domestic private behaviour up to country level.

Today I was talking to a friend about how expensive everything is, that my public sector pay has not kept up with inflation blah, blah and her response was to suggest that I should budget. In an instant she had made a snap judgement that my grumblings were to do with my perceived inability to budget as opposed to any external factor that could be having an impact on my finances. It were as if the act of budgeting would make all of live's hardships, caused by a lack of money, to disappear.

Because I earn a regular income I am able to budget and transfer my resources. BUT what about those people who live hand to mouth because they are on low incomes, zero hour contracts or such like? These people may not actually have a choice for two reasons. Firstly, if you don't have a regular income how on earth would it be possible to plan your finances? Secondly, the only option some of these people may have is to choose between eat or heat and that, to me, makes a mockery of the word 'choice'. Some people don't have the luxury of considering the merits of options and choices that they make. Therefore, does the word 'budget' mean something entirely different to this group? I think it does.

Budgeting suggests that personal choices can be made about a pool of money. It implies that these choices are made by transferring money from one intended expenditure to another which demands a higher priority or even a higher preference.
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The well known economist, Ha-Joon Chang, describes the narrative on people having to live within their means as a 'pre-modern, quasi-religious view of debt' and I think the image on the right conveys this narrative.

Monday, 2 May 2016

As an Asian mother I do admire the parents who are rejecting the SATS

Being an Asian mother is sometimes a bore. One is brought up to think of education as the be all and end all. In this education straitjacket one must slavishly follow the national curriculum and anything else that the educational establishment throws at you. Horror of horrors if one dares to question any iota of the system. Horror will visit upon one in the shape of Asian disdain (scarier than Damian from the Omen).

Here is a practical example, my daughter is studying Religious Studies(RS) as part of her AS cohort of subjects. My mother was extremely disapproving over this because she thought RS was a rather 'soft' subject and not academic enough. Never mind that my mother has no idea who Bertrand Russell is. In the Asian quest for academic excellence only 'hard' subjects are worthy, e.g maths, physics. 

Image result for a quote on disobedience  In fact every time my daughter talks about reading History or Classics at university I have to mentally steel myself against shouting "What will people think?" My mother and our numerous relatives (large Asian family stereotype here) would probably say something along the lines of "there is no part of the world that has not been discovered so what is the point?" or, even worse, "go to the museum and learn about all that Greek stuff there not at university". 

Every exam and every test has to be taken with a high degree of solemnity that even Catholics can not muster when a Pope dies. If there is no stress and anxiety involved then it's not education. 

Don't get me wrong. I am hugely ambitious for my daughter. The name of this blog was 'Ambitiousmamas' but hardly anyone was able to grasp the concept of a mother being ambitious for her child. I got fed up of explaining and changed it to 'Feminist Mama' (Google blogger does not let you change the URL). I do push my daughter to get A grades. I constantly drum it into her that good results is key to having choices in life later. I believe in social mobility though I don't know why given the ever growing gap of inequality. I expect her to get As most if not all of the time.

All this comes with a big BUT though which is that my definition of education extends beyond the curriculum and SATS and other exams. Academic brilliance comes from a wide pool of knowledge. That wide pool of knowledge must have the inherent qualities of an academic rigour and be multi-disciplinary. I doubt that concentrating a young child's mind and efforts in a narrow and concerted way will benefit that child in the long-term. 
Image result for the children's world project 2015 jonathan bradshaw

A recent poll on the well being of 8 year olds showed that England ranked 13th out of 16 countries. According to Professor Bradshaw, professor of social policy at the University of York, children were unhappy about how they looked, body image, poor relationships with their teaches and being dissatisfied with their performance in school, among other factors. 

These findings are extremely familiar to me. I was brought up in Asia where children like me were only judged on one thing - A grades. They were made to feel stupid if they didn't achieve and these supposedly poor performers were humiliated and stigmatised. There was no recognition that some children had talents in other spheres outside of the core subjects i.e maths and sciences. 

It is for all these reasons that I admire the parents who are pulling their children out of school. These are parents who recognise that education milestones can be millstones. It takes some courage to try and buck the system. I can honestly say that I would not have had the nerve to do the same.