From Miley to Mandela

Zainab Mehmood-Ahmed's tips on effective parenting in the age of the selfie

From Miley to Mandela
“I hate my hair, I hate my hands, I hate my feet, I’m ugly”, announced my 6 year-old yesterday. Now let me provide a little context before the parent police come rolling round. I have raised my daughter as best as I can to respect and appreciate differences in ethnicity, colour, shape and size and to genuinely understand that these things don’t define us as good or bad people. I have also exposed her to content which does not objectify women or men but in fact portrays their individual strengths and unique qualities, whether it’s through the stories we read or the judiciously selected cartoons/movies we watch. I wanted her to see men and women as more than the sum of their parts. Surrounding ourselves with a diverse social circle and family has helped me to show her that hijabs and sleeves are personal choices and big houses and a platoon of domestic staff and cars are units of circumstance.


[quote]It has helped me to show her that hijabs and sleeves are personal choices[/quote]

But where did this image of perfection come from? Maybe it has something to do with the commercial breaks featuring Katrina Kaif with her volumous hair, or the Turkish actresses with their how-do-they-look-like-that ensembles or even the immaculate youngsters cruising the malls these days. Their perfect hair makes me shudder when I think of how we as teenagers shamelessly walked around with beehives and Bob Marley weaves on our head when apparently we should have been locked up in hair asylums. Or maybe it’s the after effects of all the Disney and Barbie movies that motivate her to relentlessly wet her dolls in the sink so their “hair can be perfect”. How did my baby get like this?

When I started looking around for answers, I began to realise, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many invisible influences out there and so many unconscious signals we are sending to our kids that I began to realize how we need to be more aware if we are going to have a fighting chance to raise kids with an ounce of self-worth.

Last month a teenage boy tried to kill himself in the UK because he couldn’t take the perfect selfie. It’s no wonder that mental health therapists in the UK are considering including selfie obsession as a recognized disorder, so young people can get help for this kind of addictive and narcissistic behaviour. In this kind of digital world, how do we help our kids keep it together?

Choose your child’s role models:

Whatever young children are regularly exposed to, they will internalize. That essentially means they will take it and make it their own depending on who and what they are exposed to on TV and in social circles. That will begin to shape their attitudes and priorities. It starts as early as grade school when their minds are expanding and so are their questions. Maybe at that point we need to be a little more aware when making decisions about what they are watching on TV or what video games they’re playing and what stories are being read to them. As this impressionable time can be pretty confusing, we don’t need to complicate things further by showing them girls who stride wrecking balls in the nude or boys who either need their fangs or gadgets to save the day. Maybe that is why movies like Frozen have gained such incredible popularity. If nothing else it has brought in a refreshing change in terms of identifying heroes and villains in stories and it’s no wonder that it has inspired global campaigns amongst boys and girls, toddlers and tweens alike. This goes to show our kids have open minds; the trick is to keep them that way.

Act the part:

It’s not enough to show them the right kind of stuff on TV and buy the right books for them, but it’s how we go about our daily lives more than anything else. Every child idolizes their parents. From an early age they learn language, social skills and cues from us so it only makes sense that as they grow they will begin to notice how we view and react to the world and the people and situations in it. So be wary the next time you admonish your servant or speak abrasively to an elder, be mindful when you’re tossing a cigarette out of the car window and be aware when yelling at people providing a service or when you’re stuck in a traffic jam or being hounded by beggars. It’s not Big Brother watching us that we need to worry about, it’s our kids. Observing and internalizing everything we say and do will often come out in role play, so next time they’re sitting with their friends and toys, eavesdrop and see how many of the slurs and hot-headed remarks you make or the ones they caught on TV or around them, will be coming out of their cute little mouths.

Set rules and stick to them:

There are things that should not be acceptable such as late nights, rude behaviour, careless eating habits, wasteage of food and money, inflicting harm upon animals and people, abusive or derogatory comments to domestic staff or friends. To the best of our ability we need to police ourselves around our kids because it is criminal to be planting intolerance and discrimination in their young minds. Regardless of the kind of society we live in it is our duty to arm our kids with respect and compassion and not create tyrants and snobs. It is difficult to be consistent with schedules in our busy lives but if our kids never understand the importance of eating, sleeping and working at the right time, in the right way, in the right place they will be severely lacking in essential social and professionals skills. Aim high for your kids, they are malleable and the possibilities are endless. But if we restrict them now by giving them a disadvantage in terms of poor life skills and haphazard daily routines and badly defined behaviour rules then we should get into a time machine and tell our older selves “you could have stopped this” when we are standing in front of ill-mannered directionless teenagers and young adults with no respect for life.


Help them feel whole:

Most kids today will be exposed to the kinds of addictions, temptations, content and behavioural patterns that we couldn’t even dream about just a decade or so ago. With all the advancement in the world, we have to take the bad with the good. As we cannot stop the tide we need to teach our kids to swim with it. There’s no point in being ostriches and using religion as a shield or a shackle, or shrouding ourselves in family traditions and expectations assuming our kids will follow the pattern laid out for them. It is a very different world out there today and we cannot undermine the influences of what they see or hear in school, at football club or cooking classes. Peer pressures are going to start earlier, self-awareness will be an issue in kindergarten and financial standings and weight and lifestyle choices will be questioned by toddlers so every situation you thought you were going to be dealing with in 10 years, it’s probably happening now. It’s better to explain things to this generation than to dismiss them. And it’s not all about being their friend and being clued in about the latest Snapchat trends and One Direction tour gossip, it’s about being a parent when they need one. It is of course an ideal situation when they can be honest with us but there also needs to be a line where we set expectations for them to follow and allow them to feel answerable and responsible. All humans, particularly, children crave limits. When trying to incorporate our religious principles, family traditions into life rules, let’s try to be realistic in terms of what we know they will do and what we want them to do and let’s try to keep the gap a small one. As long as they know what it means to be a good person and how to be one, we have done a half decent job at parenting.

See them for who they really are:

Many of us were part of the generation that felt misunderstood and neglected and Nirvana’s angst and Madonna’s defiance really spoke to us but now this generation is fighting a completely different kind of force. It might not be the strict parents and suffocating family expectations that bind them but they’re facing pressures from the outside world to look and talk and be a certain way to fit in, which can be equally frustrating and even dangerous. If we thought our depressive rants and chain smoking while we cried into our diaries or down the phone were shocking then, we obviously haven’t heard about the death of a teenager as a result of self-harm. With hundreds of ways to glorify dangerous and criminal activity through Facebook and Instagram there is no end to what kind of ideas can take seed in our kids’ minds, depending on their age and the phase they are growing through. If we are going to be cool parents then be cool enough to really know what your kid is going through and know when to mediate when you see signs of trouble.

[quote]I paused and stared for a second at the tattoos on their wrists that read "Suicide gang forever"[/quote]

Redefine cool:

I don’t think I am that old but I sometimes do a double take when I see certain things today’s generation gets up to. When my niece’s end of school selfies complete with funny poses flitted through my timeline I paused and stared for a second at the tattoos on their wrists that read, “Suicide gang forever”. With flashbacks of the film “The Virgin Suicides” running through my head, I began to think of what the mother must wish she could have done for her daughter Tallula Wilson, who threw herself in front of a train trying to keep pace with the self-harm tricks she was learning online. Are these the kind of stories my niece and her friends find cool?

[quote]We live in a country where there is no such thing as child-friendly content or zones[/quote]

What can we do?

This is the world we live in where finding out how to do something or getting encouragement for any kind of behaviour or idea, good or bad is only a click away. So maybe it is time for us to really see our kids and what they are turning into. Let’s really understand what troubles them, what makes them tick and begin to celebrate them for who they are, appreciate what they do and motivate them to work harder at life and play a little less. Because the more time they waste in idle pursuits the more chances they have to either bully or be victimised by someone. So why not channel their energies towards the things they do like, expose them to the endless wealth of knowledge and entertaining yet productive content out there which can inspire them. We need to disconnect our kids from the toxic habits of depending too much on the approval of peers in the digital world and help them reorient their self-worth towards what they achieve. We live in a country where there is no such thing as child-friendly content or zones, where inappropriate sitcoms and ads are ever present and invade our houses daily, where bedtime conversations are often about explaining what strikes are. A country where kids get famous for extraordinary results far less than they do for being shot in the head or exploited. So it is up to us to try harder to give shape and flight to their dreams. To do this we need to introduce them to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs and Mother Theresa, so they can appreciate what it takes to be known for more than the highest number of likes on their timeline.