Tag Archives: Mother

Embracing change

Metamorphosis is within  our reach

Metamorphosis is within our reach

Change is often a word that instills fear. It signifies not only new beginnings but the unknown, a form of stepping over the edge and not knowing what’s beneath. Will you fall, fly, be caught?

Change in my earthquake ravaged city of Christchurch has become a constant and unchanging aspect of our lives, one that in many ways has been a most unwelcome visitor but one that has challenged thoughts, ideals and eventually prompted many of us into action and in amongst the trauma allowed the forging of new connections.

That’s the thing about change- we can fear what it may portend and shrink away from it as if it’s the Grim Reaper or we can look at change as an open door to a different world and hopefully a better place. Embracing change opportunities can be our own mini metamorphosis- an opportunity to shake off the old skin and discover what hidden strengths, talents and new structure lie beneath. To do that though we need to be receptive to what change has to say to us, or equally importantly what we say to change in return. It necessitates a conversation and if we are to be a friend of change then it’s not just a discussion but change will also require us to follow through on the action points created.

Like probably any of my fellow quake survivors I’ve been pondering change and what it could mean. I started this blog after months of hesitancy- a desire and effectively a strong compulsion to do it had expressed itself but I felt an inability to action it for months- after all I was too busy, wasn’t I or was it just too scary to express myself in such a public forum? Would I know what to do, what to write about, how to write?

I tend to have ideas whirring away that are slowly forming themselves like clouds in my mind often over days and weeks into more structured thoughts that just then seem to suddenly come together solidly like rock and at that point often there’s associated action. Perhaps others also ruminate quietly and somewhat unconsciously and most definitely organically with typically no forced agenda in a similar way to me?

And so it was suddenly when an opportunity in the form of a blogging competition for a local magazine presented itself late last year, this was the time to take action. I didn’t win the competition (not enough of my readers took their own action to vote)  but that’s not why I entered really- we have no room for the trampoline that was the prize!

That’s another thing about change- it can be easy to avoid it even though one part of you is curious to meet it but sometimes an imposed or self-set deadline forces a meeting with change head-on. We know at that point whether to follow the path change will take us on or not- sometimes/often the fear and hype of acquainting ourselves with change isn’t the reality of meeting change itself. Change can be more demure, more polite, more soft and caring sometimes than we imagine.

Although I might have had some hesitancy about starting my blog I always knew what I wanted to call it – some variation of Mother’s Instinct had come to mind when I wrote a magazine article about trusting our instincts. This piece was the blog seed that months later I finally placed in soil to germinate and become Mothering by Instinct. Mother’s Instinct and other variants were taken as names but Mothering by Instinct seemed to fit the bill perfectly for what I wanted the focus of this blog to be.

That focus was always about empowering those with children to make the best decisions they can for their families and for those who don’t have children to hopefully understand what may be best for parents and children. Parenting is a baffling and confusing exercise in a world full of media overload with the never-ending waterfall of misinformation that may not serve parents and children well and is in many cases quite simply detrimental.

I have a unique and privileged position as a scientist to be able to access scientific information and to dissect and critically evaluate it to know what aspects of parenting are supported by ‘good science’ and which ones aren’t. I believe that parents have a right to know this information especially where a counter approach is recognised as harmful to the child, the mother-dyad relationship or the family as a whole. In many cases this information though isn’t getting disseminated for a wide variety of reasons- societal pressures, entrenched ethos, commercial influences, lack of media awareness and buy-in, self-serving media interests etc. When I started my own blog I was actually completely oblivious to other excellent blogs that have nuances of the same theme  as my own but having discovered them I now also read avidly as their content informs my own.

Mothering by Instinct seemed ideal as it describes who I am and how I operate with respect to raising my daughter. I believe that many of us are out of touch with trusting our own instincts when it comes to parenting- we’ve become afraid and left feeling as if we have to turn to information sources and books to tell us what to do or just to fall back on what our parents did or those around us, knowing what we are doing doesn’t feel quite right but afraid to tackle it anyway. We’re afraid of the change that becoming a mother or a father brings, we’re afraid of getting it wrong and the consequences of this. Yet, we are our own best encyclopaedia if we choose to embrace the change that each new day of parenthood brings and trust in ourselves to follow change where it will lead us or indeed where we lead change.

Scientific knowledge can reaffirm what’s buried within us, which is where blogs like mine and others have a place. The presentation of accurate and easy to understand information can inform us and be used as a tool, assisting us to cut away the family, cultural and societal filters that often steer us as if in autopilot without us realising, letting us get back in charge.

I never wanted my blog to just be a relay of information though- it’s important to me to share some of my stories as I journey through parenthood so that people know that I’m an actual human with emotions and my own thoughts and that I’m fallible at times with my parenting journey just like everyone else.

My blog is only in its newborn days but I’m wanting my blog to continue to grow in value, in conversation and in readership and ever since my friend Darren made a Facebook comment after my blog’s first post I’ve been pondering whether I should commit to change. Now after much, at times circular, discussion conducted mainly over Twitter with people whose counsel I value highly, I have made an appointment with change.

This will be the last post as Mothering by Instinct. After this post the blog name should be changed to Parenting by Instinct (I say should not because I am hesitant but in case there are naming issues- I checked and as of now it looks fine) and I hope that you my valued readers will follow me to my new site. Redirections to the new site will take place automatically for a year to enable the transition.

Aside from the name change the site won’t change and the focus will largely remain the same. Mothering by Instinct was born because I am a mother  and that’s how I view myself and because of the play on words with ‘A Mother’s Instinct’, which might be ‘just a saying’ but I think is something many mothers no longer know how to listen to- mothers have strong innate instincts about their children and their care. I want for mothers to reclaim their instincts and to show them why with science.

However, I want this blog to be inclusive and its title may potentially exclude 50% of the population. This blog isn’t just for mothers although much of the content may relate to women (because I am one)- it’s for anyone that is a carer of children and even those that aren’t parents at all. A shift to include Parenting should enable men to feel welcomed as you are an integral and valued part of this parenting process too.

I do identify as a mother first and foremost- in fact I hadn’t even considered thinking of myself really as anything but (i.e. a parent) a mother until I put the question about changing the blog name out in the Twitterverse. I understand now though through that 140 character constrained conversation that some mothers think of themselves more as parents, presumably because they view equal responsibility with the father for raising their children or that mothers and fathers have interchangeable roles.

Although I can see there is a strong momentum for this ethos at the present time, for my own reasons that’s not how I view my own role- I am a mother (although one that is quite happy to talk about the wider, inclusive role of parenting) and to me mothers do things and bring things to child-rearing that fathers don’t/can’t and vice versa.  I’ll share in a future post down the track more about why the current trend which is a bit like ‘Dad’s can do anything’ may not best serve and why maybe we should be more accepting of letting mothers be mothers and fathers be fathers. That may seem contradictory to my blog name change but overlying this is the idea that we are all parents and most of this ‘stuff’ we need to know whatever role we have, so yeah let’s talk about parenting because that is literally the glue, but let’s also be cognisant of the subheadings beneath that.

For regular readers too you may have noticed posts are coming out at the moment fortnightly rather than weekly. That’s a side effect of the academic teaching year starting, grants due in etc etc. Where I can I’ll attempt weekly posts but sometimes you’ll find me slipping  into fortnightly mode. That’s also because I’ve been setting up a new science blog under the Sciblogs banner. It’s called Ice Doctor and you can find it here (live from sometime Friday 21st March). Ice Doctor will predominantly be a fortnightly posting blog and it’s the place to go if you want to know more about my day job and in particular Antarctic science.

That’s another aspect of change I’m embracing- it was a long time pushing myself to set up that particular meeting (a second blog) but it’s another thing I am very excited about. When we take control change isn’t so frightening after all- a little bit of an adrenaline rush, a flurry of excitement and suddenly what is new becomes routine.

How much do you share of any personal change you are going through? I recently read a superb post by an inspirational gym instructor Bevan James Eyles at the gym I go to- sadly I can’t go at times his classes are on but Bevan writes beautifully and provocatively, in this case about a conversation with a friends who was stuck in a rut- always complaining about an issue but not doing anything about it and how his listening and uttering one single question prompted an internal conversation in his friend and her pathway to change.

His post got me thinking. Depending on our vulnerabilities and our personalities we may not share much of our meetings with change with others- outwardly we may be having those same old conversations about how everything is well just same old. Underneath though and away from the conversations with friends and families a metamorphosis can be going on- starting a blog for example. I wonder whether friends/partners can detect this unspoken change and at what time and with what kind of friend do we feel comfortable enough to share change? And the flip-side- how many of us are willing to listen as Bevan did and then support our friends in their desire for change?

Change that’s not driven by internal ruminations and is instead imposed on us is frightening and the change and associated stress that my home town people are experiencing is leading to a new vulnerable spanning my age group. Of that I’m not surprised. It’s been a rough ride. People are sick of hearing “hang in there” and “Kia Kaha (be strong). What opportunities though in the constancy of inconstancy, in the normalcy of abnormality is there for a meeting with change that isn’t so threatening? What strengths do you derive from adverse situations?

Our children may be our best guide and best answer to this. Our children arrive facing endless and constant change- the world outside the womb and their development so rapid that every day is new with what they see, what they think and what they can do. How do children meet with change so tirelessly and not get overwhelmed by fears?

The constancy in this equation is you. When you give consistent nurturing and loving support at each moment of change, when you are there for your children and you listen to their communication and respond to their needs, then you provide the rock on which they can meet with change taking its form as the ocean lapping against the rock- you child dabbling toes in and then withdrawing them, listening to the sound of the waves and babbling back to them, feeling the force of the ebb and flow of the water, pushing off the rock and feeling the sea, the support of change all around keeping them buoyant, and the reassurance of a return to the rock at any point. In my blog I hope to offer support to parents to create the attachment children need to thrive and survive.

I’ll miss Mothering by Instinct- I’m attached to my creation but I’m looking forward to the change to a more inclusive name and the opportunities for growth. I know too that sitting just under Parenting by Instinct is my own personal subheading- that of a mother, a brave mother, one whose not afraid of at least this particular meeting with change.

Join me at Parenting by Instinct.


A piece of you: fetal cells live on in their mother’s brains

Our children are always a part of us: mind controlling children are a reality

This post is written especially in mind for anyone that has had a successful pregnancy or suffered fertility struggles, the loss of a foetus through miscarriage or abortion, the trauma of a stillborn baby, or the devastation of the loss of a child.

If you’re female, what if you discovered that it’s quite possible you aren’t who you thought you were and maybe you aren’t entirely controlling yourself? Freaked out? Interested to know what I mean? Then read on. If you’re male with a female partner, at this point you might already be thinking that this makes a lot of sense, full stop. But still, read on!

For many prospective parents, the journey to a healthy baby in your arms is a long and often stressful one. With the average age of first-time mothers (and fathers) creeping ever higher, so too are fertility issues. It can be months or years before conception is successful and even then so many mothers experience the distress and devastation of miscarriage and fewer but not insignificant numbers also experience the mind-numbing shock of a stillborn baby. Women engaging in sexual intercourse without contraception most likely have experienced miscarriages, with about half of all fertilized eggs dying and then being lost (aborted) spontaneously, typically before the woman knows she is pregnant. The miscarriage rate is about 20% among women who know they are pregnant.

The former happened to me, the first month we started trying for a baby. I clearly felt fertilisation take place and then the movement of the fertilised egg down my fallopian tube and the very beginning of implantation. It was incredible to be that connected with my body, to feel the beginnings of life. Then though, my body went silent; everything suddenly felt wrong and I started bleeding. I couldn’t in any way prove my story but I know it’s true- women when they tune in can have very good insight into the inner workings of their body (this is the focus of an upcoming post). And even though it was just a ball of cells I felt a brief but intense flood of grief over the weekend that followed. This ball of cells felt like it had so much potential. Most likely, though implantation was not successful because something hadn’t gone to plan and this was a quality control measure to protect resources. Eventually my head accepted this idea.

Many women I know though have experienced that second category of miscarriage (or even stillbirth) when miscarriage occurs after they know they are pregnant. In this situation, the grief and sense of loss can be far longer lasting and have profound effects on the wellbeing of the woman and her partner.

What then does this have to do with not being who you thought you were? The excellent and very informed Dr Alison Barrett, obstetrician @DrAlisonBarrett alerted me to the information I am about to share at the New Zealand La Leche League conference where she spoke last year.

It turns out all mothers (and even those that have suffered miscarriages post implantation but never carried a baby to term) most likely have fetal cells living and residing in their tissues, and incredibly for decades. Although it was previously known that fetal cells circulate in mother’s blood[1] a 2012 study by Nelson et al[2], showed that DNA from male cells (most likely from a foetus, but possibly from a sibling) is frequently found (more than 60%) throughout deceased women’s brains (and other tissues). This is called microchimerism, where there is a persistent presence of a few genetically distinct cells within another organism. Note that it’s easy to identify male DNA (i.e. the Y chromosome, which is found only in males) in female subjects, which is why the study focused on the presence of male DNA. Female foetuses will in all likelihood also pass cells to their mother via the same mechanism.

For my early implantation failure, it is unlikely but not impossible any of that ball of cells made its way further into my body and now live on. The route is most likely via the placenta (organ connecting mother to foetus that is the means of exchange of nutrients, gas and waste), after it forms after implantation. The fetal cells it turns out are capable of breaking through the blood-brain barrier, to reside in the brain. They also end up in other tissues such as lung, thyroid muscle, liver, heart, kidney and skin, where they can fuse with cells the mother has to form chimeric cell lines, which is a pretty weird concept when you think about it.

Even more eerily microchimerism has other forms as well.  Foetuses can also pick up cells from a twin, or even an older sibling, as some fetal cells do linger on in the uterus. In a truly heartbreaking story, a mother nearly lost her children through trying to prove they were hers for custody and failing- they had none of her DNA and must have arisen from ovarian tissue from her unborn twin- “she was her own twin – and the twin was the biological mother of her children”. Microchimerism can even occur following blood transfusions in immunocompromised patients. So rather than us being just us, we are not the autonomous beings we thought.

It is bizarre to consider that we carry fragments of others and even stranger when we consider we are used to thinking of our mind as our own. Now though, we know that within our brains we have cells from others living and functioning and influencing how we function in ways we don’t yet understand.

There are potential health implications of having fetal microchimeric cells residing within us. They are likely to play a role potentially in protecting us from disease, tissue repair and cancer prevention and they may be involved in immune disorders. The Nelson study for example, found lower amounts of microchimeric cells in women with Alzheimer’s. And in rats it has been found that if a pregnant rat was artificially given a heart attack that fetal cells migrate selectively to the injured heart tissue[3] and help repair it[4]. Now that is totally incredible! Baby helps mum even before the baby is born. I will expand on what the studies show in a later post.

For me, when I first heard this information I was blown away: blown away because it is conceptually so interesting and seemingly like farfetched science fiction, but also aware that this should be public knowledge for all women. Many women grieve for a baby they lost at some point. To comfort, people often talk about the (angel) baby looking down on them from heaven. However, I think a far more comforting thought is knowing that living pieces of your child are inside you, never leaving your body.

I hope that this really does give solace to those that have experienced this kind of loss. You carry your child with you for life.

And for those of us lucky enough to have children that we conceived and gave birth to, I think it’s also incredibly comforting to know that for the duration of our lives, little pieces of our children also live on in us.

My theory, based on the current evidence, is that the role of these fetal cells is to provide protection to the mother, in order that she is around to care for her child until adulthood and beyond. And isn’t that perhaps the greatest gift perhaps our children may give us? Aside from the way they also visibly enrich our lives on the outside. Could this be part of a mechanism too for how ‘memories’ pass between generations? The human body is really remarkable even now we know the human body is really a humans body.

This is a post in an episodic series I will put out on the wonders of being a micro-chimaera, the incredible world of epigenetics and what it all may mean for parents. Subsequent posts in this series will look in more detail at: 1) these microchimeric fetal cells within mothers and what the science tells us their role might be; 2) the flipside- maternal cells that migrate to the fetus pre- and post-birth and what their role may be; and 3) what epigenetics is and why parents might be interested in it.


Scientific References

[1] Dawe et al 2007. Cell Migration from Baby to Mother Cell Adh Migr. 1(1): 19–27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2633676/

[2] Chan et al 2012. Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain. PLOSOne 7(9): e45592 http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0045592

[3] Kara et al 2012. A Mouse Model for Fetal Maternal Stem Cell Transfer during Ischemic Cardiac Injury. Clin. Trans. Res. 5:321-328. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3419501/

[4] Kara et al 2012. Fetal Cells Traffic to Injured Maternal Myocardium and Undergo Cardiac Differentiation. Circ. Res. 110:82-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3365532/

Making mammary use mandatory: why legislative or incentivisation approaches to increase breastfeeding rates are unlikely to succeed & why these measures are an erosion of a mother’s rights

Could being found not to comply with the mandatory breastfeeding law in the UAE see mothers on the wrong side of the law?

Could being found not to comply with the mandatory breastfeeding law in the UAE see mothers on the wrong side of the law?

Breastfeeding has once again been hitting the headlines in the last week, stirring up milk debate around the world with the announcement that the Federal National Council (FNC) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has passed a clause making breastfeeding mandatory for the first two years of a child’s life. Breastfeeding at least within the UAE is now ‘a duty and not an option’.

This is indeed an interesting move and one that warrants a little more examination and consideration than any initial response as it raises interesting ethical ideas.

I’m a strong advocate for promoting breastfeeding as the normal scenario for mothers and babies, in line with the official line from UNICEF, WHO and other organisations, whose policies are based on the outcomes of numerous scientific studies.

Note I won’t refer to ‘breast is best’ or state that  breastfeeding gives benefits throughout my posts as breastfeeding is the physiological norm and NOT breastfeeding carries with it numerous potential negative immediate and long term health outcomes for mother and child. I’m also in firm favour of wherever possible breastfeeding to two years and beyond. Thus, you might logically suppose that advocates like myself would be supportive of anything that is intended to encourage breastfeeding and improve breastfeeding rates, including this new law. However, as I’ll explain below I’m not in favour of approaches that do little to educate and empower both mother and child as a whole.

Punishing non breast-feeders

The FNC has been debating the addition of this clause to the new Child Rights Law for some time. There were fierce opponents within the FNC who did not favour its inclusion. The intent of the clause is to foster strong mother-child relationships by maintaining that breastfeeding is a right for all children. This idea (and the suggested duration of two years) is taken from the Quran, although the Quran itself does not suggest that breastfeeding must be mandatory- the derivitisation within the clause stipulates the mandatory nature.

I would say that access to breast-milk (rather than breastfeeding per se) should indeed in these enlightened times be a right for all children. This might on the surface put me at odds with many women, who would argue that it is a mother’s right to choose how she feeds her baby. I’m not arguing against this as I also agree. I don’t perceive a child’s right to breast-milk and a mother’s decision on how to feed her baby as mutually exclusive.

For a variety of reasons, not all mothers are able to actually breastfeed and certainly not all are able to breastfeed for a full two years (I’ll discuss more in later posts how reduced milk supply can arise from breastfeeding patterns particularly within the first 2-3 weeks post-partum). Luckily in Western countries donor milk is now becoming more routinely available, either through formal arrangements such as milk banks or through informal arrangements between friends, now providing a viable alternative for those that cannot feed their babies themselves. In contrast, the alternative arrangement within the UAE seems to be the paid provision of wet nurses for those that genuinely are unable to feed. This may then not be the same (i.e. less empowering) as a mother obtaining donor milk and feeding her child herself, although a much preferred and as paid for by the state, cheaper alternative to formula. There are pros and cons to either donor milk/wet nurse scenario.

Part of the rationale of the addition of this clause is to ensure consistency with existing labour laws that allow working women time for breastfeeding. A clause to ensure all workplaces have a nursery did not pass into legislation although a nursery law proposal not specific to working women will be tabled soon. Thus, it is clear that the UAE is trying to put in other supportive (although still legislative-based) measures to improve the mother-child relationship.

However, the passing of the legislation does allow for husbands to sue wives if they did not breastfeed throughout the first two years of their child’s life. How enforcement would work is unclear at this stage but punitive outcomes could be put in place. I wonder what will happen for mothers who may find their milk supply dwindling between six months to a year and unable to meet their two year quota?

20Mar2011_2220_fence my hand

Opponents argue that such a negative consequences approach will actually lower breastfeeding rates or morale around breastfeeding as women experiencing issues will feel pressure that may adversely rather than positively impact breastfeeding. Parents may hide what they are doing or not doing for fear of losing a child, rather than seeking out support.

Thus, we have a situation where the rights of the child are being acknowledged, which is fabulous, but not at this stage the rights of mothers. Like other advocates, it’s my belief that such an approach will not work. Some mothers within the UAE are also speaking out.

In the UAE, both a woman and her breasts actually belong to her husband. The Child’s Rights Law now makes the breasts the property in essence of the child for the first two years of its life. So at no stage does a woman actually ‘own’ her own breasts. For us living in different countries this is a staggering thought.

And what of mothers who wish to breastfeed longer than two years? I Am Not The Babysitter sums it up here in her post when she says that it will just add to the stigma of breastfeeding. Husbands regain ‘breast control’ at two years of age and may either potentially say Stop or Continue.

If we want to improve outcomes for parents and their children, and specifically here improve breastfeeding rates and duration of breastfeeding, then the key is both appropriate education programmes and strong support systems from hospital bed to home. Women need to feel empowered about the choices they make for themselves and their children.  It’s going to take a community approach to improve breastfeeding rates, not a predominantly law-based one.

Legislative measures do have a place, however, alongside education and mentoring systems. Longer (six months or more) paid maternity leave, nursing and childcare facilities within/adjacent to workplaces are key infrastructural support components that are known to work. In most countries though, including here in New Zealand, we are a long way from the ideal at present.

Rewarding breastfeeding with cold hard cash

Could mandatory breastfeeding become the standard in other countries too? I think that this is highly unlikely in most Westernised countries at least but an opposite and potentially as disastrous approach is being employed in some places.

Last year it was announced by University of Sheffield researchers that a trial was being conducted in some areas of Britain to tackle the very low rates of breastfeeding in Yorkshire and Derbyshire by incentivising through cash payments. If the trial is successful, the intention is to trial the scheme out nationally, before making it a nationwide policy. The trial will record breastfeeding levels and look at the attitude of the mothers to the monetary vouchers given.

Mothers who opt to breastfeed (and regardless of whether they were going to anyway) will receive £120 ($245NZD) in vouchers for chain stores/supermarkets. All they have to do is sign a form saying they have breastfed their child for six weeks. At six months they go through the same form signing to receive another £80 (160NZD). Although the intention is that they buy quality food etc, there is nothing to stop participants spending the money on cigarettes or alcohol. If the scheme is adopted, cash would be given for mothers to spend as they see fit. There is also no way of knowing whether participants are telling the truth.

The idea of the incentivisation scheme is that it will supposedly raise the perceived value of breastfeeding through paying mothers for the service. Although it’s the ‘flip side of the coin’, this scheme in essence is disempowering women in much the same way as the UAE scheme is and it has received a lot of flak. UNICEF released a statement saying that incentivisation may have a role and that “any new research can only be assessed once it has been completed and its various successes and limitations are clear”- in other words- a reasonable ‘let’s wait for the outcomes’. UNICEF emphasise that support is fundamental to breastfeeding success.

To me though, it is frightening to think that these are the solutions that being offered. How can those in charge so easily misjudge people and inaccurately identify appropriate solutions? It doesn’t look like the scheme is associated with any form of education, support and mentoring system.

The researchers involved have defended their scheme and the money invested in it by saying that similar schemes exist elsewhere (Quebec, monthly payments for breastfeeding; India, free food for breastfeeding mums). Just because a scheme operates elsewhere, it doesn’t make it the right choice. The researchers also claim that they surveyed mothers in the target areas who were largely in favour of the scheme- this might be the case, but again it doesn’t mean the scheme will be successful or appropriate. Schemes like this in my mind actually probably cheapen mother’s perceptions of themselves and their behaviours and disempower with the “You do this and I’ll give you this” mentality- there’s a level of handing over control of your body to someone else and I’m not talking about the baby.

Enforcing Caesareans- cutting out a mother’s rights

Where are we heading to if we are intent on fostering change by disempowering rather than empowering mothers? Again in the UK last year there was an alarming case of an alleged forcible Caesarean carried out following the mother supposedly seeking help for a panic attack. The outcome of this was being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, five weeks of hospitalisation followed by sedation and a C-section without her knowledge and consent in order to remove the baby purely for child protection purposes. How far will we go to push parental control out of the hands of the mother?

06Aug2011_3329_fence blue sky

Both a mother’s right and a child’s right must be considered

It is a step forward in many ways that the rights of children are being considered and given weight to. We acknowledge the right of the child even as a fetus from a close to midway point in gestation. Knowing the health outcomes of breastfed babies versus formula and advocating for the right of the child to have a chance at the best life possible through a right to breast milk is a further forwards step but in no way should this also be at the exclusion of rights to the mother as this may inevitably lead to negative impacts on the maternal relationship. If we want good parenting then we must put considerable effort into support and mentoring of parents- neither a carrot-based approach nor a cane-based approach fit this manifest.

The researchers and enforcers should learn from positive parenting what really works

Financial incentives and/or legislative change may be one small puzzle piece in improving breastfeeding rates, although it’s personally not one I favour. After all, we use negative financial incentives (taxes) on harmful substances such as alcohol and cigarettes. The University of Sheffield researchers state that “the advantage of financial incentives is their ability to attract and engage their target audience”. It seems to me that this is buying in (excuse the pun) to the idea of entertainment as a solution. I think we parents deserve a little more respect than that.

The approaches discussed above appear to come from the perspective of treating the symptoms (let’s improve breastfeeding rates) and not the cause (why are breastfeeding rates in the UAE and UK (and other places) so low?). Such a solution is the easy way out, that might result in a short spike of improvement as a quick fix but is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term.

Legislators and researchers might be wise instead to look to those of us who use positive, gentle parenting approaches to understand that communication, superb educational and peer mentoring together with widely available nurturing support are likely to have more substantial positive effects on breastfeeding rates. Alongside these approaches as well as increased paid maternity leave, better or cheaper childcare access and breastfeeding rooms in workplaces, consideration should be given to taxing formula in the same way as alcohol or cigarettes, making formula prescription only, investing in milk banks to ensure all children have access to breast milk and even perhaps some incentivising of breast milk donation (like sperm donation, where the money is given outside of the target family and therefore does not impact on that family relationship). In knowledge, not money, lies our future.


An article based on this post appeared on The Conversation UK site on February 20 2014. You can view the article and comments at https://theconversation.com/forcing-mothers-to-breastfeed-is-no-way-to-help-children-23377#comment_317931















Boundaries, fencing, & reliving childhood. Surviving the preschool years (and Antarctica).

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica.

I certainly got to experience the full fury of the Southern Ocean the first of several times that I’ve travelled down to Antarctica by ship, either departing from New Zealand in this case, or South America. At one point we encountered stormy weather, complete with 15 metre waves and pitch and roll close to the boat limits. It left me feeling a distinct lack of control over my existence.

The latitudes heading towards the frozen landmass are very reverently referred to as the Roaring 40’s, Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties and travelling these waters for this landlubber usually involves significant, debilitating seasickness.

It’s a heck of a roller-coaster ride through tumultuous seas that generally worsen before you reach the sanctity of Antarctic waters itself, the Silent Seventies.

If you gave me a choice, however, of skipping directly to Antarctica by a comparatively short but uncomfortable five hour plane flight dressed in full survival gear or six or more days of boat and stomach heaving up and down at sea, I would probably always choose the ship-based option.

Never one to typically take the easy road, I’m aware that sometimes the journey itself is the most memorable, if challenging, part. In the case of the Southern Ocean, there is much beauty and mesmerising change to be found along the way that those who travel airborne to Antarctica never get to experience. The constant, graceful companion seabirds, that vary in the type of species one sees as the ship migrates south like accompanying guardians each doing a shift; the subtle changes in the colour and texture of the oceans; the captivating and spectacular icebergs that appear; the whales, seals and finally penguins that bring unprecedented delight once the calmness of the pack ice appears; the pack ice itself- that most magical experience of pushing through these floating sculpted jigsaw pieces with the unnerving sound of the ship rubbing on ice but the most divine colours in water ever; and of course the vista of the frozen land itself- mountainous, treacherous terrain but also the most indescribable, sublime beauty. And we travellers just know looking at it that it offers pure pleasure of exploration once we land.

And the waves, the weather and the cold on that journey- well they just really let you know you are alive. They’re there to test you, to push you to limits at times. All of this extremeness serves to make you think and reflect and ultimately I’d like to think that everyone that heads south is a better person at journey’s end- looking at the world with new eyes, having experienced life on earth like nowhere else on this planet.

Parenting is really no different from ship-based travel south. It’s a damn hard roller-coaster journey as well and we all who travel this route will be sorely tested at times. It will be uncomfortable, maybe even gut emptying painful. Like the waters next to the Antarctic continent itself, where the supposed utopia of the Silent Seventies may still be far from silent, might indeed be unbearably cold with wind that whips straight through the body, our children even as adults may still push buttons and we may never find that elusive stillness. However, along every step of the way, just when it all seems too much our child’s beauty will melt and then re-melt our hearts; their crazy antics will bring immeasurable pleasure and every day we will celebrate the little changes and milestones that occur in our child’s development because no one day being a parent is the same.

Although there are varying research outcomes[1][2][3] on the happiness of parents versus childless adults (something I will delve into more deeply in future posts so just giving you media rather than research links here), parent’s lives are undoubtedly changed by the experience of having children, hopefully mainly in a positive sense (see Leaving a Legacy).

None of it’s easy though and the toddler and preschool years are certainly busy and brain-taxing. They’re frequently referred to as the Terrible Two’s, Terrific Three’s and Fabulous Four’s. In many ways, these nicknames are accurate, although in our case we didn’t find anything very terrible about the Two’s for MissBB; although they certainly are for some families.

There’s no question there is huge amounts of pleasure to be gained from a toddler as they migrate into a pre-schooler, becoming more of an individual and in doing so becoming more of everything- more busy, more noisy, more active, more talky, more tantrums, more whiny, just more! Many parents then may find that the Trying Three’s and Furious Four’s may be more apt descriptors.

We have hit the 4’s with an abrupt full on Roar- maybe that’s why she likes the Katy Perry song so much. MissBB has certainly been letting us know she is her own person with her own opinions and decisions about how she wants her life to be run. There have been some significant developmental shifts associated with this- an explosion of language and non-stop talking in our already vociferous child and the dropping of the day sleep completely. No wonder I’ve been exhausted (The rubber band effect: building and maintaining resilience). It’s also as I alluded to in Time Out coincided with the Why? phase returning- the one where it’s all about the question and attention and nothing to do with actually listening to the answer and when combined with whining has the ability to irritate more than pretty much anything.

And recently at every step of the way there has been boundary pushing and more boundary pushing. Children are born to push boundaries. By age four they are in full combat mode, frequently in armoured tanks, apparently itching to take down all fences. This may seem at times like a curse to parents, but this assertiveness is an essential part of development.

Boundaries constitute the space between one person and another; a limit that allows us to protect ourselves. When we impose boundaries or limits we make it possible to separate our thoughts and feelings from those around us, and in doing so this allows us to take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and actions.

When we do this around our children we are teaching them the process of building boundaries as well by letting them know what is acceptable and not acceptable to us. Everyone has a right to set their own boundaries and it’s important to remember this about our own children. As this is the framework on which they begin their lifelong process of defining their own boundaries, it’s essential as parents to think carefully about how we engage in this space. Boundaries need to be clearly defined but they also need to be flexible and for those with two or more children in their families, consideration needs to be given to the unique needs of each child.

There are several kinds of boundaries: physical boundaries (i.e. the physical space- the space we own around our bodies); emotional boundaries (these help give us the space needed to deal with our own emotions); intellectual boundaries (the right to think what we want and apply it in our own way); and spiritual boundaries (the right to believe in our own spiritual/religious beliefs and respect for other’s perspectives).

Why are pre-schoolers so good at seeing how strong and high the fence is, particularly with respect to physical, emotional and intellectual boundaries? At this age children are slowly becoming aware they need to lessen their egocentric take on the world but typically with strong push-back to maintain it- it’s a great shock to discover the universe doesn’t revolve around them. Alongside that, they also need to know that they are safe– they need to know what their physical and emotional limits are – how far can they go before it’s ‘dangerous’. If we create intact emotional boundaries (and the other types of boundaries too) they allow both parent and child to feel safe, supported and respected in their relationships.

20131230_0012-FenceCreating our boundaries is a little bit like the fence around this grave. The fence denotes a limit, where the remains of the deceased are still respected by a physical line. At the same time it gives someone walking in the cemetery a boundary where they can perhaps feel emotionally and spiritually safe that they aren’t stepping on the dead. Good boundaries are actually a winning situation for both sides.

However, when pre-schoolers are testing any of their limits, it can be challenging as a parent to deal with. As trying as this is, it’s normal behaviour. Parents then need to respond by providing their child with clear (I prefer this over ‘firm’), as consistent as possible, yet flexible boundaries around demands, expectations or requests. Like all things though, it’s important to pick your battles and ask yourself that all important “Does it really matter?” question. It can entirely feel like a game of fencing- one jab in from the child, and another back from parent to demonstrate what the limits are. A fencing game that never ends.

Whatever the limits you decide are important to you, it’s important to unconditionally love. It’s also essential to employ some flexibility with respect to boundaries- each child has their own needs and not paying attention to this can create problems especially in the teenage years.

Gentle guidance with a very nurturing positive approach has been shown to be best. These children are little people and need to be treated with respect, rather than punishment based approaches. Some excellent resources can be found on Our Muddy Boots (e.g. Children have rights too, Why I do not use time out or time in; Bullying my kids),  Evolutionary Parenting (e.g. What is discipline, Bullying, Parenting and Communication), PhD in Parenting (e.g. 3 R’s of toddler discipline: repetition, reaction, reassurance), Lori Petro’s site as well as here. One way to foster boundaries is by teaching appropriate manners and ensuring parents and child use them.

However, at some point the wheels will fall off (the parent) in response to the child and it’s easy to use words and actions that are punitive, shameful, blaming and judging in nature. This is so easy to do because we have all these layers of societal and family filters through which we view the world- the way that we were raised though is not necessarily the way we may want to raise our own children. When we’re parenting at our best we have recognised that these filters exist and battled through them to discover the way we actually want to parent, which may be quite different. When parenting becomes challenging, it’s easy in our stress of losing control and of being exhausted for those filters to flip back into place and revert to perhaps how we were treated as a child without realising there is another way- that it’s actually a matter perhaps of re-finding our own values.

To get back to connection with your child, some of the tips here are particularly fantastic. Usually what is required involves applying the very own strategies I teach to my child to myself: our mantra is Stop (recognise a trigger), Breathe (mindfulness), Think (what the problem is), Do (take appropriate action to solve the problem) or Say (express what you want) to deal with the issue at hand.

Being mindful that your child is a person in their own right, it’s often great to talk about things as Lori Petro suggests. Bring in some humour and some honesty about what behaviour is pushing the limit and troubleshoot together to make the boundaries intact again. Often I think, based on my own experiences it’s us as parents that need to shift our attitudes rather than just expect that our children will comply.

That such positive routines work is shown by a reduction in bedtime tantrums (together with improved marital satisfaction) by Adams and Rickert[5] versus the graduated extinction method. Also, as media reported here Avolio et al[6] found that children that experienced an authoritative (“authoritative parents can be described as being demanding (challenging), responsive, rational, considerate, consistent, and assertive yet not restrictive) parenting style versus an authoritarian (“authoritarian parents are controlling, lacking in warmth, support and consistency”, and favour punitive approaches) style were more likely to take on leadership roles as adults and less likely to engage in modest to serious rule breaking. Parents are indeed the first leadership trainer.

Sometimes our boundaries hold us back- teaching our children when to push through their perceived limits is important

Sometimes our boundaries hold us back- teaching our children when to push through their perceived limits is important.

One of the best ways I can think of to both know what it’s like to be a child pushing hard and to teach them how to both create boundaries and to push through them when they are holding us back is to engage in challenging activities with our child. The activities may be a recreation of our own childhood or something entirely new. I wrote about this with respect to holidays in Time Out and although this can be done any time with your child, holidays provide an ideal consolidated learning opportunity.

It may be something like exploring a cave, climbing a tree, swimming in waves, rock climbing, kayaking or just jumping off something, or even engaging in imaginative play (a trip to Antarctica by boat perhaps?). When faced with the fear of thinking we are at our limit what do we do?: stop, breathe, think, say or do.

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

As adults, teaching our children we may feel a little out of our comfortable zone but being aware of the risks, and letting just a little of our control go all the same is such a powerful learning tool. This is the space in which we can all grow.


[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/14/living/parents-happiness-child-free-studies/

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-belkin/parenting-and-happiness_b_1497687.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/one-more-take-on-whether-_n_4066427.html

[4] http://www.suzannewelstead.com/resources/Boundaries.pdf

[5] Lisa A. Adams, Vaughn I. Rickert 1989. Pediatrics 84(5): 756-761. Reducing Bedtime Tantrums: Comparison Between Positive Routines and Graduated Extinction http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/84/5/756.short

[6] Bruce J. Avolio, Maria Rotundo, Fred O. Walumbwa 2009. Early life experiences as determinants of leadership role occupancy: The importance of parental influence and rule breaking behaviour. Leadership Quarterly 20(3): 329-342. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984309000794#

The Kabuki brush revolution


Kabuki brush: makeup brush with a short stem and dense bristles, usually rounded on top but sometimes flat.

Before child (BC), a wonderful beauty therapist introduced me to the magic of pressed mineral powder foundation and I was an instant convert- just a few quick brushes and lovely, even coverage. I felt transformed! And with the Jane Iredale pressed powder she got me hooked on, I also had to get used to the Kabuki brush for application- a very costly, natural haired one of the same brand.

Kabuki brushes derive their name and design from their use in Japanese theatre. Actors wear Keshō, a very heavy makeup and the brush is used to apply white rice powder all over the face. Now though, they’ve been adopted widely out of Japan for application of loose powder, pressed mineral powders, blush and bronzer as they should create a very even coverage and natural look.

Is the hype worth it? And should we be having more women-to-women discussion about the pitfalls of the Kabuki brush as current design stands? I think so. It’s time for a Kabuki revolution.

After delivery (AD) I could no longer afford the divine, but expensive powder or occasional therapist visits for that matter and it was time to fork out for less costly brands. I still had the expensive Kabuki brush but the cheaper brands came with their own cheaper brushes to try.

All though of these brushes I have used irrespective of cost or natural versus synthetic hairs have the same annoying problem- they shed short (usually 1-3 cm (circa 1 inch)) hairs, making my vanity unit top at times look like someone has been plucking unusually long eyebrow hairs out, and worst of all leaving them dotted over my face.

Mothers are time poor. Working mothers are incredibly time poor. We need products that deliver and work fast. We generally want to look as glamorous as we can in no time. Spending just as long as the actual makeup application, if not longer, picking off little brush hairs from my face before I depart the bathroom and dash out the door running late for work or anything else isn’t exactly my idea of fun. It negates the time saving benefits of the hallowed Kabuki brush and I resent having to perform this daily ritual.

Besides that, these brushes aren’t cheap- my current one- a mid-price number, the natural hair Antipodes brush, at a cost of 40NZD claims on their website: “You’ll be rewarded with at least six months of daily use from this brush if you treat it with a little tender loving care.” I sure would expect more than six months of use from a brush for that price. The saleslady who sold it to me not that long ago was aghast that my super expensive Jane Iredale brush shed and said no decent Kabuki brush should and that one should get years of use out of each brush, but lo and behold the Antipodes alternative does shed profusely as well.

Some brushes, the synthetic ones (such as Thin Lizzy’s) shed profusely and those hairs are evil. They have a sneaky habit of finding their way into my eyes, often poking down from my eyelids in a mysterious location and then being impossible to spot instantly. They’re incredibly irritating and sharp and can take 1, 2, 3 or even more minutes to find sometimes. I wonder if synthetic brushes like this cause significant eye irritation to women or even an increase in eye infections- sadly no one else looks like they have considered the same question from a medical research perspective as I couldn’t find any literature on this. There is a Kabuki Brush Syndrome*, however.

I’m not alone in my Kabuki problem. At this stage brush shedding seems largely one of those unspoken topics like post birth stitches/episiotomy or bed sharing but my aim is to change that! I see the signs around me- the stray hairs sitting on some stranger’s face, evidence of yet another sub optimal Kabuki brush. What should be the etiquette here- do you tell them that they have a hair on their face or let them finally get a chance to race to the toilet at 3 pm for the first time all day and discover that they’ve spent the entire day looking more hirsute than they really are? On Christmas Day I succeeded in having a brief brush discussion and we three were all in agreement- no matter what the cost the brush sheds.

Is there a perfect, non-shedding Kabuki brush out there hiding at the end of some elusive rainbow and can one be sourced in the far reaches of the earth, New Zealand? I turned to the web for answers and discovered others have also questioned. Yahoo Answers reply suggest Lumiere’s synthetic kabuki is a non-shedder; some cheaper alternatives are also given. Another review site compares two brands, although both their options shed they discovered.

And can you improve what you’ve got?: a tip here suggests when dry rubbing vigorously on a towel to remove the hairs. Maybe, although it hasn’t sorted my brushes. Another tip is to ensure regular (once a month is ideal) washing with shampoo or mild body wash – that may help alleviate the shedding and extend the brush life. Be warned though- the method of washing may amplify the shedding effect if you let water get into the ferrule- read here for a great way to dry without too much water getting inside, although to be honest the capillary effect of drawing water up the hairs is probably going to get the insides pretty wet however you do it.

Is there anything else to be concerned about with our makeup addictions? Plenty, really. Apart from our skin being a sponge (akin to eating something in a sense) and most makeups being packed full of some pretty interesting chemicals, inhalation of our powders into our airways, including our lungs, when we are brushing away (ditto for spray on moisturisers and sunscreens) is a concern as investigated by Nazarenko et al in 2012. This is primarily because many of the powders contain particles in the nanoparticle size range (i.e. very small). There is mounting concern over these very small engineered particles and their toxic effects in us and other animals, but there is a distinct link of quantitative exposure data. If you’re breastfeeding or pregnant, these chemicals may well make their way to your baby and I may delve more into nanoparticles in future posts.

In the Nazarenko study though, they found most of the particles inhaled in comparison of a few cosmetic products weren’t larger than nanoparticle size, whether the product contained nanoparticles or not. These larger particles mainly ended up in the head airways, rather than going lower into the lungs, which was contrary to previous models. Their research suggests that we should possibly be most concerned about predominantly silica-based powders as the greatest inhalation load came from this versus other powders. One thing to think about is how many ingredients there are in a particular product and what the combined toxic/interactive effects may be.

It’s a dangerous world out there, engaging in makeup application. If you truly have experienced a non-shedding Kabuki brush I would love to hear about it, especially if it’s available in New Zealand.

In the meantime, for Tweeters, please join me in using the hashtag #wedeservebetterkabukibrushes to start the Kabuki improvement revolution! Tweet to the companies that make your brushes (or email them) and ask them to put some decent R&D into perfecting non shedding brushes. Science should be able to give us the brush we all long for and let’s face it, excusing the pun, we deserve it!

*The Kabuki Brush Syndrome described in the literature is nothing to do with Kabuki brushes. Instead the syndrome relates to a group of patients that Cuesta et al in 2011 describe in Dermatology Online as “sharing typical facial features, skeletal anomalies, mental retardation, short stature, and dermatoglyphic anomalies. The term Kabuki makeup syndrome was coined because the peculiar facial features of the patients were reminiscent of the Japanese Kabuki theater masks.”

DISCLAIMER: I have no affiliation with any cosmetics company.

Time out


I am not sure I can imagine a better finish to a much needed and well-earned family holiday away than a perfectly still, warm night on a beach with a blazing bonfire made of gathered driftwood- my daughter’s first bonfire on her very first camping trip. A dramatic intense sunset slowing working its way across the clouds and through the hues, offset with the first proper blue sky that day, itself contrasting against the darkening silhouettes of jagged mountain peaks. Surf crashing gently on the beach. A smattering of people fishing into the evening. Seabirds gliding through the air and a glassy sea stretching to infinity.

The bonfire drawing others in like moths to a light. Flames mesmerising for young and old: other families and couples come over; camaraderie so easily generated in this moment. Children holding sticks and toasting marshmallows- all brown, crisp, exterior and gooey sticky insides. Roasted bananas split with chocolate melting within. And flour, water, some milk quickly grabbed from the tent to mix into a damper dough, wrapped around sticks and slowly cooked until crunchy on the outer with a scone-like interior. Divine with brown sugar and olive oil spread mixed with raspberry jam- my daughter’s concoction. Shared food passed around. Fireworks created from seaweed balls filled with air exploding on the fire- my natural scientist MissBB came up with this idea herself. Free conversation and utter relaxation- the mind still with nothing but the present. These are the things that create lifelong memories and that catalyse re-creation when children become parents. Total, beautiful magic.


Kaikoura, where this idyllic scene unfolded is in my mind one of the most spectacular places I have ever been and I’m incredibly fortunate it’s on our doorstep, just three hours from home in beautiful New Zealand. Our brief foray into family camping was but too short. This summer holiday of just 10 days was our first proper travel holiday since a trip south for a week when MissBB was a few months old. There’s been scant in the way of time out in the last four years owing to a variety of factors, including earthquakes and hardship.

Our three days of camping came after another blissful week spending time with some of my partner’s family in the also heavenly Golden Bay, although the weather wasn’t always so sparkly.


Golden Bay time was a chance for brothers to reconnect as adults, for the wives to bond and for the cousins to form strong friendships and especially for my daughter to have live-in playmates and to negotiate sharing her home life with other children.

Let’s be honest though- not all moments on holidays with children are quite so idyllic and magical. Family holidays can indeed be exhausting and frustrating and at times push you more than being at home- mainly because everyone is out of their comfort zone, despite being hopefully both comfortable and relaxed.


As a parent it’s easy to tell the people holidaying without kids, unless a couple has been so outrageous as to leave their children elsewhere and are masquerading as a sans children couple. The childless couples are the ones likely fawning over each other, looking stylish and groomed with impeccable hair and makeup, having had unlimited time and a lack of any distractions in getting ready. They’re likely in shape, toned and healthy looking. They’re strolling down streets with just a small, fashionable handbag or along beaches hand in hand, popping into shops for some casual shopping for probably completely unnecessary but lovely possessions, or decadently dining in a café in a long drawn out lunch or dinner. At sightseeing attractions they gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes in between peaceful contemplation of the view. They have long, meaningful conversations. They look relaxed and happy and fresh. Remember those days?

Those with children may well look harassed and stressed, trying to manage child or children and somehow communicate to their partner episodically in frequently unfinished sentences or unanswered questions left hanging, due to the near constant, attention seeking activities of children. Alternatively, they are having harsh words about any one of a number of things (frequently just as an outlet for the frustrations of dealing with the tears, the boundary pushing, the obstructiveness, the incessant I-will-do-anything-to-make-it-stop whining (of the kids most likely)). They will probably have stains on their clothes whether they have a new-born or an older child and feel relatively dowdy, as soon as they catch sight of the glamorous childless, in the outfit they quickly compiled in the few uninterrupted seconds they had to get ready. Makeup may be absent and hair if lucky, brushed.


They may spend considerable time getting ready and then out of the car at every stop (and the reverse getting back in) and will be carrying large, practical backpacks around full of outfit changes, jackets, packed food that will be refused due to the lure of bought food anywhere. They may be dealing with public meltdowns, manic behaviour. The mummy tummy may well be present, the one that just will not disappear even if there is time squeezed in during a typical week for exercise; bikinis at the beach abandoned these days in favour of the one-piece.

Attempts to find normality in a rare treat of a meal out will be a delicate juggling act of entertaining their child, getting them to eat something, probably with fries despite best intentions and getting out of there quickly without too much destruction or embarrassment. The only shopping done is likely something for their child, because the parents know they will like it (and the adults don’t really need anything, they tell themselves), or alternatively as a means to do anything to stop the whining.

At every step of the way there will be complex negotiation, consideration of sleep routines and dealing with the full gamut of emotions of each child. A true feeling of relaxation may only be captured in moments. Do some of these aspects sound familiar? In our case our holiday has coincided with the unexpected return of the Why? phase to everything, something that we thought we’d left some 18 months ago. What a delight!

Evaluating these two very different scenarios just as presented above leaves the childless scenario at prima facie as by far the most preferable holiday option. However, there are actually many benefits of family holidays. I’m not sure I would trade back to the time of pre-child.


Taking time out is so important to our wellbeing. Holidays are the big ticket items in terms of recharging our mind and body but there are lots of smaller things we can do on a daily basis to create personal wellbeing for ourselves and for our children (and I’ll refer to them frequently in future posts).

As a mother working a crazily full-on, allegedly part-time job it seems impossible much of the time to have time off, especially this past year, where my workplace has been undergoing significant change. This summer holiday is my first real time off all year, something I will not be repeating I hope in 2014.

Holidays allow us to step away from our routines, to leave chores behind and expose us to new situations that replenish our soul. They’re the chance to get fresh air and exercise, to reconnect relationships- be that with partner, children, family, or friends. They’re the chance to meet new people, to experience new or favourite places, do novel things, or the activities you most love doing. They’re the opportunity to find moments to relax, sleep more, to read a book, to savour food, wine and most of all to find our breath and centre ourselves.

Whilst most of that list can be done without children, there are things that I think holidaying with children do to generate greater wellbeing restoration. My last post discussed what having children does for the wellbeing of adults facing terminal illness; research shows that having holidays also increases the wellbeing of cancer patients. Our moments with our children fly by so fast- holidays provide ideal ways to overdose on capturing the memories of being with our children. Whilst children may seem a whirlwind of energy necessitating your own storm of parenting effort in return, being with children actually forces us to slow down, to savour the little things more, to pace ourselves.


The best thing though that having children does is it gives us the perfect opportunity to recreate the treasured memories we have of our own childhood and ones that suit our values, now that we are parents. We can do this in the full realisation as adults of just how amazing and special being a child is, so that we truly appreciate the episodes in a way that we could not possibly do as children, when we thought that childhood would last for ever. In a way, it should last for ever and with having children it does.

Helping our children create their own magic holiday memories means pushing the boundaries for all of us- both parents and children alike as we engage in activities that may make us slightly fearful for our own abilities, and maybe for the safety of our children. Yet, it is in this space that we all grow, learn and find ourselves. There are powerful skills that we can teach our children as well- ways that we can tackle our fears to conquer mountains, overcome challenges and acquire new abilities. To me holidays are all about adventures- of the mind, the body, of places.


On our holiday, apart from tripping around most days to new and old favourite haunts, our adventures were mainly about fossicking in rock pools, climbing rocks, exploring limestone canyons and caves and boulder hopping on rocky beaches. Teaching coping strategies to our little charges is an excellent reminder to ourselves of the techniques we need to employ to cope with the more frustrating and challenging aspects of holidaying with children. Breathe.


I’ve got two weeks left of my break, based at home now and plenty of home chores to achieve in that time. I’m in absolutely no rush whatsoever, though to return to work. Work can most certainly wait.

I can’t wait however, to go on my next family holiday, to build those memories, find my inner child, discover new challenges to get all of us out of our comfort zone and grow personally and as a family. Unquestionably there’s going to be a beach, bonfire and some rocks in there somewhere. In fact, with all the unpacking still to do but my partner back at work tomorrow, it’s incredibly tempting to throw it all back in the car and sneak away for a mother-daughter adventure.

Christmas cheer or lifetime fear? Dealing with the Santa myth. Part 2


Right now many of us are in the final throes of preparing for Christmas. The traffic has suddenly become unbearable. The exhaustion of the year is coming to a head; you might be facing yet more fever and malaise creating viral invaders as is the case in our house (hence publication of this post being a day later than it should be) and the will to fend them off is about as great as the desire to go anywhere near a M.A.L.L. Rather, retreating into hermit-ville seems a more enticing prospect.

Doing anything that involves extra energy may not seem top of the things-to-list right now but in the last post I introduced the idea that Santa, such a prevalent mythical character, may come with strings attached and it’s worth spending time peeling off societal and familial filters to uncover your own values about Father Christmas and whether the deceit really works for your family.

In this post I explain who Santa is, why I’m honest about Santa with my daughter and then finally I look at the pro’s and con’s with supporting evidence for whether you should bring the Santa myth into reality. It’s a long post but I hope you make it to the end.


So who is Santa?

When I went through my own self-analysis about Santa and the part I wanted him to play in our Christmas two years ago, first stop was actually finding out more about who this Santa figure was, like here and here. Many of us have grown up with the idea of this jolly red suited, black belted gentleman, white hair and beard flowing, known under various names of Santa Claus, Father Christmas or St Nicholas. There’s the idea that he rides a sleigh powered by reindeer and delivers presents to ‘good’ children on Christmas Eve (only if children are asleep). He’s kind and all-knowing and this Santa many of us might be aware is a recent (last 100 or so years) creation in part driven by commercial entities.

How different is he from his ancestral form then? Our modern Santa is actually a blend of a number of different stories of varying ages. The story predominantly derives from Nicholas, later canonised to St Nicholas, born into a wealthy devout Christian family in the 3rd century in Patara in what was then Greek territory, but now in Turkey. His parents died when he was young and he used his inheritance to assist those who were needy including sailors, the suffering or ill. He also became Bishop of Myra. Persecuted by the Romans and incarcerated he was later released and continued his generous work until he died. A special substance was found in his grave, deemed to have healing powers and the anniversary of his death (St Nicholas Day, December 6th or 19 on the Julian Calendar) became a celebration.  There are various specific stories of his generous acts, including secretly supplying dowries to three daughters of a poor man, via bags of gold tossed through windows and landing in stockings hanging to dry (hence the act of hanging stockings up now to receive gifts). A number of other stories surround his particular protection of children. December 6th is still the major day for gift giving across much of Europe. In some European countries, carrots are left out for St Nicholas’s horse.

The name Santa Claus derives from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, which itself is in part derived from the legend surrounding St Nicholas. However, there is also a nearly identical story from Greek Orthodox folklore about Saint Basil indicating a variety of origins to Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is an elderly stately man with white hair and a long white beard, wearing a long red cape over bishop’s attire. Parallels have also been drawn to the Germanic figure of Odin, a major god, indicating some pagan influence into the Christmas holiday. These include use of horses and children leaving boots filled with carrots and straw for the horse to eat in return for gifts or candy.  In some countries in the 16th or 17th century the gift exchange changed to being associated with Christ’s birthday and hence a shift from December 6th to Christmas Eve but in many areas, December 6th remains the primary gift giving day.

Father Christmas, the spirit of good cheer at Christmas was present as a green-coated person in Britain in the 1600’s. The modern Santa Claus appearance and figure (derived from St Nicholas, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas) actually dates from the 1800’s and is linked to a poem “A visit from St Nicholas’ by Clement Clarke Moore (1823) and later a cartoon by Thomas Nast (1863) where Santa became more portly. At about the same time the mythology around Santa Claus altered in Western cultures so that he now resided at the North Pole with elves, uses chimneys (although also associated with Odin and Sinterklaas) and required the assistance of reindeer and sleigh. The popularity of the naughty or nice list dates back less than 100 years to 1934, an idea associated with the song ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ (although this concept is also a part of Dutch Sinterklaas tradition).

Coca Cola further popularised the image of Santa Claus in the 1930’s, which leads to the mythology I grew up with, that the modern jolly red and white Santa was created by this particular beverage company to reflect their branding- thanks to the internet I now know that this is not correct! Mrs Claus first appeared in the mid-1800’s, letter writing to Santa probably in the 19th century and the idea of a large Santa gift factory at the end of the 1900’s.

Why it’s interesting learning these origins is the understanding that the modern Santa is far removed from the original St Nicholas source, and that our modern Santa is a real blend of old and new. Within our families though, we have the option to create the Santa that fits us.


Why I’m honest about Santa

I grew up with the story of Santa. I don’t recall exactly when I found out that Santa wasn’t real and that it was instead my parents sneaking around leaving gifts during the night but it was probably around a very standard age six or seven. Santa left a few small gifts (including always an orange- a tradition dating back to St Nicholas) in pillowcases we left on the end of our beds while we were asleep. I think we did the leaving of biscuits, maybe carrots, and milk out for Santa so from my recollections there was full participation by my mum and dad in the deceit. We quite possibly wrote notes but I don’t remember that. Finding out the deceit was actually somewhat traumatising and I did feel betrayed, a memory that lasts to this day. This is not uncommon.

When it came to my own child; MissBB was a mid-November baby born in 2009, so our first Christmas was a blur of sleep deprivation and actually just out of one of several unpleasant hospitalisations for mastitis (expect more about mastitis science at some later date), so introducing Santa that first year seemed irrelevant. The next Christmas, with a just over a one year old, I still didn’t feel any need to introduce Santa, especially as we had been hit here in Christchurch by a massive earthquake just three months before. Another year later and I now had a two year old and this time I felt the pressure to engage in the Santa mythology. At first I started out approaching it with an expectation that I had to go with the cultural flow and re-enact my childhood traditions with her (that’s that weight of cultural and societal filters I wrote about in my last post). So we did the pillowcase and a few small gifts inside although I didn’t hype it up much. It just didn’t feel right- there was a niggle eating away at me, which was guilt about not being completely honest with my daughter. After all, one of my foundations of parenting has always been honesty. So why, would we bend the rules with Santa and deliberately tell lies? Who was this for anyway? Was this really about our child and adding magic to her life or was it really amusement for us as parents at playing a clever practical joke that goes on for years in the notion of fun for all?

The niggle ate away at me and I felt uncomfortable about what I had done. It just didn’t seem to fit with my parenting approach and hence my parenting values. It was still early enough to reverse it without repercussions and so I started reading. First, I read all about Santa and his origins as I briefly outlined above. Now that I understood more about the history of the jolly red guy more I could evaluate just how far removed the modern version is and start to think more deeply about what my actual values around Christmas really were.

Again, it was time to do some more reading to find out whether the doubts I had inside me were valid, whether they were common or whether I was a neurotic mother that just needed to relax into the idea of engaging in the red velvet suit game. I found some really interesting material, some of which I’ll share below (and I’ve since found a lot more which is also included below) although one of the best I read, a mini-thesis I can sadly no longer locate. One of the central recommendations from that research was that ‘inviting the child to believe’ was the best approach. In other words, this philosophy of dealing with the Santa myth is of letting the child know that this is just another story but asking them by invitation whether they want to engage in the Santa game, which if they do is fine, as it under the full control of the child and in full knowledge that it is just a game. In reading that and having gone through a number of different ‘changing rooms’ during my online researching, I had found the velvet suit that felt like it fitted my values perfectly.

I came to a resolve that I needed to maintain my honest relationship with my daughter and to do that I needed to keep Santa where I believe he should be, as a story character but not as a real figure. Children may be children but that doesn’t mean from their first minute of existence out of our womb, that they don’t deserve our full respect as humans with equal rights. With that in mind I and with my partner’s agreement, resolved to let my daughter know the truth, but how to do it gave me a lot of anxiety and caused a lot of thoughtful moments, in an already crowded with thoughts mind.

In the end I felt I just had to take a deep breath and gently broach the subject. I don’t remember the exact specifics of when, but I did sit down and start by telling her a shortened version of the history of Santa Claus so that she could know it was just a story and that Santa was just a mythical story character. Once I got started the nerves dissipated a bit- these nerves were  what felt like the oppression of those societal filter/expectation chains weighing down on me and I was breaking them off and liberating my own values. I felt a little like a naughty child, one who might not get Santa’s gifts! At the end it felt good, I felt relieved because I was being true to me and to how I wanted to parent.

Change is like that- it can be scary but once it’s done we often feel like better and stronger people. We often feel that we know more about who we are. And that’s a good thing. Having the courage to peel the top layers off to find your values is frightening and it is hard but my personal opinion is that I would much rather tackle that than spend my days feeling like I was carrying chains and never really feeling free or being myself. The most important person to be myself for, other than for me, is for my child.

That’s how we headed a few months later into the next Christmas, this past Christmas, and it seemed straightforward to reinforce that Santa is a story and that MissBB can ‘choose to believe’, where we participate in the Christmas build-up in a very similar way, except she knows it is a game. Where I explain that different stores have their own Santa for that store etc. She wasn’t at an age where she would tell other children and it all seemed fine. I should point out here that despite somewhat of a negative experience uncovering the deceit during my childhood that that wasn’t my primary motivation for keeping it real with my own child. Whilst that may have been a catalyst for examining how we would tackle Santa in our family, it was all the research and thought processes that followed that lead me to my decisions.

This year, now MissBB is four, has actually been a little more challenging. That’s because she is now far more aware of what society is doing around her to cultivate the Santa myth- everywhere she goes she is bombarded with people asking her what Santa is getting her for Christmas, which I think is very confusing. Those societal filters are layering on thick and it’s a bit like doing a chemical peel for me to combat them. Naturally of course there is a lot of talk amongst her peers which is fine- this is what you would expect. But why do those adults she knows but especially those she doesn’t (retail assistants etc) have to ask specifically about Santa ?– why is the question not less loaded as just simply “What would you like for Christmas?/What have you asked for for Christmas?”.

There really is a weight of expectation that every adult is complicit to this game. At first glance it might seem like harmless fun, but put a different pair of glasses on and it comes across as more a sinister criminal underworld of lies, deceit and trickery. Here though, the material gains are unusually to the receiver, rather than the giver. The mental gains may on the other hand be largely to the giver.

Childcare parties where Santa makes an appearance and malls where there’s always Santa present but not giving presents add to the confusion. We talked again about the Santa story and that’s he not real at the start of the silly season. It’s important to reinforce concepts in the face of an onslaught of material that may suggest otherwise. She told the teachers at childcare one day and they told her not to tell the other children- fair enough. This in turn led to a really interesting conversation where I explained that Santa is just a game and that I have chosen to let her know that he is a game but that many parents play the game with their children but without telling them it is a game and that she must not spoil that as it is the parent’s choice. “Why do they not tell them?”. Being careful to respect other parent’s choices I answered that some parents think it’s good to create that magic and mystery and that they have a variety of reasons for not telling their children.  I was careful to leave it as open as she can so she can make her own mind up about what values she has around the deceit as she grows.

We hit a speed bump a few days ago when she declared that she thought Santa was real- I can sense in a way that perhaps she really wants to believe or maybe she feels pressured into it. Another interesting conversation where we both learnt more about each other and where I asked her if she trusted me? The answer of course, yes. The response from me was that if she trusted me, then it was also important for her to trust me that I was telling the truth about Santa. She took that on board as she does and we followed on with some great exploration of logic and critical thinking looking at the evidence for or against Santa being a real person.

Yet another speed bump yesterday where she kept talking about Santa as if he was real- asking questions about what I thought he wore to bed. I felt confused- had I gone wrong as a parent? Was the desire in children to make believe and engage in fantasy so strong that believing in Santa was inevitable? We talked about some story book characters in a book she had just read and I asked her if they were real- could they ever come into the room? She was clear on that one, no, so I reinforced Santa was no different again. MissBB had provided more opportunity for thought though. I wanted to tell her the truth in full respect for her as a person, but now I was left wondering whether I was interfering with her fantasy games too much. I wanted this to be a child-led game so it was time to make sure it was. We had a conversation tonight and I said I was a bit confused about whether she thought Santa was real or not but I really wanted her to decide how she wanted to deal with Santa and that I wanted to put her in charge. I think the upshot of that slightly muddled but delightful 4-year old conversation is that she knows Santa is a story character but we’re going to act out as if he’s not- in other words we’re going to play a make believe game like we might in many other situations. That’s completely fine by my- I’ll go with her flow and direction. Today, we pretended that Tower Junction, a shopping area, was Jungle Junction (a TV programme). That was simple. It’s time to show trust in my daughter the way she trusts me. It’s her choice to ‘believe’- this game has a new leader.

I wanted to give you an honest account of what’s it been like being honest about Santa. Maintaining the deceit about Santa is difficult for those that go down that path as it involves ever increasing elaborate trickery to maintain the deception. However, maintaining Santa as a story character isn’t without effort either. The road bumps I’ve encountered this festive season haven’t changed my position. Rather, they’ve provided ample learning opportunities for my daughter and I and ultimately a means for us to demonstrate the respect we have for each other and the chance to know each other better; for our relationship to evolve. To me that has immeasurable value and benefit. The uncomfortable feeling where you’re having to think hard and evaluate as a parent or otherwise is actually the space where you are learning the most.

What about those other mythical creatures that have also pervaded our society – the tooth fairy and Easter bunny? How do I intend to deal with those? The Easter Bunny I don’t even bother about- although we do an egg hunt and the tooth fairy- revealing the ‘fairy toothbrushes’ within periwinkle flowers is as close as we come there- I’ll tackle that when she starts getting wiggly teeth.

All of this section though is only my personal opinion and experience. Below is where we delve into the research surrounding the Santa myth.


Candy canes for thought- research and other ideas around dealing with the Santa myth

The following are some of the major considerations around promoting the Santa myth or not.

Lying to your children and erosion of trust

This probably ranks as the number one reason not to engage in the deceit. We all know that lying to our children is bad and so like my experience many people when they engage in making a mythical character reality feel some level of guilt based on the idea that lies are bad. I think we should listen to these doubts our mind expresses and examine them carefully. Some of the ideas presented by others put this kind of deceit in the ‘lying for the benefit of our children’ category but this to me is very poor logic. As I suggested above the lies may primarily be not for the benefit of the recipient, which the ‘good lie’ concept suggests but rather the supplier.

Lying may lead to a long term erosion of the trust relationship we have with our children and this aspect of trust is one of the most important components, if not the most important, we have with our children over our lifetime. Yet lying as a parental tool is incredibly common as shown in recent studies outlined here and here. Beyond the big three – Santa, Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy, the most common lies are threatening to leave children alone in public, fairy godmothers watching all you do, and Pinocchio style nose growing on lying! Interestingly, research now shows that children engage in lying much earlier than previously thought – by age three, which means they are in turn well aware by that age of what a lie actually is.

Melinda Wenner Moyer in an article claims that when children learn the truth around age 8 (in reality the data suggests earlier at age 6-7) they now know the difference between good and bad lies and therefore won’t resent you for the ‘good lie’ you have told. However, this assumes that there are few negative consequences of Santa’s big reveal.

This is in fact incorrect although there is surprisingly scant literature on this and nearly all of it based in America, leaving those of us in other countries such as here in New Zealand completely unsure what effect the perpetration of the Santa myth is doing to our kids. For whilst some, if not many children may appear to suffer little ill effects when the deceit is unveiled, others do. My own experience, for example, was negative. I can’t remember the exact details of when I found out the truth but it is a scarring memory. One Christmas, probably the final one before I found out the truth, my brother and sister convinced me that they had seen reindeer hooves in the lawn. I spent the majority of that Christmas Day carefully going over the lawn trying in vain to find the evidence they claimed existed. I remember how utterly betrayed I felt by my siblings who I had complete trust in that they had actively deceived me. I felt like I had been made a fool of, that I was the recipient of a cruel joke. Whilst my angst on the surface of it, seems directed at my siblings and has potentially contributed to some erosion of my trust relationship with them, it is also possible that on another level, the same erosion has happened to my relationship with my parents.

There really is no such thing as a ‘good lie’.

Given the prevalence of Santa in Western culture, the scant research that has been conducted into the effects the Santa deception has on children strikes me that there is a considerable qualitative and quantitative data gap. Parents should want to know whether promoting the deception has positive or negative impacts on their children and to what level so they can make the best decisions for their family. Prentice et al in 2010 showed that belief in fantasy figures such as Santa varies with age and the level of parental encouragement. Cultural context is also important: Prentice and Gordon have shown that in Jewish families, belief in both Santa and the Tooth Fairy declines with age but belief in either figure in Jewish children is significantly less than in Christian children. Thompson and Vickey in 1989 looked at the meanings attributed to an American mall environment, where behaviour is on public display leading to continual shaping of social identities. They found that in the presence of children, both males and females promoted the Santa fantasy- looks like nothing has changed there, although one has to wonder what impact the rampant commercialisation of Christmas has had on Santa in the last 24 years.

Interestingly they found that age and gender influence behaviours and understanding in Santa’s presence. Challenging of the belief in school-aged children tended to be infrequent and brief and for those who had discovered the truth about Santa, they tended to play along for the reward and to “publicly demonstrate their conformity” to adult expectations. From a young age girls were more comfortable in Santa’s presence than boys- the authors suggest conforming to being ‘good girls’. A broader range of behaviours were tolerated in boys. The paper also outlines fascinating differences in both male and female teenager and adult interactions with Santa. Male teenagers were typically threatened by Santa and perhaps abusive in an attempt to validate their near-adult status; female teenagers on the other hand actively sought out Santa, flirting with him and using Santa in a way that didn’t threaten their adult status but affirmed it.

Adult males tended to avoid Santa deliberately or otherwise whereas women regularly interacted. This may be to do with the expectation that women are meant to be emotional, supportive and engaged. Engagement with Santa may be a public confirmation of their good partner/mother role which fitted with the author’s assessments that women tended to respond to the fantasy by overacting. Santa on the other hand may pose a threat to adult males- threat of social embarrassment if one was to acknowledge Santa. Men in the presence of children responded differently and typically acknowledged Santa. When both men and women were present with children, women took on a lead role. Motivations for interaction with Santa may have been simply a means to a photo shoot, or also for additional reasons centred on modelling of good behaviour. Thus, Santa even in this context is manipulated as a tool to obtain a certain desired behavioural standard from children and interactions with Santa are influenced by gender in a subtle but pervasive manner. Follow-up studies that assess social class, race, religion and ethnicity impacts are just begging to be done here but the complexity of the Santa interaction in a mall or department store or elsewhere should make us all pause and think next time we approach Santa.

The most recent  (that I can find) analysis of impacts of discovering the Santa Claus myth is not very recent (Anderson and Prentice 1994) and again was an American study. I am ignoring a 2002 study by Cyr of 45 inpatients as the author declared he still believes in Santa! In the Anderson and Prentice study a small cohort (52) of children who no longer believed in Santa and their parents were interviewed in a well-designed but exploratory approach. Participants were sourced from a medium-sized Southwestern city, and most were Protestant. Children were found to generally find out on their own at age seven. Parents used a wide variety of encouragement verbal and behavioural tools to get children to believe. The authors reported that parents were in general more distressed at the reveal than their children. Parents in general strongly disagreed that there were negative aspects to a belief in Santa Claus, which is not unexpected given these parents had actively encouraged and promoted the deception, but may not be representative of a wider snapshot of society. The level of distress on learning the truth was lessened the greater the parental encouragement but the reasons for this are not entirely clear, although may be related to a greater sensitivity to the child’s experience with Santa and ability to tune in and respond  to any adverse reactions. Children exhibited a broad range of reactions to the truth, both positive and negative although the definition of these  terms may be one flaw in the study, e.g. a child could be ‘happy’ about learning the truth (71% of children) but that ‘happiness’ could be associated with a number of negative feelings- happy their gut instinct was right, that they now knew about their parent’s deceit etc. Although the authors downplayed the intensity of the negative impacts on children, the negative impacts were not trivial: 50% felt bad, 48% felt sad, disappointed, tricked, 42% felt confused, 35% felt angry, 33% felt upset, 29% felt sorry and 13% felt hurt. I wonder too with this age group of children who tend to be quite self-conscious whether downplaying the intensity might be a reflection of social conformation rather than genuine feelings?  Their recollections after the event may also be not an accurate reflection of how they felt as they gradually uncovered the deception. There are other shortcomings in this study which highlight further the need for us to carefully consider our own approach to the Santa story as well as the need for more research. Sample numbers were relatively low, the study was American and may for example not be applicable to other countries where Santa is also a fantasy figure. The participants were generally white, Christian and middle class. In other Santa-fied countries, such as here in New Zealand where there is a much higher prevalence of non-religious parents, parental motivations and encouragement may be significantly different. And not least of all twenty years on a lot has changed in the ‘Santa space’ with the encroachment of commerce and associated shifts in cultural values or practices.

I put the Santa deceit to Kumari Valentine, clinical psychologist and lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand for her thoughts. She admitted it was such a thought-provoking question she’d been awake after I wrote to her in the middle of the night thinking and talking it over with her husband for an hour! Kumari is an expert in attachment and her blog can be found here. She notes that “a number of my friends have talked about the sense of outrage they had when they learnt their parents had put one over them”. Her principal advice was similar to a number of other psychologists: “The other thing is to look at the principles – what are we trying to do with Xmas? Seems to me it’s about a sense of magic, a cultural story and family. Well, you can create all of those with your daughter as a co-creator, rather than as a passive recipient”. Kumari recognised that not all children are the same and being cognisant of our child’s needs is important “I think it’s good to be pay attention to that particular child needs. Some children need to have make believe for longer”. “For example, a child might ‘need’ to believe completely in Santa to be part of a particular peer group that perhaps they are struggling to fit into and they don’t have the skills to ‘play along’ with the Santa idea for everyone else.”


Following on from the idea that maintenance of the trust relationship is incredibly important between parent and child, it’s logical that being honest about Santa is a demonstration of a respectful relationship. As I indicated above, babies and children aren’t in my mind second class citizens and being upfront about St Nick is just one way to demonstrate the respect you have for your children. It’s difficult from my perspective to see how engaging in increasingly elaborate lying could be viewed as similarly respectful.


Imaginative play/mythical play

The most common argument for propagating the Santa myth is that it fosters the magical and fantasy thinking that young children need and thus the Santa lie is presented by some as beneficial and even good for cognitive development. Touted in many articles on the internet, including a well-known article by Melinda Wenner Moyer is the idea that this is not only beneficial for children’s cognitive development but perhaps even necessary. Specifics include the idea that engaging in fantasy play sparks creativity, social understanding, critical thinking and emotional understanding. All of these ideas are in fact true- imaginative play does help cultivate what are known as theory of mind skills.

However, there are some key points missing from these oft-presented flawed arguments. Firstly, it assumes that engaging in the Santa myth through deliberate lying by a parent, is one of the only ways that such imaginative fantasy play can occur. Thus, it follows that one might also question how children that culturally do not recognise Santa Claus fare- do they have poorer theory of mind skills? Dangerous territory indeed. Children from one upwards readily engage in all sorts of fantasy play- they do it at their own initiation and generally do it under their own control and rules. They are experts at make-believe and they use it to make sense of the world around them. As such they are fully aware of the boundaries of the game or they learn them  as they go if by invitation from others.

The central difference here is that in the Santa deceit, the children are unaware of the rules of the game- these are being set by adults and withheld from the children. An appalling article by the ‘trusted’ parenting website PBS states among other things that the lie is fine because “it doesn’t really harm children to imagine”. In an excellent article, psychologist William Irwin and philosopher David Johnson, counter-argue that there are three major reasons that the Santa lie should be avoided: 1) it’s an unjustified lie; damage to trust relationships; and 3) promotes ‘credulity and ill-motivated behaviour”. He goes on to say that this defence of imagination in those that suggest the Santa lie is good “doesn’t actually promote imagination or imaginative play” because to imagine means that you pretend, and to pretend something exists you need to believe first that it doesn’t.  He argues instead it ‘stifles imagination’ and suggests as have others taking exactly the approach I have taken with MissBB.

Psychologist Clifford Lazarus suggests that engaging in the Santa deception may actually promote the development later in life of ‘magical thinking’, which far from necessarily being harmless may include believing in spells and other irrational beliefs which are often at the core of OCD.

Critical thinking

Used by either those for or against the Santa deception is the idea that of development of critical thinking skills. Those that suggest the Santa lie is not only harmless but beneficial also provide the idea that the slow realisation encourages the development of critical reasoning skills. Indeed, the experience of learning the truth, as I am doing with MissBB, is a fantastic critical thinking platform.  However, I and others suggest that rather than maintenance of the lie encouraging reasoning skills in itself, it merely confuses. As children use their logic to slowly uncover the truth they may ask questions of parents and siblings who likely construct more elaborate ruses and in the process stifle doubts. Stifling doubts is counterproductive to the fostering of critical thinking skills.

Loss of innocence

Another oft-mentioned reason that the Santa deception is indeed beneficial is that maintenance of the deception is one way of ensuring children stay children for longer. The world is so hard and full of troubles, the longer they hold onto this fantasy world the better seems to be a theme. Indeed, as one article writes “It’s better for their development to allow them to believe in the fantasy of Santa Claus. After all, they will have to face reality sooner or later”. Again, I find flawed logic in these arguments. Fantasy is a part of childhood, but to assume that fantasy (and indeed taking on board Irwin’s point that the Santa deception isn’t pretend play and therefore isn’t fantasy play) is the major component of innocence does not seem intuitively correct. These are loaded ideas and one really needs to examine how innocence is defined with respect to children. More to the point, how do we define what being a child really is?  Is for example my openness with my daughter about childbirth, menstruation, and some rudimentary knowledge about reproduction also an erosion of her innocence? Or a deliberate attempt to ensure comfort in her own skin throughout life?

Other monsters

Lazarus goes on to say in his article that if we affirm that Santa is real to our children, then logic follows that ghosts, monsters under the bed or elsewhere must also be real. If we deny the latter ideas to our children but invest in the Santa lie, where does that leave our children?  He raises some interesting ideas about what as yet unknown damage exposing children to delusional ideas may do to psychological development and suggests as we now know that cognitive development starts earlier than previously thought that exposing children to the psychological realities of life (age-approrpriately) should occur as early as possible to develop rational thinking. These sentiments of grounding children in realism are echoed here.

Indeed, many children are terrified by Santa. In the last few days on TV and on social media I’ve seen all sorts of photos of children screaming on Santa’s lap. This then is clearly not about the children. It seems nearly like a badge of honour for parents to display their child’s level of utter distress. It seems weird too, to me to even go there. On one hand from a young age we actively encourage our children to be wary of strangers, and their inbuilt response kicks in from as early as five months. Yet we once again bend the rules come Christmas time and thrust our young children onto some stranger’s lap in the quest for that perfect yuletide pic. We assume that the malls and stores and wherever else have done vigorous background checks on the Santa’s they employ, but is our child’s distress telling us something?

Thompson and Vickey noted in their qualitative mall study that preschool-aged children tended to be fearful of Santa or even terrorised,  were often being co-erced to sit on Santa’s lap and were sometimes spanked and physically forced into the photo opportunity! School aged children of 5-9 years of age enjoyed the interaction and treated him as if he were real and the Santa actors themselves were far more comfortable with this age group. Infants had no response- they were generally asleep!

Commercialisation of Christmas, conditional love dangers, religious run-ins and political problems

There are a number of other issues associated with the Santa myth and several of these are centred on the actual presents. There is no doubt that Christmas has become a highly commercialised event and so then has Santa by association. Yet, many of us live in times of considerable financial hardship. Requests for substantial presents are now put to Santa and frequently Santa delivers. Not so long ago, the Santa gifts were small in nature. Santa doesn’t however, always meet expectations. Every year there are many bitterly disappointed children who don’t understand why Santa didn’t listen to them and grant them their request. Kumari Valentine says “I recall feeling disappointed when Santa didn’t seem to pay attention to what I really wanted (and my mum gently told me that Santa couldn’t afford to buy everyone what they wanted). I wonder if children would change what they asked for if they knew their parents were the ones paying. I know I had an acute sense of how much my parents could afford and I suspect other kids might too. It seems like there is another agenda here – it’s retailers who benefit from children being fed the idea that they can ask for anything if they’ve “been nice” and they deserve to get it.” Parents solve the distress in their children by telling more elaborate lies but children may end up with feelings of lower self-worth as a result.

This in turn relates to the issue of conditional love. We all want our children to know that we love them unconditionally no matter who they are and what they do and in return we hope that they grow up for the most part feeling the same way with respect to us, i.e. their love isn’t determined by the material things we provide. Depending on how the Santa deception is constructed in families however, and the adherence to this naughty or nice philosophy, Santa’s benevolent love for our children may appear to be conditional based on behaviour- you’ll only get presents if you’re good, if you go to sleep early on Christmas Eve etc. The Santa myth also involves using a stranger to control children for the sake of parents and some people object to Santa on these grounds, while others view Santa as a foreign indulging figure.

In religious circles there are those that feel that a heavy focus on Santa is a detractor from the real focus of the Christmas period, Jesus Christ. In a possibly spurious argument, Goltz raises the issue that we may be influencing our children’s political views through teaching them that needs come from a ‘sugar daddy’, leading to a dependence on the state to provide.

Final festive thoughts

I’ve chosen to reveal the Santa game to MissBB for a variety of reasons but mainly centred on trust and honesty and preservation of respectful relationships. It hasn’t been easy and it’s involved a lot of thought and examination around my own values for me and my family. For me it’s the right decision to let her ‘choose to believe’ and I hope in years to come she will reflect and also find it the right decision for her childhood. This year, I’ve also made a conscious choice (or maybe it’s just plain exhaustion) to not create all manner of festive unhealthy (but oh so delicious) goodies in order to promote healthy eating. We don’t actually need all that extra baggage leading to extra baggage penalties to celebrate Christmas. Next year, I intend to more fully and similarly examine my attitudes around Christmas gift giving and materialism- pathological consumption as George Monbiot coins it. Yes, like many women I do love buying presents for others, but MissBB I hope will not measure me by the amount of presents she receives. As she told me today, what she needs most and what she likes giving most are cuddles. Wise words indeed. Some things may seem complicated but life really is about some pretty simple concepts.

I hope this post encourages you if you haven’t already to consider your own values around Christmas and in particular the Santa myth. Kumari suggests “I think it is worth parents consciously reflecting on how they choose to parent” and she strongly advocates tailoring your approach to each individual child “and based on the child’s needs”. She notes that “parents may struggle to separate a child’s needs from what THEY want for the child” .You might not come to the same conclusions as me. Other options do include ‘don’t lie but don’t tell’ or of course sticking with the societal norm- making the Santa myth reality. Alternatively revealing the truth but not engaging in the game at all- no Santa presents etc is also an option.

My hope though is that many of you will leave Santa in a fictional world and make your children a consenting part of the Santa game. The magic will still be there but the deceit won’t.

Whatever you choose to do, may you have a wonderful festive season.


Links in order





http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0031409 Emergence of lying in very young children.

http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2012/12/the_santa_lie_is_the_big_christmas_con_hurting_our_kids.html Moyer

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/plato-pop/201212/say-goodbye-the-santa-claus-lie Irwin & Johnson

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1978.tb02566.x/abstract  Prentice et al 2010. Imaginary figures of early childhood: Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00221325.1987.9914544#.UrEpN5Iwdyx Prentice and Gordon 1987. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy for the Jewish Child and Parent

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00989398# Thompson and Vickey 1989. Myth, identity, and social interaction: Encountering Santa Claus at the mall

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02253287#  Anderson and Prentice 1994. Encounter with reality: Children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth

http://www.cmaj.ca/content/167/12/1325.short Cyr 2002. Do reindeer and children know something that we don’t? Pediatric inpatients’ belief in Santa Claus




http://www.naturalchild.org/jan_hunt/santa.html Hunt

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/think-well/201209/is-telling-kids-santa-claus-is-real-bad-idea Lazarus

http://www.bubblews.com/news/1784735-is-perpetuating-the-myth-of-santa-claus-good-for-children Emerson

http://www.seghea.com/homeschool/santa.html Goltz


http://www.monbiot.com/2012/12/10/the-gift-of-death/ Monbiot