Why I won’t be watching the new Cinderella film

glass slipper 1

The new Cinderella is “strong, empowered and intelligent”. Hmm..I’m not buying it

Yesterday on the way to the park, my five year old daughter and her six year old friend, also a girl, started waving, saying hi and smiling rather coquettishly at some builders. I couldn’t believe it- they were shamelessly flirting!

After a chat with the mum of the other girl, I learnt that she’s been displaying this kind of flirtatious, almost sexual behaviour a lot lately. She’s learnt that by doing so, she gets not only the attention but the approval of the boys. This is not rocket science of course, but to see this kind of behaviour in a girl still in infant school is rather alarming.

I’ve seen my own daughter do this kind of thing before. The moment my husband walks through the door, she becomes all smiles, cuddles and affection, after I have struggled with her bad mood and tiredness-related tantrums for most of the afternoon. But she’s learnt to turn on her charms as soon as the man of the house is around, and subsequently gains his affection and approval.

Wow.

It really troubles me to think of young girls trading on their charm for approval, rather than having a genuine sense of self to draw from. Where do little girls learn to use their femininity so manipulatively?

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not a Disney Princess fan, in terms of the unhealthy influence it has on our girls. They’re all about ‘getting the man’ in the end. Why do we feed our young daughters with notions of romantic love at such an early age? Why aren’t we giving them a narrative of self-worth based on ability, perseverance, tenacity, and potential? Of course Disney has tried to redeem itself with Brave and Frozen. But any of that good work has been undone in my opinion in the 2015 Cinderella remake.

I’ve read that this new version allows time in the plot to see ‘Ella’ becoming “strong, empowered and intelligent”, whilst “dealing with life as best she can”. That’s all great, but we also see her walk into the ballroom to be absolutely adored- based on her looks, and fall into the arms of the very-blue eyed and handsome prince. So in the end, the enduring narrative is that she’s rescued by her fairy godmother- rather than finding her own way out of her troublesome life; and into the arms of a gorgeous man.

It doesn’t sound very empowering to me.

In 2010, Mumsnet started a now government-backed campaign called “Let Girls Be Girls”. Their aim was to ask retailers not to sell products which play upon, emphasise or exploit the sexuality of young girls. As one Mumsnet contributor put it:

“Little girls are being groomed into passively accepting their place as objects in our increasingly pornified culture, and it stinks.” TenaciousG

I couldn’t agree more with ‘Tenacious G’. I see many of the messages that little girls are bombarded with, and it does feel as if they are being groomed into mini-sexual beings.

I know you think that I’m the over-protective, prudish mum who is robbing her daughter of a part of her childhood. Every generation needs a Cinderella story! What’s wrong with girls acting a bit cute or coquettish? It’s endearing isn’t it? It’s what all girls do eventually!

Well to me, the premature sexualisation of our young girls isn’t cute. ‘Sexiness’ isn’t one of the main qualities that a girl needs to make it in a tough and competitive world, in my opinion. And if she is trading on that, then you’ve got a problem.

We can teach our girls differently. We can empower them! We can give them a sense of self-worth based on their talents, their abilities and their unique personalities- and not on how sweetly they can smile and work a room.

How hard do you push your children at school?

So A-level results are out today, and as always, the news is awash with what seems like slightly inflated statements:

 “…record proportion of papers had been awarded an elite A*”

(If everyone is getting A*’s, surely it’s not elite any more but normal?)

 “Smallest gender gap in A grades between boys and girls since 2000”

“….overall number of students expected to take up university places is likely to top 500,000 for the first time ever.”

Some social commentators would say that the system is simply getting easier. Parents on the other hand would know that our children are under more pressure than ever before to perform academically.

As Asians, we understand all about the pressure to do well at school. For most of us growing up, comments like “Why did you only get a ‘B’?” or “How do you expect to go to medical school with marks like that?” are served up with breakfast on a regular basis. My dad used to lament over the fact that I was more creatively minded (God forbid!) than capable at the traditional subjects. I will always remember him telling me to “be more intelligent”! Er….?

Maybe it’s our innate competitiveness as Asians. We’re always so concerned with “what the family will say” about anything that we do. I’m pretty sure that academic achievement is so highly prized just so that it can be boasted about at the next function!

The question is will our generation of British Asian parents repeat the sins of our fathers by applying the same level of pressure on our kids? Will we push them as hard as we were pushed? By all accounts, British Asian children today continue to outperform their white counterparts, pipped only to the post by the Chinese. It’s clearly a cultural thing- our work ethic is drummed into us at a very early age and anything less than over-achievement is not tolerated.

It’s true that we parent the way that we were parented; it’s simply doing what you know. Today, I’ve had to work pretty hard at suppressing the Tiger Mum in me. I continually check the urge to push my daughter to spend more time on homework; the temptation to instil in her the importance of doing well at school and keeping up with her peers. Have I mentioned that she’s only 5?

But it’s also no secret that schools today put our children under a lot of pressure- far more than we experienced. They have their first formal assessments at the age of 6. When they’re in junior school, the talk of much-coveted high school places starts around 9 or 10, with many 11 year olds putting themselves under intense pressure to pass school entrance exams and the 11+. (My nephew is on a three day intensive tuition class as we speak in preparation for his 11+.)

According to one report, universities are now placing more emphasis on GCSE grades due to the over-inflation of A-Level results (everyone now achieving the ‘elite’ A* status is a case in point), so there’s no hope of floating through these like we did, only to roll your sleeves up in 6th form.

I want my daughter to be able to compete on this platform and I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to instil the value of hard work in our youngsters.

But how do we do that in a healthy way that respects their individuality? How also do we achieve it without inspiring an unhealthy sense of competition, the sort that we see at Asian functions where people compete over job status, what car we drive and so on?

Finding a healthy balance is a challenge for me personally. Here are some of the guidelines my husband and I working towards:

  • Find your child’s individual bent and go with that. Is she a problem solver? Is he a naturally gifted musician? Encouraging their natural giftings will make your child a happier as well as more successful student
  • Avoid gender stereotyping. This is an area that is close to my heart, repeat after me: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS BOYS/GIRLS SUBJECTS, THERE ARE NO CAREERS WHICH ARE MORE SUITABLE TO EITHER BOYS OR GIRLS!
  • Give them the tools. Today’s classroom is a competitive place, so any help you give them is an advantage. Support with home learning definitely has its benefits
  • After school clubs and activities such as sports, dance or drama classes will give your child an outlet for other talents and interests outside of formal learning. Some high schools also offer places to children who are exceptional at these, for example schools with a performing arts emphasis.
  • Avoid unhealthy comparisons with cousins, siblings or classmates. It only serves to damage self-esteem when they feel they don’t reach up to that standard; or an over-inflated ego if they outperform them
  • Our children are individuals! Help them reach their own potential, whatever level that might be at.

Good luck with the new term to both children AND parents!

Read the rest of my parenting series “Summer Survival Guide”:  “Desi Gender Stereotyping” and “Help! I don’t know any other Asian mums!”

Help! I don’t know any other Asian mums!

Continuing on in my Summer Holiday Survival series, this week I’m looking at connecting with other South Asian families. Starting your very own mum’s group is actually really easy to do….

Motherhood, particularly the early years is often a very lonely and isolating time. Most mums are very eager to meet other mums of any race, but when there is common ground like religion or race, the bonds are often stronger.

If like me you live in a fairly white neighbourhood and happen to be quite far away from extended family, spending time with other South Asians is probably something you to have work on.

This is not about being exclusive or forming a clique.

But it is about you and your children spending time with other like-minded people, culturally speaking, who share the values, challenges and experiences of South Asian life. This is especially true for our children: it’s important for their sense of identity and self-esteem to be around other children who look like them and can identify with the values they are being raised with.

Having children is one of the best ways to meet new people, as you are forced into situations where you meet others at the same life stage. Anti-natal classes, NCT groups, baby & toddler groups and later on, the school gates are all great places to make new friends.

Of course the challenge comes if you there aren’t many Asians in your area. How then do you connect with other Asian families?

Here are my tips:

Places of worship:

Going to the gurdwara, church, temple or mosque is very much a part of South Asian life so this has to be the first place you try. Children are a great ice-breaker: “how old is your little one?” “Has he been walking long?” etc are a great way to start a conversation and hopefully strike up a bond. If that seems a little too daunting, perhaps get permission to post on the notice board or website that you’re looking to organise regular meet-ups or simply connect with others. You can usually do this even if you don’t belong to that place of worship, if you go via their office.

Use Netmums/Mumsnet:

Most local baby, toddler and other children’s groups and activities are listed on these two sites’ local area sections. You could post a listing calling Asian mums in your area to contact you via email or Facebook. It might be a good idea to set up a separate email account so as not to give out your personal details.

Start a Facebook/Twitter group:

Give your group a name that includes the name of your town, like Asian Mums of SE16. Start off just posting statuses inviting people to join the group and explaining what you’re about. Get your friends to re-post it or like the group for you, and eventually it will go viral. Once there are enough of you chatting regularly you could broach the subject of meeting in a local Starbucks for an hour or so, and hopefully this will become a regular thing. You could move onto park trips, soft play centres, and when you feel comfortable enough, meeting in each other’s homes.

Perhaps all of that sounds really scary and you think no-one will respond; or worse yet, that you’ll attract a bunch of weirdos.  But you’re not committing to anything by just putting out some feelers. Also if you try once and nothing much comes of it, its’ worth trying again six months later. These things are often ‘seasonal’ and you’ll find new families move to the area, or perhaps family life settles down a bit and the mum feels ready to venture out to meet new people. So take a deep breath and go for it- you might just make a whole new group of like-minded friends, for you and your kids.

Good luck! x

Read part 1 in the series “Desi Gender Stereotyping”, which looks at how to avoid typecasting your child

Gender stereotyping our Asian children

desi steretyping

It’s school holidays and hopefully we’ve spent some quality (er…!) time with our children. It’s a great time to get to know our children again, in a way, without the rush of routine, homework and after-school activities to think about. It’s also a good time as a parent to ‘re-group’ a little.

Desi Gender Stereotyping

If your house is anything like mine during school holidays, there are probably toys lying around everywhere. And as I have a daughter and no sons, pretty much everything is pink or purple and girly.

The notion that pink is for girls, blue is for boys has become such a given that often we don’t question it. How many of us choose a pink card when we someone we know gives birth to a baby girl? Why not blue for a girl? It just seems wrong doesn’t it?!

Has it occurred to us that we are actually limiting our children and stifling their individual identities by forcing them into society’s idea of what a boy/ girl “should” be?

When I was growing up, my mum had very specific ideas on how to raise me. I was taught how to cook, clean house, shown crafts like sewing and knitting (all of which I rebelled against as a teenager and lay around reading Just 17 magazine.) But she was trying to raise me to be a submissive, respectable young lady that would one day make for a suitable Asian bride.  Meanwhile my brothers were encouraged to ride their bikes, play sports, Lego and generally “be men”. It’s all so forced- so stereotyped that it makes me cringe.

The debate on how we limit girls by dressing them in pink with aspirations to the Disney princess mould of womanhood is one that is important to me. Why should our girls only be raised to be “suitable Asian brides”? Why should they be told they can only wear ‘girls colours’, and play with dolls and kitchen sets? Equally, if our sons are creatively minded, why should they be forced to play with Lego rather than craft, paint or play instruments?

In our South Asian culture where gender roles are very much defined, it can be difficult for desi parents to navigate this whole debate. From day one our girls are expected to be demure even submissive whilst our boys are encouraged to be manly-men. This continues on well into adulthood where us women have all kinds of expectations- and limitations- placed on us in terms of our careers, married life and so on. (The same goes for Asian men to some extent too, which I have written about.)

And even if we as parents are enlightened (uh-hum!) on this whole debate, it can be really awkward when the grandparents vehemently disagree with you because your ideas don’t fit with their ideas of how their grandchildren “should” be raised.

So how do we manage to avoid typecasting our children, keep the extended family happy and maintain some sanity? Here are my tips:

Pick your battles and be gracious:

I did once turn down a gift from my mother-in-law because I felt really strongly that it wasn’t suitable. I told her why and she accepted my reasoning- thankfully! I think its important to set your boundaries as a parent. But the key thing is to pick your battles and not turn down every Disney Princess or Ben 10 gift that your children are given. Grandparents have a stake in how our children are raised and it is their prerogative to spoil our children a little.

Don’t be too strict:

Which leads me on to say that its important to have a balance. It’s never wise to completely ban a toy, colour or anything else from your children’s choices- you run the risk of it becoming a forbidden fruit which simply makes it more exciting. We do indulge our daughter’s love for princesses a little, but always show her there are other choices, and emphasise that its good to incorporate non-girly toys in her playing. And we always tell her there is no such thing as “girls/boy’s toys” or “girls/boys colours”.

Talk it through:

If there are some things which you feel very strongly that your child shouldn’t have, talk it through with them as to why it isn’t good for them. This is something we are working on with our daughter: like any other five year old, she doesn’t want to listen to reason and rather have instant gratification! But communication is a part of parenting so I know it’s worth investing in, and we keep working on it.

Be a counter-culture parent:

Ultimately there are some things you’ll have to stand your ground on, whether that’s with your child or with other family members. And yes that’ll make you unpopular at times. But one thing I’ve realised, in today’s society where so many things grab for the attention of our children- and not all of those are good, is that we have to fight for our children. Sometimes we have to make choices for them that we believe are the right ones and hope there is a dialogue there for understanding.

If you have any thoughts on this debate, or any tips to share, please do leave a comment. 

 

Is one child ever enough?

We Asians are known for our large families. Which is why I was always told I needed to have ‘at least two’ children, but three would be better. Subsequently, I’ve always been frowned upon for having just one child and for conforming to a ‘Western’ model of family.

Having just one child when you’re Asian is not the norm. Of course it happens, and probably quite a lot, but it’s not the done thing; you would certainly never choose to stop at one. What’s worse is that the pressure is largely on us women – like not bearing your husband a big brood of kids to carry on his name is doing a disservice to the marriage.

My lowest point came when I found out that my sister-in-law fell pregnant after a month of being married.

This post appears on Red Online. Click here to read the rest

What’s your Secret Mum Behaviour?

“I like to put Vaseline on my hands and put on conditioning gloves while watching infomercials.”

“Before I was married, I used to study my pores in a mirror for an hour each night. You can’t do that stuff in front of men.”

No not just odd behaviour, but secret behaviour. The things we do when no one else is home. It was coined by the Sex and the City ladies, specifically Carrie who called it Secret Single Behaviour or SSB.

When you’re around people all day your secret behaviour becomes a much longed for thing. And when you’re a mum to young children, me-time becomes such a rarity that your SSB is simply a thing of the past. It’s a stage of life when you just want five minutes without someone asking you “why?” or to just go to the toilet by yourself, without little hands appearing under the door. You’re giving of your time, your energy, your emotions all day long and it often feels relentless. You can’t remember a time when you felt like yourself and didn’t have yoghurt in your hair, let alone felt rested.

No one can do that without recharging- you will end up self-combusting. I know for me, that means becoming really bad tempered with my husband and daughter and it’s not fair to them, they don’t deserve to be on the end of my bad mood. We all need some alone time just doing those weird idiosyncratic things that make you feel like you again.

And that’s when I got thinking about secret mum behaviour.  Yes the things we mums do when we are home alone- yes it does happen! This is not just about having some down time. This is about cutting off from everything and everyone else and reconnecting with a part of you that feels lost. I know you’re thinking “when am I ever going to do that?” but it shouldn’t be a case of when, it should be how do I make that happen?

The best way is to send the rest of the family out together. If you’re a single mum, try and arrange to have the grandparents or friends have your kids for a couple of hours. Let them have some time together without you. I promise you, they will survive!

And then spend all afternoon in your PJs eating just the brown M&M’s; binge on a box set; paint your toenails in the kitchen, sing into your hair brush to How Deep is Your Love …. indulge in your secret mum behaviour doing whatever it is you need to do.

And when the family return, your child’s questions will seem a little less annoying and you’ll feel a bit better equipped to handle it all.

So what’s my SMB? Well let’s just say I’m off now to eat dry crackers, listen to old 80’s tunes and inhale the smell of Vix.

 

Why can’t you be more like your sister?

It’s one of the less desirable parenting techniques of the 70’s and 80’s. So many in my generation were cajoled into better behaviour by being told we needed to be more like so and so. “Why can’t you be more cheerful like your sister?” or “your cousin is studying Economics, why can’t you do that?” or the one I always used to get “see how nicely you’re your brother is eating, why can’t you behave like that?”

Comparison. We evaluate ourselves by looking at how well someone else is doing. The inevitable next step is wanting what they have. Green-eyed monster anyone?

For those of us who grew up being told we needed be more like our brother/sister/cousin/next door neighbour’s dog- anyone, just hurry up and eat, I wonder if this has engendered in us an innate desire to be someone else and never be happy with who we are?

It’s a conversation that I have had with so many of my friends. There’s always someone we know who seems to have it all together, and you berate yourself for not being more like her. But is it any wonder that we make these unhealthy comparisons, when all through childhood it was drummed into us that we should be doing that?!

Ok so envy is a common human trait that can’t just be blamed on bad parenting. We are always going to look at the person more successful than us, or the woman who is slimmer than you, or the colleague who gets the promotion and think “I want that”. A little healthy competition is good for us as it motivates and keeps us striving to do better. But take it one step further and it becomes damaging. Never being satisfied, let alone thankful with who you are and what you have achieved is simply soul destroying. If you are always looking to the next guy and wanting- envying- what they have, you’ll never become the person that only you can be.

It’s something that I have grappled with, particularly after I became a mum. I spent so long thinking- no, actually fixating on the things I thought I should be doing, because I compared myself with those around me who I thought were doing a better job than I was.

I remember in the early years of my freelance career, I tried to model myself on a good friend of mine who seemed to be doing such a good job of things. She juggled small two children and a domestic life that seemed like a well-oiled machine with a successful freelance career as a book editor and journalist. I was so envious of her work-life balance: she could pick up her kids from school, go on playdates and park trips, whilst having articles published, new book deals coming through, even going to book launches of projects she’d worked on. Yes I spent a long time thinking “I want that” and even dabbling a toe into the field that she writes in attempting to get published. I had very limited success and faced constant frustration to the point that I gave up.

It all sounds quite pathetic now as I put it down on paper, but at the time I was doing what I knew to do: look at someone else and desire to be like them.

I did eventually find what was right for me and life is much more fulfilling. I define success on what works for me and my family and we make that work for us. I guess the key thing is, um, not to do what our parents told us to do in being more like so and so, but to have a vision of your own and a little self-belief.

Luckily today as parents we are told to motivate our children to bring out the best in them, rather than point out their misgivings. Appeal to the child who likes to please by using reward charts. The competitive one is spurred on by a challenge like “who can tidy up the fastest?”  We are supposed to find what makes them tick and go with that. I’m not saying that our children are not going to be prone to envy; as I said before it’s a natural human tendency. But I do hope that their self- esteem will be a little more intact through guarding against damaging self-comparisons.