Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Lessons bigger than the classroom

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Feel-good soap can't fix back-to-school challenges, so it's up to us now.
Starting a new school can be scary - not only for children - when there's a lot of homework and teachers have strict thoughts on vocabulary. (Photo posed by model.) Photo / Getty Images
Starting a new school can be scary - not only for children - when there's a lot of homework and teachers have strict thoughts on vocabulary. (Photo posed by model.) Photo / Getty Images

I just had a shower and washed myself with some soap thing which promised Clarity. I'm not sure it helped me see things more clearly. (The toilet paper package says it has "cushiony softness". The body lotion bottle says it is "richly caring". I wonder whether we are asking for too much emotional sustenance from mundane inanimate objects?)

Frankly, I would be willing to try a sage-burning ritual, if it would help. I am stressed because our daughter does not like her big, new school. (Homework for every single subject, every night. Getting told off for saying "um". Um is a "pooey word". "Pooey is a pooey word," she mumbled, and I saw her point.)

So far, my approach is trying to cultivate a sense of false calm, sort of fake-Zen. I am trying to be a mountain range - solid, misty, forbidding, unchanging. I figure this will help her more than my usual emotional terrain - a volcano with messy hot lava spewing everywhere.

It is a strain being an impassive mountain. Scientists have proven willpower is a limited resource and using it up being cool and marble-like means I don't have any self-control left over for resisting peanut butter Magnums.

After making it through the first week I promised our daughter a reward and she said she wanted a kazoo. I'M KIND OF REGRETTING THAT. Sorry for shouting, although the racket will be a small sacrifice if it helps in the school transition.

The school thing has so dominated my every waking moment that I can't really care about anything else right now. When your kids are not happy, everything feels "pooey".

How long do you wait to see if your child will adapt to their school? Is there an algorithm for this? I mean, every school has its downside, doesn't it, even ones that don't care if you say "um".

How do you know whether this is just a settling-in phase or if you are damaging their fragile psyches irreparably?

Mostly, I worry I am the one to blame for her anxiety. For one thing, it is quite possible I am projecting my own long-ago school trauma on to her. She is a sensitive sausage. Has she picked up on my own fear?

I remember hating school, although I wonder whether I have reverse-engineered that story and over time imbued it with a more gritty Dickensian patina to make growing up in suburban Hamilton in the 1970s sound a bit less boring. I can't have minded it that much, surely? I got through it in one piece, didn't I? Well, yes and no.

I regret to say I do possess certain character flaws that I wish not to pass on. You need confidence when you start at a new school. And when it comes to confidence, I'm not sure I have modelled helpful behaviour to my children.

You need confidence when you start at a new school. And when it comes to confidence, I'm not sure I have modelled helpful behaviour to my children.

I can be drippy. In fact, it is possible I have a narcissism deficit. Droll, no? I write a column about myself every week! (But I do feel mortified if anyone says they read it.)

And anyway, who wants to be more of a narcissist? Isn't narcissism a plague on society, like Ebola and the Kardashians? Well sort of. There is the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) which is characterised by grandiosity, entitlement and a lack of empathy.

But psychologists say narcissism (as identified by Freud) should be defined more broadly, as a belief in your own specialness. We all need some of this to have a healthy sense of self-worth, to launch yourself in the world, to be able to cope with challenges and doing scary things.

In his new book Rethinking Narcissism, Craig Malkin sees narcissism as a spectrum of self-importance. Too much is destructive but so is too little. People down the non-Trump end of the narcissism spectrum, who lack self-belief, Malkin calls Echoists.

Malkin's narcissism test rates your level of narcissism from 0-10. People who score 10 are psychopaths. I scored 0. This is not good. You need ego to accomplish anything. But Echoists feel uncomfortable with praise and suffer from imposter syndrome. If you can't rate yourself how do you expect anyone else to think you're alright?

I don't want my kids to be like this. Malkin has advice for parents about how to instil a sense of healthy narcissism in their kids. He suggests using what he calls "firm empathy". He says it is important to recognise - and hear - when your child's afraid. But to work around their fears, to avoid further upset, guarantees they'll live a life of fear. "While it's tempting to do this sometimes, we have to recognise that when we do, we're not really taking care of our children but ourselves."

I need to believe our daughter can manage difficult times, rather than trying to protect her from trying because I can't cope with the stress.

Malkin also suggests modelling repair by using "do-overs". We could try that. It's a new week. We can start it all again. Maybe after a cleansing kazoo and sage-burning ritual. Burn the kazoo, that is.

- NZ Herald

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