Monday, April 27, 2020

Surviving Year 12

Surviving Year 12, Michael Carr-Gregg and Elly Robinson

How do you feel about having a Year 12 student? (whether you currently do, have done or will do)

Most of us will have observed (or experienced) the range of ways parents can respond to Year 12. Some devote all their time and energy to their students, some greatly over-exaggerate the importance of it all, some glide through the year hardly noticing, and others manage to be in the state this book recommends: “chilled but vigilant”.

Mr Year 12’s high school had Michael Carr-Gregg, one of Australia’s leading adolescent psychologists and author of books like The Princess Bitchface Syndrome 2.0, come and give a presentation about “Surviving and Thriving Year 12” for parents in February. It coincided with the release of his new book on the same topic.

We have our first Yr 12 student this year and two more coming in the future, and as his presentation was excellent, it seemed worthwhile investing in this little book.

Carr-Gregg and Robinson have done a great job of breaking down the issues and challenges of Year 12 into manageable chunks and explaining them in helpful, realistic, practical ways for parents of their senior high schoolers. I don’t recall my parents stressing that much about my Year 12 experience, although they were supportive and present. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon that parents get so involved in Year 12 - or in many cases, so over-involved. It is somewhat ironic that a book about “Surviving Year 12” is written for parents, rather than the students. Wisely, the authors suggest that parents need to back off a fair bit, and concentrate on providing a healthy home environment that does not add to their stresses.

They state their purpose at the beginning:
“This book is about providing your teen with the optimal circumstances, based on evidence-informed skills, knowledge and strategies, for them to do as well as they can in the final year of school without compromising their wellbeing. It presents Year 12 and ATAR as important but not life defining. It will, above all, help you to be the best support and resource you can be for your child, taking into account their unique personality, motivations and coping skills – to be their cheer squad.” 
They divide the book into three parts, and the first sets the scene.
“Your role is to be the supportive bystander in Year 12, eagerly cheering on from the sidelines but not being a major player. We could light up Australia with the amount of energy that parents spend badgering, nagging, complaining, nitpicking and carping about the efforts of their teen in Year 12, but not only is this behaviour time-consuming and ineffective, it can also create a poisonous atmosphere in the home, which consolidates the pressure.” 
They raise an important question that should be considered early - should your child actually do Year 12? Should they perhaps extend the time they take over it, or take a year off before they attempt it? Rarely will parents consider these questions, so they are worth raising.

The second part dives in to more detail. As I said before, they advocate a ‘chilled yet vigilant’ method of parenting, and considers seven actions that parents can do to be most helpful:

  1. Be a charismatic adult
  2. Engage in positive reinforcement
  3. Help them keep the year in perspective
  4. Encourage them to challenge negative self-talk
  5. Help them focus on the good bits
  6. Look after yourself
  7. Turn down the dial on conflict

They consider diet & nutrition, technology use, sleep, rest, exercise, mental health and wellbeing. There is a helpful simple explanation of stress and anxiety and how both work, with stress being the response to an external cue, and anxiety the internal response to the stress.
“The amount that students can tolerate before they become distressed will vary depending on their temperament and life situation.”
There are practical and simple life management tips to help them manage stress. The section finishes with some study tips, even considering the place of chewing gum in study and listening to music:
“There appears to be irrational gene that predisposes many parents to believe that young people should not listen to music (particularly music they like) while studying. However, evidence indicates that there is no definitive answer as to whether listening to music while studying is good or bad.”
The final section considers the “last steps to freedom”. First, they look at the final exams:
“The role of the parent during exams is to be a benign presence, a giant psychological safety net, ready and able to be there to offer support when needed, especially around maintaining wellbeing.”
It then turns to schoolies, getting results, considering uni and other pathways, and those final stages of moving towards adulthood.

This is a very helpful and applicable book for Australian parents of Year 12 students. It will hopefully reframe the issues for some, pointing out the Year 12 is just another step in the path to adulthood and that no-one is defined by their ATAR. It provides solid advice and encouragement to help your high-schooler have the most helpful and productive year possible as they finish school. Worth reading for Year 12 parents, and those approaching it.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

For the Joy

For The Joy, edited by Miriam Chan and Sophia Russell 

As clearly explained in the subtitle, this book contains “21 Australian Missionary Mother Stories on Cross-Cultural Parenting and Life”.

Editors Miriam Chan and Sophia Russell, have skilfully drawn together a marvellous range of women to speak of their experience being mothers on the mission field, across different circumstances. Some are dwelling in large cities in Asia or South America, others live rurally in Africa or South-east Asia. Some are retired and are reflecting on years of service with now adult children, and others are still on the field in the midst of parenting young ones. Some are homeschooling, others are working in paid ministry roles.

Within that range however, some things unite them all. They all have a trusting faith that they are saved by God’s grace alone and they share a conviction to serve the Lord overseas. All have been humbled to realise their own weakness in situations that have been challenging. All call Australia their home country, or their sending country. They are all mothers, and write from their perspective as mothers. All have had cause to reflect on parenting in a cross-cultural context - to see the benefits and the challenges of raising “third culture” kids. And every story finishes with a confirmation that God is good, that God is faithful, that he is with us in all circumstances, and that serving him has been worth it.

Some stories invite us into the ordinariness of parenting, the little people that you care for, love, protect and teach. These are similar wherever you are, even if still in Australia. Other stories will cause you to wonder, “how did she live through that?” “How did they keep going?”. You may find yourself weeping for the loss and grief some families have experienced, while also noting that some of the tragedies could still have happened in Australia.

Although all the contributors are Australian missionary mothers, it would be a great shame if only other Australian missionary mothers read this book. There is much here to encourage and challenge all Christian mothers as we think about parenting with faith. But men too should be reading this, to appreciate the service, faithfulness and challenges facing mothers serving overseas. I’m sure this is being put in the hands of many women planning to go on the field as well, although my word of caution would be to read it with others prayerfully and talk about it together, rather than read it solo imagining yourself in all the situations.

Anyone who supports missionaries should read it to gain insight into the potential joys and challenges for families on the field. Indeed, if you are like me, and have been in Australian Christian circles for a while supporting and encouraging mission, there’s every chance you’ll know some of these women personally, maybe your church has been supporting them, or you may have been praying for them for years through mission organisation prayer diaries.

Some mothers might worry that “the average Christian mother” reading it would end up feeling “not good enough”. That is, thinking our life is not that hard and yet we really struggle, or that we could never be that faithful, or that trusting in God, or that prayerful. But that would be missing the point. These are stories about women in various encouraging and challenging circumstances, but who all have had to trust in God in their weakness, lack of support, or despair. I found them incredibly encouraging, and a helpful challenge to my own faithfulness in parenting.

I usually include lots of quotes when I review a book, but I decided just to read and appreciate this one. Having said that, I’ll include one from Penny’s story that sums up what many of the women indicated:
“[God] slowly broke down the expectations I’d had for myself around what living missionally looked like, and taught me the value of forming genuine friendships and unconditional love. Missional living wasn’t about me being a hero. It was about me walking humbly with God, allowing Him to set the priorities - kingdom and gospel priorities - for how I could respond to my family and community.”
Yes, this is an honest, challenging, and sometimes confronting collection of stories. But it is also a refreshing way to see God’s goodness in all circumstances and to be reminded that parenting is a God-given gift that we do well not to squander. Most of all, this is a collection that bears testimony to our faithful Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and his work both in individual people and across the nations of the world.

This post first appeared on The Gosopel Coalition Australia website

Monday, April 13, 2020

Fiction mini-reviews

Twenty-One Truths About Love, Matthew Green
Funny and poignant book about Dan as he tries to balance his failing business, his wife’s desire for a baby, and his ever-present feelings of uselessness. Written entirely in the form of lists, it shows real creativity of the author to convey meaning and depth in an engaging format. As with any modern fiction, some crassness and swearing, but eminently likeable as you see Dan make mistakes and act out of fear, yet still come through in the end.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
An amusing yet also heart-rending story of Eleanor, a 30-year old woman, who lives a very solitary life, working faithfully at her job mid-week and drinking alone on weekends, rarely interacting with anyone. It becomes evident that she is surviving with major mental health challenges, which in time are revealed to be the result of trauma. She talks to Mummy every week, who is in some sort of institution. She believes herself to be in love with a lead singer of a band, and plans to meet him; yet at the same time, slowly develops a friendship with Raymond, an IT guy at work. There are elements of real sadness here, and it worth flagging that there are numerous types of domestic violence embedded in the story. Over time, you see Eleanor change, grow and expand her horizons as she learns to trust her new friend. A very enjoyable and engaging read.

After the End, Claire Mackintosh
Compelling and very moving book told from the alternating perspectives of Max and Pip, a loving and committed couple whose young son Dylan is critically ill with brain cancer and its complications. The first half sets up the history and then examines what happens when Max and Pip find themselves on completely opposite sides when asked to decide whether to allow Dylan to die, or keep him alive in the hope of a cure. The second half explores exactly what could happen after the decision is made. Not surprisingly, it’s pretty emotional and very powerful. Having been impressed by the author’s insight and sensitivity into so many aspects of having a desperately sick child, it came as no surprise to discover upon reading her bio that her own family faced a similar situation.

Misconception, Rebecca Freeborn
A somewhat challenging read about Ali and Tom, a couple madly in love and highly committed to each other. They have decided later in life to have children, and after two miscarriages and fertility treatment, Ali is now pregnant. However, the worst occurs and Elizabeth is stillborn. Ali returns quickly to work, and turns to alcohol to numb the pain. Tom tries to support her in the midst of his own grief, but she keeps pushing him away. It becomes clear Ali is also still working through issues in her childhood when her father died, leaving her mother unable to cope, who also turned to drink. It’s set in Adelaide, and feels like it’s written only for locals as Freeborn refers to suburbs, pubs and hospitals by name. I can imagine myself going to the same places (and have been), but it might make it less accessible for those not familiar with the city. There is a moderate amount of harsh swearing, and a lot of alcohol use. Overall, it’s a heartrending account of grief and how people process loss.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Books by Kelli Estes

I really enjoyed two fiction books by Kelli Estes recently. Both have concurrent storylines set in different times running through them, providing an interesting take on both historical and current ages, which are then linked together in various ways.

Today We Go Home tells the story of two women who served in the military in the US. Larkin Bennett is struggling after the death of close friend and fellow soldier Sarah in a bombing in Afghanistan. She was injured in the same incident, and has been medically discharged with the army, suffering from PTSD. She goes to live with her grandmother, but is clearly struggling with guilt and grief. She finds a diary amongst Sarah’s belongings, which she knew inspired Sarah into the military.

The diary is written by Emily Wilson, which introduces the second storyline. In 1861, Emily longs to fight alongside her father and brother when they head off to join the Union army against the Secessioners. Instead she is left home with relatives and a younger brother to take care of the farm. When they hear their brother is seriously injured, they leave to find him, and both end up enlisting in the army, with Emily hiding her gender, enlisting as a man, Jesse.

It was a solid story, and Estes clearly wanted to highlight the varied active roles women have had in military service over the centuries, whether or not they were acknowledged for it. Pretty much all the female characters in this book are strong, capable, and likeable. The male characters were more mixed, some being lovely, and others quite negatively portrayed. I suspect the range of opinions given in the books (both now and in the past), accurately represent the feelings that people have had (and do have) and women serving in the military; the enabling of it, but often the censure as well.

There are some insightful comments about military life, life upon return from service, care of veterans, and the roles of women.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk covers the modern day story of Inara Erickson, who has just inherited Rothesay, a large estate from her aunt in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. She struggles to return to the island, having left soon after her mother’s death years before, but soon finds that it provides a home and potential business that perfectly suits her. She happens across an embroidered sleeve that is clearly Asian in origin, wrapped and preserved for over a hundred years. She seeks out Daniel Chin, PhD professor in China studies to investigate. They realise the sleeve is telling a detailed story.

That story is of Mei Lien, and it begins with her and her family’s eviction from the city of Seattle, because of increasing anti-Chinese sentiment in 1886. She is the only survivor from the boat that takes all the Chinese out of the city. She meets a local man Joseph, who cares for her and a friendship develops. In time she finds a life, but it is hard as the deep-seated racism and ostracism of much of the local community prevents her from having a real sense of home.

This was a sadder story at many levels, as you see the persistent ugliness that immigrants faced. Yet there was hope, love and joy, as well as pain.

I think both of these books would also be suitable for teenagers. There is some romance in them, but it is modest. They are interesting stories, that girls could enjoy and learn from. I appreciated both and look forward to seeing what Estes writes in the future.