Emotional Health, Not Academic Obsession

26/11/2014 11:26 | Updated 25 January 2015

When I wrote my book, Barefoot in the City, I put down the heart of my ethos and philosophy for raising children. With the exception of my eldest child, my four children were schooled in the British system, both at home in the UK and at international schools in Asia. For me, with the benefit of hindsight, the greatest thing about the British education system is that it allows me the flexibility to affect my child's learning. Its creative syllabus and passionate teachers also play a large role in inspiring my children to be internally motivated, intellectually curious and great orators.

However, though I am appreciative of the British education system and what it has done for my children, in truth, I am a passionate advocate of the Waldorf education philosophy. Simply because I believe in the Dalai Lama's saying that 'the planet does not need more successful people'.

"The planet does not need more 'successful people'. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds. It needs people to live well in their places. It needs people with moral courage willing to join the struggle to make the world habitable and humane and these qualities have little to do with success as our culture is the set." -Dalai Lama

There are some really lovely parents in Asia, not only the fabled Tiger Mums. Haslinda Halim from Malaysia is one, and she gives me hope.

Yesterday, Haslinda simplified our shared philosophy in a nutshell:

1. 0-7yo focus on hands and good things
2. 7-14yo focus on heart and beautiful things
3. 14-21yo focus on the head and the truth

1. 0-7yo focus on hands and good things
It's no secret: my children are late readers. I could never understand the mad rush to get children reading way before they are ready to. My belief is that the focus during the early years should be spent entirely on teaching children about their relationship to the world they live in. This relationship can only be learned by doing and exploring and discovering, not from books or by instructions. The 24 hours in a day is barely enough, given that the world is such a big, magical place.

Young children need to learn that they have eyes, ears, nose and skin that enable them to interact with their world, cultivating an early system of emotional intelligence. Young children need to learn to use their hands too, because it teaches them empowerment. Our little people all could cook, garden, knit, build things. By doing all these, a child feels rooted and develops a clear sense of self, which will help him relate to his world and others around him.

If you feed a child with good things, she will radiate good things. Georgina refuses to read as a child. Rather than getting angry with her and forcing her to read, her father patiently spent years reading to her every night. He read pony stories, he read fairy stories and he read teenage stories. It became their special time at the end of each day, something to look forward to, cuddling up together with a book, these bedtime stories were magical.

English remains her weakest subject because she does not have an affinity for the written word. But she brings such a breadth and depth of insight to the language. For example, she asked us to correlate between the words parent, participant and participle.

The other beneficial thing to emerge from the 'hands and good things' phase is that all my children are very confident physically. They have spent much of their childhood naked outdoors, climbing in the Alps, in sunny meadows somewhere, scrambling over rock pools, jumping on cowpats and playing a million outdoor games. I simply love Georgina's physicality, the way she charges at the world with her arms outstretched, eager to meet the new challenges each day, secure in the knowledge that she is empowered, in control and happy with her place in the world. That's what her first seven years of life had given her.

2. 7-14yo focus on heart and beautiful things
I take 'giftedness' in children with a large pinch of salt, because my fundamental belief is that all children are gifted. And gifted or not gifted, children still have to develop the same skillset to function happily in this world, to be contributing adults that the Dalai Lama and our inner wisdom speak of.

Two of my five children are mathematically gifted, but they are schooled alongside 'lesser children' (I say that with tongue-in-cheek). I nurture their gift, but I choose to nurture the hearts more, because a good heart is the platform for the gift to sit on and serve. It is easy to cosset Georgina and buy into the belief that I have a young Einstein, but instead, she learned mathematics from another enthusiastic mathematician Gary Macaulay, her father's buddy, in pubs, making tetrahexaflaxagon models out of beer mats and loose sheets of paper (try it). No, she does not get special treatment because she can 'see' maths.

Georgina does not need our help when it comes to schoolwork, but we subversively entwined ourselves in history, English, maths, business studies, science and the other subjects that she studies. The reason is not to help her achieve better grades - because she is already top of the class for many subjects - but to weave heart and values into those subjects. After all, we must never lose sight of the fact that the real value of learning those subjects is simply as a guide to help us understand ourselves and our world more, and to learn how we can make the world a better place. So onwards with the First World War, company valuation models, chambers of the heart and tetrahexaflaxagons. They are beautiful, if they are learned with beauty in the heart rather than blinkered goal of getting 100%.

3. 14-21yo focus on the head and the truth
Entering this phase, Georgina is beginning to ask us difficult questions, which some parents would consider 'rude'. (That is the beloved trick of Asian parents, to chide a child for being rude to get out of answering difficult questions or facing uncomfortable subjects). But the fact is, Georgina just wants to delve into 'the truth', and at 14, her tentacles are fully extended to gather information to aid her cognition of 'the truth' and find her own version of it.

But as we know, truth is subjective.

For example, I believe that primary healthcare should never be in private hands. I also believe that the UK has a weak government at the moment. I believe in many things, which are not necessarily right. I would never influence a child to vote for the same political party as me. Thus it takes a whole village to raise a child, to give her a balanced view of the world to enable her to find her own place in it. We are grateful for the villagers who help us to raise our child. In this month alone, during our long car drive to school, we discussed the possibility that vegetarianism could be unkind to some animals (loss of habitat, etc), the existence of other intelligence in the Universe, creative accounting practices and UK job conditions.

Without exception, my children are all great at provoking, challenging and defending viewpoints on a wide breadth of subjects, and have never been hesitant in voicing their opinions or engaging people in debate from our road-less-travelled parenting ethos.

I have raised an investment banker, a Naval officer, an interior designer and a property developer. The biggest triumph for their father and I, however, is not that we have raised successful professionals; rather, we are imbued with deep joy at the loveliness of our children in the way they care for their grandparents, the manner in which they love each other, their inherent happiness and their commitment to the values that we have brought them up with. I am glad there is now an academic study by London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance to give credence to my deep personal beliefs. that a child's emotional health is far more important to their satisfaction levels as an adult than other factor. You can read more on Professor Lord Richard Layard's work here: