Wednesday, April 5, 2017



May, 2107

Query on FB Group from random expat parent: 

Good afternoon. Any tips on the names of the top international schools in Yangon? Thanks so much..

My response: Daniel Pugh Just to be clear, there aren't any really great schools in Yangon. All have their warts, mostly following outdated curriculums with antiquated methodologies... good education is hard to find on the international scene.


A few weeks ago I posted the response above to an enquiry on Facebook. It was picked up by the British School in Yangon and last week I was called to account with the school Director. My boys go to this school and the school felt the need to express their confusion as to why, if I was so critical, did I send my kids to their school. BTW I haven't been called into the 'Principals office' in 38 years since Tom Brown (not his real name ;-)) and I were told one of us had to leave the school for our miscreant behaviour. I self-expelled and moved on.

It's perfectly understandable why an erstwhile teacher might leap to the school's defence given the strength of social media and the influence we know it can have... at the same time it isn't something to be taken personally rather it is a point for reflection. I had of course not meant to offend, however as I told the Director in our meeting I did mean to be provocative; it seems I was successful. The take-away is that teachers, parents and school directors must wake up and question what they are doing. If the measure of being a top school is one that serves the best interests of our children and their futures (given what we already know are the challenges) indeed, in Yangon my answer remains "there aren't really any great schools in Yangon". BSY just happens to be the best of the choices imho.

Most schools here teach based on a 'colonial' curriculum that has its roots in the industrial revolution (quite a while ago), the British curriculum is the best known (Burma was a colony) and there are at least 4 schools in the city laying claim to using the British curriculum. There is one using the French system and a couple of others use the USA curriculum. Educators around the world recognize that for the most part these curriculum and how they are taught (silo learning, standardized testing, homework regimes) are woefully outdated.

It is true to say some teachers are enlightened in their teaching methods, others not so much. In that regard and certainly at BSY for example there are teachers trying their very best to deliver a curriculum to the kids that itself doesn't serve them so well. Still, silo learning prevails, with the concept of cross-cutting thematic learning trying unsuccessfully to edge in. Silo learning where the Math, English, Science, Art, Music, etc subjects are taught in isolation from each other, with little cross-referencing or points of intersect is antiquated.

Let me give an example of the beginning of this rabbit hole; my 12 year old is memorizing facts about pretty obscure figures from pre-Elizabethan England in his Humanities class and is tested weekly on his 'obscure figure of the week'. Dutifully I support him in this but privately I question wherein lies its relevance. Given the time allotted to schooling in his young life why spend time on this? Yes, he is learning to read, research and retain information that he is tested on but does it have to be this information? Couldn't it be something he wants to learn or that will be relevant to his future? Couldn't the 'obscure' persons be less obscure like Nicolai Tesla, Mother Theresa or H.H. the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu or JFK? We live in Myanmar, surely it might be a tad bit more relevant to consider notable figures from pre or post colonial Burma?

The rabbit hole deepens though: the world is changing at a very rapid pace as we know, what we aren't doing well as a species is adapting to the change most of which we are the cause of. With silo learning and memorization of redundant facts, we certainly aren't teaching our children how to deal with change, how to adapt and how to be tolerant and kind and those are the characteristics that are going win the day. The dogs may eat the dogs for short term gain but the majority needs to survive long term. It is most likely within our children's lifetimes that there is global calamity in access to food, to fresh water, stunning climate extremes, and in widespread social upheaval. These will require them to take information from the fluid landscape, analyze it, manage it, make decisions, change, adapt and survive. How are our schools preparing them for that using industrial revolution era methods and curriculum?

When I were a lad (and I'm dating myself here) it was school then uni then job then wifey then house then kids then mid-life circus (err.. crisis), etc... I digress. Think about it, in 40years how much has changed? Work has shifted completely, we have a work style continuum running from the job-for-life salary concept through a gambit of job types to the other end where work is forked out piece-meal to the lowest bidder on the internet. Myself, aside from being a grocery store clerk when I was a teen, have only ever worked as a consultant or contractor taking on temporary work for a multitude of employers and in changing fields. I have reinvented myself no less than 5 times over my working years to date. Grocery clerk, Adventure travel Guide, Development educator, Humanitarian Aid worker... and now transitioning into a Wellness Therapist!

Project Managers now manage their teams virtually, they live all over and they farm out the work piece by piece. To get work you have to hustle, be online, get those contracts no matter how small, make a name for yourself and get more work... isn't that right? How many of us realise this and how are our schools supporting us to prepare our kids for it giving them the tools they will need? How are our schools nurturing the ability to change and flow, to adapt and grow in this quite ruthless and unforgiving environment... and then there is the question of what is coming next in the evolution of work? So in 7 or 8 years what does Zaki need to be ready for? To reiterate facts about his obscure figure of the week? I think not.

Granted schools like BSY are also great places for kids to learn to play and socialize, etc? And certainly BSY in the alphabet soup of Yangon schools gets that part right with homework mercifully kept to a minimum so they don't have this burden when they come home and can just be children. This is a wee blessing. I'll say it here, my kids wouldn't be at BSY if homework was onerous and mandatory; homework is antiquated and proven to be in many cases counter-productive to learning. 

My response then was a bit trite, even reactionary but it was accurate and I stand by it. There is no international school in Yangon that adequately prepares our children for whats to come in the future. After much research we determined that BSY was the best of the options. The question remains, is there anywhere such a school? Does the Steiner/Waldorf approach provide the answer? United World Colleges? Is thematic or project based learning the best way forward, better than the columnar silo learning that is the norm and where standardized testing is still used creating categories in which children are placed for a good long time.

Private education entities like the British School Foundation with 10 schools around the world could do well to shed the past and the prevailing centuries old model. As a private educational for profit business, they could focus their energies (and profits) on pioneering a way forward so children have an option in places like Yangon that serves their best interest. Or does short term profit trump longer term gain?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

What to do? (A departure essay)

What to do? 
Often heard in Nepal translates in the lingua franca Nepali to ke garne…. an ubiquitous evolving turn of phrase that has become a useful time-marker for the circumstance of the country. Language evolves, we see that in all languages and Nepali is no exception; when I was first in Nepal in the mid 1980s you heard ke garne spoken with an air of fatalism; I am told that it had previously been said with a more a casual shrug of the shoulder and without much attribution assigned to the gesture. In 1985 ‘what to do’ had become much more a shrug of resignation, a sort of ‘laugh it off’ sign of the frustration at the follies and excesses of the shenanigans of governance by crony-infested royalty in one of the poorest countries in the world. It was a place seemingly forgotten by time… and there didn’t seem to be a sense that there was anything that could be done… ke garne.

When I returned to live in Nepal in 2013 democracy had been a slowly evolving concept at best; the political class, recently descended from systemic patronage under the royalty, had yet to relinquish it's grip on power and commensurate ‘benefits’ or to transition from ruling to governing. So thirty years later, reflecting what has become a torturously slow political process, ke garne has become more than resigned… it has become a deflated and defeated expression. People don’t know what to do anymore, it took 7 years to move through the process to enact a new Constitution (they do have one since July 2015 perceived to be a step sideways at best rather than forward). Sadly, and as a result of political shenanigans, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, one of the most corrupt with decaying infrastructure, a struggling economy, diminishing investor confidence and seemingly intractable ethnic divides confounded by caste discrimination.

At the same time (and ironically) Nepal has huge resources in human capital including educated and experienced entrepreneurs, an incredibly inspired and inspiring creative music and art community, a rising middle-class. Nepal has the best global potential for hydro-power generation and and the most amazing natural adventure playground in the world.The people themselves are hardy, cheerful and adaptable, being down-trodden has resulted in an uptick in innovation and ingenuity. The middle-class business-folk are resistant to enter politics and be the needed change agents. They are reluctant to enter the fracas perhaps not wanting to become caught up in the lethargic inertia of entrenched government or of becoming politicized; as business-people they see it best to remain quickly adaptable and impartial i.e. light on their feet and without enemies and independent of politics. It’s a survival strategy that has served them well, better not to change up, at least not yet.

I have lived in Nepal for 6 of the past 30 years living and travelling across the world, not a long time but longer than anywhere else, definitely long enough to empathize with my Nepali brothers and sisters as we together raise our eyebrows and roll our eyes to say… ke garne.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The long, sad Nepali winter of discontent, with scattered rays of sunshine: an essay.

You try to be an optimist, keep your chin up and put a smile on, this winter in Nepal tested even the brightest of lights to keep their glow. Blow after blow fell on the national psyche and just when you thought it couldn't get worse... it did; the general corps d'esprit fell to complacency and fatigue, a sense of hopelessness complemented fatality adding depth and hue to the long used and abused Nepali phrase 'ke garne', what to do? Amidst it all there were rays of sunshine that blasted through… we’ve all seen it happen on the darkest cloudy day when the sun finds space and a brilliant ray shines down…

I am returning from a few weeks out of the country and returning into a spring time that can only hold hope and promise for things to get better. The story started last spring with the earthquakes that sent the nation into shock and then continued over the bungled response period and into the recovery phase of the humanitarian emergency that ensued. The government did not rise to meet the challenge and proved itself distracted, dispassionate and entirely a disappointment. None of this was really anything new and while it would not have been wrong to hope that a massive earthquake would literally shake the political class out of its self-absorbed, out-dated, corrupted ways and spur it into action, to harbour such hope would have been na├»ve. The idea that government should help the people they govern rather than simply rule over them and take advantage of their plight… Well that seemed a bit far-fetched, after all it has only been 70 years since Nepal opened to the outside world, 25 yrs since the devolution away from royalty began, and 8 years since the end of an acrimonious civil war, and in 2015 was it realistic to believe that the dinosaurs still at the helm were able to learn new tricks?

Open the opportunity for a ray of sunshine… the earthquake pulled out of nowhere an amazing response from regular people… Nepalis, expats, tourists came together in the early days of the response gathering relief materials and convoys of civilian vehicles delivered to many hard to reach locations. It was amazing, the Yellow House group…Himalayan Disaster Relief Operation was one such group that saw over 200 ‘mission’s go out in the first 3 months of the response… all volunteers, all self-organized, all materials donated including vehicles and fuel… It is no secret that the money raised privately (including through ‘gofundme’ type initiatives) equalled the money committed through official channels, some $273Million. Notably, in the early days the Army too, quite separate from the government, stepped up rescuing many people from the rubble in Kathmandu and the districts. Unsung heros were many. Ironically, the government, seeing the success of private initiatives, tried to stymie this forcing money earmarked for the emergency, requiring all newly formed NGO's to funnel their funds through what they called the 'Prime Ministers Disaster Relief Fund' and while it may be that money still got through to those that needed it, this announcement was ill-timed and the backlash it caused revealed the broad mistrust the population has for its government.

Government 'action' did eventually come, it was not to help the earthquake victims or to facilitate the reconstruction phase... rather it came seemingly as a realisation on the part of certain senior political aspirants that this was their moment to take advantage. While the population and other influential actors were momentarily distracted by the humanitarian crisis they ended 7 years of wrangling over the formulations of a new Constitution pushing through a draft that gained a 90% approval from the Constitutional Assembly. Unsurprisingly congratulations on the birth of a new democracy did not come whole heartedly from the Indian government nor from the United Nations in Nepal, both of whom felt (for their different reasons) that the Constitution fell short of its mark in ensuring proportional representation for groups long marginalized (due to caste and ethnicity) and on the rights of women.  And neither thought it politically impudent to be vocal, a sign of frustration I think. Mindful that this came after years of donor and institutional support to a painful Constitutional process to try and come up with a modern progressive un-acrimonious document that would set the stage for an easier and prosperous future. Sadly this wasn't to be the case; when people say Nepal is 30 years behind... this is the kind of thing they mean, the politicians are 30 years behind. There is much discussion about Nepal being left for Nepalis to determine their future but they are dominated by a ruling class that is narrow-minded, uninspired and uncaring for the poorest of their constituents, they are stuck in a paradigm of exploitation and control.

As an anomaly of sorts (another ray of sunshine?), Nepal is the only ASEAN nation and one of few in the world to recently recognize transgender people with the gender box 'other' available to be ticked on visa and arrivals forms and passport applications. Go figure. It remains to be seen how well this is reflected in social policy but it is at least a start.

To mention only briefly the beginning of what sets the bleak background for the winter's discontent was the post-earthquake period through the summer of 2015 when for example, Nepali Customs charged duty on incoming humanitarian assistance supplies, and Immigration couldn't figure out the visa waiver for aid workers so most ended up working illegally on tourist visas. When coordination of the humanitarian mission became a political football (even the UN was a player in this game). The years of multi-level (VDC to National) capacity building (training) to deal with a major disaster fell by the wayside as did leadership of the Reconstruction authority. This latter causing a delay of several months with the Reconstruction bill, that critical document providing the legal framework for the receiving and disbursing of $4.1 billion of committed donor funding. The bill, ready to be passed and promulgated back in August, only made it onto the floor of Parliament in January... reconstruction can now start in April… a year later.  The cynic humourist would wonder if it just took that long to figure out how to milk the money... the government in Nepal is considered endemically, systemically corrupt and $4.1 large is like dangling a dumpster full of carrots in front of a donkey.

I think my own discontent and frustrations are beginning to show through and I have barely begun. Indeed this is partly because the 800,000 people (demographically this number indicates more than half are children and elderly people with a disproportionate number of women-headed households in the mix) left homeless after the earthquake suffered and continued to suffer immensely and needlessly. Never mind the deprivations of basic human rights, they had to pass the chill of winter under tarpaulins and corrugated tin when they were ready to start rebuilding in October but couldn't because the money for bank loans wasn't there, NGO's requiring the release of funding to implement reconstruction projects waited, men, desperate to work, disappeared over the horizon to Malaysia and the Gulf states rather than stay and help rebuild. Interestingly the International Council of Jurists is pressing for an investigation into whether the government in its actions (and lack thereof) denied its citizenry of its basic rights to food, shelter and health care.

Instead the government got on with passing the Constitution (ray of sunshine potential!), denying the Reconstruction bill a reading until the Constitution got through... as if that were a good reason. And when it was finally passed, the next blow came... uproar, protest, violence and up to 40 deaths as those groups re-marginalized by the Constitution, the Madhes and the Tharu, took to the streets. The resulting insecurity blocking the vital supply link to India. The Indians, for their part were alarmed enough to close the border on their side to protect transporters from the insecurity. However this went on so long and even border crossings where there was no insecurity were closed as to betray a clear agenda of political patronage, India, the much bigger brother, sanctioning the youngest in the fold. While India is Nepal's biggest trading partner, Nepal is far from relevant to the Indian economy. What India worries about is water; the himalayan watershed that feeds the great rivers of India, the Brahmaputra, Indus and Ganges rely on Nepal keeping the proverbial tap open. Control of hydro development in border districts is a huge concern and so Delhi needs a compliant government in Kathmandu. The under-representation of populations along the border, those people ethnically more akin to India's plains people, makes control more complicated and less likely.

The blockade was curious because the shelves of the big department stores were only missing a few things, but there was food aplenty, no one was lacking but prices started creeping up, inflation soaring over 10% of many staples. In an already poor country, it is estimated more than a million people have been pushed into extreme poverty. Through it all, somehow the organizers of the annual Kathmandu Jazz Festival were not deterred, neither was the first annual Photo Kathmandu event both of which went off in fine style as if nothing was going on. If the ability of some Nepalis to carry on as if events such as a blockade were just part of the new normal is a sign of resilience… then wow, there is some amazing resilience in Nepal.

What wasn't available due to the problems on the border and affected everyone was fuel, diesel and petrol for cars, buses, motorbikes and cooking gas also used for heating. Initially the ‘fuel crisis’ was quite a respite, the streets were quiet, such a relief from the daily congestion and the lung choking pollution. But, as time passed and winter descended it became worse, a tourist season came and went and guess what?? …there were few tourists. Internal flights were reduced because there wasn't enough aviation fuel so people from far flung districts had less chance of coming to the capital, International flights reduced frequency (or in the case of South China Air they stopped completely) due to the lower numbers and higher cost as they had to make an intermediary stop to refuel. Air fares went up. The impact of a downswing in tourism reaches from the hotels and restaurants of Kathmandu to the handicraft makers of the valley, to the trekking districts and of course to unemployment. Unemployment causes, particularly young men (needed for reconstruction) to seek alternatives off-shore. Nepal has proportionally one of the largest migrant worker populations in the world, prior to the earthquake it was 3rd in the world.

The black market flourished and to demoralize people who were struggling, fuel became available but at inflated prices; at one point gasoline was 4X the usual cost and cooking gas 8X, far beyond the ability of the average Nepali to pay. To add insult to injury, like a spit in the eye, it appeared clear that officials of all stripes, including the Nepal Oil Corporation, the Police, border authorities, etc had all jumped on the black market bandwagon and were having a hey-day... it is no wonder the blockage of fuel went on so long... who was motivated to stop it!? It is only now, months after the blockade that you can get petrol… diesel and cooking gas remain scarce… amongst rumours of trucks waiting now at the border because there is too much fuel in depots... so where is it going? Queues at fuel stations persist, and no one can really explain why.

As cooking gas ran out and as the temperature fell with the advancing winter, the government in its seemingly infinite mission of national disservice started to sell firewood from national forests rather than focus on solving the crisis at its root. The cost of wood doubled and people were using it to cook and to stay warm so that whatever air pollution gains had been made due to the lower vehicle numbers was lost to the smoke from fires. Whats more, all over the Kathmandu valley you can see trees either felled or denuded of branches to provide people food and warmth... in the 21st Century. A sadness descended when the previous Prime Minister Shushil Koirala who had been succeeded by the ambitious K.P. Oli in February as part of the Constitution signing agreement, died shortly after Oli's installation. While a firmly established member of the political elite at fault, Koirala was also an architect of the Constitution, a key player and prevailed over its signing... his loss was respectfully mourned nationally. 

Rays of sunshine thinned out…  and bad got worse in February 2016, 2 domestic aircraft crashed. When aircraft go down in Nepal it is felt like a blow to the solar plexus, across the nation people gasp because lots of people fly in Nepal or know someone who flies; the first incident occurred on a very popular route accessing the Annapurna and Mustang regions which my family had also been on in March, it could have been us. Tourism to those regions took a hit. People know the pilots, they are national heros, their loss is tragic and widely felt. Nepal is already struggling to gain its IATA accreditation for flights to Europe, and I recall a conversation of well-travelled aid officials once who posited that how an airport runs is indicative of how the country runs... this seems to hold true in the case of Nepal... the CAAC (airport authority) has a reputation of being rife with corruption, inefficiency and neglect.

My sense is that Nepali's soldiered on but wearing 'resilience' like a badge of honor. Was it misplaced? Many (Nepalis and non-Nepali residents) asked... why were there no protests in the streets. Previously when the government tried to raise the price of cooking gas there were loud public protests but this time, nothing. Queues at petrol stations were literally kilometers long, people left their vehicles for days and weeks in queues, I thought blocking the parliament with vehicles and non-violent protest at the gate would have gained results much quicker... but that would have required two missing ingredients... one the leadership to do it (and a game plan if it went pear-shaped), and two, such an action would have perhaps been construed or co-opted as an act in solidarity with the Madhes. Ahh, it does get complicated, and far moreso than I have written here. Indian border State elections didn't help when they disempowered the Hindu BJP party, in power in Delhi but struggling in Bihar with its long and porous border with Nepal.

And then there is the ruined economy having taken a double blow with the earthquake and then the blockade, I could go on but I think you get the picture. If you live above 2000m in Nepal as most of the earthquake victims do, how much do you care about these complexities when you are trying to feed your children, keep them warm and get medical help for your elderly parents? In Kathmandu how much can you protest when you know the suppression will likely be harsh when it comes, when you know there is no one to replace these entrenched leaders anyway, and when your main concerns are finding fuel for your motorbike so you can get to work lest you lose your job, and finding fuel so your wife can cook dahl bhat for dinner.

Like many resident expatriates we look on with dismay at the discontent of the population, and disappointment that there aren't alternatives to the leadership on the horizon for the change that has to come. I admire those amazing individuals, those rays of sunshine who crack on regardless organizing treks and expeditions, a mountain bike festival, international photo festival, and celebrate their festivals and hold music events (chapeau) to buoy up the youthful, diverse spirit of the nation and keep feeding the creative stream that is very vibrant in Nepal.

Nepal is a special place, with such amazing advantages and opportunities that are not being realised on a the scale necessary to transform the country into a regional example of so many great things.. like extensive micro-hydro projects, grand scheme hydroelectric power, like sweeping visions of high potential in tourism, like preserving for posterity the incredible vibration in the power centres (temples, monasteries and stupas) in the Valley. What about building a new capital elsewhere and leaving the Valley for tourists, anthropologists, spiritualists and its residents and for those wanting to develop the arts and hold space in this special place. Something has to give, the Valley has reached a critical mass, it is overburdened with humanity, the question is will mother earth express herself again in the form of another massive earthquake or will she let it continue to burn slowly; the elite constantly consuming what they can feed off until it all falls to ash. Embassies are closing their doors, fewer in number than ever before, donors are dismayed in a country where foreign aid income is as big as revenue gains through tourism and corruption is rife.

I hope for a breath of fresh air, for young educated well-spoken Nepalis to step up and step graciously almost fraternally, like a young person relieving his/her older tired respected elder to take on leadership roles which may not come easily. Then they can take on the challenges facing Nepal with gusto, diplomacy and vision.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Screen: Part II The Strategies (or the Yoga of Screen)

There are many approaches to managing our children's screen use (TV, computer, phone, tablet, etc). It would be great if it were easy to have blanket solutions but the fact is that strategies apply differently to different children and to different cultural and family culture dynamics, so there is no fix-all solution. Well, unless you throw the damn things out the window which is tempting at times but then I realise I'd have to throw out my smart phone as well and a revealing conundrum emerges (to be discussed in a later blog).  The take-away lesson is to strategically set a good example in your own screen management and this will pave the way for easier management of your children's access to screens; get your own screen under control first, visibly and transparently before embarking on any campaign to help the kids. Where there is a Mum and Dad or live in relative or friend... its helpful if all are on the same 'setting a good example' page and if their School is on board as well... it is much easier! We are blessed to have the same philosophy as parents and here in Nepal to have neighbors with two same age, same school, sons who share the same 'screen philosophy' as us. By contrast if they didn't, it would be a nightmare.

I want to add a caveat here that for the past 4 years TV has not been on the family menu of screen choices so we aren't afflicted by the problematic of TV addiction. We simply do not subscribe to cable/satellite or other connections to commercial television. This was not hard to do given our mobility and disdain and understanding of the distraction from real life that TV provides. It has been a great move for all. Gone is pervasive (sometimes intelligence insulting) television advertising, gone the insidious brain numb of cartoon crap and cartoon violence, the detached and detaching channel surfing, etc and yes, as adults we aren't passing time watching what are inevitably just trendy flash in the pan series or sitcoms. If there is a downside it is that we sometimes miss inspirational moments in sports or catching significant world events... but we can catch up with these with a quick bit of googling post event! The other day someone mentioned the Oscar's...I didn't even realise the Academy Awards had happened but now have bought Oscar winning films, Boyhood, Whiplash, Still Alice, Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman. These days I don't even think the boys miss out on popular culture, I did years ago when Zaki came home from Montessori school in Malaysia asking who Mickey Mouse was, but those days are long gone.  They seem to catch up through friends and watch selectively on YouTube various series if they are curious. In Nepal where we live, we can't get Netflix with a Nepali credit card and so our aging flat-screen TV is used for viewing DVDs and the Wii only. Our boys are 8 and 10 have lived as expatriate children in Malaysia, Lebanon, Ecuador and now Nepal, they are multilingual, multicultural third culture kids and basically want for nothing such is their luck (or not)!

Worth mentioning here is that I am grateful for everything I have; perhaps living in a very poor country like Nepal having traveled and lived large and fully on different levels of the poverty-decadence scale from cold poverty in wintry Montreal (although I did meet Leonard Cohen because of it!) to prosperity jet-setting as a humanitarian emergency aid worker, perhaps I am less likely to take for granted what I have. I don't know, I just know we are very lucky to have all of what we have; our good health and the luxury to discuss things like screen time because we have that choice... How many zillions of Syrian or Palestinian or Congolese kids would die to have a tablet device? In the case of screens and the internet we express that gratitude through a principled approach to access. The boys know that their access to screens is a privilege and not a right. Zaki tried to convince me not long ago that screen time was a basic human right, they had been discussing human rights at school.... I said 'oh, like food and water? you can't live without it?', that gave him something to think about.

Back to is good for children to realise that your efforts as caregivers to 'manage' their screen time is in their best interest, and that needs un packaging in terms they can understand vis a vis the whys and wherefores and it is useful to reframe this for them often where repetition can be a bore, saying it differently under differing circumstances can help click things into frame. Below are some links to help flesh this out if you had any doubts. Please be clear, no one is saying there isn't value in children's access to smart devices (children over 5 years old because they are not advised at all for kids below 5) and all of what they have to offer. The question is how it is delivered to them, with what conditionality and how to optimize it to their benefit. I used to say the same about TV... and now of web connected smart devices... ask yourself... would you just hand your kid the remote control of a TV without some restrictions and information on the potential hazards of use!

Sleep and tests.
Sleep and device dependency.
Smartphones and sleep
Kids, smartdevices and sleep

Never forgetting that children's brains develop in their sleep and they grow physically when they sleep, so sound, long sleep is a key issue in screen management.

Steve Jobs and iPads
Related article on the importance of Playtime

Next in strategies:  We find it useful for our children to realise that these limits on screen are not just their Mum and/or Dad's blahblahblah, they need to know that it is a 'global' discussion i.e. their friend's parents grapple with the same thing (hopefully) no matter what country they are from or where they live. Kids need to see the plethora of websites talking about this, show them this one! One of the best websites that is all over this is Common Sense Media and its new 'Parent's Concerns' tab which covers a range of issues from 'how much screen time' to cyberbullying to internet security, online learning and beyond. Well worth the visit. I showed this to our boys and they read the inputs from parents and other kids so they know that this isn't an issue only for us...its out there in the world.

Screening content is something we are very clear on. Family filters on browsers is a must and are easy to activate or install. Anything new that they want to watch, download, play, etc has to be 'screened' (filtered) and the best tool I have found online is again Commonsense Media and if it isn't listed there then critiques gaming and is also okay offering an age rating for IOS games. At the end of the discussion it is more about how you feel as a parent, how much 'cartoon violence' for example you can tolerate (I draw the line at those stupid zombie games). Its like movie ratings... the best judge of appropriateness is you, aligning with your own values and understanding of your child's maturity and ability to absorb content....and lets be honest whether a movie will give them nightmares and cause you to lose sleep or not!

Now to the restrictions. Here everyone differs and the balance is between allowing kids the ability to make their own wise choices and learning about these and being a conscious and responsible caregiver. Screen time seems to be a determinant factor and so we limit it. Without limits what we have learned for our boys (is it different for girls?) that they will spend too much time on screen or at least not enough time playing outside or with lego or whatever else and their addictive behaviours increases.  This is perhaps the most annoying thing when you realise they are living for their screen time and manipulating you to ensure they get time to be on screen. Our boys are responding well to the following:

1hr/Friday and 2hrs/Saturday
Screen free Sunday
No screen ever in bedrooms
No screen ever after dinner (except family movies)
No TV (except DVD movies usually as a family)
No unsupervised screen at home or away

There are other strategies like minute banks, timers on devices, screen time tracking, etc. See here for other ideas. One method we don't use is screen-time for reward or punishment, or use it to bribe...that is going down a dangerous and wobbly way that is hard to sustain and sends wrong messages, the pros and cons are discussed here

As I suggest above, each to their own and their own priorities, considerations and thoughts on the matter. No judgement. My intention is to provoke thinking, encourage researching the issue to be able to make informed choices and to involve children fully in decisions taken. There is no black and white....only shades of grey and navigating the waters takes some time but mostly a connection with what for you and your family makes for a harmonious and harmless living situation that provides the best for your children. Maybe call it the Yoga of Screen: how to find balance.

Please post comments below especially strategies you might have succeeded with for everyone to see. Thanks. d

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Expatriotism: What I see from far.

Living outside Canada as an expat (expatriate) has taken on a new dimension with the explosion of social media and 24/7 access to the Internet; it has brought me to new levels of 'expatriotism'. Utilizing social media has become the new normal when it comes to lobbying and it has been quite effective. I want to be clear: I identify myself as a Canadian (I am also a citizen), it is the culture I grew up in and as much as I aim to shed the nationalistic trappings of citizenry and claim personal sovereignty where you grow up becomes part of who you are. I blogged on identity here . My children are Canadian (and French), Canada may well be in their future and so I feel a strong claim to want the best opportunities there for them in the country I grew up in...not the one being re-modeled by the current leadership.

I have always been a political pundit of a cafe/bar type, having lived much of my adult life 'off shore' involved with humanitarian emergencies I usually focus on international events and keep up with developments in Canada from afar and through friends. I have been drawn back to the state of affairs in Canada by the Arab Spring and emergence of engaged popular movements, and motivated to become more current since a Supreme court ruling this summer returns to those of us who have lived outside Canada more than 5 yrs the right to vote(!). Timing is right as the second term of administration the ego-centric leadership of Stephen Harper draws to a close. Harper and his ilk in Ottawa have managed through the various policies and bills passed to disenfranchise swathes of Canadians notably including veterans and indigenous peoples, perhaps even the majority, but they don't really matter to him, they aren't 'his majority', 'his' are only the 23.9% of registered voters who voted for him (40% of registered voters did not vote!). Against the 2011 Census that means 17% of all Canadians voted Harper Conservative in the last election...and thats how a becoming a majority in parliament works in Canada. Go figure.

Don't be shy to click on the highlighted links, I went to considerable lengths to source articles and found many originated from Canadian sites. Interestingly even the mainstream corporate media are in the sights of the Harper Government.

Those of us who see from far what is happening in Canada enjoy the advantage of a global perspective; living away from home we are exposed perhaps to a wider variety of points of view and can easier place developments in a the regional if not global context. For example there is little doubt that in the eyes of many Canada has slipped from being a country highly respected as a 'green country', for its fair stance on human rights issues, for its involvement in peace processes and as a bulwark against the illegal waging of war to being well. Ok, I'll say it...we have become lackeys to conservative (read Republican) USA denizens...sorry folks but that is how Canada is being viewed at least in Asia. Canada used to champion the underdog and waving the Canadian flag used to be the back-packer's symbol of neutrality, fairness and friendliness. No longer is this true...people from the USA still sew the Canadian flag on their back-packs but more because their own flag has made them into targets, beware I say, the Canadian flag is becoming much the same.

I was in Canada this summer and am aware that life is still very good there for most of my friends, manageable financially if you have good employment, with opportunities that abound for children's activities and a decent education system...if you don't mind your kids in classes of up to 30 (for which there is no sound reason). What is to complain about? From afar I see how the present government reforming Canada under the noses of good people by pushing bills through without time for adequate scrutiny, using the omnibus bill to make sweeping changes and engaging in distasteful tactics (or should that be disgraceful) as they proceed with what appears to be an increasingly corporate-oriented agenda in an essentially people-oriented milieu such as Canadians are. The pattern is being labelled 'anti-democratic' because many moves are simply against the polled population's interest or their desire. The list of omnibus bills you can find, just google 'omnibus bills passed by Harper government' and you'll see what I mean. Canadians are being hood-winked...which is a nice Canadian way of putting it mildly

Of late, making international news, Canada was pronounced dead last in the Centre for Global Development assessment of 27 developed countries on environmental protection and 55th out of 58 countries in terms of tackling fossil fuel emissions...due in part to an uptick in tar sands production in Alberta (the product of those notorious sands in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta is actually called bitumen, tar for short, it is definitely not oil until it is refined). This uptick that looks to becoming super-sized in the near future. So much for the image of Canada as a place of pristine wilderness and fresh clean waters which suggests a nation that cares for and stewards the environment....even perhaps as one that can take the moral high ground in leading the way forward on mitigating the effects of climate change by addressing the cause. 

Teasing this out a bit further to focus on why Canada is being mocked as a global pariah, the fact is that our enormous north is melting with rising global warming temperatures and this affects the entire planet. Huge amounts of ozone depleting carbon are being released from the melting northern tundra which is nothing compared to their potential. It suggests that Canada should perhaps be taking the lead in reducing, rather than the lead in increasing fossil fuel emissions. What of the future? What of the children? I am aware that coal is by far the dirtiest of fossil fuel energy sources, but does that excuse us from the energy intensive extraction of tar from sand? Not to mention the dangers of transporting or pipelining the crud(e) that bitumen is, and which then needs to be refined in more energy intensive processes. 

On a brighter note clean energy has apparently topped tar sands as a source of employment in Canada! What I suggest is to divest now in the oil and gas sector (quit while you are ahead) and invest in clean energy (get in early)....lets make that a viral movement and watch what happens, the only direction is up. While discussing global politics a young friend of mine said it well, 'Corporations are out, people need to see that and move on'. If we stopped subsidizing oil/gas companies , started taxing their dirty product (as opposed to clean), if we penalized them financially for their many infringements on existing environmental laws....perhaps we would have a ton of money to put into clean energy research and development creating more jobs, sustainable and clean ones! Wow, am I the only one to have thought of that? Its a mess folks, read this ...if the price of oil continues to drop and we remain on our current course... we are doomed, I kid you not.

Back on topic, in the background from far we hear of the internationally decried muzzling of the Canadian science community which takes on a nefarious odor (pardon the pun) in the context of the global environmental damage being done by fossil fuel emissions. This muting of voices that might be in opposition to government policy is frightening. Healthy democracies thrive on alternative perspectives and the freedom to express these...where has that gone in Canada. Much of the world and Canada do not realise that Harper is playing out his own religious beliefs on public policy; he is a devout member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, scares the bejesus outta me but read for yourself. Its a this topic of religion and politics is a controversial one, both are best left out of 'friendly' conversations so I leave it to them what knows to enlighten you, read this.

Evidence about government mishandling of the environment as they kow-tow to the corporate agenda is pretty well-founded, I ask you this: why else dismantle the Fisheries Act, Fresh Water Protection, the Environmental Assessment Act, now the Navigable Waters Act? This week the government announced an audit of charitable groupsabsolutely NOT coincidentally those critical of the government. Seriously folks! Why? Did I read somewhere they are handing over National Parks to privateers?

In the international press the loud voices of discontent by notables like John Ralston Saul, Stephen Lewis and David Suzuki are heard loud and clear on issues mentioned above. I chose here to focus on the environment and global climate change, equally I could have selected another issue to highlight because from afar we hear also of the Harper-led assault on indigenous populations, on the excesses of government invasion of privacy, on the militarization of policing (especially in the wake of incidents in Ontario and Quebec), on the nose-thumbing at veterans, its getting to be a long list. I haven't talked about prorogation, patronage or the multiple Harper minions who have fallen foul of the justice system, neither the robocall scandal. And, oh, did I mention the Harper government supported the bombing of Gaza Bibi Netanyahu's government in its illegal occupation of Palestine,(this link is a long read but a worthy one...right to the end). The FB group Occupy Canada now has 323 reasons in their 'hashtag leavesteve2015' campaign! 

Out here in the wilderness (currently Kathmandu) myself and the several Canucks I know who inhabit this remote Himalayan valley are dismayed at what continues to be revealed by the international media about the remodeling of Canada going on under the noses of earnest hard-working Canadians. We all have a stake in the future of a place like Canada which could be a bastion of good government that puts people and the environment first, instead we are getting further and further bogged down in a paradigm of economic growth for the sake of itself which has run its course. Currently the government is securing us to the sinking ship of corporate capitalism one that has no retrievable future. If you agree with the sentiment voiced here feel free to share widely, freedom of speech persists for now in Canada and anyway, and anyway nothing posted here is not in the public record. And as a post script...don't forget to vote, its the only way the change will come.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Screen Part 1: the dilemma

Managing screen-time has become a full-time challenge in our house. My sons' now 7 and 9 years old have grown up in an age, in a place and they have been privileged with access to pretty much every screen known to humankind: TV, Videos, Wii, Game boy, tablet, computer, phone. They are at an age where they can fully grasp the entertainment value of hand-held devices like internet connected smart phones after all, everyone around them has one. Now, before anyone gets carried away with 'doh! no wonder you have problems' comments in our house screen-time has always been limited and touted as a privilege not a right for the little lads to hop on. In fact at this point we don't have TV per se, we have a flat screen monitor connected to nothing but the DVD player and the Wii. Game boys were only permitted for traveling and are destined for the bin having been eclipsed by the tablets (iPads in our family). Computers are only used for educational activities, googling, youtubing, music listening and okay, watching online videos has snuck in of late. Smart phones are parent property and I, at least, have sudoko and not much else in the recreational line on mine...although I am trying to figure out how to hide apps so they are not displayed on the screen (anyone?). Screen time is limited to an educational hour mid-week that now includes work with a meditation app and is not allowed to define the weekend, rather it is ok if it doesn't interfere with whatever else is going on.

We all know the down-side of screens, you can find credible research dating back to the criticism levied against too much Television back in the '70s to the clear issues related to advertising and its impact on our capacity to make good consumer decisions now to tablets, smart phones and computers being implicated in everything from ADD, ADHD, anti-social behaviour, losing creative ability, to obesity. I'd find these for you and add links but I don't have the attention span nor tolerance. Its true, I have to say as I write on my lap-top with 3 Windows open on Chrome, each with at least 9 tabs. I flip from one to the other to facecrack, email (3 accounts), bookmarking pages I want but may never return to covering interest areas including yoga and healing, nutrition, earthquake preparedness, a mess of political meanderings, holiday planning, etc, etc...loads of things crossing the radar. I have been here writing this and its a bit of a record.....going on 8 minutes now. The acute disconnect between the natural world and an artificial one is articulated in this technology. The therapeutic advantage of going for a walk in the greenery rather than staying indoors face inches from a glowing lump of tech does not really have to be proven...we all know which one is better for you. In human contact we distance ourselves with the overuse/abuse of screens. Having these silly devices out with us when we meet up with friends and then texting, tweeting, surfing and scanning takes significantly from the quality time we could have with our friends. The 'Look Up' video says it well. 

I know then that there is an effect of the screen on me although I can discern and focus when the need arises partly (I think) because I had the benefit of years of no internet distraction and book-reading through to University ergo I learned to focus. That said I have always been an A-class procrastinator so perhaps the theory on attention span being inversely correlated to screen time is null. As far as screens go, I first had access to TV in 1967, 3 English, 1 French channels and limited to family shows (Giligans Island, Mr. Dress Up, Hogans Heros, the Flintstones, Bewitched an dI Love Lucy, all familiar to my generation of watchers!). My first computer was a Mac laptop (somethings haven't change!) back in the early '90s and in the past few years tablets and smartphones are on my menu of screen choices. Aside from sudoko and the occasional visit to Angry Birds I don't game on screen at all. I do have a hankering for social media, especially Facebook*.  All that to say, if it affects me the way it does, it must be having a huge impact on the internal 'software' programming of my sons, even an effect on the development of their hardware, the wiring. In some manner affecting their mental capacities of the future. I see their ability to be adept at utilizing the screen for its positive attributes something that will aid them as they navigate our wacky changing world and so take on a parental responsibility of monitoring closely  screen and seeking recourse and remedies to ensure the impact is constructive and contributes to their well-being and ability to be 21st Century-capable adaptable, resilient young men. 

My sons are one of the early generations who have had access to internet-connected smart devices. As a 50 (something) yr old I am of the generation whose University had a computer room with a computer lab attached with monitors connected to the main-frame. My first year papers had to be 'word-processed' and the library was all about card catalogues and micro-fiche. My parents had no exposure to this situation and so really would have no advice to help guide me now. My mother marveled at the internet and without a computer, through our cable TV in 2000 she would email me when I was off working in the wild beyond of East Timor. So, that I call it a challenge, a dilemma sometimes even a problem is because it is a muddle of many things and there is no easy fix, the downstream effect is an unknown and we wait to see whether the kids will grow up well-adjusted or social basket cases or gadget geeks. Who can say?

Moving on...I get fed up with hearing about the problems of too much screen and suggestions that 'how to handle it' simply means limiting it, clearly people who say that don't have kids! My interest  these days has turned to finding solutions for our screen dilemma.  The little boys have their saving grace: they are avid book worms. Zaki, at 5 yrs old just started reading it just sort of came to him and I am sure nightly bed-time storytelling paid at 9 he got the 1st Harry Potter book for his birthday and in the ensuing 3 weeks read the entire 7 book series. Seven months later he is a Harry Potter encyclopedia and has read the series several times. Kasem too loves his books, perhaps not with the same zeal as his older brother but he is a written word consumer of high proportions. In the next section of 'The Screen' I will turn to some ideas for remedying this challenge with screens. Perhaps I approach the screen dilemma with too high a conscious concern and should let go a bit but something tells me no, that to be concerned is to be a good parent and we need to figure it out ourselves....what to do about screen time.

*I would self-diagnose Facebook as easily the most damaging of my screen moments and yet the most magnetic... and like my chocolate addiction I am always trying to cut down on it. Quite simply I let it take time from my day but also the multiple mental diversions on offer splits my attention. Facebook offers up a multitude of distractions, it takes your mind off in a zillion different directions every time you open it and see posts from different groups, friends, etc. If the best thing to do in the morning is a quiet meditation or qi gong practice ;-) then a glance at your facebook is probably the worst, if your sleep is influenced most by the last things you did or said or read in the day...then again facebook is probably the silliest thing to look at just before going to bed...and yet, at both moments in the many of us have a device in our hands? go ahead...admit it, you're addicted.
Screens are everywhere,
here the privileged are traveling business for the first (and only time) moving from KL to Beirut!
Loving every minute!