Tuesday 22 January 2019

'Irish kids today haven't experienced war and parents are wealthier. But do we really believe they are better off?'

Alex Koster has faced challenges with health and stress. Now she's using her experience to help parents guide children

Author and educator Alex Koster. Photo: David Conachy
Author and educator Alex Koster. Photo: David Conachy

Joy Orpen

When Alex Koster (45) ventures out into the wider world, she sees children who, through no fault of their own, are becoming obsessed with materialism, social media and technology. She is also conscious that there has been an increase in mental illness among young people, and she believes these two are connected.

As a teacher, researcher and a parent, that causes her deep concern. So much so, she has written Roots and Wings. This insightful book is likely to cause those who read it to re-evaluate the way they rear their offspring. That the book was published in Ireland is a fortuitous accident of fate, as Alex was born in Trier, probably the oldest city in Germany. Founded in the fourth century BC by the Celts, Trier is also where Karl Marx was born. So, it's likely that this interesting city influenced the way this creative but well-grounded educator thinks.

Having chosen to be a teacher, Alex's studies required her to spend time in a country where English was spoken. So, in 1996 she found herself working with horses in Co Tipperary.

"I loved Ireland from the start," she says, "and I kept coming back."

In 2002, she married Irishman Michael Power, and they are happily settled in Lisronagh, between Fethard and Clonmel, with their daughters Julianna (seven) and Jona (four). Alex lives with a condition called sensory processing sensitivity; she also struggles to cope with the consequences of an emotionally-sensitive childhood. Both of these have resulted in mental health challenges. In addition, one of her daughters has been diagnosed with autism, while both experience some anxiety. It's only natural, given her profession, and personal experiences, that Alex should seek solutions.

Mindfulness has been an invaluable gift in helping her cope. "Although I still struggle with stress-related symptoms at times, mindfulness has given me useful tools to deal with these issues."

What does Alex mean when she refers to that now-ubiquitous term? "Mindfulness is much more than meditation practice; it's a way of life. We're being mindful when we are present to what is going on right here, right now, rather than chasing faraway dreams."

She believes children nowadays face enormous challenges which have not been seen before. One of the most profound is the prevalence of technology. It's no longer rare to see toddlers engrossed in mobile phones and tablets.

"This obsession with technology means they are missing out on play and real life interactions," says Alex. "This can cause an impairment of communication and social skills, which can have a big effect in how children interact and connect with others in the future."

Alex urges parents to embrace mindfulness for their own benefit, and so they can pass this life skill on to their children. "These days parents are supposed to know what to do in every situation. I am convinced a mindful lifestyle would be an invaluable support for any family."

She believes children can benefit from learning these skills at an early age.

"Having a mindful attitude will help them pause, look around them and appreciate the gifts and blessings in their lives right now. It will also help them make good, balanced choices, rather than creating situations they might regret later."

Alex says research has shown that when small children are over-exposed to technology, long-term implications follow. "The first three years in a child's life are critical for development. Too much screen-time affects brain development. Take story telling, for example. Many screen activities present content on a plate. That means children don't have to use their imaginations. Because of technology, they are missing out on so much, especially when it comes to learning to interpret language, and to process information. Spoken words are only a small part of meaningful communication, which should in fact be a two-way process. But if you're in front of a screen, you don't have to interact much of the time, and the lack of real-life interactions does affect brain development. The long-term implication is that if you don't acquire good communication skills at the appropriate age, you're not going to be fully functional in the years ahead."

Alex believes parents and educators need to equip children with life skills to restore a sense of balance to daily routines. She suggests limiting the use of tablets, television and phones, especially for the very young. She also recommends interacting as a family and encouraging an interest in play-based and outdoor pursuits.

"Nature is not optional, it's as essential as a healthy diet for growing children. Only in nature and the outdoors do children encounter all four non-negotiable sources for their development: freedom, immediacy, resistance and connection. Children have an innate desire to connect with nature, and it is crucial parents install a love and respect for our planet."

Alex and her family use various beneficial practises. "We try and bring awareness to the need to be kind to others and our siblings," says Alex, "even though that may be tricky enough. Most nights before we go to sleep we name three things we are grateful for; for example, we got a treat, we are healthy, we were able to play with a friend."

Finally, when it comes to materialism in modern Ireland, Alex doesn't mince her words. "Today's children have not had to experience war, healthcare has improved, most have some degree of financial security. They have terrific access to a great variety of leisure activities. But do we really believe they are better off? They may have more material wealth, but I am certain core values are being seriously eroded. There seems to be a significant rise in mental health issues at an early age, which is showing in phenomena such as a rise in child suicide, anxiety, depression and bullying.

"However, I passionately believe we can all help our children grow up to be responsible, kind-hearted adults. But first we need to help them feel loved and valued, to gain self-worth and confidence, and to have compassion for themselves and others. Mindfulness is one of the most powerful tools we can use in this important cause."

Many people who care for young children will find inspiration in Roots and Wings. While the first half outlines her general philosophies and beliefs around mindfulness, most of the second half offers practical, inspired ideas and strategies for rearing children who will contribute towards a more balanced society.

Roots and Wings by Alex Koster is available from Amazon, from rootsandwings.pub and some book shops in Tipperary and Kilkenny. It costs €19.95

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