gail schimmel

The blog of writer Gail Schimmel: A bit of writing, a bit of parenting, a bit of thinking and some book reviews


The Homework Question

If you had asked me in December where I stood on the homework, you would have found me faltering weakly on the fence. On one hand, I know there is a lot of research coming out that homework has either no effect or a negative effect on marks. On the other hand, I am a bit old school on issues like self-discipline and good work ethics.

But this year, I started to fall off the fence. Because my son is in Grade 2. Yes, you read right – Grade 2 – not Grade 4 or 7 or 9 or matric. Grade 2.

“I don’t really believe in homework,” said our lovely teacher at the beginning of the year. I still think she is lovely, but if this is someone who doesn’t believe in homework, then I don’t know what’s in store for us in future years. From an adult point of view, it’s not a lot of homework. Maybe about half an hour a day.

But seven year old boys don’t work in linear time, and my whole afternoon is taken up yelling, “Have you done your homework?” and “When you’ve done your homework”. As a result, my son doesn’t hate the homework, he hates me.

And then this weekend I bumped into a Grade 3 mother from my school, and she told me that next year they start doing so much sport (which is great) that they get home late (which is not) and have even more homework to do than before (which is terrible). It sounded like such a nightmare that I nearly lay down on the floor at Sandton for a cry.

As adults, we don’t expect ourselves to do a 7am to 7pm day, and then still work in the evenings. (Well, I don’t. If you do, you need to take a good long look at your life. Sorry, but you do.) But apparently from mid primary school, we expect this of our children.

And while it may help consolidate what they learn in the day, and it may teach some elements of self-discipline, from what other moms tell me, it mostly just serves to make life at home miserable. And home is actually where our kids are supposed to feel safe.

I’m still a bit on the fence. I don’t know that homework per se is the problem. But something isn’t feeling right when the part of my week that causes me to take the deepest breathes is Grade 2 homework.




My name is Gail and. . .

It’s been one of those weeks when I have to start wondering if social media is at all good for me.

A long time ago, I was the most anti-Facebook person that you could meet. I had three reasons– the one that it cannot possibly be a good idea to have so much information about a person in one place. It’s all a bit Big Brother is watching us and it’s scary. Read Ben Elton’s novel, Blind Faith, if you don’t believe me. Also, I did not think that anyone could really care about the trivia of my life, or I about theirs. The last problem I had was that I was convinced that it opened doors for some sort of mass computer virus. I patiently waited for everyone else’s computer to crash so that I could say, “Hah!”

But then something happened – I’m not even sure what. Perhaps I realised that saying “Hah!” is over-rated, and that the CIA can find out all about me anyway if they want to. So I joined Facebook. And then Twitter. I even have a Pintrest account but I don’t use it. But Facebook and Twitter – let me make no bones about this: I’m an addict: I reach for my phone first thing every morning; I stop mid task to take a peek; I follow links that I have no real interest in; I feel an obligation to post things; and, most dire, I read comments on public postings.

My phone is always close to me – not in case it rings, but in case I feel a need to check something. I try to justify this to myself by telling myself that I have a very busy active mind that needs to be entertained and informed all the time. “Hah!” I can hear you saying, justifiably.

Here’s the thing. I’m a child of the 70s and I clearly remember my mother going everywhere with her cigarettes and lighter tightly gripped in her hand. I hated it! And now I go everywhere with my cell phone tightly gripped in my hand, and even though it doesn’t stink, I’m pretty sure my kids hate it too.

And it’s not even like it makes me happy. In the last few days, I have found myself making sarcastic comments in response to an advertising tweet, getting embroiled in twitter matters that I don’t even have strong opinions about and, worst of all, becoming completely enraged because if you read the public comments on some things you realise that most people are idiots. Just this morning I clicked on an article about David Beckham (in whom I have ABSOLUTELY NO INTEREST) and then found myself talking back to the comments on the article. Like a crazy person. Or an addict. . .

I think it’s time for me to take a break. But like all addicts, I have no idea how to begin. And anyway, I just have to post this blog onto Facebook and Twitter and then of course you might have some comments that I must reply to and I need to see how many likes I get and also if anyone retweets and also maybe there’ll be another article about David Beckham and I can’t miss that and maybe there’ll be a big news event and I wouldn’t want to be out of the loop and also what if I miss your birthday. . .

They say the first step to recovery is recognising the problem. I’m not convinced.

Leave a comment

Lying through their teeth

We seem to lose teeth in spates in this house. Last year, the tooth fairy came four times in four days. Today, she is due back after a visit last night, with another tooth loose and looking like it could fall tomorrow. That’s what happens when you have a small age gap between children.


But it leads to the perplexing question of tooth fairies. And Santa Claus. And the Easter Bunny. All of whom we vehemently believe in in this house. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about today. When do we stop, and how?

In the car today, my son said, “Mommy, do you swear on your life that you are not the tooth fairy?”

I have previously told him that “swearing on lives” is a serious business.

“Yes,” I said, not lying. “I am definitely not a tooth fairy. I’m a mommy.” In my head I added, “Who puts money in your slipper when you lose a tooth.” No lies, but not quite the truth.

And what makes it more complicated is, because of a mixture of beliefs in our house, we are much more honest about religion. When the kids ask, “Is there a God?” the answer starts with, “Well, some people thing . . . and others think. . .” until the children’s eyes have glazed over and they are wondering what is on TV and whether they would be able to fly if they tied feathers to their arms.

One day, probably soon, my children are going to realise that I’m lying about the tooth fairy, Santa and the Easter Bunny. Well, I hope they are, because the alternative is a bit depressing.

And while I’m sure they will understand that I did it to make life magical, I can’t help thinking that deep down inside their trust in me will be a little bit damaged, a little bit less. And that breaks my heart.

Meantime, the tooth fairy is due tonight . . . so I’m off to find some glitter to sprinkle as fairy dust. Because if you’re going be lying to your children in the name of magic then dammit, you’d better make it magical.


Leave a comment

Early bird

There’s a Facebook “game” going around – where you plug in your name and gender and it gives you a little poem about yourself. I’m not really mad about this type of thing but I thought “what the hell” and tried.

First, it gave me a poem about my close relationship with my nephew. I have three nephews and I do love them dearly and I do wish I spent hours playing with them – but I have to confess, I do not see them as my life-defining relationships. (Sorry little guys.) So I thought, “ha ha, stupid Facebook, and then just for fun pushed “try again”. And this is what I got:

This is Gail.

Gail has a date at 5pm.

Gail is there at 4.55pm.

Gail doesn’t want her friends to wait.

Gail is smart.

Be like Gail.

This one is hilariously accurate!

I’m That Person. I arrive early at dinners – if it is one of those big group things at a restaurant, I am always first. I arrive early at parties – my kids consider it absolutely ordinary to take little drives around neighbourhoods while we wait for it to be time. I arrive early at the doctor – even the ones who routinely run 2 hours late. The really tragic part is that I arrive early even if I try to be late. If I try to be late, chances are it’s because it’s an event where that is appropriate, so everyone else arrives even later than I do. And it must be said, trying to be late makes me very, very tense.

I get it from my parents, who were exactly the same. Once, my dad was late to fetch me from school. I knew he’d had an accident; wasn’t even a question (he had). My best friend was routinely fetched several hours late. I couldn’t imagine such a wild existence!

Part of me hates it. I wish that I was that person who could arrive half an hour late and not even apologise. Such sang-froid! But on the other hand, I kind of agree with what Facebook says about me. I don’t want my friends to wait. My time is valuable and their time is valuable. I respect them enough not to waste their time, and on the very few occasions that I am late, I send a message. Out of respect.

Some of my most lovely friends are routinely late. I’m not going to end the friendships because of it. But there is a wonderful feeling when I have an arrangement with a person like me, and I know that we’ll both be on time, and that I won’t sit like a fool all alone at a table for 20 minutes, smiling inanely at the waiters. And to those friends, I say thank you.


1 Comment

Facebook and your child

I originally wrote a version of this article for the December 2015 issue of without prejudice magazine, a legal magazine for which I regularly write. I think this article is of interest to more than just lawyers.

I have noticed an increase in the phenomenon of parents opening a Facebook page for their underage children, and posting cute photos and stories to that page. The idea, I guess, is that it will be like a modern photo album and the child can look back at all the lovely memories from their childhood.

As a lawyer, my gut reaction is that this practice is a bad idea, and in this article I will try to unpack why that is. To be clear, I am talking about the situation where an account has been created in the child’s name that will, in later years, show up when that name is searched as if it is the child’s own account. I am not talking about the situation where you post a picture of your child on your own Facebook account.

As a starting point, we know that people have lost jobs and been held liable for things that they have posted on social media. When Justine Sacco posted her infamous racist Aids tweet before she got on a plane to Cape Town, rumour has it that she had lost her job by the time she got off the plane. And we won’t even talk about Penny Sparrow. We have seen a number of cases go through the South African courts where actions on social media have resulted in job loss (eg Fredericks v Jo Barkett Fashions [2012] 1 BALR 28 (CCMA)).

Internationally, we also see that civil claims can arise from actions on social media. In Cairns v Modi [2012] EWHC 756 QB, for example, English courts considered a libel matter former New Zealand cricketer Christopher Cairns sued the former Indian Premier League (IPL) chairperson, Lalit Modi, over a defamatory tweet. In the tweet, the defendant accused Mr Cairns of match-fixing, adding that it was the reason for barring him from the IPL auction list. Mr Cairns sued, claiming the allegations threatened to reduce his cricketing achievements to ‘dust’. The court said that the defendant “singularly failed to provide any reliable evidence” that the applicant was involved in match-fixing or spot-fixing or that there were strong grounds for suspecting this. The applicant was awarded £90 000 in damages.

And in South Africa, in the case of Isparta v Richter 2013 6 SA 529(GNP), for example, the court awarded R40 000 in damages for defamatory statements made on a Facebook posting – payable by both the person who had posted the comment and her husband, whom she had tagged.

So there is no doubt that defamatory and harmful action on Facebook has repercussions in South African Law.

The question then arises as to what can occur if the parents post a picture or story to the child’s “invented” facebook account that will, at a later date, harm the child in some foreseeable or unforeseeable way.

An obvious example would be children shown at political gatherings which 30 years later are repugnant to them and society – think of how you would reconsider your feelings about a person if you found out that in their childhood they had been an AWB poster child. Think about how that would affect the person in question if they were now running for office under the ANC banner. But 30 years ago, your parents could not post your picture to a public, retrievable forum.

It may also be less obvious. Perhaps you take a picture of your child having a ball at the cute petting zoo. In 30 years time sensitivities about captive animals have changed and evolved, and petting zoos are regarded as completely unacceptable. Your child has applied for a senior position in the Help Animals Stay Free organisation, but their prospective employer searches your child’s online presence and comes across this photo. . .

There are three aspects to this. The first is moral – no good parent wants to be the agent of harm in their child’s life. By posting these happy memories under our children’s names, we may be doing just that.

The other issues are legal. I believe that the parent of the future may find themselves liable to their child firstly in delict, and secondly for infringement of personality rights which will more and more come to include ownership of one’s online presence.

I understand the impulse to so easily create a repository of childhood. But maybe it would be wiser to stick to a good old photo album, or a folder on your computer – and leave the decision to your child as to what their public face will look like.

Leave a comment

The Friendship Paradigm

When we were much younger, my friend Julie and I came up with a Friendship Paradigm that I still use to understand my friendships today.

I don’t know how old Julie and I were when we had the conversation. It might have been around the time that Julie explained oral sex to me in a way that left me under the impression that oral sex is when you replace a sexual word with a euphemism. We were 11 then. Or it might have been around the time when Julie and the other Julie negotiated to swop their boyfriends, and the conversation happened around my parents’ kitchen table. We were about 15 then, and the boyfriends were strangely acquiescent to the arrangement.

I don’t know how old we were, but I do know that we were sitting on my parents’ front stoep, and the whole discussion was based on what was within our immediate view:

front stoep


Friendship, we decided, is divided into three aspects – the Pillar, the Ivy and the Butterfly.

The Pillar is the friend who is always there to support you and listen to your problems.

The Ivy is the friend who always comes to you with their problems, and to whom you act as the Pillar.

The Butterfly is the friend that brings flashes of colour and fun and excitement into your life.

We agreed that the ideal friend, the best friend, has all three elements – they are there for you and you are there for them and you also have lots of fun together. You cannot have a best friend that lacks one of the elements.

But we also agreed that some friends have only one aspect of the three. There are friends who you can rely on, but for some reason never bring their problems to you. And there are friends that spend hours crying on your shoulder but are strangely awol when it comes to your problems. And then there are the friends that you only see occasionally and are always a good laugh and lots of fun, but that’s where it ends, and that’s okay.

What is remarkable to me is how this Paradigm still works to understand friendship some 25 years or more later. And that is why I am sharing it with you.

This year, I have decided I need to look out for the people who are only Ivy. And on the same note, if you have a friend who you regard as only a Pillar, you’ve got to ask yourself what you are doing wrong that they don’t feel able to let you take the Pillar role sometimes. Because Ivy, when it is left to its own devices, smothers everything in sight. Don’t let yourself be smothered, and don’t be the one to do the smothering.

And if you come across my friend Julie, don’t ask her to explain oral sex. . .


Leave a comment

The school countdown

All over Gauteng – and probably all over the country – parents are counting down the days until school starts again. In my case, it’s Wednesday. Wonderful, glorious, can’t get here fast enough Wednesday.

Because my kids have been on holiday from the beginning of December, and give or take a few shopping trips and a bit of work, I’ve been with them 24/7 ever since. (And when I say 24/7. I mean it. They still climb into bed with me.) And I’m going to say what most primary parents are thinking but won’t say: I have had enough of my children. I’m done. I’m over it. Their teachers can have them. They can have the whining and the demanding and the “I’m boreds” and the sulking. They can have the grumpy faces and they can even have the cheerful faces.

with kids 2.jpg

But therein lies the great trick parenting plays on us. Because we all know that at 11.30 on Wednesday morning I am going to be champing at the bit to fetch them from school, desperate to have them back in my arms, missing them after only a few hours, and wondering why I didn’t appreciate the holiday more.

The best thing that has ever happened to me is being a parent, but actually having to do it is pretty crap. Their childhoods seem to fly by in a blink, and I want to freeze time and keep them small and with me forever – but on the other hand, sometimes the hour from 5pm to 6pm can take so long that several eons have passed and empires have risen and fallen.

Parenting is the greatest conundrum, the best and the worst of everything. I’d spend more time thinking about it and sharing profound thoughts. . . but right now, I’m too busy counting down the minutes to 8am on Wednesday.