Role models and jellyfish

24 Sep

ocean

Human beings are prone to acts of madness. We engage in activities that can to others seem pointless, reckless and downright dangerous. Many people would have been thinking this when they read about Diana Nyad. Earlier this month, Ms Nyad made her fifth (and ultimately successful) attempt to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba to the Florida Keys. Not in a boat, but by swimming 110 long, painful miles.

What possesses a 64-year-old woman to swim a volatile stretch of water brimming with sharks and jellyfish?  To be honest, that’s not important. More important is what we can learn from her. What can someone who has such a strong desire to achieve a goal that they will persevere for 35 years and endure a skinful of jellyfish venom teach us? She certainly deserves to feature more highly in people’s minds (and the press) than a £300,000 per week footballer.

Nyad is a role model in the true spirit of the term: someone who inspires others to achieve their dreams whatever the discomfort required. She has no shortcuts to success. Neither celebrity nor money can help her. Ultimately her success is down to sheer hard work and preparation (with perhaps a dash of luck on the day).

In the dark days we are living in, we need to read stories of the apparently pointless. Far from being trivial compared to current world events, individual endeavours such as Diana Nyad’s remind us that the human spirit – and with it hope – still remains. We need such seemingly mad acts to keep us sane.

Review: Raising Children – the Primary Years

19 Sep

Liat Hughes Joshi

Can any parent fail to be drawn to a book subtitled ‘Everything Parents Need to Know’? With the pressure to be perfect, the promise of ultimate knowledge packed neatly into 240 pages is even more appealing than a child-free weekend lie-in.

Liat Hughes Joshi’s book addresses the key challenges that parents of primary school children face, from playground friendships and behaviour to homework and pocket money. It provides practical, common-sense advice and avoids, unlike some parenting ‘manuals’, the temptation to preach. As the author says: “Sometimes there’s more than one approach to an issue … as all families are different”.

The author, a journalist and mother, is assisted in the book by two child psychologists. There is enough formal psychology to be interesting but not so much as to scare away parents looking for quick, accessible tips they can use every day. The trickier issues it covers, for example bullying, make for unsettling reading but, as any parent with crayons and paper supplies in their bag knows, forewarned is forearmed.

Hughes Joshi’s realism and humour throughout the book are a godsend for any parent bashing their head against a brick wall. She acknowledges, for example,  that kids would rather be “boiling their own head” than do homework. She also utilises the expertise of those at the coal face – real-life parents. Over 400 were surveyed, the results of which are included in the book as invaluable ‘Parent Panel’ tips. Few things make a parent feel better than knowing others have been through the same and survived.

If you’re looking for reassurance that what your kids are “up to (probably) is normal and that you (probably) aren’t rubbish parents who are getting it all wrong” then you’ll find it here. Set down the medicinal wine bottle and pick up this book.

Raising Children: the Primary Years: Everything Parents Need to Know – from Homework and Horrid Habits to Screentime and Sleepovers by Liat Hughes Joshi, Pearson Life, paperback, RRP £10.99 (Kindle, £5.66).

Review: John Lewis outdoor LED lighting

11 Sep

My garden wouldn’t get within a mile of Chelsea. It is a plain square of grass with a few flowering weeds, some rotten apples (currently) and the usual detritus that accompanies children (trampoline, slide, residential complexes built for ants from sticks, grass and probably cat poo). Imagine my green-fingered delight then when I was asked to review some of John Lewis’ latest outdoor LED lighting. Goodbye wasteland, hello fairy dell!

The traditional lantern

Outdoor lighting

Arrrr! Holding this lantern aloft I have been a scary pirate and a fisherman so with the kids it’s safe to say it’s popular. This battery operated lantern has 21 LED lights (non-replaceable – I guess they last a long time) and mimics the style of a good old-fashioned lantern that you might see aboard ship (ahoy there). It’s not smooth and slick by any means – bits move, twist and go up and down (intentionally) as if it were a 50-year-old lantern that had been dragged into the 21st century and pimped with LEDs. That is, it looks authentic. This does lead me to wonder how long it will stay looking good – here you need to trust John Lewis’ tradition of quality.

Although the LEDs are on an adjustable dimmer switch, you couldn’t eat your ship biscuits and drink grog by the light of this lantern. It’s not enormously bright, but, as decorative rather than functional lighting should do, it casts an acceptably bright glow with no danger of turning your garden into a landing strip. (Believe me, I have neighbours who have to turn away 747s …)

The rattan line lights

Rattan lights

To me, ‘rattan’ evokes images of basket weave bathroom furniture, the cracks in the weave dusted with old talcum powder. Fortunately, these rattan line lights are far more appealing than that. Think glamping in a yurt; think secret garden; think … well, in my case, think ‘these are a darned sight better than our faded butterfly lights that have endured several winters and wet summers and have now seen better days’.

It took a couple of days in the garden to get these 10 solar powered LED light ‘balls’ up to their full strength, but once they were I was pleasantly surprised by how attractive they are. As with the lantern, they are not exceedingly bright but, really, you don’t expect more from decorative lights. They have a pretty glow and an equally pretty shadow. I was slightly concerned that the rattan balls would become rattan pulp after a couple of days in the garden but they seem to have survived the last few days of wind and rain in tip top condition.

I did wonder though what to actually ‘do’ with these lights. Whilst the total length of the lights (including the wire leading to the solar box) is 10.7ft, the length of the lights themselves is only 4ft. This isn’t quite long enough to make a real feature of them (for example, wound along a decking area or draped in a tree). John Lewis – I like these lovely lights very much but I would have preferred them to be longer. More balls please!

These products were sent to me free-of-charge and I was asked for nothing other than an objective review. The products are not currently available on the John Lewis website but keep your eyes peeled for them in the outdoor lighting section!

All change please!

29 Aug

Life changes

A few months back I made a momentous decision. I decided to leave the company where I had worked for 12 years (ie since I was young) and set sail on the choppy seas of being a freelance. This is my first week of living that decision. Whilst my head is spinning and I’m rattling between excitement and fear, sometimes you just have to grab life with two hands and have a bit of a tussle.

Since the brood arrived, I’ve always worked: full-time after my first then part-time after my second. I never really considered not working (aside from if I won the lottery obviously). I know that I don’t have the patience or organisational skills to be a stay-at-home-parent – and lashings of credit to those that do. It wasn’t until after my second child was born that I started to have pangs about missing out on spending more time with my rapidly growing kids. When we started to look at primary schools last year it suddenly struck me that the school years were really, truly, frighteningly close. No longer was I simply looking backwards at what I achingly thought I had already missed but I was suddenly conscious of what I might miss in the future.

Although I know most people manage it, the thought of having to organise pre- and after-school care for my eldest filled me with horror. I realised how important it is to me to be able to drop my daughter off (and pick her up of course – really, what kind of parent do you think I am?!) and to be there to help with reading and homework. Perhaps I am too idealistic. In reality I may end up cursing the school run, scuttling away from the gates because I can’t fit into skinny jeans or because another mother has looked at me in a funny way. Visions of sitting at the kitchen table doing sums together may turn out to be running battles over the TV remote and whether it’s okay to substitute a packet of Haribos in place of tea. Do you know what though? If I don’t try then I will never find out. Life is too short.

Continuing my current career as a freelance allows the flexibility I need as my daughter skips off into the education machine without a backward glance at me. Her brother will follow her in two years’ time but until then I am looking forward to spending more one-to-one time with him – something he hasn’t had over the last two years. He will continue to go to nursery three days a week to give me some ‘work time’. I believe strongly that nursery is a great social environment for children and that my two have benefited enormously from it. Yet I still struggle with the guilt that I should be doing that job, especially now I have opted to work from home, and wonder whether advocating nursery simply serves to make myself feel better. When I drop my son off at nursery and return home to my desk I know I will feel an overwhelming urge to go back and get him and wrap him in my arms (gorgeous little chunk that he is). It seems that parental guilt is never ending even when you’re aiming to do the best for everyone.

Now I just have to persuade my husband that it isn’t acceptable to guffaw when I say I’ve been working. But that’s another post and another strain of guilt entirely …

Review: Walkers Mighty Lights

27 Aug

Crisps Walkers

As we head towards the start of the new school term, parents’ minds turn to thoughts of new shoes, pencil cases and lunchboxes. Well, actually, not lunchboxes if like me you’ve opted for school meals and recoil in horror at the advance thought and preparation a packed lunch requires. How do those parents brave enough to choose the packed lunch option make it less of a daily hell? How do they ensure variety, a modicum of healthiness and, of course, happy kids? Well, Walkers might be here to help with their new line of crisps: Mighty Lights.

Mighty Lights are ridged crisps that contain 30% less fat than standard crisps. That probably makes you feel a little happier putting them in your kids’ lunchboxes. But wait for it, they’re also suitable for vegetarians and contain no artificial colours, preservatives or MSG. Crisps will never be perfect (what is?) but with Mighty Lights you might sleep a little more soundly. Mighty flavours include Cheese & Onion, Lightly Salted and Roast Chicken – a broad enough selection to satisfy even the pickiest of kids. (Although perhaps not the pickiest of mothers – where’s the Salt & Vinegar?)

After a recent traumatic experience leading a hungry toddler through a checkout I am a firm advocate of wrapping anything that might appeal to children in plain white packaging. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Mighty Lights packaging isn’t directed specifically at kids. It’s a lower fat crisp suitable for kids’ lunchboxes (it ticks the slightly healthier option box) but that doesn’t stop adults wanting to get their hands on them. For this reason I’ve split my review in two and roped in Big Kids (aka my lovely colleagues at work, always game for snacks) and Little Kids (aka my 4-year-old and 2-year-old) to give their verdicts.

The Big Kids

Walkers crisps

Like seagulls following a fishing boat, I had barely laid the packets out before the Big Kids swooped. Between crunches (obviously not of the abdominal kind) and wiping crumbs from their keyboards, this is what the Big Kids said:

“Plenty in the packet, flavour not too strong, lovely and light! Would definitely buy.”

“I’ve got the roast chicken flavour – I’m pleasantly surprised (I always think that low-fat crisps are going to be a bit tasteless, but these have a nice flavour). They’re not as greasy as full fat ones (my fingers aren’t covered in grease and flavouring, which is good) but they seem a lot thinner than ‘normal’ crisps, so are possibly a bit less satisfying to eat …”

“It’s a bit of a surprise how small they are, but I liked the fun element in this and it helped remind me not to scoff them so quickly.”

“Nicer than expected but not really low-calorie.”

The Big Kids are the sensible guys. They know that crisps, regardless of whether they’re lower in fat than the average crisp, are never going to be the new fruit. That aside, they score the Mighty Lights high on both flavor and low-fat appeal. And I’d not even bribed them with wine and photocopying favours.

The Little Kids

Walkers crisps

Forget sensible with the Little Kids. These are the reviewers who speak with their stomachs rather than their brains:

4yo: I think it’s very nice and they do taste a bit like roast beef … [mummy interjects] … roast chicken, whatever it is. But they do taste quite nice.

2yo: [Do you like the crisps?] Yes. [Are they yummy?] Yes. [Are they yummy yummy …] In my tummy!

I asked my toddler whether I could have one of his crisps and, as he swiped them away, was told “no, they are too yucky”. The fact that he was driven to lie to avoid sharing is testimony to the impact Mighty Lights clearly had on him. Let’s gloss over in what way it pays testimony to my parenting.

Happy packed lunching!

This is a sponsored post for Walkers and I received the snack products pictured as well as compensation for writing this review. However, all opinions are my own (or my guinea pigs!) and I was under no obligation to write a positive review.

When’s a tweet not a tweet?

25 Aug

at800

When it’s a postcard. No really, paper is back. But we’re not going as far back as tweets printed on ticker-tape. Thanks to at800, the humble postcard is the latest way to reach the friends and relatives you’ve not yet been able to drag kicking and screaming into the 21st century world of Twitter.

at800 has launched the UK’s first and only free postbox for your tweets. Of course, it’s not done out of the kindness of their hearts. What lies behind this clever wheeze is at800’s campaign to minimise the disruption that the rollout of 4G at 800 MHz may cause to Freeview services. at800 are in the process of sending out their own postcards to the households where signals may be affected. In the areas where disruption is likely, they will also be supplying free filters to block the 4G signal at 800 MHz and ensure Freeview services are unaffected.

If you like gimmicks that help spread the word then send a free postcard to a non-tweep. They must be living in an area where 4G at 800 MHz will soon be activated (you can check this on at800’s website). If they are then it’s as simple as sending a tweet with the hashtag #at800postbox and then following @at800tv so that they can DM you for address details. Your lucky recipient will then receive a postcard (yes, on paper!) with your neat little tweet on it (and of course lots of useful info about how at800 can help stop you missing the latest episode of Jeremy Kyle).

You may be wondering who I sent my postcard tweet to. I tried to think of someone for whom the loss of television would be a right royal pain in the behind. Someone like me: a parent. I hope my postcard spares her some stress and a few tantrums.

Thank you to at800 for inviting me to write about their postcard campaign. I did not receive any payment for doing this. Full information and a stack load of FAQs can be found on at800’s website.

Review: Radical Reward Charts

11 Aug

Reward chart

Parents are constantly given tips on how to ensure their children’s good behaviour. Family, friends, magazines, experts, Gina et al, they all add their twopence worth, asked for or not. Should we over praise, under praise (tiger mom, grrr!), bribe, deprive, reward, or even get down on the floor and tantrum with the best of ’em – it seems that the parent’s toolbox is endless. However there is one approach which seems to be universally lauded: the reward chart.

I am a latecomer to reward charts. We once had a scrap of paper and some stickers – it seemed to do the job for there aren’t many children who can resist a sticker – but that was our first and last reward chart experience. There was some excitement then when I got the chance to review Radical Reward Charts, described on their website as ‘A Parent’s Best Friend’. My 4-year-old is seriously testing boundaries (and my patience) at the moment. Her 2-year-old brother has recently found his voice and with it the defiance of a teenager. Dare I hope the charts could work miracles? Here is the baseline we started at:

Me: Shall we put the reward charts up?

4yo: Yes, because my behaviour is getting a bit bad. I’ll do nothing all day to make sure I don’t do anything bad. I’ll just walk in circles round and round my room.

Errr ... think you need to be putting that a bit lower down.

Errr … think you need to be putting that a bit lower down.

Unlike my scraps of paper, the Radical Reward Charts are beautifully illustrated and lovely to look at and – should you ever find your kids too angelic for their own good and racing through the charts (I can only dream) – they are reusable. My 4-year-old daughter chose the Reedy River design and my 2-year-old boy was lured by the caterpillar and frog on Grungy Garden. Most exciting of all for them were the personalised markers: laminated photos of their own mini-selves. A cracking idea to make climbing the chart just that little bit more fun.

The charts arrived with instructions. That there are any rules governing reward charting is new to me, but it turns out I’d got it horribly wrong with my only other attempt. Apparently you should “not put your child DOWN the chart if they misbehave”. Ah. But it had such a wonderful (dramatic) effect previously! I’m abiding by the rules this time; however I have been using the threat that there will be no more moving UP the chart if you don’t get off of your brother’s head.

I really ought to have read the instructions before agreeing what is to be the ultimate reward when the 20th notch is reached by my daughter. “It’s often a good idea to let them choose the reward” – CHECK – for example “small novelty items, sweets” – ERRRR. It’s a symptom of (a) society, (b) the power of advertising and/or (c) my weak parenting skills that against my best judgment I agreed to a pair of Lelli Kelly shoes. I know, I know, vile things – what was I thinking? (I tell you what I’m thinking now (between kicking myself): EBAY.)

Children's behaviour

Think how easy it would be to manage a pocket-sized child!

So, are the charts working? With the 2-year-old I have no idea. He doesn’t quite yet get the idea of incentives. Obviously he’s rewarded but I couldn’t say that the prospect of moving up the chart makes him think twice about how he behaves. My 4-year-old, however, gets it and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see an increase in spontaneous good behaviour. I knew there would be a danger that every good deed could be deemed worthy of a trip up the reward chart. According to the accompanying instructions, rewards are most effective if “given for something completely unexpected”. This seems to work and has so far generated further unexpected good behaviour. Progress up the chart to date has been for eating courgettes at nursery, playing nicely with visitors’ children and tidying up the dinner table.

The Radical Rewards Charts may not be an entirely new concept but for a newbie like me they provide an attractive alternative to other charts I’ve seen. At £14 a chart (including P&P and a personalised mini figure) they’re not cheap and for this I expect quality. I feel I got this with the Radical Reward Charts, plus as they’re reusable they are value for money to boot.

We’re making slow progress up the charts but we’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, we’re some time away from having to line the pockets of a certain shoe brand. That’s almost incentive enough for me to encourage bad behaviour!

Thank you to Amanda at Radical Reward Charts who sent me these products free-of-charge and asked for nothing other than an objective review.

@adadcalledspen

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