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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).

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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: 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.

Vicky Arlidge: From nappies to neeps

21 Jul

Mum, Can You Wipe My Bum?

Vicky Arlidge, a St Albans composer and musician, takes her one-woman comedy show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next month. Here she talks to me about her journey from teaching toddler music classes to gearing up to raise laughs at the world’s largest arts festival.

When Vicky Arlidge posted a performance of her song Mum, Can You Wipe My Bum? online she didn’t expect it to receive over 10,000 hits worldwide. It was the start of a new direction in Vicky’s career, transforming her from composer, music teacher and musician to stand-up musical comedian complete with ukulele and keyboard.

Vicky is now looking to bring her observational comedy about the frustrations of being a mum and wife to a wider audience.

“I could be giving it all up,” she laughs nervously when asked to picture the scenario when her Edinburgh Fringe Festival run is over: “It goes terribly wrong, I get no audiences, I get terrible reviews and no one’s interested”.

With her hair neatly clipped to one side, Vicky appears unassuming – your everyday mum on the school run. But on stage her incisive wit and ability to make her audience squirm in recognition is far from ordinary. An accomplished musician, Vicky has over 20 years’ experience of composing for theatre, television and film as well as performing and teaching music. In 2008 she set up Pitter Patter Music to provide music classes for babies and toddlers in St Albans – you could say she is used to a tough audience.

“I’m not the funniest person I know”, says Vicky. ”The only difference between me and everyone else is that I’m the one who’s got up on stage, I’m stupid enough to do that.”

With songs such as Raucous Raunchy Sex Or A Nice Cup of Tea, The School Run Madrigal Vicky describes being a mother as an essential part of her comedy: “Fifty per cent of my comedy is about being a mum”. Vicky has hit a winning formula judging by her recent sell-out preview show in St Albans. Still glowing, Vicky looks back on it as one of her “best audiences ever”.

Vicky discovered her talent for musical comedy when she set out to write a pop song after a testing day.  “I was a full-time mum,” she says, “getting really frustrated at not doing anything creative – just changing nappies and dealing with tantrums all day long and going a bit nuts.” That pop song turned into Mum, Can You Wipe My Bum? When it became an internet hit, Vicky realised that she missed the buzz of having an audience: “I never thought I’d be a musical comedian, it never entered my head until I was 40-whatever. I just fell into it.”

She started going to what she half-seriously describes as “dodgy comedy clubs”, the training ground for new comedians. Forcing Vicky to learn “from the hardest audience”, they proved to be very different from the musical world Vicky was used to. Why didn’t the bad gigs put her off? “Because I’m very stubborn and determined,” she says firmly. Her tone softens and she adds: “It makes you feel so great, just to laugh. To make a whole room of people laugh is a great feeling.”

Vicky’s humorous take on everyday life has led to her being compared to Victoria Wood. “I’m really flattered,” Vicky smiles. “She’s funny but very funny in a homely way. She has an unmacho humour that appeals to women.” Vicky readily acknowledges that a large part of her own audience is women. But this doesn’t mean her comedy is tame. There is a naughty glint in her eye when she admits her tendency to slip a few bad words into her songs.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a daunting prospect for all comedians, particularly first-timers. The average audience for a show is just three people. Taking part is an expensive business and requires a vast amount of preparation. But with that comes the hope of being discovered and exposed to a nationwide audience.

“It feels like a rite of passage,” Vicky says. “If you want to be a comedian you have to go to Edinburgh. You do it for what happens around Edinburgh. You take yourself more seriously and other people start to take you more seriously.”

Despite being nervous about what Edinburgh holds, Vicky is enjoying every minute: “It’s just the laughter I think,” she says. “I love writing the songs, the creativity. I’d love it if I could give up the day job and write silly songs all day and make people laugh at night – that would be perfect.”

Vicky’s show Mum, Can You Wipe My Bum? runs from August 2nd-10th at the C venues – C Nova, Edinburgh. Tickets are available here.

Remember, remember the … errrrrr …. did I switch the gas off?

28 May

Toddler me

As a mum I spend rather too much time lamenting how quickly time passes. Memories ought to document these fleeting years, but, whilst I remember events, I struggle to conjure up memories that make me feel the recent past. It seems as if my memories of my children have been lost in the blur that has been the 4 years since they entered this world.

I had begun to believe that I had a case of advanced and irreversible baby brain. It was therefore a surprise when I started to experience moments of clarity from my own childhood. That feels odd when you can barely remember what you had for breakfast. Little things that I see, little things that my kids do more and more frequently trigger a portal into my formative years.

As we sit as a family on the sofa I am transported back to always being the one to get the middle seat (on what in those days was called a ‘settee’) between my older brother and sister. Tiny fingers on brown velour in the early days (the 70s) then bigger fingers on floral patterns as my parents transitioned from the 80s to the early 90s. To my left, my brother, capable of emitting endless noxious gases (he still is) and smelling of muddy football pitches. To my right my big sister, a grown-up in my eyes yet still demanding that I scratch her arms whilst she watches Top of the Pops.

At the gym on a Saturday morning I look down over the swimming lessons. I remember such lessons well, but what I picture above all is swimming in old pyjamas (I can even remember which ones). I had expected times to have moved on but apparently swimming in pyjamas wasn’t peculiar to the 1980s. It is clearly on the list of things a British schoolchild must endure along with country dancing and learning the recorder. I found swimming lessons traumatic enough but wrap me in waterlogged material and you’ve a recipe for vivid recollection. The smell of chlorine, rubber swimming hats and verruca socks wafts back under my nose. The roof of the poorly lit public bath looms above my head while I wait my turn to try to pick an unfeasibly large black brick up off the pool floor, eyes shut and fully clad in 100% polyester. Fumbling, billowing and, in the main, unsuccessful.

Insights into your own past can of course help you to empathise with the present. Tempting as it is to get irritated by my daughter’s compulsion to collect things and become obsessively protective of them, I am transported back to a time when I was immensely proud of my rubber collection: a plastic sweet jar full of novelty rubbers mainly collected on school trips. Most clear in my mind is the rubber in the shape of a t-shirt which came in a box designed to look like a washing powder packet. I can still invoke its chemical scent – strong enough to induce a sneeze. The joy of setting the collection out, showing it to friends, yet never letting it near a smudge of pencil.

When I despair at my kids’ reluctance to share I suddenly remember how painful it felt when a friend chose Paulette Poodle from my Fabuland collection before I had a chance to. That’s how darned big and important little things can seem when you’re a child. Counting your teddies and religiously wishing each and every one of them goodnight (in order of course) is not necessarily a sign of the early onset of OCD.

I am longing to create for my children memories that they can conjure up in 30 or 40 years’ time and feel, smell and taste their childhood. “Do you remember when we went to … ?” “Do you remember how Mum used to …?” Most important of all, I want those memories to make them feel warm and nostalgic in the same way I do when I catch those flashes of my own smaller, pudgier and easier to please self.

Sad (or School Allocation Day)

17 Apr

School run

The last few days have been anxious ones for parents as they waited for news of where their little darlings will start their formative years in education. Primary school allocation day. Nerves have not been so frayed since this year’s mamas and papas twisted their hair and scuffed their Doc Martens waiting for exam results. The anxiety isn’t helped by what is seen to be a complicated (and seemingly random) allocation system. It’s another challenge on the rocky, emotional road that is parenting.

The wait between the application deadline and allocation date is a long one – three months. Quite what is happening during this period is uncertain. One can only imagine that FBI checks are being run, dustbins rifled through and shopping habits scrutinised. We were delighted to get our first choice (thanks to our close proximity to the school) but we still had three long months of not daring to count our chickens. Of course, none of the available schools are ‘bad’ but they do each have a different ‘feel’ that you need to be happy with. (Obviously, my choice was not at all swayed by the Convenience (C) equation: C = X + Y, where X equals eXtra time in bed and Y equals Years of life spent on same stretch of pavement making sure kids don’t run into the road or step in dog poop.)

I wasn’t prepared for how emotional today would be. Once the initial excitement of getting the school we wanted had passed, the significance of the moment started to set in. My little girl would be going to school. Really, truly. I even shed a tear or two, something I had not expected to do until she actually starts school. Four months of blubbing beckons for me as the build-up to September starts: buying her uniform, the school visits before the summer holidays, choosing a pencil case … Another chapter in my life as a parent is well and truly opening.

Am I ready for it? Excuse the selfishness but I think the girl will be fine – after all, her excitement today was focused around the colour of the uniform. The prospect of structure, PE and making new friends hardly factors. So back to me. Life is going to change. What are my concerns?

  • Can I accept that my daughter is growing up? Will I start dressing my 2-year-old son as a baby again and push him around in a pram in a desperate attempt to keep at least one of my kids needing me. (Buying a cat is also an option here.)
  • Will my precarious self-esteem survive life at the school gates? Will it be a bed of roses or the snake pit I’m led to believe it is?
  • How the jiggins will I cope with having to feed her tea every day of the week? I currently struggle with being imaginative twice a week. Does tinned mackerel constitute a balanced diet? (The aforementioned cat would be in for a treat at least.)
  • Will I be required to only leave the house in full make-up, possibly purchase Ugg boots, and, worst of all, join the ranks of the Ballet Mums skilled in the dark art of making other mothers feel uncomfortable?

My worries for my daughter are another blog post entirely. For the moment, I’m wallowing in my own regret at the speed with which time passes. Sometimes it’s difficult to focus on the parental joys you have already experienced and those that are yet to come. Every stage of being a parent involves some form of letting go and accepting that life is changing and changing rapidly. The pride that can bring is often tinged with sadness. As I watch my daughter head off for her first day at primary school I’m sure I’ll be grateful that it’s just her new found independence I’m worrying about and not the length of her skirt or the boy waiting for her at the school gate. That is all still to come. God help me.

Yummy Mummy or Boring Bob?

27 Mar

women's magazines

I am at an age where I’m old enough to be someone’s mother. I am actually a mother as I have two kids. What I mean is that I am now old enough to be the mother (maybe even grandmother) of the generation I consider to be ‘young’, the wannabes, the men and women who will be our next future. And that makes me feel old. Listen closely enough and I can sometimes be heard uttering the telling phrase: “Policemen are so young these days”. What’s a girl woman to do when she finds herself at the top of  a slippery slope grabbing on for dear life with her stubby fingernails?

I’m not a big fan of health and beauty magazines aimed at women. They’re very pretty to look at and sometimes even include an interesting feature amidst their trivialisation of women (under the guise of empowerment of course). They have the ability to tweak the love handles and poke the pimples of anyone harbouring a dash of insecurity. One day they could even be the cause of my daughter valuing lipstick over the human race. It was to my horror then that I found myself reaching for the latest issue of the Boots Health & Beauty magazine looking for inspiration and solace. Such depths of self-pity had I reached.

Egged on by the promise of “tiny and oh-so-doable steps” and just the hint of the chance to CHANGE MY LIFE, I stumbled across Louise Kearney whose goal was to “look glam at the school gates”:

“When I drop the kids off at school, the other mums always look so well turned out and cool – I wish I knew their secret! … I’d love to re-invent myself as a yummier mummy, but I’ve got no idea where to start.”

Louise may have been smiling in the photo but it was a desperate cry for help and it struck a chord. My two children are now old enough that I can start to reclaim my body safe in the knowledge that I’m not planning a pregnancy that will come and b*gger it all up again. Like Louise, I will become a school runner from September when my oldest starts to drag me daily into the snake pit that I’m led to believe the school playground to be. Oh clever, clever Boots magazine! Louise could be me. I was practically ripping open the laptop to order the magical products prescribed to cure lovely Louise of her baggy mumsiness.

Most exciting of all was the discovery that I was already halfway there to achieving the status of aged, yet desirable, woman. I have a bob. There was me thinking I had a boring old haircut. But no, look in the mirror again and feel the power of the bob. According to Lord Trevor of Sorbie, Louise’s ‘hair expert’ in the article, a razored bob is the way forward: “Trust me – a shorter style will help turn back the clock”. I trust you Trevor, I trust you.

Content that I now had the tools to be gorgeous, I let my guard down and dipped into the rest of the magazine. Little did I realise that my new found confidence was about to be shaken. On page 24 I received the following slap in the face courtesy of the magazine’s columnist, soon to be 40-year-old (gasp!) Katy Regan:

“Plus I’ll ditch the bob, which my twenty-something make stylist informs me ‘is a look only women over 35 go for these days’!”

Only sad, desperate old women over 35. The bob: the blue-rinse for the 30-something generation. How we’ll laugh at them behind their backs when they ask for a cut a bit more ‘Ann Hathaway’ and we tell them that a bob would much better flatter their face shape. It hides the wrinkles and the jowls, darling. Know thy place.

The world of women’s magazines yet again reveals just how superficial it can be. Whilst I am frightened by the industry’s output and the negative impact it can have on self image, I am even more frightened that there are people (usually women) writing this content and failing to see the hypocrisy of it. Scarier still is if they are producing the content in full knowledge of their influence but are choosing to subjugate any twinges of sisterly solidarity. Of course these magazines have their place and should never be taken too seriously (indeed, I feel I am getting a bit serious here and may need to pause to adjust my blue stockings). But the potential of even the most lightweight and frivolous of magazines to do harm should never be underestimated. Especially by an old duffer with a bob like me.

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