Ready, Steady… Sports Day!

Sports day is one of those rites of passage that we’ve all got memories of (my love of obstacle races is still alive and kicking).  Yet it wasn’t so long ago that sports days were relegated to the dog house, when competition was viewed as a bad thing for kids.  Instead, in the name of inclusivity, the focus was about celebrating participation – where everyone was a winner. But kids aren’t daft – they’d have known who was turbo-charged and adults were underestimating them by avoiding making the obvious even more so.

Unfortunately, shielding the less observant and more sensitive kids from competition just misleads them about a fact of life. The well-meant desire to avoid such challenges also feels a bit defeatist (like we are assuming the worst). As with a lot of things, sports day can show them that whilst they aren’t always going to win, they can still have fun. Such early experiences may even inoculate them from exam pressures in later years as they’ll have had practice in rising to the occasion.

The same fear probably underpins parental nervousness on the day itself – how will our kids cope if they’re at back of the pack? …but I don’t reckon those at the front get an easy ride either. Those who’re expected to win may feel pressure to perform – it’s not quite so obvious if you come 6th rather than 5th, but going from 1st to 3rd may hit harder. If you know it’s not ‘your race’, you can give it a go, enjoy it and anything else is a bonus. Whilst it’s true that you need to ‘be in it to win it’, the sense of deflation may be greater for those pipped to the post than those who come comfortably last.

Speaking of wanting to win, I need to eat my words about my eldest being laid-back, these days he’s as competitive as they come. Learning to lose graciously is still a work-in-progress though – and where sports day comes. Although I know it’s character-building, I still find it tricky to say the right thing, so usually end up with a schizophrenic mixture of morale-boosting platitudes: “don’t give up”, “give it your best”, swiftly followed afterwards by: “…it was only a race”.

As adults, we know it doesn’t matter a jot – but little disappointments can feel big when you’re small. Luckily, they take their cues from us, so if we brush them off, so will they in time. My guys have usually moved-on by dinner time and in any case, I’d like to think that defeat teaches them the value of modesty when things do go their way.

Unless you’re Judy Murray, who encouraged competition in her sons, or the fictitious parents in Claudia Winkleman’s comedy column, the racing mindset is the antithesis of what we say to our kids during the rest of the year.  All year we reinforce the need to help others and say things like “no, you go first…” in the name of civility, then one day in June it’s a case of every man for themselves (and quite literally, the survival of the fittest). We catch ourselves telling them to just have fun, do their best, or to unleash their inner Usain Bolt (despite the fact that they don’t run, pass batons or manhandle space hoppers during the rest of the year). We want them to be modest in victory, graceful in defeat, team-players and good sports.  Not much then.

But whilst most of us will be encouraging our kids to brush off defeat, parents of the winners seem to struggle too.  They usually look slightly embarrassed – no doubt privately elated, but wary of showing it in public.  I once commented to a Dad I didn’t know that his son had done amazingly well – the guy was modest in the extreme, verging on apologetic.

With the inevitable false starts, triumphs and defeats ahead – it’s time to brace ourselves (preferably with a chocolate biscuit in tow).

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‘It’s a marathon & not a sprint’ – and other life lessons we teach our kids

Why being imperfect makes us the perfect parents

I kicked myself this morning when I realised that the effort I’d taken to dig out a ‘black outfit’ (Kylo Ren) from our fancy-dress stash for my eldest’s school assembly had been in vain. I’d got the outfit out, but not managed to get it into his bag. My excuse was that I was simultaneously helping his younger brother make a jet pack for his friend – so much for our ability to multi-task.

I was annoyed that I’d tried and failed – more irritating than if I’d not tried at all. Perhaps it’s what Tiffany Dufu, author of ‘Drop the Ball’, means when she refers to the need to ‘drop the ball more strategically’. Hmmm… Despite my efforts, he still didn’t have the outfit at school.  Not only that, but I’d told him it was in his bag – proof that it’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings. I’d not only forgotten it, but also inadvertently confused things by telling him an untruth.

There were a few possible scenarios: (1) he’d think he’d lost it at school; (2) he’d think someone else has wandered off with it; or (3) he’d think I made a mistake and not put it in like I said I would.  There’s the problem.  Even though the first two options are pretty improbable with a zipped-up bag, he’s more likely to consider those by way of explanation than option (3). In general, I’m too reliable for him to consider that as a possibility.  Whilst I may pride myself in ‘always remembering’, I’m doing him a disservice as he’s not exposed to life’s lessons: we all forget sometimes, just as we all make mistakes, bad judgements and so on – but that doesn’t stop the world going round.

I also see the hole I dig for myself when I take the boys swimming.  They have their lessons one after the other, so have to wait and watch each other when it’s not their turn.  I take a feast for them to munch through, a variety of books and ‘stuff’ to entertain (resulting in so many bags that I don’t know whether I’m coming or going).  If I don’t provide the ‘full service’, then they are grumpy and hard work.  My husband however travels light.  He doesn’t think asking them to sit for 30 minutes should require a rolling buffet. As they’ve not come to expect it from him, they don’t declare they are about to “die of hunger”, or that “it’s soooo boring”.  They just get on with it.

As for the assembly outfit, I bet forgetting it bothers me more than it will him. It’s just made me see the trap that I’ve built for myself – which is even more ironic given that I use the same logic to reassure myself when we have to miss some school events.  I tell myself that the silver lining is that our kids see us working hard and will learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them.

Although I have the nagging annoyance that I didn’t make the grade this morning, all is not lost.  The outfit can be taken in tomorrow, as the assembly is not until later in the week. Even if I struggle to see it this way, when I get things wrong I may be helping him more than when I get them right. Now that he’s seven, he’s old enough to see that the world is not always stable, predictable and that his parents aren’t infallible.  He’s no longer a baby whose security depends on the reliability of the adults around him.  We all make mistakes. He may at times be told things which later turn out to be untrue. All the very minor disappointments (like forgetting to put a snack, or the outfit in his bag), gently reveal that people and the world aren’t perfect – and yet the world still goes on turning.

More on parenting

Growing Pains – our kids and the internet

There’s so much reported about the terrors of technology including alarming statistics, with psychologists even saying it’s harder to be a parent of teenagers these days than for previous generations because of the perils of screen time, social media, grooming and gaming, not to mention cyber-bullying.  As the first iPhone was only released in 2006, the same year as Facebook became generally available to anyone over 13 (Javis, 2017), we’re only just becoming aware of the pitfalls.

The challenges posed by social networking are ironically due to its advantages (Boyd, 2014): the durability of content over time, breadth of the potential audience, as well as the ease of ‘sharing’ and ‘searchability’ of content.  These attributes make the usual process of growing up (including working out who you are, taking risks, being influenced by peers) is now done online, in public, in what’s basically a global version of an unsupervised youth centre. Some argue that the use of social networking has risen in response to parental concern for environmental dangers in the real world.  Kids may be no longer be hanging out on street corners, but are roaming the internet from their bedrooms (Boyd, 2014).

Although the risks associated with social networking are not unique to teenagers, psychologists feel that they are more vulnerable because of their heightened need for approval, tendency to over-share, fear of missing out, susceptibility to peer influence and attitude to risk.  Teens haven’t established a clear sense of who they are (their brains aren’t fully formed until their mid-twenties) – and as they lack such inner anchors, are more susceptible as a result.  There have also been incidents where kids haven’t realised the seemingly obvious – that material can be seen by people beyond their ‘friends’ and that whatever they post leaves an indelible trail.

This idea of a digital footprint has given rise to the notion of a ‘tethered identity’ – where they may feel unable to leave behind the person they were in their adolescence and those with whom they associate (Tukle, 2011). Whilst making mistakes as teenagers is not new, making them so publicly with an unknown audience is.  As the BBC’s documentary ‘Child of our Time’ highlighted, people change considerably through their formative years – it therefore seems unfair to hold a person prisoner to what they were like in their teens once they reach adulthood.

The situation is seemingly exacerbated if (like me), you have boys – as they’ve hit the headlines for needing the drastic action of a headmaster who confiscated games consoles from their homes to break the spell held over them.  It also seems that young men are the biggest consumers of online porn, with boys being first exposed to it at scarily early ages.

Just to add another kick in the proverbials, the former headmaster of Harrow School (Barnaby Lenon) was recently quoted as saying “Ninety-nine per cent of boys I have had to deal with are lazy” (words of a man who taught boys, but only has daughters himself).  Here’s hoping his experience reflects a peculiarity of the privileged.  Otherwise boy-bashing may become a self-fulfilling prophecy – it’s not the current generation’s fault that their gender may have conferred advantages for their forefathers (and still would certain parts of the world).  This backlash seems to be doing little more than creating a gender inequality in reverse.

So, the tsunami of panic gathers momentum amidst warnings of an unavoidable social Armageddon involving those closest to our hearts – but as with all ‘problems’, solutions are also being proposed.  Psychologist Ian Williamson (2017) gives a useful steer for getting through those tricky teenage years.  He suggests that we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff (untidy rooms and moodiness) to avoid diluting the message and distracting from what’s important.  It’s music to my ears that not everything matters, after all, we’d drive ourselves (and our kids) nuts if it did.  Never mind the stresses facing our youth, what about us? There’s so much to worry about, we’ll need a rota to get through it soon.

Of course, some remove their families from the perils of modern life (as highlighted by Channel 5’s ‘New Lives in the Wild’), but it’s harder to tread a middle line.  I don’t want to deny my kids access (and then face the insatiable lure of forbidden fruit), but nor am I champing at the bit for them to be on the internet, updating their status or texting into the night. Whilst I don’t like idea of snooping on them, we face the problem that these days ‘Katie, aged 13’ could be Tony, aged 47.

Despite lacking in the charm department, Lenon does however some good tips for dealing with teens.  There are some reoccurring themes in the advice for dealing with teens amongst psychologists and social commentators alike, with the following offered by Williamson:

  • Don’t try to be your child’s BFF, there should be consequences for misdemeanours, so we shouldn’t avoid conflict, but accept being a good parent doesn’t mean always being in their good books, or being their best friend
  • Let the small things go, e.g. messy bedrooms – one less thing to argue over can only be a good thing
  • Rules and curfews for internet-use are a help not a hindrance – such as no phones after 7/8pm for under 16s (apparently kids can’t self-regulate at this age); nor should they have passwords on their phones at this age.  He also suggests parents should periodically check their messages (but not stalk them!). Elsewhere, others say computer-use should be restricted to two hours per day for those who are under 16
  • Don’t get drawn into tit-for-tat arguments – as teenagers love drama and a bit of door-slamming, he suggests that it’s best not to rise to the bate, but accept that a degree of irritability and self-centredness is part of growing up, so we should let some of it go
  • Use consequences, but don’t lecture – he cautioned about the value of ‘talking it through’ with kids, saying that it doesn’t work.  Instead he suggests implementing consequences that have a real impact them, for example, by restricting their money and mobile use.  He advises to ‘link responsibility and trust to independence’
  • Beware if it’s going well – he says that the 15-19yr age group are masters at deception, so if all looks fine on the surface, things may not be as they seem (eek…)
  • Low grades for effort show fear of failure – this muddies the water a bit with Lenon’s view that most boys are lazy, but it feels a bit less damming to consider other explanations for lack of effort

He concluded by saying that kids really just need “resilience, a work ethic and a moral compass” to get by in life and that it’s our job as parents to help our kids build them. But maybe there’s also something to be said for trying to ensure the real-world offers real pleasures, so that the online world is less mesmerising as a result?

Further Reading:

Read similar articles about parenting and child development

Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood (book)

References and related content:

Biddulph, S. (2017). 10 Things Girls Need Most to Grow Up Strong and Free

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens

Candy, L. (2017). Parenting: How to help girls grow up happy (references Biddulph’s book).  The Times 16 April 2017

de Botton, A. (2014).  The Dangers of the Internet, The School of Life

Whitworth, D. (2017).  The trouble with boys (are their dads to blame?) (Interview with Lenon). The Times 11 April 2017

Jarvis, P. (2017) ‘Caution: Identity Under Construction, The Psychologist, p.28-41, May 2017

Lenon, B. (2017). Much Promise, Successful Schools in England

Rachel Carlyle (2017). Raising teenagers: The top psychologist’s guide for parents (cites Williamson’s book). The Times 22 April 2017

Tukle, S. (2011). Alone Together

Williamson, I. (2017). We Need to Talk (published on May 4)




Life Beyond Marshmallows – the test revisited

I have a confession to make – I did the Marshmallow Test (“one now, or two later?”) with my son when he was four years old. The time-honoured finding of the test is that those who can sit it out for a bigger reward at the age of four are more likely to have higher educational attainment, more fulfilling careers and lives in adulthood due to their ability to delay gratification.

The self-control that they exhibit when waiting for the sweets predicts that they are more likely to work hard for exams, promotions and that they are less likely to succumb to excesses and even resist temptations to stray in relationships.  I know.  I bet you’re thinking I was an idiot to do the test on my son.  After all, how would I feel if he didn’t manage to sit it out? Would this supposed prediction into the future be a difficult burden to bare?

Perhaps I wouldn’t have done it if I thought too much about the ramifications, instead I was tempted by a combination of curiosity and opportunity.  I was in a phase of feeling like I didn’t really know what made my son tick and coincidentally I happened to be reading Mischel’s book where the infamous studies dating back to the 1960s are explained.

Whilst my son chose to wait, it turns out I needn’t have worried if he didn’t.  Recent research suggests that behaviour during the test may not give us the full picture of why those who wait are more successful in their later lives.  The fuller explanation which is now emerging suggests that the potential benefits bestowed upon the 30% of children who wait are accessible to all – given that it has less to do with an inner trait and more to do with teachable tactics.  Mind you, it’s also worth noting that critics of the test say that it doesn’t test the child at all, but instead reflects the degree to which the adult can be trusted to fulfil their promise of “two later” (and by implication, the consistency of care given to the child).

It’s the research conducted by Oxford University (Levy, 2015) that’s refined the understanding of self-control (and therefore the implications of the Marshmallow Test) by distinguishing between two contributory factors affecting our ability to delay gratification: (1) our willpower and (2) our use of self-management strategies.

  1. Willpower is best described as ‘control exerted to do something or restrain impulses’, a case of mind over matter if you like
  2. Self-management strategies are made up of two elements (Paul Dolan, 2014):
  • Practical steps we take to nudge ourselves towards the desirable behaviours that will take us closer to achieving our long-term goals, e.g. eating off smaller plates to lose weight, or putting our gym kit out in the evening to make it more likely to go in the morning (to get fit). These strategies remove the need for us to rely on conscious effort to do certain things and therefore make us more likely to do it.
  • It also includes changing our attention, either by distracting ourselves (e.g. those successful at the marshmallow test sang to take their mind off the sweets in front of them); ‘reframing’ target of our focus (e.g. seeing marshmallows as ‘fluffy clouds’ rather than edible sweets, seeing cigarettes as ‘cancer sticks’).

The researchers found:

  1. Willpower is a limited resource and is susceptible to fatigue – we only have so much in our tank.
  1. It’s like a muscle, the more you use willpower, the stronger it becomes.
  1. Those with high self-control rely on self-management strategies and therefore have surprisingly low willpower (because they don’t practice it). If they are given a test which prevents them from using their self-management strategies, they perform worse than those with low self-control.
  1. High self-control subjects are also more susceptible to the debilitating effects of fatigue than low self-control subjects.
  1. Glucose indirectly counteracts the effects of fatigue, by signalling to the old part of our brain that “reward is coming” (i.e. “food” in caveman terms) – which helps us to hold out for longer. This effect is more pronounced in those with high self-control (a scientific excuse for chocolate…).
  1. So, if you want to improve your self-control (or your child is a potential marshmallow-guzzler), then you can do so by developing self-management strategies, rather than relying on willpower alone.
  1. As adults, it also implies the need to be realistic, in that we can’t expect ourselves to maintain our self-control across multiple areas of our lives over a sustained period – something is going to give. We’ve only got to look at Tiger Woods and other celebrities who are famed for their seemingly uncharacteristic lapses in self-control in certain areas of their lives, whilst maintaining absolute control in others.

But what do self-management strategies look like in the real world? Well, I’m sure if you look at what you do on a daily basis with your kids, you’ll be using heaps.  Here’s a couple of examples from our family which illustrate the two types of ‘self-management strategies’:

  • Example of diverting attention: We tell our sons to distract themselves when they are drooling with hunger before mealtimes and that they’ll only make it harder to wait if they stand and watch us cook. ‘A watched kettle never boils’ as they say…
  • Example of a nudge: We leave the list of spellings that need to be learnt out on the kitchen table overnight to serve as a prompt to practice them straight after breakfast in the morning. If they are not done then, there’s lots of huffing and puffing about it. But by doing them routinely in the morning, he barely bats an eyelid.

So, we can all no doubt breathe easy in the knowledge that there’s stuff we’re already doing which demonstrate effective strategies and which will pave the way for them developing their own.

You could therefore argue that if that’s the case, there’s no need for us to bother unpicking the meaning behind marshmallow-eating.  For many, that may be true, but by understanding how these inner processes work, we can retrain our brains to get the outcomes we want and prevent ourselves (and our kids) falling off the proverbial bandwagon. Whilst some four-year olds may utilise the self-management strategies more naturally than others, the great news is that we can all learn.


Leverhulme Lecture (1): Self-Control: A problem of self-management (Levy, 2015)

Leverhulme Lecuture (2): The science of self-control (Levy, 2015)

Leverhulme Lecture (3): Marshmallows and moderation (Levy, 2015)

Mischel (2015).  Marshmallow Test – Understanding Self-Control

Paul Dolan (2014) Happiness By Design

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Trying to be mates with the cool kid

At my kids’ school they do a Mothers’ Day assembly following a similar format each year, with each child saying the thing they love most about their mum. It’s become a bit like an annual appraisal in a darkly comedic way.  Tres awks to get the feedback from those you love most in a roomful of people. Thing is, it’s not meant to be negative at all, quite the opposite – but the fear of being dammed with false praise, or the implications of what they leave out looms large. Now that both of mine are at school together, I wonder what this year holds. My eldest has done the assembly for a couple of years now and a repeating theme is that he loves bedtime stories as much as me.

However, I’m curious to hear what my youngest comes up with. He’s not the sentimental type and has a cheeky streak, so I reckon I should prepare myself for anything (and try not to take it personally). Unfortunately I also know that he thinks of me as chief-nagger, since one of the consequences of him being a jolly, fun soul is that he’s got a tendency to see rules as a bit of a game. Whilst I don’t want to squash the fun out of him, I’ve also got the poisoned chalice of guiding him down the straight and narrow.  Fun though it may be, doing a moony at the hairdresser’s receptionist isn’t what I aspire for him.

I also wonder what the neighbours must think when I’m sounding like a fishwife, chivvying him along in the morning, whilst it’s a tad embarrassing, I also know that it’s what he thinks that really counts.  In a protracted nightly ritual, our days end with echoes of “love you lots pops, see you in the morning for a lovely breakfast”. I also tell him that I love him even when I’m telling him off (“you know we love you very much, but…”).  However, as we’re selective in our recollections, I don’t know if he’ll remember those moments or hear those messages.  Mind you, I also wonder whether he listens through the glazed-look he gives when being told off, but every day is a new day and another chance for us to start afresh (including me).

The assembly will come and go and what he says may or may not reflect what he’ll look back on in the future – he’ll no doubt develop a generalised view over time (who knows what that will be).

I know it’s an odd thing to say about a five year old, but he makes us work for his affection, he’s a bit “yeah yeah” when we tell him we love him, cuddle him or hold his hand (friends assure me this is a power game and that he likes to have things on his terms).  In the past he’s told me off for being too enthusiastic in response to his early efforts at reading (my praise apparently put him off) and when I ask about his day (it’s tiresome to explain stuff he already knows).  A case of “treat ‘em mean keep ‘em keen” you might say, and because he associates overt affection with being babied (presumably because he is the baby of the family).  It also appears as though he doesn’t need as much affirmation as we do.  Whilst it’s great that he’s confident and self-reliant, it’s also a bit sad that he appears to growing up quicker than his brother (who despite being two years older will happily hold our hands).

So basically, I’m like the keeno trying to be mates with the cool kid.  He knows it and we know it.  Of course I’m not going to temper my enthusiasm because I’m sure that one day he’ll forget to be cool and he might just like a hug after all.

Two perspectives – the internal dialogue of parents

I recently read Alain de Botton’s ‘The Course of Love’ – and appreciate the opposing views of both his critics and fans.  Funnily enough, my son misremembered the title and referred to it as “The curse of love” which made me chuckle as it isn’t a bad description of the long-term relationship described in the book – best summed up by his central idea that “love is a skill not an enthusiasm”.  It has lines like “the only people who can still strike us as normal are the ones we don’t know very well.  The best cure for love is to get to know them better” (blimey, a bit pessimistic don’t you think?!).  I know de Botton would dismiss my views as optimistic Romanticism, but that’s ok with me.  I’ll happily stick with the view from ‘Captain Correlli’s Mandolin’, that those who “…truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two” (I don’t think de Botton’s book will get quoted at quite so many weddings…).

The style as well as the conclusions in ‘The Course of Love’ won’t suit everyone (he uses a fictitious account of a marriage to illustrate his philosophical views about the relationships, switching between a narrator and his own voice as he does so), but I thought I’d give it a go after being intrigued by a review and it’s certainly interesting, even if you don’t agree with it all.  However, what’s specifically prompted this blog is this bit which made me chuckle:

“It’s just after seven on a Thursday evening.  Since this morning Rabih has attended four meetings, dealt with a failing tile supplier, cleared up (he hopes) a misconception about tax rebates and caught to bring the new CFO on board with a scheme for a client conference which would have great implications for the third quarter (or, alternatively it could be a bit of a mess).  He has had to stand in the aisle of a crowded commuter bus for half an hour each way and is now walking back from his stop in the rain.  He is thinking about how great it will finally be to get home, pour himself a glass of wine, read the children a chapter of The Famous Five, kiss them goodnight and sit down for a meal and some civilised conversation with his most sympathetic ally and friend, his spouse.  He is at the end of his tether and inclined to feel (justifiably) sorry for himself.

Kirsten has meanwhile been home almost all day. After driving the children to school (there was an ugly fight in the car over a pencil case), she put away breakfast, made the beds, took three work-related calls (her colleagues seem to have a hard time remembering she’s not in the office on Thursdays or Fridays), cleaned two bathrooms, vacuumed the house and sorted out everyone’s summer clothes.  She arranged for a plumber to come and look at the taps, picked up the dry cleaning and delivered a chair to be reupholstered, booked a dental check-up for William, collected the children from school, prepared and fed them a (healthy) snack, cajoled them into doing their homework, got supper ready, ran a bath and cleaned a set of ink stains off the living room floor.  Now she is thinking how great it will be to finally have Rabhi come home and take over, so she can pour herself a glass of wine, read the children a chapter of The Famous Five, kiss them goodnight and sit down for a meal and some civilised conversation with her most sympathetic ally and friend, her spouse.  She is at the end of her tether and inclined to feel (justifiably) sorry for herself.”

However, things unravel for the characters because they don’t say what they mean, so they then bicker over the laundry instead of having the evening that they were both looking forward to.  He then explains that this illustrates current parenting challenges: “Both are engaged with sufficient share of the other’s primary task not to be in any mood for unalloyed gratitude”, suggesting that this is because we think the daily grind of low-level chores are banal and meaningless, rather than prestigious.

He goes on to say “We seem unwilling to allow for the possibility that the glory of our species may lie not only in the launch of satellites….. but also in an ability – even if it is widely distributed among billions – to spoon yoghurt into small mouths, find missing socks, clean toilets, deal with tantrums and wipe congealed things off tables” and of how “…the good order and continuity of civilisation nevertheless depend to some tiny but vital degree on their quiet unnoticed labours”.

So, the next time you are brushing a small person’s teeth, bear in mind that you’re also contributing to the continuity of civilisation.  Pretty prestigious wouldn’t you say?

Piano Pain – only practice can cure it

 What do pianos and broccoli have in common?

Sadly it’s no joke, they both make my son squirm.  They’re banished to his Room 1O1 (along with prawns, gherkins and beetroot).  But unlike prawns, gherkins and beetroot, we’re going through the rather painful process of trying to repatriate them back into non-squirming territory.

I’ve got the classic torn-in-two-thing going on. My words of encouragement (“don’t give up, you’ll get there in the end”), are a Pavlovian response to an unofficial childhood mantra (“if in doubt, try harder”). However, I also feel uncomfortable with going anywhere near Tiger-Mum-land.

I get that it’s good to establish a strong work-ethic, but when it puts me in conflict with my kids, I feel quite conflicted myself.  I know it’s a bit naive of me to think it’s always going to be plain-sailing, but trading-off short-term pain for long-term gain is tough. I know that being an effective parent is not about winning popularity competitions, but faced with a wall of opposition it’s easy to doubt whether I’ve made the right call.

Looking at the big picture, learning the piano isn’t just about learning the piano, but also a lesson in how to keep going when you want to throw in the towel (it’s one of the ‘hard things’ that the proponents of Grit recommend). Great in theory, but the reality is quite another thing. Although my son wants to play the piano, he’s understandably frustrated when he struggles to master a hard piece. However, he’s also been doing it for long enough for us to see a predictable cycle of ‘hate-it, practice-it, love-it’ going on. He likes the outcome, not the process (a bit like me and gardening really).  Hopefully in time he’ll grow to enjoy the practice too and not feel like a wrong note is the end of the world.

At the moment though, his approach to learning a new tune has a lot in common with his approach to eating broccoli: painful, elongated, full of histrionics, tragic monologues, and lots of writhing-around.  Until he turned two (and decided he hated one of his first foods), I was unaware of the pain and suffering that a broccoli floret could inflict.  Call me a glutton for punishment, but I keep putting it on his plate in a bid to go beyond the limited selection of his preferred toddler-style veg.  I’ve got the vague recollection that mothers of babies are advised to continue to offer a food up to seven times after it has been rejected.  I have no idea if this applies to older children (I have a feeling not…), but the plan is that he’ll become desensitised to it eventually – after all, isn’t that what they do with phobias?

Mind you, I had a taste of my own medicine the other day when he spotted that I’d left the salmon skin on the side of my plate.  He was quick to point out that if he had to eat broccoli, I should eat the skin.  I hate fish skin.  It wasn’t even crispy, it was disgusting, but I channelled my inner ‘I’m a Celebrity..’ and suggested that we could both eat together on the count of three.  I thought it best not to faff, but to just go for it.  I went through with it and in doing so, ate both the skin and my words with my eyes shut tight.  When I opened my eyes, he was still staring at his broccoli skewered on his fork – although by then he had started, rather inexplicably, to talk to it.  Perhaps he thought that was going to help. He ate it eventually during what can only be described as an Oscar-worthy performance.

As for the dreaded new piano piece, we just focused on a line at a time. Whilst it was no party, it was the closest we’d get to a win-win.  A week on and he’s demob-happy that he’s now able to play it, cue sighs of relief all round (that is until we got the next piece...).

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Grit: what is it and how can we build it?

Scores on the doors – the trials and tribulations of parents’ evening

Parents’ evening has the curious ability of turning well-balanced adults into nervous wrecks.  Do our kids listen, have manners, have friends?  Are they kind? Are they blessed with an uncanny ability to understand complex equations (forgetting that we can barely calculate small change)?  We may be rational in all other areas of our lives, but our kids are our Achilles’ heel.

On the evening itself, we perch on miniature chairs, trying to understand rating scales, decode the euphemisms and remember our questions.  Despite understanding the need for impartiality, we want the teachers to like our kids and to feel that they’re on our team.  We want them to understand our child’s quirks (AKA their hidden genius) and to fan the flames of brilliance buried deep (perhaps very deep) within.  We expect them to be the love-child of Mary Poppins and Robbin Williams from Dead Poets Society.

Reception teachers have the most unenviable task of all, having to induct not only the children into school-life, but their parents too.  Every ten minutes they’re faced with a new set of parents who only really want to hear that their child is popular and resembles Einstein crossed with Mother Theresa. They may be the first to give us the reality-check that our kid’s amazing achievements are just ‘Expected’ for their age.  Until now, relatives may have laughed at their jokes without punchlines and nodded intently to their baffling ramblings.  Rather bizarrely we’re unprepared to hear that our children are human, just like us.  Any variation on “brilliant” seems like a criticism and despite teachers’ efforts to avoid comparisons, the elephant in the room remains – “where does my child sit in the pecking-order?”.

We’ve also got the age-old problem that we can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make it drink.  It’s the same with our kids.  We can help them with their homework, go to science museums and allow them to run wild outdoors, but the desire to be rule-abiding and hard-working can only come from them.  School is where they learn independence, to make friends and hopefully to think for themselves.  There’ll be some slip-ups along the way, but we need to pace ourselves – it’s a long haul!

Having said all that, parents’ evening can also surprise and delight.  As I hear so little about what my guys learn at school, seeing the contents of their trays is like the great reveal. This time, the following sentence caught my eye: “I live in a world of happiness”.  Despite it being some work on suffix endings, seeing that written by my eldest still made me smile.

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Move over Snowflakes, the Sun Kings are next in line…

The ‘Snowflake Generation’ was apparently one of the terms of the year in 2016.  I didn’t know what it meant and wrongly assumed it was directed at my kids’ age.  Instead it’s been described by the Collins Dictionary as “the young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations”.  Apparently Millennials who are between 18-24 years old believe they’re special, but are more fragile than previous generations – hence the term ‘snowflake’.

After breathing a sigh of relief that my kids aren’t implicated, it got me thinking about what their generation will be called and the long-term impact of current parenting trends (something I previously wrote about in my Guilt article).

Parental approaches have reflected our view on childhood through the ages.  We’ve gone from seeing them as economic entities (being sent up chimneys), to being seen and not heard, to rearing snowflakes.  Even more recently, our child-centric parenting practices focus on increasing self-esteem and reducing conflict (e.g. “Calmer, Easier Happier Parenting”).

We empathise more with our children, there’s less ‘tell’ and more discussion.  Rather than control them, we want to influence them.  This paradigm shift manifests itself in:

  1. Choice: today’s children are often allowed to exercise their choice in what they wear, eat and do (to name but a few…).
  1. Listening: we’re encouraged to talk eye-to-eye with our kids and have conversations with them, rather than preaching at them.  In return, kids these days expect to be listened to and heard.
  1. Apologising: I recently phoned my 5 year old up (via his Grandad’s mobile) to apologise for shouting at him before he left the house.  He’d traipsed half the garden inside, but five minutes later my guilt set in (needless to say, the phonecall confirmed he appeared unaffected by my tirade).  Apologising to a child in previous generations would have been seen as undermining the role of the adult.  Now we consider it the opposite.
  1. Answering-back: the days of “because I said so” are long-gone.  Parents now find themselves using their best persuasion tactics to do even the most simple things.  Rather unbelievably, I found myself recently praising my son when he said “you’re annoying me” (TBH I was grateful for any alternative to a melt-down…).
  1. Feelings: just as we try to get our kids to explain how they feel, parents are also talking about their feelings more.  Explaining to our children that we’re tired, have made a mistake, or are losing patience contrasts with previous generations where more authoritarian parents presented themselves as infallible.
  1. Table manners: there’s no longer the expectation that kids will finish the food on their plates.  In the light of concerns about over-eating in the West, we encourage our kids to decide when they’re full by ‘listening to their tummies’.  The slightly harsh “you won’t leave the table until you’ve finished” is no longer in tune with our democratic mantra.

More relaxed approaches to mealtimes invariably result in kids not learning to sit still, remain at the table, or eat anything at all – preferring instead to snack on the rolling buffet offered from the depths of mum’s handbag.

Most child-friendly restaurants offer colouring sheets and crayons as a distraction tactic; a park cafe near us has wide-screen TVs showing cartoons and it was even reported that a UK restaurant has introduced a 5% discount for families with well-behaved children.

  1. Supervision: kids from previous generations would disappear for the day and entertain themselves. Nowadays ‘baby-proofing’ is a verb.
  1. Over-scheduling: lots has been written about kids doing too many activities and not having enough free-play and time to themselves.

By being so child-centric and hyper-invested, we may be unwittingly setting our kids up for a difficult adjustment into adulthood and a lifetime of disappointment.  Following such carefully-curated childhoods, will they become entitled and egotistical? Will they expect to call the shots, make the decisions and take the lead (despite lacking the life experience to do so)?  The advent of the internet means that the notion of doing anything as boring as grocery shopping and queuing is an anathema to them. How then will they have the staying-power to make lemonade out of life’s lemons?

After having their needs met almost instantaneously, their desire for instant gratification may land them in hot water later on.  Used to having their parents hang on their every word, will they expect the world to indulge them similarly?  Growing up with parents as dedicated cheerleaders, they will feel capable of anything – but is this a recipe for narcissism? Having had their parents resolve disputes for them, will they expect life to be ‘fair’, yet paradoxically, to come out on top?  Will they be able to sit still, use cutlery, or take responsibility for themselves?

We’ve put children on a pedestal like never before, but here’s hoping we don’t pay the price by rearing a generation of Sun Kings who see themselves like their namesake, Louis XIV: “omniscient and infallible… around whom the entire realm orbited”.

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“Forget work-life balance, I’ve got crayoning to do” (Giles Coren, January 14th, 2017, The Times)

Monopolised by Monopoly

This is our floor.  I’m not sure what it is about Monopoly, but my 7 year old is obsessed with it.  He negotiates with his brother (who’s a ‘Game of Life’ man) to play it, morning, noon and night.  Watching him play it is like watching an audition for Shylock in A Merchant of Venice.

It was ironic to hear that it was initially created by an anti-monopolist (Lizzie Magie) as the “The Landlord’s Game” in 1903 to show how rent enriches landlords at the expense of their tenants. It was only in 1933 that a new variation named ‘Monopoly’ made the aim of the game to bankrupt rivals in order to become the monopolist.  But on the flip-side it’s also been credited with helping World War II prisoners escape (with an adapted version, distributed by the secret service which included real money and tools).  There’s now well over 1,000 versions and you can now even get custom-made ones on Etsy.

My eldest came into the kitchen about 9am on a Saturday and said “you know what I’m thinking…?” and I thought I did (‘snack’, ‘film’…).  However, as I’m a veteran at these mind-games, I kept my cards close to my chest.  That way I’d avoid accidentally offering up more suggestions that I’d inevitably have to dodge round later.  I responded with a general “Uh?”, but should have guessed his response: “Monopoly”.

Now, I’m usually up for a bit of family fun, but 9am? Monopoly? I’d have felt similarly if he’d suggested that I run a marathon.  For me Monopoly has the same rules as alcohol:  the later in the day the better.

After I failed to jump onto the Monopoly-bandwagon, my poor semi-literate 5 year old was then commandeered as a mere pawn in his older brother’s empire-building plans.  My little one didn’t have a  clue what was going on (and just liked to collect the hotels).  It’s probably therefore no surprise that it ended-up with a fall-out when he inevitably wandered off half-way through a game.  This left the would-be property magnate high and dry – it’s apparently no fun if you can’t play until the bitter end.

…Good luck to anyone if they can get a five year old to stay focused on a board game lasting hours, requiring them to mortgage houses and fathom-out ‘Community Chest’!