The Birds, the Bees and my Seven-Year-Old: when is it time for ‘the talk’?

“So how exactly do babies get inside your tummy?”.  Now there’s a question.  It’s been asked by my 7-year-old now on three occasions. Conversations tend to start with him wondering whether he’ll ‘get another brother or sister’, then, after various two-ings and fro-ings, culminate with the killer question. How to answer it has left me a bit stumped, because tales of ‘storks’ are ridiculous (especially given his suspicions about Father Christmas when he was only three), but I’m also not really up for a biology class – he’s only 7. I also don’t want him regaling his mates in the playground with his own interpretation of the facts of life and opening Pandora’s box for all…

I think I’d always assumed that with two boys, my husband would take care of those conversations.  However, it turns out I’m in the firing line and my initial attempts at answering leave a lot to be desired – a load of waffle about flowers, eggs and seeds.

When my son first asked me about why boys and girls look different, I steered clear from anatomical labels, preferring softer-edged terms because of the likelihood of him repeating my words. I knew others who were of the ‘tell it how it is’ school-of-thought and someone who even explained the facts of life (in full detail) to her then three-year-old.  There’s stuff on the internet which is a bit biological, whereas I must admit, I was slightly relieved to be able to point to my cesarean scar when they asked me how babies came out of their mummy’s tummies.  But now that the question is how did they get there in the first place, I am regretting not having explained more when he was younger, given that it’d mean less of a ‘reveal’ now.

A couple of years later, the sight of ‘Sex and Relationships’ on the Reception class curriculum raised a few eyebrows amongst my fellow mums. At that age, even the word ‘knickers’ has them in hysterics – so we feared we’d never hear the end of it (it’s all I can do to quell the toilet humour as it is…). However, the reality of learning about the life-cycle of a frog, butterfly and a bit on flowers was tamer than we feared.

Clearly he’s now after for a bit more by way of explanation. Yet tales from those who’ve gone before me don’t fill me with optimism.  A few years ago, a friend of a friend’s daughter didn’t look her in the eye for a week after hearing the ‘disgusting thing’ (in her words) that her parents had done.  Apparently, it was only made worse when shortly afterwards, Kate Middleton announced her pregnancy. To her, that only meant one thing: they had done it too.

Although the full-facts feel a bit full-on, I’ve found being vague about stuff doesn’t work either.  Keen to jump on the bandwagon of a recent NSPCC visit to school, I gamely showed my kids the ‘Pantasourus’ video from the NSPCC that evening in the name of reinforcement. It didn’t go quite how I expected, as my eldest said “that went right over my head” and my youngest asked “why is he talking about washing his pants?”. ‘Rock and a hard place’ springs to mind…

In a bid to gently side-step (but not totally cop-out), I tried to find an age-appropriate educational video on the internet, but most of the information seems to be for mums of girls, whereas advice for boy-chat seems pretty vague. Although I didn’t come up trumps, I came across some useful advice advising that the trick to navigating these kinds of potentially land-your-kid-in-therapy-for-life conversations was to respond as if you are a prisoner of war. Provide only the information requested and nothing more”, and to be straight-up about limiting information to what feels suitable by explaining that you’ll explain more when they’re older.  Whilst the analogy to being a prisoner of war made me LOL, I’m not sure how that would work with my son. I guess the main gist is that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing, but can instead be eked-out in stages.

After seeing both silly videos and witnessing the cringe-worthy attempts by other parents, I’m going to kick the conversation into the long grass – it’ll buy me time to give my husband a nudge…

Related Content:

Facts of life – educational books for kids

The hormone factory – educational website aimed at older kids

Puberty for boys – educational video for kids



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).

Related Content:

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

Creating a rod for our own backs?

“Please can I have an apple that I can see through?” was the latest school snack request from my youngest.  My husband thought I was nothing short of a lunatic when he came into the kitchen to see me wrestling with an apple and chopping it in half by accident. Thankfully it was still acceptable on a technicality: you could still see through it if you held the two halves together. Phew.

Despite these production challenges, I’m resisting the temptation to buy an apple-corer for two reasons: (1) it would feel a little ridiculous to fill our kitchen drawer with more stuff in order to panda to the latest whim; (2) the whim is likely to go as quickly as it came (and even quicker if I spend any time or money on it…). But somehow, recognising that doesn’t stop me from doing it. I guess there are many times in the day when I tell him ‘no’, so I take the policy that if I can say ‘yes’, I do. No doubt this is at some level guilt-fuelled – I want him to know that I’m listening and that I care.

I had thought that kids would grow out of toddler foibles by the time they got to school, but as I’ve written previously, my kids expect a different level of ‘service’ from me than they do from my husband.  My husband’s approach is a very simple ‘don’t go there in the first place’, in his mind, I’m creating a rod for my own back. You can also bet your bottom dollar that no kid in the 1950s asked his/her parent for an apple they could see through – they’d have been happy with an apple full stop.

The ridiculous nature of what I was doing reminded me of this picture that I saw recently on the internet (credited to Bunmi Laditan) which made me laugh:

rod for own back blog.jpg

The growth of this ludicrous list is probably to over-compensate for parental guilt – caused by the pressures of modern-day life – at the same time that parenting trends are becoming more exacting. One in three families have both parents working full time, families now eat fewer meals together and spend less time together in general – although this effect is more pronounced the wealthier you are.

I’m assuming that my son is asking me for bespoke snacks as a way of testing his power.  My eldest was given a quartered apple every day for the two years that preceded his brother joining him at school and during that time he never asked for anything else (a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’!). In contrast, my youngest had only been to school for a couple of weeks before he decided that a standard apple was out. He’d clocked other people’s snacks, so wanted novelty, variety (and what everyone else had…): Dailylea Dunkers, breadsticks, Cheddars, Ritz crackers, cheese and biscuits, even sandwiches.

Since he’s in the slip-stream of his older brother, he probably wants to feel unique, exert influence and test out how much we’re prepared to do for him. Whilst I draw the line at making sandwiches for snacks, I figure that a spot of apple-art seems like a small adjustment to make. Especially if it encourages fruit-eating and makes him feel good in the process.

I could be wrong and he’s just a little tyrant, turning me into his willing servant – but elsewhere I see other parents doing similar things.  Not so long ago, I read an article about a mum talking about why she still brushes her nine-year-old daughter’s hair.  It’s the same with my seven-year old’s bedtime stories which he continues to enjoy, despite being able to read to himself. Whilst these things may sound unnecessary, I’m sure they reflect a similar pattern in other households. I remember a friend referring to the ‘ham step’ in her kitchen – so-called because that’s where her 18-month-old daughter insisted on sitting to eat ham. Seems that each family has it’s own quirks.

So, I’ll do my best to hollow-out the apples, with the recent warnings of ‘avocado hand’ ringing in my ears. …That is until the next request comes in 😉 !

Related content:

Guilt: it doesn’t make you a better parent, it just makes you worry more

Why being imperfect makes us the perfect parents

Other parenting articles

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)




How well do you know your kids?

I recently saw a post from onehullofadad who’s also got a 5-year-old.  He asked him a series of questions and I thought it was a fun idea, so have followed-suit.  My sons’ nursery used to ask them questions like ‘what makes you happy / sad / what do you most like / least like about school’? etc each year and I remember enjoying seeing the responses and this was a bit similar.

I can imagine it’s the sort of list that would be lovely for them to be asked at different ages and to then see how it changes.  Whilst some things will endure, it captures their age and era as much as any dated photo and call me an old sentimental, but I find something appealing about that.

However, I also agree with onehullofadad, that not only would my kids’ choice of film change, their other answers would also differ more-or-less for every day of the week.  They are still at the age where they are influenced by their most immediate experiences.  However, it’s Lego that’s been the most consistent – they are walking adverts for how it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Here are the questions, along with the answers my 5-year-old and 7-year-old gave.  We did it like a game of ‘Mr and Mrs’ (I wrote my answer down before they told me theirs):

What is your favourite…

1.Colour –

Youngest: I said “orange” / he said “red”

Eldest: I said “red” / he said “red”

2.Thing to do

Youngest: I said “Lego” / he said “Game of Life”

Eldest: I said “BMX track or Monopoly” / he said “play”

3.Thing to eat

Youngest: I said “sweets” / he said “sausages”

Eldest: I said “cheese and biscuits” / he said “sausages & pasta”

4.Place to go

Youngest: I said “bouncy play centre” / he said “bouncy play centre”

Eldest: I said “BMX track” / he said “Spain”

5.Thing you like doing the most with Mummy

Youngest: I said “make things” / he said “build a jet pack­”

Eldest: I said “reading” / he said “arts and crafts”

6.Thing you like doing the most with Daddy

Youngest: I said “Lego” / he said “Lego”

Eldest: I said “Lego” / he said “BMX track”

7.Thing you like doing the most with your brother

Youngest: I said “Lego” / he said “Lego”

Eldest: I said “Lego” / he said “Lego”

8.Thing to do at school

Youngest: I said “Lego” / he said “draw on the board”

Eldest: I said “writing” / he said “playing”

9.Ice cream flavour

Youngest: I said “chocolate” / he said “vanilla”

Eldest: I said “rum and raisin” / he said “rum and raisin”

10.Snack  –

Youngest: I said “cheese and biscuits” / he said “pain au chocolat”

Eldest: I said “Ritz crackers” / he said “breadsticks”


Youngest: I said “Batman” / he said “Dark Seed”                

Eldest: I said “Hulk” / he said “Dark Seed”


Youngest: I said “shark” / he said reindeer”

Eldest: I said shark” / he said “shark”


Youngest: I said Batman” / he said “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

Eldest: I said “Danny Champion of world or Swallows and Amazons / he said “Swallows and Amazons”

14.TV programme

Youngest: I said “Mr Bean cartoon” / he said “Mr Bean cartoon”

Eldest: I said “Horrible Histories” / he said “Horrible Histories”


Youngest: I said “Midnight Gang or James and the Giant Peach” / he said “Midnight Gang

Eldest: I said “Midnight Gang” / he said “Midnight Gang”


Youngest: I said “’Hamburger, cheeseburger, lettuce and tomato, hamburger, cheeseburger, lettuce and tomato, hey, where’s the ketchup?’ sung to the ‘Macarana’ music” / he said “same but saying ‘ladies’ rather than ‘lettuce’”

Eldest: I said “’Uptown Funk’ by Bruno Mars” / he said “Uptown Funk”

I then happened to be chatting to my sister-in-law (who has an 11-year-old) about her daughter now having an ipod – but when I asked what her daughter’s favourite music was, she said she wasn’t sure.  It then occurred to me that as our children get older, there’s more and more that we won’t know about them.  I suspect it’ll creep-up imperceptibly.  Whilst I joke that I’ll be sitting behind my sons at their first dates in the cinema, the reality is that’d just be plain weird.

Anticipating this future means it’s even sweeter that they sometimes preferred my answers (above) to their own.  It’s nice to know that for the moment at least, when it comes to some things, I know them better than they know themselves.

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.

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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