Letter to Lego: spare a thought…

Dear Lego,

We first got to know each other when my brother was obsessed by your Space-themed sets in the ‘80s (we still have his astronauts to this day). Back then your pieces were pretty basic, varying in colour and size, but little else – yet they still held our attention for hours.  Whilst my brother’s Lego creations were largely out of bounds, I remember him helping me make an approximation of a dog to cheer me up after I broke my collar bone.

Lego 2.jpg

Many years later, my sons are also obsessed by you. Like classic addicts, it doesn’t matter how much our guys have, it’s never enough.  In an attempt to keep you in check, we keep your instruction books so they can rebuild models after re-appropriating them for their own creations. Sounds good in theory, but not so fun now that all your models have specialist pieces – some customised further with stickers.  I suspect that these days it’s unnecessary to put up with ‘approximations’ of dogs, when there’s probably specific breeds for sale. Sure, there’s some dinosaur claws which resemble the detail on Jestro’s Lair, but generally, once a model has been dismantled, finding a piece again is harder than finding a needle in a haystack.

I end up assuming the role of a quasi-quality-controller, devising ways to efficiently sift and scrutinise the pieces whilst wondering if all this search-and-find has any benefit beyond model-making (brain-training for ‘spot the difference’ perhaps??). Back in the real-world, it’s only a matter of seconds after a piece is found (miraculous in itself), that I’m tasked with finding an even more obscure one. “I need a black two-er” is music to my ears when I’ve been searching in vain for a piece that I don’t even understand from the picture.

Seems my kids unwittingly buy-into your motto (‘only the best is the best’) – by insisting that only the correct piece will do.  Sometimes they humour me by heeding my suggestions to improvise where possible, but often even I can see that can’t be done (the black middle-bit from flying Jay comes to mind…).

Apparently, there are now well over 600 billion Lego pieces – most of which seem to be on our floor.  I hear you’ve even designed an X-Wing Fighter requiring 5 million bricks – a masterpiece perhaps, but not for the poor buggers trying to find the right bits…

Whilst I don’t want to cramp your style (your models are works of art), please spare a thought for us parents – attempting to find pieces on the one hand, whilst trying to avoid hoovering them on the other. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’ve got faith in you – after all, you’re the world’s most powerful brand and have been voted toy of the century twice – not bad for an 83-year-old who started life making wooden toys.

Perhaps you could start by sticking a couple of spares in your Lego sets, so we can be freed from the ‘finding’ to do what you’ve always intended: ‘play well’.

Yours Faithfully,


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The case of the Fairy Chief, Pixie Keith and the mystery of the missing teeth

Following a tooth fairy hiatus and only 24 hours after seeing the dentist, my son’s had three teeth come out in as many days; it seems they are indeed like buses.  It’s nothing short of miraculous given that he’s nearly 8, has had a mouth full of wobblers for months, yet had previously only lost two teeth. That was until last week when lost three in as many days – ‘lost’ in more ways than one.  Two were accounted for and placed outside our fairy door, but he only realised the third was missing when it was long-gone.

So, the fairies are back in town.  Although the tooth-exchange by our fairy door seemed to have worked for the front tooth which was the first in the current series (no.3 overall), there was no mention of it at breakfast time.  When I asked him, he sounded vaguely impressed that the ‘Fairy Chief’ had come as it was a ‘special’ tooth (this was however pure accident on my part – all the poems have different names to fit the rhyme).  He was also chuffed as he happened to need money for a school event, but unfortunately when he went back to get the pound, it had disappeared.  After looking high and low, it transpired that his younger brother had put it in his piggy bank (…whilst ‘kindly’ offering to lend him money in a blatant case of sneaky-siblingitis if ever there was one).

The second tooth (no.4) came out so quickly that I improvised by putting a handwritten note with a bunch of 20p coins that I turned into a feature:

“… I hope you like the 20ps – don’t you worry, it’s not a tease.  You know that 5 make a pound.  I’ve left them for you without a sound.  Look after your remaining teeth, lots of love from Pixie Keith”.

I didn’t think it mattered, because to be honest, he’d never shown much interest in the whole fairy fandango.  However, it seems my cavalier approach had just enough holes in it to spark his interest. Suddenly, he morphed into Hercule Poirot, saying, “… but it wasn’t in fairy-writing, it was in human writing” (turns out he’s been lining them up -spot the odd one out below), so I nonchalantly asked to see it to buy some thinking time.

tooth fairy blog 3 pic 1

As he was suspicious about Father Christmas’ existence when he was three, I knew I was skating on thin ice with the fairies.  But, they’re bit like Father Christmas – it pays to believe.  Thankfully my limited rhyming repertoire had led me to sign it off from ‘Pixie Keith’, so I could at least suggest that as an excuse for the change in writing.  That seemed to work and now he’s decided that the Fairy Chief must come for just the front teeth (damn – something else for me to remember).

As we’re clueless as to what happened to the tooth which fell out the following day (no.5), I suggested that he could write a letter to the fairies to explain the situation. Here’s what he mustered:

tooth fairy blog 3 pic 2c

This time, when he was asleep, I printed a proper Fairy note (nobly overcoming an empty ink cartridge and not being able to find the original font). The next day suspicions were abated, as the note was was discarded without comment (leaving me wondering whether ‘no comment’ is really a sign of ‘success’? It’s beginning to have all the hallmarks of our Christmas Elf shenanigans).

In the meantime, his five-year-old brother wanted in on the action so started trying to pull his own teeth out (**oh no**).  After telling him to stop, I suggested he may want to write to the fairies too – to let them know he’s here for when the time comes for his teeth to fall out. He kept it punchy:

tooth fairy blog 3 pic 3

The rather clunky response from the Fairies (subtext: STOP PULLING AT YOUR TEETH!!):

tooth fairy blog 3 pic 4a.jpg

As for my eldest? Well, he currently looks like a pirate. I reckon we’ve got a few weeks until the next wobbler falls, so I’ve printed off a stock of poems to have in waiting. The font’s still wrong, but that’s a first world problem if ever there was one.  I can already feel myself spinning tales of new printing presses and fairies ‘moving with the times’…

Looking for more tooth fairy inspiration?

See Julie Parsons’ blog – for a list of poems

Related Content:

What to do with tooth two? – the return of the tooth fairy

Making memories or finding the psychological sweet spot?


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

Make your own space helmet

I’m not going to lie, these weren’t that easy and took about a week to complete (allowing for drying time and lapses in our ability to concentrate on what became a rather gargantuan task).  I was also the sole member of our team left to put on the tin foil on the inside – the fun of sticking had long gone for my kids.

Having said that, I was initially inspired to give it a go after seeing the amazing effort by MudPieFridays.  My 7-year-old and 5-year-old made theirs at the same time, which proved a little difficult when they both needed help simultaneously…

Despite low expectations, I was intrigued to see if we could pull-off something similar using stuff that we already had around the house, so we found two balloons and a roll of packing paper left over from when we moved house. The paper was thin and there was lots of it, so it seemed great for the job.

We then mixed some flour/salt/water to make the paper mache mix (with a ratio of 1:1 flour to water and 3 tablespoons of salt to prevent the finished piece going mouldy). The plan was to do 3 layers, let it dry completely and then do 3 more layers (but by the end of it we had paper mache delirium, so who knows exactly how many layers went on each…).

space helmets 2

On the first evening, I looked back at the original post when I was unconvinced that our soggy-papery-balloons (1) would ever dry hard enough to hold their shape once the balloon was popped.  Only then did I see the small (but critical) detail that MudPieFridays used plaster bandages (AKA plaster of Paris).  This gave not only a pristine finish, but would harden to rock.

As we’d started, I thought we might as well finish (and the boys wanted to do the balloon-popping bit).  They were very excited when all the layers had been put on and our interest in soggy paper had well and truly waned (it’s pretty unpleasant to have salty gloop on your hands if you happen to have any cuts).  By this point, it was just me and my eldest soldiering away.  My youngest had wandered off to play Lego, telling me “I’ll come back in 10 minutes to see how you are getting on” (…OK, boss-man).

Once the paper mache had completely dried (2), we popped the balloons and I used a Stanley knife to cut a larger circle to put their heads through and another for them to look out of.  Then it was time to paint (3) and they went with various wacky designs (my eldest drew around an egg cup for the circles, which he painted red).  The horns on the black and red one were from the inside of an egg box.

After that we (or I should say ‘I’…) finished the edges and lined the inside with tin foil (4).

Then, the guys ran outside with them on the rampage.  We’ll see how long they last 😉

Other Space-inspired crafts:

Make your own space rocket

Make your own jet pack


Easter Parlour Games – retro-inspired family fun

In the days before TV, families would often play parlour games after dinner.  If you have different generations coming to your house this Easter, why not try some of these games for a change?

1.Funny Bunny


This was originally ‘Bunny or Funny?’, but got renamed by my youngest.  It’s an Easter-version of a game we played at Halloween which fused the idea of ‘spin the bottle’ with ‘trick or treat’.

This time we had a broken-up chocolate Lindt bunny in one bowl (the ‘bunnies’) and folded up forfeits (the ‘funnies’) in the other bowl.  We then sat in a circle and took turns to spin the arrow (which was just a covered kitchen roll with two arrows stuck to it).  After each spin, whoever was closest to ‘bunny’ would get a piece of chocolate, whilst the person closest to the other end would pick a ‘funny’ (forfeit).

As with Halloween, rather surprisingly, our kids ended up being keener to do the forfeits than getting the choc – probably because the forfeits were pretty silly and therefore right up their street.

I had some forfeits from Halloween that I re-used and found some more on the internet which gave us the following in total:

  • Say five/ten times rapidly: “Red lorry, yellow lorry”
  • Say five/ten times rapidly: “Three big blobs of a black bug’s blood”
  • Walk across the room on your knees
  • Line three upright chairs side by side. Lie on them with arms folded. Someone removes the middle chair and you must hold yourself stiff in position while everyone counts to ten
  • Say five/ten times rapidly: “Truly rural”
  • Sing a song
  • Dance a jig
  • Give a one minute talk about pigs
  • Give a one minute talk about cows
  • Give a one minute talk about elephants
  • Try to stand on your head
  • Hold one foot with your hand while hopping around the room.
  • Crawl on all fours and bark like a dog
  • Hop across the room on your right leg and return on left leg
  • Put an object on the floor in such a way that no one in the room can jump over it (answer is: put it against the wall)
  • Do 5 star jumps
  • Tell a joke
  • Sing a song
  • Tell us something that we don’t know about yourself
  • Make us laugh
  • Be tickled for a count of 10
  • Do a forward roll
  • Stand on one leg for a minute
  • Make the sound of 3 farmyard animals
  • Pat your head with one hand, while you rub your tummy with the other for 30 seconds
  • You are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by cannibals – explain to the chief why you shouldn’t be eaten
  • Bark like a dog whilst walking around in a circle on tip toes like a fairy
  • Pretend you are an Italian waiter – run through all the varieties of pizza available on your menu – you have to have an accent
  • Give everyone with blue eyes in the room a high five

2.Egg Drop


I did this game as an ice-breaker when I started my first job.  Now my kids are older, I thought they might like to give it a go.  We split into teams (i.e. me and my husband with one of our boys each) in different rooms, gave ourselves 10 minutes and the same materials to come up with something that would mean the egg would survive intact after being dropped from a height.

Whilst I had in mind standing on a chair, or a ladder in the garden to create the height, my husband decided to lob them out of a first-floor window, when they survived, he did the same out of a second floor window.  The kids loved the idea that he was chucking an un-boiled egg out of the windows (of course they eventually cracked, so added ‘yuk’ appeal).  I waited at the bottom of the windows outside with my sons to watch them come down and inspect the results – the boys loved it.

Materials given to both teams: paper, scissors, sellotape, string, two elastic bands, pedal bin liner, dustbin bag

3.Marshmallow-Spaghetti Tower

This doesn’t have an Easter theme, but is like the Egg Drop in that it lends itself to doing in teams.  Each team had a plate of marshmallows and spaghetti and we had to attempt to build the tallest tower in 10-15 minutes.  It’s a lot harder than it looks!

Other fun ideas for Easter:

Easter Party & Alternative Egg Hunt

Indoor Easter egg hunt with clues

The highs and lows of egg decorating (Minion-style)

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.

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?