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

 

 

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,

Wonderinalexland

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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

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How my sons made me realise I was a feminist…

Perhaps I’ve been lucky to take equality for granted and not feel that I’ve fallen foul of the patriarchy.  Perhaps that’s also lucky, given that I’m a product of single-sex education, but far from my schools being girlification-factories, they made gender seem irrelevant.  I had bloke-mates outside school (courtesy of having a brother) and earned a bit of status by being the chief-introducer of boys into my friendship circles. It’s also fair to say I sported looks that I only grew into in my 20s.  These were perhaps a blessing in disguise as I was accepted as a mate rather than viewed as totty with a lobotomy.

After being at an all-girls school, it was perhaps inevitable that most of my mates were blokes at Uni, with friendships enduring as boyfriends came and went.  Before getting married I even had a ‘Cock Night’ (…yeah, I know, not a great phrase…) with my close male mates (involving beer and an American diner); in addition to a classic ‘Hen weekend’ (featuring sparkly dresses).  Despite it being the era of ‘Cool Britannia’, Geri Halliwell’s Girl Power felt too contrived for me, yet whilst I was neither shouty or angsty, being equal to blokes was just a given. I didn’t feel the need to do bad ass kicks, wear a Feminist t-shirt, or buy tickets to the Vagina Monologues to prove it.

‘Feminism’ felt a bit too bra-burny – Germaine Geer seemed to take herself far too seriously.  There was some-sort of Feminist module on my psychology course which spent a lot of time appearing to split hairs in order to establish two opposing schools of thought: firstly that women share more similarities than differences to men; or, on the other hand that women are different from men in valuable ways and that they should be celebrated. I felt in the first camp, whereas ‘feminism’ seemed to be about the latter (and appeared to diss men in the process).

Those I knew who were on the F-bandwagon seemed to be fervent, angry and spent a lot of time complaining about their ex-boyfriends (which, after a few drinks invariably led to a lot of Alanis Morissette being shouted-along-to on dancefloors).  I didn’t feel angry or angsty, I had good mates who were blokes and liked getting dolled-up – it didn’t feel like a contradiction to me, but neither did it appear to fit the F-profile.

Subsequently, I worked in a male-dominated profession in a part of the business whose acronym was CMS. It had more women than the other areas, so it was referred to jokingly as ‘Chicks who Make Slides’. It was so overtly sexist, it made me laugh – I didn’t take it seriously, it was just part of the banter (just as IT guys were called geeks, regardless of whether they were or not).  My impression of feminists is that they couldn’t and wouldn’t let that lie (someone I knew took offence at a kid’s animation referring to ‘scantily clad mermaids’…). Of course, ‘banter’ isn’t on when it’s used to excuse pernicious behaviour that’s better described as ‘bullying’, but I wasn’t insulted because it wasn’t underpinned by a disparaging view of women – it’s all about the context.

So, my experiences continued to reinforce views that I happily took for granted and further distanced me from the F-crew – I was a girl in a man’s world and that felt ok. It was only when I got married and had kids that my friendship groups shifted from being predominantly male to female.  It started with maternity leave and has since grown over time; seemingly by having a baby, I quite literally joined ‘the club’.  I don’t really know whether my female mates would identify themselves as feminists (I’m sure that they’d vary), yet I also know that they’d certainly take the principles as a given.

Now that I have two boys, I don’t feel ‘outnumbered’ in our household – even though they’re more likely to wrestle one another than sew, gender isn’t a big deal (after all, we know girls who’re wired the same way).

That was until the morning that White Van Man parked over driveway, blocking me in.  Fearing a ‘late mark’ from the kids’ school, I bounded next door to ask if the van belonged to one of their workmen and turned out it did.  The guy came out the house and said, “all right princess, I’ll move it in a minute”. This was no banter, no turn of phrase, it had a ring of the patriarchy about it and immediately triggered my F-allegiance. Would he have called my husband “princess” in a ‘calm down dear’ voice?  NO! Am I an actual princess? NO! Then WTF?! So, I replied, “You don’t need to ‘princess-me’, just move your van”.

Low and behold, when I returned to the car, the first thing my sons asked was “why did that man call you a princess?”, which led to their first lesson in feminism during the 10-minute commute to school. Their question unlocked viewpoints that were so fundamental, I’ve never explained them before, but White Van Man triggered a vehemence that I didn’t know I had. I borrowed from Roald Dahl’s Matilda to explain the basics: “the man thought he was big, but really he was small”.  Now even my 5-year-old knows: never call someone a ‘Princess’, unless they are one, or you’re about to marry them (but even then, best not as it’s just too cheesy…).

Although my words may have gone over their heads, I’m sure the sentiment won’t.  Having bought “Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World” as a birthday present for a few of their mates recently, I now actively talk-up their sparky female friends as ‘strong women’. This description was initially refuted by my 5-year-old who corrected me: “she’s not a woman, she’s a girl” – the ‘strong’ bit wasn’t in question.

So here I find myself, drawn towards the term that I previously avoided.  It doesn’t just feel that it’s me who’s changing though – these days feminism takes many forms and there’s less rigidity and ‘biker-chick’ about it.  There’s even a comedy podcast called ‘The Guilty Feminist’, reflecting how feminists are now laughing at themselves, making others laugh and embracing their femininity.

But as the incident with White Van Man taught me, feminism isn’t just a theme for female households, our boys are half of the story. There’s an unspoken expectation of what it means to be a boy, and whilst we’re rearing modern-day girls to be more like boys, things will only be equal if boys have a wider scope too. Maybe we need to raise them to be more like girls to avoid the ‘boys don’t cry’ trap? A bit of wrestling and sewing for all then? Big-up the sisterhood, but also the brotherhood!

Related Content:

Standard Issue Magazine Current Affairs Podcast and Comedy Gigcast

The Guilty Feminist Comedy Podcast

How to raise a feminist son NY Times article

Why I’m raising my sons to be feminists by Parent.Co

It’s OK for Women not to be Ambitious by India Knight

Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst, Book Review

‘Feminism needs a revolution’ – Alanis Morissette Time article

Other blogs in ‘Conversations with your kids’, by Wonderinalexland

Other blogs in ‘Parenting’ by Wonderinalexland

 

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:

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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)

 

 

 

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

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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

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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)

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.

References:

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.