The Secret to Happy Parenting

When I was offered my new teaching job, I was asked to consider how many hours I could do, and when. I was initially just going for evenings, but I thought how nice it would be to do a bit more, perhaps a morning or two as the Boy will be starting pre-school after Christmas.

“Oh,” said a friend of mine with 6 children, “I’ll have your kids for a morning.”

It would never in a million years have occurred to me to ask her – her plate already seemed quite full. But, well, she offered. So I said “great” and now the Boy and the Girl have a wonderful time with her and whichever of her kids are at home on Friday mornings.

I pick them up after lunch and if time allows, linger for a cup of tea.

And I watch and study and try to learn.

How does she do this? How does she have six children who are fed and clothed and in school on time and happy AND have a clean house AND all her marbles? How come she is so calm?

And she is. Like all of us, she can get cross or impatient with bad behaviour, she has busy and stressful days, but generally she is very calm, laid back and most importantly: in control.

“We hide all the mess upstairs” she says. This is one of her secrets, but doesn’t quite seem to cover it.

She has everything organised, has shopping delivered on regular days, plans all the week’s meals ahead in her diary. “I have to,” she says, “you can’t just whip up a meal for 8 people from what you find in the cupboards”.

When I arrive at her house to pick up the kids I usually find her wearing some fetching marigolds. “I was just cleaning up after lunch,” she smiles. “Come in.” I guiltily think back to my own house, where breakfast is still congealing in bowls on the table – that is, if the cats haven’t licked up all the milk by now.

She hoovers regularly throughout the day, the washing machine is always on, her kids don’t sit in front of the TV all day but play together and have fun, she takes them on outings and meets friends. She plans full weeks but also knows her limits and says no if she needs to.

I could pick up her good habits (or try to) and that would improve my life, but they are all things that I try and give up on after a few days or weeks.

Why? What is her secret?

I worked it out the other day while watching her make lunch for five children and two adults while putting away the shopping and checking on the dinner arrangements:

Acceptance.

My friend has accepted that motherhood is what she does. When you are a stay at home mum, you clear up each meal after it is eaten. You make sure that there is food in the house to cook dinner every day. You make sure the floor is free of tiny icky things for your one year old to find. You clean your bathroom and fix things that are broken and make sure the kids are happy and healthy and educated. This is what you do, and you get on with it. It is the baseline.

The reason I consistently fall off the wagon with my good intentions is because I haven’t accepted the reality of motherhood. I hate cleaning anyway, so perhaps I have a little further to come in this regard, but I am still resisting the inevitability of it now that I have two small children. My head says: hygiene. The rest of me sticks two fingers up at hygiene and says: I want to have a cup of tea and write poetry and chat to friends on Facebook. I’ll do it later.

Cleaning aside, now that life is very busy with work as well as motherhood, planning and organising has become even more essential than before. I need to plan meals, and then make sure I have the ingredients in the house for us to cook them. When I do, my life is so much better, but still I loiter and linger and prevaricate. Do I really have to?

I do notice that my head-in-the-sand technique just seems to result in more mess and less food in the house, but that doesn’t seem to spur me into action by itself.

Clearly, I need to look at my life and accept it as it is. More than that, perhaps there is some enjoyment to be found in the little details: a clean table after a meal, ready to do craft on; a lovely clean carpet, just for half an hour; the smell of fabric softener on children’s clothes; roast dinner, everything ready at the same time, on the table before the kids get so hungry they start to eat the sofa; toys, tidied away in boxes and hidden upstairs; toys, chosen by excited children and brought downstairs in the morning; post-nap cuddles; middle of the night cuddles that won’t be available in a few years’ time.

It’s a pretty great job, really. Have you accepted that you are a parent? Or is that something you are still working on?

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Opa and Oma

Mmmm...

Mmmm…

To the Boy’s utter delight, Opa and Oma arrived this morning to stay for the weekend. They came over from Nininand [The Netherlands] by car on the ferry, bringing all sorts of delights with them, such as a book about Pinocchio and a Pinocchio puppet for the Boy, and an adorable little dress for The Girl. They made me very happy by bringing a crate full of my favourite Dutch food stuffs and setting about cleaning my house for me.

My parents were not sure they were ready to become grandparents. When my husband and I first mentioned the fact that we were considering starting a family soon, a look of panic crossed my mother’s face and she said: “As long as you don’t expect me to babysit!” Part of the panic was the introduction of a taboo subject at the dinner table (“one does not discuss procreation with anyone other than the parties directly involved in making the baby”), but I think she also felt a certain dread at the prospect of shifting up a generation.

This led me to reflect on what it means to be a grandparent. What is your role, how does your attitude to life shift? Obviously, I can’t comment from personal experience, but from observation a lot of it seems to be about supporting your children as they become parents. It is like you step back a little and work behind the scenes. My parents are used to living like people in the prime of their life: they are active, they travel, they get involved in new things, they take centre stage. Of course, everyone is the protagonist in their own lives, but the importance and the potential of children temporarily gives their parents the very special role of Shaper. For this time in our lives when our main job is to raise children to become well-rounded, happy people, we are shaping society, shaping the world and shaping the future through them. Grandparents are there in the wings. They pat us on the back when we come off stage left, convinced we did an appalling job. They hand us props and tools when we need them. They change the set between acts. And because they are old hands at the play themselves, they know the lines, they’ve done it before, they can cover for us occasionally, when it gets a bit too much.

The day I found out I was pregnant with my son, I was due to pick my mother up from the station. We were going to a spa to celebrate my birthday, so I thought it would be wise to just check. Just to be sure. I wasn’t expecting a positive result – we had been trying for 18 months and I had been diagnosed with poly-cystic ovaries, so the chance was slim – but I just quickly did a test five minutes before I was due to head out. I was pregnant. My husband and I were in shock. I raced out to see my mum, now about fifteen minutes late, and told her straight away.

The first thing she said was: “Oh you *must* move back to the Netherlands, so I can babysit!”

Now that the kids are here, my parents love being Opa and Oma.  They are experts at support from the wings:

* They dedicate themselves to learning how we like to do things with the kids and how best to take care of them so that they can slot into our household and contribute to its running. “Opa, she has to grab the cucumber herself. That is what her mother wants,” my Mum berates my Dad when he tries to stuff a morsel of food in The Girl’s mouth.

* They look out for handy gadgets that might make life easier, appearing on the doorstep with a miniature gazebo (brought over in their car all the way from the Netherlands) to provide shade for our paddling pool.

* They cook, they clean, they make dinner and buy treats. “You shouldn’t take this as criticism,” my Dad says, wearing my apron and wielding a sponge, “but shall I just quickly clean your fridge?”

* They don’t live down the road, which is sad, but we talk on Skype twice a week to keep the relationship going from afar. My son is over the moon when we go and visit them or they come here. When he was a lot smaller, my Dad mused: “Why do you think he likes us so much? What is it he sees in us?”

“He sees that you love him,” was my reply.

So here’s to you, Opa and Oma! Thank you for being so wonderful, and for being there-and-here for us!

opa en oma

Play date

Play date

Into my tea I sigh and moan and whine
that I am fine, no really, I am fine.
I just wish that there were time
to clear away the daily grime.

Long hours, up so often, drying tears,
soothing pains and calming fears;
these endless days drag on like years.
I’m waiting till this brain-fog clears.

Your nod and sympathetic sound
shows that we have common ground
that this is just what you have found:
you too are stuck on this merry-go-round.

The centre of whirling cacophony,
we sit here in perfect symmetry.
Next time, why don’t you come to me
and I’ll do the tea and sympathy.

(c) Judith Kingston, 2013

Linking up to Prose4T over at Helen Braid’s All at Sea.

Prose for Thought

Me and my girl

Two years I had alone with the Toddler. Two years in which I watched his every move, waited on him with snacks and drinks, read him stories, sat by his bedside in the night stroking his hair.

The Baby has had a three hour train journey – and now a weekend.

baby having breakfast

All you can eat breakfast: definitely her favourite meal of the day.

It was lovely to be able to spend so much time alone with her these past few days. Together we attended BritMums Live, a blogging conference, bringing together hundreds of parents-who-blog for socialising, attending workshops, celebrating achievements and meeting companies that want to connect with bloggers. From the Baby’s point of view, we went to a large building crammed with (mainly) women eager to admire her, cuddle her and give her lots and lots of attention. She was loving it. During the awards ceremony in the evening I walked around with her on my arm, and after the first few people we encountered stopped me to chat to my daughter, the Baby started pre-emptively reaching out a chubby hand to everyone we passed, smiling winningly. She just loves people.

What struck me though, was that it didn’t feel unusual or strange to be alone with her so much. I treasured the time, but as I thought about it I realised that there are plenty of times in the day when it is just me and her:

* between 5.30 and 7am, when we snuggle up together before the Toddler wakes up;

* on Tuesday morning when the Toddler is in the creche for a few hours. I have tried leaving her there too, but she screams the place down. She wants to be with me and the other Mummies having tea and biscuits and sharing thoughts about parenting;

* in the early afternoon, when well-trained Toddler sleeps like the dead for hours, she usually wakes up early from what I keep hoping will one day become a two hour nap. We spend the time watching age inappropriate television mostly;

* At bedtime, when I try to feed her quietly in her room as the Toddler watches his regulation pre-sleep episode of Numberjacks. This one doesn’t always work out. About half the time the quiet feed in a dark room is accompanied by wild jumping around or ear-splitting screaming from my son;

* In the middle of the night. Not my favourite one-to-one time but hey.

So even though the Baby is my second child, we do get quite a few moments to ourselves. Probably more than I get alone with my son.

My second thought, as I watched her little face beam at all the lovely bloggers cooing over her, was that she doesn’t seem all that desperate to be alone with me. She wants me around. That much was clear when her joy turned to despair as soon as I disappeared out of sight for ten minutes, when suddenly the company of my lovely new, now Real Life friends was not good enough anymore. But she seems to love having plenty of people around. It is, of course, the only thing she has ever known. Her brother has always been there, and she can’t imagine life without him. She clearly adores him – her face was a picture when they were reunited after our weekend away.

Perhaps this guilt we feel, sometimes, towards our second or subsequent children is unnecessary. They don’t know what they’re missing – they have no concept of what these years of time alone with Mummy and Daddy might have been like for the first child. And they have something of great value: built-in friends for life, who look out for them and dote on them, watching their every move, bringing them drinks and snacks and, occasionally, lying beside them in the dark to make the night less lonely.

How to be a Domestic Disaster

I couldn’t sleep the other night. I was thinking about housework, and deciding that Something Had to be Done, before one of our friends called Kim and Aggie on us. Or Social Services.  So the next day I drew up an ambitious schedule for the week and got going. I managed to tidy the living room, reorganise it so my nappy-storage-location was no longer the space between the sofa and the French windows and did some long overdue filing. I decided I absolutely had to hoover every day, no excuses, and got going straight away – I even hoovered under things. Yes, well you might gasp.

I couldn’t sleep any of the subsequent nights either. It was as if I had flicked a switch that was normally set to ‘Rest’ and ‘Twitter’, to an unfamiliar setting named ‘Feverish Activity’. Even while lying in bed, I was still planning which load of laundry needed to be done next and how I might occupy the Toddler while I hoovered the stairs and tidied the dining room table.

Three days into my personality make-over, I found myself sitting at the breakfast table, bleary eyed and drained, staring at my schedule. I’d only managed half of what I’d planned, but I’d planned for that, too. Aim for the stars and you might land on the moon. The Toddler’s chatter broke into my thoughts.

“Mummy, biscuits?” he said.

Junior baker at the ready

Junior baker at the ready

I suddenly had a vision. I was Nigella Lawson, in a spotless house, looking gorgeous, baking immaculately beautiful biscuits with my Toddler, teaching him about cooking, measuring, enjoying food and keeping him away from the TV at the same time. Somehow, in my sleep deprived state, this seemed completely within reach.

“How would you like to make your own biscuits?” I asked.

The suggestion was met with pleasing enthusiasm. We went into the lovely, recently cleaned kitchen with an optimistic spring in our step.

Fast forward half an hour.

There are dirty dishes absolutely everywhere and the floors and surfaces are covered in flour, sugar and butter. The baby is crying in the high chair which I put in the kitchen to keep her close, bits of rice cake stuck in her hair. The Toddler is standing on a little chair, wearing an apron, crying because I told him off for licking the spoon that was meant for stirring and then took the spoon away. The first attempt at creaming sugar is in the compost bin (butter too hard). I am in a corner of the kitchen doing all the mixing myself, because the Toddler was doing it wrong, too slowly, and trying to stick his fingers in the mixture. In between the crying, the Toddler keeps asking me if we can bake biscuits now.

“We ARE baking biscuits!” I snap. “Now the dough has to sit in the fridge for an hour. We can finish making the biscuits after your nap.”

Only had one biscuit cutter. We made the other shapes with tupperware.

Only had one biscuit cutter. We made the other shapes with tupperware.

The crying goes up another notch. “No! Not nap!”

I bury my face in my hands, getting dough in my hair as I do so. Through my fingers I look at Nigella’s book, the one with the biscuit recipe I am using. It is called How to be a Domestic Goddess. 

Lies, all lies. It just tells you how to mix ingredients for biscuits. Nothing about managing two small children while doing so, as well as keeping the kitchen clean and your sanity in tact.

We finished the biscuits after nap time. They tasted a bit salty, and I had to chuck away half the icing as the ‘pink’ food colouring came out brown. I tried to remember how long I’d had the bottle but when I’d narrowed it down to ‘definitely since before I got married’ I thought it best to throw it straight in the bin.

The whole thing, I decided, had been a disaster.

Left: definitely green. Right: erm, no. Bin.

Left: definitely green. Right: erm, no. Bin.

But the next day, the Toddler proudly took his biscuits to a play date and shared them with his friend. Today he wanted to eat more of them, and do more baking. It occurred to me that perhaps I had been a domestic goddess after all. There are, when I think about it, very few activities the Toddler can get through without crying or having a tantrum at least once. He is two and does not need a reason. So he cried. So we made a mess. So I lost my rag and ended up doing most of it myself. So it was all done to a soundtrack of ear-splitting screaming from the Baby. He seems to have come away from the episode with positive memories, a sense of pride in his achievement and tasty biscuits.  Job done.

You want to know what happened to the housework schedule? I decided that putting in lots of extra effort is great and definitely worth it, but one also needs to know when to quit. While the biscuit dough rested in the fridge, I followed its example in my bed.

Iced and ready for sharing.

Iced and ready for sharing.

Can’t Stop Teaching

I believe in transferable skills. I think nothing you learn is wasted. I spent my summers as a teenager keeping my father’s online bibliography updated and later that knowledge of HTML got me the kudos I needed to be asked to teach my peers computer skills at university. This experience then got me a part-time job in the UK, where I finished my degree, and that experience in turn looked good enough on my CV to get a teaching job in an FE college fresh from my English-as-a-Foreign-Language teacher training. In fact, the position vacant was for teaching IT to immigrants who were learning English. The job was just meant for me.

IT classroom

Old classroom

Anyway, I am now no longer teaching English or IT. I am now teaching an 8 month old and a 2 and a half year old about the world. I teach them about food: what it tastes like, how to eat it, what society expects of you vis-a-vis cutlery, what the meals of the day are called, how eating lots of snacks before a meal fills you up so you’re not hungry for the meal anymore, that food comes from a shop where you have to pay for it before you’re allowed to tuck in and that it requires preparation at home, during which time Mummy is very stressed and cranky and unlikely to look favourably on repeated requests for bread sticks.

I am also teaching them about gravity, balance, the economy, road safety, speed, concentration, delayed gratification, time, seasons, distance, rhythm, rhyme, sharing, turn taking, friendship, missing people, disappointment, unfairness, saying sorry when you’ve messed up and that brushing your teeth is non-optional.

Oh, and I’m probably also teaching them English and IT.

And it struck me the other day, that there are many techniques and skills that I learned as a teacher that are very useful in parenting as well. I’ll share a few with you here:

1. Let them try things out for themselves: Don’t jump in and do the puzzle for them, impatient for it to be done, or worried that they’ll be scarred for life if they can’t do it. Give them a fair chance to try it out for themselves. They’ll ask for your help if they need it. Your confidence in them will give them confidence in themselves.

New classroom

New classroom

2. Keep instructions short and to the point: Imagine you’re a beginner, learning a new language, and the teacher says “Now, what I want you to do today is- basically, we’re going to learn about the past tense, which is talking about the past, and to do that I’d like you to sit with a friend, or just someone next to you, why don’t you find a partner, or maybe I’ll just split you up into pairs, we’ll start here…” You get the idea. You’d probably panic and possibly run out of the room. Toddlers have the language, but not the patience to listen to lots of waffle. They have playing to do. “Coat, please,” is about long enough for an instruction.

3. Make praise specific: I clearly praise my toddler a lot, because he praises me back. “Well done, Mummy,” he tells me when I have switched on his favourite TV show. But just “well done” is meaningless. If you want your praise to have the desired effect – that is, to affirm and encourage the good thing your child did – you need to make sure they know what it is they did that was so good. “Good painting” is okay; “I love those colours, they’re so bright” is better. “Good boy” means very little; “Well done for giving Tom back his truck” will help your toddler know what it was about his behaviour that was good.

4. Model best practice: If you’re a teacher trainer, you’d better be a good teacher yourself. If you are teaching IT, it doesn’t look good for your students’ knowledge of hardware to be more up to date than yours (as I found to my detriment…) If you are teaching your children how to live, you need to model best practice. I know. This is tough. But if you want them to handle the cat gently, it is not good for them to see you chucking him out the back door shouting “And don’t come back!”. If you want them to share their treats, they can’t see you refusing to give him and Daddy a piece of your ginormous chocolate bar. (All true examples from real life). By all means, get angry, be mean, hormonal, stressed, anxious, tired. Just model for them how to deal with those emotions positively, and how to apologise for the less than ideal things you do when you are feeling them.

I had to battle constantly to remind myself of these principles when I was teaching; the same is true now that I am a parent. Just knowing what might be good practice doesn’t mean you do it automatically, sadly. But every now and then, I will remember to give specific praise before I’ve opened my mouth, or I will remember after an angry outburst that I am meant to model for my son how to live, and I can apologise to him for shouting and tell him I love him.

How about you: what transferable skills have you got from your Career Before Parenting that you fall back on now?

Golden days

Who knows what may come in the future, but right now, brother and sister adore each other. Ever since the Baby started sitting up and especially since she has been joining in with mealtimes in the high chair, the Toddler has been seeing her less as a nuisance and more as a potential play mate. He recognises that she is a little person with preferences and even sees a need to speak on her behalf. One day she was crying in the high chair, so I offered her a bit more porridge.

“Maybe not.” the Toddler sniffed.

I gave her some banana.

“Maybe not,” the Toddler said again. “Baby not like-a banana.”

He was right, as it turned out. She was finished and did not like-a more food.

Another morning I went to get him from his room. The baby was already awake and downstairs and unhappy that I had left her. We could hear her crying as we came down the stairs.

“Oh no! Baby crying! Coming Baby! Baby pain?”

“No, I think she is just a bit lonely.”

“Oh, lonely… Poor baby.” By this time we had arrived at where she was sitting in the bouncy chair, making her displeasure known. Her brother went up to her and dropped down to (her) eye level. “Want a cuddle?” He gave her a hug. “There, better. And now: Nummajacks!”

Yesterday they were sitting side by side in the double buggy when the Baby had a bit of a coughing fit. Again, her brother’s concern made my heart melt. He leaned over as far as the straps would let him and said: “Oh, Baby, coughing?” Then he tucked her in under her buggy-blanket and blew her a kiss.

My brother at 3 years old, after I had dressed him up as the Easter Bunny. I thought I'd really done a bang-up job on his face paint.

My brother at 3 years old, after I had dressed him up as the Easter Bunny. I thought I’d done a particularly good job on his face paint.

What seems to have endeared the Baby to him no end is that he has discovered that he can make her laugh. His repertoire of gags includes singing the Problem Blob song from Numberjacks, doing wibbly-wobbly legs (or arms or tummy) with her and making toys fly around her head. Her giggles set him off too and soon he is helpless with laughter. Penelope Leach (again) has a brilliant section on how to help your first child through the arrival of a new baby. I won’t quote it all here, but one of her best pieces of advice is to convince the toddler that the baby likes him – because we all like people who like us. Well, very little massaging of the truth was needed here: the Baby’s beaming smile and shrieks of excitement when she sees the Toddler make it pretty plain how wonderful she thinks he is. But the fact that he can make her giggle has truly cemented their friendship – we like people who like us, but we love them if they think we’re funny. In fact, it is official: the Toddler frequently holds her hand and says “friends!”.

Growing up, my brother and I were always very close, and this is what I hoped for in having a second baby: that my children would have that special built-in friendship, that person who has lived through your childhood with you and can share memories of a happy home with you once you have grown up. Someone, basically, who can both thoroughly embarrass you and make you cry on your wedding day. It is too early to tell, of course, but when I catch the Toddler kneeling down by the Baby, gently taking her head in his hands and placing a kiss on her head, I think at least our two have got off to a good start.

Linking up to Magic Moments.

Time to learn

I love Penelope Leach. I’m going to come right out and say it. My love affair started long ago when I was in my early teens and I found one of her parenting tomes, cracked spine and well-thumbed, on a shelf in my parents’ junk room. Once I’d discovered it, I often snuck in there in unguarded moments (somehow I felt this was an illicit activity) to find out how to bring myself up.

When I was about to become a parent myself, I randomly decided to read everyone but her. I think the memory of the seventies-style cover of the book my parents owned made me think she must be Old and Out of Date. So I read Gina Ford (talk about out of date!) and the Baby Whisperer and Dr Miriam Stoppard. It wasn’t until I was seven months pregnant with baby number 2 that I found “Your Baby & Child” by Penelope Leach (in a very modern-looking binding) in a charity shop for the appealing price of £1, and decided to see what she had to say. I have been dipping in and out of her book every since, mainly reading about toddlers, and everything she says just makes such perfect sense.

Here is something I read in a section on how to join in with toddler play that made me rethink my life:

“Try, sometimes, to arrange unlimited time for [your toddler’s] games. Many toddlers have to nag ceaselessly in order to get a grudging game from an adult and then they spend most of the 10 minutes allotted to them waiting for the dread words: “that’s enough”. You cannot play with him all day but […] do try, sometimes, to seem willing or even eager, to play yourself, and let him have the luxury of going on until he is ready to stop. He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Penelope Leach, 2003, Your Baby & Child, p. 408.)

(The fancy referencing and the elipsis and such are for you, Dad.)

I read this and realised that I am always limiting my playtime with the Toddler. I will play with him for a little bit, but I am always plotting an exit strategy to get back to Important Things like the washing up or Twitter. As an excellent parenting course I attended put it: I am always half-busy. Never with my mind completely on my children, or completely on something else, but always doing both at once and not giving my best, full attention to either. This is not something to beat myself up over, though of course I do, because it is normal. There is not enough time in the day to spend every second completely focused on either the children or the house work or being self-employed, because something will end up not done. You have to multi-task sometimes.

However, I decided that I can, once a day, give the Toddler my unlimited time and attention for something he wants to do, and not stop until he wants to stop. I have tried it with playing his favourite game, Doodlebugs, which is actually very enjoyable. It is no hardship to spend 20 minutes playing Doodlebugs, or playing football, or drawing numbers on the pavement with chalk. And the thing I secretly fear – that he will never ever want to stop – is not true. He does eventually tire and want to do something else. Just not as quickly as I do. But that is okay.

I am not just telling you about all this to show how I am growing as a parent and a human being. There is something in particular that struck me about this passage from Penelope Leach’s book: “He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Leach, 2003, p. 408) (for you, Dad) The reason my Toddler – and, it turns out, any toddler – wants to play or do the same thing for hours on end is not because he is obsessed, not because he is a bit boring, but because he is learning. 

A case in point: This weekend, the Toddler was playing in the garden while my husband was cooking on the barbecue – this was a fascinating new phenomenon. To observe it better, the Toddler ran inside to get an apple and installed himself on a garden chair with a good view of Daddy.

“Doing, Daddy?”
“I’m doing the barbecue. What are you doing, S?”
“I’m doing apple.”
[pause for munching]
“Doing, Daddy?”
My husband said they must have had this exact conversation about twenty times in a row. When the apple was gone, our son ran inside, got a pear and carried on where he had left off, except now he was “doing pear”. Daddy, being a good sport, was very happy to keep going for as long as the Toddler wanted to. What was he learning? I imagine he was learning about chatting, about turn-taking, about how you can use the verb ‘to do’ to describe an activity, but primarily about how you ask and answer questions, which is a relatively new feature of the Toddler’s language.

A while back, I wrote about the wonders of self-education. I have been looking on, in awe, as my son has taught himself to count and to recognise letters and their sounds, while I have spent my professional life witnessing British teenagers come out of secondary school unable to spell or do simple maths. The question I asked in that post was: what has gone wrong between the joyful self-education of the pre-school years and the antagonistic reluctance to be educated that you find in schools? Now I ask it again. It would seem that toddlers are built for learning. By instinct, they know what to do. They find something that interests them and they are not quite competent at yet, and they explore, experiment and repeat repeat repeat until they have mastered it. We don’t need to teach them how to learn. They know. In fact, we’re mostly the ones trying to stop them doing it.

So, let’s start the debate once more. What do you think? If we start from scratch and invent school as if it had never existed, what would it look like? How can we use what children are born with to help them learn? Should we have listened to Socrates? Or Montessori? Or just Penelope Leach? Tell me what you think in the comments and let’s re-imagine education!

PS: If you haven’t already, watch this amazing TED-talk by Ken Robinson on the subject.

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh

Baby Led Weaning – a reality check

First of all: in case, like my uncle, you are not up with the jargon and thought Baby-Led Weaning had something to do with special tiny LED lamps, I thought I’d explain the concept a little. Veterans may wish to skip this bit.

Traditionally, babies make the change from being purely fed on milk to eating solid grown-up food by being spoon-fed tiny bits of flavourless mush, through various single-taste purees to slightly more chunky mashed up meals to eventually tucking into a roast dinner with the whole family. Baby-led weaning basically skips all the in between stages that require a blender and moves the baby straight from milk to the roast dinner – and whatever else is on the family menu.

blw

It’s not BLW unless you offer them crazy stuff like olives and artichokes.

The reasons:
1. You want them to learn to chew. Breastfeeding already involves a chewing motion, but spoonfeeding does not. Why get them to unlearn it only to learn it again later?
2. The cautious, gradual method with mush was developed back when babies were weaned a lot earlier. If you start at six months, a baby’s stomach should be ready for many different flavours and types of food. Developmentally, babies are also ready to feed themselves at this point: their main occupation, all day long, is picking things up, putting them in their mouths and chewing on them. You would think this is nature’s way of getting them ready for self-feeding.
3. Food should be fun. With traditional weaning, you often spend a lot of time persuading the baby to open wide and swallow something unfamiliar on trust. With baby-led weaning, meal times start off as play time and the baby is in control of what it wants to put in its mouth and whether to swallow it.

I am now in danger of rehashing the entire book I read on the subject so I will stop here. I posted a little while back on how it worked out with my son, and now that my daughter is three weeks into her adventures with food I thought I’d do a little update on how she is taking to BLW (as the cool kids call it).

After a slow start, where I was a bit disappointed at how little success she was having with grabbing anything off her high chair tray, she has really taken off in the past week. It has all worked out a bit differently to how I was expecting though.

I had expected to be much less anxious and helicoptery with child number 2, having seen my son go from coughing up his first bit of cheese to astounding the waiting staff in the Toby Carvery with his eating – but quite the contrary is the case. It has been so long now since we weaned him that I am at once incredulous at her lack of skills and worried that everything is too hard. I hover over her, put bits of cucumber back in her hand when they fall out, guide her cup and keep adjusting how she is sitting as soon as she starts listing over to one side.

Another marked difference to my son’s journey through weaning is that she is already consuming things. I mean: I can see it coming out the other end. She is eating. In fact, she seems to love it. Whereas breastfeeding is often accompanied by crying and pinching and complaints that the milk is too slow, no no too fast!, breakfast, lunch and dinner are met with smiles and silent, hungry nomming. It took my son at least a month before he swallowed anything. I remember it well: we were in a restaurant and he was barely peeping over the table. We gave him a bit of chicken to chew on and a few minutes later we realised it was gone. Not in the bib, not on the floor, it was just gone.

Why is my daughter swallowing food already? Well, baby-led weaners, I guess it’s confession time. Besides the officially approved finger foods that she chews on and spits out, she actually eats Weetabix, porridge and soup. From a spoon. Granted, she holds the spoon herself – but the food is mushy and easy to swallow, and she eats it off a spoon. Hard-core BLW-ers would frown on this. Runny foods are to be served with fruit or steamed vegetables to dip in them. I’m sorry, but to me that seems like avoiding spoons just for the sake of it.

I would like to submit to you for your approval a few BLW Reality Checks, to add as an addendum to an otherwise excellent notion:

1. We grown-ups eat food of all textures, including runny and mushy food, and we eat it with spoons. Your baby can still be in control – just load the spoon for her and let her hold it herself.
2. Babies at six months mayactually be hungry! They may actually want to start eating things. Nothing wrong with providing them with foods that they can easily swallow/digest besides all the other exciting stuff off your plate they might like to explore.
3. The assertion that you will not need to cook separately or differently for your weaning baby with this method, and that you can put your blender away, is not strictly true. There are so many things that we might eat on a daily basis that are not suitable for your baby because they are full of sugar, salt or other things that are best left until they are older, that you will end up doing speci

weetabix

Weetabix joy

al cooking anyway. With my son I tried lots of new recipes, I bought low salt stock cubes, I made him soup, baked special little pasties to fit his tiny hands – I have been known to puree fruit to put on toast as an alternative to jam. Yes, puree. But again: just as spoons are not inherently evil, neither is puree. Also, although your baby can eat at the same time as you, that is not always practical. He might be ready for dinner at 5pm, while your other half doesn’t get home until after bedtime and you would probably like to eat with him/her.
4. Finally, “baby-led” in itself is a little bit of a lie. Just a little bit. I mean, I’m still the one deciding what’s on the menu. She can’t very well send it back and say: “Actually, Mummy, today I would like to try the chicken and butternut squash risotto, hold the mushrooms, and I’ll have tiramisu for after.”

So there it is. Baby number 2 is loving food, but seems happiest on a joint Baby-and-Mummy-Led-Weaning regime. I’ll let you know when she swallows her first steamed vegetable!

Top Ten Unexpected Benefits of Having a Baby

1. Prime parking location
With a baby car seat in the back, you can suddenly park in all the ‘family’ parking spots – extra roomy for those of us who left their spatial skills back on the labour ward. Result! I have been so grateful for these every time I drove into town with a toddler who wouldn’t nap in his cot. He’d fall asleep in the car, I’d manoevre the fully reclining pushchair out of the vehicle, courtesy of the extra hatched space around my parking spot, transfer him into it still asleep, and wheel him straight into Starbucks. Ah, those were the days. Sadly this doesn’t work with two sleeping children and one puschair. But that is not the fault of the family parking spaces, they’re great!

2.Pyjama days
When you’re a new mum, nobody blames you for spending all day in your pyjamas. Nobody blames you for not washing up, letting the house get covered in a thin layer of dust and grime, eating take out every night and having unwashed hair. In fact, having a baby gives you a carte blanche to let yourself and your house go completely. I remember having a little meltdown when my son was about four months old. My husband asked me what the matter was, and I said: “I’m worried the new-baby-sympathy is going to run out soon!” I still wasn’t doing any cooking at that point and my son was scared of the sound of the hoover, because he had never encountered it before in his brief life. It turned out I needn’t have worried. New Baby Sympathy is available on tap for as long as your friends can see that you need it. I suddenly realised one day that I had settled into being a mum, and that I no longer needed the sympathy – and that is when it stopped.

3. New friends
Once I had worked out how to unfold the pram – please don’t ask me how long that took – I started investigating local baby and toddler groups. I felt a bit nervous, like everyone would look at me and see right through my clever disguise: she’s not really a Mum, she’s only pretending. I still felt quite self-conscious about having a baby, but I discovered that the great thing about going new places with your baby is that it is a fresh start. These people have never known you in any other capacity than as a mother, and that can help you find your new, enhanced identity. I have made some lovely friends this way and my son has made his very first friends at these groups too.

mini trolley2

Supermarket adventure in the Netherlands with a tiny trolley!

4. New skills
A lot of parenting is very physical, especially in the early days: logging miles up and down the stairs trying to settle a crying baby, breastfeeding, bathing, doing piles of extra laundry, trying to get a heavy pram in and out of a car etc. I am more used to thinking my way out of life’s problems, so this was a bit of a shock to the system. I think it was good for me, though. I am learning to listen to my instincts more. And I have built up some arm muscles, which is a definite bonus.

5. Rediscover the world
Through the eyes of my new arrival I found a new joy in old things. Everything is new to your baby. Everything is a wonderous miracle that needs to be explored and discovered. My daughter has really got into grabbing over the past few weeks, and she wants to explore everything. What does this feel like? What does this taste like? She wants to try out my laptop, wires, anti-bacterial spray, my fork, my cup of tea, a tissue I have just blown my nose on, the nearest plant and so on. I remember when my son had just started to move around, I would scan the house for fascinating things that might keep him in one place for long enough that I could rush into the kitchen to put the kettle on. I was looking at ordinary things with new eyes: wooden spoons as drum sticks, tiny tupperware for putting things in or stacking or sorting, bits of material to wave around like a flag. Everything is amazing when you’re tiny. Going to the supermarket is the best adventure. The library is a maze of exciting books that can be pulled off shelves until you are standing in a sea of them. A flight of stairs is an epic mountain that takes courage and determination to scale. Life need never be boring again.

6. Community
Before I had my son, I didn’t know anyone in the neighbourhood. I’d get up, drive to work, come home in the dark, spend the evening indoors with my husband, go to bed, get up, repeat ad infinitum. Our social life took place with friends we already had, who generally did not live in our local area. Having a baby changed all that. For a start, I was around in the daytime and reluctant to travel very far afield. I also discovered that people on the street are much more likely to at least smile, but possibly even stop and talk to you if you have a small person with you. It’s a bit like walking your dog, I imagine: you have a handy, ready-made topic of conversation about you. This is how I got talking to my neighbours and two years on, my toddler greets all the local dogs by name. I already mentioned baby & toddler groups – they were the means through which I started making local friends. Now we have playdates that we can walk to and our whole area suddenly feels like a more friendly place that we as a family are a part of. We suddenly discovered we were part of a community.

7. Off-peak
Being around in the daytime is great! You have a much wider choice of appointment times at the doctor’s/dentist’s, you can actually park when you go into town, you can go to the shops when it’s quiet and you can travel at off-peak prices. As I was working in education when I had my first baby, we suddenly found that we were no longer tied to school holidays while I was on maternity leave. For a family on a budget, this can suddenly bring a sunny holiday within affordable range. Even if you were never tied to the school calendar before, you will be once your kids are 3 or 4 years old, so make the most of off-peak travel while you still can!

8. Supersonic hearing
I have always wanted a t-shirt that says: “I make milk. What’s your superpower?” Not my witty joke, I hasten to add, I saw this on Facebook a while ago. But yes, mothering comes with superpowers. You may or may not choose to use the milk one, but you can’t avoid the Supersonic Hearing. It is tuned to pick up a baby’s cry at incredible distances, through thick walls, in a crowded cafe and in your sleep. And you will know very swiftly whether it is yours, too. One caveat though: if you live in a fox-rich environment, you may find yourself waking up in the night, convinced your baby has woken up, only to find it is a fox on heat. Slight design flaw in the superpower – or in the foxes.

9. Understanding your parents
I didn’t really want to write this one, as I don’t want my Mum to feel too smug. But yes, when you have a baby you suddenly find a new appreciation for your parents, and an understanding for all the things that used to annoy you about them. Having thrown several teenage-like strops at the ripe old age of 27 or so, explaining to my mother that I was a grown woman with a job and a house and I didn’t need her to point out that my skirt was too short/it was time to phone my grandfather/send thank-you cards/file my tax return, I now see what was going on. As a parent you are always several steps behind on your child’s development. They change and grow so fast that it is impossible to keep up and adjust in time. I remember realising when my son was about 8 months old that I was still bathing him like a newborn, with cotton wool for his eyes, in a tiny baby bath. He could actually sit up and splash about in the big bath by then, but I still thought of him as a little baby. Today, as my daughter screamed in protest at me picking bogies out of her nose, I had a very clear memory of pushing my own mother away as she picked my nose for me. I can tell you, I was definitely over three years old and well able to keep my own nose clean. There is no time to get into habits with children – as soon as you do they change and you have to adjust.

Sorry about the nose-picking story, that was a bit grim.

10. More love.
I’m guessing this does not sound like an unexpected benefit of having a baby. Part of the reason we want babies is because we long to love and be loved. But isn’t there a tiny part of us that is a bit worried that our relationship with our partner will diminish, eclipsed by the love we feel for the baby? I am sure many expectant fathers are more than a little concerned about this. Mother and baby live in such a symbiosis, both before and after birth – will there be less love available for them? Mother Teresa said: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” When you have a baby, you don’t suddenly have to share the available love out between three people instead of two, there is suddenly a whole lot of extra love to go round.

But that wasn’t even exactly what I meant. Your relationships change when your baby arrives, and the love you feel for your family is different. I remember my husband saying in wonder, during the mad week after our son was born and I was recovering in hospital: “I’ve suddenly realised that ‘Mum’ is no longer the person who looks after me, but the person I look after.” We had added a whole new level to our relationship: besides husband and wife we were Mummy and Daddy now. And our parents were equally bowled over by their new role as grandparents. Both our mothers have remarked that they were completely taken by surprise by the strength of the love they felt for their grandchildren. All this new love has knit us all together as a family more closely, it has given us something unique to share.

So there you go. If I left you despondent with my list of Top Ten Things to do before your First Baby Arrives, I hope I have cheered you a little with some happy things to come, should you be expecting your first baby.

I am linking this post up with Vic Welton’s PostCommentLove. Feel free to nip over and check out some other blogs.