A Balancing Act

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In which our reluctant hero learns something new.

They say that you learn something new each day. It’s true that. Take this morning for example where I, and three fellow commuters, learned not to assume that a BMW driver, who was not indicating, wouldn’t be turning right as we fled for safety like proverbial bunnies in the headlights while attempting to cross the road to the station.

As parents, we instinctively try to help our little people learn and develop new skills. In the early days this may involve encouraging those first attempts at a smile, gripping and shaking a rattle or simply knocking things over. In a way, this stage is probably the easiest as if your child is having fun doing an activity, pretty much any activity, then they are learning.

In hindsight this is a rewarding period as a parent. Knowing that playing with something as simple as a cardboard box will provide hours of giggles and they’ll think that you’re the world’s best Dad as a result is brilliant. Make the most of it. It won’t last.

Different skills become essential to independence as children get older, such as using a spoon, walking, talking and being able to charge a flat tablet back up.

Then there’s the more “academic” stuff, like learning to count and recognise numbers. When our eldest was little, each time we walked up or downstairs we would count each step until, eventually, she could recite the pattern like a performing monkey. Which, of course, we made her do countless times, especially in front of parents with children slightly older. (And don’t tell me that you didn’t do this too, parents of two year olds…) Oddly, our youngest seems to have taught himself the same skill with little help from ourselves AND remembers to include the number eight more often than not.

There seems to be conflicting messages around learning though. There’s the school of thought that children do things in their own time and we should just let them get on with it. Which is probably true, to a degree. Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.

But, by the time that they start at school nursery at three there’s an expectation that children can use the toilet, know about food and eating well, can hold a pencil properly and attempt to write their name, and so on. Yet we are often told that if we do too much at home there will be nothing for the children to learn at school and they’ll get bored. What’s the balance? It seems that you can’t win.

Although primarily focussed on an older age group, there was an interesting article on the BBC website this week which discussed whether homework was worth the hassle. In it, a Texan teacher proposed “I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your children to bed early.” as an alternative approach to extra curricular learning.

Now, I have no idea if this is a sensible approach to adopt with an eleven year old or not, but it seems pretty sound advice for when the children are little.

So, in the first three years, is it better to focus on the things that children are not going to learn at nursery or school later? Do things together and play lots?

If we take the academic element away, that presumably leaves more of a focus on the creative side. Albert Einstein once said that “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” and, being a bit of a clever clogs himself, he could well be right.

So, maybe it is time to chuck the “Differential Calculus for Infants” book in the bin and fetch out the Lego, books, Play Doh and dressing up things instead. And don’t worry. You can always sneak some sums, telling the time, spelling and Spanish lessons in with a few careful telly choices.

The Witching Hour

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In which our reluctant hero gets ready for bed.

Yesterday evening’s journey home was a typical Thursday commute for me, being mostly spent typing exciting terms such as “parenting” and “children” into Google’s news search in the vain hope of getting a spark of inspiration for today’s post. Having waded through about three hundred headlines about “Brangelina” I eventually stumbled upon something interesting in The Mirror.

“Three quarters of parents no longer give their children a bath before bed and favour quick showers instead, a new study has found.

Busy mums and dads admitted that they preferred screen-time to calm their kids rather than reading them a story and tucking them in for the night.”

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/three-quarters-parents-shun-childrens-8888347

Three quarters? Really?

Now I can completely understand why many parents, us included, allow a bit of telly before bed, but the concept of a complete lack of routine at this time (as is inferred in the full article) seems bizarre.

Although all parents do things differently, establishing routines is vitally important, not least for your own sanity. Bedtime was one of the first after becoming parents. You tweak things of course, especially as the little people get a bit older, but our routine isn’t massively different from when our eldest was six months old, albeit with two children now.

To illustrate the benefits of our efforts, I will describe how bedtime works at our house on a good day.

Tea finished, we head upstairs to run the bath. I fetch and lay out the pyjamas, pick some toys, get them undressed and they jump in. Once the hair-washing bit is done, the children play nicely in the bath for about twenty minutes before I get them out to dry and dress them. Back downstairs, they may ask for a biscuit and half a banana if still peckish, and watch a programme before bed. We aim to get back upstairs for teeth, toilet, stories and lights off at around 7pm. Everyone goes straight to sleep and mum and dad get a well-earned sit down. We, as the righteous quarter of all parents, deserve a medal. Go us.

A proper system, regimentally applied. Sounds good, doesn’t it? For balance, this is how the same routine works on a bad day.

Tea finished, a tantrum starts about not wanting a bath. With a child under each arm, I head upstairs to run the water, fetch and lay out the pyjamas and pick some toys. The next five to ten minutes are spent trying to find the children who, by now, could be anywhere from bouncing on our bed to down at the bottom of the garden. Once retrieved, I spend another five minutes practicing my WWF skills while getting them undressed and into the bath, which may well have gone cold.

Once the hair-washing bit is (eventually) done, the children throw or splash water at each other and at me for about thirty seconds before I lose my rag, get them out and attempt to dry and dress them. The soundtrack to this bit is often crying and wails of “I don’t want you… I like my mummy best!” from the eldest and “mummy back NOW!” from the youngest. It’s so nice to feel loved.

Back downstairs, they may ask for a biscuit and half a banana if still peckish, before we pop the telly on to watch a bedtime programme. An argument starts, usually involving foot stamping and shouts of “I want Team Umizoomi not baby programmes!” from the eldest, and “No. Peppa Pig FIRST!” from the youngest in an infinite loop. Now somewhat fed up, I stick CBeebies on and head to the kitchen to locate wine while thinking, “If only my meeting had overrun by half an hour.”

The telly talks to itself (as CBeebies is on after 6pm it will be the episode of “In the Night Garden” with the Tombliboos making loads of noise – it always is) while the kids tip toys out everywhere, run round in circles, jump off the sofa and scream. The coalition forces of team mum and dad assemble, storm the front room, switch the telly off and drag the children back upstairs for teeth, toilet, stories and lights off at around 6:30pm.

Nobody goes straight to sleep, I pick the toys and cushions back up, and mum and dad get a well-earned sit down spent shouting “GET BACK TO BED…. NOW!” until they eventually drop off.

There is something very odd and unpredictable about that last hour before bed though. Even if the children have been good all day, you can almost see hair starting to grow out of their palms and the red mist descend as the clock strikes six.

It’s not always like this of course, but if you go through a couple of consecutive nights of it you can perhaps see why bath time may be skipped and the tablet fetched out by night three. Which, to me, is a shame. Is a quick shower and an hour of iPad really the antidote? Apparently, three quarters of us parents think so.

Not every night though, surely? Tucking the little people in and story time is one of the nicest parts of the day if everyone is settled and starting to get sleepy. The other three quarters can do it their way, and we’ll do it ours.

Don’t have nightmares. Goodnight.

School Daze

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In which our reluctant hero is not sure what to do for the best. Again.

After almost two weeks, Facebook’s random algorithm that decides which of your “friend’s” posts it will actually allow you to see has caught up. Yes, the last few snaps of little people, kitted out in shiny new shoes and colourful jumpers, ready for a new school year have finally disappeared. Fortunately, normality has returned and everybody is back posting photos of their dinner instead. Phew!

Don’t get me wrong, we were guilty too as our eldest stood beaming ahead of commencing her first full year at school nursery. Uniform is optional but we bought some anyway. Almost a week into term, quite why we reckoned that three white polo shirts would be enough to last five mornings on a three-year old is beyond me. Does anybody have any tips on removing egg stains by the way? (I’m asking for a friend.)

Time moving like time does, it seems that as soon as the little people are out of nappies, they’re into school uniform. Then back out of uniform and into a fresh set after an unexpected incident involving Weetabix.

But before all of this you have the dilemma of choosing a school, nursery or playgroup. And what a nightmare it is.

We have been somewhat lucky up to now. As a family with a stay at home mum, we didn’t have to worry about external childcare for a couple of years. When the time came, we visited a couple of places before picking the nearest playgroup which was a nice enough start to school life. So far, so good.

At three, nursery choices were narrowed by our local primary school not having one and a need, at that point, to find a place that accommodated afternoon attendance. We’ve now switched to mornings so that we can also start our youngest in playgroup for a couple of sessions a week.

Already there’s military style planning needed to manage the respective drop-offs and pick-ups at two events starting and finishing at different times a mile or so apart. By this time next year it could be a lot more complicated.

In the olden days, when I were a lad, it was easy. At three, it was off to the village playgroup, followed by the village primary school. At eleven, a short bus ride was required to get to the nearest comprehensive in the “big” town. Repeat until sixteen, get your GCSE results and then decide whether to do ‘A’ Levels or get a job in Kwik Save with everyone else who left school at that point.

Fast forward to 21st Century Britain and now we have a choice. Or several choices. Thanks Government.

Pick a school, any school. There you go. No, not that one. Did you not read the Ofsted report from 2013? And look at the current league table. There could be a relegation battle on the cards this year. Do you not care about your children’s futures? Shame on you.

So, just how do we choose the right one?

Ideally it will be local and near enough to walk to. Having a nursery so that both children can attend the same place when the youngest starts next September will be a huge plus too.

Now the decisions get trickier. How big are the class sizes? What are the facilities like? How many schools should we realistically be visiting to compare? Is a couple of days assessment by some people with clipboards and a red pen really an accurate measure of how good a school is? If a school can fob Ofsted off, what chance have we got? Do the league tables actually matter? Seemingly so, at least to other parents anyway.

After copious amounts of study, I think that I have finally worked out the modern-day school system which I will attempt to explain below in simple language so that other Dads will understand.

A football club (school) wins the cup (gets a favourable Ofsted), improves its league position, gains promotion to the Premier League and qualifies for Europe. The glory hunting fans (parents) are quick to jump on board, claiming to be life long supporters, and buy the new kit (uniform.) Bus loads of new players (pupils) appear at the club’s training ground (playground) from all over the world (town) during pre-season (school holidays) hoping to win a contract for next season (term.) The transfer window slams shut and the manager (headmaster) faces a dilemma – how to get an oversized, unbalanced squad of varying abilities to perform and achieve success. They try but fail, performances drop and results suffer. A slide down the table occurs and at the end of the season, agents (parents again) battle furiously to sign their star players (children) up to another club (school), preferably with European ambitions. Oddly, the new club that the players join were relegated to the Championship only a couple of seasons ago, before appointing a new manager (headmaster) and bouncing back (did well at Ofsted and SATs.) And the circle is complete.

Bearing this in mind, are we not better just continuing at the place where the eldest is? After all, she’s settled, absolutely loves going there and we, as parents, have been impressed with the set up so far. Sounds reasonable, yes? But there’s no guarantee that she’ll get in, so even that option requires two backup plans, else risk having to go through clearing or win a penalty shootout.

What about home schooling? It’s a subject in the papers a lot at the moment and we’ve not even considered it. Perhaps that’s a better option. It’ll save all of the faffing getting there and back, especially in the winter, and there must be loads of lessons on YouTube that the children can watch.

Or what about grammar or free schools? No, let’s not even go there…

So those are the options and the clock is ticking for us to make a decision. I’m stumped if I know what to do. More study first I guess.

Food Glorious Food

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In which our reluctant hero serves up nine and a half of his five a day.

Food is back on the menu again, or in the news at least, as the biannual “Children’s lunchboxes still unhealthy shock” story resurfaces. According to an article on the BBC and elsewhere, fewer than two in 100 children’s lunches (that would be one in 100 then, Auntie Beeb?) meet the government’s nutritional standards. Children don’t eat enough fruit and veg and prefer crisps and biscuits? Who knew?

While our two are a good way off needing a packed lunch each day, presumably the same guidelines apply to feeding the little people once they’re weaned off milk and relying on solids as fuel. Seems logical, but are we doing it right at home? I do hope so as the shame would be just too much if we don’t.

To test, I decided to look up the governmental guidelines, compare to an average lunch served at our house and smugly show how we are the exceptions to the rule. We’re middle class and have heard of “5 a day” and all that after all so what could possibly go wrong?

OK. Here goes…

1. One portion of fruit and one portion of vegetable or salad every day to be included in packed lunches

Fruit. Tick, tick, tick. No problem with the fruit. The fruit is covered. Veg though? Occasionally a tomato or bit of cucumber may be nibbled at during lunch if there’s a full moon due. Homemade soup is a favourite of our youngest, the eldest rarely touches it. Baked beans and spaghetti hoops count as vegetables too according to the tin so there’s enough here to justify that we provide at least one of each I reckon. Tick.

2. Meat, fish or another source of non-dairy protein should be included every day. Non dairy sources of protein include lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, hummus, peanut butter and falafel

Sadly, by “meat and fish” the guidelines are referring to unprocessed stuff as opposed to turkey twizzlers. I’m guessing wafer thin ham doesn’t count either, so probably a no here. Pulses? You may as well try feeding them poison asides from an inconsistent and erratic relationship with hummus which is either wolfed down or refused in equal measures. We get through peanut butter by the bucketful and as I have just decided that the children are, on balance, probably vegetarian (they love veggie sausages – what more proof do you need?) I’m having another tick here thank you very much.

3. An oily fish, such as salmon, should be included at least once every three weeks

Oily fish? We’ve barely managed to get a portion down in three years let alone every three weeks. Deep fried fish fingers count though, right? It’s bound to be olive oil that they use at the chippy. Tick.

4. A starchy food, such as bread or pasta, rice, couscous, noodles, potatoes or other cereals, should be included every day

Couscous is a no-no due to the texture, and rice is a bit hit or miss too. They’re fine with the rest and we normally buy wholemeal bread or the “best of both” option if white. As lunch normally involves butties or toast, that’s another tick.

5. A dairy food, such as semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, cheese, yoghurt, fromage frais or custard should be included every day

Yep. Or ice-cream. Probably. Not that this would be a good idea in a lunchbox. Tick.

6. Free, fresh drinking water should be available at all times

Water is always available as we are lucky enough to own a tap despite living in Wolverhampton. It never gets drunk but that’s not a stipulation of the guidelines. Tick.

7. Include only water, still or sparkling, fruit juice, semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, yoghurt or milk drinks and smoothies

You’ve missed squash off, spoilsports. We give the little people fruit juice or milkshake occasionally. Half a tick?

8. Snacks such as crisps should not be included. Instead, include nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit (with no added salt, sugar or fat). Savoury crackers or breadsticks served with fruit, vegetables or dairy food are also a good choice

Our two rarely have crisps as if we have any in the house they are stored above head height and mummy knows where they’re kept. Peanuts, yes but salted or not at all but cashews are a big hit with our eldest. Breadsticks and Mini Cheddars they will eat by the skip full, and raisins also but, oddly, no other dried fruit. Close enough. Tick.

9. Confectionery such as chocolate bars, chocolate-coated biscuits and sweets should not be included. Cakes and biscuits are allowed but these should be part of a balanced meal

Chocolate based things are treats if tea has been polished off nicely. Like me, neither of the children are that keen on cake (the little one more so) and we normally go for “healthier” biscuits, if there can be such a thing, like malted milk, digestives or hobnobs. And custard creams. They’ve got custard in and this also satisfies rule five. Tick.

10. Meat products such as sausage rolls, individual pies corned meat and sausages / chipolatas should be included only occasionally

Our two aren’t keen on pastry, but the government is having a laugh if cocktail sausages are on the “banned from daily consumption” list. Without those there would be a fifty percent reduction in our children’s protein intake. And mine. I’m not counting that as a parenting fail as it is blatantly silly. Stupid experts with their facts and logic and stuff. Tick.

So, there you go. We’re not doing too badly, but the difficulty is not necessarily serving the right stuff up but finding the day that the kids are in the mood to eat it. By my maths we scored a massive nine and a half out of ten. Or, using the BBC’s logic, more than nine out of ten. So ten out of ten then. Yay! Tick.

 

[More details about healthy lunchboxes are here, should you wish to explore further.]

One Small Step for Man

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In which our reluctant hero tries to be helpful for a change.

Regular visitors to my blog will have probably guessed that I am not a proper writer, but a Dad who sits on a train bashing into WordPress at far-too-near-to-the-six-pm-Friday-deadline-for-my-liking each week. Take a picture, think of a name, press the schedule button, then it’s back home to changing nappies and getting stressed about the mess. Sorted.

I quite like the writing bit which can, at times, be fun. Probably. However, coming up with post ideas that I can run with each week is nothing short of torturous.

The overarching idea for my blog is to mix things up a bit, reflecting on experiences from a Dad’s perspective in an ad-hoc fashion, rather than creating a diary of sorts. The problem with this approach is that, as a parent, everything exists very much in the present and, to a degree, in the near future. This makes writing about things from the past trickier as each week passes. I can barely remember what I had for tea last night, let alone details about failed attempts at potty training and the like from a few years back.

Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to go old school this week. Back to the first year of being a Dad no less. A time before arguing about whether “Team Umizoomi” or “In the Night Garden” should be on before bed was the norm.

Last week’s post about parenting fails to date was quite popular, so why not try to flip it over, brown for a couple of minutes, and serve back up as a list of lessons learned so far? It’s either that or write a post about taking the family to Thomas Land on the only sunny day of the August Bank Holiday weekend. I think that you got off quite lightly considering.

So, in no particular order;

  • There’s more to life than books you know – Mr Spock, Supergran or whoever else has flooded the market with their definitive guide to parenting this month aren’t bringing up your baby. By all means read their books, but remember why you have a bin if it all proves to be a load of old rubbish.
  • It’s OK to throw in the towel now and again – Middle-class idiots that we are, we bought some fabulous looking reusable nappies with the best of intentions of going green (no pun intended) once the little person popped out. Trying to get everything washed and dried in November after little or no sleep didn’t really happen. Plus the smell of mushrooms kept making everyone hungry. Off to Aldi for some disposables then, and move on. No shame in that.
  • White washes – Speaking of washing, white baby grows, vests and so on look lovely until they are worn for more than thirty seconds by a real life actual baby. Pick more sensible colours if you can.
  • Don’t make a drama out of a crisis – Once they start finding their feet, todlers fall over and bump into things all of the time. They are also tougher than you think, thankfully. When the inevitable happens, see what their reaction is before making a fuss. Nine times out of ten they’ll dust themselves off and carry on without so much as a whimper as our eldest did after tumbling down half a flight of stairs. Oops.
  • Calpol is your best friend – Obviously don’t overdo it, and try not to spill any if swigging straight from the bottle.
  • Reassess how you carry babies that move – This doesn’t strictly need to be at the side, but once they get slightly bigger and more mobile, work out the most comfortable way of carrying that avoids you getting on the wrong end of the all too frequent headbutt or kick in the groin.
  • The rule of threes – If you think you’ll only need one nappy in your changing bag to pop out for half an hour, think again. A change is always followed by another change two minutes later if you only have one spare. If you have two spares, one of the tabs will snap, guaranteed. Take three.
  • Never take more stuff than you can fit into, under or onto a buggy – I wrote about packing issues a couple of weeks back. You didn’t listen of course. I don’t know why I bother…
  • Play Doh is edible – Probably. So, be careful but there’s more important things to worry about and it never did us any harm, right?
  • Learn some “lyrics” – Tunes aren’t the problem as every melody that you hear in the first two years is basically a remix of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But learn some words. This will be vital if you’re feeling man enough to go to baby group on your own. Dad Expert Level unlocked.
  • Never go to baby group on your own – Especially once the little people are moving and doubly especially if you haven’t remembered any “lyrics.” What could possibly go wrong?
  • Get into a routine – Boring as this sounds, it really helps whether it is bath time, bed time, meal time, or any other time come to think of it. Sterilising things, tidying up, making tomorrow’s lunch or banging dinner in the slow cooker before bed can make a massive difference the next day. If you’ve had no sleep, everything is that bit more organised and bearable. If you’ve had some sleep you may actually get to sit down for a bit. Yay!
  • Remember that you’re a team – If you’re not doing the parenting on your own, then there really should be no “me” in Team America. So work out who needs to do what, stop grumbling and just get on with it!
  • Get to recognise sounds – Is it a gurgle, a burp, a rumble, or something more sinister? Remember that sound travels faster than partially enclosed smells. Get this right and you can be half way down the garden doing the compost before anybody notices the deed has been done. Your turn.
  • Don’t always assume that “Mum knows best” – You’re both making it up on the hoof after all and you may actually be right. (You won’t be.)
  • Don’t ever let on that you may be thinking that “Mum might not know best” – There are some great tips on subliminal persuasion and so on in Derren Brown’s books. Engage brain before putting mouth into gear, especially if you haven’t mastered The Force to at least Padawan level.
  • Avoid taking advice from anyone who gave birth to their youngest child over two years ago – They’ll barely remember anything about the preceding two years plus and just make it all up. Guaranteed.

So, there you go. Not everything, but a start for you newbies out there and a timely place to end this post just in time for me to start reclaiming the remote and putting my two and three year olds to bed.