Every Loser Wins

In which our reluctant hero assesses the competition.

The more perceptive of you may have noticed a picture of a glittery bauble above and assumed that this is another post about Christmas. You would be quite wrong. It isn’t. Well, maybe just a little.

The bauble was decorated by our four year old for her school nursery’s bauble decorating competition. It is an eclectic mix of glitter, more glitter, shiny things, glittery things, a couple of stickers and a feather for good measure, stuck down with a gallon of PVA glue. Over the course of several sittings, the layers slowly built up until, finally, it was ready for entry into the competition. The time and effort put in was incredible. Best of all, she did it all by herself. All of it.

The temptation to help, be it design tips, submitting draft plans, or simply pointing out the bits missing glue and glitter was torturous. It always is. We could have decorated our own baubles of course but where would the fun be in that? It’s better to sit in the back seat squawking out directions or shouting “ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?” than actually driving after all.

Will the bauble win a prize? Who knows. Does it matter? Probably not. Or does it?

We all like to succeed, it’s human nature. Doing something well makes you like doing it just that bit more than doing something that you’re a bit rubbish at. Add winning a prize into the mix and bingo. A passion for life. Maybe.

If the task is too easy or too difficult though, you may lose interest. However, if there’s sufficient challenge and things are still achievable then that’s probably about right. Like playing those machines at the amusement arcade where you get to feel a fluffy toy with a grabber three times for a quid. It’s tricky, but with persistence, dedication and about fifty quid in change, you know that you’ll win in the end.

But is competition really the answer, especially when little people are involved?

Like with most things in life, there are pros and cons. Positives could perhaps include increased self-esteem, learning how to win or lose gracefully, understanding the importance of team participation, trying new things, making new friends, learning to set achievable goals, to name but a few. On the flip side, confidence could take a knock or interest in taking part could be lost, causing withdrawal or even stress. Blimey.

Most of the negatives are unthinkable as a parent, especially the stress element. But there has to be a balance somewhere. Life isn’t about winning all of the time, but it can’t be about losing all of the time either. Either extreme is unhealthy, be it for children or adults.

Another consideration in this is our natural competitiveness. As an example, our daughter became interested in board games at about two years old. Once the basic concept of a given game was grasped, we would start to play, but it wouldn’t be long before she start cheating. If rumbled, it was full on waterworks in seconds and she no longer wanted to play. It’s genuinely puzzling as to where this behaviour came from at such a young age, although I distinctly remember her uncle displaying similar traits as a youngster. *Coughs*

Now at a similar age, our youngest occasionally wants to win too, especially in the ‘jama race. He is also prone to the odd bit of cheating too, a recent favourite being “I saw the sea first!!” while driving through Spaghetti Junction on the way to holidays. That’s not the sea, it’s Star City.

The compromise (according to the internet which is never ever wrong) appears to be “healthy competition,” whatever that is.

Having popped my thinking boots on, I’ve interpreted this as probably meaning working out what you motivates you, what you’re trying to achieve, being sensible and, importantly, making sure that you enjoy whatever it is that you’re doing.

So, if you love skiing and it turns out that you’re good at it, great. Ski as fast as you can and try to compete against other skiers if that’s your want. If you love skiing but keep coming last, maybe stop worrying about everybody else. Ski against yourself or the clock instead. Set sensible goals, try to improve, take pleasure from your achievements, do the best you can and enjoy it. And if that doesn’t work, forget the slopes, head for the jumps and bang in an application to enter the Winter Olympics instead, like this fella did.

And there’s maybe a lesson for us all in there somewhere. You may not be the best, but keep persevering and smiling and you can achieve things. Probably the best thing that we can do as parents is to encourage and support our children, rather than set the bar too high and knock them down.

Getting back to the bauble. Our daughter understands that she’s entering a competition, but I get the impression that it won’t be the end of the world if she doesn’t win. She put a load of thought and effort in, did the very best she could all by herself, and enjoyed it without any pressure. And I’m happy with that.

Hopefully the teachers will spot any baubles where a ringer has been drafted in to help come judgment day. If they don’t, rest assured that my paint brushes and tube of UHU are coming out next time. Not that I’m competitive or anything.

Fin.

A Balancing Act

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.

School Daze

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.

Testing Times

In which our reluctant hero goes back to school. Probably. 

Thinking back to childhood, memories that often surface include time spent at school. Colouring; learning to read and write; pouring warm milk down the playground grid; making new friends; trying to fly by running down a bank with your coat out like rudimentary wings; the dreaded lost property bag if you forgot your PE kit; not quite making it to the toilet in time. Happy days. Think harder and less happy memories may also surface. Tests. Ugh!

This week it was examination time at our house with man and boy off to the local Health Centre for the mandatory two year check.

Now, you would perhaps, logically, think that the two year check was a check to see how said two year old was faring, two years on. You would be wrong. The check turns out to be less checky and more of a test. A test with hard sums and no calculators. A test to see how much Dad has been paying attention over the last two years, and to see how much attention is paid to Dad. What could possibly go wrong?

The first part I passed with flying colours. Flying red colours in fact, as I remembered to take the red book for teacher to write the test scores in. All by myself. Go me! Tick.

From then on in things got a little trickier…

“Can the little one walk up the stairs by himself?”
“Yes!” Tick.

So far so good…

“When he walks up the stairs, does he do it one step at a time, by making sure that both feet are safely on the step before attempting the next one, or something different?”
“Erm…”

The problem with tests is that you have to revise. Question one and I am already concerned that I have not put the necessary hours in to get the required Grade C or above. What’s worse is that I should have been prepared for this question having had the same one at a previous exam twenty months ago. But nope. Not a clue. And why would I have? Standing with a clipboard making copious notes on my children’s stair walking technique has never been high up on my list of priorities. Getting them up the stairs for bedtime without resorting to a size eight up the rear is a battle in itself. So I wing it.

“B. Yes, It’s B.”

It’s an established fact that “B” is always the answer in multiple choice questions, isn’t it? That’ll do. 3-1 odds. I’ll take that. Tick. Next…

“Do you think that his speech is better, about the same as, or slightly behind that of other children of the same age that he socialises with?”
“Erm…”

Socialises with? Same age? Isn’t this the neglected second child that they’re talking about? Clearly he doesn’t have many of his own friends and mostly hangs round with his big sister and her friends instead. I’m at work when most of this stuff happens anyway so my only reference point is big sister at the same age. Think man, think!

Now, I distinctly remember her getting immensely stressed months before her second birthday concerned that she “had forgotten to send the invitations out to the party guests.” How does that compare? Hmmm…

“B. Yes, it’s B. I’m sure. Final answer.” Tick.

The next bit focussed on physical things like following instructions and copying actions. The boy is pretty good at fetching things and putting them away when asked. He also loves running and jumping and so on and is brilliant at mimicking. This will be a doddle.

“OK, little man. Can you copy this noise with your mouth? Click, click, click…”

Nothing.

“Click, click click…”

Nothing again. Best help as the health professional clearly hasn’t got a clue and we often do this sort of thing after brushing teeth. Daddy do it.

“Click click, click…”
“That’s not right. Silly Daddy!”

Jumping next. Sadly, further instruction and encouragement failed to remove the superglue that had welded the soles of his pumps to the floor. The same for running. Having grown up with “One Man and His Dog” being about as good as Sunday television got, I wondered if blowing the whistle out of the box of prompts for the test would help spur things along. It didn’t.

Recognising things in books went far better until the shyness kicked in, and tower building was a particular hit. The hit in this case propelling the blocks to the far corners of the room to a cry of “TIMBER!”

Anyway, we got through the rest of it with ticks in most of the right boxes. Largely by guesswork and the reluctant participation of a little boy who was less than impressed at having being forcibly removed from the paddling pool on a glorious summer’s afternoon to attend.

My advice to anyone who has the check coming up is to do your homework. Study, make notes and write the answers on your arm if necessary. Take sweets or doggy-chocs as a reward for good behaviour. Practice advanced Lego construction techniques and get the little one familiar with the “Daily Mirror Book of Facts” to help in the General Knowledge round.

At the end of the round we scored seventeen points with three passes. I’ll take that.

Toy Stories

In which our reluctant hero receives a rather odd phone call.

Tuesday, 2nd August 2016. 12:06 pm.

BRING, BRING!

“Hello.”

“Hello Daddy. I’ve got some sad news.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“Postman Pat has died.”

“Eh? What happened? Did you stand on him or something?”

I rarely get personal calls at work, and this conversation was probably not one that I would have predicted when I answered the phone. If you missed the news, what my three year old was trying to tell me was that Ken Barrie, the voice and narrator of Postman Pat for 25 years, had sadly passed away a few days before. A message which, given the timing, was probably sent via snail mail rather than as a special delivery, so to speak.

Although not a big fan of the programme (asides from the Chinese Dragon episode) our daughter loved the toys, a job lot for a tenner off a local selling site, which she would play with for hours. Parcels got delivered far more efficiently that the “real” Pat would ever have managed, Dr Gilbertson and PC Selby would frequently end up together in a makeshift bed on our shelving unit, and nobody ever discovered where Ted Glen hid the bodies. Just like on the TV show.

Pat rarely gets a look in these days, as is the cyclical nature of toys.

This made me think about the various things that we’ve had in the house at different stages so far. Another thought followed almost immediately. If I write all of this stuff down instead of just thinking it, that may just pass for an interesting and informative blog post. Advice and nostalgia all rolled into one. You lucky people. Probably.

So here goes…

If there are any expectant parents reading, brace yourself for a bombardment of soft toys. Seriously, get to IKEA or Wilkos and buy as many enormous plastic tubs as you can fit in the boot of the car sharp-ish. It’s the only way you’re going to get around the house in a couple of weeks. Trust me.

While you’re out shopping, see if anywhere sells earplugs as pretty much everything that is going to turn up that isn’t stuffed will be noisy. And repetitive. I read somewhere that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies use the more sinister VTech products to help extract confessions from prisoners. After a few weeks of listening to a loud and tuneless rendition of “The wheels on my bike go round and round, round and round, round and round…” for periods of an hour or more, you’ll understand why this bonafide made up fact isn’t quite so far-fetched.

As the children grow up, musical instruments start being a favourite. Rightly so as they’re fun, educational and help development. Keep some paracetamol nearby though. We actually have a proper mini drum kit in the loft that I have buried under so much stuff that I’m hoping it remains undiscovered until everyone has left home. Perhaps I should ask Ted Glen to dispose of it, just to be safe.

Blocks and things that can stack or be built are popular at all ages. Just watch your vase during the “throwing” stage though. Jigsaws seem to go through phases of popularity and the soft toys that sat gathering dust years back will be useful later on, so don’t throw any out.

There’s just so much stuff these days. To make sense of it, here are some of the bits that we found useful at various milestones should they prove useful;

0-6 Months

The Fisher Price “rainforest gym” playmat was a big hit with our two. Hanging animals to pull, kick, rattle, etc. Crinkled bits for texture. Mirrors, rattles, and lullabies too. A bargain.

We also had a battery-powered thing that made noises and flashed lights when it got kicked. I’ve no idea of the name, but file this idea in the “less annoying than you would imagine” pile. The children loved it and it bought enough time for a shower.

6-12 Months

One of the most used things during this period was a play table which the little people could hold themselves up against while doing the various activities integrated into the top.

Also, walkers were a big hit as the little people tried to get themselves up and mobile. Walkers are also hilarious on tiled floors, especially if the cat is nearby. Get filming and you could earn yourself £250.

12-18 Months

Now upright, footballs and things to kick were getting a lot of use. Buggies, the Hoover, toy shopping trolleys and anything else that could be pushed round (and filled up, normally with the cat) became staples. The telly is also becoming worryingly popular.

18-24 Months

Role play and building/creating things. Duplo, which is one of the best things invented, Play Doh and anything messy arts and crafts-wise were often brought out. As was the IKEA toy cooker with food, pots and pans which is still in use now.

The Postman Pat and Peppa Pig toys were much used at this age too. And a mouthorgan is a brilliant, small and cheap source of entertainment so long as you don’t mind getting covered in slobber.

Note: It’s at this age that we started to notice the split in what girls and boys are drawn to. We’ve never believed in toys for girls and toys for boys, but every morning there was a tea party of sorts for our daughter’s dolls and teddies, whereas our son started playing with things with wheels such as cars, diggers and nee-naws.

Grandad also built an amazing thing which was basically locks, keys, handles, light switches and so on from the garage screwed on to a piece of wood. Hours of fun for a boy, especially a middle-aged one.

24 Months +

At two, our not-so-little little boy likes golf clubs, the remote control Thomas the Tank Engine, cars and garages and the like, and breaking tellies. Our girl likes kid-geek learning books and anything role play related, such as pretending to be at school, hospital, or birthday parties. It is worth noting that baby brother has little choice but to like the latter also, as he’s often the pupil, patient or birthday boy whether he likes it or not.

Oh, and the tablet. So get saving as the next few years aren’t going to be cheap!

No Fear of Falling

In which our reluctant hero notices that things are slowly changing.

We have recently moved from a family unit with a one year old and a threenager to one with a two year old and a threenager. That’s a lot of numbers in an opening sentence, four sure.

Now, this may sound like a major disturbance to the peace and tranquillity of our Waltons like existence in semi-detached suburban Wolverhampton, but, in reality, very little has changed. Why would it? The transition only took a second when the clock ticked past midnight on “Happy Birthday to You” day after all. Thankfully there was no howling at moon, but it is still an interesting time developmentally.

The verbal communication skills of our youngest are improving all the time, albeit with a few unnecessary fillers scattered about before finally getting to the point (see also this blog.) As are the non-verbals. We can now interpret a stamp of the foot, throwing of cutlery, hiding behind the curtains, or being presented with the remote control at about ten past six with a high degree of accuracy.

The one thing that I have noticed of late is the degree of competence that both children display in taking care of themselves. Which is probably just as well… *coughs*

It started with little things like putting on shoes and so on. But now, with a bit of teamwork, running a bath, getting breakfast, or escaping from the house into the garden to empty the water-butt are pretty much standard fare. No problemo.

Whether your little person is a few hours or a few years old, everything from day one is about keeping everybody safe and well. Survival is after all one of our primary drivers as humans. Hunting and gathering, providing warmth and shelter, pacing up and down the garden in a loin cloth while clutching a spear in case that the dinosaurs (GRRRR!) try to get us again is all part of a Dad’s job description. Especially in Wolverhampton.

Many of the things that I have done with our two over the years have been in part for fun (mostly theirs), and in part to (hopefully) help develop vital life skills.

I used to take our eldest to weekly swimming lessons when she was tiny to help build confidence around water. Obviously the neglected younger sibling didn’t get any of this. Oh, no. Instead he would make do with a bath on a Saturday morning if everyone was awake enough to negate the risk of drowning.

Anyway, whether it was the freezing water, the instructor throwing her underwater (presumably to recreate the album cover of Nirvana’s “Nevermind”) or just stopping going, by three years old she was frightened of the pool once more. It was easily fixed though. Swimsuits and armbands purchased, we simply jumped back in the deep end so to speak. Not with armbands on though. That isn’t allowed.

Two swims on and our eldest is now convinced that she can swim the channel, provided that her armbands are pumped up sufficiently, there is a “floaty floaty” nearby, and that she had remembered to go for a wee first. Our youngest just thinks swimming is brilliant. Especially the splashing. Which is fine in the swimming pool, but not in the bath. See also flipping himself over, head submerged, trying to do backstroke in the bathroom. Life skills? Hmmm…

[Insert name of climbing class for children here] is another weekly thing we do. It’s brilliant too and both our children love it. At one, our youngest could safely negotiate a six-foot plus ladder and climb across a set of monkey bars. At two he is fearless. Which is good if there’s a long ladder and monkey bars about, less good when faceplanting into the patio while doing Superman down the slide. Or faceplanting into the lounge floor while doing Superman off the side of the sofa. Life skills? Hmmm…

The garden can be fun and a potential death-trap in equal measures. Ridiculously positioned slides asides, our garden is full of all sorts of fruit and berries. Some edible, some that will kill you TO DEATH with a careless glance in their general direction. Probably. Telling the children not to eat them was all well and good until they discovered the edible ones. Now everything is fair game, be it pear or poison. It’s just better not to look really. Life skills? Hmmm…

Some of the stuff we have told and taught them has obviously stuck, which is as pleasing as it is surprising. Everyone, including Mum and Dad, now have to wait on the waiting spot until the front door is locked for example. Holding hands in car parks in case the cars don’t see you also seems to have been drilled in. As has wearing your boots if you want to jump in muddy puddles. I can’t think where that one came from, mind.