Nurturing nature

glassesEveryone (I hope) recognises the existence of genes and their effects. Most people are happy to “believe” in genetic effect in hair colour, blood group and genetic medical disorders, but where “personality”, “intelligence” and “mental health”, come into it, most people prefer to see environmental causation. Part of the problem in selling genetic explanations is in the fear of “determinism”: the thought that your lot in life could be determined at birth and that human will and struggle are for nought. The funny thing is that “nurture” the proxy term for “environment” can also have its own form of determinism, with many people struggling to escape from the prison of their family and birth environments. Funnily enough, it is when things go wrong, when a child becomes “out of control”, that people flock to a genetic explanation, absolving themselves of responsibility. “They were born that way. It had nothing to do with our parenting.”

Outcome is clearly about both nature and nurture. What interests me is the interaction between genes and environments. It’s a wonder how the nature vs nurture debate has lasted so long, as the two are so intertwined. At the most basic level the success of a gene is purely based on its suitability for the environment. At a more complex level, a parent will give to their children both genes and environment, genes will seek out their own environments (e.g. a child with “intelligent genes” will ask to go to chess club), and evoke their own responses from the environment (a child with genes for physical attractiveness will generally evoke more favourable responses from others).

It is a misconception that you can have “good genes” and “bad genes”. Genes are like nature’s version of trial and error. A new combination is attempted at every conception, and the genes that are successful within an environment survive, the ones that don’t fall away. Thus the success of a particular gene is purely judged on environmental adaptation. A “good gene” in one environment may be a “bad gene” in another. Take genes that cause sickle cell. This is generally thought of as a “bad gene”, causing anaemia. However, in some parts of Africa, where Malaria is endemic, the sickle cell gene is a “good gene” as it is protective against malaria. This is palatable when talking about a medical condition, but the same applies for genetically determined personality traits.

Take aggression. Elements of aggression are genetically determined. It easier to think about dogs when talking about this: certain breeds of dog make for better security and attack dogs. No one would ever have a pug dog or poodle as a security dog. Yes, you can rear a poodle or pug dog to be aggressive certainly, but not as readily or to the same extent as an Alsatian or Pit Bull. There’s something in the genes. However, aggressive genes are not in themselves “bad genes”. In certain environments (the end of the world/ lost in a dark forest with wild animals surrounding you, a competitive job market), they may be the best genes ever.

Another reason for fear of genetic explanations is in the fear of genetic modification, gene selection and “tampering with nature”. You either feel it will end in a slippery slope to eugenics or you feel there is nothing that can be done with genetic predispositions and you just have to live with them. The thing is; it’s much simpler than that. In this day and age; we are able to cheat nature. My genetic predisposition to short sightedness has been environmentally sorted by living in a country with access to an optician. By all rights, had this not been the case, I would be dead by now, probably having gone to hug a grizzly bear that I mistook for my mother. The most common genetic predisposition in the world; that for having dark hair; is environmentally corrected around the world on a daily basis by bleach from a bottle.


Well, it strikes me that as parents, we are able to drastically manipulate our child’s environment, especially the early environment, which is thought to be one of the most important periods of environmental influence. This is not only by providing safety, books and toys, but exposure to language, music, models for good social interaction, peer group, selection of nursery,  primary and secondary school, and critically, love, warmth and understanding . By learning via observation about our children’s “genetically determined” personality traits, we are able to best shape their environments to suit their needs. All parents are doing this already off course, when you select your child’s nursery, primary school and secondary school, you are thinking not only about the values of the school you wish to impart on your child, but the attributes of your child and how they will fit into the school. It would be an oversight to send a small, intelligent boy with a love of learning and loathing for the outdoors to a school specialising in outdoor sport with a relaxed attitude to bullying, for instance. If your child has particular needs, for instance a learning difficulty, for all the medications and new age therapies; thinking hard about school and environmental placement is the most effective treatment.

A child with average genetic susceptibility to aggression can become very aggressive if brought up in an aggressive community. Equally, a child naturally predisposed to aggression can succeed perfectly well if the environment (parents, schools and society) show understanding and help shape the aggression so it is controlled and pro-social outlets found: competitive physical sport (though not biting other players), some occupations where controlled aggression is valued e.g. some businesses. A child naturally predisposed to aggression can only become a menace to society if parents, schools and societies allow it to be so.




Did you get MAD?

Image from my favourite MAP London T-shirt

Image from my favourite MAP London T-shirt


Maternal adjustment disorder (MAD)

This is not a real disorder, but it should be.

Adjustment disorder is a real disorder (included in World Health Organisation mental health classifications) and I have just bunged “maternal” in front of it to describe how I and many other mums I know felt when we became mums.

The legitimate diagnosis of adjustment disorder is described as a “state of subjective distress and emotional disturbance, usually interfering with social function and performance, and arising in the period of adaptation to a significant life change or to the consequences of a stressful life event. The stressor may have affected the integrity of an individual’s social network or the wider system of social supports and values” (ICD-10).  It’s supposed to apply to stressors like migration, bereavement or adaptation to illness or disability; but why not modern-day motherhood?

Having a child is a significant life change. What I found distressing was not the obvious sleepless nights, financial pressures, breast feeding, fevers blah, blah, blah, but the subtle but seismic change in identity and power. As much as I’d like to say that this life-changing experience affects both genders equally, currently I do not think this is true, and by-and-large for most families, the brunt is borne by the mother.

This is of course a modern-day phenomenon as even one generation ago; women grew up without expectation of financial independence, of autonomy, of economic power. They were defined by their husbands and felt no big loss when they settled down to have a family. They came from a position of inequitable power and continued.

For me, up until childbirth, I enjoyed financial independence. I was quite satisfied with my identity as a doctor with intelligent colleagues and friends, thank you very much. I had a healthy salary, I rented my own flat, I owned my own car; I bought whatever I wanted with my money. For a time, Banker lived in MY flat and drove MY car. At another time, I lived in his flat and drove his car. We shared the household chores. Our relationship was 50:50.

So where did it ever say, that once you pass a melon-sized being from out of your nether regions that that contract with your partner, with society, with your own self had to be torn away with your placenta?

From hence forth, I was no longer me. I was Mrs Banker, or mother of Big Sis and Lil Bro. Even though I had kept my own surname, once Big Sis and Lil Bro came along with their Dad’s monogram, it was inevitable that I would now be referred to as Mrs Banker. Staunch refusal to change my name on my passport led to my being interrogated at Heathrow airport for child trafficking as the official doubted my relationship to 2 year old Big Sis due to non-matching surnames. Thankfully, Big Sis came to the rescue as I started my feminist “Taking your husband’s name is an outdated sexist practice” rant at the official by saying “Why are you getting cross MUMMMY?”

I was still a doctor, of course, and yet, not the academic high-flying, arse-kicking-doctor-stroke-clinical-academic-jet-setting-to international-conferences-doctor I had set out to be. For ease of life, I went from full-time clinical work with academic productivity, to full-time clinical work with no academic productivity, to part-time clinical work, to part-time research work. It eased my life, but the loss of status and identity still tastes bitter. It’s only two steps and a push to considering an art-course, or maybe running a loss-making boutique funded by my husband to keep me quiet…I’m joking, but some jokes speak truth. Several other doctors I know have given up medicine when their children came along which is such a waste of talent, and yet, the NHS (like many other employers) does very little to support high-level part-time working, preferring to source doctors from abroad.

Stepping back in a career is sufficient to “affect the integrity of an individual’s social network”, as work is not just about money, but about esteem, about intellectual stimulation, about friendship, about intelligent conversation. It’s replacement with discussions about faecal consistency with other MAD mums, raucous bouts of “Jelly on a plate” to a mute baby, and various “telling offs”, rebukes, unrequested nuggets of parenting advice, raised eye-brows and generally being spoken to like an idiot, from teachers/ parents/ friends/ the supermarket check-out lady/ any random stranger, just doesn’t bear comparison.

And the first (and last) time Banker ever dared utter “What have you been spending my money on?”…that stuck in the throat. Never since graduation had I had to ask permission to spend money. I earned money; I spent it how I saw fit. Yet, with declining hours of work, come diminished income and the inherent shift in power dynamic in the relationship. As I am now “at home more”, there somehow passes an unspoken expectation that the days of shared laundry, cooking, cleaning and household chores are over. An unspoken expectation that money has to be “asked for”, and “kindly bestowed”, a nagging worry of “Could I manage financially alone, having stepped back on the career” should the worst happen and our relationship falter,  – or worse still, would I feel I could not leave?

At times I stared at myself in the mirror and barely recognised myself. I had turned into “Hockey-mom”. There is nothing wrong with Hockey Mom, but she was not who I had ever identified myself with.

But at least the children will be grateful for my presence won’t they?

The other day, Big Sis said: “Mummy, you’re lazy”

“Why?” I questioned.

“Because you only work 3 days a week.”

%$£”&*!! [Thought - not spoken]

I’m telling my story, but I know many other mums who have felt the same.

The treatment for adjustment disorder?

Nature’s anaesthetic.


Most of us learn to accept our fates, and “adjust” to survive.

Some of us find new pleasures in our new roles, however unexpected.

I guess that’s the beauty of life.


Caveat: some people do not get better from adjustment disorder, and their diagnosis shifts to depression. This goes for MAD too, and depression in mothers is pretty common.

Naughty mat misadventures

Naughty Mat

“Help! I have locked myself into my bedroom whilst my son hurls nappies around outside. I have lost all control. He is not even 3. What hope is there for the future?!”

A friend of mine recently posted this message on Facebook. We have all been there haven’t we? She got lots of sympathy and solidarity comments, but no one actually revealed how they would manage the situation. Yet why don’t people talk about it?

“Setting boundaries” is one of the most important aspects of raising functional children, and yet the term is bandied around as if we all know what it means. What it actually means is letting your child know what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and enforcing this. The “enforcing” part is where the term gets rather shady. You hear professionals telling parents to “set boundaries” all the time, but few tell you in detail how to do it. It’s as if they expect children once told the boundaries to say “Great idea mum and dad, I’ll do that from now on”.

Programmes like Supernanny are great as they bring behavioural management techniques to the mainstream, but their entertainment value is largely for middle class parents to feel smug that they do not have children with such extreme behavioural problems, and have no need for the attendance of Supernanny – aren’t they? Whilst parents of children with severe problems are desperate to seek help and advice and are happy to talk about their parenting, the rest of us are like clams when it comes to talking about disciplining our children, lest we be judged to be “bad parents”. The problem then compounds on to itself as without peer judgement on what is and isn’t appropriate, and without friends’ support and advice we are left to our own devices to “muddle through” and feel isolated in our ineptitude, all the while feeling that we need to pretend that our children never misbehave, and that we never lose our rag.

This is a fairly new phenomenon as up until recently, physical disciplining was widely accepted. The majority of my generation were probably hit at some stage by our parents. There is even a story of a wooden spoon being broken on the backside of a member of my husband’s family. Children used to be caned, pulled by the ears and made to stand in the corner wearing a dunce’s hat in school. These days smacking and physical punishment are not recommended. It is not illegal to smack children or use “physical punishment that does not leave a mark”, nor do I think that it needs to be, or could be realistically enforceable. However, as a child psychiatrist, I know that it is not particularly effective as a means for long term boundary setting, may instil fear and aggression in children and may have the unwanted consequence of children learning that “might is right”. As a child psychiatrist, I was determined that there would be no physical disciplining in our household. That said; have I ever FELT LIKE hitting Big Sis and taking Lil Bro over my knee for a good smack of the bottom? Hell yes. And these are really good kids.

However educated, civilised, gentle and kind you are, I don’t think anything ever prepares you for the incessant whinging, nagging, wailing, annoying-ness that a child in full tantrum can be. If you are lucky enough to have a placid child, good for you, but not all children are temperamentally like this. I totally take back all the furrowed brows and superior looks given to parents in my clinic when they admitted using smacking to discipline their children. I can now totally understand their sentiment. Still, the fact remains that smacking is not a good option for boundary setting, and in child psychiatry clinics, it is good practice to keep records of families using physical disciplining as a proportion go on to “physical punishment that leave a mark”, which constitutes physical abuse.

How to enforce boundaries then? The favoured regime of The National Academy for Parenting Practitioners, led by Professor Stephen Scott who works in my department is the Webster-Stratton method. The book “The Incredible Years” by Carolyn Webster-Stratton (CWS) is superb and I would thoroughly recommend it. There is no secret formula and much of what she describes is also used by Jo Frost (supernanny) and other behavioural management programmes. That said even being a trained professional; and having read the book cover to cover, here is my less than optimal account of my use of one major method of boundary setting, “Time-Out” with Big Sis and Lil Bro:

From around 3 years old, the designated place for “Time-Out”, the “naughty mat” (in our case a cheap circular bit of carpet from IKEA) was introduced to Big Sis. CWS does not recommend you call it “naughty” but a “calm-down” or “thinking” mat, but somehow “naughty” still caught on (failure number 1). It is probably not ideal to use a common brand of household accessory as the “naughty mat” either, lest you wish your children to enter someone else’s home and declare “Oh look they have a naughty mat” as happened with us.

The idea of the mat/ step/ designated place is that if the child breaks a set boundary (such as hitting), they should be taken to the naughty mat to calm down. In our household, lesser levels of undesirable behaviour evokes reasoning, encouragement to make the right choice, negotiation and warnings that time out may follow, but hitting/ pinching/ scratching(these things happen more when they have a sibling!) and deliberate property destruction is an immediate time out. Big Sis got the idea pretty quickly and after one or two times of being taken there, she got the message. There was some initial fuss but in general it worked like the textbook. Sometimes when she was naughty, threatening that she would have to go to the naughty mat, was enough to stop the behaviour, and once or twice when she had been naughty and was wailing and screaming, she actually walked there herself and sat herself down (success number 1). The best thing about the naughty mat was that it allowed me to calm down as well. Sometimes, in the fury of a situation, you just need a minute peace to calm down, collect your thoughts and think about how to manage the situation more calmly. The child is supposed to sit there for either a few minutes, or until they are “calm and quiet”, although more accurately in our case “till they stop wailing like a banshee”.  Many a time it was pleasing that I could get on with the washing up or laundry in peace without disturbance as often the wailing went on for some time. “Naughty-mat me-time” if you will, albeit with a soundtrack of howling like a fire siren in the background. Sometimes, I was even annoyed when Big Sis stopped wailing as I was almost through the washing up, and if she would just wail a bit longer I could finish the task.

The naughty mat was such a success that when Lil Bro came of age that the naughty mat became appropriate, he also started out using it without a problem. The first few times he was told to go, he literally ran there and sat bolt upright with a big smile on his face finally “being allowed” to sit where he had seen his big sister sit so often.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story – some time around the age of 5 years, Big Sis began to tire of the naughty mat, and also realised that she could fight back. She was now significantly bigger and stronger so fighting back was becoming an effective strategy. Here on in, she would stray from the naughty mat and follow me around the house stamping, wailing and hitting. Thus not only was she not on the mat, but I was unable to get peace to calm down. Each time I was taking her back to the naughty mat (as per protocol) I was becoming more and more physical with my restraint because of her increased kicking, pushing and physical resistance. This started to feel very uncomfortable. CWS does not recommend physical restraint to get children into Time Out (failure number 2).

As such, I changed the strategy to going into her bedroom. She would then follow me, at which point I would run out and shut the door, thereby trapping her in her room. CWS does not recommend using a child’s bedroom as the “thinking place” as the bedroom is interesting and stimulating (failure number 3). The funny thing is that neither Big Sis nor Lil Bro when in this situation ever went off to play with the myriad toys in their room. Instead, without fail, they would both try to leave the room in order to follow me around hitting and wailing. Thankfully, they didn’t often go about trashing their room either. CWS does not mention “locking” children in their rooms. However, I am unsure how else she means for the child to stay in there. Clearly, she cannot actively recommend incarceration and yet an illustration in her book implies incarceration by showing a door being beaten outwards as if someone is trying to get out. One would presume that if the door was not locked, then the kid would just walk out. In any case, none of our interior doors have exterior locks on so locking was not an option. Thus I initially stood on the other side of the door, holding the door shut. However, it can take one of my lot up to 45 minutes to “calm down” and standing holding a door shut whilst a raging child does their utmost to huff and puff a door down can get pretty tiresome. I therefore came upon the ingenious idea to tie the doorknob to the bannister with a dressing gown cord preventing it from opening. I sat next to the door, periodically calmly saying “You can come out as soon as you calm down and stop crying” (as per protocol), but at least I could sit next to the door and read a magazine in the interim (success number 2). I was dubious as to whether CWS would recommend this strategy. It reminded me of having to put violent patients into “seclusion” – basically a padded cell to calm down, when I worked in adult mental health wards. Here, staff need to stand right by the door and do regular observations on the patient until they were calm, and it felt very much like what I was doing with my kids…I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing – but wasn’t sure who to ask. The occasion never arose to ask other school run mums if they were tying their children into their rooms using a dressing gown cord.

This strategy was quickly abandoned as I quickly realised that all the things CWS highlighted as negatives for physical restraint also applied to incarceration. Two incidents led me to this quick conclusion, despite it having been an effective strategy. 1) Lil Bro on encountering this situation for the first time shouted from behind the door “When I am big, I am going to lock you in your room!” – this sent shudders down my spine, with visions of my elderly self being subject to elder abuse by my traumatised son, now much bigger than me; 2) Big Sis grabbing my dressing gown cord saying she was going to tie Lil Bro into their room because he had been naughty towards her (failure number 3).

After this, I adopted the ignoring strategy. Not ignoring the behaviour, but the child. They would be told that because they had been naughty, I was not going to interact with them until they calmed down. Given that the children were too strong to be physically taken to the naughty mat and incarceration clearly was not working, I just grew a wall against wailing. They could follow me about the house wailing, but I did not pay them any attention. When it got too much, I like my friend who sent the Facebook message barricaded myself into the toilet. However, rather than feel a cowed victim being chased by my kids into the toilet, I would walk there calmly grabbing a magazine on the way and have a good catch up on fashion and gossip while they howled and hit away at the door.

I am still not sure what CWS would make of this…

The only blessing I have found is that child development and brain maturity at some point clicks in. Big Sis has now definitely graduated to slamming doors and going to sob on her own bed when she is told off. The IKEA mat, long outgrown has gone into the skip. I am much relieved, although I am sure there will be worse challenges to come and one day, I will probably be wishing for the simplicity of dealing with tantrums over what-it-is these days that teenagers get up to…



Please don’t judge me too harshly. I am hoping that by putting my account out there that others will feel more able to talk about disciplining. I think it is a really tricky territory to get right and there is insufficient information out there on this for parents. I do think that if you are constantly questioning “Is it ok?” then it is at least a start.


Carolyn Webster-Stratton. The Incredible Years. ISBN 978-1-892222-04-06.

You know you’ve got posh kids when…


I live in a posh area of London. Well, one of the desirable London postcodes anyway. Thandie Newton and Damien Lewis are local school run parents in the vicinity, my husband saw Michael McIntyre doing the school run in a Ferrari the other day and Lil Bro shared his first shaving foam and sand pit discoveries at nursery with a bevy of offspring of Arsenal football players.

Designer children’s clothes, designer children’s shoes, designer children’s toys and fabulous children’s parties are the norm around here, which can all seem a bit mad if you spent your own childhood begging for penny sweets from your friends and making your own chess sets from drawing squares on the back of a cereal packet. Here is a collection of my posh kids stories that made me laugh:

1. A friend of mine attended a childbirth support group. Upon being advised by the facilitator to moisturise their new born baby with olive oil, one of the group asked if extra-virgin was OK as that’s all they had in the house. I think you’ll find it’s only the second-press of Sicilian olives that are acceptable.

2. Whilst the stroppy kid screaming in the Morrison’s supermarket for sweets is probably the norm the country over, at the local Waitrose, Lil Bro has a tantrum for Yakult. It’s like: “Give me my pro-biotic yoghurt drink – NOOOOW!”

3. Whilst schools the country over are serving chicken nuggets, in our area, they are chicken goujons. “You mean nuggets?” I said to Lil Bro, “No, no, I didn’t have chicken nuggets, I had chicken goujons” (with a quinoa salad on the side I suspect).

4. 3-year old Big Sis and her friend were on one of those car-rides for children that they put outside supermarkets to extract money off parents. Her friend was delighted and declared that she was driving to the cinema. Big Sis pipes up with lovey aplomb, “I’m driving to the THEATRE”. Her friend’s mother raised an eye-brow at me. Ah, such mixed emotion of pride and embarrassment. To be fair, Big Sis at the time had gone to the theatre more times than the cinema (I’m talking “Tiger that came to tea” not “Ibsen’s Brand”) so it was not her fault, but, oh, the snobbery.

5. Big Sis and Lil Bro were playing with their friends on a toy sled. They pretended the sled was an aeroplane, packed up belongings and were going on holiday. “We’re off to the Maldives” one friend cried, “No, St Lucia” said the other. Well why not? My kids started trying to sell them food on the plane. The others said that you did not need to pay for food on planes. My kids said you did and demanded that they pay up. I think I know where the problem is here…

6. I don’t go big on presents for children’s parties. Kids who invite my kids to their parties are lucky if they get a small Melissa & Doug wooden jigsaw off me. It was rather embarrassing then that in the going home party bag of a party at which we had given said small Melissa & Doug jigsaw, was a bigger Melissa & Doug jigsaw, alongside other goodies including sweets, pencils and an anorak! What happened to a slice of cake and a few penny sweets…?

7. “Excuse me, can you pass the parmigiano?” (this is a 4 year old speaking); “Err – you mean the cheese”; “Yes, and if you’d like an espresso, my father will make one for you with the gaggia”. I kid you not…

I am super glad that my children get to live in this brilliant postcode and experience the good things in life, but I am keen for them to know that hard work is the bedrock of it all; and not to take it all for granted. In my mind, my less-than-privileged upbringing has “recession-proofed” my life.  I don’t see what’s wrong with state primary school, budget airlines and holidays in camp sites, can’t imagine anyone handling my unwashed clothes and McDonalds is a guilty pleasure.  It meant that when I earned money, I truly enjoyed it, rather than expected it to be so. Further, having had a happy childhood, I know for a fact that happiness lies not in material wealth. I was just as happy saving up and bunking off school to queue up at 5am for seats at Wimbledon as a teenager as I am now waltzing into the Steward’s enclosure to drink Champagne at Henley. So it was with concern that I listened to Big Sis complaining that “Our house is so small, my friend’s house is much bigger and they have a big garden”, all the more worrying as our house would likely be subject to a mansion tax due to its location.

On a holiday to visit Banker’s family in South Africa, I pointed out to Big Sis and Lil Bro the township shacks along the roadside. “Do you see those children playing football? That’s their house” I said, pointing to a small tin shack. “No it’s not. You’re joking” they said. It took a while for them to believe, but I answered all their questions and I hope this and many other reality-check conversations since will cement their feet to the ground.

Assess your child’s social ability

doll party


I am posting again on my infant 360 degree appraisal series. Moving on from ‎core abilities, I will now focus on social ability.

Social ability is probably as important, if not more so than cognitive ability. There are plenty of people with excellent cognitive ability who somehow don’t succeed as well as they might because they find being with other people difficult (or others find difficulty in being around them), and we all know people who are not the brightest spark, but get very far being affable, cheeky and great fun to be around. The funny thing is that although maths and English are actively taught at school, social ability is not a taught course. Children must somehow divine social understanding from what they observe or experience going on around them. Luckily for most of us, evolution has imparted us with specific hardware within our brains to assimilate and use such information about our social world. Not so lucky for children where this hardware is impaired (e.g. in autism).

Babies will typically smile at around 6 weeks of age. Isn’t it strange that this relatively useless developmental milestone is acquired so early? Not really, when you think about the evolutionary advantages gained by a smiling baby. If you are running from a flood, would you be more or less likely to take your baby with you if it was always smiling adoringly at you? Yes their smiles are evolutionarily engineered to aid their survival, we parents are such suckers.

Another early developmental marker of social ability is a preference to look at faces, and in particular eyes. The centre of human communication is a person’s face. This is the input and output zone for verbal communication and where non-verbal communication is the most expressive. Most adults can tell what another adult is thinking by looking at their face even if they are not saying anything. Even when the person is saying something, the face can convey a different message. There are lots of emails that I have received where I have been unsure about the meaning (joke- or not joke?) because I have been unable to judge the face/ tone of voice with which the email has been written, which exemplifies the importance of non-verbal communication. So common is this problem and so useful is the face, that we now commonly use a face picture in our emails to depict the meaning of emails that we send! Typically developing babies and children are born with in-built ability to hone their attention to people and faces because they know this is where the bulk of social context is going to be gained (Chawarska 2013). No one teaches a baby to do this, you either have it, or you don’t. Early on as a parent, you can check your baby’s social ability hardware by checking whether he/she prefers to look at your face/ eyes and if their eyes follow you Mona-Lisa like around the room.

Babies and young children are primed to attend to their parents’ every action and imitation is present from a very young age. If you make faces at a young baby, chances are, at some stage you will see the baby trying to move his/her face to copy your expression. There are hours of fun to be had doing this. This is early social learning. Later on, they will imitate the vocal sounds that you make, the embryonic stages of speech development, another critical branch of social development.

Babies and young children are also primed to attend to their parents’ emotions, particularly of fear. I acutely remember breast feeding Big Sis while watching a horror movie late one night. At one point, I held my breath in anticipation of something horrible happening on screen. It would have been imperceptible to most people as I did not move or make a sound, and yet, Big Sis stopped suckling, tensed and looked at me. It’s no coincidence that if you start having an argument with your baby in the room, they start crying.

Humans are social beings, they live in communities and societies, they typically like to socially interact. Early social interaction and turn-taking can be assessed by playing with your baby. The typical Peek-a-Boo game (hide your face, then show your face making your baby laugh) popular to all parents and babies is part of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS)[1]. It is an early indicator of ability to turn-take, an understanding of social reciprocity, of an interaction between two people, a precursor to to-and-fro conversation, to give-and-take in a relationship.

If you are an autism specialist, a first birthday cannot pass without performing a simplified version of the “baby’s birthday party” test from the ADOS. This test is where you set up a dolly’s tea party and play. Many typically developing children are able to give a baby doll a pretend drink from a toy tea cup at the age of 1 year, particularly if they see their parent doing it. If your child is not doing this, don’t worry, many typically developing children acquire this ability to pretend later on, but if they are doing it at age 1 year, as my children were, then it is a sigh of relief that one aspect of their social ability mechanism (pretend play) is functioning.

These building blocks to social ability develop at varying times during infancy in different children, but should be in place by the time of school start. The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule has recently been revised to include a Toddler module as it is now recognised that traits are observable at this young age, and in an attempt by professionals to gain early diagnosis to allow children and their families help from as early a stage as possible. It is really helpful to have an early heads-up on potential social problems because school is like the “Hell’s Kitchen” of social ability. Children can get away with pretty poor social skills at home with their parents and adult company, because contrary to popular belief, most adults are nice to children. Children, on the other hand take no prisoners – and going into reception with immature or absent social understanding and ability is truly hard.

When you throw a bunch of children together, that’s when things get really interesting and I will write about this in my next blog on this topic.



Chawarska et  al. 2013. Decreased spontaneous attention to social scenes in 6-month-old infants later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Biological Psychiatry, 74, 195-203.

[1] The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) is one of the gold standard diagnostic tools for assessing Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Children and adults with autistic spectrum disorder have deficits in social interaction and communication (as well as repetitive behaviours and restricted interests). The schedule involves games and set conversations to be enacted with the child or adult to press for social interaction and exchange. It is designed so that the assessor initially allows the child to display their natural social ability, but then allows the assessor to give staged prompts to get the best ability out of a child if it is not naturally forthcoming. Scores are given for deficits in social interaction and communication, and autistic spectrum disorder is suspected once a threshold is crossed. Most typically developing children and adults, even the very socially able, will score something on the ADOS, and it would be highly unlikely for someone to score 0, so just because your child has some deficits, it does not mean that they are autistic or on the autistic spectrum. Despite tools such as the ADOS and the Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI), Autistic Spectrum Disorder diagnosis remains a specialist clinical judgement.

The changing roles of fathers


Gender roles have been slowly changing since the time that women got the vote. Female roles have evolved dramatically over the last 50 years, seeing women being able to reach the top in all professions, and outperform boys on all educational assessments. However women are still yet to emerge from their gender role cocoon to spread their wings and sadly, the men are still on the chomping green leaf stage having made themselves sick with gorging on cupcakes, slices of salami and the like. Whilst women over the last 50 years have been grappling with identity, work-life balance, how they need to adjust/adapt to survive their new role environments, the early men were burying their heads in the sand, adopting the “we can carry on as if nothing has changed” attitude, such that modern men are now needing to play catch-up. Now that women have proved themselves in the workplace, male change is required to follow, and it is men now that need to face the internal struggles and adaptations to keep apace of the new world order.

There has of course been significant change. A father’s duty in the past was to provide financially for the family: the roof over the head, the food on the table. He was the “respected” head of the household, often feared and emotionally distant from his family, using his financial power to dominate. You only have to watch films from the last century to see the difference between fathers of the past and those of the present (try Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and the Sound of Music to name a few). Go even further back and you get versions of Cinderella where Cinderella’s father does not die (as in the Disney version), but is complicit in her enslavement. The funny thing about this is, that Cinderella’s father is never described as being a “wicked” father, that adjective is reserved for the stepmother, as fathers in those days naturally abdicated family matters to their wives and seemingly do not need to get involved even when their child is sleeping in the fireplace and cooking their tea.

My father was a more progressive father than many of his generation. He talked to me about science and encouraged me to write (terrible) poetry as a child, he painted with me, he drew cartoon characters using icing on my birthday cakes, he took me to all my playdates, birthday parties and hospital appointments (as my mother could not drive), he was always home for dinner, he always came on holidays and took pleasure in taking me to my University interviews. That said, there was never any discussion with my mother about whose career was going to be compromised for the children, he didn’t change nappies, he rarely cooked, he didn’t do the laundry, he hardly ever did a school run, he never attended a sports day, he could probably never have named more than one or two of my friends or teachers and there were years in our childhood when he was working abroad. These latter are things that my husband does not have a hope in hell of getting away with. These latter have now become commonplace for modern day fathers.

As women have begun to win at work in significant numbers, so the financial dependence on men within the family and the power this yielded has fallen away. Given that young women are matching their husbands on income, they have begun to question why: they should be the ones to sacrifice their careers, they should be the ones to manage the household, they should be the one to care for their elderly in-laws? Given that there is no legitimate answer to these questions, they have been more able to expect and demand their partners to do more.

Unfortunately, this has led to an identity crisis of sorts for men. For some men of my generation, this pressure to change has come as rather a shock. Brought up by pipe-and-slippers dad and pinny and Sunday roast mum, they had been schooled to believe that their identity and self-worth lay in their career. Their white-haired male bosses with “stay-at-home wives” are even more entrenched in this ideology reinforcing their old-fashioned views. Fearing for their esteem-defining careers, they work ever longer hours citing its’ good is for “the family”. They fear being mocked by their peers for a less prestigious career and being deemed a loser and sexually unattractive by women. They resent their wives’ close relationship with their children and seek to re-assert themselves into the family by authoritarian parenting and old-fashioned discipline. They experience their wives requests to be more involved in the family as “nagging”.

Thankfully, more and more men are rejecting this model of family life and male norm. As a new parent my husband popped in to our neighbour’s fancy dress party with Big Sis in a Baby Bjorn, not bothering with the fancy dress theme. One party guest commented “Hey, great fancy dress idea to come as Suburban Dad” – not realising that the baby was real, this was not fancy dress and that Banker just WAS a suburban dad. So pervasive now is the image of a proud new father walking around with a baby strapped to his chest that it is no longer of comedy value, merely the norm. A baby is worn much as a campaign rosette; a badge of honour and ideology for any man. From Michael McIntyre’s fatherhood repertoire to Jamie Oliver’s family meals in minutes, the remote and respected father figure/ salary-man has definitely been toppled and has hopefully been banished to history. Further, images of desirable male role-models travelling en famille with sexy women on their arms (I’m thinking Pitt and Beckham) are knocking-on-the-head the notion of disrespect for loving and engaged fathers, and contrary to popular belief, I’m pretty sure that the strong and beautiful women of the future will be seeking men happy to roll up their sleeves to change a nappy, not someone for whom to fetch a whisky and the paper for.

I am totally encouraged by the fact that many young men these days have little or no expectation of the traditional gender roles, they wax lyrical about the right spicing for chicken, are forever bursting into tears on Britain’s Got Talent and actively want to be involved with their children. This is thankful as the majority of young women have places to go and careers they aim to achieve. The only stumbling block that I can see is in the corporate world; still run by old male traditionalists who have not yet scanned what is on the horizon – a future workforce pushing for change in work-life balance.

In my children’s eyes, my husband and I are interchangeable parents. He is just as capable as me (although, I still like to think I am a little bit better) of soothing an ailment, of bathing and reading stories, of checking spellings, of watching a school play, of cooking the dinner (although he likes to think he is better at this than me) and doing the laundry. He is just as capable of making my children laugh and understanding their problems, and of asking how they are. I can sleep easy that if I should die, they will be well looked after emotionally, and not left to sweep the fireplace.

To engaged fathers everywhere:


From Mad Men to Bad Women


Gone are the “Mad Men” days of rampant work-place sexism, where a bank of men sat in offices drinking whisky bedding their female secretaries and coming home to “dinner on the table” prepared by their wives. We can be grateful for this, but to those that say that gender equality is already here I would vehemently disagree. Traditional gender stereotyping, unconscious bias and ogling still continue and there is a worrying trend of labelling and blaming women for their own predicament or non-progression. I put to you a collection of modern-day work-place sexism/ gender-issue stories that have happened to my contemporaries. All the events were taken with a sigh and a “That’s life” attitude; no one was sued, nothing major happened. But if in a small circle of friends this is happening day to day, what is happening across the UK, across the world?

My friend in the city worked at a Big Bank as a junior analyst. There were equal numbers of male and female junior analysts in her team, for which she was grateful. She complained to me that the female secretaries and team PAs ignored her and prioritised the demands of her male colleagues. As a female junior doctor, I empathized. Working with male junior doctors that were treated as the next George Clooney by the majority female nursing staff, I felt like “Troll number 2″ in an episode of ER. Neither of us formally complained, we didn’t want to be labelled as “hypersensitive” and “not team players”. We got on with it. Maybe its just us, maybe its not a gender issue we thought.

Going back to my friend in banking, post 2008, all the female analysts on her team were asked to leave, except for her. In times of plenty companies are happy to “do their bit” on equality, but when times are scarce, it’s still women who bear the brunt of redundancies. Maybe in a meritocracy women just can’t cut it.

A colleague in academia was given a consistently challenging work load by her boss until she had children. Subsequently to this, although she was given flexibility in working hours, she was not given any challenging work, nor pointed towards challenging opportunities. She wondered if she had done something wrong. Because she wanted to work shorter hours and more flexibly, she was judged to no longer wish to progress in her career. Maybe Nigel Farage is right and women who have children are just “worth less”.

A friend of mine went to a conference with her boss and another male work colleague. On arrival at the hotel, her boss saw someone that he wanted to introduce her male colleague to, and she was asked to look after their bags. A lawyer friend of mine went out for dinner with her team and a client. When her team left, the important client made a pass at her. At a loss over what to do as the client was important, she visited the ladies, escaped through a tiny window and legged it home. Maybe women are just oversensitive, the boss and the client were just being relaxed, new age and friendly. Maybe women just misinterpret being asked to do menial tasks as sexism and “inadvertent invasion of personal space” as an old fashioned grope.

Recently at work, I was criticised for being “forthright and assertive”. Those adjectives are like a red rag to a feminist, as being “forthright and assertive” in common parlance is synonymous to “powerful” and “leadership material” for men, but basically mean “B****” when used to describe a woman. I found this funny as a few years ago I had been criticised for being “hesitant and indecisive”, which is the other female cliché of being “weak”. When (being forthright and assertive), I asked if this was a gender issue, I was told that being forthright and assertive was an asset, but that it should be done with “charisma”. This led me to think about charisma (Noun: the special quality that makes someone attractive or influential). The first role models that sprang to mind as being charismatic were Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and George Clooney. Forced to think of women, I thought of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Angelina Jolie. The men were politically influential with traits of confidence and passion, the women socially influential using traits of empathy and sexuality. This was a problem for me. My natural role models of kick-ass women who got things done: Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher are not portrayed as charismatic in the media (although I’m sure they are charismatic in person). Other women I admire: Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harmen, Karren Brady come across as intelligent, strong, committed, practical, sensible – rarely “charming”. The only person that I could think of that was charismatic and assertive was Camilla Batmanghelidjh, but I couldn’t see her working in a conventional workplace. Maybe women just have the wrong personalities.

For some men and women this is all an over-reaction, a fuss over nothing. Gender equality has been achieved. Yet, my feeling is that just because some women haven’t experienced it directly, does not mean that it does not exist (some of Jimmy Saville’s colleagues said he was a great colleague and never behaved inappropriately with them, some patients of Harold Shipman reported good medical care). For some women exposure to bias can become a career killer, not least because many women decide to leave their career than put up with this sort of environment. Most women rarely report these issues as if they did, they would be branded as “that woman with the sexual harassment issues”, “the woman that can’t tell the difference between a grope and “being friendly””. Sadly raising any gender bias or discrimination complaint is like signing a death warrant for any future job in that industry, and women become saddled with a “bad reputation”, whilst typically little happens to the perpetrators who may not even realise that they have done anything wrong.

I sometimes, do feel a bit sorry for employers as I think that the territory is new and perhaps they have not had training in “How women rising into middle and senior management would like to be treated”, in some respects, women themselves do not know, and women differ in their opinions on these issues. Take Kirstie Allsop who recently advised her hypothetical daughter to start a family instead of going to University. She was instantly lambasted by other women who advised women on the importance of an education. In a personal example, I complained bitterly when at a return to work post-maternity discussion with my then boss, I was told that “Babies need their mothers” and if I didn’t take a year off for maternity, I would “always regret it”. I felt made to feel like a “bad mother”, for suggesting I come back at 7 months. I was sure that my male colleagues on becoming fathers were not given the same “You need to be with your children” advice, and was worried that I would be left behind in my career.  In contrast, a friend complained that she was harassed to return to work as soon as possible.

So, some would argue, it’s all “bad” women’s fault: “Women: make your mind up. You can’t have it both ways.” You can’t want equality on the one hand, then special treatment on the other. I think my response to this is that women don’t want it “both ways”; they want to be treated like an individual human being, and for their employer to be sensitive to their individual needs. For my previous example, I don’t think any woman would complain about an employer that said “Come back when you are ready to come back. That decision is yours and we will support you to come back whenever you decide to. Whatever you decide, it will have no impact on your career progression.” Further, most women would like their employers to be saying this to their male colleagues as well. Now with paternity leave in the UK a possibility, why should employers “expect” it to be the women that should be taking the time off? By employers actively encouraging men as well as women to take parental leave, this will encourage a greater paternal presence in the home and end the discrimination against 30-something women and mothers in the workplace; allowing equality in career progression for both genders.

The days of rampant sexism are over, but gender inequality, gender stereotyping and gender bias are still very much alive and well. For any female junior doctor who has waited at the (still largely female) nurses station behind all the male junior doctors to request assistance, to all the female junior analysts who have to wait in line behind all the male executives to access the (still largely female) support staff, to the women who are still being ogled and groped at by employers and clients, to the women who are being bypassed due to maternity and the middle management women who are given mixed messages on how to behave: more charismatic, less sexual, more assertive, less forthright, more empathic, less emotional – ours is a difficult path to tread. It is no wonder that more and more talented women are shunning the conventional work-place environments to start out on their own (Jo Malone, Hilary Devey, Cath Kidston) so that they can for once just be themselves, create their own work-place cultures and build their own empires on their own terms.

Please share your workplace gender issue stories; I’d love to hear them. And if you can think of any other overtly charismatic but non-sexual female role models, let me know.

Two shrinks on piano


I had a cuppa the other day with an old friend who trained with me as a psychiatrist way back when. We diverged in specialty, she to the elderly, and I to the youngsters – so we lost touch. It was with delight that we reconnected when we found out that our children attended the same school albeit in different years. Although our interactions are usually of the hectic school run “Hi – Bye” variety, on occasion we manage to have a good catch up.

Naturally our conversation turned to the kids. There was a school concert approaching for children who played musical instruments and my Big Sis and her Big Bro both play piano. Here is what happens when 2 psychiatrists talk to each other:

Me: How’s Big Bro’s piano playing going?

Her: Really good.

Me: Oh, because I am having such problems with Big Sis and piano. We have a great piano teacher that she really likes and she loves going to lessons, but we always end up having an argument whenever I help her with her piano practice in between.

Her: How come?

Me: Well, she’ll start playing, and then, when she gets a note wrong, I’ll tell her that she played the wrong note, and then she will insist that she did not get it wrong. Even when I show her the notation on the music, and show her the correct note; she will insist that she is right and carry on playing the wrong note. It drives me nuts as initially, I’m just pointing it out, not even critical or raised voice, but by the end, it’s like two kids in a playground: “That’s the wrong note”, “No – it isn’t”, “Yes, it is”, “Tis”, “Tisn’t” and so on until eventually one of us storms off shouting either “I’m never playing piano again”, or “I’m never helping you with your piano again”.

Her: Ah! You should never point out when a child is doing something wrong – they will take it as criticism and you’ll end up with the horrible interaction you described! Don’t you remember, that’s like the first rule of psychotherapy. You should know better! They have to reflect on how they played themselves, not have you point it out. I never point out to Big Bro when he has played something wrong; instead I just ask him “Are you happy with what you played?”

Me [ashen faced and ashamed that I had failed to apply clinical skill to my own child – argh, but it’s so much more difficult when it’s your own child!]: Oh bugger, you’re right. Maybe I should try that…

Her: But my trouble is that Big Bro gets so cross with himself. He will play a piece fine, but will be dissatisfied that it was not “perfect” and get very cross and frustrated with himself, sometimes even saying he is rubbish. In fact, I never need to be critical as he is more critical of himself than me.

Me: OMG! That’s terrible. Don’t you see? He has taken your comments to self-reflect into his superego. You’ve made him continually judge his own performance and now he is his own worst critic!

Her: Yikes.

Me: Now that I think about it, asking Big Sis to self-reflect wouldn’t work. When she has coloured something in and it is all over the place, not within the lines, and I ask her if she’s happy with it – she always says “yes”. Even when I point out that it has gone over the lines a lot, she says “That’s how I want it”. Once, she saw me getting cross, and I explained to her that I was getting frustrated with myself because I wanted to do something well, but wasn’t quite achieving it. I asked her: “Haven’t you ever felt that?” and she said “No”.

Her: That’s so funny. Big Bro gets frustrated with himself a lot.

Me: Lil Bro is the same; with him I am always trying to stop him from being so pedantic and accept that it’s OK to make mistakes. I’m always trying to get him to colour outside of the lines without having to screw the whole thing up and start again!

Her: Ha ha.

Me: The funny thing is, even though Big Sis will never admit she played the note wrong, the next day when she plays the piece, she’ll miraculously play it with the correct note!

Three things struck me from this conversation:

  1. What works for one child will not necessarily work for another as children’s personalities are so different.
  2. Parent-child dynamics are a two-way street. How a child behaves is shaped by how the parent behaves, but critically, the parenting style adopted is also shaped by the child. Big Sis’s insouciant nonchalance pushes me to point out her mistakes as otherwise she would never acknowledge them, while Lil Bro’s pedantry is equally annoying and leads me to encourage him to make mistakes. Losing my temper is obviously always wrong, but I can only do my best on that one!
  3. Two shrinks can’t share a drink without analysis coming into it!

The best family holiday ever

goats in tree Forgive me, this week I just have to gush about the recent holiday my family took to Morocco. Banker and I have a long history of adventurous travelling pre-children. Hot air ballooning over the Serengeti chasing migrating wildebeest, hiking to temples in the Himalayas, following in the footsteps of the Incas to Machu Picchu and exploring the temples of Angkor Watt to name a few. This ended on the arrival of children. travel Since having children, although we have ventured to Russia, South Africa and Taiwan, these have been places where we have had friends or family for guidance, and our other holidays have been strictly “safe”, “clean” Europe. It didn’t help that Lil Bro had a catalogue of food allergies, some of which are life threatening, such that I was reluctant to go to any country where I was unable to comprehensibly say “Does it contain nuts?” . Over the last year Lil Bro has grown out of the majority of his allergies and got the all clear from his excellent allergy team to eat almonds, an ingredient pervasive in Middle Eastern and North African cooking. My immediate response was “Let’s go to Morocco”.

Morocco and in particular Marrakesh and Essaouira are places close to the heart for Banker and I as we had visited there twice before having kids, so it was the perfect place to test the waters as to whether our family could cope with more adventurous travel with 6 and 4 year old in tow.

The flight to Marrakesh by budget airline arrived at night, and we had arranged for the hotel to pick us up. Even driving to the hotel, the children could immediately sense a difference. This was not Europe. The streets were teeming with cars and people weaving between each other in an intricate dance that only those who have been to a developing country can imagine. “There are so many people on the street at night” and “The roads are really narrow” the children noticed. I told them to take a deep breath, the air was warm and sweet, laced with cinnamon. “This is a new place I said. We are going to have an adventure”.

We were dropped off on a busy, dirty, pavement-less road. The high red-brown, windowless walls of the building that the man indicated to us was our hotel was not at all impressive. On the left, a man was selling vegetables at 9pm, on the right was a row of motorbikes. There was no signage, indicating a hotel, just a door and an old flag. For a moment I regretted not supervising Banker in the hotel booking. Yet when the door was opened, we stepped into a palatial Riad. A spacious indoor courtyard with splendid fountain, filled to the brim with roses and an open view to the stars above. The high walls kept out the noise and bustle of the outside world as we were invited to mint tea and sweet pastries on cushion bedecked sofas in an intimate nook. The exotic magic had the children instantly hooked. Dar les cigognes Over the next day in Marrakesh, we took a cooking class at the hotel. It was not specifically designed for children, but we asked and the hotel was obliging. We started with a tour of the local market with our guide who had also guided our hero Yotam Ottolenghi around Marrakesh. We started with the town baker who mixed dough in a bathtub, while his colleague shovelled flat round breads by the dozen into an oven on a wooden paddle. Two others knelt on the dirt floor shaping the dough. All the while local children brought in breads from their mothers to be baked in the baker’s oven. The whole operation was housed in a room the size of an average bathroom.We cut through the old wash house to where the boy who stoked the fires for the baths cooked tangiers for the local men and ended with a tour of the meat and veg market where the children saw live rabbits and chickens waiting for slaughter. Our guide, was worried about the sentimentality of our western children over the death row animals, but I was proud to say, they had no problem, having always been explicitly told to appreciate the origins of their food. We visited the spice man who let us smell his eucalyptus and turmeric, and ground us an ounce of his special blend ras-el-hanout; and the teenage boys spinning fine sheets of ouarka on their finger tips with swagger as we stood in awe at their skill. I had been told that Moroccans love children, and this was not wrong. The market stall owners bestowed our children with roses, tea and gifts as we strolled through. children cooking Cooking with children is great fun. They got involved with learning how to make cous cous from scratch. Rolling flour and semolina with olive oil into breadcrumbs was just like playing with sand. The children were also found to have a great skill in grating, and grated courgettes, carrots and even tomatoes. They were also pretty good at folding briouats, Big Sis’s being much better than mine. At times, concentration wandered and Banker took them out for a walk, but they returned with enthusiasm to learn more, and what prouder moment than tasting the product of our morning’s hard work served up in the splendour of a roof top garden over-looking the bustling city. Moroccan food we cooked An evening was spent wandering the souks and purchasing a carpet or two, whilst encountering snake charmers and monkeys on bicycles, followed by dinner to the beats of Moroccan music in the hustle and bustle of Jemaa el-Fna, a central market square where tourists and locals sit cheek-by-jowl to enjoy street food at its best . Jemaa el-fna The following day, a 3 hour car-ride took us to Essaouira, tolerated very well due to the his-and-her video consoles purchased for the kids for just such occasions, and was broken up by a pit-stop to view goats chewing on argan nuts atop argan trees at the roadside. Evening brought us to our resting place Auberge Tangaro, a former brothel turned hip hotel that purportedly hosted Hendrix in ’69, and now hosted our family to candlelit dinner. candlelit Auberge tangaro   Essaouira is a romantic seaside town, with a medina surrounded by fortified walls. So picturesque, it is a popular location for films such as Othello, Alexander and Game of Thrones. A walk along the battlements affords a clamber on the many cannons and a good view of the sea. There is plenty else to explore with a working fishing harbour where fishermen in painted blue boats bring in the catch to fishmongers that gut and sell fish at the harbour-side, to the men that grill the fish there and then for customers at the harbourside grillades. Food metres, not food miles. essaouira Souks there are also a plenty. A man intrigued our children with a mysterious treasure box made of Thuya wood, where the key and keyhole are hidden. Clever man, once the kids saw this, we were never going to make it out without two. Spices, brightly coloured fabrics, fossils, precious stones, embroidered slippers, tagines and ceramic galore. If it all got to much, a retreat for sweet mint tea in a square, relaxing to the sound of the mosque’s call to prayer. souk For mischievous children that need to be kept out of trouble or persuaded to walk, projects were set: Day 1, a treasure hunt where random items on a list have to be found. Items the parents knew were likely to be found with varying degrees of difficulty: a man selling mint, a Moroccan tea set, lemons, a blue boat, a cannon, a policeman. Day 2, a project to take photos of all the cats in Essaouira, with their own cheap digital cameras. Cats of Essaouira A trip down memory lane took us back to a restaurant we had dined in 8 years ago which had served the best food in Morocco. To our delight, the restaurant and its owner were unchanged. The food was as divine, the laugh of the proprietor as loud and warm as we had remembered.

Did I mention that Essaouira is a beach town? Forget donkey rides on the beach in Blackpool, here we took camel to the disintegrated ruins of a castle slipping into the sand, the alleged basis for a Hendrix song. Pushing against the cliche of the posh girls’ pony club set, I’m proud to say that Big Sis’s first riding experience was aback a 2m tall camel with a predilection for pooping. The unspoilt beaches of Essaouira are largely EMPTY as Moroccans, like the Chinese, don’t see the point in basking in UV rays to attain a colour you already have. The pale skinned of my family stripped off to play in the water, while I discovered that the sand in Essaouira is just the right texture to sculpt and busy myself making a sand Birkenstock. The kids return and it’s drip castles that need building, irrigation channels that need digging and the odd shark surfaces from the sand. beach essaouira Oysters, fish and calamari for lunch at the hippy beach cafe, lounging on beds facing the azure, surrounded by blond surfer dudes and you might almost forget you were in Africa. ocean vagabond A morning Yoga class with Mehutina, a Washington DC gal who had fallen in love with Essaouira on a holiday (not hard to do) and had moved there with her two girls to start a new life teaching English and yoga. We requested a family yoga class and she brought her girls too. Though not quite as relaxing with kids in tow, the participation of the whole family brought fun and laughter at the sight of Lil Bro’s contorting endeavours and amazement at Big Sis’s supreme flexibility. Taking it in turns to have massages meant that the adults could also have their “Me time”. yoga On our final day, we did the unthinkable. We crossed the road from our hippy-chic retreat to the giant 5 star Sofitel hotel. If big pools for the kids and poolside loungers with drinks on ice over-looking an 18-hole golf course is your bag, then why not. A taxi-ride back to the airport in Marrakesh, and home.

To my mind, this was our first “proper” family holiday ever. One that was not marred by broken sleep, vomiting, food fussiness or child related saga, or compromised due to sanitation, long haul flight or language barriers (French is spoken in Morocco). The children are at an age now where they are easy travellers, and I am keen that they see the world. Not just the world of kids’ club in an upmarket resort hotel in a sanitized country, but the world where beggars exist, the homeless roam, the roads are untarred and the food is flavourful. It is not just that I want my children to understand different cultures and learn about wealth disparity. In my mind early childhood experiences pave the way for openness of mind and spirit for a lifetime. Seeing, experiencing and enjoying different sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures within the safety of your family sets up a mindset ready to be open to new things, exploration and adventure as an adult.

I’m sure we’ll still go to Centre Parcs from time to time, but from now on the world is ours. India, Argentina, Borneo, here we come!


FYI: We flew Ryanair to Marrakesh. We stayed at the Dar les Cigognes in Marrakesh, but (Riad Kiass is also nice) and Auberge Tangaro in Essaouira (but Villa Maroc is also an old favourite). The children carried their own booster pack back packs as it can not be guaranteed that these will be available, or if they are EU standard. IMG_3713 The best restaurant in Morocco is this one in Essaouira: IMG_3747

How to get into the best grammar school


A friend’s daughter turned 11 years old this year. As such her class cohort has just been subjected to the highs and lows of the 11+/ secondary school application process. For many children this is a very stressful time, albeit nothing compared to the trauma it is for the parents! I am pretty sure from my friend’s discussions that more parents lost sleep than children. At least I hope this is the case as most parents should be protecting their children from the burden of expectation, as feeling a “failure” at 11 years of age can have lasting consequences. The feeling from the school playground banter which can sometimes approach hysteria, would appear to be that it is substantially harder to get your children into a decent secondary school these days than at any other time in history, however I am never sure if every generation feels this (just like every generation of teenagers feel like they invented sex) and justifies it with current concerns (baby boom, “tiger parented” immigrants taking all the places etc.), or if it is actually true. The word on the London street these days is that if you are sending your child to a state primary school, they have “No chance” of getting into a selective grammar or independent school, unless they are receiving private tuition from at least the beginning of year 4. I have even heard some say that they need tuition from reception, and others say that you need to have their name down with the best tutors at year 1, as they all have mile long waiting lists. If you cannot afford private tuition, then they should be going to Kumon (after school maths club) at least; and the proliferation of Kumon classes across London attest to the power of this notion. If you are sending your children to a prep school, then even they may require private tuition from at least year 4 depending on how your child is doing or the quality of the prep school. If your child is not academically excellent, you could try and sneak them into an academic secondary school by way of a music or drama scholarship, in which case, investment into private music/ drama lessons would have been a requirement from well ahead of year 4, as to audition for a music scholarship at a prestigious school requires a distinction at grade 5 (grade 3 for less prestigious schools). All in all, one wonders about the truth of these rumours or if this is one big ruse to boost the nation’s economy and employment level by increasing consumer spending on “must have” educational add-ons. More worryingly, if this is the truth, then where does it leave children from less well-off families who are unable to afford extra tuition and music lessons?

My eldest child is in year 1, so I am currently in a position to be skeptical about the hysteria. By year 4, Big Sis may well be signed up to the best and most expensive tutor that money can buy to secure her place at “the best selective secondary school in the world ever that is her only salvation from failure, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and delinquency”. However, from my current armchair standpoint I can only look on with bemusement. I am in the rare position for a Londoner of living in the same area where I spent the majority of my childhood, and having the possibility of my daughter sitting for entrance exams at the same school that I went to: “the best grammar school in London”. Her education and circumstances up to that point will have been somewhat different given my economic circumstances are somewhat better than that of my parents. That said, here is a commentary on how getting into the best grammar school was done in the late 80s.

My sisters and I attended a local state primary school in Wales. My mother, having been a secondary school science teacher in Taiwan, taught us maths after school every day. Since she could not speak English, she did not teach us English but attempted to teach us Chinese. Both my parents encouraged us to read in English and took us to the library to borrow books every Saturday. They also encouraged us to write stories and poems in English. When I was 8 years old, my parents moved to London where both my mother and father had found employment. Since my mother now started working full-time, we had no further additional educational input outside of school, albeit constant encouragement, and expectation of hard work and achievement. My eldest sister was at that important secondary transition stage. Contrary to the at-length planning of most parents these days regarding secondary transfer, my parents, uninitiated in “the system” took a “pitch up and see” attitude. My sister was enrolled directly into the local comprehensive as my parents could not afford private school and she had missed all the entrance exams and procedures for the grammar school. My second sister and I were to go to the local primary which was, and still to this day remains, at the bottom end of the primary school league tables. My eldest sister had many a happy lesson making wooden pencil cases and large clay sculptures of birds of prey, whilst effortlessly coming top in every academic subject. My other older sister and I spent many lessons re-learning how to read and write English with the largely “first language not English” class.

Contrary to the current parental angst over school decisions, my parents took the oft-forgotten-in-current-times view that if it all went a bit Pete Tong, then we could change schools. Within the year, both my sisters had aced entrance exams to the grammar school, one at common entrance, and the other for year 8 entry as a position had opened. I was transferred out of the state primary in our area, to a state primary in the further, but much wealthier suburb next door. How? My parents just applied. Children leave good schools all the time for all sorts of reasons, and if you play the waiting game, chances are you’ll get a place without the furor and hassle of making out that you live on the school’s doorstep at common entrance.

In contrast to my previous school experiences, primary school in leafy suburbia was a delight. Whilst at previous schools my work stood out, in this wealthy neighbourhood intelligent children were in ample supply, such that academic equals and superiors were available. Of the 30 children in my class in this primary school, I know that one other joined me at Cambridge. Another went to Yale and another two went on to study medicine at Oxford and at Bristol, and I am sure there are other successes that I have not heard of. It was my parent’s intention that I should follow in the foot-steps of my sisters into grammar school. Their naivety of the education system meant that they saw this as a foregone conclusion. No tuition was brought in, no music lessons arranged, no past papers ordered up. I remember being called out of class one day by the school’s head of secondary transfer shaking a yellow form at me saying “Your parents have put down a highly selective school as the only option on your secondary transfer form! What if you don’t get in? They must put down alternative options!” To which my genuine response was “But they’ve bought my school uniform already.” I had no idea that entrance heavily depended on my performance, it was just a FACT that this was the school where I was going and I just had to go and sit an exam and attend an interview to formalise the process. Thinking back, this is probably not the best strategy for parents to adopt, as it would have hit me hard if I had not followed my sisters into that school, but my parents were blissfully ignorant of the fierce competition as they were both working flat-out full time and barely spoke to any other parents.

I did nearly blow my chances of going to the grammar school “for Young Ladies” as it was then suffixed. In those days, following the Maths and English paper, you were subjected to an interview with the headmistress. The headmistress was exactly the kind of headmistress I would imagine for a school purporting to educate “Young Ladies”. An upper class lady with portly stature, portent demeanour and penchant for port; all blue rinse and pearls. I had to describe a painting by Braque that was presented to me on a postcard. I had to read aloud a passage of written text about rainfall. It contained the word “percolate”.  Here the headmistress requested a definition and I was at a loss. Trying to garner as much information as I could from the surrounding text, I offered a clearly wrong definition. No matter, the headmistress took it upon herself to educate me on the meaning of the word “percolate”. “You know, when you make coffee, you must let the water filter though the spaces between the coffee grounds to get the flavour. You have made coffee before haven’t you?” “Yes” I said. “I put a spoon of the granules into the cup, add hot water and stir. Is that what percolate means?”

Thankfully, being of the Nescafe-drinking classes may have excused my ignorance of the definition of percolate, and I was in. But that was the thing in those days. Raw ability got you through – not primed responses and taught vocabulary.

I am rather saddened to hear that my old grammar school has done away with the interview and rely on an IQ style test to screen candidates prior to entrance exam. On the standard IQ test, there is a 6 point test-retest advantage (this means that purely by having done the test before, the average person can improve their score by almost half a standard deviation). For clinical purposes if you want to get an accurate picture of a child’s IQ you should not test a child more than once a year. If however, you want to inflate your child’s IQ for a one off entrance exam, repeated exposure to IQ type tests can really do it, and schools will not be getting an accurate measure of “intelligence”. I can only imagine that doing away with interviews is a pity as however subjective, I still think there is something to be said for the spark in an eye and a quick-witted response.

In addition, from my current standpoint, although I value hard work and wish to pass this ethos on to my children, and although I know that hard work can greatly increase a child’s ability and potential, there comes a point where you as a parent have to recognise the innate (genetic) ability of your children, and pushing beyond ability can definitely have negative consequences. We would all like to believe that our child is the brightest bulb in the pack, but all except one of us would be wrong in this assumption. We might all like to believe that if our child “just did this/ or was given this opportunity/ or was helped more by their teacher” that they would become the brightest bulb in the pack, but again, the majority of us would be wrong in this assumption. For some reason, no one seems to want to admit the obvious, that some people are just cleverer than others – no ifs-ands-or-buts about it. Around the school gates, whenever a child’s exceptional reading or maths ability is discussed, someone will inevitably mutter “Yes, but you know what that parent is making the kid do at home…”, whilst my response is always – “great, it really helps everyone to have bright kids in the class”.

My gestalt realisation that ability is unevenly distributed happened at Cambridge University. I looked around me and thought “Not in a million years and working 24/7 will I ever be as smart as some of these people”. Accepting yourself and not feeling a loser about it is really satisfying, and I think we need to have the same reality check sometimes with our kids. Although aspiration and pushing to achieve potential is a positive, not all children have the same academic potential and ultimately we need to accept, appreciate and love them – in the words of Brigitte Jones’s Darcy “just the way they are”. My current view is therefore that if my children do not get into the most prestigious academic school then they probably would not have got on there. I would much prefer my children to perform in the top half of a less academic school, where they can feel “clever” and become confident in their academic abilities than flounder in the bottom half of an academic school. I saw many people at my school and university suffer crises of confidence (despite being exceptionally bright), due to being in the bottom half of a highly academic environment. Some of the negative effects lasted well into adulthood, and may well be life-long. In my view confidence, security, self-assurance and happiness are the solid foundation that childhood needs to build; academic excellence is definitely welcome, but never at the expense of the former.

I am desperately hoping that the rumour mill is hype and that old fashioned clever kids will still end up where they deserve to go and that good education does not become the preserve of the wealthy, but also that I will be strong enough in my current principles to follow through should my children not be “old fashioned clever kids”.