A Room of One’s Own

Room

I’m writing from the eaves of the in-laws’ farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in rural France. Sunlight is pouring in from the mosquito netted windows where the shutters, traditional of the region, have been flung open against the two foot thick walls.

Outside, set against the gently undulating silver of wheat fields that form patchworks with the bright-yellow of the sunflower fields, a blue oasis nestles like a magnet to small brown children. I can hear their high pitched squeals and splashes of water as they cannon-ball/ dive/ slide/ leap into their granny’s pool. The sun is forever shining; the ipad-hardened eyes of gritty-city children have opened to the simple delights of warm weather and water. This is not the chlorine infused, electrically heated sanatorium-like institutions where they are used to being drilled to swim strokes, but a splashing/ shouting/ dive-bombing free-for-all under the semi-watchful eye of Banker relaxing on a sun lounger.

And the best part?

I don’t have to be there.

I can hole up in a room of my own with my laptop. I feel I can only now truly understand Virginia’s sentiments.

September is upon us and I wonder if there are other parents out there like me who are finally feeling free? Feeling that for the most part the intensive back-breaking part of our job as a parent has been broken. The start-up we started has flourished and is headed for break-even. That we can finally breathe.

This time last year, I was still weighted with nervous anticipation about how Lil Bro would fair at school and mourning the loss of small kissable feet and their replacement with sweaty ones laden with verrucas. This year, having seen Lil Bro gain in confidence and social skill over the last year and Big Sis continue to thrive, I feel differently; almost as if a weight has been lifted; a strange mixture of relief, freedom and entitlement. As the kids approach 8 and 6 years, not even the most chauvinist can dare say that their needs now require the “maternal” instinct. Having given up sleep, life and career for the best part of a decade, I feel excitement that these next years might be my time to reclaim my life. That “me-time” that had been consigned to history might actually make a re-appearance and that I might actually be able to take time to feed my soul with books, art, writing rather than my children broccoli, cucumber and disliked super-foods. Requisite selflessness can now secede into my more natural selfish position.

That yoga class, that recipe, that job opportunity, those designer clothes, that hair-cut, that book I meant to write. That woman I meant to be. It now seems so much more possible. I would have shouted it to the roof tops “THERE IS LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL!”, had I not known it to be inhabited by a family of loirs.

Then in strops Big Sis, wet and dripping, fresh from the pool; a vision in pink which is now “so babyish” but whose body had failed to grow as quickly as her attitudes meaning that she is still forced by me to wear the pink goggles, swimming costume and flip flops. She is closely followed by a trail of wet footprints.

Big Sis: Where’s my towel?

Me: I don’t know. Where did you leave it when you last used it?

Big Sis: I dunno

Me: Well, where did your father say it was?

Big Sis: I didn’t ask him. I came to ask you.

Me [incredulous]: You walked 50 metres from the pool where your father was and where your towel is most likely to be, to ask me hiding up a flight of stairs on my laptop having been nowhere near the pool today where your towel is because you think I might know?!!

AAARGGGH!

Did I say a light at the end of the tunnel? I meant a firefly…

Pool

The “Consequence of Sex” and the City: What to do with kids in New York

Liberty

The 6 week (even longer if your kids go to private school) summer holidays pose an annual dilemma for parents who typically only have 2 weeks leave a piece. So, in the spirit of maximising parent time with kids, we decided that the kids and I would join Banker on his work trip to New York.

I’m a city gal, and while dragging 2 kids off alone during the day in the countryside somewhere would fill me with dread, New York is just like London – a metropolis navigable by subway, so I was totally confident and excited. Before you go, get the kids excited by watching movies featuring NY (Home Alone 2, Ghostbusters, Splash, Big, Enchanted etc) and playing classic tracks featuring NY (Sinatra to Swift via Sting). Once you are there, here are my recommendations if you are ever stranded with 2 kids in New York.

Kayaking on the Hudson

Kayaking

I read about this in the guide book: “Free Kayaking on the Hudson” but didn’t really believe it to be true or was sure that it would involve a lot of pfaff. On the contrary, we took a stroll along the river north from Battery Park where we had met a friend with the intention of going to the Children’s Museum of the Arts and there at Pier 40 was the Downtown Boat House where an abundance of kayaks and kayakers were out on the Hudson. There were no queues when we went (mid afternoon on a Sunday), we signed a waiver, used the free lockers and life jackets and were helped into Kayaks! Each child requires to go with their guardian, so luckily it was a Sunday and Banker was with us. The view of Manhattan from a Kayak is great, it’s great fun for kids and kayaking turns out to be incredibly easy even for someone who has never done it before. I left thinking that we should have this on the Thames!

(There is also the same operation at Pier 96 and at Houston St.)

Children’s Museum of the Arts

Museum of the Arts

Not so much a Museum, but a fun place for arty-crafty children. They run little workshops throughout the day including animation in the Media Lab and model making at the Clay Bar. The family made a great little animation within half an hour and the children created their own mini-worlds from modelling clay. There is also a large painting room where artists were on hand to help with projects such as paper boat making and invisible ink messages. Families work together, or side by side (which is how I think it should be) rather than children being escorted to a lesson while parents sit at a coffee station. It allows parents to get messy and creative too and hours of discourse afterwards about the art that we had created together. When the junior artists are all tired out, there is a room filled with yoga balls for the kids to bounce around in. This place was voted by my kids to be in their top 3 of New York.

Broadway Show

Lion King

OK, I live in London and have access to the West End hits any time I want, but how better to escape the hottest day of the year in New York than to retire to an air conditioned theatre to watch the Broadway Production of The Lion King? Easy hit with the kids.

Time Square

TimeSq

After a Broadway show, get ice creams and sit up on the Ruby steps at Time Square. People watching is great fun and there are plenty of bright lights and billboards to occupy kids’ interest. If they wane, pull out “Super Hero Top Trumps” from your bag and that will buy you an extra half hour of relaxing!

The High Line

High Line

The Meatpacking district was probably my favourite area of New York. We wandered to Chelsea Market to pick up picnic stuff from the lovely delis there and had picnic dinner on the High Line, a park built on a disused raised railway track coursing through the East of Manhattan. I confess the kids were not as enamoured with wandering around the streets of Chelsea as I was, but the High Line was a hit, with the water features that kids could splash in, and sun loungers for relaxing on. The theatre-like seats looking onto the NY traffic was also a hit and makes for great photo opps where the children tried to make photos of themselves kicking and stomping on cars. We went in the evening which was great as the temperature was just right and there were lots of trendy street food stalls along the way selling shaved ice with chili flakes, watermelon ice-lollies and other yummy things.

MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art)

Moma

My personal favourite space in NY, which I have visited several times since my first visit to NY when I backpacked the East coast of US with a University friend. Kids go free and kids audio guides are also free. I listened to the Kids’ audio guides with them to share their experience and it was great. The kids didn’t complain once until the 3rd hour which is pretty good going at a gallery and even then they were easily coerced to spend another hour! As well as a fantastic permanent exhibition which is readily accessible to children (think massive electric fan made of cloth by Claes Oldenburg, and comic strip art by Lichtenstein, as well as Matisse Cut-outs, Starry Night by Van Gogh and Monet’s Waterlilies which the children had studied in school) we saw an exhibition by Yoko Ono, including the iconic video of her having her dress snipped off by the public, which as a feminist I had always wanted to see. She also had lots of art accessible to children, such as a sound booth and a spiral staircase into the sky. Big Sis (supplied with a camera) snapped away all morning. I think that I may have succeeded in giving the children the gift of “art” which is really precious to me.

Sony Wonderlab

Sony Wonderlab

So good we went there twice. It’s free so its no problem to rock up again and again. You need to get tickets and get an allocated slot time to go in, but we waited no longer than an hour and there are coffee shops nearby to have a drink in while you wait. Controlling robots, computer-operated open-heart surgery, recording your own news programme, animating your own cartoon character and making a life size cartoon character follow your dance moves and lots and lots of video games – what’s not to like? Needless to say, this was in my kids top 3 New York.

The Lego Store/ Rockefeller Centre

Lego Store

If your kids like Lego, then this is a nice little place, although I found it disappointingly small and packed to the rafters with people. Pick and mix Lego is on offer and we embarked on creating ourselves in Lego. One unanticipated problem was that amongst the buckets full of Lego hair, I could not find any Lego ladies’ hair that was black. I was informed by staff that Lego only make one version of long black hair and this is from the Hawaiian range, with a tropical flower in the hair and this is rather rare. Obs I am not criticising Lego for racism given all its figures have yellow skin and no noses, but it was disappointing not to be able to have a character in my likeness and I’m sure millions of Chinese will agree.

Central Park

Summer stage

A massive park with plenty to do within including a castle, boating lake, lots of boulders to climb on and a zoo. We took a stroll of an evening and ended up at the free Summer Stage concert where we listened to African-inspired music, ate Kimchee dogs and drank beer. Not a bad outing.

American Museum of Natural History

Nat Hist Museum

A whole day would be insufficient to explore this massive place, not dissimilar to the British Natural History Museum. It’s a bit disorganised and easy to get lost here and it is teaming with troops of Summer Camp kids. The stuffed animals are a bit scary especially after watching Paddington, but give a sense of museum history and how far we have come in exhibit design. The food in the food-court is dire, but some of the special exhibits are great and the newer installations are very child-friendly and hands on. The 3D-cinema and planetarium were fun.

9/11 Memorial

911

Not exactly kid friendly, but I don’t think we should shy away from explaining to children the atrocities man is capable of and this most significant historical event of our own life-time, particularly as the last time I was at that spot I was looking up at the twin towers not down at their footprints. Sobering, touching and important enough to endure some whinging.

Coney Island

Coney Island

We saved this for the last day as it was sure to be a hit with the kids, and indeed was voted their number 1 day out. The entire holiday was manageable only by repeated reference to naughty children not being allowed to go to Coney Island. Beach. Funfair. Need I say more? $20 buys little ones unlimited rides for 4 hours and $35 the same for kids eligible for high thrill rides. Well worth it and the kids were expired even before the 4 hours were up due to the shortest queues I’ve seen in a while (we went on a Friday afternoon).

Blunders

We did not book to go up the statue of Liberty, and ended up being unable to stop off at Liberty Island. A ticket tout sold me a ticket to board a boat that circled the island and the kids wanted to go. So, fearful for the validity of a ticket bought off the street, we proceeded and thankfully it was all fine. Only, by the time we boarded it was the hottest part of the day and Big Sis spent the whole time aboard moaning about the heat while Lil Bro fell asleep. Doh! This sort of thing happens with kids. Disembarking at South Street Sea Port though, the day was salvaged by ice creams and street food in this vibrant area and a great little children’s play ground, with plenty of water play areas to cool down over-heated children.

I love the Guggenheim museum and I think it is also a good place for kids given the ramp design of the building. Unfortunately we pitched up on a Thursday when it is closed. Doh! We crossed the road to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is a lovely building and was OK but not great for kids. We left after 2 hours.

We made a failed attempt to get to Governor’s Island from Brooklyn, only to find that ferries from Brooklyn only run at weekends. Doh! Again, day saved by a great playground close to the ferry terminal. We consoled ourselves by playing a baseball game in Prospect Park and walking around Brooklyn Heights.

Shucks, but these blunders mean I have an excuse to come back again with the kids.

Further Afield

If you are venturing further afield, Woodberry Common is a designer outlet village which puts Bicester Village to shame. Think DKNY dresses for £35. Also, if you are Chinese and wish to perpetrate the child abuse that you suffered at the hands of your parents as a child, you can drag your kids around an Ivy League university at Yale in New Haven.

 

Hot dogs

Where the Tiger Mothers are

tigger

Since Amy Chua’s book on tiger parenting exposed the prevalent Chinese ethos in parenting, life has been hard. It’s impossible for a Chinese parent to have a child play well at a music concert without arched eyebrows from other parents thinking “Well, she must make them practice till all hours” and a good class report cannot go by without mutterings of “Well, her children must be tutored beyond belief”. Indeed, parents have come up to me in the school playground specifically to ask my advice about tutors, when anyone who reads my blog knows, I am anti professional tuition and am resisting the pressure to get a tutor and certainly know no tutors (although I reserve the right to crumble to the tutor fad closer to 11+!). Come parents evening, I generally nod obediently and keep my mouth shut, cowering behind Banker and poke him into action to ask the questions that we want answered lest the teacher labels me as “That typical Chinese tiger mother”. Banker, being Caucasian is allowed to ask questions about the children’s education without prejudice.

It was a surprise then that I recently encountered where the Caucasian Tiger Mothers are.

Ballet.

Big Sis recently sat a ballet exam. I am ambivalent on the issue of ballet. I have to confess that I did arrange for Big Sis to start ballet at age 3 years as who can resist the cuteness of little dumpling girls toddling about in pink tutus? I presumed that by age 7 years, she would have grown out of it as the discipline, the classical music and the strictness, didn’t seem to me to be overtly appealing to children. I thought she may have asked to change to drama or street dance, which are probably my preferences and were alternative options that I have muted each year. But no, Madam loves ballet. So I dutifully send her each week and give her due encouragement, and I attend the ballet shows and clap enthusiastically, but all the while thinking to myself: when will she get fed up of this as I don’t want her pursuing ballet seriously and developing an eating disorder in adolescence. It’s a prejudice I know, but for me ballet and eating disorders are just linked in my brain, and given a preference I’d like to think that Big Sis would’ve said “yes” to rocking out with the Skater Boy rather than ruefully going to his concert in years to come.

Big Sis and I ran like a pair of insane loons to this ballet exam, as typically we were LATE. Big Sis had her hair in a pony-tail, only by now, it was all tumbling out and her face was sweating like a pig from having been told to run like a madman or face a telling off by a stern Russian for tardiness. Big Sis was wearing white school socks instead of tights as it was a baking hot day and who wants to wear tights in the heat? Big Sis and I had just stuffed our faces with chocolate digestives because we were a bit peckish and crumbs tumbled from pink taffeta as we barreled in through the doors huffing and puffing.

When we arrived, we were met by the other girls and parents. 90% of the girls were tall, blond and with thigh girth smaller than my arms. Every girl without exception had their hair neatly pulled back into a perfect bun. Gel, wax and constellations of Kirby grips took a vice like hold on hair lest a strand fall out of place. Most of the girls had a full face of make-up on; they all wore tights not crumbs. Oops, was there a memo I missed about a dress code or were we to have intuited this? Parents fussed about and guided the girls as they dutifully underwent elaborate warm up stretches in the corridor. Meanwhile Big Sis stood in the corner fanning her sweaty nose.

“Phew” I said. “They’re running late so we haven’t missed it. We were running, now we are sweating like pigs.” I attempted to explain to another parent.

Arched eyebrows at my disorganization and pitying smiles from other parents, and I got the sense that I had not correctly judged the seriousness of this ballet exam. Then, what I hadn’t anticipated. The Spanish inquisition:

“So when did Big Sis move into this ballet class?”

“Are you sure she is at the correct exam? Some of her class mates were being examined in the earlier exam.”

“My daughter is doing ballet 3 times a week. How many times a week is Big Sis doing ballet?”

And so on.

As I muttered “I dunno. We came at the time we were told”, I started to feel perplexed about this excessive interest into what I felt to be an irrelevant extra-curricular activity that I was forced to enthuse about because my kid found it fun. Then I began to feel a strange sense of familiarity at the questions I was being asked. These questions were recognizable and I and others I know have asked these questions before. They were just like the questions Chinese parents ask each other about maths and English exams!

“So how long has your child been at Kumon?”

“Which grade piano is your child taking this year?”

“How many times a week do you set them extra maths homework?”

If and when my kids are required to sit for academic exams, you can bet that we would be early, sitting outside the exam hall probably swotting up on home-made exam cards of some description.

I smiled.

So this is where the white Tiger Mothers hang out.

It’s sort of cool to feel vindication and that it is not just the Chinese that are a tad pushy after all. It’s just that for the Chinese the focus of achievement is on academics and music, whilst for Westerners it’s sport. Banker recalls similar parents at swim meets when he swam in junior national swim teams in South Africa. Many of his team mates rebelled against their ambitious parents and refused to continue swimming in adolescence because of it. It’s funny that I am sure that Judy Murray (and any parent of a top athlete) did her fair share of threatening, cajoling and bribing her sons to get out of bed and get to training for long hours when they didn’t want to, yet she is a national treasure, whilst a parent that used similar parenting practices to target academic achievement would be vilified.

Having initially felt intimidated and antagonized, I felt serenely at one with these other parents. Still, as a Chinese parent I can’t for the life of me understand why ballet should be the target of such efforts. At least with academics, half-hearted success at maths will still land your child a decent job, whilst even the top students in a ballet (or any sports) class are unlikely to make a career of it…

Each to their own I guess.

We need to talk about weight

Eating rocky road

I recently read an article from the British Medical Association which advised that obesity in children needed to be tackled by all doctors, teachers and social workers, much in the same way as child protection matters; that the crisis in childhood obesity was such that it was beyond something that only health professionals should help manage.

The facts on childhood obesity and its negative impact on health outcomes are overwhelming. In 2012 almost 30% of children aged 2-15 years were estimated to be obese (Solmi 2015); and childhood obesity is associated with adult obesity and negative outcomes including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, asthma, polycystic ovaries, joint problems, poor mental health and cancer (Solmi 2015). Worryingly, with the increase in children’s waistlines, some of these conditions, only associated with adult poor health when I was at medical school (e.g. type 2 diabetes), are now regularly seen in childhood and adolescence (Solmi 2015).

And yet, as a clinician who is aware of all this, I still find it hard to do what the British Medical Association advises me to do. How exactly do I tell a teenage girl presenting with depression and low self-esteem in my clinic “Err, by the way, on top of everything else, you are over-weight.” You can see why that might not go down so well. Of course, if a child brings it up themselves, we jump at the chance to provide help, and in instances where children are clearly obese, I muster the courage to bring it forward as an issue, but where a child is just “overweight” rather an obese; I struggle to bring it up if it is not brought forward as an issue. Who wants angry parents shouting “We came here for your advice on mental health and you tell us our son is fat?” It’s not necessarily how I’d like to spend a morning, and yet, the best prevention for obesity is to curtail problems at this “over-weight” point before “obesity” has set in and psychological and behavioural patterns are entrenched. A quick consult of my medical colleagues and they say the same, unless the condition being consulted on is related to obesity, it is not brought forward routinely. Not many GPs are saying “Here’s the antibiotic for your chest infection, and by the way, I notice you are overweight so would you like a diet plan too?” I wonder if any teachers are actively calling out students and advising them of their weight issues, I would think that that was also pretty hard. Yet, if people in frontline contact with children getting increasingly poorer in health before their eyes do not stop to notify or intervene, what hope is there for prevention? Further as overweight children become the norm, we start to adjust our markers of normality and children who on measurement are overweight go unnoticed.

The issue of weight is a tricky one because of the links between weight, body image and self-esteem. Can you inform someone of their increasingly dangerous weight without affecting their self-esteem? If my own cowardly inaction is representative of most people, it would seem that most people think that you cannot; and there is a strong public perception that preserving self-esteem is more critical than informing someone that their current lifestyle choices may lead them to an early grave. The fear of precipitating low self-esteem and an eating disorder tends to ride high in people’s minds. Yet the prevalence of eating disorders is minute compared to the overwhelming problem of obesity. Reports indicate that even amongst the most at risk groups (females aged 10-19) the highest reported rates of anorexia only reach 34.6 per 100 000 population and bulimia 35.8 per 100 000. Do the maths, and that’s less than 1% of the population compared to 30% suffering from obesity.

The weight issue came up for me a few years back. My frugal upbringing meant that I grew up with the mantra of “Finish everything on your plate” and wasting food was a cardinal sin. I was denied chocolates and cakes, not because of worries about the waistline but purely because my parents couldn’t afford treats. The two unfortunate consequences of this upbringing on my own parenting were a) I continued my parents’ line of a waste not want not attitude to food; but b) I wanted to indulge my children with the cakes I never had.

So it shouldn’t have been such a surprise when Big Sis came home with the school health visitor card showing that she was 50th percentile for height but 75th percentile on weight; but it was a big surprise to me (it is optimal health-wise to be on the same percentile for weight as height). In my eyes, she did not look in any way over weight, yet, on paper, her percentiles were heading that way. When I told other mums about it, they all without fail thought denial was an appropriate option. “No, she’s fine, you shouldn’t worry.”; “It’s a mistake” or “You mustn’t let her know.” The thing was, I wasn’t worried, but there was no way that I was going to be in denial about it, and I worry that this type of supportive advice from other parents whilst well-intentioned is counter-productive. It may dissuade parents from taking action and lead to a false sense of security.

That night as Banker piled Big Sis’ plate up high with pasta and insisted she finish it as it was a waste to leave it, I made skewed eyes at him and squeaked side-ways out of my mouth “She doesn’t have to. If she’s full, she doesn’t have to finish it.” From then on, I consciously ensured that there were more healthy snacks around the house and *tried* to curtail the grandparents’ habit of allowing children free reign to chocolate and Oreos. The whole family got involved in more sport at the weekends. It wasn’t a big deal, but it needed to be in my consciousness so I could act. I don’t think that Big Sis’s self-esteem is linked to her weight and I hope to prevent it ever becoming so.

I do wish that we could talk more openly about weight without hurting people’s feelings. I hope that one day society can move towards consciously uncoupling self-esteem from weight; and weight can become a purely physical health concern (like a verruca?), and maybe then doctors, teachers and parents could better prevent this major and deadly health problem.

References:

Currin, Schmidt, Treasure & Jick. Time trends in eating disorder incidence. The British Journal of Psychiatry Jan 2005, 186 (2) 132-135.

Solmi & Morris. Association between childhood obesity and use of regular medications in the UK: longitudinal cohort study of children aged 5–11 years. BMJ Open 2015

 

Shrink grows kids at 18 months

Signposts

When I started blogging 18 months ago, it was my escape from becoming a desperate housewife. I never expected still to be writing 18 months down the line, yet here I am. Not only am I still at it, but last week I was signed by a literary agent for my parenting book proposal! How cool is that? OK, it is not a book deal yet, but it is a foot on the first rung of the ladder.

Some of you may have noticed that my posts are now fortnightly rather than weekly, and this is down to the explosion of work that has suddenly appeared from nowhere. It would seem that life works in mysterious ways and after a very low two years of feeling pointless and rejected by my chosen profession I am somehow now back in the game. Don’t ask me how that happened. One minute I am being told that “No London teaching hospital will employ you for less than 4 days a week” and “You have a negative reputation for being forthright and assertive and reputations are hard to shift”, so I have been sat at home in my pyjamas twiddling my thumbs and watching “Loose Women”; and the next minute I’ve got sessions at 3 London teaching hospitals (including Great Ormond Street) that still fit around me being able to pick up the kids from school twice a week, medical students to supervise, private patients backed up a month and now a book to write. Phew!

So I hope you will forgive the erratic postings, and I am ever so grateful for all the regular readers of my blog for helping make the book opportunity happen. Without your support I would never have had the confidence to put a book proposal out there. All comments, follows, likes and shares are greatly appreciated.

THANK YOU!

For those new to this site, here’s what I mainly write about:

Gender issues

porridge

Parenting

Incredible years

My parenting hiccups

bag6

Science

Fire engine

Education

Maths

and feminism

Lego men

Sense about science on children’s allergies

Meat cake

Last week I was pleased to hear about the Sense about Science  report on children’s food allergies which stated the scientific misconceptions regarding food allergies and their prevalence. It would seem from the school playground that every other child has some form of food allergy or intolerance and from the hysterical behaviour of some parents that their darling offspring are at constant threat of anaphylactic death. One study in the Sense about Science report stated that whilst 34% of parents said their child had an allergy, only 5% actually did. Worryingly, the report suggests that many children are suffering from malnutrition due to exclusion diets, often initiated on whims and estimates rather than on hard evidence.

You can take it as read that I am a non-believer in food allergy and intolerance being the harbinger of learning difficulties, inattention, anxiety, bad behaviour and the other ills that some people believe. In fact, aside from coeliac disease which is a bona fide gut condition where gluten should be excluded from the diet, I don’t really buy into intolerance at all. You could say that I have an intolerance for intolerance. I’m sure that it does exist in some people in severe and debilitating form, but I am also sure that for most people who claim to be intolerant of something that a bit of bloating and flatulence do not a disorder make.

Typical then that Lil Bro should have a list of allergies as long as my arm.

It started with a spot of eczema on his forehead when he was 3 months old. Despite plenty of emollient creams, by 4 months it had spread to his cheeks and become wet and weepy eczema. I was concerned about infection and he was treated with antibiotics. It didn’t go away. The GP suggested that I cut out dairy, eggs and nuts from my diet as I was breastfeeding. I duly did this albeit reluctantly as I am an avid consumer of milky teas and cake and get quite grumpy when both are denied.

Nothing much happened even on this exclusion diet. Lil Bro’s eczema got worse. He was prescribed a second course of anti-biotics.  On Valentine’s day evening, Banker and I abandoned our romantic dinner plans to spend the evening in A&E as Lil Bro was covered in raw-red wet and weepy rash from scalp to toe. Was it an allergic reaction to the anti-biotics I had wondered?

His scalp to toe eczema continued despite applications of weak steroid creams. My beautiful baby boy had skin that was painful to look at, the facial eczema being the worst. Despite twice daily emollient applications and infrequent oily baths, it didn’t get better. At night time, despite short nails and gloves on his hands, he would scratch himself till he bled, and I could hear his wriggling and itching movements in his cot constantly. Often I lay awake tearful holding him in my arms to sleep so that I could prevent his scratching. The final straw was when one time I was driving and I could hear him crying in the baby seat behind. By the time I had pulled over, his face was covered in blood as he had scratched himself across the face where the eczema had been red and raw.

I took him to see Dr Atherton at Great Ormond Street Hospital. A friend who worked at GOSH as a Consultant advised me that he was the best dermatologist in the country. Lil Bro was prescribed wet wraps and Protopic cream. The small print on Protopic mentions a risk of cancer, but Dr Atherton assured me that this was small print and quoted the statistical risks. I was happy to go with the medication, I was desperate. It helped stabilise the eczema, but it by no means got rid of it. Lil Bro was wet wrapped for a total of 6 weeks. Dr Atherton had mentioned that most parents gave up by 3 weeks and was surprised when at 6 weeks, Lil Bro was still in full body wet wrap. I confessed though that I was at breaking point, but at least Lil Bro’s eczema was under some control. Skin was red, but no longer wet and weepy. The wet wrapping, as well as soothing the itch also prevented any skin damage from scratching. The twice daily wet wrapping though was getting me down. Lil Bro was basically bandaged like a mummy all day. I refused to let wet wrapping ruin Lil Bro’s life. I looked into his beautiful, brown eyes that poked out from the bandages with all my love, and often, being the sweet darling baby that he was, he beamed back. Despite his troubles, he was the sweetest, happiest child. We went to mother and baby groups, and it didn’t bother me if children asked me why he was wearing a mask (which was like a balaclava made of dressing material), they just seemed curious. Big Sis had no problem with the mask at all, but it sometimes got a bit much when other parents came up to me with their little ones saying that they wanted their child to play with him so that they could be “accepting of children who were different”. Other people asked me if I put the mask on him because it was cold. I really didn’t understand these people – did they think that I thought bandages were a substitute for a hat and scarf…?

Dr Atherton recommended an allergist Professor Gideon Lack. I asked around my medical colleagues and confirmation came that Professor Gideon Lack was the best allergy specialist in the country. His prodigy Dr Adam Fox is now often in the media as the go-to allergy specialist, but why go to the doctor when you can see the Professor? By the time we saw Gideon Lack, I was pretty sure that Lil Bro had food allergies. Having breast fed for 6 months, I tried to wean him onto formula. After several desperate attempts that resulted in wholesale visceral rejection of formula (cow’s milk and soya) our food allergy fears were confirmed in skin prick tests and blood tests. Along with allergies to milk, eggs, all nuts, all seeds and soya, he was also testing allergic to wheat, beans, peas, pulses, lentils, banana and kiwi. Professor Lack was sceptical about the wheat allergy as this is very rare. He advised us to try him on wheat pasta at home. We did, and wheals appeared almost immediately on ingestion confirming a positive allergy to wheat. Lil Bro was prescribed Neocate formula, a disgusting tasting blend of amino acids that only the truly allergic could stand. Once Lil Bro started on this formula, his skin came under control without wet wrapping.

The funny thing about being told that Lil Bro had allergies was that my first concern was not about his health and diet, but about his psychological outcome. Maybe this is not so strange, but a consequence of my profession and prejudice. My first thoughts were: I don’t want him to be the skinny, snivelling, wimpy kid that has to sit out of football games puffing on an inhaler or sit in the corner of birthday parties telling people how he can’t eat things while eating his own carrot sticks from a paper bag brought from home.  I wanted him to be a participater, a life-enjoyer. I want his allergies to have no bearing on his life at all.

Thankfully, as we saw a leading expert in the field, we were given expert advice, which I fear is not given to the majority of parents. Whilst we were given Epipens, we were explicitly told that the likelihood that he would have an anaphylactic reaction was only to peanuts and that this risk amounted to the risk of being run over by a car (i.e. not very likely). We were explicitly told that the majority of children outgrow all their food allergies by adulthood, save for peanut allergy which only resolves in 20%. We were told that the skin prick tests and blood tests are grossly unreliable and are mere rough markers for what may or may not be an allergy and that if a child was able to eat the food without a reaction within 2 hours; then they were probably not allergic to it at all. Lil Bro tested positive on blood and skin prick tests for many other things such as corn, but we knew that he had had no allergic reaction on physically eating this and so could not be allergic to it. We were encouraged to continue to allow him to eat all the things he could eat without a reaction. We were told that the jury was out on exclusion as being the best course of practice and that clinical trials for exposure and desensitization were ongoing. That there was a possibility that exposure could actually help not hinder overcoming allergies.

It is amazing how little one can eat, if you have to exclude the list of food that Lil Bro was allergic to. The majority of dairy-free products substitute milk with soya, which was no good for Lil Bro either. Who would have known that meat pastes and pates usually contain soya? At home it was possible to concoct a meat and two veg type meal and we joked about his Chinese and Irish heritage as rice and potatoes were his main starch staple given bread and pasta were out of the window. It was travelling that was tough. But as I mentioned we were not going to let allergies hold him back, and we travelled widely with our suitcases stuffed full of oat cakes, tins of tuna and sweet corn; staples that we knew he could eat, if push came to shove and we couldn’t find anything for him. For his first birthday, as I couldn’t fathom how a cake could be made without flour, eggs, butter or milk, we bought a hefty joint of beef and wrapped it in a cake frill and stuck a candle on top. It was important to me that he was going to enjoy his birthday cake! Later, I found a decent recipe for a wheat, egg and dairy free chocolate cake that involved pureed prunes and his second and third birthday cakes were sorted.

As was foretold, Lil Bro outgrew many of his allergies. On an annual basis, we tested his allergies and if ever we were told there might be a possibility that he had outgrown an allergy, we billed our insurance company for a food challenge. The elation of overcoming the soya allergy at 2 years was only off-set by failing to outgrow his wheat allergy, but, slowly by slowly, the list of contraband food grew slimmer and slimmer. I watched carefully at the conduct of food challenges that took place in hospitals, and for a few items on Lil Bro’s list; I conducted food challenges at home. The sooner Lil Bro could eat a normal diet the better, and the annual NHS appointments that we had were not soon enough for me. If he could eat something, I wanted him to be eating it. Lil Bro still has an allergy to cow’s milk. This shows on skin prick and blood test, but from home food challenges, we know for a fact that he is able to eat milk that has been thoroughly cooked, although he still reacts to a few sips of a glass of milk. Home food challenges were not advised by the hospital, and I am not advising other parents do this (I am after all a doctor). In fact, I am frequently chastised by the hospital nursing staff “Why did I want to take the risk with a home food challenge?”, but the sight of Lil Bro tucking into a crème brulee, which is his favourite food, is enough justification for me. Why should he miss out? Lil Bro’s current allergies are now only peanuts, cashew nuts, pistachios, raw egg and uncooked milk. He enjoys a varied diet including all the nuts that he was previously allergic to: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts and brazils. He has not a spot of eczema on him and only rarely uses an inhaler.

What has puzzled me is the attitude of some parents. Coming from a standpoint of having a child who could eat virtually nothing, and the immense strain on family life that this caused, I found it difficult to understand why anyone would want to inflict this on their families without strong evidence that it was indicated by allergic reaction. Yet many parents seem to be rushing to exclude vital food groups from their children’s and entire family’s diet. In the allergy clinic waiting room, there is almost a frenzied competitive element to the number of allergies your child has, whereas for me, I’d give anything to be the loser in that competition and have Lil Bro be able to eat anything he wanted. I can only imagine that some people don’t enjoy food as much as I do. For me food is life. People that enjoy food tend to enjoy life, and I intend for Lil Bro to enjoy his.

I am not an allergy specialist, I am just writing about my experience, but please check out the Sense about Science website for sensible allergy advice.

How genes and environment affect children

Memory cards

OK, I have to fess up. I am moving house this week and have nothing prepared. So here is an essay I wrote a while back to explain my work in gene-environment interaction. I know, it sounds scary, but its really simple and I’m sure that this “story” will help you understand.

***

I’m here at Mr. Almighty’s Cloud Street Headquarters to interview him on his plans for a family friendly casino.

 

Mr. Almighty, it’s great to meet you! Tell me the concept for your casino.”

 

Mr. Almighty: It’s ingenious really. My casino actively encourages participation of whole families. Although single people are encouraged to come, it’s in the hope that when they have children, they can continue to come here as a family and I’ll have a continued source of customers!

 

Very clever. What sort of gambling facilities will you have? Slot machines, roulette, ‘Blackjack’?”

 

Mr. Almighty: Ah, well! I’m a ‘Blackjack’ man myself, but my enthusiasm spreads to all card games and so I’ve dedicated my casino to cards. We’ll have ‘Poker’, ‘Snap’, ‘Bridge’, ‘Old Maid’, ‘Rummy’, as well as ‘Blackjack’ off course. In fact, you name a card game and we’ll certainly be playing it. I’ve divided the venue into sections so that a different card game will be played in each, so called ‘gaming environment’.

 

A very catchy name.”

 

Mr. Almighty: Yes. I think our advertising boys did a good job on that one.

 

What’s so special about a casino dedicated to card games for families?”

 

Mr. Almighty: Hah! Well, unlike other casinos, there’s a twist. My casino will be exclusive: ‘Members Only’ I mean…

 

There’s nothing new about that!”

 

Mr. Almighty: Wait, I haven’t finished. On joining, I deal all members 14 playing cards. They must play with the same 14 cards that they were dealt on joining for the duration of their membership. The only exception will be for members’ children. We anticipate there’ll be several billions as the casino expands, so I’d be here all day dealing out cards to kids if there was no exception made! So, I’ve devised a simpler plan for them. They will be blindfolded and asked to randomly pick their cards from the hands of their parents: half from their mother, and half from their father. From then on, the same rules apply: “You play with the cards you’re dealt”! That’s the slogan our advertising department is adopting for our poster campaign!

 

But there’s a terrible flaw in your plan! What if I joined and received a terrible hand? I’d have to play with that for the duration of my membership and keep losing! I might as well give up!”

 

Mr. Almighty: No, no – that needn’t happen. You, like so many others, see things at face value and don’t see the complexities in the matter. Whether you win or lose depends not only on your cards but a whole host of factors. For starters: how well you play the game. Parenting is potentially important for this, at least in the beginning. Even if a child has a great hand, if his parents haven’t taught him the rules of the game, he’s pretty sure to lose.

 

Yes, I suppose so.”

 

Mr. Almighty: Later on, he might have more chance to play with friends or have tuition from teachers and be able to learn skills for card playing from them.

 

So, his chances of success and failure might be influenced by his peer group and school environment?”

 

Mr. Almighty: Indeed.

 

But, once you’ve learnt the rules of the game, your potential winnings are still dictated by the cards you’re dealt. You’d be stuffed if you had no ‘Aces’ or ‘Picture cards’.”

 

Mr Almighty: Not so! That’s the beauty of my casino. There are many chances to win. As I’ve said, we play all the card games in the world here, not just one! The ‘Aces’ and ‘Picture cards’ might serve you well in a game of ‘Bridge’, where high scoring cards are valued, but in ‘Old Maid’ where they are penalized, they will cause you nothing but grief! And in ‘Snap’, well, a ‘two’ is as good as any ‘Ace’ so long as you find a pair.

 

O.K. So how well you do depends on the interaction between your cards and your ‘gaming environment’. A hand full of ‘Aces’ in a ‘Bridge’ game spells success, but the same ‘Aces’ when playing ‘Old Maid’ spell disaster. So the handicap I predicted isn’t necessarily so, and it’s a matter of finding the optimal combination of game played and cards possessed.”

 

Mr. Almighty: Exactly!

 

Even so, how well you do in the long run is still dependent on your cards isn’t it?”

 

Mr. Almighty: In some respects. I can’t say that your cards will not ultimately limit your potential but there are still further factors that could influence prospects.

 

Besides your cards, acquired knowledge of the game and the game being played, I can’t think of any thing else that would influence progress.”

 

Mr. Almighty: I see you’re not a regular card player! Otherwise you would know that there is a lot more to card playing, not least the abilities of your opponents, or ‘gaming society’ as our advertising boys like to call them.

 

O.k. I suppose if I were playing with novices, I’d certainly have a better chance of winning.”

 

Mr. Almighty: Now you’re catching on! As you can see, there are lots of ways you can still win with a deficient hand of cards. You choose a game you’ve been taught to play well, a ‘gaming environment’ where your cards are valued and where your fellow card players are suited to allow you to thrive.

 

So, I could look at my hand and in effect change my prospects by selecting a ‘gaming environment’ dependent on my cards.”

 

Mr. Almighty: Yes, indeed there’s likely to be a great deal of correlation between your cards and your selected environment. But it’s not always easy to tell from the outset which is the best ‘environment’ for your hand. I’m not going to label the environments ‘Professional Poker Player’s table – avoid unless you have a Royal Flush’ or ‘Beginner’s Bridge – you’ll win big here even if you have no Picture Cards’. What usually happens is that there is a fair amount of trial and error before some satisfactory environment is found.

 

But clever manipulation of the ‘gaming environment’ can make good from a poor hand.”

 

Mr. Almighty: Indeed. And these are just factors I’ve thought of so far. I’m sure if more research was done in this area, more significant environmental and social factors will be found to allow players who receive a poor hand to win.

 

“That’s amazing! But tell me, how can this venture possibly make money? You’ve said players with terrible cards can still succeed by choosing the correct ‘gaming environment’. If players got wise they’d keep winning and you’d go bankrupt!”

 

Mr. Almighty: Well, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. I didn’t wish to impose this restriction, but the reality is that to stay economically viable as a business, I must. I have had to impose a cost attached to changing ‘gaming environments’. You will have to start playing in the same ‘environment’ as your parents. Otherwise, I’d be bankrupt by the babysitting fees alone! If you want to change environments, you or your family will have to pay a fee, and it’s not cheap. It’s sad but true, some poor buggers get stuck in an environment totally at odds with their cards and they just carry on losing.

 

Let me get this straight. If my parents play ‘Poker’, then I have to start off playing ‘Poker’ even if my hand is better suited to ‘Snap’. In order to play ‘Snap’ and make it big, I need financial backing?”

 

Mr. Almighty: Yes. That’s the gist of it. I have to make money somehow! If only the government would give us casino proprietors more money, I’d love to let my members play in their optimal ‘gaming environments’ and watch them flourish. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to do that.

 

Isn’t there another way? What if between my parents they have the cards to give me a ‘Royal Flush’ which would make me almost guaranteed to win at ‘Poker’. Couldn’t they pay a fee to engineer it so that they select which cards I inherit, rather than my picking them randomly? Or, could I modify my hand and change certain cards for ones that might suit my circumstances better?”

 

Mr. Almighty: That certainly would allow you to win. It’s a contentious issue though! Some would even call it cheating! But I can see where you’re coming from. If I was constantly playing to lose with no prospect of winning, and with the knowledge that my children would inherit a poor hand and little financial resource to change their lot, I’d quite wish to be able to do the same thing too. I often see players with no ‘pairs’ or ‘Picture cards’ continuously losing their savings at the ‘Poker’ table and I think, what if I could give him a pair of ‘Aces’ or two. Unfortunately, if I sanctioned card changes, all my members would be queuing up to change their cards and I would have no peace! As it turns out, there are many intelligent members who’ve devised ways of ‘card modification’. But there’s no point changing your cards willy nilly. The trick is to research your ‘gaming environment’ and ‘society’ and strategically find the correct card to change. By changing specific cards, some have been able to turn the tides of their fortune. Sometimes, it can rejuvenate whole families who’d lost hope, not to mention the benefits to their future generations. Other times it’s used for the wrong purposes, and I totally disagree with it, but am powerless to stop it. It’s really up to members to decide how much ‘card modification’ they can tolerate. There’s a committee that monitors it. I try to keep out of it, though they often try and bring me in to their debates!

 

But it could ultimately affect your business. If all this ‘modification’ was allowed to go on, everyone would have ‘Aces’ and ‘Royal Flushes’ in their hand and you’d go bankrupt!”

 

Mr. Almighty: Not necessarily. The members can modify cards behind my back all they like, but they need ultimately to bear in mind that if everyone had ‘Aces’ and ‘Royal Flushes’, the whole ‘gaming society’ would change. There’d be no members with losing hands and you’d have to be an even better card player to succeed. There will always be winners and losers just the same. In any case, don’t you know the first thing about casinos? The house always wins. I have one last trick up my sleeve and that is, I have the right to close down any ‘gaming environment’ I choose, at any time.

 

How would that insure your success?”

 

Mr. Almighty: Well, if all my members were gaining ‘Aces’ and ‘Royal Flushes’ to win at ‘Poker’, then they would be taking a large gamble. I could close down all my ‘Poker’ tables and turn them into ‘Old Maid’ gaming environments at my whim. That way, I could turn all the winners into losers and losers into winners whenever I choose!

 

“Caution and the importance of environment is the order of the day then?”

 

Mr. Almighty: Indeed.

 

It certainly sounds like a fascinating venture! One thing I wondered though, your advertising guys seem to have coined great names like ‘gaming environments’ and ‘gaming societies’, but couldn’t they think of a more catchy name for the cards?”

 

Mr Almighty: Yes, they’re working on that, so far, they’ve only come up with ‘genes’.

 

‘Genes’. That might just take off! Tell me, what are you going to call your new casino?”

 

Mr. God Almighty: Well, actually, the prototype has already been running successfully for several millennia, and I think I’ll launch the real thing with the same name as it’s a good a name as any. I call it ‘LIFE’.

 

Why parents should have zero-tolerance for sibling rivalry

jack n jill

I was recently asked for some advice, as is an occupational hazard. “We’re about to have a second child. How do we prepare our child for the arrival of a sibling, because of the inevitable jealousy?” To my surprise, even before I could answer; my husband who has been well versed in my opinions answered for me.

“She has zero-tolerance on siblings not getting along.”

I was surprised at his succinct synopsis of my position, but “yes”, that is indeed my view. For me, the bond that I have with my two sisters is very important. Even though personality-wise we probably would not have been in the same circle of friends had we been peers, as sisters we are closer than the pre-election polls. Even though I rarely socialise with my siblings outside family events, if anything in my life happened, they would be the first people that I would contact and vice versa. I would never be alone in a crisis because I know that they would be supporting me – come what may. Friendships and marriages may come and go, parents will pass away, but siblings are with you, living in your time and generation – for life.

This is not just me being whimsical but is born out in science. Warm, supportive sibling relationships that lack conflict are related to having better psychological wellbeing as children and into adulthood (Buhrmester and Furman1990; Buist et al. 2013; Kim et al. 2007). The reverse is also true; hostile and aggressive sibling relationships are associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and anti-social behaviour (Campione-Barr et al. 2013; Dunn et al. 1994ab; Padilla-Walker et al. 2010; Stocker 1994).

Maybe this is nothing to do with sibling relationship, but related to parenting and genetics? Argumentative parents have argumentative children that don’t get on and become argumentative and anti-social adults. This doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the literature suggests that warm, collaborative sibling relationships instill resilience (an invisible protective shield if you will) in children. For example, there is evidence that good sibling relationships protect children from all manner of adversity from bickering parents that fight all the time, negative life events (such as natural disaster and death of a loved one), high risk neighbourhoods, low-income backgrounds and bullying (Jenkins and Smith 1990; Tucker et al. 2013, Gass et al. 2007, Criss and Shaw 2005; Widmer and Weiss 2000, Bowes et al. 2010). Very recently published work suggests that siblings can even protect against the negative impact of parental mental health problems. Keeton (2015) found that in children of parents who met clinical criteria for anxiety disorder, the psychological impact of having a parent with anxiety disorder on children was moderated by the quality of the relationships between the children. In effect, the closeness of siblings allowed children to protect each other from the negative impact of a parent suffering a significant mental health problem. All in all, the evidence suggests that sibling relationships are just as important in a child’s psychological development as parents and friends.

This makes sense to me. Much adolescent and adult unhappiness comes from feeling “alone”/ “unaccepted”/ “friendless”/ “unsupported”. I have met many unhappy adults in my time as an adult psychiatrist of whom I just thought “You know what? You’d be fine if you just had a supportive friend.” That’s just exactly what a brother or sister could and should be; and whilst as parents we have little or no say in who our children choose to be friends with in adolescence and adult life, we have much control over whether siblings get along or not, and are perfectly placed to ensure that our children, via their siblings, have a strong support network for life.

So why have we as a population of parents come to expect sibling rivalry and discord? When we see it happening, we shrug our shoulders and say “siblings –eh?” We may take some cursory action “Don’t hit your sister”, “Get off your brother’s back and put down that brick that you were using to pummel his head”, but all in all, we assume that this is run of the mill sibling behaviour. In effect, we at best tolerate it, at worst encourage it. Romulus and Remus were raised by a wolf. I am not sure what happened with the Millibands…

My own childhood experiences were different. My mother came from a family of 7 extremely close siblings. Even though they live on different continents and their ages outspan a decade, they still go on holiday together and skype each other regularly. They laugh, joke, bitch and support each other as much now as pensioners as they did when they were children. My mother told me that in her family the older children were each allocated a younger child to look after growing up. Second Uncle had to piggy back my mother on long outings and my mother in turn had to rock third Uncle to sleep. I am sure that this responsibility and encouragement of care fostered an affection that has lasted into their old age.

In turn, I remember very clearly my mother explicitly saying to my sisters and I as children “You three are best friends. You are all each other have and must support each other.” I remember thinking sulkily at the time; I am so not best friends with these two. That one has just pulled my hair, and that one has just scratched my face. But we moved several times as children, first from Taiwan to Wales and then Wales to London, changing primary schools 4 times in 8 years, and so it turned out to be true. While friends came and went, “Laurel and Hardy” as I liked to imagine them then or “The Two Ugly Sisters” (to my narcissistic Cinderella off course) were always with me. And guess what, as adults, we are like best friends.

So what of my own children?

Banker was right. I take a zero-tolerance view of siblings not getting along. Like my mother, I insist to them that “they are best friends” daily, whether they like it or not. Sure they fight all the time, but underneath I know that they love each other dearly. When Lil Bro had a hard day in the school playground, Big Sis gave him advice. When an umbrella at a cafe blew over and grazed Big Sis spilling her drink, Lil Bro immediately gave her his. And in the evenings when they snuggle up together, I swear, its the sweetest moment for a parent.

Here are a few other things that I did/ try to do, all of which being non-scientific and are just my interpretation of what might help siblings get along.

  • My number one advice is to ensure that your children feel loved and secure in themselves. Children who have “secure attachment” to their parents have all manner of better prospects throughout childhood and into adulthood. The more secure a child feels in themselves, the less prone they will be to jealousy, and the more generous they will be to their siblings. So ensuring a child grows up feeling secure from the outset helps a great deal.

 

  • Prepare for a new sibling. Throughout pregnancy, the prospect of Lil Bro’s arrival was talked about as a massive positive. A little brother for you to help me look after. A little brother to play with you. Read books about new babies and about siblings that get along (Topsy and Tim is good for this). Buy your child a baby doll and play together at looking after it. Be as realistic about this as possible as this will help role play and rehearse what is to come. Massively praise any caring actions and discourage rough handling.

 

  • Allow a bond to be made with a new sibling. I know that parents can be precious about babies, but being overly-guarded and excluding a child from their baby sibling can lead to loss of opportunity for siblings to bond, and also the older sibling feeling somehow excluded. Where possible, always involve siblings. Place the baby on the sibling’s lap and help them cuddle the new sibling and play with them. This is perfectly safe as long as children are well-prepped and you are supervising.

 

  • Deal with jealousy. Jealousy between siblings will be inevitable at times even with secure children, but how you manage it can dampen or amplify its existence. Firstly, you must anticipate situations where this may occur and notice it when it happens. Then, rather than ignore it, it should be addressed as soon as possible. For instance, when there is competition for attention, this should be verbalised, acknowledged and problems solved. “I know you want me to play with you, but I am feeding your brother. But tell you what, he will be asleep after this, and then I can play with you.” Or when they get older “I know I am spending the day with your sister because I am taking her to see her favourite ballet, but next week, I will take you to the zoo.” Many young children feel angry and frustrated when they feel excluded or unfairly treated in favour of another, but cannot understand the reasoning behind it or be able to label it as “jealousy”. It’s up to parents to notice it and label it and explain it. Jealousy is a natural emotion; it is how we handle this emotion that needs to be addressed rather than attempting to avoid or suppress an irrepressible natural feeling. Unaddressed jealousy may lead to lashing out, aggression towards their sibling, or deliberate misbehaviour in order to get attention which is never a good thing.

 

  • Behavioural management always applies. The tenet of behavioural management is to heavily praise and reward behaviours you wish to see again and to ignore and discourage behaviours that you do not wish to see again. If you wish to see caring behaviour between your siblings, you need to reinforce it with praise and rewards. If you would rather they did not bicker and fight, there need to be consequences each and every time this happens. I know that some parents think that siblings should “just naturally love each other” and I am as happy-clappy as the next person, but even I know that “love” can be manipulated to some extent. Some people refuse to praise and reward things that they “expect” children to do naturally, but I’m a great fan of praise (see my previous blog post on this) and evidence shows that behavioural management works.

 

  • Us vs them. During my family therapy training I read somewhere that the only healthy grouping of people within a family is parents vs children. Families that have any other combination are more vulnerable e.g. a family which splits into two with a mother and son vs father and daughter or mother and children vs father. Keeping the healthy dynamic should always be borne in mind. Using this dynamic, it is possible to foster closer sibling unity as people tend to unite against a common oppressor. Yes, you the parents are the oppressor in this scenario. Don’t be tempted to side with a child, enjoy your role as the villain and reap the rewards of sibling cohesion.

 

  • Encourage collaboration. Treating children as a team can be helpful to collaboration. Rewards can be given to both children as a team, punishments doled out to both as a team. This will facilitate helping behaviour and help siblings see each other as partners rather than competitors. Encourage mutual praise. For families in a rut that come to see me for therapy, I tend to suggest that before bedtime, each child is to say something good that the sibling has done that day and praise them. It may be forced praise to begin with, but even forced praise is better than no praise and over time it may and likely will become genuine and overspill into the everyday (particularly with young children).

 

  • Promote exposure and shared experience. One way to help them get along is to allow them to have common experiences and exposure to each other. This is not possible if they attend different schools. This may be a bit unpopular in the UK where for some reason boys and girls from 4 onwards are farmed off to single sex schools, or siblings of different abilities are segregated early on into selective schools. I am totally and whole-heartedly in favour of keeping siblings in the same school, especially at primary school where I think education should play second fiddle to social and emotional development. A close sibling relationship is more important to me than KS2 results. A supportive sibling is there for life, who of us can remember our primary school grades? My children go to co-ed school. This way, their support for each other can start young. I am delighted to hear that Big Sis crosses the playground to give her Lil Bro a kiss and hug when he needs it. Not possible if she is not there.

 

  • Adopt a policy of zero-tolerance on siblings not getting on. Expecting and or accepting that siblings do not need to get on, and that this is “normal” is the main reason for inaction. So this last point is probably the most important, because action is the first step.

 

References

Bowes, L., Maughan, B., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Arseneault, L. (2010). Families promote emotional and behavioural resilience to bullying: evidence of an environmental effect. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51, 809–817.

Buhrmester, D., & Furman, W. (1990). Perceptions of sibling relationships during middle childhood and adolescence. Child Development, 61, 1387–1398.

Buist, K. L., Dekovic, M., & Prinzie, P. (2013). Sibling relationship quality and psychopathology of children and adolescents: a meta-analysis.Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 97–106.

Campione-Barr, N., Greer, K. B., & Kruse, A. (2013). Differential associations between domains of sibling conflict and adolescent emotional adjustment. Child Development, 84, 938–954.

Criss, M. M., & Shaw, D. S. (2005). Sibling relationships as contexts for delinquency training in low-income families. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 592–600.

Dunn, J., Slomkowski, C., & Beardsall, L. (1994a). Sibling relationships from the preschool period through middle childhood and early adolescence.Developmental Psychology, 30, 315–324.

Dunn, J., Slomkowski, C., Beardsall, L., & Rende, R. (1994b). Adjustment in middle childhood and early adolescence: links with earlier and contemporary sibling relationships. Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 35, 491–504

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Advice to my former self: desperate working mother of two young children

Dear Me

Looking back over the last few years, tumultuous and unhappy times for my career, I think about the advice that I would have given my former self with hindsight and the knowledge that it’s all worked OK. Hindsight, as they say is 20:20 and created hindsight in the form of imaginary letters from your future self, is a therapeutic technique used in Motivational Enhancement Therapy, a treatment for addiction and eating disorders. Guess what? It turns out that YOU are the best person to give yourself advice as no-one knows you, your motivations and foibles as well as yourself. If only we could all have a future self to guide us. Having not had this advantage, here’s a letter to me of 5 years ago, when I was working full-time with a 2 year old and a <1 year old – in case there are others who feel desperate like I did then and are in need of a “future-self” to advise them and put things in perspective.

Dear Me 2010,

I understand where you are. Sometimes you look in the mirror and you don’t recognise yourself. You go through the motions of the day feeling detached and dissociated from life. On dark days you believe this will be the rest of your life, your education was for nought, your identity to be forsaken for drudgery, your ambitions to be sacrificed at the alter of society’s expectation of “motherhood”. Sometimes you contemplate if life is worth living.

I understand; I have been there.

The unrelenting sleepless nights.

The flabby belly and sagging boobs.

The “comfy” clothes and orthopaedic shoes.

The eau de puke.

The no time alone to think. Who would have thought that going to the toilet alone would become a privilege?

The chores, the routines and the day-to-day responsibilities. Anything the children need or want. Anything the children do/ don’t do/ say/ don’t say/ eat/ don’t eat; any harm/ potential harm/ possibility of harm that might befall them, anywhere they need to be/ not be  – it’s down to you. You always thought you’d be a great mother, but now you are not so sure. Now you have to listen obediently to snide remarks and “well-intentioned” advice on motherhood like a chastened schoolgirl.

The up-keep of a gruelling work-load that you try to squeeze into a shorter day, lest colleagues and superiors arch an eye-brow or make a comment about the decline in your performance and insinuate that you are not “pulling your weight”. The anxiety that you will be next in the redundancy line; despite all your qualifications and achievements. Unemployment has never even been on your radar. How could it have been? You were great at your job. But now you hear the whisperings. It is a possibility.

The tension in your relationship. That lovely man that promised to support you is now on another planet. Working the same hours you both used to work, wining and dining clients late at night because “Some-one has to continue their career trajectory to put bread on the table” and “Why should both careers suffer?”, “We talked about this, you wanted to be the main parent” and “Well if you can’t manage then why don’t we just hire a nanny?”. The seething resentment inside “Why does he get to carry on as if nothing has happened?”, “Why doesn’t he understand?” Maybe he doesn’t care anymore. Maybe we have “grown apart”?

And above all the resounding clang of self-doubt. 

Maybe you weren’t so good at your job after all. How arrogant of you to believe that you were capable of achieving your ambitions – going forward, it’s about leadership and personality and do you really think that you have it in you? Maybe you deserve to be unemployed. Maybe you should resign and preserve your dignity. No one would judge you for it, you are a “mother” after all; this is what respectable women do, leave work to raise their children. Besides your salary is going straight to the childcare provider; your bank account a mere conduit. Financially you’d be better off taking that redundancy package. And children need their mothers. You can’t have everything. You have to compromise: work or motherhood.

Or maybe you are just not cut out for parenting? What a fool you were to believe that you could be the guardian and inspiration for anybody. You can barely look after yourself! What pathetic fool retreats into tears over a baby and acquiesces to the demands of a toddler? Spare the children this incompetence and get a 24/7 nanny for heaven’s sake – they’ll be better off. You can’t have everything. You have to compromise: work or motherhood.

Maybe your partner just doesn’t love you anymore? Why else would he not understand? Why else would he not help you? How can he love you anymore with your track-suit pants and stretch marks when there are younger women at his work who still wear high-heeled shoes, make-up and have actually combed their hair? Why else would he work long hours and not come home? Did he ever love you? You’ve let yourself go. You’ve neglected your duty as a wife.

Dear Me (2010), my advice is this:

  • Believe in yourself as a parent. Your children need YOU, and you are the best parent that they will get. Everyone has wobbles now and then, nobody is perfect. If you are having a bad day, it’s a bad day – not a bad person. All good parenting starts with wondering if you are doing it right, only bad parents never question their actions and don’t seek to improve.
  • Believe in your abilities at work. Don’t listen to the voices telling you to quit. They mean well, but they have got it wrong. Your employers are behaving in their own short-term interests, not in your interests or the long term interests of society. Only you know what is good for you and your family. Working full-time with full-time childcare or being a stay-at-home mother is an honest choice for many but there should be another way for people that want it. Work is more than a payslip. It is an identity, a social network, a status. It is power in a relationship. It is independence. Men understand this well, which is why they are much less keen to let it go. Don’t let the difficulties of 5 to 10 years stall a potential career of another 30 years (let’s not forget we will all be working into our late 60s!). Push for employers and society to change. Parental responsibility should be gender neutral. If all parents (male and female) pushed together for better work-life balance, employers would change. If you don’t push for change, who will?
  • Make your partner your ally. He loves you. If he doesn’t understand then make him understand. Make him put himself in your shoes. Tell him how you feel. Make him pull his weight at home. They are his children too. Children need their fathers as well as their mothers. Never be taken for granted, and always expect respect. Make him support your career. It will be tough. There will be confrontation and arguments. It is worth it. It may be the saving of a woman, a marriage, a family.
  • Don’t give up on “having it all”. A fulfilling work role with pro-rata pay AND being there for the children. Proper part-time work. Not full-time work for part-time pay, not a demotion to back office tasks or a move to a less prestigious organization, but the proper work that you are qualified to do for three days a week. I know that you will be told a million times that it is not possible. You will be pressurised to make a choice. You will want to give up. You will have to at times take that full-time work for part-time pay, take that demotion, move to a less prestigious organisation. But never give up on your ambition. Keep pressing, keep spreading the word about what you want, about what is right, keep vigilant and above all do not give up. Stay in the game. The “impossible” is only impossible until one person does it. Don’t go changing, make society change.

Along the way, you will meet some great people; some in similar situations and others in unexpected places. Two things they say will help you:

“If no one has done it before, it doesn’t mean it’s not possible; it means you have to do it.”

And

“Carry on doing what you enjoy doing”

Dear Me 2010, it works out well for you.

In 2015 you are still happily married. You have two great kids who KNOW their mother and KNOW their mother is always there for them. You eventually get offered a 3-day-a-week Consultant post at the best organisation for Child Psychiatry in Europe and sessions at the best Children’s Hospital in the UK.

It can work out.

Just hold on.

Just keep going.

Don’t give up.

 

Love from Me 2015.

C’mon Kumon?

Maths

As we enter SATS season, I’m on my education rant again. In the Far East, six year olds know their times tables up to 12, a target that has been set by the UK government for children of 11 years. A target that has been required to be set as it has thus far been largely unmet. Growing up, my sisters and I were ridiculed on holidays back to Taiwan when our cousins (subject to the rigorous mathematics curriculum and public adoration of anyone deemed “good” at maths) performed long divisions in their head that had us reaching for our calculators.

“So what?” we would retort, “Why bother when we can use a calculator?”

Shamefully, this is the same retort used by the new tech savvy generation for whom spell-check and mobile phone calculators have deemed a brain unnecessary. Sure, I still agree to some extent that complex maths should be done using a calculator, but basic mental arithmetic and an understanding of mathematical concepts should be basic universal knowledge. A good friend of mine (who is an actuary) volunteers as a maths teacher to adults in a South African township as he believes that it is numeracy and mathematical ability that will take people out of poverty.

Why is the general level of maths so bad?

Actuary blames the lack of availability of good maths teachers, and Banker reckons this is as people that are good at maths can be paid more in the city than in teaching. I blame the bad PR that maths gets in general and society’s acceptance that “maths is hard” and “maths is for nerds”. This rep doesn’t exist in the Far East, as evidenced in the recent film ‘X+Y’, where the Asperger’s boy “anti-hero” who has a flair for maths and is an outcast in the UK, is viewed as a “Hero” and legitimate mainstream love interest by the Chinese girl when transplanted to maths camp in Taiwan. Maybe when we in the UK learn to fancy girls and boys that can solve quadratic equations as much as girls and boys that can write love poems in the manner of Keats, we could have a maths renaissance.

It seems though that things are changing and that I am not the only one disgruntled by the apathy and low expectations for maths even under the supposed hard target-setting “Gove-ian” government, as the number of Kumon centres spreading fast across the UK can attest. When posters at my local tube station are inviting me to set up my own Kumon maths teaching centre in order to earn shed loads of money, one can only imagine that the demand for better maths education is such now that the government should think harder about supplying more and better teaching lest the gap between the Kumon-haves and Kumon have-nots should widen.

The Pros & Cons of Kumon

For those unfamiliar with Kumon, it is a Japanese system of learning maths focused on daily practice of maths using generic maths worksheets targeted at your child’s level. You attend a special “Kumon Centre” to get your worksheets marked and some advice on corrections; then you get set more worksheets to do at home until your next attendance at the centre. For this you pay a not-insignificant subscription fee, albeit less than a personal maths tutor.

You might think that being a maths-ophile that I would love Kumon, but you’d be wrong. Whilst I am a fan of improving mathematical ability, and am in no doubt that practicing maths on a daily basis will significantly improve your child’s mathematical ability, I am not convinced by it enough to send my own children, although I have to admit that I have never set foot in a Kumon centre, but have spoken to many people that use Kumon and have investigated the website and promotional literature.

Can it be in any way fun?

The advertising may suggest that the “centres” are fun places of learning, and that the specially designed worksheets “will make maths enjoyable”, however from what I have seen, the centres are just rented halls where children sit and do worksheets. The worksheets are similar to any other worksheets printable from on-line sites or workbooks purchasable from WHSmiths. There is likely to be added value of having worksheets targeted at your child’s individual ability rather than their chronological age, but they are no more “fun”. Even the Kumon logo depicts an unhappy face. I always wondered if this was supposed to resemble the children going in or coming out of Kumon, neither seemed to send a positive message.

It still relies on parental discipline

I could see the attraction of handing over my innumerate child and being handed back a child that was numerate and confident at maths with no effort from me, but from my observations of Kumon parents, that’s not the case. No, Kumon mums (I don’t like to bring gender into it but I have only yet met Kumon mums and Kumon nannies) are frazzled as they are the ones that need to uphold the discipline to make the said innumerate child do the blessed worksheets throughout the week.

Evaluation is still teacher led

Whilst parents are required to nag children to complete their worksheets, it is the teacher that evaluates and monitors progress and sets the agenda. Maybe I am just too much of a control freak, but I think that parents should have a role in this. Some parents love Kumon (and maths tutors and private schools) and actively avoid “evaluating” their children’s ability. They see it as somehow making a value judgement on their child and this being somehow unhealthy as they should always believe that their child’s ability is SUPER. Some such parents get a nasty surprise if their children underperform and pass disappointment on to their children; others blame the teachers for not getting the best out of their SUPER-able child.

I believe in the reverse. I think that evaluating and monitoring your child’s ability is essential so that as a parent you have an accurate, realistic and evidence-based picture of your child so that you can guide them into the appropriate school/ university/ career. There is no value-judgement as your child IS SUPER no matter what their ability.

Two-tier education

As I alluded to earlier, I believe that Kumon is just another way in which the middle-classes can pull away from the mainstream. We shouldn’t need Kumon; we should be putting pressure on the government for the betterment of overall maths education. The proliferation and promotion of “professionals” in maths tuition undermines the very real and practical advancements that can be made with primary maths learning by parental involvement in reinforcing school maths. Most parents who are sending their children to Kumon have at least primary school level education and should be able to help their children with maths at this level without the requirement of paid professionals. If increased efforts were made to educate parents on supporting their child’s education, children from all backgrounds would benefit.

What did I do?

I am speaking from the middle of my maths journey with my children. I cannot in all certainty confess ultimate success, nor admit to a pain and frustration free experience to date. Most of what I did and am doing is based on trial and many errors. I summate the optimum strategies that I have garnered not the entirety of my experience which contains many expletives, failures and revisions. Although I can confess that both my children are performing at the top end of their respective classes at maths, I cannot negate the real effects of genetics on this outcome. Irrespective of this, I am happy with the choices I made and so am sharing my limited insights with you, in case you may find it of value.

I introduced numbers to my kids at the same time that letters were introduced. Literacy and numeracy are to be given parity in my book. Children are just as capable of learning a sequence of numbers as they are a sequence of letters. From when my children were a young age I carried a notebook around with me and if there was a period of “waiting time”, for instance waiting to be served in a coffee shop, I would draw puzzles (mazes, matching puzzles, counting puzzles) for my children. If they were completed easily, I would make the next one harder. If they were too hard, I would make the next one easier.

maths 1

As the children grew older, these puzzles moved towards proper mathematics. Rather than only being served up in “dead-time”, they were served up daily. Initially this was done in the evenings when I got home from work, but on finding the children (and indeed me) too tired at this time of day, I switched it to the mornings. This worked a lot better as the children were fresh and my over-enthusiastic tendency to set more and more work was naturally curtailed by the requirement to send children to school and get to work on time. The initial protests subsided and they came to realise this was the routine from now on.

Friends looked at me like I was bonkers when I told them that I wrote my own maths worksheets for the kids, but what better way to tailor work for your children? By having daily exposure to what my children found easy and hard, I could not only have an in-depth understanding of their precise ability, but also be in the best position to set and manipulate their next worksheet. If single digit additions were proving easy, then you can bet that double digit additions were thrown into the mix on the next worksheet. However, if there were too many tears and frustrations, the next few worksheets would be deliberately easy to restore confidence. By writing your own worksheets, you can not only tailor your child’s learning but heavily manipulate their confidence.

maths 2

When abstract problems became taxing, I found that re-framing problems into applied mathematics sorted the problem. Big Sis struggled immensely with problems such as “What number is half-way between 26 and 36?” She cried. Many times. I tried to explain it many times unsuccessfully: “You can either add the two numbers together and halve the total; or, you can add to the smaller number half the difference between the two numbers”. Not surprisingly, Big Sis developed glazed over eyes and hands over ears “la-la-la – not-listening” pose much to my annoyance. Then one time, lashing out in desperation I happened to say: “I give you 26 sweets and I give Lil Bro 36 sweets…”, then before I could even finish my sentence, Big Sis declares “That’s not fair! He shouldn’t get more than me! We should both get…(counting)… 31 sweets each” and “Bingo”. The war was won. From then on, problems were made real and Big Sis relished calculating “real world” problems. When Banker ran the barbecue at the school fair, maths worksheets were laden with problems of “Your friend Henry wants to buy 3 hot dogs from your dad. Hot dogs are £3 each, how much does he need to spend? What change must your dad give him from a £10 note?” At birthday time when Digi-birds were requested, “How many Digi-birds can you buy with the £30 your grandma will give you?” Go-figure, self-interest really helps with maths. Maths was made useful if not fun. There were no more complaints.

maths3

Once confidence was gained at maths, we moved on to shop-bought workbooks. If workbooks were a struggle, then the same book would be reworked again, being very easy the second time around, not only to consolidate knowledge but to boost confidence. The message “Maths can be easy”. And because I am evaluating and monitoring progress, as well as her teacher, nothing said at parents’ evening surprised me. I can pick up a Key Stage 1 Maths paper and know almost exactly which questions Big Sis will answer correctly and which she will struggle with.

Why is this important?

When the 11+ exams come around and performance will matter, I don’t need to rely on the opinion of others, I can be (almost) confident about my children’s performance and if I do not think that they will succeed, then they will not sit the exam. The bar will be set at achievable. Expectations can be managed in advance, disappointments avoided, and crucially self-esteem preserved. Self-esteem, confidence and a continued keenness to learn always matter more than the final mark at this age, and arguably at all ages as life is a marathon not a sprint. Contrary to popular belief that children who are being set regular work are “pressurised”, I believe the reverse. The “pressure” comes from the weight of parental expectation not parental preparation.

If you have the time and inclination, give Kumon a miss, roll up your sleeves and give it a go. There are frustrations and discipline required (but this is required of Kumon too) but there is also satisfaction and delight when you witness the penny drop and the passing of knowledge and the instillation of confidence.

I remember fondly my mother teaching me maths (despite my tears and tantrums) and I hope as adults my children will feel the same way.