biscuits

What’s Cooking?

biscuits

Big Sis, Lil Bro and I have been doing a lot of cooking over the summer.

Both Banker and I love cooking and food. So, it is no surprise that we would want to share this with the kids. Banker likes his meat and fire, and has recently developed a craziness about bread. I like my cakes and puds. This division of labour is not a matter of happy circumstance, but a compromise between two bossy cooks who have now become highly territorial over their area of expertise. Lest Banker ever attempt another foray into the tarte tatin area, there will be full out war (his was way under-caramelised anyway).

My own love of food came straight from my mother, a talented cook of Chinese cuisine; she would taste something at a restaurant and then set about trying to replicate it at home from the memory of the flavours. Sadly this meant that we had no cook books whatsoever at home; my mother cooked fabulously on intuition. The smells of Taiwanese beef noodle soups, sesame broiled chicken and New Year cakes deep fried in batter always filled our home. I watched her cooking from a young age, and dumpling making was a family affair. Sadly though, I lack her flair and am woe-fully recipe bound in my own practice. In contrast to my mother’s still total vacuum of recipe books, my household has over-flowing shelves of them and they are always attempting to colonise tables and floors. I can remember from early childhood pouring over cook books from the local library. Although I was brought up on my mother’s excellent Chinese cuisine, it was Western puds that I craved: warm sticky-toffee pudding with ice-cream, brandy-laced chocolate mousse, apple-pie with vanilla flecked custard. The Chinese lack the key ingredients of cream and chocolate for desserts. Although I will be the first to stand up for red bean as a chocolate alternative, I cannot quite find a cream substitute and perhaps my love of dessert making arose from my cream-deprived childhood salivating over pictures of chocolate éclairs.

IMG_1631

It is from this background that cooking with the kids has become a staple weekend/ holiday activity. It is great fun to cook with kids given the hands on mess-making that can be had; wonders of science and alchemy involved, satisfaction of making something from nothing and best of all the gobbling up at the end. If you are still sceptical, cooking involves mathematics (measuring and weighing, calculation if doubling or halving recipe ingredients to make more or less), chemistry (melting, dissolving, colloids, acids, boiling points and much more, especially if you attempt to make honeycomb), biology (nutrition, health), history (spices and the spice trade, origins of recipes), geography (where ingredients come from, food miles, farming practices), art (decorating cakes and plating up) and P.E. (try whipping a meringue by hand, and have you seen the size of a baker’s arms?). I cannot think of a more  enjoyable and educational activity for children. What other activity can awaken all 5 senses as well as stir the imagination?

Whats cooking

Yet why aren’t all parents doing this with their kids? It was a sorry state of affairs to see on Jamie Oliver’s TV program that British primary school children could not identify common vegetables such as a courgette and an aubergine. More depressing when you see excellent home cooks whipping up gorgeous food, but not having time to cook with their children, or for fear of the mess. Why don’t they pass on their passion? I know that in my generation of women, there are some that deliberately avoided learning to cook. “Home Economics” as it was then called at school, was a subject reserved for the non-academic; a “wood-work” equivalent for the girls on track to early motherhood and a life of domesticity. High-flying women feared that their ability to cook would mean enslavement to the kitchen; but personally, I think they were cutting off their noses to spite their face. Not only is cooking a highly enjoyable creative outlet, but an essential life skill, and given the rise in obesity levels, knowledge about food, healthy eating and cooking may save your and your children’s lives, and everyone should be taught to cook. A friend of mine has a lovely little business teaching little ones about food if you need inspiration.

Of course nowadays, food has had a reinvention and young men and women have become passionate about food and there has been a renaissance of fine eating in London. The depressing thing though is that I don’t think that it has filtered down to children. Although Jamie Oliver has done a sterling job in highlighting the atrocities of school dinners, what about the stuff we are serving to kids at home? I have found that many parents, even foodies (myself included at times), cook separate meals for their children (invariably pasta or chicken based); then sit down for their own dinner of something much more interesting. Children’s menus at restaurants dare not stray from spag bol and chicken nuggets; and yet how are children to learn of new flavours and textures? Worse still, the London restaurants serving the most interesting food discourage children, either by snooty staff/ clientele with intolerance for children, or sky high prices. Not so in other countries. In the Far East, eating is a family affair and for Dim Sum in Hong Kong, you’d be hard pressed to find a table for two. Dining is without exception en famille, with everyone sharing the same interesting food on a massive table laid to the brim served by a lazy Susan. Closer to home, on a recent trip to France, Big Sis and Lil Bro tried veal’s head truffle, cuttle fish balls and petit pois ice cream for dinner from a 12 Euro Menu d’enfant at a 1 star Michelin Restaurant. That’s roughly the price of a Pizza Express pizza and ice cream. Why can’t we get this in London? Contrary to popular belief, children can develop an interesting palate with exposure and encouragement, Lil Bro totally enjoyed guzzling down snails in France, and although Big Sis is less adventurous, she has developed a taste for a variety of interesting cheeses.

I hope that the new found British enthusiasm for all things foodie can find its way to our children. Now that schools have done their part; isn’t it time parents and restaurants did the same?

***

For those wanting a quick and easy starter recipe that’s great for kids, here’s Big Sis’s step by step guide to our version of Nigella’s Rocky Road. So easy Big Sis can make it herself (almost), pretty much mess free and devilishly scrumptious.

1. Break up 300g of chocolate. We use dark chocolate (>70% cocoa solids) as it is less sweet, better quality and also as Lil Bro had a dairy allergy and now prefers dark chocolate.
RR1

2. Put into a bowl with 125g of butter.

RR2

3. Melt the chocolate and butter together in the bowl over a pot of boiling water. (I’ve tried this part before in the microwave and it doesn’t work very well). If your butter was at room temperature, then you can actually get it to all melt together over a pot of boiling water from the kettle if you use a metal bowl, thus avoiding any requirement for an open flame for younger kids.

RR3

4. Add 3 tablespoons of golden syrup to the chocolate and butter, or, we have also used honey and that also works well.

RR5

5. Put 200g of biscuits in a plastic bag and bash it with a rolling pin. Kids love this. A mixture of crumbs and big bits is perfect. Nigella uses Rich Tea biscuits in her recipe, but we prefer digestives. You can also do ginger nuts or amaretti biscuits for a posher version.

RR6

6. Pour half the chocolate mixture into another bowl and put to one side. Pour the biscuit bits into the remaining chocolate mixture and add 100g of marshmallows. Or, what we do is to add 70g of marshmallows then throw in 30g or so of other stuff, e.g. raisins, cranberries, brazil nuts, pistachios, almonds, orange zest, Turkish delight, smarties, fudge bits, salted cashews, white chocolate chips, desiccated coconut, coffee essence, vanilla essence – whatever takes you and your kids’ fancy.

RR7

7. Mix up the goodies with the chocolate.

RR

8. Spread the mixture into a container. A foil container that you can easily bend open is best, but we never have them in the house when we need them. We have plenty of plastic boxes from takeaways and they work just as well. They also have lids so you can stack your boxes up in the fridge to save space as well as carry the rocky roads with you for picnics easily.

RR9

9. Squash the mixture down with a spoon as much as possible, then pour over the remaining chocolate. Put it in the fridge to set.

10. Once set, cut into squares and sprinkle with icing sugar, or just gobble it up as is!

 

Eating rocky road

Why I hate raising boys

gender“Raising Boys”, and its sequel “Raising Girls” have been worldwide bestsellers for parenting author and psychologist Steve Biddulph. These books are about “differences” in girls and boys and how parents must adapt their parenting by their child’s gender. As I come from a family of girls, I keenly bought “Raising Boys” when Lil Bro came along. Yet, reading it made me wince and I didn’t even bother to get “Raising Girls”.

Why?

The indispensable mother

The notion of the indispensable mother is an example of the typical “Male authority figure tells largely female audience what they should be doing” parenting fodder of the past. Male anthropologists, male paediatricians, male psychologists, male psychiatrists all rushing to get their two-pennies bit in on how women should improve their maternal performance. Once women started to move towards professional work roles, the same male experts sought to keep women tied to their babies by citing pseudoscience to support the need of babies for their “mothers” as opposed to gender-neutral “parent”. Steve Biddulph (although he is by no means the worst culprit, as he at least tries to create a role for dads), is guilty of this by citing the specific requisite of maternal (over parental) presence in the early years of parenting in his book “Raising Boys”. A typical example of a phrase that gets my goat is this (page 11 of 3rd Edition):

“What all babies and toddlers need most is to form a special bond with at least one person. Usually this person is their mother. Partly because she is the one who is most willing and motivated, partly because she provides the milk, and partly because she tends to be cuddly, restful and soothing in her approach, a mother is usually the best equipped to provide what a baby needs. Her own hormones (especially prolactin, which is released into her bloodstream as she breastfeeds) prime her to want to be with her child and give it her full attention.”

Although I was motivated to be a good mother, I expect my husband was as motivated to be a good father and to form an equally strong “special bond” with our children. Much of the “willingness” and “motivation” to be a good mother (compared to father) is driven by guilt and social pressure, rather than being inherent or biologically mediated. Much of this guilt comes from the expectation to be “cuddly, restful with a soothing approach” perpetuated by books such as this. I’m not sure that Steve has encountered many modern mothers but “frazzled, shell-shocked and muddling through” are the more appropriate words that I would chose. He then tries to give scientific credence to his position by bringing in hormones. Even if prolactin were some magic love potion (which it isn’t), he probably doesn’t know that fathers and expectant fathers have increased prolactin concentrations compared to un-mated males (Nelson 2011) and clearly hasn’t seen the figures on the number of mothers that actually continue to breastfeed (<30% at 6 months).

There is no robust scientific evidence that maternal care is better than paternal care. Ben Goldacre aficionados will know that in order to robustly prove this, the scientific gold standard would be a blinded and controlled study with a very large sample size over time. i.e. following a large cohort of babies raised mainly by men and another raised mainly by women (matched for economic, educational and social factors) and then assessing the children blind to whether they were raised by mothers or fathers. Guess what? This has never been done, largely because there have never been a sufficient number of male primary childcarers. Even amongst widowers or male divorcees lucky enough to have full custody of their children, I am guessing that the majority remarry with stepmothers taking over the role of childcare, or some female relative swoops in like a fairy godmother to relieve “incompetent” men of their primary parental responsibilities. Naturalistic studies are only now becoming possible because of the advent of increasing numbers of same-sex parents. We should soon be able to scientifically compare two dads with two mums and be able to answer the question of the necessity of maternal care; but until the evidence is out, I don’t think that “experts” should inject so much gender bias and judgement in their advice. From my experience with working with same-sex families, men have made damn good primary childcarers. In my mind, there is nothing inherent in the Y-chromosome that incapacitates good parenting by men; it is society, perpetuated by the experts, media, and let’s face it, even you and I.

The myth of extreme difference

The concept of the “Raising Boys” and “Raising Girls” franchise is that boys and girls are inherently, “biologically” different, and therefore require to be “nurtured” in different ways. More likely, it is a marketing ploy to allow largely the same information to be repackaged and re-marketed. For instance, in his “Raising Boys” book Steve provides a handy list of questions that you should ask a school to evaluate if it will be any good for your son. This list includes: “What statistic does the school publish about boys’ progress?” and “Do teachers shout at children at this school?”. These are useful questions to ask, but like these examples, the whole list of questions is equally appropriate for girls – so why differentiate?

Yes, yes, I am medically trained (which can not be said of Biddulph) and am therefore well aware of the anatomical and hormonal differences between the male and female of our species. However, unlike Biddulph I do not believe that the biological differences are so great (asides for urination and reproduction, which are obviously different). Even for overt biological differences between men and women, such as musculature, although the mean strength/ speed of the average man will be faster than the average woman, the overlap will be great. Christine Ohuruogu can still run faster than most men. This will also be the case for any neural or psychological correlate that you wish to cite. Typical “male” qualities: aggression, high sexual drive, lesser verbal/social skill; are also found in many women. A sizable proportion of most normally distributed “male”/ “female” traits will be overlapping. Further, many of these supposed “biological” gender traits are exaggerated by society. The relative liberation of women in the last century has seen women freed to express their sexuality, aggression and turn to vices previously the preserve of men: smoking, drinking, ASBOs, fisticuffs and the like. At this point in time, we are unable to comment on pure “biological” gender traits as we have never lived in a gender-neutral society.

Even if you buy into strong biological gender differences, the fundamentals of human security, the stuff that makes a child flourish: warmth, love, praise, affection, guidance are universal not gender specific. Why would you need 2 different books to tell you this?

Perpetuation of gender stereotypes

Biddulph cites gender differences in child psychiatric disorders as a basis for his differentiation of the sexes. Higher levels of conduct disorders in boys being a reason for why boys are in crisis and in desperate need for particular parenting; followed by higher rates of eating disorders and self-harm in girls meaning that we must now fear for our daughters and treat them differently. However, any psychiatrist will tell you that all psychiatric diagnoses have biological and environmental aetiologies. This is why I love my subject area, it’s not simplistic; it is about the subtle interplay of biology with environment at all levels. Do boys have a genetic predisposition to fighting, stealing and getting into trouble with the police (components of conduct disorder), or do we as a society encourage this? Boys are encouraged in rough and tumble play; boys are encouraged to stand up for themselves, physically if necessary. Boys will be boys after all? Do girls have a biological predisposition to eating disorders? Or do we as a society encourage this? Girls are encouraged to care about their looks, from the day they are born and the first relative that describes her as “Beautiful”. Does drawing up specific parenting plans led by gender-based social pressures lessen or perpetuate old gender stereotypes? There is even a whole chapter in “Raising Boys” on “Boys and Sport”…need I say more?

Over the last decade, we child psychiatrists have been seeing increased numbers of male anorexics on our wards and females in youth offending units so times, and gender-roles, are-a-changing. Yet although changing social factors influence the symptoms, signs and behaviours that may vary between girls and boys, and with time; the loneliness, disconnectedness, anger, helplessness, frustration, despair and self-loathing that drives them is universal and unchanging. Promoting differential parenting strategies based on outdated stereotypes of what it means to be a girl or a boy seems backwards facing. Society is moving towards equality, why should parenting be any different? Drawing up parenting strategies by gender to me seems outdated and secondary to helping individual children build resilience and thrive.

If Steve is promoting the “male” and “female” off the peg M&S suits over the unisex overalls; I think we need to be moving on from this to bespoke Saville Row tailoring.

 

Reference:

Nelson, Randy F. (2011). An Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology (Fourth ed.). Sunderland, Mass: Sinauer Associates Inc. p. 438. ISBN 0-87893-620-3. (Apologies, this reference came from Wikipedia and has not been personally checked).

The Y and Z factor

yandz
Everyone knows about the X factor, that “Je ne sais quoi” that leads to desirability, fame and fortune. But what of the other attributes that lead to success (in those of us that are not blessed with the looks of Zac Efron or the appeal of Kylie)?

I can’t claim to know the answer, but I think I have spotted 2 new factors: “Y” possessed by Big Sis and “Z” possessed by Lil Bro. They are both of course bound for success, so I might as well spill their secrets now.

 “Y”

Big Sis is the oldest in her school year. This meant that in her reception class, she was often given a prominent role in class assemblies due to her relative maturity (in one class assembly she played Little Red Riding Hood, Mummy Bear and led the closing prayer). By Year 1, the other children in the class had gained in maturity and confidence and so the lines became more evenly distributed, as I would have expected. Big Sis came home from school upset. Here is our conversation:

Big Sis: I have only been given one line in the class assembly.

Me: [With a knowing smile and having perused the script] Everyone has only one line. It’s got to be fair. Everyone needs a chance to perform.

Big Sis: But I want more lines.

Me: Well, maybe in the rehearsals if you say your line really, really well, the teacher will give you some more lines.

Big Sis nodded.  I felt smug that I had handled the situation well, given sensible advice which had been taken in. That’s why I was surprised the next day when we had this conversation:

Big Sis: I didn’t get given any more lines.

Me: Oh dear, what a shame. Sometimes that happens even if you do a really good job. What happened?

Big Sis: The teacher asked if there was anyone that didn’t want to say their lines, but everyone wanted to say their lines so I didn’t get given any more lines.

Me: Hang on, why did the teacher ask the whole class if there was anyone that didn’t want to say their lines?

Big Sis: Because I asked the teacher if I could have some more lines.

Me: [incredulous at the gall] What? What happened to our plan to do your line nicely then see if the teacher will give you some more lines?

Big Sis: No. I just asked the teacher for more lines instead.

That my friends, is what I call the “Y” factor. Not least appropriate because for the most part this type of self-assurance and audacity is currently found mainly in men (Y chromosome). I bowed to Big Sis’s superior nature after this conversation and vowed never to give her any more of my rubbish advice. I realised that although the advice that I had given her was genuinely how I would have dealt with things, and was probably inherited from my parents – “Work hard, do a good job and you will be rewarded”, it was actually total BS. It reminded me of the reasons given for the gender pay-gap: women never ask for a pay rise or a bigger bonus, women don’t put themselves up for promotion, women beaver away at their work thinking that good work will eventually pay dividends, meanwhile being stepped over by male colleagues that push themselves forward, that step up to the plate. I wondered if these women had been told by their mothers to “keep quiet, say their lines nicely and maybe the teacher would give them some more lines” when they were six years old. I’m so glad that Big Sis took no notice of me, and in fact has taught me a great lesson in what my genuine and well-meant advice might do to my children. Inflict them with my own weaknesses and foibles.

Here’s to Big Sis becoming that woman that will ask for that pay-rise.

 “Z”

Self-assurance, confidence, self-worth, balls, gall, the “Y”- factor; whatever you want to call it. It’s great, but for those that are not in possession of it, there is another way.

Lil Bro had his nursery sports day recently. He came home from practice despondent. Here is our conversation:

Lil Bro: We had practice for our sports day today.

Me: That’s good. How did it go?

Lil Bro: [in hushed tone as if it were top secret] Mummy, I am not the fastest runner in my class.

Me: That doesn’t matter!

Lil Bro: But I want to win!

Later that week, I was reminiscing with Big Sis about her nursery sports day.

Me: Big Sis, remember that boy Adam that won all the races at the sports day?

Big Sis: Yes, he was really fast.

Lil Bro: [Quietly contemplative, then in serious tone] Mummy, how did he do it?

Me: Huh?

Lil Bro: How did Adam win all the races? Can you call his mummy? I want to ask him.

We never got to ask Adam the secret to his success, but his mother told me this: once on holiday, he ran twice around a 400m track. On the second lap around, he was extremely tired (being only 6 years old!), but kept going to the finish saying to himself “If Mo Farah can do it; Adam can do it”.

So it turned out that Adam, like Lil Bro, had a desire to win and a determination to work to this endeavour. I was totally impressed that 4 year old Lil Bro could not only articulate a desire to win, but was also self-aware of his own capabilities and had devised a strategy to help himself improve. He was not afraid to ask for help and saw opportunities to gain mentorship. This self-awareness linked to drive for self-improvement, perseverance, determination and a desire to succeed is what I call the “Z” factor. This silent but steely, and oft-over-looked factor is the one that lets the slow and steady tortoise win the race against the brash and overtly talented hare.

I have no doubt that Lil Bro will succeed in bounds, not least because he wants to. Sadly, I wasn’t articulate enough to be able to convey these thoughts to Lil Bro. The best I could muster was:

“Just move your legs really, really fast…”

Happy 6 month Birthday!

6 month birthday

Shrinkgrowskids has reached it’s half year anniversary and 6000 hits! So a great big:

“THANK YOU!”

To all the readers and subscribers as I wouldn’t have the confidence to carry on without you!

If you read my site regularly, please follow by email – I am aiming for 100 followers at 1 year ( I am at 80 at present so your subscription can get me there soon!).

If you like my site, please “like” me on my new Facebook Page.

Please tell your friends about my site!

Here is what people have been saying about Shrinkgrowskids:

“I must say I am an avid reader of your blog. I read it religiously each week, it’s a highlight of my Fridays. So thanks very much and congratulations on its success”

“This article so accurately reflects my life now and it’s such a comfort that other women actually admit to feeling this way.”

“This is such a wonderful piece of writing…. It may be the hormones but it really moved me”

“This is the most articulate, intelligent summary of the issues presenting to parents in the UK today that I have read in two and half years of being a parent (and reading more than my fair share of such pieces).”

“Well this started some interesting playground conversations today!!”

“Hilarious”

I love your blog….so much sense!!”

“This helped me understand ADHD better than I have in the last ten years of working with kids!”

Shrinkgrowskids has been read in over 75 countries from Russia to Guatemala, Jamaica to New Zealand. It’s being read in Israel and Syria, by parents in countries of NATO and the BRICS. Parenting endeavour unites us all!

I will be with Big Sis and Lil Bro over the holidays so may not be regular with posts over the Summer, but will still be posting so please do check in to find out what my rascals and I have been up to. Alternatively subscribe and you won’t miss a thing!

HERE’S WISHING YOU HAPPY SUMMER HOLIDAYS !

Here are some highlights from the last 6 months in case you missed them:

 porridge

http://shrinkgrowskids.com/2014/02/21/why-do-gender-stereotypes-still-persist/

glass ceiling

http://shrinkgrowskids.com/2014/03/07/inspiring-women/

Planes ADHD

http://shrinkgrowskids.com/2014/02/27/what-is-adhd/

swimming

http://shrinkgrowskids.com/2014/05/02/pass-on-a-passion/

tigger

http://shrinkgrowskids.com/2014/04/25/the-battle-hum-of-the-tigger-mum/

mum

http://shrinkgrowskids.com/2014/03/28/mothers-and-motherhood/

_GSB5183

http://shrinkgrowskids.com/2014/06/13/the-changing-roles-of-fathers/

Image from my favourite MAP London T-shirt

Image from my favourite MAP London T-shirt

http://shrinkgrowskids.com/2014/07/11/did-you-get-mad/

denim

http://shrinkgrowskids.com/2014/05/16/how-to-get-into-the-best-grammar-school/

 

Yes He Can

Lego menCan a man change nappies?

Yes He Can. (Astronauts use Velcro to strap things down. They are mainly men. Sewage workers deal with excrement. They are mainly men.) 

 

Can a man puree vegetables?

Yes He Can. (I have seen many men do this on Masterchef)

 

Can a man bottle feed expressed milk/ formula?

Yes He Can. (Vets and farmers bottle feed lambs all the time. They are mainly men.)

 

Can a man sterilise bottles?

Yes He Can. (Chemists and pharmaceutical scientists sterilise their equipment all the time. They are mainly men.)

 

Can a man do the laundry?

Yes He Can. (Commercial launderers (think army, hotels) are mainly men)

 

Can a man cook the dinner?

Yes He Can. (Most professional chefs are male – particularly the highly paid ones)

 

Can a man sing nursery rhymes?

Yes He Can. (Justin, Andy and all those other men on CBeebies)

 

Can a man take a child to the doctors?

Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)

 

Can a man drop-off and pick-up at a nursery?

Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)

 

Can a man wipe a child’s bottom?

Yes He Can. (I hope so at least, as it is easier to wipe some one else’s bottom than your own)

 

Can a man read the letters that come back from school?

Yes He Can. (Any literate person can do this)

 

Can a man buy a fancy-dress costume?

Yes He Can. (Many shop buyers and traders are men)

 

Can a man book a ballet class?

Yes He Can. (Many events organisers are men)

 

Can a man check a child’s homework?

Yes He Can. (If he has the intellect to be able to do the homework, he is qualified to check it)

 

Can a man book a dentist appointment?

Yes He Can. (If he can book his own appointments for work/ leisure, he can do this)

 

Can a man pick up an unwell child from school?

Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)

 

Can a man iron on name labels on to clothes?

Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)

 

Can a man sign a permission slip?

Yes He Can. (I presume he can write his own name)

 

Can a man test a child’s ability to spell?

Yes He Can. (I presume he can spell)

 

Can a man make an Easter hat?

Yes He Can. (Mister Maker is a man)

 

Can a man read with a child?

Yes He Can. (Any literate person can do this)

 

Can a man arrange a playdate?

Yes He Can. (If he can arrange his own leisure activities, no reason he cannot arrange someone else’s)

 

Can a man interview a nanny/ au pair/ babysitter?

Yes He Can. (Many men interview staff for jobs)

 

Can a man go to parent’s evening?

Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)

 

Can a man watch a school play?

Yes He Can. (Unskilled task, any numpty can do this)

 

Can a man give a cuddle?

Yes He Can.

 

There you have it. Confirmation, with observational evidence from a medically qualified doctor, trained in medicine, genetics, psychiatry and psychology. There is no medical, genetic, psychiatric or psychological reason why men cannot do any of the above.

Where men are not doing these things, there are only 2 reasons:

  1. Men don’t want to.
  2. Women don’t want them to (they don’t want to nag or fight with their partner/ they want control over parenting and the household).

Men are a highly skilled and under-utilised resource within the home. Their involvement should be encouraged.

It strikes me that if all men and women worked together to enact equality in their own homes, equality in society would follow.

 

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.

WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH PARENTING?

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.

Time.

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…

 

Footnote:

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.

References:

Carolyn Webster-Stratton. The Incredible Years. ISBN 978-1-892222-04-06. http://www.incredibleyears.com

You know you’ve got posh kids when…

bottle

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.

 

References:

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.