Star of the Day One-Up-Manship

Pip3

Your kid has been a fab goody-two-shoes at school – so what better reward than the “Star of the Day” prize of a germ-infested, grime-encrusted, soft toy to bring home? This cuddly is passed around from child to child on a daily basis, and if what my children do with it (kiss, cuddle, canoodle, throw about the place and sleep with) is indicative of what every child does with it, then I am pretty sure that if Pip the Panda were an adult human, he’d be harbouring every venereal disease going. Not only are we supposed to harbour this bacterial contagion, but we are supposed to show it a good time and document the good times had to be shared with the rest of the class, and more importantly, the rest of the class’s parents in a book that gets handed around.

This has led to what I term “Star of the Day One-Up-Manship”. Pip has been to Disneyland Paris a few times, weekends away in the Cotswolds, holiday homes in Suffolk and has even met the “Housekeepers” of my children’s classmates. I love it as you can peer into the lives of others without being caught out as “nosy”, although of course other parents are acutely aware that their entries will be inspected and the entries have a social media gloss: the children are always smiling, they’ve always done something interesting and it’s all happy days. No one is writing: I went home. I watched TV. I ate junk food. I delayed getting into the bath until my mother screamed at me like a psycho.

In a mini-rebellious streak, I thought about taking Pip to the pub, plying him with alcohol and cigarettes and documenting his “Ted” like night out on the town, returning him to Reception smelling of lager and fag-ash. Sadly, I wimped out. So instead, I photo-shopped him into old travel snaps with Lil Bro in tow.

“After school, we climbed to Machu Picchu, deep water dived, explored the temples of Angkor Watt and visited my mother in China”

Lil Bro enjoyed the dressing up and we could spend the rest of the weekend watching TV and eating junk food instead of taking pictures of us eating super foods and doing healthy exercise in our very well-decorated home. The best thing was that the Reception kids who have no idea of Geography actually believed that this was an accurate depiction of life chez Lil Bro. Too cute.

Pip4

Pip1Pip2

 

The Return of the Mum

Love

Shrink Grows Kids is 2 years old! And more exciting things are happening: I have been offered two book deals and am about to sign up with the lovely people at Pan Macmillan for my first ever book. So thank you to everyone who has read and supported my little site. Your reads gave me the confidence to continue and it has led me to things beyond my imagination.

Those who followed my journey from the start may have realised by the tone of some of my blog posts that I started this blog as a child psychiatrist that had been somewhat cast aside by her profession for her decision to work a maximum of 3-days a week such that she could be there for her children. Working so little is highly frowned upon in a profession where apparently working till 10pm and on Saturdays is deemed a standard working week (thanks Mr Hunt). In the battle of children vs career, for me children had to win out.

It’s a tough decision faced by many driven parents and I respect the individual choices made by others even if they differ from mine. For me, I am lucky enough to be married to a banker who pays the mortgage and financially as my post-tax income would have been equivalent to quality childcare, money was negligible in the decision making. Unluckily, being married to a banker means that for much of the time parenting responsibility falls to me as Banker is often out of the house before 06:30am and not back again until 8pm, if he is even in the country. Thus I squarely felt the responsibility of how our children turned out was down to me. As a child psychiatrist who spends days and years hearing and helping children and families that have struggled, it seemed implausible not to at least attempt to practice what I believe and preach: spend time with children.

For quite some years I took positions that allowed me to work a 3-day week by virtue of my being over-qualified and under-paid and saw friends and colleagues speed by in the race to the top. It was not without its frustrations, anger, tears, self-hatred and despair. What was the least anticipated, yet most destructive was the loss of identity. I would never have seen myself as one for airs and graces and felt that I took people on face-value, but it was amazing how naked I felt when stripped of a prestigious job title. Signing on reluctantly for gym membership post-baby fat one time I felt wounded to see that the lady had listened to my description of my work circumstances and had written: Occupation: House-wife/ Doctor.

I had never identified myself as a house-wife. A mother yes, but not a house-wife. I don’t and doubt I ever will darn my husband’s socks (although once my mother-in-law did offer to teach me).

It was with this inkling that I wanted something more that I tentatively set up my blog. Slowly by slowly, with your help, a sense of confidence and purpose grew that even if the system would not support me, I could use my skills to support myself. I started speaking to friends  about work outside of the NHS which although I loved, had rejected me for my lack of ambition/ work-ethic/ dedication because of my insistence on limited hours. We set up a little private practice which has been doing great. This led to more confidence in my ability, to connections and friendships which have led to more and more opportunities, which have eventually culminated into a return to a prestigious NHS position on MY TERMS – 3 days a week. Alongside, the material from my blog has continued to grow, albeit slowly of late, and I am still pinching myself that a publisher is willing to support me in growing it into a book. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I could or would become a writer.

My horoscope predicted that 2016 could be one of the best years of my life (so be happy all Pisceans) and I am really looking forward to the year. My message to other parents that chose children over career is to say “Believe in yourself”, give it time, you never know where it might lead you and soon you’ll be back on top.

THANKS FOR SUPPORTING MY BLOG.

WATCH THIS SPACE FOR NEWS OF MY BOOK!

Here are some posts from rock bottom that might help:

Dear Me

Advice to My Former Self – Desperate Working Mother of Two Young Children

Did You Get Maternal Adjustment Disorder?
 

 

Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes…

Anne

It’s Christmas morning and the tree is adorned with coloured lights and decorations. The breakfast table is set with Panettone and tea, and oysters sit at the sink in preparation for lunch. We are back in the French countryside with my in-laws, settling into what is likely to be the last Christmas in rural France, as my in-laws are soon to be down-sizing and giving up the idyllic life in their rustic farmhouse of over 20 years.

But something is rather off.

This year, Father Christmas has not arrived and there is only one present each for the children beneath the tree from the grandparents. Lil Bro is wearing Granny’s old t-shirt unadorned with trousers or the like, above which he is wearing great granny’s cardigan such that the sleeves overwhelm his arms in the manner of a vampire bat. The look is evermore preposterous as he is intent on running around flapping his sleeves so that they whip his back in the manner of self-flagellation. His bare skinny legs protrude beneath, drawing attention due to their perpetual motion. Big Sis sits curled-up cat-like in a nightie of unknown provenance that comes down to her ankles, on the lap of her father who is sporting a pair of flowery shorts from his adolescence.

This year, I have felt moved by the plight of Syrian refugees, sick children, evils of capitalist excess and humans as the cause of climate change that we have embarked on a sinless Christmas where we reject commercialism and think about the true meaning of Christmas. As such, there will be no presents, no decadent wrapping paper and Santa Claus will not call. We have chosen to think of those less fortunate than ourselves and donate all the children’s presents to charity.

Don’t be daft! I’m a shrink not a saint!

Rather, let me fill you in on the ridiculous antics of the night before. Having spent days meticulously ordering gifts from Amazon, and further more days sitting at home to try and receive said ordered gifts from Amazon, and further days puzzle-piecing boxes and boxes of gifts into big black suitcases, and coaxing Big Sis to help reassure Lil Bro that Santa is very clever and will find us in France (Big Sis has figured out about Santa – but that’s another story); we were finally set and ready to go.

Bundled off we went with 3 large laden cases full of paraphernalia, eyes bright in anticipation for a calm and restful Christmas and a short sojourn of skiing thereafter. Because of the mass of our present haul and the multitude of “essential skiing gear”, I whittled down my own belongings to a small wheelie case, pathetic amongst the other large ones. Little had we anticipated the disaster encountered at London Bridge when 2 trains to Gatwick were cancelled. Never fear, Uber is here. A cab was called and disaster was averted by a knight in shining Mercedes that pulled up some 8 minutes later.

The children and I crammed into the back seat and promptly fell asleep after the excitement of the morning’s rush to head off, but some 40 minutes later I was rudely awakened by Banker’s woeful tone “I think we are going to miss our flight”. Then it was tender hooks for the remainder of the journey. The Uber-man remained optimistic to the last, but my pessimistic nature understood that we were doomed. Never-the-less, we took the chance that given we had checked in on-line that there was a slither of a chance.

The dash to the luggage drop off point was in vain, even after having nearly knocked several people sideways with the big, heavy case.

The baggage drop-off point was closed.

The gate to boarding would close in minutes.

The next flight out from Gatwick would be boxing-day.

Banker and I looked at each other. In a split second we both understood that Christmas was about family and not presents. We dumped the big bags at left luggage, not even stopping to give details of who we were or where we lived. The attendant seemed to understand, put a barcode in our hands with a telephone number hastily scribbled on the back, shouting to us as we fled “Run! Don’t worry about your bags! Just call!”

Banker, with marathon and triathalon training was sent as the forward party, without a look back he leapt over obstacles and weaved his way to Gate 20. I followed as fast as I could encumbered by my backpack and case, the only case deemed small enough for hand luggage, shouting encouragement to two children who trailed behind. They made a good start, having sensed the dire nature of the situation. Lil Bro, who had killed the Reception sprint at his last sport’s day made good ground. Big Sis who had participated enthusiastically in the Borough Cross Country continued apace. But believe me when I say that Gate 20 was a LONG way from the security gates. At Gate 4, when the computer screens heralded that boarding at Gate 20 was CLOSED, I wondered if my legs could make it. Behind me, I heard crying as Lil Bro succumbed to the enormity of the task. I went back and grasped his hand. Banker was nowhere to be seen.

I pulled Lil Bro by the hand propelling him forward. “Lil Bro”, I said, “We are tired, but now we can press our “Booster Pack” buttons and set off our reserve fuel. The Gate is closed, we have to run or there is no chance”. We plundered on, shouting and waving to poor Big Sis each time we turned a corner so she did not get lost as she was ten metres behind.

Eventually, we got to Gate 20 where Banker had made them hold the gate open. Sweating like a pig and with two crying children in tow, bereft of worldly possessions, we boarded the flight. On the plane, Big Sis and I started to muse to Lil Bro about the possibility that Santa may not be so smart after all, and had he left Santa a note to tell him we would be in France? Because if he hadn’t then Santa may deliver the presents to London and there would be no presents until we were back in London, but not to worry as they would be waiting safely there….

For all that people say about the cynicism and materialism of children and their obsession with more and more toys and presents at Christmas, and the frenzy-like states that parents get into to prepare for a Magical Nigella-esque Christmas “for the children”, I can attest that the half-naked children swathed in foraged clothes made not one complaint and had a perfectly splendid Christmas in the company of their grandparents. For all our doubts, even 21st century children can understand that Christmas is about family, not presents.

As for me, I was thankful that I had packed the 5 disc-collectors’ edition of Anne of Green Gables (a nostalgic Christmas present to myself) into my own tiny case. At least I alone am fully clothed and will be having a merry Christmas introducing Big Sis to Gilbert Blythe…

Tomorrow we hit Decathalon’s ski section with gusto!

I hope you had a Merry Christmas without our mistakes!

 

 

 

This Boy Can

This boy can

I love Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign to get girls into sport with glossy ads showing ordinary girls and women of all shapes, sizes and colours enjoying sport. Set to high octane music it oozes adrenaline, power, energy and confidence. It’s about sport, but also ultimately about self-esteem. Its underlying message is that women should be confident about themselves and their bodies, which is a great message which is why the campaign has been so acclaimed. There have been a number of other positive Ad Campaigns empowering women to achieve, study maths and science, aim high, aspire and be ambitious. GREAT! Despite all that women have achieved in the last 100 years, I can attest that women still underestimate their ability in the workplace and this media encouragement is totally welcome.

However, it doesn’t work on its own.

How do I know this? Because I, and all girls that were fed through an ambitious, high expectation girls’ school in the nineties already heard this message and were already ambitious and aiming high. We flew the flag, but like the generations before us were cut down to size when we reached the higher echelons of our organisations, or the minute we fell pregnant. Many of us even felt bitter towards the encouragement that we received as young women because we were fed a dream that society could not yet deliver.

The bottom-line is that there is only so much women can change and society’s current solution of “encouraging women to change” (codified in encouraging women to become “more” confident/ ambitious/ this-that-and-the-other) in order to fit into pre-existing male oriented organisations and structures has not worked. Not only has it not worked, but it continues to perpetuate the myth that the reason that inequality has not yet been achieved is because women have not put in enough effort into changing “they do not put themselves forward”, “they shy away from leadership positions”, “they choose to opt out”. The implication is still “Women are not good enough”.

This perspective turns a blind eye to the fact that it is also institutions and their cultures that need changing. Women are being put off by bullying and macho cultures exemplified but not limited to the goings-on in British politics (men are driven to suicide by it, so why would women want to engage?).

And, if society wishes there to be a next generation, SOMEONE needs to look after the children. For many of us, we believe this strongly and fundamentally should be parents. If we continue to one-sidedly empower girls and women to take on rewarding and powerful careers, what is society’s solution to “parenting” and “family-life”?

What is the solution?

It may not seem attractive at first (but isn’t it the job of slick Madmen to make it so?), but I believe that for every “This Girl Can” ad that goes out; there should also be a “This Boy Can” ad. Footage of boys crying, talking about their emotions, helping another child, reading, drawing, dancing, dressing up as a Princess. Footage of men sticking on plasters, listening to the ideas of their female colleagues, talking to their daughters, nursing their elderly parents, helping children with their homework, picking up children from school, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, cooking the family dinner. These latter activities are the really important things that keep Britain going. The Engine of Britain is not just the boardroom, but the living room, dining room and kitchens across the country. Without the domestic engines, no one could get to work. As long as these activities, pivotal to family life, are undervalued and represented as “female” or lower order tasks, there can be no escape for women from the home and no “respect” for women overall.

Many boys and men already do these things and they need to know that their efforts are appreciated and the ones that are not doing these things need to be empowered and enabled to do so, else any women’s empowerment program will be futile. As long as we continue to view ambition, aspiration, hard-work, determination and ruthlessness as the only virtues worth rewarding and publicising, we are devaluing and undermining the equally valuable virtues of compassion, loyalty, understanding and sensitivity. As such we marginalise the fantastic people who possess these traits and create future generations with warped and unbalanced ideals. Much as I applaud campaigns to improve body confidence, body image problems in women will continue to be problematic as long as there are men who objectify women. While empowering girls is good, we must also focus on educating boys, and I feel that this part is lacking.

Whilst many may feel that traits are gender specific (typically masculine: ambition, determination etc.; and feminine: compassion, empathy etc.). I don’t believe this to be the case but that from a young age children are taught to emphasize these traits within themselves and suppress other traits to conform to gender expectations. While great Ad Campaigns like “This Girl Can” try to address this imbalance for girls, what we desperately need in concert is a “This Boy Can” campaign to empower boys to truly be themselves.

I really hope that someone steps up to the mantel and does it.

What makes a child anti-social?

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The media is full of the rise of anti-social behaviour (e.g. violence, aggression, bullying, fighting, lying, stealing, vandalism, fire-setting, drug and alcohol abuse, cruelty to animals) in children and youth offending, but what is the cause of childhood antisocial behaviour and are all anti-social children the same? What is the role of parenting?

Are all anti-social children the same?

There is evidence that not all children with anti-social behaviour are the same. Some children may show a phase of anti-social behaviour in adolescence but this passes and they settle down in adulthood. Far more concerning are children with a life-long tendency to anti-social behaviour. These children tend to be anti-social from a younger age and behaviour is more extreme (e.g. cruelty to animals at age 5 years), but even amongst these children there is evidence of different subgroups. Much research is focused on differentiating groups of anti-social children to see if we can better understand them.

One differentiating factor found is lack of empathy. Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings and experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. Psychologically speaking, this requires two different types of processes: a “thinking” part: the ability to see things from another person’s point of view; and secondly a “feeling” part: the ability to recognise emotion in others and to feel it in oneself. People without empathy are described as being callous and unemotional. To be anti-social, violent or aggressive is easy if you do not empathise with the victim, so it is no surprise that >90% of children with callous-unemotional traits are involved in some form of anti-social behaviour.

How does empathy affect anti-social behaviour?

Researchers have been interested in children that lack empathy for a while now because of its links to extreme anti-social behaviour, and the definition of “psychopathy/ sociopathy” (this is a criminal justice not mental health term) includes having this lack of empathy. The childhood precursor to this psychopathy label is “callous-unemotional traits” (as it is pretty harsh and pessimistic to label kids as psychopaths), and even this terminology has recently been rebranded as “limited prosocial intent” so that it sounds less pejorative; but this is just semantics, we are essentially talking about the same thing: people that have shallow feelings with lack of empathy and guilt.

My colleague, Essi Viding does research into these traits and wrote a great summary paper (2012), the findings of which I wanted to share as I thought it was fascinating. It turns out that if you study ASBO kids (kids with anti-social behaviour), you will find that 50% of them have these callous-unemotional traits. These children don’t really care about others’ feelings and tend to show no remorse for wrong-doing. It is this group of kids that have the most serious and long lasting problems.

What is the difference then psychologically and biologically between children that commit antisocial behaviour with and without empathy?

In experiments where anti-social kids are hooked up to show responses (for instance heart, skin and eye-tracking monitors or brain scans) to photos/ voice recordings of other people in pain or grief, the children with callous-unemotional traits showed no or reduced physical or brain response. Most people will wince in shared pain if shown pictures or exposed to sounds of others in pain, but these children don’t. When these children were asked to play a game where not following the rules led to punishment, they continued to flaunt the rules and did not seem to learn from punishment. There is biological support for these findings with differences in brain scans in areas of the brain linked to emotion processing and reinforcement learning pathways in callous anti-social children.

In contrast, the anti-social children with empathy showed the same aversive responses as children not involved in anti-social behaviour to pictures and sounds of pain and grief, and learnt quickly from punishment. However when they are shown threatening faces, they over-respond with emotion and when they are shown neutral and ambiguous facial expressions, they identified them as being threatening. Brain scans back up these differences. The anti-social children with empathy tended to have abnormal amygdala development. This is the area of the brain involved in fear and anxiety processing. These anti-social children have normal empathy but have a heightened awareness of threat, which explains why they perceive neutral faces as threatening. In a world where everyone is viewed as threatening, hostile or an enemy, it can make sense to be combative, aggressive and violent. This is that bully in the playground that says “Are you looking at me?” – when you weren’t even looking at them.

Genetic studies have also supported this divide, finding that there is strong inheritance of callous nature, whereas anti-social behaviour without callousness was not inherited but generated by environmental factors such as harsh or inadequate parenting, or an interplay between these environmental factors and genes associated with anxiety or heightened emotion.

Finally, it has also been found that the children in the different groups respond differently to parenting strategies. Punishment and traditional sanction-based strategies (time-out, withdrawal of privileges) works well for empathic anti-social children, but has no effect on callous children. Callous children only respond to positive reinforcement (praise) and rewards.

What causes anti-social behaviour?

This type of evidence has led to different theoretical models for two groups of children involved in anti-social behaviour.

Group 1: Genetic predisposition. Antisocial and callous kids: these children are thought to lack empathy as they do not find other people’s distress aversive and because they fail to be able to learn from punishment. It is easy to be aggressive and cruel if you are unable to feel guilt and if the suffering of others doesn’t bother you. It is easy to continue to behave in this way life-long if you are unable to learn from punishment. These difficulties are often inherited in brain structure.

Group 2: Environmental Causation: Anti-social but not callous kids: these children have abnormal socialisation because they have a heightened sense of threat, and view the world as hostile towards them. They exhibit aggression and cruelty as a result of living in unstable and threatening environments which has shaped their brains and psychology to respond in this way as a means of coping and survival. Their anti-social behaviour is often in the context of a peer group within which there is support and empathy.

What has this got to do with parenting?

Whether we like it or not, parents are the first line defence against anti-social behaviour in society. By better understanding the causes of anti-social behaviour and by understanding our children, we can best adapt our parenting to prevent our children becoming anti-social. Although children in group 1 with genetic predisposition are the more difficult to help, they can be supported by fostering self-esteem. They will respond better to motivation to act in a pro-social way, rather than harsh punishment which will not deter them. Anti-social behaviour in children with empathy can be prevented by strong loving families that place appropriate boundaries and sanctions. For these children, wider society has a great role to play in generating or preventing anti-social behaviour, as tolerant, peaceful and accepting societies can offer protection whilst violent, unstable and alienating societies can fuel them.

Reference:
Anti-social behaviour in children with and without callous-unemotional traits. Viding et al. (2012) Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 195-200.

Patchwork Childcare

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Whoa! Where did September go?

Apologies for going quiet for a month but things have been hectic, what with school start, new job and September being conference season for child psychiatrists. The last month has been about patch working childcare and prioritising, which sadly meant no time to blog. I’m hoping that it will calm down a bit now that October is here. Phew!

Unfortunately the new and hard won London NHS Consultant job has meant that I can no longer drop off the children at school on the 3 days a week that I work. I am not quite sure who worked out the logistics that school should start at 8:50 am, and work should start at 9am, because who in London can get to work in 10 minutes….? And which childminder would want to come for just an hour of work in the morning to take children to school?

Then there was the afterschool care. I am lucky that my mother has always taken the children 2 days a week after school. I say, “lucky” – but of course, luck has little to do with it. I purposefully moved home to the other side of London from my job expressly for this purpose so I have to endure a 75 minute commute each way. I just had one afternoon to fill, so a Nanny or Au Pair was not needed, and I had fought hard to get a part-time job to stave off this need for full-time childcare. After meeting a few young ladies over the summer that might have potentially been able to take the kids after school a day a week, I settled on one and sat on my laurels thinking the problem was solved. One week before school start and I text to confirm arrangements, only she has disappeared off the face of the earth. I suddenly felt immensely sick that just as I was about to return to “a career” where I had left off, I was struck down again by the nagging problem “who will look after my kids?”

I thought about starting a breakfast club at the school with a rota of parents or paying a parent of another child in Big Sis or Lil Bro’s class to take them. I looked into which other parents might be interested. And as each cock-a-mamy plan fell through, the same sinking feeling. It was then that I had my revelation. The solution was so simple that looking back I cannot believe that I didn’t think of it immediately.

Before I tell you the solution, I want to share with you an old brain teaser:

A teenage boy who grew up having never met his father has a terrible road traffic accident. He is rushed to hospital and straight into emergency theatre, the surgeons gather around ready to operate, but just then the lead surgeon looks at the boy’s face and gasps saying “I can’t operate, this is my son”. What has happened?

Before you make some sort of long winded reply about how the surgeon recognised the boy to be his son because they looked so similar, I will tell you that the answer is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Yes, a FEMALE lead surgeon.

And so, you can see how many of us can be blinded by gender stereotypes. Hopefully, you might fathom that my solution to my childcare problems was to make Banker involved. Yes – men can do childcare! He was made to drop the children at school, at least one of the days I was at work, and also told to make arrangements for the children to go to after school club once a week. Why should I be the only one suffering an ulcer over this?

Just as I was taken aback by my realisation that fathers could actually contribute to regular weekly childcare duties, rather than just at the weekend, he too was surprised to be asked! I am amazed that he had sat through my endless rantings of “maybe we could pay so-and-so to take the children”, without once suggesting that part of this responsibility was his, and he could offer a solution. There ensued of course the typical grumblings… “important job”… “impossible” … “money” … “promotion”… “blah” … “blah” …”blah”.

However, I was lucky enough to know that one of his colleagues was able to wrangle a late start to drop his children off at school a few days a week. You see this colleague had just spent a tonne of money fighting for shared custody of his children following a divorce such that he could have the privilege of taking them to school half of the week. So I pointed out to my darling banker that I was offering him exactly this privilege without the expense of divorce and custody battle. Bargain!

Humour aside though, surely childcare arrangements are a shared responsibility, why does it so often fall to mothers? Even when fathers are doing childcare, it is because the mothers have told them to do so and given them explicit instructions of where things are and what to do. I for one would like some time off from the thinking and planning as well as the doing. And how come good divorced fathers are so great at arranging time off “important” work to be with their kids?

Contentious, but I will put it out there just for contention: Maybe if they had always done so they mightn’t be divorced?

 

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