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.
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?
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.
2. Put into a bowl with 125g of butter.
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.
4. Add 3 tablespoons of golden syrup to the chocolate and butter, or, we have also used honey and that also works well.
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.
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.
7. Mix up the goodies with the chocolate.
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.
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!
Two shrinks on piano
I had a cuppa the other day with an old friend who trained with me as a psychiatrist way back when. We diverged in specialty, she to the elderly, and I to the youngsters – so we lost touch. It was with delight that we reconnected when we found out that our children attended the same school albeit in different years. Although our interactions are usually of the hectic school run “Hi – Bye” variety, on occasion we manage to have a good catch up.
Naturally our conversation turned to the kids. There was a school concert approaching for children who played musical instruments and my Big Sis and her Big Bro both play piano. Here is what happens when 2 psychiatrists talk to each other:
Me: How’s Big Bro’s piano playing going?
Her: Really good.
Me: Oh, because I am having such problems with Big Sis and piano. We have a great piano teacher that she really likes and she loves going to lessons, but we always end up having an argument whenever I help her with her piano practice in between.
Her: How come?
Me: Well, she’ll start playing, and then, when she gets a note wrong, I’ll tell her that she played the wrong note, and then she will insist that she did not get it wrong. Even when I show her the notation on the music, and show her the correct note; she will insist that she is right and carry on playing the wrong note. It drives me nuts as initially, I’m just pointing it out, not even critical or raised voice, but by the end, it’s like two kids in a playground: “That’s the wrong note”, “No – it isn’t”, “Yes, it is”, “Tis”, “Tisn’t” and so on until eventually one of us storms off shouting either “I’m never playing piano again”, or “I’m never helping you with your piano again”.
Her: Ah! You should never point out when a child is doing something wrong – they will take it as criticism and you’ll end up with the horrible interaction you described! Don’t you remember, that’s like the first rule of psychotherapy. You should know better! They have to reflect on how they played themselves, not have you point it out. I never point out to Big Bro when he has played something wrong; instead I just ask him “Are you happy with what you played?”
Me [ashen faced and ashamed that I had failed to apply clinical skill to my own child – argh, but it’s so much more difficult when it’s your own child!]: Oh bugger, you’re right. Maybe I should try that…
Her: But my trouble is that Big Bro gets so cross with himself. He will play a piece fine, but will be dissatisfied that it was not “perfect” and get very cross and frustrated with himself, sometimes even saying he is rubbish. In fact, I never need to be critical as he is more critical of himself than me.
Me: OMG! That’s terrible. Don’t you see? He has taken your comments to self-reflect into his superego. You’ve made him continually judge his own performance and now he is his own worst critic!
Me: Now that I think about it, asking Big Sis to self-reflect wouldn’t work. When she has coloured something in and it is all over the place, not within the lines, and I ask her if she’s happy with it – she always says “yes”. Even when I point out that it has gone over the lines a lot, she says “That’s how I want it”. Once, she saw me getting cross, and I explained to her that I was getting frustrated with myself because I wanted to do something well, but wasn’t quite achieving it. I asked her: “Haven’t you ever felt that?” and she said “No”.
Her: That’s so funny. Big Bro gets frustrated with himself a lot.
Me: Lil Bro is the same; with him I am always trying to stop him from being so pedantic and accept that it’s OK to make mistakes. I’m always trying to get him to colour outside of the lines without having to screw the whole thing up and start again!
Her: Ha ha.
Me: The funny thing is, even though Big Sis will never admit she played the note wrong, the next day when she plays the piece, she’ll miraculously play it with the correct note!
Three things struck me from this conversation:
- What works for one child will not necessarily work for another as children’s personalities are so different.
- Parent-child dynamics are a two-way street. How a child behaves is shaped by how the parent behaves, but critically, the parenting style adopted is also shaped by the child. Big Sis’s insouciant nonchalance pushes me to point out her mistakes as otherwise she would never acknowledge them, while Lil Bro’s pedantry is equally annoying and leads me to encourage him to make mistakes. Losing my temper is obviously always wrong, but I can only do my best on that one!
- Two shrinks can’t share a drink without analysis coming into it!
How to get into the best grammar school
A friend’s daughter turned 11 years old this year. As such her class cohort has just been subjected to the highs and lows of the 11+/ secondary school application process. For many children this is a very stressful time, albeit nothing compared to the trauma it is for the parents! I am pretty sure from my friend’s discussions that more parents lost sleep than children. At least I hope this is the case as most parents should be protecting their children from the burden of expectation, as feeling a “failure” at 11 years of age can have lasting consequences. The feeling from the school playground banter which can sometimes approach hysteria, would appear to be that it is substantially harder to get your children into a decent secondary school these days than at any other time in history, however I am never sure if every generation feels this (just like every generation of teenagers feel like they invented sex) and justifies it with current concerns (baby boom, “tiger parented” immigrants taking all the places etc.), or if it is actually true. The word on the London street these days is that if you are sending your child to a state primary school, they have “No chance” of getting into a selective grammar or independent school, unless they are receiving private tuition from at least the beginning of year 4. I have even heard some say that they need tuition from reception, and others say that you need to have their name down with the best tutors at year 1, as they all have mile long waiting lists. If you cannot afford private tuition, then they should be going to Kumon (after school maths club) at least; and the proliferation of Kumon classes across London attest to the power of this notion. If you are sending your children to a prep school, then even they may require private tuition from at least year 4 depending on how your child is doing or the quality of the prep school. If your child is not academically excellent, you could try and sneak them into an academic secondary school by way of a music or drama scholarship, in which case, investment into private music/ drama lessons would have been a requirement from well ahead of year 4, as to audition for a music scholarship at a prestigious school requires a distinction at grade 5 (grade 3 for less prestigious schools). All in all, one wonders about the truth of these rumours or if this is one big ruse to boost the nation’s economy and employment level by increasing consumer spending on “must have” educational add-ons. More worryingly, if this is the truth, then where does it leave children from less well-off families who are unable to afford extra tuition and music lessons?
My eldest child is in year 1, so I am currently in a position to be skeptical about the hysteria. By year 4, Big Sis may well be signed up to the best and most expensive tutor that money can buy to secure her place at “the best selective secondary school in the world ever that is her only salvation from failure, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and delinquency”. However, from my current armchair standpoint I can only look on with bemusement. I am in the rare position for a Londoner of living in the same area where I spent the majority of my childhood, and having the possibility of my daughter sitting for entrance exams at the same school that I went to: “the best grammar school in London”. Her education and circumstances up to that point will have been somewhat different given my economic circumstances are somewhat better than that of my parents. That said, here is a commentary on how getting into the best grammar school was done in the late 80s.
My sisters and I attended a local state primary school in Wales. My mother, having been a secondary school science teacher in Taiwan, taught us maths after school every day. Since she could not speak English, she did not teach us English but attempted to teach us Chinese. Both my parents encouraged us to read in English and took us to the library to borrow books every Saturday. They also encouraged us to write stories and poems in English. When I was 8 years old, my parents moved to London where both my mother and father had found employment. Since my mother now started working full-time, we had no further additional educational input outside of school, albeit constant encouragement, and expectation of hard work and achievement. My eldest sister was at that important secondary transition stage. Contrary to the at-length planning of most parents these days regarding secondary transfer, my parents, uninitiated in “the system” took a “pitch up and see” attitude. My sister was enrolled directly into the local comprehensive as my parents could not afford private school and she had missed all the entrance exams and procedures for the grammar school. My second sister and I were to go to the local primary which was, and still to this day remains, at the bottom end of the primary school league tables. My eldest sister had many a happy lesson making wooden pencil cases and large clay sculptures of birds of prey, whilst effortlessly coming top in every academic subject. My other older sister and I spent many lessons re-learning how to read and write English with the largely “first language not English” class.
Contrary to the current parental angst over school decisions, my parents took the oft-forgotten-in-current-times view that if it all went a bit Pete Tong, then we could change schools. Within the year, both my sisters had aced entrance exams to the grammar school, one at common entrance, and the other for year 8 entry as a position had opened. I was transferred out of the state primary in our area, to a state primary in the further, but much wealthier suburb next door. How? My parents just applied. Children leave good schools all the time for all sorts of reasons, and if you play the waiting game, chances are you’ll get a place without the furor and hassle of making out that you live on the school’s doorstep at common entrance.
In contrast to my previous school experiences, primary school in leafy suburbia was a delight. Whilst at previous schools my work stood out, in this wealthy neighbourhood intelligent children were in ample supply, such that academic equals and superiors were available. Of the 30 children in my class in this primary school, I know that one other joined me at Cambridge. Another went to Yale and another two went on to study medicine at Oxford and at Bristol, and I am sure there are other successes that I have not heard of. It was my parent’s intention that I should follow in the foot-steps of my sisters into grammar school. Their naivety of the education system meant that they saw this as a foregone conclusion. No tuition was brought in, no music lessons arranged, no past papers ordered up. I remember being called out of class one day by the school’s head of secondary transfer shaking a yellow form at me saying “Your parents have put down a highly selective school as the only option on your secondary transfer form! What if you don’t get in? They must put down alternative options!” To which my genuine response was “But they’ve bought my school uniform already.” I had no idea that entrance heavily depended on my performance, it was just a FACT that this was the school where I was going and I just had to go and sit an exam and attend an interview to formalise the process. Thinking back, this is probably not the best strategy for parents to adopt, as it would have hit me hard if I had not followed my sisters into that school, but my parents were blissfully ignorant of the fierce competition as they were both working flat-out full time and barely spoke to any other parents.
I did nearly blow my chances of going to the grammar school “for Young Ladies” as it was then suffixed. In those days, following the Maths and English paper, you were subjected to an interview with the headmistress. The headmistress was exactly the kind of headmistress I would imagine for a school purporting to educate “Young Ladies”. An upper class lady with portly stature, portent demeanour and penchant for port; all blue rinse and pearls. I had to describe a painting by Braque that was presented to me on a postcard. I had to read aloud a passage of written text about rainfall. It contained the word “percolate”. Here the headmistress requested a definition and I was at a loss. Trying to garner as much information as I could from the surrounding text, I offered a clearly wrong definition. No matter, the headmistress took it upon herself to educate me on the meaning of the word “percolate”. “You know, when you make coffee, you must let the water filter though the spaces between the coffee grounds to get the flavour. You have made coffee before haven’t you?” “Yes” I said. “I put a spoon of the granules into the cup, add hot water and stir. Is that what percolate means?”
Thankfully, being of the Nescafe-drinking classes may have excused my ignorance of the definition of percolate, and I was in. But that was the thing in those days. Raw ability got you through – not primed responses and taught vocabulary.
I am rather saddened to hear that my old grammar school has done away with the interview and rely on an IQ style test to screen candidates prior to entrance exam. On the standard IQ test, there is a 6 point test-retest advantage (this means that purely by having done the test before, the average person can improve their score by almost half a standard deviation). For clinical purposes if you want to get an accurate picture of a child’s IQ you should not test a child more than once a year. If however, you want to inflate your child’s IQ for a one off entrance exam, repeated exposure to IQ type tests can really do it, and schools will not be getting an accurate measure of “intelligence”. I can only imagine that doing away with interviews is a pity as however subjective, I still think there is something to be said for the spark in an eye and a quick-witted response.
In addition, from my current standpoint, although I value hard work and wish to pass this ethos on to my children, and although I know that hard work can greatly increase a child’s ability and potential, there comes a point where you as a parent have to recognise the innate (genetic) ability of your children, and pushing beyond ability can definitely have negative consequences. We would all like to believe that our child is the brightest bulb in the pack, but all except one of us would be wrong in this assumption. We might all like to believe that if our child “just did this/ or was given this opportunity/ or was helped more by their teacher” that they would become the brightest bulb in the pack, but again, the majority of us would be wrong in this assumption. For some reason, no one seems to want to admit the obvious, that some people are just cleverer than others – no ifs-ands-or-buts about it. Around the school gates, whenever a child’s exceptional reading or maths ability is discussed, someone will inevitably mutter “Yes, but you know what that parent is making the kid do at home…”, whilst my response is always – “great, it really helps everyone to have bright kids in the class”.
My gestalt realisation that ability is unevenly distributed happened at Cambridge University. I looked around me and thought “Not in a million years and working 24/7 will I ever be as smart as some of these people”. Accepting yourself and not feeling a loser about it is really satisfying, and I think we need to have the same reality check sometimes with our kids. Although aspiration and pushing to achieve potential is a positive, not all children have the same academic potential and ultimately we need to accept, appreciate and love them – in the words of Brigitte Jones’s Darcy “just the way they are”. My current view is therefore that if my children do not get into the most prestigious academic school then they probably would not have got on there. I would much prefer my children to perform in the top half of a less academic school, where they can feel “clever” and become confident in their academic abilities than flounder in the bottom half of an academic school. I saw many people at my school and university suffer crises of confidence (despite being exceptionally bright), due to being in the bottom half of a highly academic environment. Some of the negative effects lasted well into adulthood, and may well be life-long. In my view confidence, security, self-assurance and happiness are the solid foundation that childhood needs to build; academic excellence is definitely welcome, but never at the expense of the former.
I am desperately hoping that the rumour mill is hype and that old fashioned clever kids will still end up where they deserve to go and that good education does not become the preserve of the wealthy, but also that I will be strong enough in my current principles to follow through should my children not be “old fashioned clever kids”.