My dad told me he sent a copy of my parenting book to his old university friend who is in his 70s. After reading the book, his friend’s comments were these: “It’s not a book on how to raise your children, it’s a book on ‘How to Train Your Husband!'”
I had to laugh. I thought that it was only in the last chapter of my book “Inside Out Parenting” that I broke forth into a feminist rant on equality in childcare and domestic chores (promise), but it has to be said that since the book’s release several men have commented to me that they feel sorry for my husband. Also I do know that for some time now several of Banker’s friends no longer allow me unsupervised contact with their wives lest I contaminate them with my views on equality in domesticity and the value of fathers in the lives of children, so it is possible that this flavour pervades more of the book than I realise.
For many people the status quo is very satisfactory thank you very much and boats shouldn’t be rocked. But if like me you feel that “Equality starts at home” then here are my contributions on how to attempt to achieve this. I am by no means an expert on husbands or relationships but equality is something that I have thought about and tried to implement. Rather than feel ashamed or guilty about being a “mean wife” (which I am not impervious to feeling due to societal expectations of a “good wife”), I shall embrace the “How to Train a Husband” banner and offer you these gems:
- Choose your husband wisely. Simplistic advice perhaps but many of us get caught up in love and romance that we don’t think beyond to the potential 50+ years of life ever-after when desire abates, life goes on and chores are required to be done. Choosing a husband that respects and loves you is really important. My definition of “love” involves caring about your happiness. If being a “perfect housewife” is making you desperate or depressed, then husbands need to care about that and try to be more involved to allow you to fulfil yourself in the ways that you need.
- Start from a base of equality if you can. It is much easier to argue for equality in the home if your relationship started off on a basis of equality. Marrying your boss or someone incredibly wealthy unfortunately can put you an an unequal power footing from the outset. You may always feel weaker in your ability to assert your needs. But for many young couples these days, it is more commonly the case that going into parenthood both partners are working and earning an equivalent salary, the power dynamic only changes when one parent (usually, but not always the wife) steps back from her career due to childcare responsibilities. If this is the case, then you know what equality in a relationship feels like so you should seek to maintain it.
- Assert your needs. Some people love quitting their jobs to undertake the fantastic experience of parenthood. This is great. But some people don’t and they feel guilty about feeling this and/ or complaining about being unfulfilled by their caregiving role. I would say that if you don’t feel totally fulfilled, then it is imperative that you make this known to your partner. Harbouring guilt and unhappiness will gnaw at you from the inside and is the harbinger of depression. We all have to do things out of responsibility, but we need support and hope that there are alternatives or compromises to be made to work towards something more fulfilling. Hopelessness and feeling there is no way out is a very dark place. If you abided Rule number 1, then a partner that cared about your happiness would step in and do what they could to allow you to feel more fulfilled. Even if they could not actively help, their support and understanding of your feelings can sometimes be enough. Equally, if breadwinners feels trapped in a job they hate they should make their voice heard: adjustments need to be made for everyone’s happiness and an effective team and division of labour should work for all.
- Childcare is a 9-5 job. Of course this is blatantly untrue as children need looking after throughout the clock. But if it were a standard job, these would be the hours that you would be employed to work. As such, from this view point, any work that is required to be done outside of the 9-5 framework are a job for parents – of which there are usually two. Whilst I have undertaken to be the primary carer for my children between normal working hours (unfortunately in my case Banker works 7am-7pm), any child related problems outside these hours or at the weekends are equally shared. I know that this seems ridiculous to point out, but I have seen many of my friends continue to resume full responsibility for their children at weekends running themselves ragged while their husband relaxes after a hard week in the office. Really? If you are in possession of several young children I can honestly say that I think going to the office should be regarded as veritable downtime. If your husband poo poos this notion, book a week’s holiday away and get your husband to be sole charge of the children for a week (no grandparent support allowed). I promise that within a week, they will come around to the notion that going to the office is easier than childcare.
- Childcare and Maid are two different jobs. Just because you have given up your job to look after your children, this does not mean that you have also become the live-in maid. If your husband treats you like a maid, please stop and think whether this would have happened before you got married and gave up your job to look after children? If it did happen before you got married – why did you marry him…?? If it didn’t used to happen, what has changed, why have you become the maid? If he wants a maid, he should employ one. If the family are suffering because of reduced income due to your quitting your job to look after children, then this is a FAMILY problem, meaning that EVERYONE needs to pitch in to help with the cleaning and chores. You should both be maids. I know that this sounds petty, and I do more than 50% of the domestic chores in my household, but HELL if that is the “expectation”. If there is ever a whiff of discontent or insinuation that domestic chores are my “responsibility” – I go on full-on strike! Yes, ladies – I have purposefully picked out my husbands’ shirts and underpants from the dirty laundry and laundered my own and the children’s clothing only. If there are complaints about no clean shirts I point at the washing machine. Many of my friends find this despicable – but really? I never washed his clothes before we had children, why should having children together mean that I am now responsible for washing his clothes?
- Maintain a job and income. I know that this is not always possible, but if you can, in any way shape or form, I think this is beneficial for your self-esteem and sanity. The only way to maintain respect in a relationship is by knowing and believing that you WANT not NEED to remain in it. For me, knowing that I have maintained employment skills in a part-time job means that I have certainty that should my relationship fail, I could go full-time and be able to support myself and my family. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We would all wish for our marriages to last and relationships to succeed, but there is nothing successful in a marriage that lasted in misery and entrapment. Remaining in a marriage for fear of destitution is not really a great place to be in. Finances aside, a job allows you not only financial independence but to maintain social contact with other people and to meet new people such that should a relationship fail, you do not feel socially isolated and unable to meet new and interesting people. I don’t know if there are statistics to back this up, but anecdotally it feels like that when a couple divorce, the husband re-marries more readily than the wife. I don’t think that it is always because the wife typically gets custody of the children that this happens, but because many wives have been socially isolated or cosseted within female only social groups long before the divorce settlements are initiated.
- If “Training” your husband is not in your nature, encourage others to do it for you. I have found that often mothers are more readily blamed for anything that happens involving their children. When Big Sis broke her leg at the park with her father, my mother rebuked me with “What the hell were you doing letting your husband take her to the park!” This transfer of blame from fathers to mothers should be unacceptable but it happens all the time. Banker had a spate of being late to pick up Big Sis and Lil Bro on his nursery runs. Rather than rebuke him the nursery were congenial when he arrived late. However, the following day I would be given a telling off about the children being picked up late. I immediately countered that it was my husband who was late and not me. They acknowledged this and asked me to let my husband know that this was not on. Luckily, I had taken a good dose of assertiveness that morning and said, ‘You know, if I tell him it will be perceived as nagging. It will be much more effective if you ring him at work and tell him yourself.’ To my alarm, the nursery teacher became all bashful and said, ‘Am I allowed?’ This was the first time that I realized the unfairness of it all. Professionals are more than happy to criticize working women on their parenting but dare not criticize working men. I said to the teacher: ‘Not only are you allowed, but I would be delighted if you did!’. Mothers: encourage professionals to talk to your husband directly and refuse to be accountable for your husband’s actions. My additional advice, is this: if you are a professional who works with children, be it teacher, nursery worker, teaching assistant, doctor, nurse, dentist, or other, please be fair and call fathers to account as well as mothers.
- Share the Mental Load: What scientific explanation is there to say that organising childcare, making a packed lunch or reminding children to put on a coat and remember a PE kit require a pair of breasts? None-whatsoever. Yet generations of women have been conned into subsuming these activities as their responsibility. I myself spent much time and sleepless nights wracking my brains over solutions to tricky childcare logistics when I wanted to return to work. It only struck me when Big Sis was 7 that fathers could actually contribute to regular weekly childcare duties, rather than just at the weekend, Banker too was surprised to be asked. He had indeed sat through my endless rantings about how maybe we could pay ‘anyone-in-the-world’ to look after the children, without once suggesting that part of this responsibility was his. There ensued, of course, the typical grumbles: ‘important job’ . . . ‘impossible’ . . . ‘money’ . . . ‘promotion’ . . . ‘blah’ . . . ‘blah’ . . . ‘blah’. However, I happened to know that one of his colleagues had been able to wangle a late start to drop his children at school a few times a week. This colleague had just spent a tonne of money fighting for shared custody of his children, following a divorce. For him, it was a privilege to be able to do the school run. So I pointed out to my darling husband that I was offering him exactly this privilege, without the expense of a divorce and custody battle. Bargain! Seriously, though, surely childcare arrangements are a shared responsibility? Why does it so often fall to mothers? Even when fathers are doing childcare, it is often because the mothers have told them to do so and given them explicit instructions of where things are and what to do. The other day, having just cleaned the kitchen, I asked Banker to make Big Sis a packed lunch for her school trip. He replied, ‘OK. But what goes into a packed lunch?’ I did not dignify this question with an answer. A grown-up, well-educated man should be able to work this one out for himself. I, for one, would like some time off from all the thinking and planning of parenting, as well as all the doing. Make sure it is not just the load that is shared, but also the mental load.
I know I might sound like a right old dragon. But the good news is this: although implementing and fighting my corner with my husband has not always been plain sailing, I know this for a fact: my husband has been grateful for my honesty and has thanked me openly for allowing and fostering his relationship with his children. At a recent book publicity event, the male CEO of a major publishing company came up to me to say that he chimed with my view: the thing he is most grateful to his wife for was to insist that he participated in childcare. Although he grumbled at the time, he recognises now the difference it has made to his relationship with his children, now fully-grown. Because children are not blind, they see everything: who is doing what for whom. Providing the cheque for lavish birthday parties and expensive presents will never quite equate to the tear wiper, illness healer, sandwich maker, homework teacher, hug-giver, PE kit rememberer, confidence instiller; and I think that deep down, we all know this to be true.
This half term I am braving the entire week with the kids without the other half.
Despite working 8am-8pm most days, Banker declared he also has to work the half term. I have recently come to the conclusion that the term “working class” to mean a low-waged worker (previously miner or factory worker, but more latterly I’m presuming a tele-marketer or warehouse picker) is now a total misnomer because, let’s face it, only a very few landed gentry or Russians these days don’t work, and the majority of wealthy (rather than Über-rich) people are putting the hours in. Why don’t we update the nomenclature and call a spade a spade? The “Well-renumerated” class and the “Poorly-Renumerated” class; or the overpaid and the exploited classes?
Previously I have taken the kids for 2 days to Brighton by myself and last Summer I took the kids around New York by day by myself but this is the first full 5 days/ 4 nights. I know this is completely wimpy because single parents, widows and widowers do this sort of thing all the time, but hey, I AM A WIMP.
Softening the blow, I decided to check into a luxury family Hotel: The Ickworth Hotel, near Bury St Edmunds. This was a second choice: luxury hotels these days being cheaper (£290 per night including breakfast and adult’s dinner) than Centre Parcs (£390 a night self-catering) which I found surprising. The economy I think is gained by ditching the husband, as in a hotel a family of three takes up only a double room with extra camp bed wheeled in, while Centre Parcs caters strictly to your average family of 4 so you in effect pay for an empty bed if going it alone.
Ickworth was a known entity as my family have stayed here before, albeit the last time Big Sis was in nappies, Lil Bro was on the breast and I was on the Tena Ladies. Then it was all – “Wow, this hotel room has a nappy bin and access to a microwave to heat up Ella’s kitchen pouches” and “Thank God, the staff appear unconcerned that my kid is head butting the antique furniture with a bucket on her head”. So how does this hotel that markets itself to families, particularly of young children fare for a 7 year old, 9 year old and 40-something year old?
We had a small family room: a double bed and an extra camp bed rolled in. Not spacious, but perfectly adequate as we were certainly going to spend most of the day outside anyway. Décor is all old furniture upcycled with modern fabrics: so appropriately country house but grand enough to give city kids a bit of a Wow factor. Not quite the on-trend Babington House, but that’s also reflected in the price tag so I am not complaining. No mini fridge which was a bummer because I had to stash the pork pies I’d bought for lunches (not included in the room tariff) in the sock drawer instead.
The Reception staff are friendly to children and when I couldn’t get the DVD player to work, they sent a nice man around: “You need to plug the DVD player into the TV” – oops.
Food can be taken in the Conservatory for families or in the Candlelit fine dining setting for those that choose to use the Baby Listening Service or on-site babysitters. There is also a High Tea available for toddlers, but we tried this last time we came and I can only describe it as hell. Imagine 10 sleep deprived families each trying desperately to feed babies and toddlers at the same time, with anxiety heightened by the fact that this is “THE relaxing, couple bonding holiday” and the baby-sitter and romantic candlelit dinner has been booked so the baby has to be well fed and asleep in 30 minutes flat come hell or high water. Yeah, that kind of vibe. Thankfully this time, I could go for the Conservatory option. The food is average to good, but the menu stayed unchanged all week so I ate pretty much everything on the menu. Portions are rather huge so the kids were able to share my rather generous nightly 3 course allowance.
Prepare to be Bodened and mini-Bodened. Yes, this is Boden central. If blond kids, check collared shirts and bright cords are not your scene then forget about it. I have the resilience of a stubborn pig so feel not the social pressure, but in the week of people watching I saw only one Black British family venture nervously forth into the Conservatory in their trendy leisure wear and they never returned. Towards the end of the week, a couple of Asian families that had drunk from the Boden cool-aid trough appeared; as did my doppelganger:
Big Sis: Ooh look mum, there’s a lady like you. She’s Chinese but married to a white guy.
Blegh. I am now a cliché.
The ethos is strictly “conventional family” and I noted that I was the only lone parent there in a week. I imagined the other parents looking sadly over at our table for 3 wondering about the death or divorce that had befallen me. “And since our Papa died, we can’t afford Boden clothing any longer…”
One of the attractions of the hotel was the availability of on-site facilities for kids. A literal stable full of bikes and bike helmets meant we didn’t need the pfaff of bringing all our kit up with us, and a navigable, traffic-free country park within which city kids wobbly on their wheels, could safely practice in was ideal for us. An on-site swimming pool heated to the temperature of “warm-bath” is also within flip-flopping distance. Not quite the full on tidal pool and water slides of Centre Parcs, but in the morning and at lunchtimes, it’s possible to get the whole pool to ourselves which at half term is a luxury. Tennis courts, trampolines, croquet and football are all available, as well as a bank of family board games to play in the perfectly crafted “homely lounges” available. Unfortunately, they are all packed in the late afternoons, but hey, it is half term. The kids and I hole up in our room to play scrabble. I make them promise not to cry if I win. Yes, I am that mean mother that won’t let her children win at Scrabble. Cards, chess, Monopoly, sure – but there is no messing about in Scrabble.
The basement hosts kids craft activities and a games room where my tech-deprived two slink off to from time to time to play Wii Bowling and Air Hockey. They befriend a kid who spends the day in his Boden pyjamas; such is the “home away from home” feel of the place. In the evenings there is a cinema, but there were no adults there so I felt a bit of a spare part wandering about my room while my kids watched the movie. Yes, when you finally get rid of the darn kids, you end up moping for them. If Banker were with me, we could’ve hit the bar, but as it was it was kind of lonesome. The rest of the week we opt for borrowing family-friendly DVDs (Harry Potter, Cool Runnings) from the hotel to cuddle up and watch in our room.
On day 1, we ventured out for some “educational activity”. As a Chinese parent, going on holiday without at least one “educational outing” can induce stomach cramps and nausea, so it is best to get it out of the way first thing so that you can breathe a little easier the rest of the holiday. I choose West Stow Saxon Village. It’s basically a couple of mock-Saxon out buildings strewn with what I presume are volunteers dressed in mock Saxon garb pretending to be Saxons. There are some ladies moulding mud to make a Saxon oven, another lady crocheting some Saxon cloth and another whittling wood. There are a couple of teenage boys pretending to be Smithies banging away on bits of B&Q iron attempting to make an iron dragonfly. Lil Bro is fascinated by this and keeps returning to check on the progress of the dragonfly. After 3 hours they have basically twisted one piece of iron and hammered out 2 feet. At the last return they’ve shut up shop and are eating Tesco’s finest buttered raisin toast in Saxon garb. There’s also a child friendly museum where kids (and adults) can also dress in Saxon garb, don a Saxon helmet and look at remains of artefacts that were actually dug up at West Stow. Quite cool except that it brings on lectures from Big Sis regarding the Neolithic and Mesolithic periods and all about querning which they have apparently been learning about at school. Quite the Hermoine Granger our Bis Sis, fantastic yet also slightly wearing. When I had thought about an “educational outing” I had meant educational for them, not for me! I bundle them off to some archery activity just in time as Big Sis looking up at the clouds says “Ooh, look at the Stratus clouds Mummy – we’ve been learning about cloud formations at school…”
On Day 4, I pack both kids off to Barrow Farm Stables (a 20 minute drive away) for a “Pony Experience” day. Sadly Lil Bro is the only boy (why can’t boys do ponies?) but they both seem to enjoy themselves, and this time, no moping about for me as I have booked myself in for treatments at the hotel’s spa. Yipee.
On our final day, we will visit Ickworth House, the National Trust Property next door to the hotel. Hotel guests get free entry and there are family friendly Halloween activities on, so that’s a good bonus. We’ll finish off on afternoon tea then head back to London.
The Children’s verdict
The kids have had a blast. They are requesting to come back again next half term. “The people here and the other children are all so nice”; and it turns out that the kid in Boden pyjamas had asked my kids the question that all adults wondered but never dared ask:
“Is your dad dead?”
Big Sis: No, he’s working in London.
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:
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!
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?!!
Did I say a light at the end of the tunnel? I meant a firefly…
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
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
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
I was recently asked for some advice, as is an occupational hazard. “We’re about to have a second child. How do we prepare our child for the arrival of a sibling, because of the inevitable jealousy?” To my surprise, even before I could answer; my husband who has been well versed in my opinions answered for me.
“She has zero-tolerance on siblings not getting along.”
I was surprised at his succinct synopsis of my position, but “yes”, that is indeed my view. For me, the bond that I have with my two sisters is very important. Even though personality-wise we probably would not have been in the same circle of friends had we been peers, as sisters we are closer than the pre-election polls. Even though I rarely socialise with my siblings outside family events, if anything in my life happened, they would be the first people that I would contact and vice versa. I would never be alone in a crisis because I know that they would be supporting me – come what may. Friendships and marriages may come and go, parents will pass away, but siblings are with you, living in your time and generation – for life.
This is not just me being whimsical but is born out in science. Warm, supportive sibling relationships that lack conflict are related to having better psychological wellbeing as children and into adulthood (Buhrmester and Furman1990; Buist et al. 2013; Kim et al. 2007). The reverse is also true; hostile and aggressive sibling relationships are associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and anti-social behaviour (Campione-Barr et al. 2013; Dunn et al. 1994a, b; Padilla-Walker et al. 2010; Stocker 1994).
Maybe this is nothing to do with sibling relationship, but related to parenting and genetics? Argumentative parents have argumentative children that don’t get on and become argumentative and anti-social adults. This doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the literature suggests that warm, collaborative sibling relationships instill resilience (an invisible protective shield if you will) in children. For example, there is evidence that good sibling relationships protect children from all manner of adversity from bickering parents that fight all the time, negative life events (such as natural disaster and death of a loved one), high risk neighbourhoods, low-income backgrounds and bullying (Jenkins and Smith 1990; Tucker et al. 2013, Gass et al. 2007, Criss and Shaw 2005; Widmer and Weiss 2000, Bowes et al. 2010). Very recently published work suggests that siblings can even protect against the negative impact of parental mental health problems. Keeton (2015) found that in children of parents who met clinical criteria for anxiety disorder, the psychological impact of having a parent with anxiety disorder on children was moderated by the quality of the relationships between the children. In effect, the closeness of siblings allowed children to protect each other from the negative impact of a parent suffering a significant mental health problem. All in all, the evidence suggests that sibling relationships are just as important in a child’s psychological development as parents and friends.
This makes sense to me. Much adolescent and adult unhappiness comes from feeling “alone”/ “unaccepted”/ “friendless”/ “unsupported”. I have met many unhappy adults in my time as an adult psychiatrist of whom I just thought “You know what? You’d be fine if you just had a supportive friend.” That’s just exactly what a brother or sister could and should be; and whilst as parents we have little or no say in who our children choose to be friends with in adolescence and adult life, we have much control over whether siblings get along or not, and are perfectly placed to ensure that our children, via their siblings, have a strong support network for life.
So why have we as a population of parents come to expect sibling rivalry and discord? When we see it happening, we shrug our shoulders and say “siblings –eh?” We may take some cursory action “Don’t hit your sister”, “Get off your brother’s back and put down that brick that you were using to pummel his head”, but all in all, we assume that this is run of the mill sibling behaviour. In effect, we at best tolerate it, at worst encourage it. Romulus and Remus were raised by a wolf. I am not sure what happened with the Millibands…
My own childhood experiences were different. My mother came from a family of 7 extremely close siblings. Even though they live on different continents and their ages outspan a decade, they still go on holiday together and skype each other regularly. They laugh, joke, bitch and support each other as much now as pensioners as they did when they were children. My mother told me that in her family the older children were each allocated a younger child to look after growing up. Second Uncle had to piggy back my mother on long outings and my mother in turn had to rock third Uncle to sleep. I am sure that this responsibility and encouragement of care fostered an affection that has lasted into their old age.
In turn, I remember very clearly my mother explicitly saying to my sisters and I as children “You three are best friends. You are all each other have and must support each other.” I remember thinking sulkily at the time; I am so not best friends with these two. That one has just pulled my hair, and that one has just scratched my face. But we moved several times as children, first from Taiwan to Wales and then Wales to London, changing primary schools 4 times in 8 years, and so it turned out to be true. While friends came and went, “Laurel and Hardy” as I liked to imagine them then or “The Two Ugly Sisters” (to my narcissistic Cinderella off course) were always with me. And guess what, as adults, we are like best friends.
So what of my own children?
Banker was right. I take a zero-tolerance view of siblings not getting along. Like my mother, I insist to them that “they are best friends” daily, whether they like it or not. Sure they fight all the time, but underneath I know that they love each other dearly. When Lil Bro had a hard day in the school playground, Big Sis gave him advice. When an umbrella at a cafe blew over and grazed Big Sis spilling her drink, Lil Bro immediately gave her his. And in the evenings when they snuggle up together, I swear, its the sweetest moment for a parent.
Here are a few other things that I did/ try to do, all of which being non-scientific and are just my interpretation of what might help siblings get along.
- My number one advice is to ensure that your children feel loved and secure in themselves. Children who have “secure attachment” to their parents have all manner of better prospects throughout childhood and into adulthood. The more secure a child feels in themselves, the less prone they will be to jealousy, and the more generous they will be to their siblings. So ensuring a child grows up feeling secure from the outset helps a great deal.
- Prepare for a new sibling. Throughout pregnancy, the prospect of Lil Bro’s arrival was talked about as a massive positive. A little brother for you to help me look after. A little brother to play with you. Read books about new babies and about siblings that get along (Topsy and Tim is good for this). Buy your child a baby doll and play together at looking after it. Be as realistic about this as possible as this will help role play and rehearse what is to come. Massively praise any caring actions and discourage rough handling.
- Allow a bond to be made with a new sibling. I know that parents can be precious about babies, but being overly-guarded and excluding a child from their baby sibling can lead to loss of opportunity for siblings to bond, and also the older sibling feeling somehow excluded. Where possible, always involve siblings. Place the baby on the sibling’s lap and help them cuddle the new sibling and play with them. This is perfectly safe as long as children are well-prepped and you are supervising.
- Deal with jealousy. Jealousy between siblings will be inevitable at times even with secure children, but how you manage it can dampen or amplify its existence. Firstly, you must anticipate situations where this may occur and notice it when it happens. Then, rather than ignore it, it should be addressed as soon as possible. For instance, when there is competition for attention, this should be verbalised, acknowledged and problems solved. “I know you want me to play with you, but I am feeding your brother. But tell you what, he will be asleep after this, and then I can play with you.” Or when they get older “I know I am spending the day with your sister because I am taking her to see her favourite ballet, but next week, I will take you to the zoo.” Many young children feel angry and frustrated when they feel excluded or unfairly treated in favour of another, but cannot understand the reasoning behind it or be able to label it as “jealousy”. It’s up to parents to notice it and label it and explain it. Jealousy is a natural emotion; it is how we handle this emotion that needs to be addressed rather than attempting to avoid or suppress an irrepressible natural feeling. Unaddressed jealousy may lead to lashing out, aggression towards their sibling, or deliberate misbehaviour in order to get attention which is never a good thing.
- Behavioural management always applies. The tenet of behavioural management is to heavily praise and reward behaviours you wish to see again and to ignore and discourage behaviours that you do not wish to see again. If you wish to see caring behaviour between your siblings, you need to reinforce it with praise and rewards. If you would rather they did not bicker and fight, there need to be consequences each and every time this happens. I know that some parents think that siblings should “just naturally love each other” and I am as happy-clappy as the next person, but even I know that “love” can be manipulated to some extent. Some people refuse to praise and reward things that they “expect” children to do naturally, but I’m a great fan of praise (see my previous blog post on this) and evidence shows that behavioural management works.
- Us vs them. During my family therapy training I read somewhere that the only healthy grouping of people within a family is parents vs children. Families that have any other combination are more vulnerable e.g. a family which splits into two with a mother and son vs father and daughter or mother and children vs father. Keeping the healthy dynamic should always be borne in mind. Using this dynamic, it is possible to foster closer sibling unity as people tend to unite against a common oppressor. Yes, you the parents are the oppressor in this scenario. Don’t be tempted to side with a child, enjoy your role as the villain and reap the rewards of sibling cohesion.
- Encourage collaboration. Treating children as a team can be helpful to collaboration. Rewards can be given to both children as a team, punishments doled out to both as a team. This will facilitate helping behaviour and help siblings see each other as partners rather than competitors. Encourage mutual praise. For families in a rut that come to see me for therapy, I tend to suggest that before bedtime, each child is to say something good that the sibling has done that day and praise them. It may be forced praise to begin with, but even forced praise is better than no praise and over time it may and likely will become genuine and overspill into the everyday (particularly with young children).
- Promote exposure and shared experience. One way to help them get along is to allow them to have common experiences and exposure to each other. This is not possible if they attend different schools. This may be a bit unpopular in the UK where for some reason boys and girls from 4 onwards are farmed off to single sex schools, or siblings of different abilities are segregated early on into selective schools. I am totally and whole-heartedly in favour of keeping siblings in the same school, especially at primary school where I think education should play second fiddle to social and emotional development. A close sibling relationship is more important to me than KS2 results. A supportive sibling is there for life, who of us can remember our primary school grades? My children go to co-ed school. This way, their support for each other can start young. I am delighted to hear that Big Sis crosses the playground to give her Lil Bro a kiss and hug when he needs it. Not possible if she is not there.
- Adopt a policy of zero-tolerance on siblings not getting on. Expecting and or accepting that siblings do not need to get on, and that this is “normal” is the main reason for inaction. So this last point is probably the most important, because action is the first step.
Bowes, L., Maughan, B., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Arseneault, L. (2010). Families promote emotional and behavioural resilience to bullying: evidence of an environmental effect. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51, 809–817.
Buhrmester, D., & Furman, W. (1990). Perceptions of sibling relationships during middle childhood and adolescence. Child Development, 61, 1387–1398.
Buist, K. L., Dekovic, M., & Prinzie, P. (2013). Sibling relationship quality and psychopathology of children and adolescents: a meta-analysis.Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 97–106.
Campione-Barr, N., Greer, K. B., & Kruse, A. (2013). Differential associations between domains of sibling conflict and adolescent emotional adjustment. Child Development, 84, 938–954.
Criss, M. M., & Shaw, D. S. (2005). Sibling relationships as contexts for delinquency training in low-income families. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 592–600.
Dunn, J., Slomkowski, C., & Beardsall, L. (1994a). Sibling relationships from the preschool period through middle childhood and early adolescence.Developmental Psychology, 30, 315–324.
Dunn, J., Slomkowski, C., Beardsall, L., & Rende, R. (1994b). Adjustment in middle childhood and early adolescence: links with earlier and contemporary sibling relationships. Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 35, 491–504
Gass, K., Jenkins, J., & Dunn, J. (2007). Are sibling relationships protective? A longitudinal study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48, 167–175.
Jenkins, J. M., & Smith, M. A. (1990). Factors protecting children living in disharmonious homes: maternal reports. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 29, 60–69.
Kim, J., McHale, S. M., Crouter, A. C., & Osgood, W. (2007). Longitudinal linkages between sibling relationships and adjustment from middle childhood through adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 43, 960–973.
Padilla-Walker, L., Harper, J. M., & Jensen, A. C. (2010). Self-regulation as a mediator between sibling relationship quality and early adolescents’ positive and negative outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 419–428
Stocker, C. M., Burwell, R. A., & Briggs, M. L. (2002). Sibling conflict in middle childhood predicts children’s adjustment in early adolescence.Journal of Family Psychology, 16, 50–57.
Tucker, C. J., Holt, M., & Wiesen-Martin, D. (2013). Inter-parental conflict and sibling warmth during adolescence: associations with female depression in emerging adulthood. Psychological Reports, 112, 243–251
Widmer, E. D., & Weiss, C. C. (2000). Do older siblings make a difference? The effects of older sibling support and older sibling adjustment on the adjustment of socially disadvantaged adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 10, 1–27.
As we enter SATS season, I’m on my education rant again. In the Far East, six year olds know their times tables up to 12, a target that has been set by the UK government for children of 11 years. A target that has been required to be set as it has thus far been largely unmet. Growing up, my sisters and I were ridiculed on holidays back to Taiwan when our cousins (subject to the rigorous mathematics curriculum and public adoration of anyone deemed “good” at maths) performed long divisions in their head that had us reaching for our calculators.
“So what?” we would retort, “Why bother when we can use a calculator?”
Shamefully, this is the same retort used by the new tech savvy generation for whom spell-check and mobile phone calculators have deemed a brain unnecessary. Sure, I still agree to some extent that complex maths should be done using a calculator, but basic mental arithmetic and an understanding of mathematical concepts should be basic universal knowledge. A good friend of mine (who is an actuary) volunteers as a maths teacher to adults in a South African township as he believes that it is numeracy and mathematical ability that will take people out of poverty.
Why is the general level of maths so bad?
Actuary blames the lack of availability of good maths teachers, and Banker reckons this is as people that are good at maths can be paid more in the city than in teaching. I blame the bad PR that maths gets in general and society’s acceptance that “maths is hard” and “maths is for nerds”. This rep doesn’t exist in the Far East, as evidenced in the recent film ‘X+Y’, where the Asperger’s boy “anti-hero” who has a flair for maths and is an outcast in the UK, is viewed as a “Hero” and legitimate mainstream love interest by the Chinese girl when transplanted to maths camp in Taiwan. Maybe when we in the UK learn to fancy girls and boys that can solve quadratic equations as much as girls and boys that can write love poems in the manner of Keats, we could have a maths renaissance.
It seems though that things are changing and that I am not the only one disgruntled by the apathy and low expectations for maths even under the supposed hard target-setting “Gove-ian” government, as the number of Kumon centres spreading fast across the UK can attest. When posters at my local tube station are inviting me to set up my own Kumon maths teaching centre in order to earn shed loads of money, one can only imagine that the demand for better maths education is such now that the government should think harder about supplying more and better teaching lest the gap between the Kumon-haves and Kumon have-nots should widen.
The Pros & Cons of Kumon
For those unfamiliar with Kumon, it is a Japanese system of learning maths focused on daily practice of maths using generic maths worksheets targeted at your child’s level. You attend a special “Kumon Centre” to get your worksheets marked and some advice on corrections; then you get set more worksheets to do at home until your next attendance at the centre. For this you pay a not-insignificant subscription fee, albeit less than a personal maths tutor.
You might think that being a maths-ophile that I would love Kumon, but you’d be wrong. Whilst I am a fan of improving mathematical ability, and am in no doubt that practicing maths on a daily basis will significantly improve your child’s mathematical ability, I am not convinced by it enough to send my own children, although I have to admit that I have never set foot in a Kumon centre, but have spoken to many people that use Kumon and have investigated the website and promotional literature.
Can it be in any way fun?
The advertising may suggest that the “centres” are fun places of learning, and that the specially designed worksheets “will make maths enjoyable”, however from what I have seen, the centres are just rented halls where children sit and do worksheets. The worksheets are similar to any other worksheets printable from on-line sites or workbooks purchasable from WHSmiths. There is likely to be added value of having worksheets targeted at your child’s individual ability rather than their chronological age, but they are no more “fun”. Even the Kumon logo depicts an unhappy face. I always wondered if this was supposed to resemble the children going in or coming out of Kumon, neither seemed to send a positive message.
It still relies on parental discipline
I could see the attraction of handing over my innumerate child and being handed back a child that was numerate and confident at maths with no effort from me, but from my observations of Kumon parents, that’s not the case. No, Kumon mums (I don’t like to bring gender into it but I have only yet met Kumon mums and Kumon nannies) are frazzled as they are the ones that need to uphold the discipline to make the said innumerate child do the blessed worksheets throughout the week.
Evaluation is still teacher led
Whilst parents are required to nag children to complete their worksheets, it is the teacher that evaluates and monitors progress and sets the agenda. Maybe I am just too much of a control freak, but I think that parents should have a role in this. Some parents love Kumon (and maths tutors and private schools) and actively avoid “evaluating” their children’s ability. They see it as somehow making a value judgement on their child and this being somehow unhealthy as they should always believe that their child’s ability is SUPER. Some such parents get a nasty surprise if their children underperform and pass disappointment on to their children; others blame the teachers for not getting the best out of their SUPER-able child.
I believe in the reverse. I think that evaluating and monitoring your child’s ability is essential so that as a parent you have an accurate, realistic and evidence-based picture of your child so that you can guide them into the appropriate school/ university/ career. There is no value-judgement as your child IS SUPER no matter what their ability.
As I alluded to earlier, I believe that Kumon is just another way in which the middle-classes can pull away from the mainstream. We shouldn’t need Kumon; we should be putting pressure on the government for the betterment of overall maths education. The proliferation and promotion of “professionals” in maths tuition undermines the very real and practical advancements that can be made with primary maths learning by parental involvement in reinforcing school maths. Most parents who are sending their children to Kumon have at least primary school level education and should be able to help their children with maths at this level without the requirement of paid professionals. If increased efforts were made to educate parents on supporting their child’s education, children from all backgrounds would benefit.
What did I do?
I am speaking from the middle of my maths journey with my children. I cannot in all certainty confess ultimate success, nor admit to a pain and frustration free experience to date. Most of what I did and am doing is based on trial and many errors. I summate the optimum strategies that I have garnered not the entirety of my experience which contains many expletives, failures and revisions. Although I can confess that both my children are performing at the top end of their respective classes at maths, I cannot negate the real effects of genetics on this outcome. Irrespective of this, I am happy with the choices I made and so am sharing my limited insights with you, in case you may find it of value.
I introduced numbers to my kids at the same time that letters were introduced. Literacy and numeracy are to be given parity in my book. Children are just as capable of learning a sequence of numbers as they are a sequence of letters. From when my children were a young age I carried a notebook around with me and if there was a period of “waiting time”, for instance waiting to be served in a coffee shop, I would draw puzzles (mazes, matching puzzles, counting puzzles) for my children. If they were completed easily, I would make the next one harder. If they were too hard, I would make the next one easier.
As the children grew older, these puzzles moved towards proper mathematics. Rather than only being served up in “dead-time”, they were served up daily. Initially this was done in the evenings when I got home from work, but on finding the children (and indeed me) too tired at this time of day, I switched it to the mornings. This worked a lot better as the children were fresh and my over-enthusiastic tendency to set more and more work was naturally curtailed by the requirement to send children to school and get to work on time. The initial protests subsided and they came to realise this was the routine from now on.
Friends looked at me like I was bonkers when I told them that I wrote my own maths worksheets for the kids, but what better way to tailor work for your children? By having daily exposure to what my children found easy and hard, I could not only have an in-depth understanding of their precise ability, but also be in the best position to set and manipulate their next worksheet. If single digit additions were proving easy, then you can bet that double digit additions were thrown into the mix on the next worksheet. However, if there were too many tears and frustrations, the next few worksheets would be deliberately easy to restore confidence. By writing your own worksheets, you can not only tailor your child’s learning but heavily manipulate their confidence.
When abstract problems became taxing, I found that re-framing problems into applied mathematics sorted the problem. Big Sis struggled immensely with problems such as “What number is half-way between 26 and 36?” She cried. Many times. I tried to explain it many times unsuccessfully: “You can either add the two numbers together and halve the total; or, you can add to the smaller number half the difference between the two numbers”. Not surprisingly, Big Sis developed glazed over eyes and hands over ears “la-la-la – not-listening” pose much to my annoyance. Then one time, lashing out in desperation I happened to say: “I give you 26 sweets and I give Lil Bro 36 sweets…”, then before I could even finish my sentence, Big Sis declares “That’s not fair! He shouldn’t get more than me! We should both get…(counting)… 31 sweets each” and “Bingo”. The war was won. From then on, problems were made real and Big Sis relished calculating “real world” problems. When Banker ran the barbecue at the school fair, maths worksheets were laden with problems of “Your friend Henry wants to buy 3 hot dogs from your dad. Hot dogs are £3 each, how much does he need to spend? What change must your dad give him from a £10 note?” At birthday time when Digi-birds were requested, “How many Digi-birds can you buy with the £30 your grandma will give you?” Go-figure, self-interest really helps with maths. Maths was made useful if not fun. There were no more complaints.
Once confidence was gained at maths, we moved on to shop-bought workbooks. If workbooks were a struggle, then the same book would be reworked again, being very easy the second time around, not only to consolidate knowledge but to boost confidence. The message “Maths can be easy”. And because I am evaluating and monitoring progress, as well as her teacher, nothing said at parents’ evening surprised me. I can pick up a Key Stage 1 Maths paper and know almost exactly which questions Big Sis will answer correctly and which she will struggle with.
Why is this important?
When the 11+ exams come around and performance will matter, I don’t need to rely on the opinion of others, I can be (almost) confident about my children’s performance and if I do not think that they will succeed, then they will not sit the exam. The bar will be set at achievable. Expectations can be managed in advance, disappointments avoided, and crucially self-esteem preserved. Self-esteem, confidence and a continued keenness to learn always matter more than the final mark at this age, and arguably at all ages as life is a marathon not a sprint. Contrary to popular belief that children who are being set regular work are “pressurised”, I believe the reverse. The “pressure” comes from the weight of parental expectation not parental preparation.
If you have the time and inclination, give Kumon a miss, roll up your sleeves and give it a go. There are frustrations and discipline required (but this is required of Kumon too) but there is also satisfaction and delight when you witness the penny drop and the passing of knowledge and the instillation of confidence.
I remember fondly my mother teaching me maths (despite my tears and tantrums) and I hope as adults my children will feel the same way.
Its mothers’ day again which always gets me thinking about my own mother and how the passing of time changes our relationship. Over the last few years I have been having “Freaky Friday”- mother-daughter role reversal experiences.
As my parents are getting older, the hospital appointments start mounting and I am required to accompany them to hospital. Visits home have sometimes involved the adjudication of “childish spats” between my parents where both parents are sulking in different rooms in their house refusing to talk to each other. Then there was the incident with the phone bill.
My mother, who is now retired, kindly helps out with school pick-ups a few days a week when I am at work. To help me to be able to co-ordinate with her better, I purchased her an android mobile phone and a phone contract as she and my father were living in the dark ages of land-line and a Nokia that was never turned on. She was delighted and I showed her the functions and informed her of the contract of 300 free minutes call time. I had been reassured by my sister that that was sufficient because “Mum is sensible, she has a landline. She won’t need more than that a month on the mobile”.
A few months passed and the phone was working brilliantly. If I had a change of plan – “Big Sis has a play date – you don’t need to pick her up today” I could get hold of my mother straight away. Her phone contract was tied to my mobile phone contract and was paid monthly by my direct debit arrangement. As I rarely exceed my phone contract limitations, I rarely check my monthly phone bills.
Then one day, I decided to sort out my finances and go through my accounts. To my shock and horror, my mobile phone bills had gone from £24.00 a month to between £150 and £500 pounds a month! I went back to look through my on-line statements that I had not checked. There in full-colour, including helpful pie-charts were the breakdowns of the calls made from my account and my account for my mother. Let’s just say that someone was eating the lion’s share of that pie, and it wasn’t me. 300 free minutes were just the tip of the iceberg in my mother’s social life.
Helpful that mobile phone companies are these days, they also give you a full listing of every single number that had been called: several phone calls to Taiwan and several hour long conversations with various friends and family were all listed.
You can only imagine the conversations that followed, the net result of which was me frogmarching my shame-faced mother (“You said it was unlimited minutes”) down to the Vodafone shop to have her phone account transferred to her own name and most importantly billing account. Although I was not exactly pleased with the out-of-pocket expenses, the humour of the situation was not lost on me and it was my own fault to assume that my mother would be “well-behaved”, and comforting to know that far from being lonely and isolated as many retired people are, she has a very active social life!
I was a strange mixture of smug and shaken at the realisation that roles had been reversed. I was the “grown-up”, “responsible” adult now. I could “take care” of other people now, in fact, it was now my “responsibility”. Visions fast forward to a time when I will have to sponge bathe my parents and mush up their food as they can no longer chew, and other things that only doctors and elderly care-workers can really imagine (like the time when helping an elderly patient out of a chair she pee-ed on my feet in open-toe sandals).
Then, last week I was sick in bed with the flu. As all parents understand being “sick in bed with the flu” is meaningless to young children. It does not mean you can’t still be woken up at 6am by bouncing on your bed. It does not mean you can lie in bed and avoid the school run. It does not mean that you avoid helping them with their homework and stopping their squabbling and beating each other to a pulp. As a parent “being sick in bed” means that that’s where you should be, but you are in fact still doing everything that you are required to do at home only in a bad tempered manner and periodically shouting “Can’t you behave, I’m sick!”
On the third day of this, my mother calls.
I tell her that I am sick.
She tells me that she will pick up the children from school, take them to her house, give them dinner and bring them back in the evening. She asks me what I want to eat for dinner. She will cook it and bring it around when she drops the kids back.
That’s when I realise that there is no role reversal.
She is still my mother.
No one looks after you quite like your mother.
Happy Mothers’ Day!
I was not brought up to believe in Santa. Being from Taiwan, Christianity and Christmas were not as prevalent as in the West. Once we moved to the UK, my family joined in with the festive spirit with a plastic tree (Made in Taiwan) and a large meal (non-turkey Chinese food), but we never had stockings and Santa never visited. Once or twice, I remember wishing on a star on Christmas Eve that Santa was real and that we would get presents from Santa, but it never happened.
As teenagers, my sisters and I even had a bet that my mother didn’t know what the festival of Christmas was celebrating. We were right, my poor mother put on the spot muttered something about Jesus on a cross, to which there were many peals of laughter and shrieks of “That’s Easter!”. This Christian festival confusion amongst the Chinese may explain why one time in Hong Kong I saw a Christmas decoration being sold at a market stall that depicted a cheerful Santa Claus figure on the crucifix…quite bizarre to say the least!
Remembering my Santa-less childhood, I was quite certain that my kids would have the full Santa experience. Letters would be written and posted, mince pies and carrots would be left out at the fire place (and duly consumed leaving a designer sprinkling of crumbs), stockings would be filled and gifts delivered under the tree. When Big Sis was almost 2, she had requested a new play kitchen from Santa. As we were celebrating Christmas with grandparents in France, and were not lugging a wooden play stove and sink unit on the plane, we recorded video footage of Santa (who bore more than a striking resemblance to Banker) delivering her kitchen to our flat to be played to her on Christmas day so that she knew that Santa had delivered it! Santa’s wrapping paper was always bought separately and hidden lest a clever brain wonder why Santa has the same wrapping paper as Mummy and the whole Santa build up would be flawless with meticulous attention to detail. I have even gone so far as to shake bells gently next to the sleeping heads of my children on Christmas Eve so they may subliminally hear Santa’s sleigh bells in their sleep. I’m so sad, I know.
In all honesty though, the upside of the myth of Santa is so great, I can’t see why people complain about him and the commercialisation of Christmas. Without Santa and the Easter Bunny, I don’t know how I’d get my children to eat their greens, stop having tantrums and generally behave themselves. The threat of “Santa/ Easter Bunny is watching” is enough to stop my kids, in their tracks and reconsider their actions. Coca-Cola, Clintons and Americans in general should be given a medal from all parents in my book for the invention and popularisation of these characters as the good behaviour of my children from October to March is basically down to these two characters. If only someone could invent a fictitious character for the summer months, then the calendar year could be covered.
However, now that Big Sis is seven, I am beginning to wonder when the penny will drop. I have heard varying ages for the “Santa realisation” moment, ranging from 5 to 10 years. Some of Big Sis’s friends are already “non-believers”, but given that earlier this year I overheard Big Sis and Lil Bro having an existential conversation regarding Harry Potter, God and Santa, and coming to their own conclusion that only Santa was real as they had received physical presents from him, I’m reckoning on belief still going strong. I’m starting to worry though about Big Sis’s cognitive capacity if at the age of 7 years she can continue to believe that some old geezer can fly around the world delivering presents to all the children in the world overnight. I suppose though, that it is only slightly less plausible than the entire adult world telling her consistent lies and making her write and post letters and leave food out for non-existent people and sneaking around behind her back. Maybe I should be grateful that she finds it more plausible that Santa is real than that her mother is deceitful. Maybe I’m just too good at “being Santa”.
That is until now. In my old age, I am getting sloppy. Lil Bro asked for a watch from Santa for Christmas and I ordered it off Amazon to be sent to Banker’s office. He duly brought it home and showed it to me and left it on the coffee table. I went to bed forgetting to put it away. The next morning, remembering my mistake, I rushed downstairs, snatched up the watch and hid it. The kids, as always were up before me and were having breakfast with their father. Throughout the day, no one mentioned the watch so I thought I had got away with it. Then, the next morning Big Sis out of nowhere says “It was very strange, yesterday Lil Bro and I saw a watch on the coffee table. Then it disappeared.”
“Hmpff” I said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
I will repackage the watch and hope for the best, but I think my cover may be blown. I thought about returning the watch and swapping it for another one, but maybe this is how all cons fail, myths explode, truths get outed; the inevitable slip-up made from complacency over time. And maybe it’s time that Big Sis realises the truth, and I realise that we can’t hang on to our children forever. At some stage they wise up for better or for worse.
We’ll see what happens…