Category: Kids’ Activities

Half term without the other half

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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?

Rooms

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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.

Service

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

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.

Atmosphere

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…”

Activities

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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.

Day Outings:

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…”

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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.

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Back to life…but not as I know it

Signposts

Whoop whoop!

Yes! The kids are finally back at school and the extracurricular circus is almost organised. For those sensible enough to avoid enrolling children into a hundred and one activities, I salute you – because really, the logistics are too much! Having been rather gung-ho on the extra-curricular clubs when Big Sis and Lil Bro were little, I am now paying the price. The plan had been to shove them into as many classes as possible during the 3 days that I work and grandma looks after them.  This was a vain attempt to stop said grandma allowing them to veg on her couch watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and feeding them chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans for 3 hours each day. Instead, they were taken to some life-skill enhancing activity: ballet/ street-dance/ swimming/ tennis/ football/ chess before 2 hours of grandma allowing them to veg on her couch watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and feeding them chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans. Don’t ask me how come my beloved mother who locked me in my room until I could recite my times-tables at the age of 5 years, and who I had been counting on to knock some discipline into my kids has transformed into dobby the house elf.

Anyhoo, the unforseen pig of it all is that as the kids get older, the darn things get better at their life-enhancing skills and progress to different classes which are now OUTSIDE my 3 working days and the kids are back watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and being fed chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans on my work days, while I am left slogging them to ballet/ street-dance/ swimming/ tennis/ football/ chess on days when I am in charge. Don’t even ask about the crazy timetabling because Big Sis’s swimming now clashes with Lil Bro’s street dance, and I have to fathom if logistically I can get from the piano teacher to the swimming pool in 10 minutes…(I’m thinking potentially possible if Big Sis plays piano in her swimming costume). Man it sucks.

The good news is that not only has daily life returned after the chaos of the holidays because the kids are back in their school routine again, but my blogging life has returned – (Yay!). I’m hoping that some of you may have missed me (yes – I am talking to you dear sister) and will pick back up where we left off for the fortnightly Friday blogs.

In explanation of my long absence, I am pleased to say that much fun was had the last 6 months indulging the fantastic and unreal opportunity to pen a parenting book. Bluebird, the life-style imprint behind the lovely Joe Wicks and his midget trees have backed and bought my story. Thank You! I am so looking forward to this crazy new journey which is a world away from cutting NHS waiting times.

They say that there is a book in all of us and many people harbour a dream of writing a book. Many of us have half written manuscripts in our dusty drawers or notebooks and hard drives of half-formed ideas.  For decades I was one of them. My aged computer still contains very early drafts of a parenting book that I had the audacity to pen before even having children. Needless to say, these naïve and sentimental ponderings were a pile of crap and if the me of today had encountered the me of then, I’d have spared no hesitation in giving myself a tight slap and saying: “Have you ever met a child you twat?” Although I don’t think that you need to be a parent to give advice on parenting, an ounce of realism helps.

And so it turns out that although having children was the nail in the coffin of my treadmill professional career, being chucked off the treadmill gave me time and opportunity to explore other areas of myself and take a chance on an old and buried dream. It was the beginning of this new journey. What has been a heartening realisation is that while my having children was seen by my traditional profession as a weakness, for my writing it has been my greatest strength. I can only encourage others that if ever you fail because of a “weakness”, just change the story and it may turn out that your “weakness” is your greatest strength.

And if you have a dusty notebook or neglected files on your hard drive, maybe it’s time to have another look…

See my book’s news (although that long title will change)

Star of the Day One-Up-Manship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kayaking on the Hudson

Kayaking

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

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

Children’s Museum of the Arts

Museum of the Arts

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

Broadway Show

Lion King

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

Time Square

TimeSq

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

The High Line

High Line

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

MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art)

Moma

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

Sony Wonderlab

Sony Wonderlab

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

The Lego Store/ Rockefeller Centre

Lego Store

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

Central Park

Summer stage

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

American Museum of Natural History

Nat Hist Museum

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

9/11 Memorial

911

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

Coney Island

Coney Island

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

Blunders

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

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

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

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

Further Afield

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

 

Hot dogs

Where the Tiger Mothers are

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

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

Ballet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

So this is where the white Tiger Mothers hang out.

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

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

Each to their own I guess.

C’mon Kumon?

Maths

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

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

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

Why is the general level of maths so bad?

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

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

The Pros & Cons of Kumon

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

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

Can it be in any way fun?

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

It still relies on parental discipline

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

Evaluation is still teacher led

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

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

Two-tier education

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

What did I do?

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

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

maths 1

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

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

maths 2

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

maths3

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

Why is this important?

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

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

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

Spring Craft Project: Easy Dresses for Little Girls

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When I was a teenager I used to want to be Andie from “Pretty in Pink”.

Not because I wanted to snog Andrew McCarthy, but because I wanted to hack-up clothes and invent new ones.

I’m too old for the Prom, but isn’t that why mum’s have daughter’s? I have been making all manner of cute dresses for Big Sis and it is as easy as pie and cheap as chips.

Although the “Great British Sewing Bee” is fun to watch, the actuality of spending hours slaving at a machine is never going to happen and my skills are little more than cut and sew in a (nearly) straight line on my 2nd hand Bernina.

I noticed that the length of an adult skirt, is roughly the length of a little girl’s dress. Why buy expensive bolts of material and spend hours measuring and cutting, when you can just upcycle your old skirts? Clever-eh?

Here are some I made:

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This was a broderie Anglaise skirt I got from French Connection some ten years ago. No longer good for me, but perfect for a little girl.

Dress02

 

This is a ten year old Oliver Bonas skirt with an elasticated waistband that folded over. Fold it out and it makes the perfect bodice. A tied ribbon bow on one shoulder makes it even cuter.

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Did I mention the Prom? This market stall gypsy skirt looks like cheap polyester on an adult, but sew on a plastic pearl necklace et voila – the perfect ball gown for a little princess. She looked so grown up, nearly brought a tear to my eye!

So here’s my easy-peasy guide to a quick and effective new fashion range for your little girls, totally do-able within one to 2 hours (but you will need a sewing machine):

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dress instruction 1

dress instruction 2

dress instruction 3

dress instruction 4dress instruction 5

 

 

All the dresses I made were basically a variation of the above. Take a look at the skirts you no longer wear and see the best way to adapt it. Once you get the hang of it, it is really great fun and you need never throw away any of your old skirts again! Don’t worry if your sewing isn’t great, one or two wears and the blessed child will grow out of it anyway. Big Sis is now learning to use the sewing machine and it’s a really fun way to spend a mother-daughter afternoon.

Just beware as Big Sis now eyes up all my skirts as future dresses for her. 

Hands off the Moschino skirt!

And of course, the other hazard is the hours of prancing …

 

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How family ski holiday hell can protect your child from perfectionism

Skiing

Last week I was on the obligatory family ski holiday. Around this time of year, there is no getting away from it for those of us privileged enough to be in the demographic that “does ski holidays”. For most people, the dilemma is about “to dump” or “not dump” the children. Whizzing down black runs is not something one can achieve with a baby or toddler in tow.  If your children are old enough to learn to ski, then “dumping” the children in ski school becomes legitimatised as “teaching your child a life skill”, a “healthy sporting activity” or for the tigers “brownie points for extra-curricular activity on the child’s CV”. There will be those who opt for all day children’s ski school and others who opt for ski resorts with all manner of childcare facilities so that they can get a good days skiing in. Reserve a place at the resort crèche where the children will participate in all manner of “arty-crafty activity” and they will mix with European children and might even learn a little French or German. Wunderbar! Hire a chalet nanny, or hell, bring your own nanny (or grandparents) with you. Why not? It’s your holiday as well right?

I have no problem with “dumping children”, but what I dislike is the pretence surrounding it. Why not just be honest and say “I love skiing and this is the one chance a year I get to do it”? If you are going to do it, indulge and do it guilt free. We all need a break sometimes. However, I would refrain from framing it in your mind as a “family holiday” and make sure you have a “proper” family holiday where you actually engage with your children as well. Even better, take turns with your spouse to go during term time without the children – they will feel less “dumped” that way. Given that most people that can afford extravagant ski holidays are also the ones working long hours and not spending quality time with their children, holiday contact is really important, and if the only holidays you have involve a crèche and a nanny then you have to begin to think about the impact of this on relationships with children.  I opt for morning session ski school and family time in the afternoon. Banker is quite good at taking Lil Bro skiing between his legs and Big Sis can now ski independently. Banker says he gets great satisfaction watching the children’s skiing coming along. Haven’t I trained him well?

I have a different reason for finding family ski holidays a chore.

I don’t ski.

Not having grown-up wealthy, skiing every winter was not part of my childhood. By the time that I was earning enough money for ski holidays, I was spending my money on holidays to South Africa to visit Banker as we spent 3 years living in different continents and holidays were our only time together. By the time that we eventually managed to live in the same place, I was the lone “non-skiier” of my friends and I didn’t fancy being the hole in the donut of other people’s ski holidays.

I had happily been avoiding ski holidays to no great regret. “Oh no, I can’t come skiing, we are off to explore the temples at Angkor Watt”; “Oh, sorry, maybe next time, I’m off to climb the Himalayas”; until kids. Given that my kids are de facto wealthy by UK-not-London standards (Big Sis has proclaimed herself “Rich” – when I questioned this, she replied “I will be when you two die.” Typical Big Sis!) – was I going to stand in the way of their wealth-based leisure pursuits?

I have in mind independent secondary school and Russell Group University ski tours and ruddy faced chaps called Tristan and Hugo that might wish to invite Big Sis to a family ski holiday; or blond, horsey gals called Cressida that might require Lil Bro to deliver chocolates to her. Did I want to deprive them these opportunities?

So I have been forced onto the slopes against my will by my diligent parenting ethos. My ski instruction to date has so far consisted of 3 hours with a private ski instructor. Ski instructors are usually of the buff 20 year old variety so it is no great torture, particularly as I spent many parts of the 3 hours being hoisted and supported by them (“Oh dear, I’ve fallen down again!”). This time however, the private instructors were all fully booked so I was left to my own skill (or lack thereof) and my darling husband.

Think of the second Bridget Jones movie and you get the idea of how I spent the last week, only worse as frankly, Renee Zellwegger would look great in a paper bag. Think: short, Chinese person dressed head-to-toe in Decathalon with sporadic catalepsy. No button lift was able to keep me upright and even flat terrain was insufficient to guarantee that I could stand. There was the time that a failed turn left me skiing backwards for a time screeching like a banshee till I fell forwards and tried aimlessly to use my fingers to stop my downward trajectory so that I left a trail of scratch marks in the snow like a demented cat failing to cling on for dear life in a cartoon. There was the time my ample bottom fell off the miniscule button of the button lift, but fearing that I would be left alone half way up a mountain slope, I carried on holding on to the lift with my arms so that I was dragged on my backside for several metres before I decided I had better let go. Or the time that I fell over for no apparent reason whilst attempting to embark a button lift and couldn’t get back up and in a truly British way, not wanting to hold up the queue of teenagers waiting to get on the lift, I heroically gestured that they ought to “Don’t mind me” and encouraged them to just step over me in the interests of the queue. Speak nothing of the slope-side verbal exchanges with Banker, incredulous at my ineptitude when I tried to put my skis back on with my skis pointing downhill.  Let’s just say that I measure the success of my skiing by the ability to descend a slope alive. If no bones have been broken, it has been a successful day.

Then there was the time that I hurtled down the piste, poles akimbo at constant risk of entanglement with my skis, ineffective snow plough engaged, heart and lungs in my throat, in perfect uncontrolled freefall, shouting “sorry” every 5 seconds as I cut across paths of furious proficient skiers and forcing snowboarders on their knees as they are forced to divert their course unexpectedly, as my life flashed before me. Only then to glance sideways to see Big Sis and an orderly row of bibbed midgets skiing calmly, gracefully and naturally down the slope past me.

Ah, it’s all worth it. Hope Cressida and Hugo will be thankful.

In hindsight though, I think there is a further benefit of my ineptitude. In this age of heightened perfectionism sending eating disorders and depression in children soaring, what better role model can there be for the nonsensicalness of it all than a parent who is prepared to put participation in front of looking good and doing well. For all the talk of promoting “non-competitive” competitive sports at school and inviting motivational speakers into schools to discuss successes that have come from failures, surely the most impact to children on this matter can come from parents who are not afraid to demonstrate failure and can wear it with a smile?

And I sure do epic fails and falls well!

Does parenting help chess and poetry?

chess

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a professor. She asked me how my children were. Being conscious that my part-time status should not account for nothing, I bragged:

“Oh, my daughter is in the final of the Borough Poetry competition and my 5 year old son is playing chess”.

What surprised me was her response.

“Oh – you see, that proves it’s all “G””

(G is the behavioural geneticists’ abbreviation for genetic effect – yes, we behavioural geneticists actually do talk in terms of “G” and “E” (environmental effect) in common parlance rather than actual coherent words).

“Oh” I said, “I was about to say that it proves it’s all “E””.

Of course, we all know that both “G” and “E” play an effect in outcome, but it is funny to see how (even in two people that study it) our interpretation of science is coloured by our own personal view; or perhaps rather, we skew the science to suit our own needs and to support our chosen behaviours.

My personal view is that parenting matters. I would not have gone part-time and sacrificed career advancement if I did not believe that I would be making a significant positive impact on the outcome of my children. I am more likely to see positive outcomes in my children as being directly related to my input, rather than what would have happened regardless if I was there or not.

If you believe that outcomes are solely genetically determined, then parenting no longer becomes important, and you may as well excel at work and farm out childcare. Equally, if you have chosen to excel at work and farm out childcare, it would suit you very well to believe that “it’s all about G”.

So here’s the route to Big Sis’s poetry success and how come Lil Bro is playing chess at 5 years, and you can decide for yourself on the G and E in these instances.

Big Sis:

Big Sis is good with words. She is interested in them and from as young as 3 years she would always ask questions about the meaning of words:

Big Sis: What does imagination mean?

Me: It’s something that you think about in your head.

Later, when I asked her to concentrate on colouring within the lines:

Big Sis: What does concentration mean?

Me: It’s when you use your head to think about something.

Big Sis: No. That’s your imagination.

At that point, I bought her a dictionary so that she did not need to rely on my lack of defining prowess; the point being that she was interested in words and their meaning from a young age and I provided her with the tools to pursue this.

In addition, I read to Big Sis (and Lil Bro) every night from the age of 1 year, until they could read chapter books for themselves, and I will still read to them more challenging books when we are on holiday. I will define (to the best of my ability) difficult words and ask questions to check that they understand what I have read to them.

I have a book of poems my sisters and I wrote when we were Big Sis’s age. My father encouraged us to write them and he had them bound in a fancy book. They are absolutely hideous (all basic rhymes and no substance – “I love school. It’s so cool.” – you get the tragic idea) but strangely appealing to young children. Sometimes I would get this book out and read them to the children.

When I found out that Big Sis was studying poetry at school, I went to Waterstones to buy TS Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. We have a well-loved cat, and so I thought that this would be an accessible poetry choice for Big Sis. Indeed it was. We read all the poems together. Lil Bro takes to Macavity, Big Sis to the Pekes and the Pollicles. We will soon be taking advantage of the return of the “Cats” musical at the West End.

In one poem, TS Elliot says “How else can a cat keep its tail perpendicular?”

Big Sis asked for a definition of “perpendicular”.

I explained that it means when something is at right-angles to something else. I stand up and demonstrate with my arms perpendicular. At that moment, our cat jumps out from under the bed with her tail up. “There look” – I say pointing, “that’s what it means to have a tail that is perpendicular.” Big Sis understands.

“But”, I say to Big Sis, “I think that Mr Elliot has another meaning when he asks this.”

“Show me what you look like when you are sad or ashamed of yourself.”

Big Sis, the master of drama, slumps and hunches over; slinking away.

“Now show me how you look when you are proud.”

Big Sis sits up straight and tall.

“Look”, I say, “You are “perpendicular” to the ground when you are proud. I think this is what TS Elliot means; he is talking about pride rather than the position of the cat’s tail.”

Later, Big Sis is practising ballet moves in the hallway.

“Mum!” She shouts.

“My leg is perpendicular.”

 

Lil Bro:

Lil Bro has always had excellent spatial awareness. One Christmas just after his second birthday I thought about presents to get him. Being Chinese, the first toys that come to mind are educational ones. I thought I would get him a jigsaw, something he could realistically manage like a 3-piece. His Aunty, who is also Chinese and so of the same “educational toys” mind set also buys him jigsaws – Thomas the Tank Engine ones; only, she has no children and so did not appreciate how many pieces a 2 year old could realistically do – and bought him 6, 10 and 12 piece jigsaws.

One evening, I was cooking dinner so I put Lil Bro at the table with the 3 piece jigsaws. He wanted the Thomas ones, so I put those out as well, just to keep the peace while I cooked. The next minute, I turned around and there he was sitting with the 6 piece puzzle completed. I nearly dropped my saucepan.

“OK, then clever clogs” I thought, here’s the 10 piece.

That was also pretty much consumed.

My Christmas present was a complete waste of money, he never did 3-pieces. By the time he was 3, 24-35 piece jigsaws were no problem. We even played “Jigsaw-offs” – infant versus geriatric; where Lil Bro and my mother would race as to who could finish an identical 24 piece jigsaw faster. Lil Bro was victorious.

By 4 years old 50 and 72 pieces were fine. By that time, I had emptied out several toyshops of their jigsaws.

At weekends, when Big Sis was at her swimming lesson, Lil Bro and I would sit in the coffee shop next door and eat porridge. The coffee shop had chess and draughts sets for customers to play with. To kill the time, I taught Lil Bro to play draughts and then chess. I am not the greatest chess player myself. I tend to take pieces with no overarching strategy; pretty much ending most games with no conclusion as my bishop and king chase the opponent’s knight and king hopelessly around the board. Still, by 4 years, Lil Bro knew how the pieces moved. I installed a chess game on to the ipad at home and encouraged the children to play it.

By chance, there is a chess club that runs in the same community centre that the children go to Chinese classes at (they go to be at one with being “Chinese” – their Chinese is even more hopeless than mine). One day, Lil Bro, aged 4 years said “I want to go there and play chess”. Given that the time clashed with their Chinese class. I said it wasn’t possible, but when it came to the summer holidays, I asked if they wanted to go to Chess Summer Camp for a week.

Big Sis was not keen.

I said to Lil Bro, “Your sister doesn’t want to go. Are you sure you want to go, even on your own?”

He said yes.

I went to check with the Chess Camp leader – wasn’t he too young?

The Chess Camp leader said some of the best players in the club were 5-6 year olds. Still, I wasn’t happy to send Lil Bro on his own and I eventually managed to twist Big Sis’s arm to go with him.

After a week of chess camp, and the initial enthusiasm, we carried on playing chess occasionally now and then. I didn’t think anything further on it. Then 3 months later, Lil Bro says to me “I want to go to chess club”.

Man! I thought. I wrack the local websites for chess clubs that are not going to clash with their Chinese class and are not too expensive. Finally, I find a cheap club on a Saturday afternoon at the local library. It’s good, but there is one teacher to eight children at greatly varying ages and abilities. Plus, smack bang in the middle of Saturday afternoon is not the most convenient time.

I get the chess teacher’s contact details. I ring around a few mothers I know whose children might be interested in chess. I set up a chess club for 3 boys after school in a local coffee shop.

So…what do you make of it?

My view is this: clearly, both Big Sis and Lil Bro have genetic predispositions to be good at certain things. I come from a family of mathematicians and engineers; Banker from a family of lawyers and linguists. Go figure that these genes are knocking about our chromosomes.

But can that be all?

What if I hadn’t been there to notice?

What if I had noticed but done nothing about it?

What if I had noticed it but derided intellectual pursuits and tried to knock it out of them?

I am pretty sure that Big Sis would still have enjoyed and been good at writing and Lil Bro would have found chess by himself at a later age. But would they have been in the final of a poetry competition at age 7 years, and been playing chess aged 5 years?

No.

Do these things matter?

Might they not reach the same end-point in adulthood?

That is the more interesting question that is so hard to answer because of the lack of the counter-factual. But my view is this: if life is a journey and your outcome is your destination; genes will drop you off at the airport. If you are lucky it will be London City Airport, if you are not so lucky it will be Luton Airport Parkway. Parenting provides your back-pack: it can be empty; or it can be full of maps, restaurant and hotel reviews, travel guides, good books, a compass, a thermos of cocoa and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. It might not be everything you need, but it sure helps you on the way.

Ultimately, where you go from there is up to you.

My Cape Town Top 10 for Families

Cape Town 1

After a busy year, we felt like taking it easy over the Christmas holidays and guaranteeing ourselves a “White Christmas”. That’s white sand, rather than white snow. Banker and I lived and worked for a while in Cape Town some 12 years ago. He was already a banker and I was doing psychiatric research surveying adolescent experiences (of sex, drugs, bullying, self-harm) in high schools throughout the Western Cape. It’s like a second home and we still have a lot of friends there.  When we lived there, it was all reading books on the beach, drinks at sunset (sundowners) and clubs, but nowadays with the kids in tow, we find that Cape Town still has a lot to offer both parents and children as a holiday destination. As an ex-resident and regular visitor, here’s my Top 10 to do in Cape Town.

 1. Table Mountain & Lion’s Head

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Table Mountain is the city’s icon. A massive mountain slap bang in the middle of the city. Traditionally, you should climb it, but with kids in tow, it is acceptable to take the cable car. Kids love cable cars so it’s a sure fire winner. Think fantastic views of the whole city. Ring ahead to check the cable car is operating to avoid disappointment though, as in strong winds it shuts down and if clouds are on the mountain (the table cloth) you won’t be able to see anything. If, like us, you have children old enough to do some walking and climbing, try climbing Lion’s Head instead (the smaller peak next to Table Mountain). It is a shorter climb and still extremely satisfying in terms of the view and sense of achievement. Our 5 year old made it to the top with only a bit of help, but make sure your children are ones that like scrambling up rocks and don’t mind the occasional scraped knee. Most children I know like this sort of thing, even our Princess who whinged and complained up the first short section that is gravel road hitched up her skirt and scrambled and climbed in delight up the remainder which is bare rocks with the occasional ladder. Finish off with drinks and gourmet picnics on the lawns of the roundhouse (www.theroundhouserestaurant.com) nestled in the foothills of the mountain.

2. Clifton and Camp’s Bay

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Cape Town is a good family beach holiday destination despite the cold Atlantic water. There are 4 beaches at Clifton and 1 at Camp’s Bay. Traditionally each has it’s own atmosphere. Dogs are allowed on 1st beach, 2nd and 3rd are more secluded and therefore more partial to romantics and 4th is the trendy beach for beautiful people. I’m not keen on the beach – like most Chinese people the idea of turning browner has no appeal, but Banker is a typical South African sun worshiper and in his youth he was a Clifton life guard. I accept that beaches are good for children and so I do occasionally make a beach sojourn, but all-day, every-day grates against my Chinese genes which require me to see local sites and take selfies.Over the years, Banker and I have therefore reached an agreement where we rent a flat right on the beach so he can take the kids there every morning while I have a lie-in (bonus!) and we can DO something for the main part of the day. So he and the kids build drip castles, explore rock-pools and jump waves daily. He even did a science experiment with the kids by hauling back a litre of sea water in an empty bottle and boiling it on the stove until all that was left was salt (in-situ educational activities – I know I have trained him well haven’t I? FYI Clifton sea water has a salt concentration of 40g per litre). He and the kids even go and pick mussels right off the rocks. They get enough to make Christmas lunch of Moule et frites. Seasoned with sea salt.

3. Penguins at Boulders

Cape Town 6Penguins are such comical creatures; kids cannot help but love’em. See all the African penguins you could ever wish to see at Boulder’s Bay near Simon’s Town.

4. Kalk Bay & Olympia Cafe

Cape Town 7Nostalgia always takes us back to Olympia Cafe at Kalk Bay, a great little bakery and restaurant where hippies have been using the side door for decades. It retains it’s shabby chic Bohemian feel, whilst always serving great food. It’s right next to the harbour where the catch is brought in, so fresh line fish is always on the menu. If you visit the toilets, you have to overlook its proximity to the kitchen, but in all my years dining there I have never had food poisoning. Here’s the kid-friendly part: if you take a wander to the dock, you will be sure to encounter the sea lions. If you are lucky, they might even come out of the water to say “Hello”. There is a nice parade of quirky shops along the main street and plenty of Zimbabwean street vendors selling the beaded or wood crafted curio of the year. We already have the giraffes and hippos (so last decade); this year, thanks to an on-line comparison website, it is meerkats. It’s amazing how many shops you can browse pester free if you promise a kid a Meerkat at the end of the day. We each pick our own rodent likeness in Jacaranda.

5. The Old Biscuit Mill

Cape Town 10OK, this one is more for the parents, especially ones that like to shop and eat. But at R18 to a pound at the moment making everything extremely cheap for Brits, it’s got to be done! The Old Biscuit Mill was an empty old Mill in an arty but down at heel area of Cape Town called Woodstock when I lived here 12 years ago. It’s now gentrifying rapidly and the Old Biscuit Mill with it’s quirky and arty homewares shops and internationally ranked restaurant “The Test Kitchen” is central to the area’s rejuvenation. Book well ahead for “The Test Kitchen”, Banker called up a few weeks prior to our trip to make a reservation and was told they were fully booked till May. Other good food is also available, and on Saturdays there is a Neighbourhood Market where local produce and all manner of yummy food is sold from stalls to be eaten off lines of “tables” made from front doors on trestles.  

6. Victoria and Alfred Waterfront

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This high end shopping mall just keeps getting bigger and better. Shop till you drop to your heart’s content. There are plenty of children’s clothes shops too so the kids are now set for summer clothes and Crocs and I stock up on MAC make-up. The favourable exchange-rate and the 14% tax back for tourists makes shopping guilt-free. There is also a fantastic Aquarium, one of the best that I have been to with kids, and other venues for child friendly activities. When we were there “The Art of Brick”, which we missed in London was on and so we went to see that, but there was also another installation on at the same time called “Dinosaurs Live”, so there is always plenty for children here. Eat sushi and drink £3 Mojitos upstairs at the Harbour Restaurant. The boats that go out to Robben Island also go from here. As we are regular visitors to the Cape, we are saving this for when the children are old enough to understand, but if it’s your one time out, you shouldn’t miss it.

7.  City Centre and Green Market SquareCape Town 12

Take a walk around the city centre to really get a feel of the city. See part of the Berlin Wall that stands near Green Market and have a go at haggling at the main curios market in Cape Town. The children’s favourite eaterie in Cape Town was “The Food Lovers Market Cafe”, a large canteen selling everything from pizza, burgers to sushi in the old Offices of the Cape Argus Newspaper. The food is not exceptional, but there is a large sweet pick-n-mix and dip your own donuts into your choice of sprinkles stand which may have swung it.

8. The Winelands and Spa!

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Drive out of Cape Town into the Winelands and there are plenty of beautiful wine farms. The child friendly flavour of the moment for those in the know is Babylonstoren (www.babylonstoren.com), a wine farm, hotel and spa halfway between Paarl and Franschoek. Pictureseque vineyard set within acres of laid gardens growing everything from papaya to lawns of camomile and thyme which you are encouraged to prance over barefoot. Book early for the Hotel, we couldn’t get a booking but managed to come for the day-spa. Banker and I are great fans of spas, but most do not welcome children or have nothing for them to do. I am not keen on sending children to creches on a family holiday, so Banker and I always take turns for treatments and childcare, and here there is a child friendly swimming pool, acres of garden to explore, a fake beach, a coffee shop and free roaming animals – so there is no need to fret that the children are not having fun when its your turn to indulge in your Dr Hauschka facial.

Of course, there is also the wine!

In the evening, I thought it only fair to give our children a “spa” treatment in our flat. They get to lie under a towel with a face-pack while I trim their finger and toe nails. They have a great giggle and love it so much they are urging us to go back to the spa – WIN-WIN!

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9. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

We didn’t get to go this year, but I love this place, it is like a Southern Hemisphere Kew Gardens, plenty of the national flower the Protea. The gardens are strewn with African sculptures and in Summer there are concerts in the evening. Guinea fowl roam the grounds and its a lovely place to take a picnic.

10. Cape Point

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This is an old photo from a previous trip. If you are only visiting Cape Town once, it is worth coming to see where 2 Oceans collide. There are plenty of baboons and buck to spot too.

Further Afield:

Township tours are available and I do think that people visiting South Africa should be conscious of South Africa’s past and continued inequalities. I am not personally keen on making a “tourist attraction” out of poverty and inequality, but the income generated may be helpful to populations in poverty. I have visited several Townships in Cape Town when I worked there and it is pretty sobering stuff and although I wish my children to learn how lucky they are, I’m not quite sure they are at the right age or maturity for it yet.

If you are planning for a longer trip, take a drive along the Garden Route. There is whale watching in Hermanus, and there are Ostrich farms where you can feed, ride and eat ostrich (tastes like beef, but much healthier). Further along the coast towards Knysna, the Knysna elephant park is great for kids and allows adults and children to feed, touch and walk with elephants (www.knysnaelephantpark.co.za) and at Plettenberg Bay, there is Monkeyland (www.monkeyland.co.za), both of which are great for kids.

Cape Town Further Afield

Cape Town is a great place to holiday. I know that for many people the security is a concern, not one South African I know does not know someone personally that has not been affected by violent crime. However, the South Africans know that tourism is its major industry and relatively few tourists come to harm. Petty crime is common, my bag got stolen once from the back of my chair in a nice restaurant so you do have to be a bit careful, but if you are sensible and stay in the touristy areas then chances are you will be fine. Just say “No thanks” if your husband tries to tempt you into dinner at that “great restaurant” in the townships…

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