Category: Kids’ Activities

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)

Where the Tiger Mothers are

tigger

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

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

Ballet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

So this is where the white Tiger Mothers hang out.

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

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

Each to their own I guess.

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.

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.

Does your school Nativity role predict your future life chances?

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As parents the world over are turning tea towels into head gear for shepherds and scampering to source angel’s wings for their children’s star turns in Nativity plays, here’s something that might make you think.

Once, before I had my own kids I mentioned to my then Professor (a world class Child Psychiatrist) that my niece had just been selected for the second year running to play “Mary” in the school nativity. “Well” she said “That’s it then, she’s bound for greatness with a start in life like that!” It was a joke of course, but it did make me wonder if there was any truth in this. Does your infant school Nativity role predict your future life chances?

I myself was a Narrator and then a Wise Man in my own school nativities and looking back, I think this is quite apt for who and what I have become, so maybe I have an intrinsic bias to believing that there is some truth. But beyond that, I think that there is actually some scientific basis.

Firstly, the casting of the nativity school play is not a random process, but a choice made by a teacher who knows your child. The teacher will know the personality and developmental ability of your child and will be consciously or unconsciously using this knowledge to cast the play. As personality and ability show some stability over time and are strong predictors of future outcome, it would make sense that your role in the school nativity play has some predictive power over future outcome.

Lead roles will usually be given to “pro-social children”. A pro-social child is basically the opposite of an anti-social child, thus pro-social children are well-behaved, do as they are told, seek to get along with other people, and are polite and helpful. They are usually the class role models. Having pro-social children in the lead roles makes sense as it makes the teacher’s life easier if the children they are relying on to hold the play together can be relied upon to learn their lines, rehearse and critically, turn up on time on the day with their costume! Casting an anti-social child or an anxious child in the lead role is more of a risk as who knows what they will do on the day! The last thing you want is the lead role to burst into tears or have a strop on stage. Sometimes casting an anti-social or marginalised child in a lead role is used as an “intervention”, whereby in the act of instilling the responsibility and limelight of the lead role, the teacher hopes to turn around a troubled child or child lacking in self-esteem. In this circumstance the teacher will have done a lot of background work to ensure that the child is up to the challenge. This doesn’t tend to happen very often.

Depending on the version of the nativity play that is being produced, the “lead role” is variable. Traditionally the “lead roles” are that of Mary and Joseph. Sometimes Mary and or Joseph are required to say many lines and may even need to perform a solo song. In this instance, it is clear that not only does the child need to be pro-social, but they also need to be able to sing and crucially be able to perform in public confidently. Here, therefore you are already selecting for a pro-social, confident child with the cognitive ability to memorise song lyrics, dedication to rehearse, low anxiety levels and likely extrovert nature. These personality factors are likely to be important in predicting future occupation and “success” outcome.

In some versions of the nativity play, Mary and Joseph are diminutive characters that take centre stage, but say very little with the majority of the speaking roles given to narrators who will tell the story. In plays like this, the Mary and Joseph characters are still prized, but the qualities required then are somewhat different. These roles tend to still go to prosocial types; children who are well behaved, look good and are well-liked by others, but are more likely to be anxious about speaking in public; as the extrovert, confident children will be reserved for the speaking roles.

Casting is additionally influenced by personality fit with the available parts. Which teacher could have resisted casting my bespectacled, Chinese, 5-year old self with a penchant for maths as a “Wise Man”? Blondes are more frequently cast as the Angel Gabriel. “Good sports”, “the class clowns” are more frequently cast as the donkey (as others may object to this role and turn it down).

Big Sis is following in my footsteps as narrator in her school nativity. I’m over the moon, not because she may end up as a doctor, but because I don’t need to make a costume.

Hurrah!

Please let me know your previous nativity roles and how you have turned out. It would be really interesting to see if there is truth to any of this!

Shrink Wrap!

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The kids and I had a great afternoon recently with our friends at Wrapsody Gift Wrapping Service making bespoke wrapping paper. No, this is not a sponsored post just two friends getting together to do something crafty with their kids. If you have a spare hour to kill, here’s a great art activity which will save you money in the run up to Christmas, looks good and is great fun!

Step 1. Making a snowflake. Fold a piece of scrap paper into half, then quarters. Fold this again into half, but this time diagonally so you end up with a triangle shape. Get your children to draw some shapes in the triangle shape to resemble a snowflake if possible, but any shape is fine.

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Cut out the shapes preserving the main integrity of the cone shape so as to preserve the paper in one piece, albeit with patterns cut out of it.

Step 2. Open it out. Kids love this part.

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Step 3. Sticking down the templates. Spread a sheet of cheap brown paper on the floor over newspaper and use blue tac to stick down all the snowflake cut outs on to the paper. Lay them out in an irregular formation.

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Step 4: Now for the fun bit. Use a spray paint (£6.50 for a large can that can spray reams and reams of paper – available from any art shop) in white, silver or gold and spray all over! It doesn’t matter if the spray is uneven, it adds to the effect.

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Step 5. Leave the paint to dry. Then peel off the paper snowflakes!

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Step 6. Et Voila, beautiful, original, hand-crafted wrapping paper. So fool-proof even children can make it.  Ready to make Christmas gifts look just lovely!

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Present

 

 

Happy Christmas Making!

 

 

 

Social hierarchy in 4 year olds

Social hierarchy

This is part of the infant 360 degree appraisal series on social ability. This post follows on from previous posts on basic,and higher level social ability and will give you information about social hierarchy in 4 year olds. I am not an expert in social anthropology and so the following is just a précis of my own observations using my knowledge of human behaviour and social science that are part and parcel of psychological and psychiatric training.

One of the best places I have found to observe social skill in my children is at a kid’s birthday party, particularly at age 4 years where the tendency is to invite the whole class. Unlike a classroom environment where structure is ever present, and authority stems from the teacher, a birthday party is like the school playground where it is a social free-for-all. In any school assessment we professionals conduct, we always observe the child in the playground as well as in the classroom because, here, and only here, children are left to fend for themselves without adult intervention, it is quite literally a different world.

For a child, the birthday party scenario is one of the most challenging of their social skill. Hell, even as an adult, who does not occasionally quiver in fear at the prospect of having to make small talk with numerable new people at a work do or colleague’s birthday party? Observing how your child copes with this situation is a real test of their social skill in the most difficult of social situations. I had stumbled on this quite by chance by attending numerous kids’ parties, but then my instincts were ratified when I found out that Professor Dale Hay, Professor of Psychology at Cardiff University uses the “Birthday Party Scenario” to assess social skills in children. Her team at the Cardiff Child Development Study, have been hosting mock children’s birthday parties on a weekly basis in their department for the last 7 years. A PhD student is even tasked with appearing at the end of each party in a bear costume! Fab!

Here, not only is it possible to observe your child’s social skill, but also their pecking order in the social hierarchy. Yes, just like in the jungle where our primate relations fight it out to be alpha-male and high-ranking female, so all human societies have a social hierarchy, even amongst 4 year olds. At the top end of the social ability spectrum, the highly socially skilled children battle it out for top-dog status.  I was first alerted to this by Big Sis’s nursery teacher. One day, she told me that Big Sis had a bad day at school because “there are some girls in the class with strong personalities and they are clashing for dominance”. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Big Sis was one of the said girls and I made a passing comment about monkeys fighting it out to be alpha-male. I was quite used to the concept of social hierarchy in teenagers and adults. The whole genre of teenage movies from “Pretty in Pink” to “Mean girls” and “High School Musical” are based on the well-established angsts of social hierarchy – but really – does it start in nursery and reception?

The sad answer is “Yes”. After frequenting many of these birthday parties and taking the obligatory shot of the birthday girl/ boy blowing out the candles of their cake, I noticed that in every single picture, the same few children, Big Sis included, were at the birthday child’s side. This happened even when the birthday child was not a particular friend of Big Sis. I began to observe a pattern of “top table children” at birthday parties where the same children would be seated around the birthday child, regardless of whose birthday it was. I developed a theory of social hierarchy being played out in the seating of children at birthday parties. I began to watch these top-table children, and they seem to be extremely socially aware of what is going on. For instance, they anticipate exactly when the call to be seated for food will go out, and where the birthday child is likely to sit (usually somewhere in the middle or at the top end depending on table layout). They then seek to position themselves at the prestigious seats which are those with closest proximity to the birthday child.

Big Sis and her friends were experts at this, but one incident stands out. Big Sis broke her leg and was required to use a zimmer frame to hop around. At a friend’s birthday party, at the all-important call to be seated, there was the usual rush amongst children to sit in proximity to the birthday boy. The table was laid in one long line, and the birthday boy moved to seat himself in the middle. I was observing Big Sis. She saw that all the children ran to seat themselves directly next to the birthday boy and there was a tussle amongst “high-ranking” children here to gain the prestigious seats. She was first to see that the seat opposite the birthday boy, of equal prestige was free and hobbled as quickly as she could on her zimmer frame down to get to the other side. Although she was clearly first off the mark, her able bodied “high-ranking” friends who had missed out on the prime seats next to the birthday boy, had now seen the free seats opposite as she had, and they raced passed her to claim the seats. I had to laugh at this as it proved my theory about birthday seating hierarchy correct. Much to my amazement, when Big Sis got to the seats she had wanted, which were now occupied by her popular friends, she started asking them if she could sit there. Clearly no alpha-child was going to give up their seat, but good-on-her for trying! I felt sorry for Big Sis, as she would certainly have got there first had she not had a broken leg, so in this instance I intervened and I pulled up a chair so she could sit there with her friends. They were happy to make space for her, but I am pretty sure that they may not have done this for all children; girls, even age 4 years are quite good at social exclusion.

In complete contrast, Lil Bro appears devoid of this social antenna. He will without fail ask to go to the toilet just before the call to be seated for food at birthday parties, such that we will emerge from the toilets and he will be sat at the last available seat a mile-away from the birthday child, even if the child is a good friend. Even when he is there, he will stand rooted to the spot until all the other children have sat down before finding the last available seat that nobody else wanted. He appears oblivious to social hierarchy and would even risk being isolated to the cold corner seats at his own sister’s party if I did not reserve a seat for him at his sister’s side. The good thing is that it neither concerns him nor bothers him. I have to admit that occasionally it bothers ME, only because I aspire for him to be super sociable and popular, but then I just have to slap myself in the face, recognise that his needs are different from my wants, see with my own eyes that he is happy and confident and let him BE. Imperviousness to social pressure is also a great strength in itself!

Clearly I have never told my children where to sit at birthday parties, and I doubt anyone ever has, so it is interesting for me to observe the presence and absence of these social instincts in such young children. This ability, termed social osmosis (i.e. picking up knowledge from social experience rather than actively being taught) is thought to be lacking in children with autistic spectrum disorder. Those with excellent social osmosis and social ability are able to climb to the top of the social hierarchy. Their success is not based on physical dominance (aggression), but social dominance – the ability to make friends and influence people. The funny thing is that once you are on the look-out for it, you see examples of hierarchy in 4 year olds all the time.

When I volunteered to go into Big Sis’s class to paint faces, the teacher asked me to choose the first child to have their face painted, and then they were allowed to choose the next child. Whilst painting one girl’s face, her male best friend loitered around saying “please choose me next”. Big Sis had told me that these two classmates were best friends, lived close together and did everything together, so I was not surprised when she smiled, and seemed to agree. Then, out of the blue saunters in “alpha-male”. A bigger, and brighter boy with better social skills. “Please choose me next” he said politely. I smiled, the wicked smile of a child psychiatrist about to test human nature, and asked the fateful question: “So, who do you want to go next?”

The answer is as predictable as it is gut-wrenching , but alpha-male wins every time, and “the boy-next-door” had to wait in line. Social hierarchy in children it seems plays out just as social hierarchy plays out in adults. You only have to observe the parents at children’s birthday parties to see this. But that’s a different story…

Organisational hell – what to pack in a travel handbag

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I heard about Cath Kidston’s #totesbig/totessmall campaign and laughed, surely for all parents it’s #totesbig? Mine’s this fetching strong and waterproof Longchamp number.

Carrying large quantities of “vital” stuff around with you all day has never been quite so important as when you have kids in tow. The ante on organisation is raised on having children, purely because logistically, there is so much more that is required to be remembered and carried with you at all times in preparation for all eventualities. We all have a “very organised friend”. Someone who is always on time, never forgets anything and prepares for everything. For me it’s my big sister. When baby Lil Bro yakked up lunch all over himself, and I had not brought a spare baby-gro, who should pull one out of her handbag? Apparently a spare, even though her child no longer wore baby-gros. When we went on a weekend break with the extended family and I forgot to pack towels, who produced a whole spare extra set which she had packed “In case”? Yup, my darling sister. Indeed, whenever I go anywhere with her, I can rest on my laurels as I know that if I have forgotten anything, she will be sure to have “spares”. Thank goodness!

Although I have moments of organisational inspiration (packing a volcano making kit in my suitcase on a holiday to Sicily so I could teach the kids about volcanoes in-situ), at other times I  am pitiful. For instance,  when Lil bro was a baby I remember joyfully pushing the buggy to my mother-and-baby yoga class in Primrose Hill thinking that I was on time for once, but actually having forgotten the entire meticulously packed Cath Kidston baby changing bag on the table at home. Thankfully, what I lack in organisation, I make up for in practical, can-do attitude. I didn’t miss my yoga class, I just popped into a newsagent. I got some funny looks from the skinny and beautiful Gwyneth types that frequent Triyoga Primrose Hill with their yummy-mummy nappy changing bags, matching cashmere blankets, Sophie giraffes and  wooden rattles when I rocked up with nothing for my baby save a 34-for the price of 30 jumbo pack of nappies and a pack of Johnsons’ wet wipes. Well, what more do you need – eh?

At the start of this summer though, I thought that given that I am now a blogger and passing on my worldly (ahem) views on all things parenting, I would write an illuminating blog about all the things “one” should carry in their totes when travelling with young children on holiday. Here is my list:

Sustenance:

Bottled water (I know it’s heavy, but always comes in handy)

Snack (usually of the pre-packaged biscuit/ chocolate variety – but on a good organisational skill day, a pair of satsumas)

Sun protection:

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Like all good doctors, I espouse the sin of sun worshipping, although a little dose here and there to relieve vitamin D deficiency doesn’t do any harm. Still always best to carry sun hats, sun glasses and sun screen with you at all times over the summer hols. A warm waterproof top is meticulously tied around the waist of each child should the weather take a turn (Brits will understand this!).

Activities:

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My kids (like most) are terribly impatient in restaurants, and will not stop asking “When’s the food coming?” as if I have personal telepathy with the kitchens. For distraction purposes, I have found it well worth my while to carry sticker books around with me at all times. In addition, fully equipped pencil cases as pencils and coloured pens can be transformed into any activity: drawing, colouring, noughts and crosses, the shape game (where one person draws a random shape and the other turns it into a picture of something) , pass the portrait (where one person draws a head on a picture, folds it over and passes it to the next person to draw the upper body, then passes it on etc.) and an endless possibility of other games. If we visit a landmark (like a cathedral) or an art gallery, the children will always be asked to draw what they see as  this really makes children look carefully, observe and remember what they have seen.  I carry 2 of everything because do you think it is possible that they could share? It’s not worth the grey hair.

Kid-proof Tech:

Bag tech

I know that most people just let their kids use their iphones or ipads, but I am of the old school who fuss and worry about tech getting broken. It comes from my dad’s indoctrination of us in childhood over the perils of biscuit crumbs and spilled milk on the Commodore 64 such that anyone holding food or drink was not allowed within a 3 metre radius of “the expensive computer”. I carry cheap his-and-hers cameras with me to give to the kids to take photos as part of a game or just to see what they find interesting. Looking over pictures they have taken at the end of a day trip is always fun, particularly when you find that the beautiful city of Rouen you visited had nothing more worthy of photographing than a mannequin in a shop front…

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The children got “kiddigos” (hand held TV/ games console for little ones) for Christmas last year. As exposure is strictly rationed, the effect of producing the kiddigo is dramatic. The kids are only allowed to use them for the last hour of a long (3+ hours) car journey if they “have been good” during the earlier parts of the journey, and it’s really amazing how well the constant threat of losing the screen time can keep the kids at bay.

So, with all this “well prepared vital stuff” being carted with me everywhere on holiday, you can imagine what a peaceful time we had. It was all going wonderfully smoothly, with hardly a hiccup of “Are we there yet?” or wails of boredom and running up and down in restaurants, until a day trip to the Citadel at Carcassone. We exited the Castle to go home. “I need the toilet” one of them said. “No problem, I’ll take you” I said. Only to find, it was a number 2 of diarrhea proportions. Only to find there was no loo paper in the ladies or the gents. I looked in both.

Despite having a variety of splendid craft and technological activities in my bag and enough sun protection to keep a Scotsman from burning in a dessert, there was no tissue or wet-wipe to be found.

Having unsuccessfully attempted  to use pages of the sticker book as toilet paper, it was  – OH CRAP – literally.

Well, as I said, what I lack in organisational skill, I make up for in can-do attitude.

Maternal hand it was….

Where was my big sister when I needed her?!

What’s Cooking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Break up 300g of chocolate. We use dark chocolate (>70% cocoa solids) as it is less sweet, better quality and also as Lil Bro had a dairy allergy and now prefers dark chocolate.
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2. Put into a bowl with 125g of butter.

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

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

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

RR6

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

RR7

7. Mix up the goodies with the chocolate.

RR

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

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

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

 

Eating rocky road