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:
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)
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!).
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.
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…
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?!
Big Sis, Lil Bro and I have been doing a lot of cooking over the summer.
Both Banker and I love cooking and food. So, it is no surprise that we would want to share this with the kids. Banker likes his meat and fire, and has recently developed a craziness about bread. I like my cakes and puds. This division of labour is not a matter of happy circumstance, but a compromise between two bossy cooks who have now become highly territorial over their area of expertise. Lest Banker ever attempt another foray into the tarte tatin area, there will be full out war (his was way under-caramelised anyway).
My own love of food came straight from my mother, a talented cook of Chinese cuisine; she would taste something at a restaurant and then set about trying to replicate it at home from the memory of the flavours. Sadly this meant that we had no cook books whatsoever at home; my mother cooked fabulously on intuition. The smells of Taiwanese beef noodle soups, sesame broiled chicken and New Year cakes deep fried in batter always filled our home. I watched her cooking from a young age, and dumpling making was a family affair. Sadly though, I lack her flair and am woe-fully recipe bound in my own practice. In contrast to my mother’s still total vacuum of recipe books, my household has over-flowing shelves of them and they are always attempting to colonise tables and floors. I can remember from early childhood pouring over cook books from the local library. Although I was brought up on my mother’s excellent Chinese cuisine, it was Western puds that I craved: warm sticky-toffee pudding with ice-cream, brandy-laced chocolate mousse, apple-pie with vanilla flecked custard. The Chinese lack the key ingredients of cream and chocolate for desserts. Although I will be the first to stand up for red bean as a chocolate alternative, I cannot quite find a cream substitute and perhaps my love of dessert making arose from my cream-deprived childhood salivating over pictures of chocolate éclairs.
It is from this background that cooking with the kids has become a staple weekend/ holiday activity. It is great fun to cook with kids given the hands on mess-making that can be had; wonders of science and alchemy involved, satisfaction of making something from nothing and best of all the gobbling up at the end. If you are still sceptical, cooking involves mathematics (measuring and weighing, calculation if doubling or halving recipe ingredients to make more or less), chemistry (melting, dissolving, colloids, acids, boiling points and much more, especially if you attempt to make honeycomb), biology (nutrition, health), history (spices and the spice trade, origins of recipes), geography (where ingredients come from, food miles, farming practices), art (decorating cakes and plating up) and P.E. (try whipping a meringue by hand, and have you seen the size of a baker’s arms?). I cannot think of a more enjoyable and educational activity for children. What other activity can awaken all 5 senses as well as stir the imagination?
Yet why aren’t all parents doing this with their kids? It was a sorry state of affairs to see on Jamie Oliver’s TV program that British primary school children could not identify common vegetables such as a courgette and an aubergine. More depressing when you see excellent home cooks whipping up gorgeous food, but not having time to cook with their children, or for fear of the mess. Why don’t they pass on their passion? I know that in my generation of women, there are some that deliberately avoided learning to cook. “Home Economics” as it was then called at school, was a subject reserved for the non-academic; a “wood-work” equivalent for the girls on track to early motherhood and a life of domesticity. High-flying women feared that their ability to cook would mean enslavement to the kitchen; but personally, I think they were cutting off their noses to spite their face. Not only is cooking a highly enjoyable creative outlet, but an essential life skill, and given the rise in obesity levels, knowledge about food, healthy eating and cooking may save your and your children’s lives, and everyone should be taught to cook. A friend of mine has a lovely little business teaching little ones about food if you need inspiration.
Of course nowadays, food has had a reinvention and young men and women have become passionate about food and there has been a renaissance of fine eating in London. The depressing thing though is that I don’t think that it has filtered down to children. Although Jamie Oliver has done a sterling job in highlighting the atrocities of school dinners, what about the stuff we are serving to kids at home? I have found that many parents, even foodies (myself included at times), cook separate meals for their children (invariably pasta or chicken based); then sit down for their own dinner of something much more interesting. Children’s menus at restaurants dare not stray from spag bol and chicken nuggets; and yet how are children to learn of new flavours and textures? Worse still, the London restaurants serving the most interesting food discourage children, either by snooty staff/ clientele with intolerance for children, or sky high prices. Not so in other countries. In the Far East, eating is a family affair and for Dim Sum in Hong Kong, you’d be hard pressed to find a table for two. Dining is without exception en famille, with everyone sharing the same interesting food on a massive table laid to the brim served by a lazy Susan. Closer to home, on a recent trip to France, Big Sis and Lil Bro tried veal’s head truffle, cuttle fish balls and petit pois ice cream for dinner from a 12 Euro Menu d’enfant at a 1 star Michelin Restaurant. That’s roughly the price of a Pizza Express pizza and ice cream. Why can’t we get this in London? Contrary to popular belief, children can develop an interesting palate with exposure and encouragement, Lil Bro totally enjoyed guzzling down snails in France, and although Big Sis is less adventurous, she has developed a taste for a variety of interesting cheeses.
I hope that the new found British enthusiasm for all things foodie can find its way to our children. Now that schools have done their part; isn’t it time parents and restaurants did the same?
For those wanting a quick and easy starter recipe that’s great for kids, here’s Big Sis’s step by step guide to our version of Nigella’s Rocky Road. So easy Big Sis can make it herself (almost), pretty much mess free and devilishly scrumptious.
2. Put into a bowl with 125g of butter.
3. Melt the chocolate and butter together in the bowl over a pot of boiling water. (I’ve tried this part before in the microwave and it doesn’t work very well). If your butter was at room temperature, then you can actually get it to all melt together over a pot of boiling water from the kettle if you use a metal bowl, thus avoiding any requirement for an open flame for younger kids.
4. Add 3 tablespoons of golden syrup to the chocolate and butter, or, we have also used honey and that also works well.
5. Put 200g of biscuits in a plastic bag and bash it with a rolling pin. Kids love this. A mixture of crumbs and big bits is perfect. Nigella uses Rich Tea biscuits in her recipe, but we prefer digestives. You can also do ginger nuts or amaretti biscuits for a posher version.
6. Pour half the chocolate mixture into another bowl and put to one side. Pour the biscuit bits into the remaining chocolate mixture and add 100g of marshmallows. Or, what we do is to add 70g of marshmallows then throw in 30g or so of other stuff, e.g. raisins, cranberries, brazil nuts, pistachios, almonds, orange zest, Turkish delight, smarties, fudge bits, salted cashews, white chocolate chips, desiccated coconut, coffee essence, vanilla essence – whatever takes you and your kids’ fancy.
7. Mix up the goodies with the chocolate.
8. Spread the mixture into a container. A foil container that you can easily bend open is best, but we never have them in the house when we need them. We have plenty of plastic boxes from takeaways and they work just as well. They also have lids so you can stack your boxes up in the fridge to save space as well as carry the rocky roads with you for picnics easily.
9. Squash the mixture down with a spoon as much as possible, then pour over the remaining chocolate. Put it in the fridge to set.
10. Once set, cut into squares and sprinkle with icing sugar, or just gobble it up as is!
Victoria Pendleton’s father loved cycling. Luckily for GB cycling, he passed on the cycling bug.
To me part of the joy of parenting is being in a position to pass on a passion. Seeing a little person’s face light up with enjoyment in doing something that you enjoy, and being able to do something you enjoy with the best little people in the world. Nothing beats it.
It therefore seems really strange to me to find the plethora of children’s clubs and classes where little ones can learn everything from swimming and yoga, to decoupage and cookery from strangers, alongside similar classes for adults with a crèche attached so parents can pursue their passions unfettered by their children. This uncoupling of parent and child “leisure time” is great for industry, twice the money, but seems to me to be doing us a disservice. Feeding into exhausted parents’ need for “me time”, and the parental competition for “most accomplished child”, it has generated a cult of “professional class attendance” denying parents the simple pleasure of passing on a passion.
My husband and I taught both our children to swim. I am not the most accomplished swimmer, but I am able to stay alive in the deep end of the swimming pool. Swimming is a potentially life-saving skill and the quicker a child learns to stay alive in water, the better in my book. For my husband, swimming is a passion. He dreams of holidays swimming with teenage children between Greek islands (I will be going in the boat, glass and magazine in hand). Thus we made a point of taking the children to play in water regularly since the age of 3 months. The tiger mother in me, wanted to progress from “play” to “swim”, and over a summer when Big Sis was 4 years old, I managed to teach her to swim 5, then 10 metres. It was a great feeling when she managed it, both for her and for me. She positively beamed and wanted to do it again, and again. I was right there next to her in the water (holding on to 2 year old Lil Bro with his arm bands on), shouting “I knew you could do it!” I took added pride as a private swimming instructor who was also using the pool to teach at the same time asked me who had taught my children to swim as they were both “so confident in the water”, and I was able to reply “Me”. Now that Big Sis is able to swim, she is enrolled in professional lessons in a club to learn and refine strokes, but the pleasure of watching her gain mastery over the water was all mine.
It was sad then when a friend who was an excellent swimmer asked me to recommend a swimming instructor for her toddler. I asked her why she didn’t teach her child herself, to which she responded, “I can’t; I’m not qualified”. I can see how you need professional qualifications to teach a group of children, or to teach children to swim strokes, but I was taught to swim by my dad, and my husband was taught by his parents as were the majority of people of my generation. So why shouldn’t modern-day parents feel qualified to teach their own children to swim? Probably because of the many advertised toddler swimming classes advocating professional guidance and undermining our confidence in our own ability to teach. It will be a really sad day when children are sent to professional classes to learn to cycle and bake cakes, as to me, teaching and doing these things with your young children is a rite of passage for parents. Or if you hate baking and cycling then snooker, oboe, tennis, skiing, poetry, jazz music – don’t keep your passions to yourself and send your children out to generic classes. Pass it on.
My own passion is for art. Having been forbidden to go to art school by my parents (which in their eyes meant a life time of poverty), I continue to have pleasure in painting, sculpting, making things and visiting art galleries. From a young age, the children have always come with us to art galleries in London and abroad. Art galleries are great places for children, as they usually feature wide open spaces. Our children wake up at 6 am, so getting to the Tate Modern at opening is no problem, and at that time on a weekend morning, when sane people are still tucked up in bed (or even just going to bed from the night before – ah those were the days), the gallery is quiet and the children can be let loose. Their attention span is short, so we are never able to take the thoughtful meander that we would have in our childless days. But becoming a Friend of a gallery is great, as you can literally pop in to see one picture and leave without feeling it was a complete waste of money, and in London, there are also so many free art galleries, that this is possible even for those on a budget. Most times, I will ask the children to choose their favourite painting, or I will point out mine and we will look at it in detail. At other times, I will bring paper and pens and they will sit and copy their favourite paintings. Other times, we will paint a picture together at home afterwards, “inspired” by our gallery visit. Many exhibits are child-friendly and I can recall Lil Bro aged 3 shouting “Moo” in delight at Damien Hirst’s cow, completely unperturbed by the fact that it had been cut in half, and Big Sis in hushed tones at Anish Kapoor’s exhibit involving a wax cannon saying “Mummy, someone has made a mess in here”. Of course, it’s not all roses and there are many times when I have had to drag sulky kids, carry sleeping kids, bribe whinging kids with gift-shop magnets, but when you later find that they can talk about “Mango’s sunflowers” or say that their favourite artist is “Kandinsky”, it can bring joy to the heart. Many galleries these days have great family days where you can work WITH your children on art projects, or at least ALONGSIDE, and they are usually FREE.
I have great satisfaction in hearing my children say “I love art” and embark with confidence in creating something from their own imaginations, and I am dreaming of the painting holidays in Tuscany that we will be able to take together in the not so distant future, because of the time I have taken now to pass on my passion.
Pass it on.
Pass it on.