Yum Yum Moments

Delicious cakes in Marks and Spencer

Delicious cakes in Marks and Spencer (Photo credit: Gran Canaria Go)

My middle child and I had a row about “Yum Yums” yesterday.  “Yum Yums” for the unitiated are sugar-covered doughnut-type cakes to die-for from Marks & Spencer. I bought Yum Yums as a snack (before you shout, yes, I am aware of the endless lecturing in the media at the moment about sugar being more dangerous than alcohol, drugs, smoking, skydiving, solo circumnavigating the globe etc) thinking that my son would be pleased. I bought them with him in mind, a sort of bribery to get him to his tennis lesson after school.  His response: “I hate Yum Yums, yuk, disgusting”.

So what you may ask?  In itself, nothing new, same old “never getting it right” I suppose.  Predictably, our interaction degenerated from therein to what can only be described as a right royal dressing-down by child of mother. I could rattle on about lack of respect, a need for firmer boundaries, a lecture on courtesy etc but actually although all of the above is valid what I actually started to think about what something quite different: success and how you measure it.

What has my child’s abject horror at the sight of a harmless Yum Yum got to do with that?  Being a parent, particularly a stay-at-home parent, is a job like all other jobs in some ways but a job unlike any other in many ways. Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of parenting is the lack of any sort of reassurance that you are doing well, any external acknowledgement of success.  In fact, many people regard staying at home with your children as the soft option.

Many days with children can feel like an endless critique, an interminable ‘Yum Yum moment’. Conversations with children can become negotiations of the greatest sensitivity, requiring the skills of the United Nations.  However when resolution is reached, there is no-one there to say “hey, you did a good job there” or to high-five you. There is no-one to marvel at your patience and ingenuity.  There are no resolution skills courses, no time management courses, no presentation courses to go on in order to further your professionalism.  All this and you are dealing, on a minute by minute basis, with little people who often defy all logic and all reason whilst throwing in the odd tantrum or left field comment such as “I want to be in another family not ours” (my daughter’s most recent refrain) to sorely test your people management skills.

It is not surprising then that we often question our parenting skills, wonder whether we are failing.  We have no annual appraisal, no slap on the back, certainly no bonus or salary increase.  So how do we measure our success?  Success lies in all those moments which make the ‘Yum Yum moment’ worthwhile – when your child is happy, laughing, doing well at school and when they tell you that they love you.  Those moments far outweigh the ‘Yum Yum moments’, they are precious and to be cherished.

There will not be much external approbation and you will have to put up with the glazed-over look at dinner parties when you say you are a stay-at-home mother.  Your successes will not be shouted from the rooftops (although reassuringly your failings will remain largely unnoticed too!) but you will know when you’ve done well and the highs are incomparable with the highs from the average job. It’s worth remembering that actually you are doing the most difficult, most relentless, job of all even if you sometimes doubt your ability to succeed and your hard work goes largely unrecognised.  It is OK to punch the air sometimes and go “yeah” – anyway, probably no-one will notice and if they do, so what?

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Dads – they’re grrrrrrrreat….

Frosties de Kellog's, poderosa energía

Frosties de Kellog’s, poderosa energía (Photo credit: frosklis)

Forget Tiger Mums, make way for Tiger Dads.  Forget Tony “They’re Grrrrrrreat” Tiger of Frosties fame, I’m talking about survival of the fittest; who is the King of the Tigers?

Tiger Mums have been getting a lot of negative press recently and to be honest, I think most of it is justified.  This is probably because Tiger Mums make me feel small part inadequate, small part lazy and most part cross.  We all want the best for our children and we all feel proud and rather over-excited when they are successful at something – we have to stop ourselves shouting out – ‘that’s my little Johnny, yes, over there, the one who is so so so good at bla bla bla”. However, putting my children forward for MENSA at age 2, insisting on distinction in grade 8 piano by the age of 4, expecting them to be national squad players in at least 6 sports by the age of 10 is just not my thing.  Anyway, the genes don’t look good for my children – forget MENSA, I can hardly remember my name these days; I can only just about play Chopsticks despite learning the piano for ten years and as for sport, the only running I do now is a bath at the end of the day.

So what about Dads?  Unlike women who often tend to try and hide their “tiger” tendencies – pretending to be all laid back whilst subjecting their children to hour upon hour of extra coaching on the quiet – their little secret – most men are the absolute opposite.  They are competitive and they don’t care who knows it and they are utterly incapable of hiding it.

I am not suggesting that all women are like this, or all men are like that – that’s far too simplistic .  Of course, there are men out there who are pushing their children to extremes – true Tiger Dads – we’ve all read about them – just as there are lots of women who are competitive for their children without being obsessional. However, just as often little boys behave differently to little girls, the same tendencies are played out in adulthood in relation to their children. Actually most men are not really Tiger Dads, just typical Dads.

Take a kids’ cricket match as an example. Forget the competition between the boys playing – obviously that’s there and anyway a bit of competition is healthy.  No, look at the Dads, listen to the Dads.  It is as if they have regressed in age by about 30 years and our living out their former competitive glories through their sons. Like Father, like Son. There is humour and ribbing and an awful lot of chat (and that applies to both the boys and their fathers!)

So why is it that the Tiger Mums get the negative press whereas the Dads largely slip beneath the radar, their competitiveness laughed at and even expected?  Well, I think it is because the Dads’ competitive nature is so much more palatable to the observer – they are very open about it; they take it seriously but there is still much lighthearted banter amongst themselves.  They behave in some ways like the children they are watching – over-excited and noisily competitive – but it feels very natural and not obsessive in the way Tiger Mums are so often portrayed to be.

This sort of competition is healthy.  One of my largest problems with schools and children’s activities in the UK today is this overbearing nannying of our children so that we protect them from ever losing at anything, from ever being disappointed.  Life is not like that and our kids need to experience the reality of life from early on in a controlled and nurturing environment otherwise they are going to have one large shock when they are grown-up and out there in the real world.

We need to teach our children that you win some, you lose some.  We need to teach them that a degree of competition is healthy and there will be a winner and a loser.  We have to stop giving every child a medal just so that no-one is singled out as being successful.  A confident and balanced child will learn in childhood that they can’t be number 1 at everything, that they will come second, third or whatever and that is just the way it is.  They will be secure enough in their own abilities to be able to shrug off the disappointments but also enjoy their successes.  Success has become a dirty word and it shouldn’t be.  It should be something to be celebrated.

So let these “Tiger Dads” be.  I for one find them very amusing and very unthreatening.  Their competitiveness is not unappealing but rather endearing.  They just want their kids to do well and there is nothing wrong with that, it’s entirely normal.  Of course, there are lots of mothers out there who have got the balance just right too. But true Tiger Mums and true Tiger Dads take note, competition is healthy, obsessional pushing is not.

Mad Science

Mad scientist

Mad scientist (Photo credit: BWJones)

You know how the saying goes…if you fall off a horse, you’ve got to get straight back on again.  Well, it’s taken me 2 years but I have held another “Mad Science” party for my son’s birthday and I have survived.

Two years ago, this would never have seemed possible.  That party – twelve 7 year old boys in my house (first huge error), one mad scientist and two shell-shocked, utterly horrified parents – ended with me bursting into tears of sheer relief when they all left and only narrowly avoiding an extended stay in The Priory.  The only word I can think to describe that party is apocalyptic – “Lord of the Flies” South-West London style.

It was a seminal moment in my child-rearing – the moment at which we lost total control.  The boys were in charge and it wasn’t pretty. I genuinely think I suffered with a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after that party.  One thing was certain – never ever ever would I hold a child’s birthday party in my house again.  I have kept to that.  The other thing I thought was certain – never ever would I wish to hear the words “mad” and “science” in the same sentence let alone combined with the word “party”. Somehow my resolve weakened on this.

That brings me to today – “Mad Science” party 2.  Not content with twelve 7 year olds, this time I upped the stakes and we had twenty four 7 year olds (all boys), one mad scientist (female) and four potentially shell-shocked, utterly horrified parents (yes, this time, I shared the annual burden of the birthday party).  Before the party, as I contemplated my idiocy in agreeing to endure another two hours of utter hell, I tried to work out what sort of person would choose to endure such a party again at a significant financial cost with absolutely no visible upside.  Clearly, I am a lunatic.

Well I survived and you know what….it wasn’t actually that bad.  Admittedly the memory is already fading at the edges thanks to the indecently large glass of wine that I am currently attacking like some sort of slightly deranged, dehydrated dipsomaniac.  The mad scientist certainly earned her money this afternoon and I am fairly sure she is reconsidering her career choice (she’s just completing her teacher training) after 2 hours with 24 boys, a load of goo, dry ice, bunsen burners, potentially lethal chemicals and a non-launching rocket.  I am also certain that being a mad scientist and spending 2 hours trying to control a roomful of crazed 7 year olds must be one of the most effective forms of contraception on the market.

I know I probably shouldn’t say this but I don’t believe I’m alone – children’s birthday parties are an ordeal, something to be endured, an annual burden.  But they are a necessary rite of passage and I remember (just) the excitement I felt in the build-up to my birthday parties when I was a child. Of course I wouldn’t want to deny my children that excitement and celebration.

Two things bug me though: firstly, children’s parties were simple affairs when I was a child – some games, home-made cake and a party bag full of nothing much.  Nowadays, we are expected to shell-out hundreds of pounds on entertainers or hold our parties in ever more exotic venues, buy in the cake (gone are the days when an 8 inch round with chocolate buttons on it sufficed; no, now kids expect an entire football pitch replete with favourite team and realistic-looking icing turf) and a party bag brimming with the latest must-have toys.

Secondly, “thank you” would go a long way. Not from the kids at the party – they were all very polite; from my own children.  After every party we hold for our children, the conversation goes like this: me: “Did you enjoy your party?”, child: “Yup”, me: “Do you have anything to say?”, child – silence, me: “It would be really nice if you said thank you after all the effort we’ve made”, child “thank you”, me “not now, before would have been good…”

Time to collapse in a post-party heap.  Ticked that box for another year.  Conquered my fear of “Mad Science” parties.  Yes, it has been a good day on the whole.

I think, therefore I am…

Mr Blobby (song)

Mr Blobby (song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Daughter (age 3, 6am): “Mummy, I need some Calpol ‘cos I’ve got a tummy ache.”

Me (age 40, one eye open, hangover pending): “Calpol is not for tummy aches, it’s for temperatures and headaches.”

Daughter: “Well, my tummy has got a headache.”

Me: silent, unable to counter “child logic”.

There is something about a child’s impeccable logic which makes it very difficult to argue against.  Of course, it is actually not logical at all but it is the conviction with which it is delivered and its ability to catch you totally unawares that makes it impossible to dispute.

It is exchanges such as this which make you realise that how children see the world is so different to how we see it.  There is no sense of responsibility, no mistrust, no cynicism, no world-weariness to mould a child’s reactions. They say it how it is, how they see it. Many times when my children say something surprising, it makes me yearn to be a child again.  It has always seemed very unfair to me that as adults we have largely forgotten those early days of childhood.  It is ironic that our best days are confined to the deepest inaccessible recesses of our memory. We get sudden jolts of that wonderful childhood excitement and wonder.  For me, it is the magic of Christmas which catapults me straight back into my childhood. It is almost a physical feeling as you see the world through your children’s eyes.

The simplicity of a child’s thought process is so clear and free from all the forces that affect our adult thought processes. Sometimes, their comments seem to be so left field but in their simplicity they reveal so much about the workings of a child’s mind.

My middle son asked me the other day “How did God make himself?”. I have to admit to being totally unprepared for this philosophical question, coming as it did in that 10 minute window of hell which is the mad scramble to get on the school run.  It struck me as very interesting that my 6 year old son was pondering such deep questions at a time when I was picking up Shreddies from under my daughter’s chair and wondering whether I could get away with that good old favourite “pasta pesto” for the kids’ dinner that evening. I’m afraid I batted his question away with a “great question, I’ll have to give that some thought” – hoping to buy myself some time in which at best he would totally forget ever having asked the question and at worst I would have had time to dig out my bluffer’s guide to philosophy of religion.

Children do have a knack of asking or saying the most unexpected things at the most inopportune moments.  I remember when I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my daughter and I was heaving myself up the hill home from the shops with my sons (no doubt again pondering whether “pasta pesto” for the third time this week was tantamount to neglect) my elder son suddenly stopped and said, “When the baby is born, will it come out of your mouth?”.  What do you say?  Here I am, just minding my own business, wobbling up the hill like “Mr Blobby” (without the yellow spots) blissfully unaware that my son is contemplating the finer intricacies of the birthing process.  I admired his logic but this was not the time for a full on discussion about giving birth which would inevitably lead on to the “how did the baby get there in the first place” conversation.  I think I responded with a “It’s not quite like that, but not far off” sort of reply.  In normal circumstances this would have been woefully inadequate but fortunately he had been distracted by the fact that his brother had stepped in dog poo which of course he found hysterically amusing and I found painfully unamusing as bending down to remove said dog poo, required a feat of almost impossible balance and acrobatic nature totally unsuited to someone in the late stages of pregnancy.  Although I have to admit to being marginally grateful for whoever’s dog it was that chose to open its bowels on the pavement just there as it saved me from a complicated conversation with my son.

Despite the difficulties which these questions sometimes present, I absolutely love the randomness of their asking. Amongst the relentless routines and order of bringing up small children, there is something hugely refreshing and constantly surprising about the things they say and ask. The way they view the world is so unpredictable and we should celebrate this short period of their lives when they are not constrained by responsibility, awareness or cynicism.  It is through our child’s thinking that we get glimpses of a long-forgotten childhood, of that very special time before awareness creeps in and permeates our thought processes and our responses to the world around us.

Frankie Says Relax…

música

música (Photo credit: hang the t-shirt)

Having been asked recently by my middle child whether I qualify as “elderly” and having reminded him that I hadn’t even reached middle age yet and that I had every intention of at least paying lip service to that stage of life, I got to thinking about what it is that I actually miss about being young. I have spent so much of the last few months angsting about turning 40 and all that being that age entails that I haven’t really thought about what it is I actually would like back from my late teens and twenties…

Let’s get the obvious out of the way – my face and body. You see I never appreciated what I had in those days – no wrinkles, the fresh face and the ability to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted without gaining a pound. I think Mother Nature has got it all wrong – we should have the body and face of a 40 plus woman in our twenties and then the process should reverse in our forties because then we would really appreciate it and look after it. As it is, we take it all for granted in our twenties – eat entire packets of Cadbury’s chocolate fingers in one sitting (which I can still do by the way), not take our make-up off for days in succession and exercise once a year – and then Mother Nature sticks two fingers up to us in our forties and presents us with what I now see every morning in the mirror and in the deafening silence when I walk past a building site.

Something I really miss about my teens/twenties is the feeling of immortality, invincibility. It was me against the world and I definitely had the upper hand. At that age, we throw caution to the wind, we take risks, we have adventures. Not so in your forties – throwing caution to the wind is having a take-away on a Friday evening, opening that second bottle of wine or perhaps dancing “gangnam style” with a whole load of similarly-aged, equally “reckless” people (well, at least, that’s what happened at my 40th). We are so much better at weighing up the risks in our forties and this can make it very difficult to be spontaneous or take chances. Although I did promise myself on my fortieth birthday, that I would take chances…perhaps this blog is my first steps?

In a funny way, I also miss the emotional highs and lows. Especially in your late teens, life is a rollercoaster (as Ronan Keating sang) and although those lows could be pretty damn low, that emotional lability did make you feel very alive. One minute you are totally and utterly in love, besotted and the next the object of your affections is a complete and utter b******! Through your thirties and beyond, cynicism creeps in and all that up and down becomes very tiring. Perhaps on reflection, this is not something I really miss – it really was very tiring indeed and I guess now I am much more emotionally stable (although I do recognise that this is relative and there are those out there who might not agree with my self-analysis!)

One of the things I miss the most is the music and the dancing. I still love listening to all the music that is in the charts now (god, I sound like I’m 140 rather than 40) and there is nothing more I like than an evening of drinking and dancing with my friends. However, I am acutely aware that I have probably, in my kids’ eyes, become a bit of an embarrassment on the dance floor (parents dancing – hideous!). I also really miss all those great tunes from the 80s and early 90s – there is nothing for me more evocative of my youth than when a huge 80s hit comes on the radio. Those tunes bring the memories flooding back and largely they are wonderful memories. My children may (and do) look on in utter horror when I shriek out “Ride on Time” but you know what, I don’t care!

Anyway, enough looking back and wishing…time for me to put a tape in my Walkman, put on my “Frankie says Relax” t-shirt and pour myself a cinzano and lemonade!

Open to Interpretation…

Parenthood

Parenthood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was thinking earlier about how, as parents, what we say and what we think or mean in reality are often two completely different things.  I was wondering if this is a peculiarly British trait as our natural reserve and detached politeness dictate our responses, often masking what we really think. I suspect it is not just the British. Often, when it comes to our children, there is a whole subtext underlying what we actually say both to them and to parents of other children.  What do I mean?  Well, perhaps it is best illustrated with some examples, each with what might be said first, then what is actually thought or meant:

“Horatio Lancelot – what a fabulously interesting and unusual name to call your son” = “What the bloody hell were you thinking?”

“Gosh, doesn’t he look like his dad?” = “Poor sod, only a mother could love him”

“I’ve been so lucky with her, she’s a great little eater and sleeper” = “she eats nothing except toast with marmite and peanut butter and she has never slept for more than 2 hours at a time”

“He’s just a ball of energy” = “Little tyke”

“It’s so lovely, my kids go everywhere with me” = “I can’t even go to the bloody bathroom on my own”

“I’d love it if little Johnny could come over for a play and tea” = “I’d rather stick rusty pins in my eyes”

“Right that’s it, I warned you, no more TV for a month” = “There I go again with a threat I can’t carry out”

“What do you say?  What’s the magic word?” = “What is so complicated about the words please and thank you that you have still not mastered them at nearly 9”

“My kids are just letting off steam” = “I’ve totally lost control again”

“No, you absolutely cannot play on the Xbox today” = “I’m sure I can be persuaded if you ask me again in half an hour”

“Your son is a really good little footballer” = “My son is way better and he should be in the team, not your son – that coach needs his eyes tested”

“We’re really trying to bring our little one up with two languages – English and Spanish – it’s so useful to be bi-lingual” = “She watches far too much Dora the Explorer”

“I love those days when we stay at home painting or clay modelling – all those wonderful messy activities which it is so important for kids to do, such fun” = “That’s the whole point of nurseries, isn’t it? A place to do all those things which I loathe and which leave my house daubed in paint and looking as though it has been burgled ”

“The kids got on brilliantly and your son was an absolute delight” = “That was the playdate from hell and over my dead body will your little darling be stepping over the threshold of my house ever again”

“We’re really very relaxed parents” = “We follow Gina Ford to the letter, every minute of every day is accounted for”

“Every day is different as a stay-at-home mother” = “Every day is a relentless round of cleaning, washing, ironing, cooking and taxi-driving”

“I feel very valued as a mother” = “What did your last slave die of?”

Tongue-in-cheek -yes,  and deliberately exaggerated – perhaps just a little,  but there is some truth in the gap that often exists between what we say and what we are actually thinking. However, to redress the balance, one thing that we do say which is exactly the same as what we think, is when we say to our children”I love you totally” because we do (perhaps I should just add the caveat “even though you can be rather challenging”!).

The New Rules of Parenting…

Fireplace

Fireplace (Photo credit: John.Karakatsanis)

A good start to 2013 for me – it would appear that for the first time I am ahead of the parenting curve.  This is no mean feat – as a fully paid-up member of the Gina Ford generation, this does not often happen, if at all in my case. To what am I referring? “The new rules of parenting” in “The Times 2” today.

Let me explain.  My eldest son has been displaying some ‘interesting’ new pyromaniacal tendencies.  Up until a few weeks ago, he has shown zilch interest in fire except perhaps a certain disdain for it as he wrestles with his brother dangerously close.  However, recently, it is all about the fire.  He wants to light the fire in our sitting room all the time – first thing in the morning, lunchtime, evening and most irritatingly at about 10pm.  He not only seems to enjoy the whole fire-building process (very much a male preserve, rather like barbecuing) but he tends that fire and nurtures it in a way a mother would her baby.  I have watched this new obsession with some bemusement/amusement and a fair amount of anxiety, aware that it could only too quickly go horribly wrong.

We decided to allow him to follow this new obsession and my husband has very patiently built more fires with his son over this Christmas period than the 16 years I have known him.  So imagine the smugness (there is no other word for it, I’m afraid) that swept over me this morning when I turned to my newspaper and “A five-stage guide to bringing up boys and girls” by child development expert Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. There in black and white, under the section for boys aged 8-10, it says “…Help him to develop practical skills, such as lighting a bonfire (he will do it anyway, so we may as well teach him properly)…” Not only did I feel immediately comforted – my son is perfectly normal for his age and not showing worrying tendencies towards arson – but we, as parents, had responded appropriately – high five!

I have to say that this was about the only area in which we seemed to be succeeding and it would probably be fair to say that I am giving undue attention to one sentence in a long article. In the same section, referring to boys of the same age as my eldest, we are also told not to “go over the top in praising him in an attempt to boost self-esteem: he will feel smothered”. Now, please tell me that I am not the only mother who has days when she finds it very difficult to find anything to praise and I am very rarely in danger of going over the top with my praise.  Some days I am forced to praise him (in desperation) for things which one might normally praise a child of two or three for – eg putting on his shoes (not laces just velcro) or worse still, praising him for most unpraiseworthy things such as getting into the car without smacking or kicking his brother.  This is all part of that balancing out the scolding for bad behaviour (sorry, “boisterous behaviour”) with praise (which all the parenting gurus go on about) and which some days really does result in praise for the most ludicrous things.

As for my other son, he falls into the ages 4-7 boys bracket. In this age bracket we should “encourage his growing sense of humour…Telling a joke is a way that boys can experience some equality with an adult…” For me, one of my most dreaded moments is when one of my children says to me, “Mummy, I’ve got a really good joke to tell you”.  What follows is never a “joke”, as you or I might understand it, but a complete nonsensical string of words which I am expected to laugh at manically once delivered.  Something along the lines of “What did the egg say to the sausage – where’s the baked beans?”  – brilliant, hilarious, hysterical.  Those first jokes are quite excruciating but you do gradually see some comprehension dawning and then the endless round of “knock knock” jokes start.  In fact, currently when one of my boys says to me those dreaded words “Mummy, I’ve got a really good joke to tell you”, I find myself saying “who’s there?” before he’s even started.  Now, however that I know these jokes must be encouraged, I shall do my best to force the laughter and praise (but not over-praise) their attempts at humour.

What about my daughter in all this?  Well, apparently for her age-group, I should be letting her be naughty.  I may have totally misunderstood but I wasn’t aware that I had much say in whether she is naughty or not – she certainly doesn’t ask my permission. I have to agree with Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, though, that “a bit of bad behaviour shows a spark of creativity”.  That’s my excuse anyway!