Thursday, 28 November 2013

A Garden of One's Own

For the first 21 months of Eleanor's life, we lived in a second floor flat. We had hoped to sell it and move before she arrived, but no such luck. It was a small block with a communal garden so we weren't totally deprived of outdoor space, but with a massive driveway that neighbours' cars could come up at any given moment, and no barrier between the driveway and the road, it wasn't ideal.

We were desperate for a house. Actually, let's rephrase that: we were desperate for a garden. Somewhere Eleanor could play without us worrying about her messing about with somebody else's plants or getting hit by an unexpected car.

We finally sold our flat this summer, and moved in September. That was a heck of a long summer! Beautiful sunny days, perfect for a paddling pool, felt totally wasted on us. Eleanor was getting to the age where she needed space to walk, run, climb and generally have fun, and we didn't have it.

At last, we moved. The garden in our new house is not at all child-friendly yet, but it's a garden! After one week in the new house, Eleanor's legs were covered in grazes from climbing about (unsuccessfully) on rocks. Yes, she didn't much enjoy the grazes, but she learnt from them. She learnt to be more careful on rocks, but thankfully not that she shouldn't climb them – she's developed a great fondness for rocks since then!

She's also developed a fondness for worms. Or, as she calls them, widdy worms. While I'm hiding my revulsion and picking them up with sticks, she'll happily pluck them out of the earth with her fingers, while muttering, "Be very gentle pease." (I'm not sure if she understands this phrase or if she's just parrotting, but she hasn't squished a worm yet!)

When we didn't have a garden of our own, we knew we needed one. But it wasn't until we got one that we realised just how much we'd been missing out. Even though the weather is turning cold now, we will still often spend half an hour or more outside, kicking a ball, drawing on the patio with chalk, hunting for widdy worms and spotting airy-panes. Aeroplanes, in case you didn't work that out.

Of course, even if you don't have a garden, you can go to a park, a wood or some other big open space and have fun. But there's nothing like opening the back door and having your own little bit of the great outdoors to enjoy any time you like.

It excites me to think about the possibilities we have with this garden. Snowmen in the winter, paddling pools in the summer, den building, teaching Eleanor about growing food. We talk about making teepees, and I dream of finally using the hammock we were given as a wedding gift seven years ago!


A child will thrive in any home as long as they are loved and given plenty of chances to explore the outdoors. But nothing quite beats having a garden of your own.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Goldieblox and the Three Bleurghs ...

This is just a quick post so may not be very eloquent but ...

There's been a lot of talk on Facebook and Twitter about Goldieblox, a brand selling engineering toys for girls. You can see the advert that has got everyone talking here.

I watched the advert and this was my inner monologue; "Aww great, an advert telling people that girls don't have to like pink and princesses ... wow, look at those girls reinventing and subverting their traditionally girly toys ... this is awesome, I bet the product is going to be ... oh."

Why the oh? Well, take a look at the products they offer: pinky-peachy-purply packaging covered with their signature character Goldieblox, with her preposterously voluminous golden tresses and massive eyes, looking like she's wandered out of a Disney movie. And the products themselves? A parade float and a spinning machine? Ooh look girls, you can make these typically girly items but it involves some special magic called engineering!!

I should state, I'm not an engineer. In fact, I'm not sciencey or practical AT ALL - because I'm not of that bent, not because I'm female. I would love it if Eleanor grew up to be more practical than me, but I wouldn't want to encourage this by giving her a product which says, "hey, you can do engineering, as long as it's ultimately related to something feminine!" I'd much prefer her to play with Lego or Meccano or something similarly gender neutral. Because those things should be gender neutral, no matter what people think.

I really doubt that the way to get girls into science is to give it a pastel princess rebranding. The way to get girls into science is to give them the opportunity to play with toys encouraging these interests as early as possible, before the world of marketing has convinced that they need to be a pastel princess.

And that's me off my soapbox. I need to tidy up Eleanor's Duplo. She built a house this morning. Yeah.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Slowing down

This Thursday, we woke up to glorious sunshine after a rainstorm overnight. The perfect conditions for a puddle hunt! I wrapped Eleanor up in a fleece, puddle suit and wellies and myself in a big coat and wellies and we went for a little walk to a very country-like road not far from our house. "Pudda huntin!" Eleanor repeated over and over. We haven't been for many walks without the pushchair recently, and it made me realise something.

I'm too impatient.

Or rather, I'm still too impatient. I knew I used to be – for all of those years I commuted to work, I would dodge around my fellow pedestrians who were just going too darn slow for me. I would get wound up at work about the time it took to get responses to e-mails, sitting on hold on the phone, waiting for other colleagues to do something so I could get on with what I needed to do. Because working life is so frantic, so busy, I felt like there was not a moment to lose. I rushed through my days, weeks, months and they disappeared without me even noticing.

And then I became a mum. Five months into my maternity leave the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy came up, and I decided that a little bit more time off with my daughter would be nice so I took it. She's nearly two now and I'm still a stay at home mum, having decided that that is the best place for me right now. So I thought that I'd slowed down, wound down from the pace of working life. But as I walked along the street with my daughter, I realised I'm still like a coiled spring. I was impatient to get to the puddles, whereas Eleanor just wanted to look at what else she could see on the way. As we walked I made myself calm down and notice things I'd normally rush past, because Eleanor was noticing them too.

"Butterfly!" she cried, going past the spot where, six weeks ago, we saw a butterfly lying flat on the ground. She remembers it every time we go past.

"Listen, Eleanor, what can you hear?" I said as I heard the clip-clop of horses' hooves coming up a path nearby. She froze and stared as the horses trotted past us.

"Number 1!" she shouted, as she spotted a tile on somebody's wall. "Somebody else's number 1!"

"Triangle," she said, pointing at a manhole cover. (Actually, she said, "tida," but I understood her!) "Rectangle," again pointing at another cover. Who knew a puddle hunt could turn into a Maths lesson?

And, for a bit of balance, some literacy. "Sssss!" she hissed pointing at the letter S on a street sign. She tried some other letters, but struggled as they were capitals and she's used to lower case. Still, that street sign kept her entertained for about 3 minutes!


It's a cliche, but sometimes children teach us as much as we teach them. In a busy, rushed, impatient world, I have been blessed with the opportunity to experience the world at a toddler's pace again. Now is the time to slow down.

(We did make it to the puddles, by the way! And she rushed around trying to splash in every one. OK, maybe a toddler's pace isn't always that slow!)

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Reflections on "ToddlerCalm (TM)" by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Note: I have used the word 'Reflections' instead of 'Review' here for two reasons. Firstly, 'review' implies a certain level of objectivity, even if the whole piece is not objective, whereas I read parenting books purely with my own situation in mind and so my write-up will be more heavily subjective than I would be in a review. Secondly, in a 'reflection' piece I can write not only about what I think of the book, but what the book made me think about me.

I discovered Sarah Ockwell-Smith and ToddlerCalmTM through Twitter around the time that the BabyCalmTM book was released. "Great," I thought, "but my daughter's nearly one, babyhood is almost over, what the heck do I do with a toddler?" Then came the announcement that the ToddlerCalmTM book would be published (hurray!) the following October (boo, too long!). I waited rather impatiently for months and months, then when I finally received my pre-ordered copy I couldn't wait to get stuck in.

The whole focus of this book is dealing with common toddler issues – tantrums, sleep problems, picky eating etc – in a way that is compassionate, gentle and in tune with the developmental needs of the child. Much of it runs counter to the prevailing attitude in our society that these issues need to be eliminated through punitive measures such as the naughty step, cry-it-out and the like, and as this is an attitude that I instinctively feel is wrong for my family, I knew that the book would be both affirming and helpful for me. I do have to qualify that, though, by saying I didn't like everything about it – more on that later.

So what did I like about the book? First of all, I love the way it starts out by asking what personality traits you want your child to grow up with. This instantly gets you thinking about the bigger picture, and reminds you that your child won't be a toddler forever and the problems you're having now will one day be a memory. I'd already been thinking along these lines before I started reading; while waiting for the book's release, many problems arose which got me thinking, "I really need that book now!" only for those problems to pass. I love that Ockwell-Smith encourages us to take the long view, rather than focussing on 'fixing' our toddler problems as quickly as possible without regard for the effect these fixes will have on the child's development.

The first part of the book is quite heavy-going in parts, with a lot about psychology and brain development. But, as much as this was a bit of a slog to get through, it is so important and eye-opening. Understanding just how differently Eleanor's brain works to mine has helped me to see things from her point of view, and so focus on helping her instead of punishing her. It's as if I now realise that I need to 'fill in' for the bits of her brain that aren't developed yet – I need to help her regulate her emotions, I need to smooth things over when toddler clashes happen rather than expecting her to say sorry (because she won't be sorry really, and I don't want her to think sorry is a magic word to get her out of trouble). The science of toddlers is the basis for Ockwell-Smith's CRUCIALTM framework, which is a method for dealing with any toddler problem going. I won't go into an explanation of what it is here (for a start, that'd be bordering on plagiarism) but it's a really good framework for thinking about the issue and tailoring a solution to your own circumstances, without being too prescriptive. I have to say here, though, that Chapter 14, where CRUCIALTM is applied to a number of problems, gets a bit repetitive – but then I suppose few people will read the whole thing, choosing instead to focus on the problem that is presenting itself at the time.

What didn't I like then? Well, this probably says more about me than the book, but I was kind of hoping for a magic cure to Eleanor's sleep problems, and this was sadly lacking. While it does deal with toddler sleep, if that's your main concern, this isn't the book for you. The chapter on sleep begins with some stats, showing that around a third of toddlers wake in the night. This is meant to be comforting – look how many other toddlers don't sleep through! But all I took away was – hey, two thirds of toddlers sleep through, and of the remaining, many of them probably aren't waking up every night like mine. So I'm in a minority! Although there are some pointers for trying to improve the situation, the main message is that, if your toddler's having sleep issues now, you'll just have to wait until they're older and it will fix itself. Perhaps I'm being very reductive there, but that's the message I took away. There are suggestions for a bedtime routine, but we've had one of those in place for over a year and it hasn't stopped her fighting sleep, or waking up in the night. (Also, the suggested bedtime routine relies on a few gadgets which – conveniently – can be purchased through the ToddlerCalmTM website. There are very few alternatives suggested to these.) So no magic bullet for getting the decent sleep that we all need. Ho hum.

One other area I struggled with a bit was the discussion of praise. Again, this probably says more about me than the book. Apparently, phrases like, "well done," and, "good girl," are bad, and praise can reduce intrinsic motivation to complete tasks. I get this about rewards, yes – give a kid a chocolate for doing something, and soon they'll only do it to get chocolate. But I struggle with the idea that saying, "well done," when Eleanor has made a particularly impressive Duplo construction, or a quick, "good girl," when she has tidied her toys away will turn her into an approval junkie. Reading this part of the book has made me rather paranoid about what I say to my daughter – maybe that's a good thing, but for the most part I think it's all about balance. While I've started using Ockwell-Smith's 'say what you see' approach a bit more instead of explicitly praising, I think little snippets of praise will always slip out and I don't see that as problem. I'm certainly not going to beat myself up about it!

One other little niggle – and probably me being overly PC – is that the hypothetical toddler in the book is always referred to as a boy. Only a minor thing, I know, but I prefer the modern convention of alternating between boys and girls. Feels more inclusive.


Overall, I enjoyed this book and found it very helpful when it comes to the area of discipline and dealing with problematic behaviour. It confirmed to me that problems are not with the toddler, but with a society that expects toddlers to be little grown ups, and so hurries us through a period of their life which is in fact so rich with wonder, joy and humour. Hopefully, with this approach, I'll be able to replace 'terrible twos' with 'terrific twos' as I help Eleanor to deal with the rough patches in her life, and enjoy watching a little person developing right before my eyes.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Why I hate painting

Thursday is a quiet day for us, so it's often the day I choose for messy play. This morning, after a run of bad nights, I was feeling pretty tired so decided to go for the 'easy' option of painting - 'easy' because all the prep required is getting out the paint and paper.

Except it's not the easy option is it?

It seems a natural choice, kids love painting and all that. Except Eleanor doesn't really get painting and thinks the whole point of it is to keep dipping the painting implements into different pots without actually transferring any paint onto paper - so I continually have to coax her to ACTUALLY paint, and end up doing half the painting myself. She gets upset if any paint goes on her hands and will attempt to wipe it on me. And, around 10 minutes in, she will start licking the paint off her fingers, so I quite quickly have to abandon the whole scheme to avoid major paint ingestion. (Don't worry, I buy the non-toxic stuff, but I'm guessing even that isn't ideal food.)

So after, at most, 15 minutes of entertainment (under duress) I'm left with a painting that looks like this:


A pile of cotton buds (I lost the brush) that look like this:
A bib that looks like this:
And a toddler that looks like this:

That last photo doesn't really do justice to the sheer amount of paint coverage there was on her legs, and it was after washing her hands to avoid any further finger licking fun. 

15 minutes of 'fun' and then a heck of a lot of cleaning up afterwards. Ahh yes, that's why I hate painting.

Costume dramas

Raising a toddler often feels like a tug of war. On one hand, Eleanor is striving for independence and control; on the other, she can get overwhelmed by too much choice or freedom. She wants to be an adult and a baby all at once. It's my job to respect both of these urges, no matter how stressful I find it.

Now we all know how important clothes are in expressing who we are. So one area where I'm trying to hand over control to Eleanor is in her outfits. Over the past few months I've experimented with how much control she really wants at this stage. It started out fairly tentative – I'd maybe let her choose from two tops then pick the trousers myself, for instance. But that little scrap of power made her hungry for more, and so I had to give her more autonomy, in varying degrees. This requires a lot of patience – I'm not sure I'll ever forget the morning Eleanor took 20 minutes to choose a pair of tights. She'd pulled them all out of her drawer so I lined them all up on the side of her cot and encouraged her; "Go on, Eleanor, you choose a pair of tights and give them to Mummy."

"Choose pair," she muttered to herself uncertainly, "choose pair." She pulled them all off the cot and started trying to put them back up again. "Choose pair." I took deep breaths while inwardly screaming, "YES, CHOOSE A PAIR, IT'S NOT LIFE OR DEATH!!"

After that incident I decided maybe it'd be best to just give her a couple of options for each item of clothing. I started asking her if she wanted to wear a dress or top first of all, which she has got the hang of pretty well. I then give her a choice of two tops or dresses, then two of the appropriate accompaniments (trousers/leggings for the former, tights for the latter.) However, after the aforementioned 20-minutes-choosing-tights incident, Eleanor is wise to the fact that she has far more than two pairs of tights, and will pull them out of the drawer and attempt to line them all up on the cot. So I quite like the days when she says, "top," straight away.

Of course, sometimes, she changes her mind partway through the process. Here's a sample conversation:

ME: Dress or top, Eleanor?
E: Dress, top.
ME: Which would you like to wear, dress or top?
E: Top.
ME: OK. (picks out two tops, one of which is a bit long and has frills at the bottom) Which of these tops would you like?
E: (grabs longer, frilly top) Dress!
ME: Well, that's a top, but yes, you can wear that. OK, let me find some trousers.
E: Tights!
ME: No we wear trousers with tops, tights go with ... (notices E has already pulled out all of the tights) ... OK, would you rather wear a dress? (picks out two dresses) Which dress would you like?
E: (picking up frilly top again) No! Dress!
ME: OK, you can wear that, but you'll need trou-
E: Tights!! (goes back to pile of tights)
ME: OK, you can wear tights with the top, now choose a pair and give it to Mummy.
E: Choose pair ...

I think you can see where this is heading. She did eventually pick some very bright, stripy tights to go with the delicate, pale pink, frilly top, and I insisted she wear some shorts too to preserve her dignity. She chose some tweedy grey ones. I thought she looked bizarre. Off we went to playgroup, me ready with the phrase, "She chose it herself," as a retort to any comments, but do you know what? Everyone said she looked really nice! I seem to remember the word 'stylish' came up at one point! As I related the battle I had getting her to choose her outfit, one mum said, "ahh you gave her choice, that was your first mistake!" She was only kidding of course, and I took it that way, but do you know what? It wasn't a mistake. I was giving my little girl a chance to express herself, to control that part of her life, and she looked gorgeous. Because toddlers look gorgeous whatever they wear. It's the one time in your life where mismatching genuinely works. Yes, it takes much longer than just picking out an outfit I like, but I've found she's much more cooperative in getting dressed when she's had a say in the outfit so I'm happy to avoid the tantrums and play the waiting game.

There are still times when too much choice overwhelms her, or she's just in an awkward mood. Sometimes she will say no to every top I pick out and eventually get bored and wander off to her toy box, at which point I generally ask her, "Shall Eleanor choose or shall Mummy choose?" To which she invariably replies, "Mummy choose," having tired of the whole process, and I breathe a sigh of relief and pick out one that I like. But actually, I quite like being able to say, "She chose it herself." I like the mad combinations she goes for, and sometimes the words, "Mummy choose," are a bit disappointing because then I don't get to see what clothes she would put together. I'm sure that as she gets older, she will become even more assertive about what she wears, and the, "Mummy choose," moments will become few and far between. And I can't wait for that.


Even if it means having the most uncoordinated toddler at playgroup.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Shared First – Our first Rugby League match


Let me take you back, dear reader, to the early months of this year, when my husband and I had this conversation:

Husband: It's the Rugby League World Cup this year. There might be some matches nearby.
Me: That would be cool, but would we take Eleanor?
H: I don't know, it's in November.
Me: Oh, she'll be nearly two by then, she'll be much more grown up.
H: Yeah, I reckon she'd be able to go.
Me: Yeah, let's book some tickets.

Fast forward to two days ago, as I looked at my nearly-two-year-old daughter, who wasn't that much more grown up. If anything, the passage of months had just made her more active and wriggly, and less able to focus on anything for more than a minute. (Unless that something is 'Raa Raa the Noisy Lion'. Which, unfortunately, is very different to a rugby match.) I had realised by this point that I had been a bit naive in thinking she could sit through an 80-minute match. But the tickets were booked for the following day's match between England and Ireland. No going back.

It was very important to me that, at some point in her early life, Eleanor should go to a Rugby League match. Having been mostly uninterested in sport for the first 27 years of my life, I suddenly got interested in Rugby League when pregnant with Eleanor. Up until then, whenever my husband watched it, I would shake my head, mutter something about it being a violent, horrible sport, and go into another room. But, being very pregnant, I didn't have the energy to go into another room, so I ended up watching it. And loving it. And realising that it wasn't actually violent as such – yes, it's very physical, rough, sometimes aggressive, but not actively violent. Thinking about it, it's a very good example of how to channel the need to 'play rough' in a non-violent way, which is an important message for young people. So Rugby League and Eleanor seemed to be bound together by this revelation. But of course, I couldn't go to a match when I was heavily pregnant, and going with a baby seemed too difficult, so I was yet to go to a live match myself, and I was excited to share a first experience with my little girl.

I also wanted to take her to a match because I wanted her to know that she can be interested in whatever she wants. Sport is still often seen as a male interest, and RL is a pretty masculine sport, but the tide is changing and women are increasingly getting interested and involved in sport. I'd dabbled in sport as a girl, trying ineptly to play football at primary school, but it was mainly to prove a point, that girls could be sporty. Unfortunately, the fact that I can't run without gasping for air and am apparently unable to kick or dribble a ball with any level of control, I probably did more damage to the sisterhood than good. But anyone can watch sport, no matter how unfit and uncoordinated, no matter what gender. By taking Eleanor to a Rugby League match, I would be broadening her horizons beyond typically 'girly' interests and showing her that she can like, do, be anything.

All very lofty, of course. But we kind of overshot in our ambitions. Really, nearly two is a bit young to expect any child to sit through a match, let alone my very energetic daughter. We were also a bit silly to take her to see England v Ireland – it was a sell-out match, which meant a very crowded stadium (we booked three seats but somehow ended up with only two, it was that packed). We had to get there nearly two hours early to get parked, and even then the stadium car park was full. Also, going in November meant wind and rain, so we couldn't wander around in the time before kick off, we had to get Eleanor under cover as soon as possible, so she was restless before the match even started. Half an hour in, she was asking to go home, but we did eventually manage to get her interested enough to get to the end of the match.


Despite it not being the ideal first match, I think she enjoyed it. On the way from the car park to the stadium, she kept saying, "Rubby! 'Citing!" and pulling a very cheesy excited face. There were various things to engage her – she liked watching the mascot going round, and we joined in the chants to keep her amused. She even paid some attention to the action, shouting, "running," and, "passing," and, rather cutely, "oops," when someone got tackled. That evening she babbled happily about all the things she'd seen, and although when we asked her if it was exciting she said, "no," I think really she liked it. So I'm looking forward to taking her again. When she's a bit older. And the weather is a bit nicer. And it's a slightly quieter home fixture.