Friday, 28 February 2014

Toddler shoes: because apparently girls don't go outside

This morning, on our way to Eleanor's music group, I noticed she was walking funny. Then she asked to be carried when we'd only just reached the end of our street. It suddenly occurred to me that we hadn't had her feet measured in over three months.

I know, I'm a wonderful mother aren't I?

So this afternoon we took her to our local shoe shop and, sure enough, she's gone up half a size. Time to part with some cash. The shoe shop stocks Clarks children's shoes so we had a look at their girls' range.

Every single shoe in Eleanor's size had big open bits in the top. They were either Mary Janes or T-bars. (Yes, I had to Google shoe styles to find the proper names!) When we got home we looked at the Clarks website to see if there were any other options, and they did have some trainers, but they were all canvas.

Now, that would be fine for indoor wear, or for walking down a clean, dry path. But my daughter likes walking on grass and splashing in puddles and going to places that tend to be muddy. Because she's a child. Children like exploring the outdoors.

Obviously Clarks knows that children like exploring the outdoors because the boys' range is so very practical - lots of trainer styles and leather. So how come girls don't get the same options?

To be fair, we have previously had some much more practical shoes made by Clarks, but that makes their current range all the more disappointing. They've actually taken a step backwards in the choice they offer to young girls. Yes, I know this is probably their spring/summer range, but do you know what? We live in the UK. It rains here in all four seasons, and grass and mud exist all year round too. So children need shoes that will keep their feet dry for more than five minutes. That's why the boys' range is full of leather trainers.

Perhaps Clarks are expecting girls to stay inside until the weather is dry enough for them to go out without fear of messing up their pretty little shoes. Well my girl doesn't. She'd go outside in her pyjamas if I let her. And she doesn't much care about keeping her shoes pretty. She just wants something that fits so she can walk and run and climb just like any child.

Looks like I'll be buying from the boys' range then.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Messy Play for Wimps: 5 Ideas

If you've read any of my previous posts about messy play you'll know I'm a bit of a wuss about it. I don't like mess. Despite being the world's worst housewife, I really, really dislike mess.

The trouble is, toddlers do like mess. In fact, toddlers need mess. It's how they learn.

So I'm trying hard to push my own boundaries and allow Eleanor the messy play opportunities she needs. It's baby steps at the moment, but we're getting there.

This is a post for all the other messy-play-phobes out there. To help you dip your toe in the messy water, here are some simple ideas that create a fairly manageable level of mess:

1. Cold spaghetti

I blogged about this a while back. This activity is great if, like me, you're too disorganised to prep activities in advance and also suck at portion control. Make more spaghetti than you need for dinner one night, stick the surplus in cold water to stop it going gloopy or sticky, then whack it in a bowl and let your kid mess about with it. This would be a good one to do with babies (obviously past 6 months) as then they'd be less able to spread it across the floor and stamp on it. If you're doing it with a toddler, you'll probably need to mop up afterwards, but it's not horrendously messy.

2. Playdough

Eleanor's favourite phrase at the moment is, "Want to pay with paydough!" Again, this is a good one for disorganised people - as long as you've got a pot of playdough and some cutters knocking about you're good to go. It's a bit messy if it gets stuck to clothes or, worse still, carpet - which is why we only play with it in the kitchen. But other than that, it's pretty quick to clear up. You can even make your own playdough, but ... y'know ... organisation ... I'll do it one day ... honest ...

3. Chalks on the patio

Or on the drive ... or the street if your neighbours are a friendly bunch. Perfect messy play for wimps - zero preparation, and all you need to do is wash your little one's hands afterwards. The rain will take care of the rest!

4. Bath paints

OK, I'll admit it. I haven't actually done this one yet. But it's one I definitely want to try out in the summer when it's not too cold to stay in water for ages. It sounds great - your kid gets to make a mess, but it's all contained and you can quickly wash it off with the bath water or a shower afterwards. You can buy bath paints or make them - here's one recipe but there are loads out there.

5. And if all else fails ... playgroups!

Playgroups are fab. Many have an element of craft or messy play, which the people running the group set up and then clear away afterwards. Your only responsibility is to clean your own kid up. The picture above is of Eleanor after playing on a table covered in shaving foam. She loved it. I wouldn't want to do it at home. We're both winners!

So there are five ideas to get you going. If you have any other wimpy messy play ideas do leave a comment. Because if you don't I'll have to move onto the proper stuff. And I'm not sure I'm ready ...

Friday, 14 February 2014

What is Gentle Parenting?

OK. Before I get started here I want to make something clear. I'm not an expert. I haven't read every book going so my use of parenting terms may be a bit loose. Furthermore, I've only been doing this motherhood thing for 26 months, with one kid. So what follows is what gentle parenting means to me, and is not intended as a judgement on any other way of parenting. Heck, I don't have all the answers, so who am I to judge?

But anyway.

A few times on this blog I've mentioned the term 'gentle parenting'. But what actually is it?

Well, despite it's rather woolly sounding name, it's actually rooted in an understanding of the human brain – more specifically, a child's brain. It's also influenced by childrearing practices that are considered completely normal in many cultures, and were probably considered normal in our culture once too. So before anyone dismisses it as a fluffy, new-age fad, it's not.

For me, gentle parenting is about asking myself three questions:

  1. Would I like it if someone treated me like this?
  2. Am I being reasonable in my expectations of my child at this stage in her development?
  3. Is this helping her to grow into the kind of person I want her to be?

Let's look at these each in turn.

So, number one. This is a rule I try my best to live by. (Note I say 'try my best'. I'm not always successful. Too often, I'm unsuccessful. But still I try.) I do believe that, as far as possible, you should treat others how you wish to be treated. So it makes sense to apply it to my relationship with Eleanor. Would I like it if someone yelled at me? No. Would I like it if someone I love ignored me when I was deeply upset? No. So should I do those things to Eleanor? No.

There is a limit of course. I wouldn't particularly like someone changing my nappy. And I wouldn't like someone to say no to me if I asked for icecream for breakfast. So, of course, I'm sensible about this – if it relates to health, hygiene or safety I may have to ignore this rule. But most of the time I don't have to.

Number two – here's where the science comes in. I'm not very good at science, but one book I've found that explains child brain development very clearly is ToddlerCalm by Sarah Ockwell-Smith (you can read my review of this book here). Basically, I have to continually remind myself that Eleanor's brain is very different from mine. Huge chunks of it (the empathy bit, the logic bit, the emotional regulation bit) aren't there yet – or at least they are still massively under-developed. The rest is a mess of links and connections that haven't been pruned down yet. Which explains why an innocent question about what she wants for pudding might trigger off a 10 minute monologue quoting a dozen children's books. She hasn't sorted the wheat from the chaff yet, mentally speaking. So when she's reciting 'Horsey Horsey' to herself instead of telling me which tights she wants to wear today, I have to stay calm and repeat my mantra – "she's only two, she's only two, she's only two ..."

So this means that I need to fill in for the bits of her brain that aren't working quite yet. If I ask her to tidy up but she's off in her own little world, I may have to accept that I'm doing the tidying for now. If she has a tantrum over something seemingly ridiculous, I have to be the calming, consoling bit of her brain rather than ignoring her, or worse, laughing at her. (Although I may share the most bizarre tantrums with friends or on social media later when she's not around. Because if I don't laugh about it, I'd probably cry.)

Number three is probably the most crucial question. There seems to be a bizarre contradiction in our culture where we want our kids to be obedient and quiet and do as they're told until they're sent out into the big wide world where they have to be independent and assertive and think for themselves. So as much as I can I try to remember the qualities I want Eleanor to possess when she becomes an adult.

This means I don't make her say sorry, because I don't want her to grow up thinking that sorry makes everything better. It often does if it's sincere, but using the word as a 'get out of jail free' card is not sincere. It means I think hard before I make a rule, to make sure it's actually necessary and just me exercising my authority for the sake of a quiet life. It means that if she does something wrong, I take the time to explain to her why it was wrong, and hopefully will one day help her to work out how to put it right, rather than inflicting a punishment on her that she will remember long after she's forgotten what she did wrong.

So that's what gentle parenting means to me. It's essentially about treating my daughter respectfully – like I would any other adult, with the caveat that as she isn't an adult, she'll need a little more help while she learns and grows.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

We Love Libraries!

I can still picture the local library I visited as a child surprisingly clearly. It was in the next village (my village was too small to warrant a permanent library) and I have memories of going into the brightly coloured childrens' section as a child and picking out books. I particularly remember borrowing a book which taught me how to play the keyboard, although I probably borrowed many more!

I also remember frequenting the 'grown up' section as a secondary school child to do research for my homework. Those were the days before we all had internet, you see: the book reigned supreme. It was quite a solemn place, very quiet, but I enjoyed going nonetheless.

Last summer I found out from an old friend that that library was closing down. I feel rather sad about that.

Now I take Eleanor to our local library most weeks (you can see the evidence of this by looking at some of the blog posts labelled with 'childrens' books') and she loves it too. We went a little bit when she was a baby but it really came in handy when she hit her second year and just couldn't get enough of books! We are lucky that our library has a really good children's section with a massive selection of board books and picturebooks. We have found many a favourite book through borrowing them first, especially the fabulous 'Zog' which we loved so much we kept renewing it until Christmas brought us our own copy! (Note I use the plural there - I love it as much as, if not more than Eleanor!!)

We are also lucky that every week they have a Rhyme Time session, where a member of staff reads books and sings songs for the assembled babies and toddlers, all for free. Eleanor doesn't always pay a lot of attention to what's happening at the time, but she will often talk about the books read or songs sung afterwards. And the staff never make any fuss about the fact that she spends the whole time dragging books out of the boxes and occasionally shoving them into my hands and demanding, "Mummy READ IT!"

They have really worked hard to make the library welcoming too. I never feel self-conscious about Eleanor making a bit of noise, even when it's not a Rhyme Time. The staff are really friendly and say hello to us both, and the children's section has crayons, puzzles and cuddly toys for Eleanor to explore - not to mention a tempting array of soft blocks which are intended as seats but Eleanor uses as a substitute for soft play!

Every time I hear something on the news about libraries closing it makes me feel so sad for that community. Because they're not just buildings full of books. They are part of the community, a place for children to develop their love of reading, parents to meet up with each other, people to come to for a bit of peace and to find something new. Libraries have so much to offer for everyone.

Today is National Libraries Day. Have a look on their website - there might be something interesting for you to try this afternoon. Or if you're busy, maybe use this as an excuse to visit your local library in the coming week. If you don't go very often, you might well be surprised at what they have to offer. And if you don't use it, you lose it. Not just you, but everyone else around you. Including the little ones.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Why I hate princesses

Eleanor and I were eating lunch yesterday when she launched into a little monologue (as she often does). "Have a bootiful face, think bootiful thoughts, dance like a fairy." Oh great, I thought. That's that awful bit from Sleeping Beauty. And my two-year-old daughter has it stored in her brain.

In case you don't know what I'm on about, we have a Ladybird Books version of Sleeping Beauty. I got it second hand when I was pregnant, because I had fond memories of Ladybird books as a child. I'd clearly blocked out the awful messages it gives young girls.

What Eleanor was reciting was the part of the story where the good fairies give the baby princess her gifts. As well as the gifts Eleanor listed above, she is also given the gifts of being kind and loving and singing, "like a nightingale." We are not told all the gifts, but apparently these are, "everything in the world one could wish for."

Really? So girls, beauty, dainty dancing and a pretty voice are what you ought to aspire to. OK, being kind and loving and thinking beautiful thoughts is better, but how about also being brave, determined, confident? What about innovative, courageous, problem-solving thoughts? (I tend to add my own lines, such as, "The sixth fairy said, 'You shall do well academically.' The seventh fairy said, 'You shall be daring and adventurous.'" How long until she can read and realises they're not there?!)

I didn't think much about the princess culture before I had a daughter. But when I started to think about it, I realised I don't like what these stories are telling, or will tell, her. I mean, let's have a look at some:

Sleeping Beauty - if a man kisses you when you are asleep and therefore unable to consent, that's fine. In fact, go ahead and marry him.

Cinderella - you can escape a miserable life by dressing up and pretending to be someone you're not, thus bagging a man.

The Princess and the Pea - a 'real princess' (therefore the most desirable wife) is so delicate the tiniest discomfort is too much for her.

The Little Mermaid - to gain independence you must lose your ability to express yourself. And to get the man of your dreams you must give up your former life entirely. Or, in the case of the original, give up your life.

Beauty and the Beast - if a man is aggressive and threatening towards you, don't worry, you can change him. (Err ...)

I could go on. The point is that princess stories aren't the innocent, twee little tales they seem to be. They have a common theme that beauty is all-important, the main aim of a young woman should be marriage, and if life is hard, the best thing to do is wait around for a man to save you. Oh, and once you're married, it's happy ever after.

Now, I'm a married woman and I do believe that marriage is important. But it's not the only important thing a woman can do. Nor is it a ticket to everlasting happiness - yes, it does bring happiness, but sometimes things can be hard, and successful marriages require work. And beauty is not all-important - at least, it shouldn't be. Girls and women are equipped for far more than looking decorative, giving a nice twirl and humming a pretty tune.

As Eleanor gets older I know the princess culture will become less and less avoidable. Eventually she will see the Disney films. She may even ask to buy the dolls, and if not, she'll probably come across them at a friend's house. I'm not sure how I'll handle this. At the moment I can limit her exposure to the handful of Ladybird books she has, and I can interject my subversive comments. But as she grows up with these fictional role models all around her, how do I keep her feet on the ground and help her to believe that she is complete in herself without a 'prince' and that she can aspire to be more than eye candy?

I'd love to hear from parents of girls who feel the same way. How do you deal with the whole princess thing? How do you keep it balanced with messages that this isn't all there is to being a woman?