Friday, 27 December 2013

To Eleanor, on your second birthday

Dear Eleanor

So, you're two now! I can't quite believe it. It's a cliche, but it really doesn't seem that long since I first held you in my arms. But at the same time, I look at you now and I barely recognise you as the same person as that baby I held. You've changed immeasurably in such a short time. I suppose I have changed quite a lot too. My life certainly has changed - when you came into this world I had no idea how much of a difference you'd make. I didn't know that just months down the line I would make the decision to give up work and stay at home with you. But I'm glad I did, because you change so quickly and I know I'm extremely lucky to not miss a minute.

It seems bizarre to think that just a year ago, you couldn't walk or talk. In fact I remember being worried in the early months of this year about your walking abilities and speech development. Now you never seem to stop walking and talking! You run, you march, you tiptoe and you dance. You're desperate to jump at the moment but it's not quite working out for you (don't worry, kid, you'll get there). And talking - why was I ever worried?! At first we kept a list of the words you could say - that list stopped at 18 months when you already knew 100 words, and I suspect you've trebled or perhaps quadrupled that now. You repeat lines from books, songs and TV programmes with no logical link from one sentence to the next. Your memory is incredible - you must know around 20 books almost off by heart now! I now feel like an interpreter for you, explaining which book/programme/song you're referring to when visitors pop around and translating some of your mispronunciations and made-up words. You're losing more and more of those though, which makes me sad because some of them were really cute. One day I'll tell you that you used to call cats 'rararaps' and you'll think I'm making it up. But you really did!

More exciting than your ability to walk and talk (and believe me, they are exciting to me) is watching your personality grow. In some ways we're very alike, frustratingly so - you have the same, sometimes explosive combination of a dogged determination and a short temper. If that doll doesn't sit exactly how you want her to, all hell breaks loose. But in other ways you're so very different. You're almost totally fearless - a couple of weeks ago, when a spider was dashing around the living room, I tried desperately to hide my terror while you chased the arachnid around and even poked it! I couldn't stop myself squealing when you did that! Today when we took you to meet some animals you were totally unfazed, even when faced with a massive snake!

You're so confident and outgoing too, in a way that I've never truly been. I can fake it, but you're the real deal. I started taking you to a few new playgroups and classes this year and you got stuck right in, wandering off to play or getting up to dance around in the middle of the room. Yesterday at a family party you marched and danced around the room, shouting, "HELLO EVERYBODY!" and loving the attention. So unlike the shy girl I was growing up! I really hope you don't lose these qualities. I know inhibitions may set in over the next couple of years but when I see my sociable, exuberant little person I am filled with pride.

I have to say there are some things about you that challenge me - your sleeping habits particularly! How I long for a full night's sleep, and how lovely must it be for those people blessed with a child who goes to bed at 7pm so they get the evening to themselves! But that's just who you are right now - I know that one day you will start sleeping through the night, and maybe I'll get to reclaim my evening a little bit more. I've lost count of how many times I've been advised to try sleep training you, but I know that's just not right for us, so I'm willing to stay tired until you finally figure out that sleep is actually a good thing. (Please, though, make that sooner rather than later!!)

As you enter your third year, so many people have muttered something along the lines of, "ooh, terrible twos!" I'll admit it, Eleanor, I am worried about how I'll cope with what the next year brings. Your tantrums are already hard for me to deal with, especially as we're both 'blessed' with the same short fuse. I know I've raised my voice at you in recent weeks, but I'm doing my best not to do it again, because I don't want you to hide your feelings out of fear. And that's all a tantrum is - feelings. Really, really big feelings with no control mechanism. You need me to help you deal with those feelings, and I promise I will do my best to be there for you when you feel overwhelmed, now and always.

Above all else, I'm so proud of you, my darling Eleanor. You are brave, feisty, independent, confident, determined, creative and (whether you intend it or not) pretty darn hilarious. And I will do everything I can to help you keep these attributes. Because, flaws and all, you're wonderful just as you are.

Happy birthday my lovely girl.


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Princess Power: 'Zog' by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

I love the Julia Donaldson/ Axel Scheffler books. Who doesn't? 'The Gruffalo' is probably Eleanor's all-time favourite book, and the first story-length book she really paid attention to. So when I go to the library I'm often on the lookout for books by Donaldson and Scheffler, and a couple of months ago came up with this gem:

I say a couple of months ago, because we all love it so much it's been renewed twice! It's a lovely story of a young dragon trying so hard to be the best in his class at dragon school that he keeps getting into scrapes, only to be helped by a little girl who turns out to be a princess. As usual with Scheffler's work, the illustrations are really fun and lively, with lots to look at and notice anew at each reading.

And, as I'm not all that keen on the whole princess thing, I loved the plot twist at the end where Princess Pearl decides not to go back to her castle, but to become a doctor!

We'll have to take this book back to the library on Christmas Eve, and it will be with a very heavy heart that we do so. But I've dropped some very heavy hints to my mum so hopefully it may appear under the Christmas tree the next day!

(Apologies for the unclear pictures, it was a dull day yesterday!!)


Sunday, 15 December 2013

Christmas and Community

Every Sunday in Advent, I will be posting up a Christmas-themed post. Here's number 3, about how Christmas can bring communities together. Number 2 was about the gifts we buy our children, and number 1 was about why we aren't telling our daughter Santa is real. Do have a read of them too! After reading this one, of course.

Looking back at the Christmasses of my childhood, I'm hard-pushed to remember the gifts I got. What I do remember, with nostalgic sweetness, was the times when Christmas showed me I was part of something bigger.

I'm talking about the nativity services when I sang and acted with my school friends while our parents watched on. I'm talking about venturing out in the dark to stand around the village Christmas tree singing carols. I'm talking about carrying a Christingle in church surrounded by the rest of the congregation.

These moments warm my heart. Because Christmas isn't just about gifts and food. It isn't even just about family (although of course family is and important part of it). Christmas is an opportunity to see ourselves as part of a wider community - whether that community is based around a school, a church, or a locality.

Now Eleanor is too young for the school part, but I don't think she's too young to begin to understand her place in various communities. This week she has had Christmas parties at a couple of her playgroups which has been a lot of fun. And this morning, at the tender age of not-quite-2, she made her stage debut as a sheep in our church's nativity:

Yeah, OK. She was a bit of a giddy sheep. And she was a bit bewildered by what was happening (especially as the part of Jesus was played by her doll wrapped in a tea towel) but it was so exciting to see her take her place alongside the other children and actively participate in the service. Even if she did keep shouting, "Mary have a bayy-by!" and, "My dolly! My dolly!"

Then this evening we joined our local community in another celebration of the season - a lantern parade followed by carol singing. Off we went, armed with the shoddiest, most hastily made lantern in the history of lanterns, to walk alongside our townspeople: 

It was the first time this event had taken place in our town and it was lovely to see so many people turn out, to parade through the streets, to sing together as a community, and to see people of all ages having fun. Some children had collected together their lanterns and were piling up twigs around them to, "make a bonfire," as the boy eagerly told me. It's great how events like these can really fire the imagination! (Don't worry, it was imaginary, they didn't make an actual bonfire!)

Eleanor was perhaps a bit young to fully appreciate the event, but she enjoyed the drums which led the parade, she happily sang 'Away In a Manger' (regardless of whether that was what everyone else was singing) and she had a little dance to 'Jingle Bells'. She didn't seem to notice the crowd at the time but on the way home she chatted away as usual and started to talk about the, "people walking," so maybe she did start to feel the community spirit.

Christmas can make connections in a way that rarely happens any other time of year. There is a sense of togetherness in the air, and this is what lingers in the memory long after those 'must-have' presents have been forgotten!

What community events do you take your children to at Christmas? Leave a comment and spread the joy!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Ugly/Beautiful Salt Dough Christmas Decorations!

I must be getting braver with this messy play lark. Despite struggling with baking a few weeks ago, and hating painting, for some reason I decided to try an activity that combines both - salt dough Christmas decorations! This time I'd wised up and did in two instalments, both after mealtimes so I could keep Eleanor safely enclosed in her highchair and so make clean up easier. I'll let the pictures do most of the talking here:

Rolling out the salt dough.

Er, that's not how you use a rolling pin Eleanor!

A good attempt at solo cutter usage ...

... but sometimes Mummy's help is required!

Then it started to go a bit wrong!

The decorations pre-baking - please ignore the legless Santa!

Painting the decorations the next day. (Yes, that's a pastry brush, I couldn't find the paintbrush. And actually it was easier for Eleanor to wield anyway!)

This looks like a Santa Claus massacre ...

The finished articles. Umm. Lovely??

The obligatory paint eating crept in at the end ...

... as did an effort to paint the entire tray. I'd been telling her to paint the decorations 'right up to the edge' - a phrase she repeated as she daubed her food tray in gore-like mess!

There's no two ways about it - the finished decorations are pretty ugly. I mean, c'mon people, a black heart on your Christmas tree?! But to me, and probably to Eleanor, they're beautiful. Because we made them - or rather, she made them, I just helped, far less than I expected to as well. She had fun, I felt proud, everyone's happy. And despite their ugliness I can't wait to hang them up.

It's enough to warm your black heart, ain't it?!

 photo letkidsbekidslogobadge_zps424b7d61.jpg

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Too many toys? What's the alternative?

Every Sunday in Advent, I will be posting up a Christmas-themed post. Here's number 2, about the gifts we buy our children. To read the first post, click here.

As I mentioned in a recent post, we recently moved house. And this, dear reader, is what it taught me.

We have a lot of stuff.

And, more specifically, Eleanor has a lot of toys. Here's a picture of her with all her cuddly toys:

Note, those are just her cuddly toys (and actually, we missed out the giant white bear that is technically mine but which she has commandeered). She probably has as many, if not more, non-cuddly toys, ranging from a simple hammer-and-peg game to a toddlerised tablet (more on that here). But the question is, does she play with them? And I mean really play, not just pick up and drop 10 seconds later?

BBC News recently featured an article saying that today's children have too many toys, and I'm inclined to agree. I've watched Eleanor over the past week, and while she will play with a lot of her cuddly toys, when it comes to the other stuff, she might play with three or four in a day, sometimes not even that. She will, however, play with kitchen utensils, paper, a tube from a roll of clingfilm which she uses as a didgeridoo, and lots of other non-toys.

So do we really need this many toys? Probably not. In fact I do wonder if the sheer number of toys Eleanor has is actually impeding her ability to properly play - why get deeply involved in one toy for ten minutes when there are nine other toys nearby that she could spend one minute with each?

As Christmas looms, we are planning to put away a good number of Eleanor's toys in the loft. We are bracing ourselves for the deluge of new toys, not least because her birthday comes hot on the heels of Boxing Day. But we have asked relatives to avoid buying toys for her, so hopefully that will stop her being overwhelmed with choice again.

But obviously at this time of year we want to get something for our children, so what are the alternatives? Here are five of my ideas/suggestions:

1. Clothes - this is particularly appropriate for Eleanor as, with her birthday being just after Christmas, she will be going up an age bracket. But clothes are always a useful gift for kids; after all, you're not going to worry as much about your kid getting covered in mud or paint if there are plenty of clean clothes in the cupboard, are you?!

2. Books - Eleanor LOVES books. In fact they are the main reason many of her toys are neglected; she'd much rather be read to. Give a child a book and you're giving them another world to explore - which they might then recreate with their toys!

3. Edibles - Chocolate is a staple gift for children (oh, the memories of all those selection boxes I got!) but if you'd rather not go for that there are other options. Maybe gingerbread or fruity cookies to give a sweet treat that will fill them up enough to stop them gorging? Anyone else got suggestions for this option?

4. Experiences - This doesn't need to be a huge thing like a trip to Disneyland or anything. It could be a term of classes in something your child would enjoy, or a promise of a day trip somewhere you've never been before. This is probably an idea for older children who are more likely to be able to deal with the delayed gratification that this entails - or the very young who don't really understand all this gift-giving malarkey anyway!

5. A Christmas tradition - this could be a really small and simple gift; a tree decoration, a snow globe, a candle holder. Something that the child can contribute to the decoration year on year and that serves a reminder of the person who gave it, and of their involvement in the creation of the Christmas magic. Eleanor already has two tree decorations from last year and I'm looking forward to when she's old enough to hang them up herself with pride.

There are probably tonnes of other suggestions I've missed here, so if you can think of any, please comment below, I'd love to hear your ideas!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

A beautiful Christmas story: 'A Letter For Bear' by David Lucas

I take Eleanor to our local library every week to get a new pile of books, and the selection is incredible. This week, I spotted A Letter For Bear by David Lucas nestled among the board books. I flicked through and thought the illustrations were gorgeous so I thought we'd give it a whirl.

Eleanor absolutely loves it. In one day, I estimate that she made me read it around 20 times. No, I'm not kidding. And I don't blame her; it's a really simple but lovely tale of a postman bear who dreams of getting a letter one day, until he meets his neighbours and invites them to a Christmas party. After an anxious wait, they all arrive and the next day Bear is flooded with thank you cards. Such a simple yet effective story, I still get a lump in my throat reading the last page!

The illustrations are just beautiful too; a mixture of rich jewel colours and icy whites and blues, the pictures just scream 'Christmas' at you, and the detail means there is always something new to see.

What I love most about this book is the fact that it is a Christmas story with exactly the right values for the season - community, generosity, friendship and thankfulness for even the smallest of gifts. All this with absolutely no mention of Santa, which those of you who have read this post from last week will understand is quite important to me!

This book was only published last month so I'm impressed my library has already got a copy, but I think we'll definitely buy our own for next year. It's such a lovely book that I hope it becomes a festive tradition for our family.


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Trust your toddler!

Last week something remarkable happened. Eleanor drank from an open cup.

OK, maybe it's not that remarkable to you. But it was for us. Until last week, Eleanor still mostly drank from a lidded sippy cup, and it was causing me a bit of anxiety. She's nearly two, shouldn't she be able to drink from an open cup by now? Am I not doing enough to encourage this? How can I teach her?

Then one day, when I brought her a sippy cup, she demanded, "lid off! lid off!" I reluctantly removed the lid and tried to guide the cup to her lips. "No no! Enna do it!" Those words are always a sign to me that if I don't back off I'll be faced with the mother of all tantrums. So I let go of the cup. She held onto the handles and drank from it perfectly. (Well, there was a bit of spillage towards the end, but far less than I expected!)

Then on Sunday we went to a party for Eleanor and the children of the other mums from my antenatal class, a kind of preemptive birthday party for them all. There was some food, and the drinks were served in open cups, this time without handles.

Unable to help her because of the lack of space, I braced myself. But she wasn't fazed at all; she just picked up the cup and drank happily, then held it up saying, "more duice!" We were flabbergasted.

What's my point here? Well, I suppose it's that I need to trust Eleanor to learn things in her own time. There I was fretting that she'd never learn to drink from an open cup without my intervention, but she just decided the time was right, and told me!

It's the same with lots of things. When she was a baby we engaged in the futile task of showing her how to crawl - but she figured it out weeks later, when she was ready. We resisted the urge to hold her hands and encourage her to walk, and guess what? She did it all by herself, when she was ready. We just had to trust her to know when the time was right - she did all the learning herself.

Similarly with acquiring knowledge. I used to get into a flap thinking, "oh my word, she doesn't know any colours, surely she's the only toddler IN THE WORLD who doesn't know any colours!" - or any other subject I inexplicably felt was important that day. So I'd go to the library, get a bunch of books about colours expecting her to take weeks to learn them - within a couple of days she'd cracked it. Would it have hurt to wait until she picked up a colour book herself? Probably not. I learnt to trust that she'd learn things in her own time, as long as I was around to furnish the necessary information in a non-pushy way.

This thinking can also be applied to behaviour. Hard as it is to deal with tantrums in a gentle way, or to feel like yours is the only toddler who doesn't sit nicely at story time or 'share' with other children, learning about appropriate behaviour is another thing that, I believe, doesn't need to be rushed. This is why I never make Eleanor say please, thank you or sorry - if I make her, it's meaningless anyway. Far better for me to model that behaviour and when she's capable of understanding she will follow my lead. She's already picking up on please and thank you, although it's still a slow process.

So much of parenting today seems to be about cajoling your child to do something they might not be ready to do. But isn't it more respectful, gentler and, let's face it, easier to trust your toddler to develop at their own pace?

I'm starting to feel that my role in Eleanor's life right now is not to teach her, but to be taught by her! She's teaching me how to raise her in a compassionate, undemanding way, and as long as I hold up my side of the bargain by being a good role model and being there to answer her questions when they arise, she'll develop all the skills she needs. When she is ready.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Claus Controversy

Every Sunday in Advent, I will be posting up a Christmas-themed post. Here's number 1, let me know what you think!

Brace yourself, blog reader, I'm about to tell you something you may find surprising. Perhaps even shocking. I may even be inviting the world to run after me with pitchforks.

I'm Not Going To Tell My Daughter Santa Claus Is Real.

"WHAAAAT?" I imagine you all crying. "Why not? Why would you deprive your daughter of the magic of believing in Santa Claus? Surely it's what Christmas is all about for children?"

OK, maybe I'm being over-dramatic here. But still, I expect that my decision would be considered unusual, to say the least, by most people. Santa, or Father Christmas if you prefer, is so ingrained in our culture now, surely belief in him is just a given for small children. How would Christmas even work without this belief? 

Well, I'm not too sure about the answer to that question, as last year Eleanor was far too young to understand (or care) about what was going on at Christmas time, other than the fact that there was a fascinating array of twinkling lights everywhere we went. But, while I can't tell you how Christmas works without believing in Santa, I can tell you some of the reasons why we've made this decision.

To be honest, the idea of being truthful about Santa may never have crossed my mind had it not been for a school friend who had been brought up not believing in him, as had her younger siblings. I remember thinking that it was a bit odd, but then her family seemed to retain the magic of Christmas so much better than those who did go along with the Santa myth. I suppose that's fairly obvious – make the magic of Christmas all about a mythical figure, and that magic will fade as soon as the child discovers the truth. I know that I became less enthusiastic about Christmas once I'd made The Big Discovery, and although I still enjoyed getting presents, eating lots of food and seeing family, the season lost it's sparkle for some years.

My decision may also be influenced by my experience of believing in Santa. As the youngest of three, I had two brothers who knew the truth and liked to wind me up. I remember one Christmas Eve we'd been out late and, coming home in the car, one of my brothers pointed at the sky and said something like, "Look, there's Father Christmas flying away, we weren't in bed so you won't get any presents now!" I was distraught. This probably wasn't the only time they pulled my leg about Santa, but it's the most memorable.

I also remember The Big Discovery – unable to sleep with excitement, I heard my bedroom door open and laid perfectly still. And saw Mum come in and deposit my presents. She tried to cover it up, bless her, getting a work colleague to write a letter 'from Santa' explaining that he sometimes leaves the presents with parents to distribute, but I recognised the handwriting and I wasn't fooled. I remember feeling deeply disappointed and sad. Not angry, just sad. Obviously I can't shield Eleanor from ever getting wound up, or from being disappointed or sad, but at least I can avoid creating situations which will probably end up with those feelings.

Linked to this is my very strong belief that we are role models for our children – what they see us do, they will emulate. If I lie about something, and continue that lie year on year, how can I teach Eleanor that lying is wrong? How can I tell her not to tell tall tales, if I myself pass something off as true when I know it's not? Some parents may feel this is an exception to the rule, that if you're truthful most of the time something like this can slide. Maybe they're right. But I personally don't feel comfortable with it.

Then comes my overriding reason. I mentioned before that The Big Discovery meant that Christmas lost it's sparkle for some years. The 'some years' bit is important here. Because shortly before I turned 16 I became a Christian, and from then on, Christmas had a new magic. I won't go into a big preach here about my beliefs, but for me, celebrating the birth of Jesus is what is truly magical about the season. I remember going to Midnight Mass by candlelight not long after I became a Christian, and finding the whole experience so awe-inspiring, it blew the 'magic' I'd felt as a child right out of the water. I look around now and I feel that Santa has usurped Jesus as the main emblem of Christmas, and I want Eleanor to know the real reason we celebrate.

Many times over the years I've heard belief in God compared to belief in Santa, and I imagine some people may see my decision to teach my daughter that God is real but Santa isn't is a bit hypocritical. But there is an important difference. I believe in God. On the contrast, every adult knows that Santa isn't real. In teaching Eleanor about God, I am passing on what I wholeheartedly believe to be true; if I were to teach her Santa is real, I would be passing on what I know to be a lie. If I did that, would she still trust that I do genuinely believe in God? (Before anyone says it, if she grew up not believing in God, then I would accept that. But it would still be important to me that she knew my belief is genuine, if only to encourage her to be respectful towards others' beliefs.)

So that's why I'm not going to tell Eleanor that Santa is real. I will tell her the legend and say that some families like to pretend that it's real, and we will still have stockings, but that tradition will be preserved in the spirit of playfulness – "hang up your stocking, and Mummy and Daddy will play Santa overnight and leave some treats in it for you!" I don't know how it will work out in reality, and I imagine it may be tricky, but I'm not one for going along with things for the sake of an easy life.

If anyone reading this has also chosen to be honest about the Santa legend, please do leave a comment, I'd love to know how it works for your family!

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.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Going against my grain – Eleanor's first baking lesson

Until recently I have avoided messy play like the plague. The thought of everything that could go wrong, clearing up the mess, the sheer effort of it totally put me off. But I knew really that this was pandering to my own need for order and control, not Eleanor's need for exploration. So I vowed to have one session of messy play every week.

A couple of weeks ago I decided the activity should be baking. We'd bought a big bag of novelty cookie cutters months before but until then Eleanor had only ever used them as a shape identification and sorting exercise. Because I'd never given her the opportunity to use them for anything else. So I decided all that should change, and embarked on the task of making gingerbread with Eleanor.

I did a bit of prep as Eleanor watched TV (yes, she watches TV and yes, I know she shouldn't, I may get to that in another post...) such as greasing the baking trays, weighing out ingredients, melting the margarine, sugar and golden syrup together etc. Then I donned an apron, dressed Eleanor in a probably-overly-cautious combination of long sleeved bib AND apron, and sat on the kitchen floor with her. I'd poured the wet ingredients into the dry and presented her with a mixing spoon, telling her we needed to stir it and demonstrating this with my own spoon.

Eleanor looked confused. She chewed on the spoon a little, then plunged it in and started tipping the mixture onto the floor. I tried to stay calm, explained that the mixture needed to stay in the bowl, but she wasn't much interested in that and started playing with the little bits of dough on the floor. After a while, I'd got the dough to the right consistency, after a little fluster because I'd added too much milk – which I optimistically used as a chance to explain to Eleanor how if you add too much wet, you need to balance it with dry. I don't think she was listening. So now was the time to knead. I showed her how to do it, and she tentaively patted the mixture a bit, pulled a few small chunks out and threw them on the floor, then went to the utensil drawer and pulled out one of the little whisk bits from our electric hand whisk and started poking holes in the mixture. I then grabbed a baking sheet covered in flour and turned out the dough. Eleanor walked around in,and then sat in, the flour.

Now for rolling out. Now Eleanor had discovered our rolling pin a couple of weeks before so I thought she'd be quite interested in how it's actually used. She took the pin off me and bashed the dough a bit with the end, then I showed her how to roll out the dough. Her response was a protesting, "noooo!" and she pushed the pin away, insisting she could do a better job of flattening the dough with her hands. Eventually I cajoled her into helping me roll it out, but she still protested so it was ridiculously thick as I abandoned my efforts.

With increasingly jangly nerves as I desperately tried to beat down my inner control freak and tell myself this was about the process not the result, I brought out the cutters. Now I'd hooked in my audience. Eleanor happily grabbed the mouse and the dog and made them 'run' over the dough, leaving little indentations. I showed her how to use them 'properly' but she didn't have much interest in that really. Nevertheless, I pressed on and started cutting out shapes for her, with her choosing the cutters. I even let her have a go herself.

The trouble was, of course, that with a thick dough and cheap cutters, things came out looking a little deformed – a mouse without a tail, a duck without feet, a horse with only one leg. Santa (yes, Santa, she chose it, I wasn't going to lecture her on how it's far too early for Christmas stuff yet) was a total disaster. So I tried rolling out the dough thinner. But of course every time I did this Eleanor got agitated, and also by now she was so enthralled she was practically sat in the dough so it was hard to make space to actually roll. Then suddenly Eleanor seemed to develop either a fascination with, or aversion to, the gingerbread man we'd cut out – which, inexplicably, she referred to as a gnome. I don't know where she learnt the word 'gnome'. But anyway, she picked him up off the baking tray, pulled his head off, squished it into his torso then put the whole mess back into the dough. I tried cutting another one, and a battle ensued as I tried to preserve this poor little doughy man. (Why I had this battle I'm not quite sure, but by this point I was finding the tension of the whole affair almost unbearable and was probably trying to re-establish a sense of order). Eventually, with not much dough left, Eleanor lost interest in the cutters and started pointing out and naming the shapes on the baking tray in what I felt to be a rather threatening manner, so I hurriedly made the remaining dough into misshapen lumps and plonked them on the tray. Eleanor prodded at these and I explained that they were just lumps to use up the dough, and she repeated the word, "lumps," while trying to stick them onto the yes-misshapen-but-actually-quite-nice-looking-in-comparison biscuits we'd made earlier. I swiftly moved the baking trays off the floor to try and salvage what we'd already achieved, which was this:

Unfortunately, because of the thickness of the dough and the fact that I'd crammed the biscuits together a bit too closely, and the fact that I haven't baked in a gas oven in years as our previous home had an electric oven, they came out like this:

I probably should have taken a picture of Eleanor after this endeavour too, with leggings and socks covered in flour and bits of dough. But by that stage I felt like my head was going to explode. Literally, I'd found the whole thing so trying that my hands were shaking!

So what did we learn from this activity? Eleanor learnt what mixing spoons, rolling pins and cookie cutters are really for, even though she still prefers to use them 'her way'. She learnt about different textures and how dough can go from a big misshapen ball to a big misshapen flat thing, then get cut into smaller misshapen flat things. She had a little taste of the dough, and will later taste the finished article so will learn how things can be made to taste different. Although I kept her well away from the oven so how this happened will probably be a mystery to her.

I learnt that, actually, my need for tidiness and control is a bit over the top, and I need to expose myself to more activities like this to get used to it. I learnt that making gingerbread biscuits possibly isn't the best introduction to baking, and perhaps just playing with salt dough would have been better. I learnt that if I tell myself that the process is more important than the outcome I have to actually MEAN it – and not be disappointed that my (our, I mean our) efforts turn out to look like some horrific gingerbread rescue centre for maimed animals. But most importantly, I learnt that an activity like this will keep Eleanor engaged for a good hour, help her to understand more about properties of solids and the like, and really won't be that awful to clean up if I don't mind her wearing slightly floury clothes afterwards.

And we got biscuits! They won't feature on the Great British Bake Off but who cares as long as they taste good, right?