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 Toddler'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 Toddler 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!)

Toddler 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 Toddler 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!

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 Toddler 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 Toddler, 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?!

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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, toddler 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. 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 Toddler 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 she 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 her 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 Toddler because, 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 - Toddler 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. Toddler 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 Toddler 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.

Toddler 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. Toddler drank from an open cup.

OK, maybe it's not that remarkable to you. But it was for us. Until last week, she 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! Me 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 Toddler 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 toddler 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 Toddler 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 encouraging 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 Toddler'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 Toddler 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 Toddler 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 Toddler 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 Toddler 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 Toddler 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 Toddler 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!