Author Archives: Naomi Wellings

About Naomi Wellings

I am a journalist and mother of two young children, aged 4 and 7. I write about how parents engage with their children about the big questions in life, from whether Cinderella is real to why we don't give the homeless man at the shopping centre our spare room. I believe children challenge us to think and properly connect with the world around us.

Let people be people….or Why baked beans can be as good as a roast!

 

I’m one of many parents who’ve bridled at the testing in schools. The recent Let Children be Children campaign had a critically important message. But I’d go one stage further and say that as a grown-ups we’re so bedevilled by societal pressures and expectations that we don’t fully function as people.

Perhaps that’s one reason the campaign has resonated so much. Sure we’re indignant that our children are having their childhoods dominated by the kind of homework and milestone-watching that we never had, but I think there’s a subtext to the resonance this campaign has had for many adults: that we miss being able to just be people, rather than automatons going through life desperately trying to live up to  the next set of expectations.

There are expectations on us to do things in certain ways: to take our children to every club going for fear they’ll miss out. But we all have different children and most of the time mine prefer to just come home and potter and play: it’s an expectation I’ve struggled with but thankfully I’m finally ignoring it. There’s an expectation to have a career in a certain sense, or you’re not fulfilling yourself and you’re “only a mother” – I’ve never bought that but it did make me feel I had to justify every waking moment as soon as my children reached a certain age. There’s an expectation to have a perfect house (so, I either spend all my time cleaning or employ someone, which I can’t – or don’t choose to – afford. I have to make a choice and accept what that means.) It’s taken a while but finally I’m starting to accept that if someone comes over unannounced, I’m not going to not invite them in because it’s a mess – a friendship is more than bleach and dusters.

I often quote a wonderfully liberated friend. Soon after meeting her she invited us round for Sunday lunch.  She made it very clear: she really wanted to see us and she thought it would be nice to get to know each other over a meal in her new home. However, she was really frantic at the moment, so we were to expect beans on toast. I just loved that moment! Better to have beans on toast with friends than a full roast because of some outdated sense of obligation. She wouldn’t have had us over if she felt bound to slave over the oven, because she just didn’t have the time. And of course, we had one of the loveliest meals ever.

Last night I was feeling exhausted. My daughter said she’d had the ubiquitous jacket potato at school for lunch. But hey….she didn’t mind having one again.  I’d suddenly realised that in all the work I was doing that afternoon, I’d not thought about the kids’  tea…at all. It was fine. Both of them ate well. Not exactly a varied diet for the day but it was wholesome and they saw me rather than heard me cursing in the kitchen and telling them to get out while I fiddled around with steaming saucepans. We choose. We recognise we are people and we can generate and live by our own expectations not by the ideals we see exhibited by beloved Topsy and Tim’s Mum and not by the ideals we absorb from other people: they have their ideals and we have ours, because we are individual people with individual needs and perspectives.

We want to let our children be children because all too soon they will be juggling all the expectations we’re juggling. Let’s show them that we are more than other people’s expectations. Let’s show that we prize fulfilling our full potential as people. Tests won’t ever fulfil us and neither will trying to match other people’s expectations.  In other words, baked beans with friends is better than a roast with frazzled host!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Why can’t you stay still!

Not sure I’ve ever heard a child say this, but this is a question I often ask mine and I think I could nonetheless learn something from it myself – and learning from our children is a large part of the theme of my blog so…… please indulge me.

 

Why can’t they stay still?

I don’t know where other Mums learnt to do fancy hair styles on their girls, but I obviously didn’t go there. And if she moves, that’s it…..forget the plaits, it’s bunches time.

Children do not stay still. That’s part of what makes them exciting to be around. It’s also why, despite my most sanctimonious thoughts prior to having kids, I cherished CBeebies when they were toddlers: it could stop them in their tracks long enough for me not be on red alert for 5 seconds!1

Busy people crave stillness, but we assume it’s totally unfeasible; we laugh when people suggest it and we see it as sheer indulgence. Yet, I think there are ways we can incorporate stillness into our daily lives however busy they are, and I think we’ll feel stronger for it.

I’m not about to give a potted history of Lent, which of course starts tomorrow (while we’re still scrubbing the pancake batter off our kitchen cupboards)! But to help us find stillness, let’s just think what the Christian period of Lent is supposed to point to.  Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness fasting and bracing himself for the challenges ahead of him. I’m really not suggesting we can take that sort of time!

But to consciously – and not by accident – take ourselves away from the things and people and circumstances that distracts us, even if only for 5 minutes a day and actively be still and consider ourselves as individuals and not as a cog in a whole sequence of wheels, can uplift us and strengthen us.

2And I know that while considering my future and searching my soul would be useful, I don’t often feel emotionally up to it. But to light a candle and watch the flame flicker, see the mini tornado of black smoke spiral out of its tip and almost hear the wax drops hit the pristine smooth white candle – that I can do. As I do it I may not think of anything, but not thinking of anything is sometimes the point of stillness: our busy minds and hearts need a rest. Then perhaps we can look deeper into ourselves and it can be helpful, rather than feel like your heart’s in a brace.

So, whatever you’re faith or background – whether you’re an agnostic, atheist, humanist, pagan – allow a bit of stillness into your life. This can be a time of restoration. Why can’t you just stay still?

We may think we can’t aspire to having times of stillness, and that it is a sheer indulgence. I think it really is possible and necessary; necessary all the more for those of us who feel it’s an indulgence.

And partly with that in mind I’m going on a little blog-cation, as I believe the pros call it. Sometimes we can just try and fit too much in can’t we?  But I’ll be back.

In the meantime, please do let me know questions your children have asked you, because Big Questions from Little Minds can teach us “bigger”minds so much.

 

 

‘Wow! Am I so ready for this change?’

When I first watched Frozen I was pleasantly surprised. At least, it’s the women who sort their crisis: Sven doesn’t get there in time, not that he could do anything if he did. And Anna is after all pretty plucky, despite her stupidity over evil Prince Hans. And the whole Frozen story is about how we deal with fear and how love and acceptance can resolve this – positive and hopeful, if naive. So, I’m not a Frozen hater (well, I am in that – If I see one more bit of merchandise….hear that song…. Argh! kind of way), but something I read this week made me think some more and question whether the films our girls are watching are really moving forward in terms of their portrayal of women.

Linguists (Fought and Eisenhauer) have completed a study which reveals that increasingly – with the exceptions of Tangled and Brave – Disney films over the last 30 years have seen women speaking for considerably less time than men; Frozen sees men speak for 59% of the time and The Little Mermaid, a staggering 71%. Yet, back in the days when Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty hit the celluloid – in spite of their subservient roles and appearance-motived plots – it was the reverse, with female characters speaking the vast majority (71% in Sleeping Beauty, 60% Cinderella) of the lines.

Now, part of me immediately recoils from this conclusion that the proportion of lines given to women is critical in this debate for several reasons: it’s obviously down to the story – the three good and one wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty are all women. Looked at from the male perspective, Cinderella doesn’t have step-brothers for instance (although it is interesting that Cinderella’s father is cut out of the plot which doesn’t help the gender imbalance). It’s obviously the case that what the genders say and how characters evolve is the critical factor in how roles are being defined. And these stories are set in the “olden days” where people didn’t have women diplomats and women  administrators.

We can’t make the past a Feminist idyll. And the beauty and romance of enjoying stories from the enchanted age of castles and frilly ball gowns is still one to watch even if there aren’t men changing nappies and women changing tyres.

Linguist Karen Eisenhauer, who co-wrote the report thinks Disney has shown a tendency of seeing men as “the norm” (great line!) but the serious point being made was that when Disney go about choosing more incidental speaking characters – shop keepers, fishermen, diplomats or just funny characters – these are usually men. So you may well have strong female leads, but women have the crises, they don’t just live; they don’t have small, comic parts; they are not simply there.

I think it’s fair to say that Disney should be on guard against immediately chucking a man into a role which could be filled by either sex.  Report co-author Professor Carmen Fought continues:

“We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way….. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

Now, I seriously tried not to gender-stereotype my children. I don’t know about you, but I could not get my son interested in pushing a dolly in a pram, and his main interest with the plastic cooker was mending the doors with his Bob the Builder tool kit. And with my daughter, I resisted pink…honestly, but it was like squatting in front of the Niagra Falls – personally I think our children aren’t quite so easy to deter from the stereotypes and there seem to be some ingrained tendencies, much as it bemuses and faintly concerns me.

But that caveat aside, clearly what our children watch – especially as these days it dominates parties, toys and every little thing you buy – does influence them greatly. The study also shows how women are valued far more for their attitudes and abilities than their beauty in recent years, and to be honest that matters to me far, far more than how many lines they have.  Worth noting that the study shows that the two films in recent years which have bucked the trend for female lines – Brave (74% women) and Tangled  (52% women)- have both been written by women and Disney is clearly aware of the sensitivities.

Thinking about this study though, has left me drawing a slightly different conclusion about how to model inspirational women: it’s not so much about the predominance of a character (in so much as the lines) or the casting, it’s the choice of story made into a film which needs greater consideration.

I think we need more female writers and directors to generate the sorts of films that hold up for our children women of strength, passion and integrity. At the same time, I certainly don’t want a ‘Feminist agenda’: let’s also see men of strength and integrity and women and men working together – be great if that was “the norm”.

So what do you think? Does it matter how much women are on screen? What determines how children view gender?

 

You may well want to take a look article from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/25/researchers-have-discovered-a-major-problem-with-the-little-mermaid-and-other-disney-movies/

 

 

 

Do you ever lie?

So, I was recently having a drink with some friends, one of whom now has grown-up children. She told us how a few years ago her son had asked her if she ever lied; he’d been horrified by her frank response of “All the time!”. Now, I should add here that my friend is…to my knowledge…a very honest person, wonderful Mum and known for her integrity, so it got us all thinking about quite how much we do tell lies and why.

“No, it’s really no trouble at all.”  vs “That’s going to seriously put me out, but go on then.”

“No, I’ve only just got here.” vs “I’ve been standing here with feet like ice for ages. Better have a good excuse!”

Put it this way, if our children were there they’d certainly out us telling these lies!

I think we probably tell most of our daily lies to make things easier; easier for our friends, ourselves and the smooth running of our days. Making things easier on our friends and smoothing over situations in relationships can’t be frowned on that much surely? And there are times when we need to flake on a social engagement for our own sanity.

There are the duplicate Christmas presents for instance. I tied myself in knots with this this year. My son got a great present that he “really likes” except he really likes the other, identical one he had last year. So the thank you card read, “Thank you for the XXXX . I really enjoyed playing this……” It was totally true. My son was also tying himself in knots – “We could write…I played this once before and liked it …but now you’ve got me one…….you made a good choice.” Oh dear.

I had to tell him that we weren’t going to lie (we don’t do that!), but we didn’t want to hurt XXXX’s feelings;  she’d put thought into it and come up with a great idea and it’s always the thought and effort that counts.

 

1

BUT, why exactly do we tell our children not to lie? It seems very hypocritical given that we do it so much  “white-lying ” and we maybe don’t see that much wrong with it? I suppose the heart of it is that we need to be able to trust what people say or our community can’t function so well. Hang on….isn’t that why we’re saying we end up lying? To smooth things over and ease awkward situations?

I remember when my first child was a baby, chatting with a couple of very good friends who also had babies at the time, about how dishonest we felt some Mums could be. It was probably just their coping mechanism, but it wound us up feeling hormonal and guilty as we invariably did. We said there and then that we’d always tell it like it was, for our sakes and each others sakes, because no-one likes feeling a failure and especially not when it’s by an unfair comparison. And when it comes to having a good old whine about the disorganised state of our lives, we certainly do still honour the honesty. But I don’t think I do this in all the other areas of my life.

For instance, how many times have I let something that’s upset me get swept under the carpet and said “No, no…no I wasn’t upset at all!”; or worse still “I’m really sorry, I must have given the wrong impression/said something/done something wrong.” when, on that occasion, I just don’t think I have? (Obviously it’s good to be able to be self-critical and recognise our own failings, but a false apology can lead to resentment, so it’s hardly a long term smoothing over.)

When we ‘ease’ a relationship by telling a lie, I think we have to do it for right reasons. If my friend’s having a tough time and she’s late, I’m obviously going to make her feel better about it. If my friend asks for an opinion on how tight some jeans are but I really think she’d doesn’t want the truth, of course I’ll lie. (In fact, how often have you given the unvarnished truth on a question about clothes?). BUT sometimes we ease relationships to our own (and sometimes to our families’) cost. We accept doing things when we are actually at capacity ourselves, with a carefree, “No, no that’s fine I can do that.” It’s harder to say, “Actually you could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back!” Especially hard because it is just one straw.

I don’t expect that my children won’t grow up similarly compromised themselves. I do hope it’s a while before they’re there. And  while I can’t imagine lying about anything dramatic (and I’d hope to be unequivocal on this), I do wish I had it in me to be more honest in these sorts of social situations, where I’m so often driven to “white lies”. These may well be in a different league to major dishonesty, but I think they can still be potentially destructive.

I want my children to be fair to themselves, and that means not dumbing down on the truth in order to make for a superficially easier life.

The other day a friend stopped me by the school gate. She looked so puzzled and bemused as she said,  “You look really well.” I thought about it later. I did feel quite good. I don’t think I had a jot of make up on. I was walking around like a bag lady – with plastic carriers, a coat with a bust zip showing off a depressing (but warm) brown jumper. But, you know, the reason I felt good and looked better than normal was because I’d spent the week saying no to things. I had just focused on my ordinary life. I hadn’t taken on anything else. I wasn’t trying to cram my every waking hour. I felt relaxed. And it wasn’t just doing less, it was taking back control by turning down things and actively putting myself first.

When we lie in the sort of social situations I’ve been describing, I think we are putting someone else’s happiness before our own. Putting our friends first is obviously laudable and something we should do and should encourage our children to do. But if we don’t look after ourselves we can’t give to anyone, let alone our family who sees us without the lies and bravado.

I want my children to feel they should say when they’ve been hurt, felt used or when they simply can’t do something; not to feel judged, but to tell it plain; when they don’t do that they aren’t valuing themselves.

And that’s why I hope my children won’t lose the innocence of honesty too young. Because, let’s face it, there are decades of dishonesty ahead. When we lie we are not just not valuing honesty, we’re not valuing ourselves….and maybe not the people we lie to either.

So what do you think? How many lies are too many? How on earth to navigate this with your children? Please share your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did they wee in the olden days?

I think the Victorians in this picture would seriously get the vapours if they heard my 4 year old daughter’s question. They wouldn’t realise how alien they look; how they don’t look like they do anything as mundane as wee!

I suppose the past is so easy to romanticise; we do it, but our children maybe do it even more. And the more I think about it, the more I think we construct a false idea of history and then learn from it.

I read an article recently where someone was passionately asserting, as if there could be no contradiction, that things are so much harder for children today than ever before.  Terrorism and the “media” were the main reasons given. And I don’t minimise either the fear and threat of Terrorism, nor the terrifying power of the internet: something I feel very strongly about.

But, I do think we have both romanticised our view of history and perhaps even ‘romanticised’ our current reality: are we really living like we’re people on the brink of an apocalypse?

What about the day-in-day-out terrorism of class prejudice which, while still a major and under-recognised issue today, was acutely relevant to daily economics, politics and social pressures not even a hundred years ago. In London slums  in Victorian times more than half of the babies died before their first birthday.  It could be more like 75% in areas where epidemics were taking hold (Museum of London/British Library). Tuberculosis, small pox, cholera and death in childbirth dominated daily life.

Is it the idea of strong family units that makes us “nostalgic” for life back then? The idea that there was an extended family that helped with mugs of bovril and a raging fire on the range? It is a lovely image, but it doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. What exactly would your life be like as a Mum aged 13 sharing the cramped family home with your Mum/Aunt/Grandma bringing up your own child with a secrecy born of shame?

2

And this is the model we judge our own society against? Strong family values, helping people against all the odds, grinning and bearing it, coping, putting family first? Sure, but what would you write about if you were blogging around the turn of the century? I’m not saying everything’s better now – it obviously isn’t and there are huge pressures on our children today, not least through an increasingly bullying social media and a potentially threatening world wide web inevitably escaping control.

The idea that we learn from history is parroted ad absurdum. If we do, it’s not clear what we’re learning from and therefore what we’re learning. I don’t think we were innocent then and I don’t think we are now. We construct history, put it out there and then use it to judge ourselves pretty unfairly in the process.

So the next time you feel you don’t come up to scratch as an earth mother, resorting to a DVD or a can of baked beans…or you look at your not very 2.4 family and think you’re grandmother would be turning in her grave, just remember the Mothers who weren’t allowed to love their own children, the fathers who weren’t allowed to marry the mothers of their children, and the children who weren’t allowed to know the love…or even the names of their own parents.

And the next time you meet someone who – like me – had a medically prescribed C-section, not being too posh to push, too lazy, too….pick your adjective because non C section Mums have had a whole store chucked at them…. remember the Mums who died or were left incontinent for the rest of their insanitary lives, and be proud you live in a world which is, on many levels, so much safer than it was.

3

I’d love to wear those ethereal ’20s dresses sported at the Ritz by Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. I’d love to have a good old fashioned Knees up Mother Brown and pint of stout at a good old East End boozer in Call the Midwife.

 

4

 

But even aside from the tragic disadvantages of a less medically advanced society, the people in those stories are not inoculated against emotional pain. They fall out of love, they cheat on each other, they fight with their parents and siblings and they see their dreams fade – this is what it means to be human. But for every one that falls out of love, someone falls in….someone is faithful, someone is a good friend through it all and someone sees dreams come true.

If our children pick up from us the “good old days” mantra, they’ll carry it on their shoulders just as I reckon we do. We shouldn’t be judged by another era, but neither should we judge those other eras more favourably than we judge our own. Humans mess up and humans do wonderful things. It’s important our children realise the similarities as much as the differences across the generations. History today seems to focus far more on the differences, as if electricity changed the running of the human heart.

What do you think? Do we give our children a romanticised view of history? How does our view of history affect how we live our lives? What impact might that have on our children? Please share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is a hundred bigger than infinity?

First let me say that I got a C in Maths and it was my most prized GCSE result because I was so appalling at it and convinced I was going to have to re-take. So…..we are not discussing pure maths in this blog and we are not musing on mysteries of physics.

My son has been obsessed with infinity. My favourite example being his version of that sweet children’s book about the Daddy and baby hare entitled, Guess How much I love you?, where they compete to give visual representations of how immense their love is for each other; the culmination being “to the moon and back.” For my baby hare, bless him, it was “infinity times to the moon and back”.

I think all of us find it hard to take in quite how much more of existence there is beyond our horizons. But if you’re a child it must seem even more stunning.  3And yet, because they haven’t travelled and haven’t got a developed sense of distance or of perspective, it’s totally impossible for them to realise distances even within our own planet. They don’t know that a long car journey from London to Devon wouldn’t get you an ants length on a gigantic play map.3

So, yes infinity is bigger than a hundred and infinity is bigger than everything because it’s not a number, it’s an idea. We cannot go beyond infinity. But like all competitive children they surely want to!

It’s the Somewhere over the Rainbow syndrome. And like children, we adults have it big time. Our horizons frustrate us, but perhaps if our children realise how seemingly close to them an ant’s horizon is, they’d see how the rest of planet earth might as well be infinity to those tiny creatures. 1

Talking about infinity is really talking about perspective. Perhaps that’s a practical way of getting a sense of this unfathomable concept.

And I think it helps that children know we find it unfathomable. That shouldn’t be seen as frightening, although it could be; they don’t want us to be ignorant. We need to show excitement I think; excitement that we live in a universe barely discovered. Maybe their generation – or even they – will be the first to set foot on Mars. That perspective will  push the horizon still further, but there will never cease to be an horizon to move towards. I suppose that could be the definition of “hope”.

So how do your children deal with the perspectives of time and space? What sort of questions have they asked? 

6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can we give that homeless man our spare room?

As someone who’s been involved with homeless shelters, I find this an especially hard question.  Part of us wants to say, yes you’ve got it right – no-one should go without food warmth and shelter and as we have a spare room, let’s suggest he or she moves in right away. With all the Christmas lights up and people excitedly buying for family and friends, it’s more poignant than ever. But of course, we don’t know the homeless person’s background and we could be endangering our children and ourselves. Of course, if we did know and had no qualms, we still probably wouldn’t would we? If we’re being totally honest. And that’s the heart of this.

I remember doing outreach work around London’s Kings Cross station years ago. I learned so much from going around with former homeless men talking to currently homeless people on the streets. The workers I went around with never bothered to get alongside the beggars by cash machines because they confidently wrote them off as professional beggars, exploiting a giving public. A tricky one to explain without sounding callous to your child and also a very disillusioning one. I recently gave money to a beggar asking money for selling tissues on the train, because I felt bad not doing so in front of my children, but I knew he was ‘a professional’.

Why someone is homeless is often complicated. It is safe to say that when you have kids you really can’t take any chances. But you can teach your children to treat them…as all people…with respect and buy them a coffee and something warm to eat maybe?

The other day was one of those especially horrid cold and drizzly days. My son said – unprompted – what a horrible day it would be to be homeless. The next day we went past a homeless man walking to the shops. Not even acknowledging another human being when they call out to you does seem particularly degrading when you think about it, but most of the time I manage to box myself up and put the feelings of guilt on hold. Thinking of my son’s empathy though, put me to shame and so we stopped and asked the man if he wanted a coffee. My son was a bit shy about doing it but I suggested he give the man the hot sausage roll we’d got, and he did. Walking down the dark passage way near an equally depressing car park, I saw him start to jog towards the man and hand it out to him keenly. Children so often want to give. They just don’t need us holding them back by our inhibitions, or whatever they really are.

Later we went into the local library to use the toilets. A rush of warm air hit us as we walked in. We’d asked the man his name. My son remarked immediately “Why doesn’t Peter come in here?” On our way back to from the shops it started to rain harder. And then my son said what really hit me and made me realise how far behind him I am: “What will we do if he’s still there?”(turns out he wasn’t). But my son felt that we had a responsibility, and it wasn’t spent having just popped to the local bakery.

2

Last year my son helped me cook for our local shelter. He also went and helped pump up the beds. He felt like he was doing something really worthwhile – and he was. There are so many ways you can get involved, even if you just bake a cake, or notice something they need. Do they have gloves? What about a hat?

Our children challenge us. It’s disgraceful how I manage to section off my life….in a hurry I’m ashamed to say there’s no way I stop for the beggar near the supermarket. My children force me to be a better person…if I let them.

How have you dealt with questions like this? Do your children make you better? Do we dare take up their challenge? Please do share your thoughts and other tricky questions.