Category Archives: Children Growing Up

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 Better to have beans on toast with friends than a full roast because of some outdated sense of obligation.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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘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/

 

 

 

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?

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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.

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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.

 

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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 Santa real and do Angels have feet?

This season is so alive with wonderfully powerful and magical stories. Children and adults alike have their imaginations charmingly tickled as they strain their ears to hear sleigh bells in the night sky, or engage with the image of glowing hay surrounding  an adorable baby and baaing, fluffy lambs.

But as they grow up they want to know the answer to a question never far from their lips the rest of the time….Is it real? Sure you’ll agree that they ask it about as often as “Are we nearly there yet” on a car journey don’t they?

If it’s not real, what do they lose? What do we lose as parents, otherwise trying to make Christmas as magical and wonderfully mysterious as possible?

Why do we tell stories? Stories can show us truths and teach us things. Stories can be a way we deal with things we don’t understand. Stories can entertain us and we can lose ourselves in them and imagine we’re the characters. Stories can be inherited traditions, long cherished as part of our culture’s way of connecting across time with deep truths.

Do stories necessarily lose their potency if they are found not to be based in truth? Now, I’m not a philosopher as you know, so we won’t go into the whole ‘What is Truth?’ discussion here! But as far as our children are concerned, the question they – at some point – come to ask us about all the wonderful stories they hear, is whether the figures of Santa, God, Mary, Jesus really exist or existed and whether the events really happened.

I wish we adults had such meaningful conversations as our children. There was apparently a big discussion in the playground this week about whether you had to believe in Santa if you believed in God. The two were seen as inextricably linked. The whole idea of one package of beliefs going with another is a fascinating can of worms isn’t it?

Untitled design-9The other week I was playing the role of Mary in a dramatisation for local schools. (I always wanted to at school…didn’t know I’d only get to be Mary at 37! Not me above by the way!) I was rather tickled by one boy’s comment, that the elderly man playing the Angel Gabriel, couldn’t possibly be an angel. He added indignantly, “I saw his feet!” 

 

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We all have our own take on how to deal with reality and stories. My personal thoughts for what they’re worth, are that when my children ask me if Santa’s real I tell them he’s not BUT with a strict warning not to burst anyone else’s bubble. We still have loads of fun with Santa pictures on practically everything around the home; singing ‘When Santa got stuck up the chimney’ a zillion times, and leaving mince pies out for Santa, with a knowing chuckle that it’s really Daddy. But faced with a point blank question about what’s true and what’s not, I feel I need to answer.

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And if that means I re-examine my own beliefs about the account of the first Christmas and if I have to explore what I really believe about angels and how much I think stories within the Bible are figurative or imaginative models,  and how much they’re true to real life events, then so be it. It’s a good result for all of us.

And of course, if you don’t believe the Christmas story, then why would you confuse your children when they ask you if that’s real? But that’s just always puzzled me.

I want my children to decide for themselves what’s real. But they do look to us for opinions on the way. They ask for a bit of a steer  about what really happened versus what is a story of Disney-like fantasy.

I will tell my children I don’t believe in Santa. I will tell my children I believe that Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in very humble circumstances long prophesied by spiritual people through the ages – something which never fails to excite me. I will tell them I find believing in angels – especially the gold winged flying variety – really tough! (And of course, when we look a little deeper we may see that this version is more due to Victorian artists than Biblical accounts.) 2

But what an opportunity…whatever your beliefs, to be able to explore with your children how a story is never simply JUST a story, and perhaps never simply true.

Some stories can have more basis in fact than others. Some can be literally true, although they’re bound to have some spin on them. Some can be figuratively true in that they point to truth. And of course, if we separate Santa from St Nicholas we see where both the Santa and the Christmas story connect:  bringing kindness and joy to the world, irrespective of race, wealth or beliefs. We need both stories, and what bits you think are true is inevitably the compelling discussion of the holidays both for children and adults. May feel a bit daunting, but I think it’s worth grabbing the bull…or the reindeer…or the oxen…..by the horns/antlers/horns!

Please do share your thoughts – how do you deal with Christmas stories with your children? At what point do you tell them about Santa? and what have you told them about the first Christmas?3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are you going to do when you grow up?

I am not joking…that was my 6 year old son’s question to me. It was a general chat between us on the way to school, with him saying he’d be a policeman and my 4 year old daughter that she’d still be a princess. My son was disgusted:”You can’t be a princess!” followed quickly by, “What do you want to be Mama?”

It was a moment before my son’s double take. I could see the cogs turning “Oh yes!” he thought, “She’s not going to properly grow up!” What do they think about me I wondered?

This particular can of worms fascinates me. Firstly, how do children measure maturity? I know they struggle with the idea that I had any sort of life prior to their birth. (My daughter who loves a good wedding, asked me indignantly once “When you got married, didn’t you have I (sic)?”) So one thing at the heart of this question has to be their sense of history being totally confused, seeing you only in relation to them. A policeman is a policeman in relation to them. I am a mummy in relation to them.

Secondly, how do they value different jobs and roles. They only conceive of doing jobs whose status is evident to them. They see policemen/women, fire-fighters, teachers, nurses and doctors – interestingly the people pivotal to a community are the jobs most visible to them as children. And those are the jobs they naturally consider. 3

Thirdly, I wonder how their ideas about the value of different jobs affects how they view their community. I believe we remain a class-obsessed society.  Maybe less cap-doffing and curtsying, but there is still a rich seam of prejudice in how we view people based upon their working day.

At the moment, our children see front-line services as synonymous with “grown-up jobs”. They don’t knowingly interact with hedge fund managers or traders. When and why will they start to value those jobs more? That’s where we come in.

At least twice now I’ve had a conversation with other mums where I say I’d be very happy for my son to follow whatever is his latest rescue worker vocation. And on those occasions, my comments have been met by utter disbelief. The thinking was that as both my husband and I have degrees and a profession, it would surely be a body blow for us to see our children in less professional roles.

But I don’t see it quite that way. A fire down the road needs a fireman and an elderly lady with no family needs the comfort of a care assistant looking after her. Yes, being a journalist, a politician or a lawyer may definitely challenge and protect society in fundamental ways (As you’ll see  in last week’s blog I feel very strongly about encouraging our children to engage politically. And there are so many other professions which give meaning and focus to communities of course.). What I’m saying is that front-line care should never be relegated to a different class of work: it’s literally “vital” and I expect my conscience would sit more quietly knowing I’d saved lives.4

Shouldn’t we be proud our children want to help others? We teach them how central it is as they’re growing up but when we start to actually talk about what they might end up doing, we perhaps show other values pre-eminent in our minds – status, wealth, class? Or simply an important and fruitful frustration with the established systems around us; as long as those frustrations are channelled, then that can indeed be of vital significance for the community.

But when my children ask me what I’m going to do when I grow up, they perhaps think there’s a wider role I should be fulfilling. As a Home-based Mum, I can say we’ve made the choice that I stay at home and explain why we believe that’s an important role.

Since my two children have both been at school I’ve taken on various bits of work, journalistic and teaching, and I wondered how they’d respond to that. My son was very encouraging in an hilariously patronising way. I told him I was a bit nervous about teaching these toddlers some music. He said, “Don’t worry Mama, I think they’ll love it”.  Cue I sing him a song about autumn leaves and he says “That’s good Mama!” nodding too seriously!! My daughter said she wanted to come and help and suggested various props I could use. Predictably, she then got really cross when she realised it meant I couldn’t come to the whole of assembly! Interesting. Fine my having another role until it impinges on my role as a Mum.2

What am I getting at? I think growing up for the children means having a role; having a clear and respected place in society (preferably with a cap and uniform to prove it). But society so devalues the role of a parent who doesn’t work outside the home. It also devalues front-line services, because of how it pays them and because of how people view those jobs given that they don’t come after a competitive graduate scheme,  with a healthy pay cheque and plenty of kudos.

I want my children to value some of the jobs society doesn’t appear to. I want them to value the people in those roles for what they do. I don’t want them to cheapen them because of how society cheapens them.

If my children grow up wanting to challenge the systems that cheapen them, then that’s a bonus. But…challenging them shouldn’t be seen as a superior role to providing day-to-day care which comes at such a cost.

What do you think? In forming our aspirations for our children, to what extent do we a) resist, b) succumb to society’s pressures and expectations?

Why are you always on the phone?

My children haven’t actually asked this yet, but it’s just a matter of time and I dread it coming up. I will feel so awful if they ever think I’d rather spend time linking with other people – many of whom I don’t even know that well – than spending the precious time we have together. And so  – starting this half term – I’m making a pact with myself and with you….Maybe you’ll join me? Smart Phoners Anonymous?

I am going to control how much time I spend on my phone. And because it’s easy to get sucked in, I’m going to be quite legalistic about how I control this. So, on days when the children are with me, I won’t check Facebook, the Internet (unless direct and immediate need – i.e. how do we get where we’re going?) or email, or reply to any but essential text/calls (friends/family crisis) more than once during reasonable waking hours. On school days thereafter (told you was being legalistic) I won’t do the above between pick up and (reasonable) bedding down time.

Can you imagine how you’d feel if your children looked back on their childhood and had an abiding memory of you on the phone? Or making that dreadful repeated plea we sometimes get, “Will you play with me?”

I know, children need to learn that adults have tasks they need to do and can’t always play with them. (And you have my heart-felt sympathies if you’re juggling work and child care this holiday – this obviously can’t apply to you in the same way as those not.) Children do need to understand that adults have their own interests and needs. But to put Amazon browsing and passing on funnies on Facebook into the mix on top of cooking dinner and tidying up, is going to squeeze them out utterly unfairly. Obviously.

This small black rectangle I cling to as if it was my life, isn’t my life and it could damage it….and more importantly, the lives my children  – not perhaps through radiation anymore, but through how it affects our relationships. The pathetic part of it is that I’m not actually that bothered about doing things on my phone, it’s just become a habit….and it needs breaking. That’s why I’m starting Smart Phoners Anonymous.  This is a kind of addiction and it is destructive so let’s try and beat it together.1

Can you see where I’m coming from? Will you join me? Will you consider a pact? And maybe share with other friends? I think we’ll find our times with our children will be far calmer if they’re not fighting for attention with the extra child that is our ever-demanding phone!

If I don’t reply to your message within 8 hours, this blog is why….