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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why did it happen?

“I don’t want to go on school trips outside this country?” I knew that was when we were finally going to have the Paris conversation with my 7 year old.

Year 6’s trip to France has just been cancelled. This means, inevitably, the whole school from 4  years up somehow has to know why.

The night before, my daughter, popped her head round the door to ask “Will the world end?” Apparently two 4-year-old boys were discussing it?

I keep my children away from the news. I would prefer to be their filter at this stage in their childhood. But cocooning them also has a price: we need to actively be the filter.

My son wanted to know “Why did it happen in the first place?”

This may be that first news story that winds him; that makes him realise we are vulnerable; that makes him see the world as a dangerous place, and that frightens him.

I think there’s disbelief for many children that young. They want to know why? Why could Year 6 go on the school trip last year, but next week it’s suddenly too dangerous.

Change and permanence are key concepts children have to assimilate into their daily life. Sometimes there will be a supply teacher that won’t be so helpful as their own teacher. Sometimes football will be cancelled because of the weather. These changes can throw them.

But sometimes, bombs and guns will kill people simply going about their daily lives in normally safe countries, very similar to our own. How do they have any framework for dealing with that reality?

By “Why did it happen in the first place?” perhaps my son was also saying “How could everything so dramatically change….just like that?”

Nothing happens just like that. I didn’t say this to my son at the time. I was fumbling around for the right words. ( If you ever think that writing this blog means I’m able to come up with coherent and helpful answers on the spot, you’d be very much mistaken.)

On reflection, I’m thinking how children that young are still grappling with the cause and effect of not sharing, let alone the cause and effect of behaviour across millennia, races and continents. But to understand how this particular trajectory of violence started in the first place, we need to understand humanity, and – posture as we all do about this from time to time – we really can’t come close.

So, how could everything so dramatically change? It all changes when a group of people wants another group of people to live their lives a totally different way and won’t allow the other people to say they disagree.

Perhaps that’s the element of human behaviour we do all understand, however it’s disguised or presented and however inconceivably grotesque are the means used to try and achieve that control.

“Will the world end?” How can we answer that?

I bet there have been children asking that for hundreds and hundreds of years. Maybe your Grandad did during the war when he had to run outside in the cold and dark to the shelter in the garden?

Sometimes it feels like everything is changing. Sometimes we can’t imagine how things will get back to normal and we won’t feel like this.

We understand human beings can do terrible things. But just as much, if not more so,  human beings have a deeply ingrained resilience: like an inbuilt hope, that made them run soup kitchens on bomb sites, and today makes them distribute clothes and food to refugees, defend Muslims subjected to abuse on trains and, sacrificially, and with no thought for their own safety, go back into the Bataclan theatre having escaped, to rescue friends.

The pain of loss can never go away. But showing love gives hope: hope that humans can find a way to live together with different views at no-one’s expense.

Our capacity for faith, hope and love is immense. “But the greatest of these is love.”  

Somehow, if our children can leave our “Paris conversations” with hope in people’s capacity to love, rather than with quite so much fear of their capacity to break hearts and lives; if  our children can leave these discussions with an awareness of people’s resilience, to say, ‘We will carry on and care’, then I hope they will, somehow, be empowered by seeing good overcoming evil.

How have you been dealing with this with your children? What sort of questions have they asked you? Please do share your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

The Germans are the Baddies aren’t they?

I felt a bit winded – especially given that my son’s god-father is German – when my son saw a German flag outside an international hotel a few months back and pronounced it a “Baddy” flag. And of course, with poppies everywhere at the moment and our children somehow observing the silence in school, it’s bound to be discussed over the meal table this coming week. Who are the baddies? And why are the people who were baddies not baddies now? Combine that with, why are there still wars, and you’ve got your work cut out.

My son’s god-father, whose grand-dad fought against us in the war….he was a “baddy”. Uncle Martin, who is great fun to play footie with…. is related to a “baddy” I told my son.

War turns normal family-orientated, loving and caring people into killers.  Empathy is, according to a study out this week (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2014/07/18/are-you-raising-nice-kids-a-harvard-psychologist-gives-5-ways-to-raise-them-to-be-kind/  ) something we don’t teach our children enough. Certainly, we should prize it more and it’s the only way to really answer this week’s confused jumble of war questions.

Quite simply – put yourselves in the shoes of Uncle Martin’s Grandad. Do that and you realise that he knew he might have been imprisoned for NOT fighting.  Do that and you realise that, back then when Hitler’s media machine was in full swing and, at least superficially, the country was developing well, Uncle Martin’s grandad may have actually been pro-Hitler. Untitled design-6

How many times are we in favour of things but we don’t really understand them? How many times do we bow to peer pressure when we should simply do what we believe to be right? I think that’s the lesson I want to teach my son from war. We are responsible for our actions, but the State can wield an almost indomitable power over its citizens, and this must always be checked.

In a moving school assembly the other day to mark Black History Month, children – based on Martin Luther King’s speech  – said what their dreams were. One boy, with the kind of innocence that reduces adults to tears – said how his dream was for world peace and for “all the soldiers in the world to realise that it’s bad to fight”. But of course, soldiers are servants of the State.

So how can we achieve world peace, especially when many governments around the world are unjust? Maybe we can start by telling our children, and modelling for them, how important it is not to distance yourselves from someone just because they are different. Maybe we can encourage them to see who are the most vulnerable people in our community and consider how we can help them? And because wars often start out of injustice, maybe we can consider what we think is unfair in the world and challenge this? We could focus with our children on making trade fairer for impoverished farmers in developing countries. We could help them write to our MP to raise the issue of children working in unsafe conditions in factories supplying British clothing companies.

Of course, I’m not saying war starts because bananas aren’t all fair-trade. I’m not saying that there’s a war going on because of poor standards in factories in Cambodia. (And I’m mindful someone reading this in a country with unthinkable human rights abuse would count all this as staggeringly easily written…as if it would make any impact in their country).

What I’m saying is our children need to learn that they are not impotent to at least challenge systems which support the kind of injustice perpetrated or condoned by governments around the world.

All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men and women, and boys and girls, to do nothing. Doing nothing may put us closer to the “baddies” than we’d like to think.

What do you think? How do you tackle questions about war with your children? Please share your thoughts.

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….

Why don’t we celebrate Halloween?

Halloween has lost its way.  It WAS all about light repelling darkness. Druids carved out frightening pumpkin faces and lit them in their windows to ward off evil spirits; they were seeking to reassert control of good over evil and to protect their homes from malign powers, on the night the dead were thought to visit the living. 1

Today, it’s children who are decked out in gory wigs and skulls, pretending to be those visiting ghouls. I totally appreciate that many Mums I know choose to tightly control how Halloween is marked in their homes. Wearing an old sheet in a bid to get some chocolates from the neighbours hardly means inculcating a sense of the manipulative power of evil in your children. However, the question I’m left with is this: why are we – on one level – somehow fascinated by evil and how does it affect us?

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I understand how going into Poundland and seeing a mass of green witch wigs, orange spiders and plastic blood-stained fingers, gets many children excited. That’s the crux of the matter for me.

Hardly a night goes by without some documentary on television detailing horrific crimes. The Sunday Papers give break-downs of exactly how a hostage has been tortured in minute detail. It sells. Under the cover of current affairs, it’s permitted by society. I believe there’s a streak within us all  – and it surfaces with different prompts – that gets excited by evil. This is complicated and I don’t profess to understand it, but it’s why the most docile of people can be gripped by a thriller about an axe murderer, or the grimmest of crime dramas.

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I think it’s important to recognise this proclivity, but it’s vital not to indulge it. When we indulge it, we let go of a bit more humanity and we also tell our children that’s ok, or possibly worse still, that it’s a joke.

I remember reading a grisly book. It was well written, by a highly regarded novelist, but it detailed dreadful crimes. I couldn’t give it to the charity shop, so I put it in the bin. I didn’t want anyone else carrying the burden of having read what I’d read and feeling guilty for keeping going too long. Choosing to read another chapter was wrong and I lost a bit of humanity in the process.

Today, whatever you believe about the tangible presence of evil, we can all recognise darkness in our society. If only we were able to remodel Halloween and encourage our children to see this as a time of celebrating light overcoming darkness, in how we engage with poverty, homelessness and vulnerability in our communities.

We often feel overwhelmed by suffering we see around us. This Halloween our children will be putting up lanterns (still pumpkins) and remembering people who need light in the darkness of their lives. We’ll be dressing up as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and going to one of the many Light parties churches and other organisations put on around this time – children can still do the apple-bobbing and pumpkin carving, but with a positive message to take home.  And, because we don’t just want to be merely spinning the story, we aim to try and shine some light, however small, in a practical way, buying some hats to be taken by a friend of ours helping refugees in Calais.

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The days in the Church calendar of All Hallows and then All Souls (both following Halloween) are about remembering those who’ve died. Their lives may have shone a powerful light on our own.  Maybe we can start using Halloween as a way to lighten the lives of others and bring hope rather than fear?

So how do you mark Halloween? Should I just take a chill pill and have fun? Or do you think there’s a sinister side we need to keep in check? And if we want to, how can we be light overcoming darkness? Please do join in the debate.

Why do you always drink cold tea?

My Mummy-friends and I spent many years talking of how one day, when our kids were in school, we’d have…..wait for it…. a whole cup of hot tea. It was the symbol of spiritual wholeness almost – the point after which we’d realise we were an individual and not a bottom-wiping service. However, oddly enough, our youngest has hit Reception, and I still drink tepid tea…. and I hate it. I’ve come to the conclusion that many of us suffer from Tepid Tea Syndrome – the inability to manage our lives so that we can encounter tea as it’s meant to be.

Tepid Tea Syndrome

….or TTS – is really part of a bigger problem. And it’s not a ‘Mummy Problem’ and it’s not just about drinking a whole cup of tinglingly hot tea. It’s about your attitude towards yourself and the value you – in practice – place on focusing on things and completing them.

I’m not saying that I’m not good at getting things done and fitting things in and multi-tasking, but everything is done all at once in a great cloud of logistical smoke. It’s not that pleasant and it leaves you trying to get your breath, physically and emotionally.

I never walk anywhere without thinking about what I’m going to do as soon as my key goes into the front door. It goes something like this:

If I’m home by 915 I can put the washing out, clean last night’s casserole dish that I didn’t put in to soak, stick bleach in the loos and then by 925 I can start tonight’s meal and have it cooking while I clear up the lego before tonight’s play date………Oh good, there’s loads of time before the playgroup I’m volunteering with starts at 10.”

Crazy. And so I’m frazzled – although I don’t count it as such – before I’ve even got home. What a waste. It could have been wonderful walk, connecting with people, nature, history,……but it’s wasted time, all because of TTS. (And how many tepid cups of tea will I have half drunk by lunchtime? I wont have enjoyed one.)

What is Life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare,

No time to stand beneath the boughs.

And stare as long as sheep or cows  (Leisure, William Henry Davies)

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A poem that’s ended up in the Clinton’s cliché charts, but that sort of gets to the heart of it. I don’t actually want to stare, but I want to experience each part of my day without always planning the next ones. It devalues what I’m doing in the meantime and that sort of devalues me.

The Next Thing is the Next Thing

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So, are you a victim of TTS? It’s good to talk? How does it affect you?

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