Back to school season

September 6, 2015

As a child I was always irritated by the endless parade of ‘Back to school’ signs in shops, seemingly taunting us all summer long, as if not wanting us to forget that these blissful carefree summer days would eventually be coming to an end. So perhaps I’ve carried this irritation into my adult life and this accounts for my feelings at the repeatedly tedious attempts at conversation with my child by friends, family and strangers alike.

chalkboard-back-to-school-_pr-o“When do you go back to school?”

“Are you going back to school soon?”

“Are you looking forward to starting school again?”


But today a woman, a complete stranger, passing us in the supermarket aisle, took things to a new level.

“Are you going back to school on Monday?” she asks my child.

“Yes” he dutifully replies.

“Good” she says, “I’m glad. I bet your mum’s glad too.”

Excuse me?!

Firstly, please have the goodness not to make uneducated guesses as to my feelings regarding my child’s imminent return to the box ticking factory that is our education system, and all the trials and tribulations this brings back into his life (and consequently, mine). This in contrast to the hours of free play on the street that have made up a good part of his 7 week break, punctuated by a few days here and there of Forest Schools, and hiking holidays, which in turn lead to more free play with new sets of children, around the caravan parks and hostels we stayed in. All this makes for a happy, carefree child. Why would I look forward to this happiness being doused by his return to school?

Secondly, there’s this thing called ‘self esteem’ or ‘self worth’. And kids need this like plants need water. It seems this concept is rather alien to some, particularly those from a certain generation, to which I suspect this woman belongs. So let me spell it out: I want my child to feel loved, wanted, accepted and valued, not that he is a nuisance or an inconvenience of whose company I can’t wait to be rid. The latter is clearly the message this woman’s remarks were sending, whether intentionally or not.

What’s more, her remarks to my child are a great example of an habitual lack of respect towards children that seems to continue to lurk in our society. Would she have spoken to an adult like that? What had my child done to her, what does she know of him, that she needs to express her dislike for him in this way? Just a flippant remark? Maybe, but children are not stupid, they are fully aware of the implications of our remarks about them, and will draw their own conclusions. And their feelings are liable to being hurt just in the same way as those of an adult, if anything, more so.

I made the point of telling my child, in tones suitably audible, that on the contrary, I did not want him to go back to school, and that I would miss him, accompanying this with an affectionate hug and kiss. We then moved swiftly on down the aisle.

Now believe me, I fully understand and sympathise with parents who are in fact looking forward to their children returning to school. And I don’t believe parents should feel guilty for feeling this way. There have been, and continue to be, plenty of times during my life as a parent when I have wished my child elsewhere.

But if you are looking forward to school starting, please don’t presume I feel that way, and please, for pity’s sake, don’t tell your child you feel that way, and certainly not my child.

It’s not my fault, but it’s my responsibility.

July 15, 2015

We parent the way we were parented. That’s our instinct. If we want to parent a different way we have to make a conscious effort to change. It’s as simple as that, but it’s not easy. Fighting our instincts never is. Too often I hear myself say things to my child that my parents would have said to me. I recognise where these negative responses are coming from, and I’m not happy with them. Sometimes I feel angry and frustrated that I can’t always be the parent I want to be, and it would be so easy to simply blame my parents for this. However, as one of Dan Siegel’s patients once said to him; it’s not my fault, but it’s my responsibility. For me, this seems to make sense of things so well, and is a phrase I’ve often returned to since I heard Dr Siegel talking about it at a conference some two years ago.

innocenceYou see, these negative responses that are ingrained in me may not be my fault, but it’s my responsibility to recognise where they’re coming from, the effect they can have on my child, and to self-reflect, and try to make changes for the better.

Now, following this logic, one could argue that in a similar way those negative responses that my parents passed down to me were not their fault either, since they inherited them from their own parents. But it was their responsibility. And this is where I’m struggling.

It’s only since becoming a parent myself that I’ve fully understood the profound effect my childhood has had on me. But despite this, and the emotional scars I’m still dealing with, I never really felt I held any of it against them. I’ve always known they never meant any harm.

And perhaps things could have stayed this way, with the past lying dormant. But it’s hard to let the past lie when it gets dragged into the present in the form of my parents’ negative responses to my own child. If not for this, I might have been able to leave it all undisturbed.

But since I have gone to the trouble to break the cycle, to get informed and learn about children’s emotional needs, and to take the business of parenting seriously, their behaviour towards my child is more than a little irritating to me. It really triggers something in me. It opens old wounds and makes me feel furiously protective of my own child.

Exacerbating the situation is their judgement and criticism of the way I choose to parent. No, I’m not doing it the way you did – that’s the point! Their inability to see this illustrates their total lack of self-reflection and refusal to take responsibility for themselves. And given the amount of self-reflection I’ve had to do, I find myself increasingly astonished and out of patience with the total lack of it I observe in other people.

But perhaps they know really, and it’s just too much to face up to. Because if they were to admit that what I’m doing is preferable to what they did, they would have to admit that what they did was wrong, had some ramifications. And that’s big.

Relations are now decidedly strained, for the first time since I was a teenager. And just as when I was a teenager, I seem to be expected to shoulder all the responsibility for this.

But the thing is, after years of victim blaming on their part (I was such a difficult teenager, you see), I’ve come to see that the situation back then, the culmination of everything that was wrong in our relationship, was entirely of their own making. After all these years they still can’t face up to this, nor, it seems, to the part they have played in creating the current situation.

Well I have enough responsibility of my own to deal with now, and I have enough issues from my childhood, thanks very much. I am no longer willing to take on anyone else’s. I know it’s not their fault, but it’s their responsibility.

The Stranger Danger myth

May 14, 2015

Since my child started year 3 he is in a different school building, meaning we now take a different route on our walk to school to enter the grounds at a different point. We walk up a cul-de-sac, at the end of which is a path with some green space on one side, and the school perimeter fence on the other. My child likes to say goodbye to me at the end of the cul-de-sac, then go the rest of the way, along the path, by himself.

As this is away from any roads, and my child is now a little older, this feels safe enough to me, and I allow it. However, early in the school year I used to follow at some distance behind until I could see into the playground, then watch over the fence until I saw him enter the school building. Eventually I stopped doing this, but still stood and watched until he entered the gate into the school grounds.

And yet I realise these ‘precautions’ were entirely for my own benefit, my own piece of mind. What could possibly happen to my child in the hundred or so yards between the end of the cul-de-sac and the school gate? Where did I think he could or would go, other than into school? It was just about me letting go. Watching him into the playground was entirely unnecessary. The chances of something happening, and I’m not even sure what, are so remote.

keep-calm-and-avoid-stranger-danger-3But the extent to which we allow our judgement to be clouded in this department is very much apparent. Despite solid evidence that children are in fact safer playing out now than they were thirty years ago, the number of children playing out has steadily declined to alarmingly low proportions. The National Trust report, “Natural Childhood” tells us,

“In a single generation since the 1970s, children’s ‘radius of activity’ – the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised – has declined by almost 90%.”

The increase in traffic plays its part, but the research points to parents’ perceptions of ‘stranger danger’ as the real culprit to blame for this phenomenon, and its accompanying growth in the concern for what this means for children’s happiness, development and well-being. The report goes on to say that,

“There can be no doubt that most parents’ greatest fear is stranger danger.”

and quoting Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods,

“Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young.”

What kids are missing out on here is huge, and it’s not just about the outdoors, it’s opportunities for free-play, along with the opportunity to learn to manage some risk, and develop some independence, all essential to the developing child. Awareness of the immense value of free play is perhaps lacking as much as awareness of the real facts relating to stranger danger. Campaigns and organisations, besides the efforts of the National Trust, have sprung up, trying to tackle this issue, and yet still the majority of children continue to be denied the free-range childhoods that so many of us enjoyed ourselves.

So why do we ignore the facts? The National Trust report calls it “availability heuristic: a phenomenon in which people predict the frequency of an event, or how many people it will affect within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind. In other words, as a result of news coverage of attacks on children, it is easy for people to recall horrendous, tragic examples – Madeleine McCann, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and so on. And as a result of that, they significantly and systematically overestimate the likelihood of something happening to their own children.”

Of course, as with many aspects of parenting, we are also apt to take our lead from other parents around us. I often hear people say things like, “That’s how things are these days”. But why are things like that these days, when they don’t need to be? It’s as if the irrational and illogical thinking of those around us validates our own lack of true judgement.

But if no other kids are walking to school on their own or playing out on the street, we’re not very much inclined to let ours do these things. Not only does it influence our own judgement of what is and isn’t acceptable or ‘normal’, but we can’t rely on ‘safety in numbers’ when there are no numbers out there.

It seems there are no easy answers. It’s another case of needing to separate our own stuff from what is really best for our children, but when something becomes normalised in our society, changing attitudes is never easy.

Adults behaving badly

April 11, 2015

I was lucky enough to grow up with one of those free-range childhoods we now only reminisce or campaign about. Outdoors playing with the neighbouring children, in and out of each other’s houses and gardens, or mostly playing out in the surrounding common areas.

So it is with satisfaction that I see my child often enjoying a miniature version of this childhood, with spontaneous play occurring regularly at the end of our little cul-de-sac in the city suburbs, with the mixed genders and ages a fascinating reminder of the scope and range of possibilities in children’s play and their natural capacity to get along with each other.

One thing I was always taught, and that seemed a universal rule held by all parents, was that it is never OK to exclude other children from play. It was a free-for-all, everyone on neutral ground. If I was playing with Becky, and her younger sister Catherine wanted to join us, it was not acceptable for us to say no. We had to find a way to include her. Back gardens were not fenced off areas awaiting exclusive invitation, but merely an extension and diversion of the general territory. If parents decided they didn’t want children in their back garden at a given time, all children were told to go play elsewhere. And there were always plenty of other places, so that was fine.

So you can imagine my surprise last summer when my child, playing happily outside with his friends from next door, with whom he has played since toddlerhood, is sent running inside in tears to inform me that another child and his mother have come out and invited his friends round to play in their back garden, but have told him he is not invited.

Assuming, in my naive innocence, that my child must have made a mistake (for what sort of adult would behave like this towards a 7 year old child, or condone this behaviour in their own child?) I go outside to see what has happened and am immediately set upon by the mother in question, who has not been quick enough in her retreat, with the most offensive and abusive verbal attack I can ever remember having experienced. This was swiftly followed up by the Dad, standing shouting abuse at my husband and I on our drive, in front of our child, deaf to anything we had to say, including our civil invitation to come inside and discuss things quietly and calmly.

Our child has shouted at their younger child on a couple of occasions. This was their response, and woe betide anyone who dared to question or challenge it. Our gentle parenting methods, as alien to them as their naughty steps and rewards charts are to us, must, in their minds, surely be to blame. Have you noticed that when a child doesn’t behave well, the automatic assumption is always that it must be the parent’s fault? I find that curious, but more of that in another post…..

Now I have long since resigned myself to the extremely depressing fact that there are a lot of very unpleasant people in the world, and have found my own way to live with this. But when such a glaring example of this unpleasantness affects my child, extremely sensitive to any hint of rejection and exclusion, it is very difficult to live with, especially when it is right on my doorstep.

child alone hopskotchI know things are not quite how they were when I was a child, although there’s not really any need for them to be any different that I can see, but in what universe is this acceptable? It simply isn’t. There can be no possible justification for it. Never and nowhere is it acceptable to take a child’s friends out from under his nose in such a way, and in doing so, to teach children that this behaviour is acceptable. The example set, the role-modelling here, is appalling.

Naturally, I have observed my child’s behaviour around this younger child very closely since this incident. They play very happily together, always pleased to encounter each other on the street, as well as in the school playground, or out and about. They have forgotten and forgiven and moved on you see, as kids do when left to their own devices and not interfered with by adults with their grudges and their judgements.  They’d make very good role-models for some of the adults on our street – oh the irony – if those adults would just pay attention and give the matter some thought.

But sadly all this seems to be lost on them. Further attempts at exclusion have since been made, some successful, some not. Just yesterday our child was left alone on the street, one minute with friends to play with, the next excluded, left only to listen to the sounds of laughter and play on the other side of a fence.

Perhaps I’m out of date with play etiquette? It seems it’s not just common courtesy that’s a thing of the past, but common decency, respect and consideration for the feelings of others.

I can only try to explain to my child the truth that I had hoped to keep longer from him; that not all adults have learnt to behave well or do the right thing. Sadly some people are just “not very nice”.

I tone it down for him of course, but in my own mind I find their behaviour utterly despicable and at times feel physically sick at the prospect of having to share the end of our once happy little street with them, and the world with such truly horrible people.

It’s my stuff

March 27, 2015

As my child gets older, naturally there are more and more things he is able to do himself, like getting his own shoes on, being able to reach things out of the fridge, pour his own juice, that sort of thing. And he loves being helpful too, so it’s not just about what he can do for himself, but what he can do to help around the house too.

autonomyI can see how important it is to him when he accomplishes these small things, and yet at times it’s a struggle for me to accommodate his eagerness. It’s all very lovely, but the trouble is, he’s quite clumsy, and a little too eager at times. He also likes to do things his way, and is not too receptive to suggestions. On top of this, he can get very frustrated and upset when he can’t manage something he wants to be able to do.

Normally, I like to think I’m pretty big on the idea of letting my child figure things out for himself and discover things for himself. I try not to jump in too quickly if he’s playing with some friends and they can’t agree on something immediately. I try to encourage him to find his own way down the climbing frame rather than have me lift him. If he’s about to jump off a wall that I think might be too high, instead of just saying no, I ask him to use his judgement. He’s pretty cautious really and generally gets it right without me having to place my own restrictions. It all seems pretty obvious to me. I mean, most parents wouldn’t just tell their child the answer to the maths problem they’re trying to figure out, would they? And I’m pretty easy-going about him getting himself dirty, loving to watch him play and explore freely without being encumbered by my adult concerns and restrictions.

But when it comes to him showering cornflakes everywhere, or packing the bag with the sandwiches at the bottom, this child-led approach doesn’t seem to come so naturally to me. For a while, when he first started being more self-sufficient, I’d often find myself trying to find a nice way to stop him and tell him I’d do it, keen to either avoid an upset, a mess, speed things up, or just have things done my way. (now, where I have already mentioned this trait?) But I soon realised that however I phrased it, he was missing out on feeling capable, helpful, valued, involved, respected, and from learning to do these things on his own. More importantly, I also realised it was my stuff, and allowing my stuff to get in my child’s way just wasn’t fair.

I remember this dawning on me one summer day when we were getting ready for a day out. I’d gathered together all the things we needed to take out with us, and pulled out one of the rucksacks ready to pack the things into. I always pack things in a particular way, remembering what went where, in which little pocket I’d put the sun cream, rolling up the swimming towels neatly so they took up less space.

Then when I came out of the bathroom, my child announced cheerfully, “I’ve packed the bag mummy”. As I looked at him, so very pleased with himself, so eager for my approval, so keen to feel useful and part of the process, I realised I needed to take a deep breath and let it go. What was more important? My child’s feeling of self-worth and ability, or that the bag was packed just the way I liked it?

So much of parenting is about being aware of our own stuff, and not just the big things like how we react when our children make us angry. It’s all the seemingly little things too, like how we feel about them getting messy, or taking risks, or not wanting to store their toys just the way we would have. And so often, we let our stuff get in our child’s way, or in our own way forward as parents. Plus we risk making our stuff our kids’ stuff.

So every time I identify something that’s my stuff, however small, like being overly particular about how to pack a bag, I feel my self-awareness is my child’s gain.

Is common courtesy a thing of the past?

January 29, 2015

Much has been written about last week’s story of the parents who received a ‘no-show’ invoice after accepting a party invitation for their son and then failing to attend. This rather petty squabble between parents has managed to hit national news and capture the attention of many, with most reports, comments and articles I’ve read seeming very much to take the angle that sending such an invoice is really quite ridiculous.

But whether or not that’s the case, doesn’t anyone else think Mrs Lawrence has a point? She may not have chosen the best way to make her point, but I think she has a very good one nonetheless.

rsvpNewsflash: Accepting an invitation to a party then not showing up is rude. Sorry, but there it is. Or perhaps the craziness of kid’s parties nowadays, that this little episode has set everyone squawking about, includes the decline of basic social norms, the loss of societal etiquettes that include consideration of other people. The excuse the parents gave for the no-show was, frankly, lame. And no apology or explanation to the host either. Not OK.

And yet these parents appear to be so totally unashamed of their behaviour that they are willing to talk to the national press, brazen-faced pictures of father and son with the offending invoice appearing everywhere, with a video to boot, as if they are entirely the victims here, the fault all on the side of the parent who had the nerve to remind us all of those seemingly long-lost laws of common courtesy.

The inclusion of the child in the photos and video I find particularly inappropriate. What kind of lesson does this teach a child?

Because when adults behave badly, they teach children to behave badly too. We can’t be perfect all the time, but really, let’s try to be a little more mindful of the kind of role models we’re all providing for the next generation. Let’s try to teach our children about being considerate and respectful towards other people, about resolving issues using a little emotional intelligence and maturity, and yes, a little basic common courtesy.

But coming back to the general squawking about kids parties, Zoe William’s article in The Guardian is a great example of this. She complains not just about the cost of hosting the party itself, including the venue, the entertainers and the party bags, but the cost of buying presents when you’re invited to one. Well boo hoo. Here’s an idea – how about you don’t spend £20 on a gift voucher from Next for Christ’s sake, and just get a book online for less than a fiver? When Ms William’s ready-made £3-a-piece party bags failed to arrive, she went shopping in John Lewis instead. “Don’t even ask how much that cost”. Really? John Lewis? Sorry, but I’m struggling to have much sympathy with such middle-class lack of resourcefulness and imagination. How about trying Poundland? Or better still, we all just stop doing party bags? Whose idea were these anyway and when did they start? A bag full of rubbish the kids will immediately break or lose in their quest to get to the only thing it contains that they really want – the slice of birthday cake.

People will just go along with these things whilst bleating about ‘pressure’ and ‘guilt’. The only thing forcing parents to spend so much time, effort and money on kids parties is the parents themselves.

And how does all this excuse Mr Nash’s behaviour?

When my child was in reception one of the parents invited the whole class to a party. She later told me that only half those people bothered to even reply to the invitation, which clearly stated RSVP. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I think that’s just shocking. You may think the parent was mad to invite the whole class, but that’s not the point here, not an excuse for rudeness.

Similarly, the cost of the party Mrs Lawrence chose to host is not the point. Yes, in choosing to host a party you take the risk that you end up paying for more people than actually turn up. That’s always a risk with any party. But it’s a risk because people can simply be downright rude and inconsiderate, and for this there really is no excuse.

Positive reinforcement? Gotcha!

August 4, 2014

There are many silly and misguided things in place at my child’s school in the quest to encourage desirable behaviour. There’s the enduringly popular classroom happy/sad face chart; public shaming made pretty for the teachers. And whenever I’m invited to attend an assembly I come out feeling distinctly nauseated. It’s just one reward after another. It’s all about rewards. Everything. They’re really working hard on raising the next generation of ‘What’s in it for me?’s. 

For example, each class gets points for ‘lining up nicely’ at playtime. Each week the points are totted up and a winner announced in assembly. An extra 5 minutes playtime is awarded to the winning class. Groan. I could write a separate post just on this, but the message going out about what’s desirable and what, by default, isn’t, is the first point that springs to mind. 

Then there’s the Star of the Week awards and Golden Book awards. Not sure of the difference between these awards, but in any case, whenever my child receives one he rarely knows what it was for, so how exactly does it encourage him? Encourage what

congratulationsWhich brings me to one of my favourites; the Gotcha Card. If a teacher notices a child behaving particularly well in the corridor they make a note of their name (secretly), and lo and behold, at some date in the future, the child receives, by surprise, a Gotcha Card in assembly. 

What a load of tosh. 

First, if we want to reinforce a particular behaviour with children we need to do so at the time. A child doesn’t have the capacity to reflect on or even remember what their behaviour was in the corridor at some unknown time in the past. Just as unrelated consequences (aka punishments) given out or enforced days after the offence are ineffective in stopping undesirable behaviour, so rewards given out after the fact are ineffective in promoting desirable behaviour. I’d have thought this was fairly obvious.

And no need for me to cover the bit about how extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic motivation and actually makes the child less likely to repeat a particular behaviour, since in this case the child doesn’t even know what behaviour they’re supposed to be repeating.

Why not just comment on the child’s behaviour at the time, for Christ’s sake? Oh, of course, just as the happy/sad face chart has to be on public display, so do the Gotcha Cards. Presumably it’s supposed to encourage the other children to try harder, although they’re probably all left feeling as confused as the recipient as to what exactly needs to be done to earn this particular reward.

Just a nice little reward for the child? Yeah, I’m sure it gives them a brief feeling of gratification….but at the expense of all the other kids.

My child complained to me that he has never received a Gotcha Card, expressing feelings of injustice, since, he says, he always behaves well in the corridor.

“I know you do”, I replied. “Perhaps a teacher just hasn’t been there at the time to see that. You’ve just been unlucky.”

He didn’t buy this. “Lots of teachers have seen me” he says.

Of more concern to me are his evident feelings of futility, that whatever he does isn’t good enough, that he’s not a ‘good’ child, like the others getting those Gotcha Cards. He’s a failure.

Might as well give up and start running about screaming and doing cartwheels in the corridor. Sod it. 

So to whoever came up with this idea at my child’s school – Gotcha!

Gotcha coming up with yet another idiotic, misguided, poorly thought out scheme that will do more harm than good, will gratify the minority at the expense of the majority, and will achieve precisely nothing.


See my other posts for more about my views on rewards.