Yes, children do need a six week break. At least.

August 2, 2016

I haven’t blogged for a while, so I must start by congratulating the Telegraph’s Angela Epstein on writing an article last week that is so ridiculous, irritating and poorly researched that I am quite certain a response to it, pointing out these deficiencies, should be a fairly straight forward task.

Basically, she’s moaning about the length of the school summer holidays, a shocking 6 weeks here in the UK. Personally, I’m more shocked about how short they are. But every year we have to listen to this ‘it’s so inconvenient for working parents’ type of whinging, and Ms Epstein seems to have taken this to a new level.

Her attitude towards the teaching profession shines through beautifully – from begrudging teachers a family holiday over the summer (they should be marking and lesson planning apparently), to throwing in a little snipe about teacher’s strike action – it’s clear how supportive and understanding she is of all the challenges teachers currently face.

children-playing-outdoorsThen there’s her attitude towards how children might spend their time out of school. She seems to think that learning can only take place either in school or during organised activities, otherwise kids are simply ‘stupefying and incubating’ in front of screens. Well yours might be. But here’s an idea; How about you step up and try actually being a parent? How about you limit screen time? Force the kids to find something else to do. (You’d be amazed how imaginative they can be, even if you can’t be). Take them out to the park or the woods.

“Long gone are the days when children just played out” she observes. Sadly, this is true for many. But why? How about trying to buck this trend? Two major contributors to this decline are paranoid parents, and screen technology. Both of these factors are within Ms Epstein’s control.

She claims that “children thrive when engaged in organised activities”. I wonder where her evidence for this claim comes from. I’m sure there are indeed plenty of excellent, very stimulating organised activities that we can pay for our kids to participate in, if we have the money. However, these are not essential. Child-led free play, however, is. Failing to recognise this shows a sorry lack of understanding as to the many different ways in which children learn and develop.

But no, Ms Epstein goes on to state that “School is a place where our children’s minds are stretched and their imaginations are given flight.” I laughed out loud at this one. Did she make this up herself or copy and paste it from some school website? If only it were true, and if you really believe this then I can see why a 6 week break might not be seen as a good thing. But me, I’m glad to see my child have a break from an education system that is so preoccupied with standards and testing that it leaves no room for any imaginations to breath, let alone take flight. Hasn’t Ms E been aware of all the furore surrounding SATs and new national standards, and the serious concerns about these raised by the teaching profession?

She does, however, rightly point out that our literacy and numeracy standards are shockingly low compared to the rest of the developed world. But then her answer to this, like that of many misguided education secretaries, is to shorten the school holidays. The system is failing, so let’s get kids to spend more time in said system. Hmm. Let’s have another look at the rest of the developed world, with which we compare so unfavourably. I wonder how long school holidays are in the countries with the most successful education systems. That’s right, you’ve guessed it – they’re longer.

Finally, if we’re going to talk about how the reasons for the length of the UK’s school summer holidays are historical and out of date, let’s look at the reason for the early school starting age in the UK, also out of kilter with other, more successful countries. The sooner kids started school, the sooner they finished, making them available to enter the workforce as cheap labourers. This, too, is no longer relevant. But I doubt Ms E would have wanted to wait another year or two for school to provide her children with a reason to put down their mobile devices.

So, if you must whine about the length of the school summer holidays, at least be honest about it. It’s inconvenient for working parents, and can be a challenge when you’re not used to having so much time in which to find things to keep the children occupied. Fine. Don’t try to make out that a shorter break would be better for the kids. All the evidence suggests otherwise. If your children’s minds can’t be stretched and their imaginations allowed to take flight during the summer break, then something is indeed seriously wrong. But it’s not with the length of the holidays.


Top 5 parenting pitfalls to avoid

March 3, 2016

Childs-smileThere’s no such thing as the perfect parent. We all make mistakes. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. We can tie ourselves up in knots trying to do the right thing, we can beat ourselves up when we know we’ve done the wrong thing. Parenting isn’t easy or straightforward.

But here’s what I think are the most common mistakes we make. The hardest habits to shift. And awareness is the first step to change.

1. Our response to children crying

It seems that invariably, when I hear a child crying, they are accompanied by a parent who is either telling them they’re OK really, or attempting to berate and threaten them into silence. Neither is helpful. Once and for all, can we please get over kids crying? Kids will cry sometimes, sometimes a lot. It’s normal, they’re allowed to (or should be), and it’s not bad behaviour. Deal with it.

Newflash: Kids have feelings. They will at times feel sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed etc etc. It is unreasonable to expect them not to have these feelings like any human being. Further more, they are still learning how to process these feelings, and so are more likely than a mature adult to cry or have a tantrum in response to them. Allowing children to experience their feelings fully, express them, and then move on from them in their own time, allows them to learn emotional regulation. Threatening or distracting them into silence earlier, because we can’t handle the expression of feeling, short-circuits this process and does them a disservice. It also teaches them that their feelings are unacceptable or unimportant, and to simply put a lid on them, or as Dr Laura Markham puts it, stuff them in their ’emotional backpack’. This only stores up trouble for later. Cue; more tantrums.

Seeing our child crying can be upsetting, or annoying. It triggers us in different ways. But it’s our stuff. Get over it, and let them get on with it.

2. Validation

So when a child is crying, instead of distracting, or trying to fix things, we need to validate and empathise.

Lost that stick they were carrying home from the park? Instead of, “We’ll find another stick”, “It was only a stick, don’t be silly”, try, “You really liked that stick”, “You’re sad you lost your stick”. Really.  A child’s not going to say, “Yes, you’re right, it’s just a silly stick, I’ll stop crying immediately”, or somehow see the error of their ways of thinking or feeling. They are quite entitled to feel sad about something even if you don’t.  If you think it’s silly, bite your tongue. Naming feelings helps children to recognise and process them. Validating makes them feel like we’re on their side. All feelings are valid. As with the first point above, the goal should not be immediate silence. In any case, they’ll usually get over it quicker with a bit of validation. Trust me. And they will get over it. Patience. And validation.

3. Over-scheduling

It seems that these days it’s the done thing to have our children’s every hour spent in a scheduled, adult organised activity. The assumption seems to be that they will be learning and developing more quickly if they spend as much time as possible acquiring and practising various skills, be it sport, music, languages, whatever, as long as they’re seen to be learning.

Actually, the best thing we can give our children is time for free play. They don’t need to be told how to play, it’s just what they do. Give them time and space and it happens so easily and naturally, it’s just meant to be that way. This is how they learn. Free play, using their own ideas, imaginations and creativity, without unnecessary adult intervention, is how kids learn and develop.

Play England‘s report, “Free Play in Early Childhood” describes the benefits of free play as follows:

download“All aspects of development and learning are related in play, particularly the affective and cognitive domains. When children have time to play, their play grows in complexity and becomes more cognitively and socially demanding. Through free play children:

  • explore materials and discover their properties
  • use their knowledge of materials to play imaginatively
  • express their emotions and reveal their inner feelings
  • come to terms with traumatic experiences
  • maintain emotional balance, physical and mental health, and well-being
  • struggle with issues such as birth and death, good and evil, and power and powerlessness
  • develop a sense of who they are, their value and that of others
  • learn social skills of sharing, turn-taking and negotiation
  • deal with conflict and learn to negotiate
  • solve problems, moving from support to independence
  • develop communication and language skills
  • repeat patterns that reflect their prevailing interests and concerns
  • use symbols as forms of representation – the use of symbols is crucial in the development from learning through the senses to the development of abstract thought
  • practise, develop and master skills across all aspects of development and learning.”

OK, enough said.

Yes, it’s nice for a child to have a few hobbies and to pursue some special interests, but let’s not go overboard, especially when they’re still young.

4. Interfering in play

I find children’s play fascinating to watch. So if there’s one thing that is guaranteed to wind me up, it’s the sight of an adult interfering with children’s play, getting overly involved, being unnecessarily directive, coming up with all the ideas; quite simply, behaving as if the children just wouldn’t know what to do without the direction of an adult. Actually, our input only takes away from all the beneficial aspects of play, so stay out of it as much as possible.

It’s their play, not ours, and they’re the experts, it’s what they do best. Let them come up with their own ideas, solutions and ways to do things.

Kids on tree

And this includes allowing our children to take some risks. Don’t curtail their play opportunities unnecessarily. Risk needs to be part of play, part of learning, part of life. We parents need to delegate some of the risk management to our children. Because how else will they ever learn to manage it if we simply remove all obstacles from their paths and protect them from all potential danger, make all the decisions for them?

So let them climb those trees, and let them get messy. Risk assessment isn’t about eliminating risk, it’s about weighing up the risks against the benefits. The benefits of play-fighting are worth the risk of a slight bump. Children need challenge, they need opportunities, they need fun. Give them a break.

5. Failing to recognise the power of role-modelling

Lectures, nagging, prompting will only go so far. Not very far actually. Want your child to learn to be polite? Be polite. Want them to learn how to behave when they feel angry? Here’s a hint: Don’t shout. Want them to grow up being kind and considerate. Be kind and considerate. We won’t get it right all the time. Like I said, no-one’s perfect. But we really do need to keep this in mind because it’s that simple; kids learn by example. They spend a great deal of time attempting to mimic adults. Let’s harness that tendency. Be the person you want your child to be.


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.


The power of role-modelling

July 21, 2014

My child has little patience when it comes to accomplishing a challenging task. He becomes quickly frustrated, and is apt to throw things down in a rage. The plastic coating on his bicycle helmet has several cracks in it from being thrown down onto the road during the process of learning to ride a bike. We’ve all encountered adults who still behave like this. So childish, we all tut. I don’t wish my child to become one of these adults. So how do I help him develop the patience and emotional regulation he needs? 

Time-outs, lectures or sticker charts don’t help children develop these traits. How could they? It’s all about role-modelling, the most powerful tool we parents have at our disposal. 

I recently bought my child a loom band kit at his request. He’d seen his friends making things with loom bands at school, so he set to work right away. But his fine motor skills aren’t the greatest, and he quickly became frustrated in his weaving attempts. Luckily I saw this coming and managed to rescue the box before several hundred small coloured rubber bands covered the kitchen floor. But I knew he’d be disappointed if he didn’t manage the task, he’d been so excited when I gave him the box, so I decided a little encouragement and guidance was in order. But first I had to figure out how to weave a wristband myself! Not the kind of thing I excel at myself.

My child watched as I followed the instructions carefully, becoming excited to see the end product as I neared completion. When it came to removing the band from the loom board, a couple of the bands somehow popped out and fell to the floor. He immediately started to angrily express his disappointment in his usual dramatic way. I was irritated and annoyed by his behaviour. I was the one who’d done all the work, after all. But stopping myself from reacting, I managed to speak calmly instead. 

“This is the first time I’ve made one of these, so it might go wrong, but I’m going to keep trying. It might not work out, but I can always start again if I have to” 

My child looked almost surprised and a little fascinated. He immediately stopped his remonstrance and continued to watch my attempts to salvage my work. The wristband was a little small, having lost some bands, but my child grabbed at it delightedly. 

“It’s a little short, but it’s my first attempt. Now I know how to do it, I can try and make a longer one next time”, I added.

He rushed off to show his Dad. 

“Mummy made this wristband. We’re going to try and make a better one next time.”

 The next morning I came downstairs to find all kinds of colourful creations and a very satisfied child.

mirrorThe importance of role modelling simply cannot be over-estimated. It can be applied to anything we wish our children to learn. We can model sharing by letting our child see us sharing with friends or other family members. We can use a disagreement with our partner to model how we talk calmly and respectfully with each other to sort out our differences. From acts of kindness, to healthy eating, the possibilities are endless. 

Kids are such little copycats. From when they’re very small, we hear our own words echoed back at us, see our habits and mannerisms develop in our children like a mirror. But we need to remember this mirroring doesn’t stop as kids get older. It may become less immediately apparent, but make no mistake; role modelling is so powerful it can be dangerous. Shouting or smacking are obvious examples, but we need to think about every aspect of our behaviour as adults. Children really do learn by example. 

So when we reject conventional parenting methods, and strive to understand the widely misunderstood application of the word ‘discipline’, we model compassion, respect, patience, empathy, and problem-solving, instead of control, power, bribery and manipulation in our fruitless attempts to teach what can only be taught through modelling, and developed over time, not overnight.

“Do as I say, not as I do” won’t cut it. Be the person you want your child to be.


I was smacked and I’m not OK.

February 10, 2014

Late last year the Australian prime minister made some unhelpful comments, in response to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child report that calls for a ban on smacking.  The Children’s Minister, Maggie Atkinson, also made some remarks shortly after, this time supporting a ban in the UK.  However, the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, reckons “You chastise children when they are bad, as my parents did me.” The Guardian ran a poll asking people their opinion on the subject. Depressingly, the majority were against a ban. The accompanying comments were the usual mish-mash of the three basic sentiments:

smack-child-doll“I was smacked and I’m fine.”

“Children need discipline.”

“No-one tells me how to raise my kids.”

Have you noticed how it’s always the people who were smacked, like Mr Grayling, who are making these comments? I have never seen or heard, “I was not smacked and therefore have decided it’s a good idea.” No. It’s never that way round, is it? Why is that, do you think?

What amazes me is the remarkable lack of self-reflection evident in the ‘I was smacked and I’m fine’ camp. Come on guys, take a harder look at yourselves. Clearly you haven’t learnt about respect. You’ve learnt that using violence, power and fear to control another person is OK. You think smacking is OK because that’s what you were taught. Has it never occurred to you that maybe you were taught bad parenting? Sorry, but it seems someone does need to tell you how to raise your kids because you haven’t yet reached that level of self-understanding and self-awareness to break the cycle.

But the problem is, smacking is just one part of a bigger picture, an attitude towards children, an approach to parenting that fails to grasp the difference between fear and respect, compliance and cooperation, that fails to recognise the importance of relationship. Even if we banned smacking, there’s a whole host of other inappropriate methods at parents’ disposal: time-outs, threats, punishments, shaming, bribery. How can parents that still see the need to use these methods be expected to understand why smacking’s a bad idea?

It’s not just a ban on smacking that’s needed, it’s an education, a major paradigm shift.

In the meantime, stop telling me you’re fine. If you think it’s OK to smack your kids then you’re not fine. Think about it.


Attachment parenting and the problem with the 3 Bs

January 27, 2014

I don’t like parenting labels, and I don’t like to attach myself (no pun intended) to any particular label. Labels imply a set of rules to follow. They create stereotypes, stigma, and unnecessary wars between different ‘camps’. Do you follow AP or RIE? I find it faintly ridiculous that I’m expected to choose one or the other.

But aside from this, the real problem I have with the term ‘Attachment Parenting’ is that too often the emphasis is on the 3 Bs (breastfeeding, bed-sharing, baby-wearing). At least this seems to be the case whenever Attachment Parenting hits the media. But then I suppose the media never are great at reporting anything perceived to be outside the mainstream. Certainly if this ill-informed piece of trash recently written about RIE is anything to go by, having a label does seem to lay one open to attack, ridicule and misrepresentation.growing up

But whatever the reason for it, I sometimes feel that this emphasis on the 3 Bs leaves us apt to forget that what happens beyond infancy is important too, and that the term, Attachment Parenting, gets in the way of that, or at least, fails to extend to this later period of childhood.

Perhaps the term was only ever intended to cover the parenting of babies? You’d certainly think so sometimes. Yet Attachment Parenting International’s website does have a page listing the principles of Attachment Parenting that go beyond just the 3 Bs.

Do parents get put off looking for an alternative way to parent because they feel the 3 Bs are not for them? Shame if so, as I think (and I’m sticking my neck out here) it’s quite possible to meet a child’s attachment needs without practising the 3 Bs. And meeting attachment needs is the goal here, not living up to certain expectations for how things should be done. It’s just many parents find the 3 Bs facilitate things quite nicely. But some don’t.

In any case, these implied rules seem to get a little foggy later on. What happens when the 3 Bs stop? Is that it? Job done? It’s true, a secure attachment will give an infant the best possible start, setting them up for a life of security, independence, self-worth and confidence, and the ability to form healthy relationships. But there’s still time to screw all this good work up, and that can happen if we don’t know how to respond to a child’s challenging behaviour, to their tears and upsets, to their struggles and feelings and needs as a growing child. There’s also the need to recognise how our own childhood experiences profoundly affect the way we respond as parents.

How many times have I read, “Dr Sears advises time-out so it must be AP”. Grrr. This is what I mean about labels. Forget whether or not ‘it’s AP’. Throw his book away at that point and read something by some authors that have since developed  a better understanding of children’s needs beyond infancy. And, here’s another hint – That won’t be Margot Sunderland, who, seemingly because she‘s a great advocate of co-sleeping and writes some good stuff about the evidence against leaving babies to cry apparently makes the Attachment Parenting list . Yet in her book, “The Science of Parenting”, which I’ve seen recommended on numerous websites and Facebook pages purporting to promote Attachment Parenting, and on display at parenting conferences, she refers to crying children as ‘little neros’, advises time-outs, reward charts, and ignoring tantrums. Really? Sounds frighteningly similar to a certain popular TV celebrity. But oh no, we attachment parents don’t listen to Jo Frost. Do we?

I’d really like to see a shift in the emphasis. Yes, the first three years are a vital period in terms of brain development and secure attachment, but there’s still plenty can go wrong after that. I don’t wish to sound negative, but seriously, time-out and ignoring tantrums? We can breastfeed and co-sleep as long as we like, there’s little point if we all just turn into Supernanny later on. Children need compassion, care and respect from birth and onwards, and right through to adulthood. Let’s get informed about what this means beyond the 3 Bs.

growing plantsAttachment Parenting is like sowing a seed. We do this with great tenderness and care, we provide the best soil, and enough attention to ensure it has the right amount of light and moisture, we watch with excitement as the first shoot appears. Having got this far, let’s not trample on those seedlings. Let’s watch them continue to flourish and grow to reach their full potential.


“Santa won’t come unless you’re good.” Taking bribes and threats to greater depths.

December 10, 2013

What’s wrong with a little bribery around Christmas time? Every parent does this, right? It might seem like a convenient and harmless way to get kids to comply without an all-out fight, but I think it’s bribes and threats in their lowest form. 

I don’t like bribery or rewards as a parenting tool at the best of times, for a number of reasons. One is that they teach children to focus on self-gain, to do things for the wrong reasons. I’d really like my child to tidy his room because he’s conscious that it’s the right thing to do, because his connection with me is strong enough that he wants to comply with my requests. Not because he’s rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of the pile of presents he’s going to get at Christmas. I don’t want to encourage a self-interested, ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude.

Normally I’d also point out that when we use rewards as a parenting tool we model bribery and manipulation, and yet, actually, that isn’t a problem in this case. No need to worry about that here since we’re not even bothering to at least be honest about what we’re doing. Instead, we stoop to greater depths and deviousness by hiding behind Santa. It’s his decision, not ours, as to whether or not our child has measured up to standard. How convenient? What a cop-out. 

santa with listThen there’s the use of the term ‘good’ when referring to a child or to their behaviour. It’s quite a broad term really, isn’t it? What does it really mean to our children, other than that when they’re not ‘good’ they are, by default, ‘bad’? Is this really what we want our children to believe? When my child makes a bad choice, loses control, or becomes disconnected, and behaves in ways that I don’t want him to behave, shaming him is really not helpful. Making him believe he is not ‘good enough’ for a visit from Santa isn’t going to make him feel great about himself or help him behave any differently. I don’t want to impose on him these feelings of conditional acceptance. Whatever his behaviour, he is always loved and loveable. 

Think about it. What a horrible message to send a child – that they are so bad that the jolly, generous, magical man who likes to give children presents will simply miss them out because they’re a bad person. What a horrible threat to make to a small child, whether empty or not. Christmas should be a magical time for children, and as such should not be poisoned by adults with their unkind threats and scare stories. Of course every child will be visited by Santa. It’s the season of goodwill, of love, of forgiveness. 

The thing is, children, especially those young enough to believe in Santa, don’t always have complete control over their behaviour, their impulses, or their feelings, and they don’t always make good choices. They’re still not terribly mature, you see. Behaviour is communicating a need. Even if it’s outright defiance, there’s still a message there, a need for connection. Simply trying to use Santa to control behaviour isn’t going to meet those needs, and isn’t going to foster that close connection of love and trust that is the real key to gaining genuine cooperation. 

Bribes and threats have no place in a loving, connected, respectful relationship. Instead of hiding behind Santa we need to be the parents our children need us to be, to understand and address their needs, to show them our gentle leadership, our ability to set empathetic limits and to accept the uncomfortable feelings that may arise in response to those limits. And above all, we need to send the message that they are loved unconditionally. However they might behave, Santa will visit no matter what.