Monday, 31 December 2012

Ready for 2013

I feel like I need to apologise seeing as my entire December posting content has been on that classically festive topic of gun control.

The truth is that this month has been a difficult one in different ways for some people close to me, so I've been helping them where I could.  Christmas has naturally been a distraction as well, and our household has been going through three or four cycles of the common cold between us.  In essence, there's not been a whole lot of quality parenting going on.

However, I'll round up the year with some general updates.  2012 was to be my last year as a stay at home mother.  I anticipated that my daughter would probably start school at Easter, so I'd start work around then also, but that date has been brought forward to January, at least as a short-term measure.  

Right now, going back to work seems like a huge, intimidating step.  How the hell am I going to get everything done?  Of course, I'm only working mornings, so I've got the afternoons.  I am not an afternoon person though, so this should be an, er, growth of character experience.

Other updates... my whole food improvement project has totally gone out of the window.  I want to bring that back on board, but I don't want to pile too much pressure on myself until I get into the swing of the job.  No new year's resolutions for me!

My son's reading is almost taking off.  He's on the 'pink reading' at school, which seems to mostly be cat, sat, mat.  He's still reluctant to make the effort to read the words as opposed to memorising the text for a page, so I feel like we're still waiting for the breakthrough, but it's fun to watch.  And he's very enthusiastic about anything with letters/sounds.

He absolutely loves writing.  He had his birthday at the start of the month, and was really enthusiastic about doing the Thank-you cards for his friends.  I wrote the message, he signed his name, and he wrote the name of each child on the envelope, while I prompted him through the sounds.  A few letters I had to write down for him to copy, but most of them he scrawled from memory.  We wrote all ten of these in one sitting, because he was so enthusiastic.  Admittedly, you'd be hard put to recognise some of the names, but he had a vision in mind.  I love that he does this, and I'm trying to be more visible about hand-writing stuff myself. (I hate writing by hand; viva la digital revolution!)

The room-sharing has, by and large, remained a success.  Transitioning my daughter from the floor mattress to the bed was a bit trickier.  Originally, we left the mattress by the bed in case she fell out, but what was happening was that we'd put her to bed, and she'd climb down to the mattress to actually go to sleep.

This had never been an issue with my son, who also went from floor mattress to bed (though he'd been on the mattress for only a couple of months).  He was just excited to be in a big boy bed.  Our daughter was happy to have her own big bed, but she wouldn't try to sleep in it.  After a week, we took away the mattress and replaced it with a pillow--as it was, she's only fallen out a couple of times anyway.  That's not been a problem at all.

We had a couple of rough nights with the bed transition, though nothing major, but she's never quite been so good about sleeping since.  Oddly, while my son became more secure having her in his room, she's become less so.  However, she's been extra clingy in general, so I think this might have more to do with the round of colds than the sleeping arrangements.  She's been better the past couple of nights, which is great. Of course, I know now that it's only as good as the latest phase!

Anyway, roll on 2013.  A year in which I will get my career on track, my son will learn how to read and ride a bike and my daughter will become potty-trained.  Or such are my expectations.  Let's see what I'm saying a year from now.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Gun Control and Gun Culture Across the Pond

As a teacher and parent, I found the Newtown shootings disturbing on several different levels, and I'm still running through those events in my mind, thinking what if it were my child, what if I were a teacher in a similar position... all that terribly depressing stuff that probably isn't good for me, but I can't help doing it anyway.

As a US resident Brit, I've had a mixture of reactions on my facebook feed when it comes to how a change in gun control laws could prevent the tragedy: everything from banning guns to arming teachers.  Technically, both sides of the spectrum have a point.  If the gunman had been unable to get a weapon, or if somebody had shot him in the head as he entered the school, many innocent lives would have been saved.

The Logistics of Guns in Schools

Of course, that's over-simplifying things.  Let's start with allowing guns in schools, as the NRA suggested yesterday.  I've no idea what safety requirements the NRA envisions for this, but at my preschool, medications and cleaning supplies have to be kept in a locked cupboard out of the children's reach.  The key to this cupboard must also be kept out of the children's reach.

If we applied similar restrictions to a firearm, it is unlikely that anybody would be able to get to it in time.  Teachers seeking to attack would be better served grabbing the nearest blunt object.  Compare the Tucson shootings, where the attacker was subdued by improvised weapons and brute force by the time a bystander carrying a concealed weapon arrived on the scene.

Could we ignore such restrictions and simply permit a teacher to carry a concealed weapon if they are licensed for such?  Again, my experience is in pre-school, particularly toddlers.  It was not uncommon for me to have to carry the children in my care, either to soothe them or restrain them.  In one instance, I had to carry an out of control four year old, kicking and screaming, off the playground and into a quiet classroom so that they could be safely calmed.  I can't imagine doing all that with a concealed weapon on my person.

In the case of older children, my concern would be them learning which teachers carried weapons and attempting to steal said weapon out of their own curiosity.  But these are hypothetical concerns, and perhaps I am wrong in believing this would be an issue.

So what then happens when the weapon is used?  To carry a concealed weapon requires a certain amount of training, to be sure the person can fire it effectively.  Yet there's a big difference between firing on a shooting range and firing an armed opponent, particularly if there are panicking children around.  Imagine if a teacher killed the gunman but also inadvertently killed one or more of the children under their care.  What legal charges would they face?  What could be done to prevent that?

It is one thing for somebody with a concealed carry permit to defend their own family (presumably much smaller than a class in any event).  It's another thing for somebody entrusted with the care of somebody else's children to wield a firearm around them, however good their intentions.  If teachers are to carry weapons in a school, then my expectation, both as parent and teacher, is that they should be trained in armed combat.

Finally, I should note that a teacher's responsibility is to the children in their care.  Story after story has emerged from Sandy Hook of how the staff pulled children off corridors, hid them in bathrooms and closets and concentrated on keeping those children safe.  Nobody abandoned a class to seek out the gunman; after all, nobody could be sure that there was only one attacker.

Two of the adult victims were not with any children and died attempting to stop the gunman.  If one of them had been armed, things might have turned out very differently.  But what are the odds that a staff-member with a concealed weapon would have no children currently in their care?  As a security measure, this would only work with great luck!

The only answer I can see to this is to allow armed security guards to patrol the school, at what I imagine would be great expense.  I don't have any major philosophical objections to this being legal, but as a parent, I would not want my child in a school that permitted guns on the premises.  I imagine many Americans would share my sentiment.

It should also be noted that no amount of guns in the school would have saved his mother.  Nor did the amount of guns in her home do so.

The Dunblane Comparison

For anybody British, the immediate comparison was to the Dunblane School Massacre. Sixteen children, aged five and six years old, were killed along with their teacher.  In the UK, that's one of those "Where were you when you heard?" incidents.  I still remember the paper spread across the kitchen table of my boarding house, showing the class picture of the children who had been killed.

The public reaction to this resulted in a ban of all handguns, and as numerous people have recently shared across social media, there have been no school shootings in the UK since.

This, of course, needs to be taken in context.  There were no school shootings before Dunblane either.  By comparison, here is a Wikipedia page devoted to school shootings in the United States.  In a nutshell, the UK is not a country where school shootings are 'a thing'.  The US is.

Instead, the Dunblane massacre gets categorised as a 'firearms rampage incident', with two comparable shootings sprees.  Previous to Dunblane there was the Hungerford Massacre in 1987, where sixteen people were killed.  After Dunblane, there was the Cumbria Shootings in 2010, which had thirteen fatalities. (In both cases, the gunman suicided, but I have not included that death in the tally.)

There simply aren't enough of these large-scale incidents occurring in the UK to judge if changes to gun control laws are helping or hindering them.   Quickly pulling US shootings from Wikipedia, I find the Wisconsin Sikh Temple Shooting (six dead), the Aurora Shootings (twelve dead), the Oikos University Shooting (seven dead)--all from 2012.

It should also be noted that only a few months after Dunblane, the Wolverhampton Machete Attack took place at an infants' school.  Banning guns does not mean that such attacks will not happen.  That said, there were no fatalities in Wolverhampton, though seven people were wounded, including three children.  Certainly an attacker wielding a machete is less dangerous than one wielding a gun.

Gun Control in the UK

So what effect did that ban of handguns in the UK have?  A 2001 study suggested that gun crime rose by 40% in the two years following.  Indeed, a 2008 BBC News analysis showed that gun crime had been rising up until 2006 before 2007 finally saw a fall  (still several thousand incidents higher than ten years earlier).  However, such incidents tended to be concentrated in certain cities, where gang culture is an issue.  Gun crime reportedly fell in many areas around the country, and the most common weapon used in violent incidents was a knife.

According to the latest statistics released by the Home Office, in 2010/2011 gun crime has fallen for the seventh consecutive year.  (This doesn't tally with the earlier BBC report, but this blogger lacks the time and resources to hunt down the discrepancy.)  That said, the homicide figures had increased from the previous year:
There were 60 victims of homicide by shooting (58 by firearm, 2 by crossbow), an increase of 19 from 2009/10. This includes the 12 victims of the Cumbrian shootings.
These bald statistics can't tell us what is influencing the rise and fall of gun crime in the UK, but I will draw the conclusion that gun control does not affect gun culture.

So compare the attitude towards guns in the UK to that in the US.  The wikipedia article on Gun Politics in the UK notes that public opinion favours stronger control, and there has been little opposition to the changes in gun law.  Although the American right to bear arms has its roots in British politics, the modern Brit is hardly passionate about it.  The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 declared that self-defence was not a reasonable excuse for carrying a knife.

In the US, opinion is typically divided, with many Americans feeling the same way as the Brits.  However, many other Americans wish to carry a gun for their own self-defence, and believe that this is the best way to protect themselves and their family.  A point that is repeatedly raised is that if you ban guns, you take them away from law-abiding citizens while the criminals will still find ways to obtain them.

That's a gross generalisation, of course.  The gunman in the Newtown shootings reportedly tried to get his own gun, but was not patient enough for the waiting period, so he used the guns that his mother legally owned (and had taught her sons to use).  Had that option not been available to him, he might have gone to the trouble of procuring an illegal firearm, but he might also have decided to go on the rampage with a machete instead, the result of which would have been much less devastating (and almost certainly means he would not have gained entry to the school).

However, I think there's a bigger conclusion to be drawn here.  If guns were banned in the United States, a number of law-abiding citizens will prefer to keep an illegal firearm in their possession than give up their right to self-defence.  In other words, the numbers of guns in circulation will not drop dramatically.  The UK has frequently had amnesty periods where illegal firearms may be turned in without charge, but again, public opinion is different there.

A shift in US public opinion would be needed for gun control laws to be effective.  While a few politicians have shifted their attitudes in the wake of the Newtown Shootings, it's clear that the majority of the pro-gun lobby are even stronger in their resolve to bear arms.

Statistics: Global and Domestic

One statistic I've seen mentioned is that Switzerland has similar gun control laws to the US, yet the gun crime is much higher in the United States.  Going by the Wikipedia article, I'm not sure how comparable the situation is, since Switzerland actively trains a people's militia in lieu of an army.  Gun ownership is obligatory for citizens in the militia, which includes the majority of males, but so is military training.  How much difference would this make to the gun culture?

However, even Switzerland has a higher rate of gun crime than countries with tighter gun control.  Wikipedia provides us with a List of Countries by Firearm Related Death Rate.  Please note that this list does not use one standard year, and it seems impractical to compare the death rate in 2000 of one country to that of another in 2012.  Nevertheless, even if you bear in mind that it can only be considered a broad generalisation, it's clear that the countries with tighter gun control laws have a lower rate of gun ownership and less gun-related deaths.  The UK has one of the lowest death rates, while the US has the highest among developed countries.

Should we take into account the statistic that most of these gun-crimes are from illegally owned guns (so I am told)?  I've never been sure what bearing that has on this.  Even within the States, firearm homicides are reportedly higher in areas with higher gun ownership (source) and tighter gun control laws do have an effect on gun deaths (source though this seems to me a very casual study).

For the record, here is the most recent Firearms Death Rate by State.  Top of the list is DC which is strict in its gun control laws.  Connecticut also has strict gun control laws and is appropriately low, but that didn't stop the tragedy happening on 14th December, 2012.

That's because all this is correlation, not causation.  There is a larger issue than gun control at stake.  As the NRA is fond of pointing out, it's the person wielding the weapon that is accountable for the murder.  They don't become killers simply because they possess a gun.  The bigger question is what leads people to go on such rampages in the first place.  Is it the violence of video games and movies as the NRA suggests?  Or is it the media's glorification of school shootings as Morgan Freeman has not suggested?  Or is it failings in the mental healthcare system?  Or is it the rise of Survivalism (the gunman's mother was reportedly a survivalist)?

So What's the Point?

I wrote this because I was provoked by the trite memes and quotes being posted on Facebook on all sides of the issue. Perhaps it's inappropriate for a blog that purports to be about parenting, but the argument coming out of Newtown is how to protect our children and how to prevent them from becoming killers themselves.

It's probably clear enough that I am personally in favour of gun control.  Yet I'm not writing this post to change anybody's mind--if nothing else, a few hours of googling and browsing wikipedia hardly makes me an authority on the subject.  I wrote for the same reasons I usually blog: to get people to think about it.

Sharing solitary statistics that favour our preferred side of the debate only promotes extremism.  A number of people have said we shouldn't politicise the issue, and that means we need to stop picketing a position and defending it.  On a society level, it's not about choosing a side; it's about making an informed decision.

Further Reading:

Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States 

What makes America’s gun culture totally unique in the world, in four charts

Monday, 26 November 2012

Lamenting Lost Solitude

During my high school years (eleven to eighteen) I went to a boarding school.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but living with a few dozen other girls in one house means that you don't get much alone time.  Early on, I learned where the nooks and crannies were, the places you could go when you just wanted a moment to yourself.   In my first boarding house, the bathrooms had high windows with a wide stone sill, which were set behind the door.  I must have scrambled up to that perch dozens of times, not to cry or hide in particular, but to sit and think in a place where I was unlikely to be bothered.

The great thing about boarding school was that there was so much company available that it was unlikely somebody would be seeking yours out in particular, so solitude was obtainable if you desired it.  As a middle-class mother, I have ample rooms to disperse myself and the children in, but my company is highly coveted, and solitude has become a commodity rarer and more valuable than diamonds.

This is obviously not something unique to me; it's standard parenting procedure.  Going to the toilet with an audience (and sometimes audience participation) is par for the course.  Having a few toys or activities in every room of the house is a common tip.  And, obviously, clinginess is desirable in general, since you want your child to stick near you when you're out and about.  Never mind the fact that my children are usually quite happy to go off on their own when we're out of the house.  Perhaps it's a reverse psychology thing; should I insist on holding their hands while we're in the house too?

However, I'm an introvert.  One of the reasons I blog is because the spoken word isn't something I'm comfortable with.  I do enjoy talking with friends and I definitely need a sympathetic ear on a regular basis, but I will eventually find conversation wearing.  When I've got something preying on my mind, I usually need to get some time to myself to think about it in peace and quiet.  Or I'll need to write about it.  In those moments, I hate being disturbed... I'm not good at switching focus.

I've accepted that this is something I have to sacrifice for the sake of having my children, and to an extent, I've learned to take my introspection while cuddling a child or to have my switch off moment while reading aloud.  I'm guessing that the transition from my presence being necessary to my presence being unwanted will be shockingly brief, and I want to cherish this stage while I have it.

Yet sometimes I quietly fail at dealing with it.  Like the past week, or so when colder weather has brought with it sore throats and congested noses.  None of us have really been sick, but my daughter and I have definitely been scratchier than usual, and she's been incredibly clingy.  I don't know whether that's due to the change in sleeping arrangements, or because she's feeling lousy, but what I do know is that I've spent a good proportion of my time wandering around in frustration with a toddler glued to my hip and preventing me from doing anything I want to do.

Of course, my son hasn't outgrown the wanting my company stage either, so I'm just as likely to be trailed around by him babbling away as only a three or four year old can.  I was always petrified of this verbal diarrhoea stage, but it hasn't been as draining as I expected.  Partly because it's worryingly easy for me to zone out when he's talking.  My son has a habit of yelling "Speak!" at me, since I ignore him without realising I'm doing it.  It's a huge guilt trip.

I should be more capable at this point really.  I can do lots of things one-handed, and as a woman, I am supposed to multi-task as a matter of course.  Nevertheless this past week I've been tired and inclined to headaches, my mind is taken up with a million and one things to keep track of (Christmas!  Birthdays!  Flood damage!  Survivor!).  The weepy toddler is enough to keep me from focusing.  The weepy toddler and vociferous child is a devastating combination.

Suffice to say the housework is suffering.  It's incredibly demotivating when there's a child wailing into my knees.  Either I stop to soothe her, or I keep going and am slow and ineffectual.  Then I get stressed, and because I'm stressed, I want a moment to myself.  Because I want a moment to myself, my daughter gets insecure and becomes more clingy and I become more stressed and hello, vicious circle!

At the end of the day, it's up to me to break that vicious circle because I'm the grown up (darn it).  Besides, one way or another, the house has got to be clean and tidy for my son's birthday party this weekend.  So I'm pushing through, and trying to resist the constant temptation to slip away from the children for a moment of peace.  Unlike love, it's better never to try for solitude than to find it and lose it again.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Lessons Learned in Balance Biking

Earlier this year, we bought our three year old son a balance bike.  That's a pedal-less bike, designed to teach children how to balance.  They scoot along on it, coast down hills, practice steering etc.  Training wheels or stabilizers as we call them in the UK tend not to work well, since the child gets into the habit of riding slightly tilted so that one wheel is going on the ground.  The balance bike teaches balance-skills first, and stamina for pedaling will be learned once the child graduates to a real bike.

Getting Started

I'm not going to spend a lot of time writing about the pros and cons of balance bikes.  There's plenty of stuff out there for that.  If you're intrigued, the Strider blog invariably has videos and pictures of children using them.  We have the Strider brand, but The Parent’s Guide to Balance Bikes, Complete Reviews & Comparisons of 16 Different Brands gives as thorough a discussion of what to look for when purchasing as you'll find anywhere.

What I am going to write about is our experience with my three year old son on his.  Obviously, my husband and I never had balance bikes when we were kids.  My only experience was seeing one of the children ride one to school, but we loved the concept.  Our son loved his tricycle and riding in the chariot (a bicycle trailer).  My husband is a cycling enthusiast who likes the sound of our son's name followed by "winner of the Tour de France!"

We bought the bike at the start of summer right before it was blisteringly hot and we only made a couple of half-hearted attempts to go out with it, because I am a wuss when it comes to heat.  In September, we tried again.  My son took a little while to get the idea of how to sit and scoot along, but he was game to persist with us.  It was when Daddy demonstrated on his mountain bike that he really caught the idea.

I took him to the same park with short paved trails that we'd used with his tricycle, but I soon realised that the advantage of the balance bike is that it's lighter and easier for the child to control (he can just plant his feet and hitch it over an obstacle for one thing).  So we started doing more ambitious walks with me pushing his sister on one of those long-handled tricycles.

This is, of course, the key.  Practice as much as possible.  But there are a few things to bear in mind:
  1. Your child will go faster than you, particularly if you're pushing another child.  He's never going to get up to full cycling speed, but two months on, my husband has to run to keep up with him.
  2. Your child can balance for longer than you think... especially when motivated.  An early shock for me was when he attempted a long incline.  I was sure he'd fall over before he reached the bottom, but instead he kept going--and accelerating.
  3. For your child, the most logical way of stopping is to crash into something.  That hill from point 2?  He was terrified by his own speed, so he steered straight into a massive stone block.  And so I got my first (and preferably only) sight of my son flying over his handlebars.
So, and I cannot stress this enough, buy a helmet to go with the bike.  My son was completely unhurt by the crash I mentioned above, but I had been so close to not bothering with the helmet that day.  We've been religious about it ever since.  Also, getting them straight back on the bike is good for both of you.

The Skate Park

After the experience of a crash, I wanted to find somewhere suitable for him to practice on the bike, learn how to moderate his speed and deal with inclines at his own pace.  It never occurred to me to try the local skate park until I saw an online video of a family doing just that with their two year old.  I realised that that would be a great place.  The only problem was that I was even more unfamiliar with skate parks than with balance bikes (they didn't have those in our day either), and the concept of letting my barely-out-of-toddlerhood son loose in one was terrifying.

So we attempted to go at a quiet time of day, but there were still up to a dozen people on bikes, skateboards and scooters whizzing around.  My son and I (and twenty-one month old daughter) stopped at the entrance, hugely intimidated.  He declared he didn't want to go in, and rode up and down the entrance ramp a few times instead.  I privately agreed with him, but I was determined not to back down.

So I talked him through the gate and we self-consciously tried to find an out of the way corner in which to practice on a couple of small ramps.  There really aren't any out of the way corners in our skate park.  Not being a connoisseur, I have no idea how it compares to others, but I thought it was a fantastic piece of stunt architecture--and felt ever more out of place as I held my squirming daughter and encouraged my small son on his tiny bike.

Eventually, we did find a good spot where I could sit on a bench and my son could practice on one ramp over and over.  There was another one behind it, for a sequential effect, and after a few minutes, he tried going up to the top of that one.  Once at the top he shook his head and pushed his bike back down, but a few minutes later he was back to the top, and this time he rode down.  After ten minutes, he was pushing off from the top ramp, coasting down the second and holding his balance to go up the ramp opposite.  He was ecstatic.

The other great thing was that the other adults and children using the skate park (who were five to twenty years older than my son) were thoroughly considerate of us and if anything seemed tickled to see my son having a go at it.  My son, fortunately, was also pretty good about watching out for other users, though I prompted him to wait or stop on occasion.  

Despite my fears, having other skaters around was helpful.  Seeing how other people used the various ramps, whatever they were riding, was a good example for him.  And there were enough stunts going on for my daughter to sit quietly in sheer fascination.

We went back again today.  It was colder and quieter, and my son took off all over it, scooting around to try different coasting routes and shrieking an incongruous "Whee!" as he shot down the ramps.  The plan is to become hardcore skate park visitors, sticking it out through the winter while it's quieter and my son has the added padding of warm clothing.  He took a couple of falls today and was absolutely fine.
Come next spring, he might well be able to hold his own alongside the skater boys, but we expect to be buying him a proper bike and hitting the trails.   We will of course be handing the balance bike over to our daughter, who will be two by then.  God only knows, she's already itching to have a go!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Room Sharing

While my parents were here, we moved my son into my daughter's room and turned his room into a guest room for the fortnight.  We'd done something similar at the start of the summer, and though juggling the children's sleeping schedules had been a bit awkward, it had worked well enough.

This time, it worked splendidly.  He's almost four, she's twenty-one months and our timing seemed to be perfect.  The big difference between now and then was that they now go to sleep and wake up at the same time (or at least for all practical purposes).  Not only was it no problem at all to coordinate sleeping arrangements, but it actually worked to our advantage.  If they woke early, they just started playing with each other until the traffic-light alarm clock turned green.

Beyond that, they seemed to be getting on better with each other and playing together more, while our son had completely stopped his whining over night and finding excuses to come out of his room.  It was clear they enjoyed having each other's company at night time.

It had never really occurred to me to give them a shared bedroom.  We were able to give them a room each, and I assumed that was the more desirable scenario.  But it only took a week of them sharing before my husband and I started discussing making it permanent.

While my parents were here, we'd simply moved my son onto the twin bed in my daughter's room.  She was sleeping on the crib mattress on the floor next to it (explanation of that posted here)--she'd not yet been motivated to sleep in the bed.  However, her bedroom was considerably smaller than her brothers, so we decided to turn his room into a shared room once my parents were gone.  And then I put it off for a week, just because it was going to be such a big job.

But today I went ahead and did it... it took the better part of the day and I might not have finished in time, if my neighbour hadn't had the children over with her son for the end of the afternoon.  One of the big motivators is that my daughter's just getting over a cold and she's waking up early at the moment with coughing.  I expect the transition will also trigger some early wake-ups, so I'd rather do it while she's waking early anyway. 

For the same reason, I've moved her into a twin bed.  I've put the crib mattress on the floor between the two beds, but her glow-worm and pillow are on the bed and that's where she had her nap today (which was fine after one false start).  She's got a wall on one side, and the mattress on the other, so I'm not concerned about her rolling out of bed.  Mostly, I'm glad she's underneath a proper duvet now.  I had a fleece blanket over her on the floor mattress, but she always rolled out of it and it wasn't really thick enough for winter anyway.  Hopefully she'll stay warm this way!

Anyway, both children were pretty excited when getting into bed tonight, and they've got up several times while I was writing this post (I only had to get up twice, at least!).  But--touch wood!--it's all gone quiet now.  I'm expecting to have to go up at least once overnight to put my daughter back in bed after she falls out.

It'll take me another few days to get all the furniture, toys, clothes, etc arranged.  But then we can convert our daughter's room into a full-time guest room / gaming room.  We're hitting the point where it's difficult for us to watch our shows or (in my husband's case) play video games that aren't appropriate to have on in front of the children--or that we just want to watch without being hassled by them.  Having a second television will be nice, and I don't really want one in our bedroom, so this is the perfect solution for me.

Meanwhile, a few more rough nights are ahead, which is not something I'm looking forward to.  But I'm loving how excited the children are to sleep together and this is one of those parenting things where it just feels so obviously right that I'm excited too.  Here's hoping it doesn't all feel wrong again in two months' time!

Monday, 29 October 2012


Between Hurricane Sandy, my parents' visit and my writing commitments else-site, I've not got time for decent writing here.  Still, I'd like to plug this:

Roominate: the wired building toy for girls

This is a new toy, and I am dying for it to be a success.  I've grumbled about gender bias in toys before, and though I wish this wasn't marketed exclusively to girls, it side-steps most of my issues.  It's too old for my daughter (and my son), but this is the kind of thing I'd love for her to be playing with when she's older.

So I'm spreading the word, hoping that Roominate flourishes and also hoping that other toy manufacturers take notice!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Rules of the Table

A few months back, my son suddenly discovered a liking for hot dogs, and I was overjoyed.  Then I recalled that hot dogs were junk food and I felt guilty... but still disproportionately pleased.

It isn't that I'm a big fan of hot dogs, but all summer it seemed like the only safe lunch (and sometimes dinner) was a peanut butter sandwich.  The possibility of having something new and different was like a gift from the heavens.  Not to mention it involved meat (technically).  Perhaps this would be a gateway food.  So yes, we have had hot dogs and rolls in the house ever since, though I don't make them more than once a week if I can help it.

The Ideal and the Reality

Of course, I should not cater to my children's limited palates and only feed them things that I think they'll eat.  I should make things that I like, because it broadens their palate to something compatible with our family.  And also because I can guarantee my own satisfaction, whereas I'm eternally gambling on the children's.  This is something I absolutely believe in, with one qualification--I should make sure that they get meals they do like with reasonable frequency so that mealtime doesn't become a thrice daily ordeal for them.

Yet this theory is not easy in practice.  Every time I serve up something the children don't like, I have to deal with it.  The whining, the refusal to eat, the tantrums when they are not permitted a treat or a snack afterwards....  Most of the time, I don't feel prepared to deal with that.  And most of the time, I try to be good and deal with it anyway, but there will always be a couple of days a week where I take the easy option of the peanut butter sandwich. 

Or at least, that was the easy option, until my daughter decided she didn't like them.  Praise be the lowly hot dog!

So my new project in my ongoing self-improvement quest is our eating habits.  And it starts with the actual process of eating rather than what we eat.  After all, for the past three years, figuring out how to calmly navigate the treacherous politics of mealtimes has taken all my attention.

The Fussy Eater

The children and I eat all our meals together.  Daddy joins us for dinner (and sometimes breakfast).  The children were both brought up on the baby-led weaning method which purports to create less fussy children (among other benefits).  I was skeptical about that and it certainly didn't work out for me, but I was still very satisfied with the "learning to chew before learning to swallow" approach and would recommend it to anybody. But that would be another post altogether.

My twenty month old daughter has just transitioned from the baby who loves food and will eat anything to the picky toddler who has been known to take one look at her plate and burst into tears.  My son, who will be four in two months, has only recently emerged from a two year stint of being utterly fickle with his food, his tastes changing from one season to the next with almost every meal being an exercise in negotiation.

At least we have had two years of experience to settle into a consistent standard--or so you'd think.  Our paediatrician always tells me: "Don't make a battle out of eating, because you will lose."  We still have varying success here, since it is so very difficult not to start down the road of: "Just eat this bit." Or "This is chicken, and you like chicken."  However, we do have our consequence set, even if I'm still trying not to lose my temper/patience with the child should they choose consequence over eating.
My mantra is "Every time you waste food, somebody goes hungry," accompanied by the tacit consequence "and it's going to be you."  I won't go down the route of serving up the same meal over and over until it's eaten, but after discussions with friends, I am quite confident in letting the children know what an empty tummy feels like.  If you do not eat everything you are given, (and I err on the side of small portions), you will get nothing else until the next meal.

This can have drawbacks, such as when my daughter won't eat more than a bite or two of her evening meal. She goes to bed on an empty tummy and of course wakens up to an hour early (though thankfully, never yet in the middle of the night).  Usually, we'll have some success in getting her back down for half an hour, but I always have to get up early on those days.

That's also the one instance where I don't make her wait until the next meal.  I don't want to throw out the morning routine by doing breakfast early, but I won't leave her ravenous when breakfast is ninety minutes away.  So she gets a banana as a snack.  That's the only exception I will make to the rule though.  There have been times when a refused lunch led to six hours of an empty tummy and cranky child.

What makes it harder with her than with my son is that her brother now finishes his meals regularly and is allowed to eat between them.  I confess that we do reward empty plates with a treat, and while my son understood the distinction when his sister was allowed one and he wasn't, vice versa has been much harder.  Thankfully, she now does understand the condition, and although I don't want to deliberately tease her, I don't want to hide this direct consequence of her actions either.  She usually watches tearfully while her brother chooses his treat, and then I ask him to go to another part of the house to eat it.

What we've come across with my daughter that I don't recall being such a huge problem with my son is her habit of crying at the sight of her food if it's something she doesn't want to eat.  Ignoring her tears at a family meal does not work out, so my standard solution is to give her a choice between sitting quietly and trying her meal or going straight to bed (she has a nap after lunch and bedtime after dinner anyway).

Invariably, if I put her to bed, she'll be wailing "Mama," after five minutes.  I ask her if she is ready to eat her meal, she nods and we go back down.  After this, she usually sits quietly enough in her chair and tries a few bites, but we do not have eating by any stretch of the imagination.  However, as long as she tries it and stops crying, she will be permitted to get down with the rest of us and play before bedtime.

The other thing I do believe in is meeting her halfway.  As said before, I try not to give her huge portions (she has no qualms about asking for more if she does get something she likes, though she's supposed to clear her plate first before getting second helpings of chicken or what have you).  Her biggest issue seems to be with carbs... She's not a big fan of bread, rice or potatoes--pasta and noodles are just fine though.  So I'm trying to do a couple of extra meals a week with pasta instead of rice (we usually have rice twice a week anyway), and generally make the carb portion of her meals smaller--which is probably an example we should all follow.

The Slow Eater

As I said, my son has recently become much better about trying things and has decided he likes quite a lot of food.  He will even eat things he doesn't like without too much persuasion.  Our new issue with him became slow eating.  He would sit at the table and poke at his food or chatter away and be silly, anything but actually eat.  A lot of it is trying to get us to feed him; as soon as we're finished, he'll declare that he needs a hand.  How I wish I'd listened to the baby-led weaning rule about never feeding him myself!  Of course, I fell into the same trap with my daughter so I am doubtless doomed to repeat this scenario.

Basically, long after the rest of us were done eating, my son would still have 3/4 of his plate left.  Leaving him to it induced a meltdown, thanks to the clinginess I've referred to in my recent posts; even feeding him was a painful procedure as he started fidgeting and playing around, although it was certainly quicker than sitting and waiting for him.

This situation has improved, but unfortunately not by any solution we've implemented.  There are a few things he'll always eat quickly, and in all meals, he likes to say he's racing us and is winning.  I'm not a big fan of making meals a race, but I have not been discouraging him in the least.  Basically, he seems to have motivated himself to improve, so we got lucky.

Even so, he's often the last to finish by a wide margin.  We're still feeding him as a solution, but neither of us want to be doing that for years to come, so we are using his fourth birthday as a cut-off point.  Once he is four, (less than two months now!) he will have to feed himself.  Googling slow eating, incidentally, is pretty depressing.  There's a lot of stories about how nothing helps.  So I think there's going to be a certain amount of us all accepting this--Mum and Dad accepting that he just isn't eating quickly tonight, and my son accepting that we can't sit around the dinner table for an hour keeping him company.

I had one previous experience with slow eating in my teaching days, when I was sitting with a class of older children.  One child always took dramatically longer than everybody else to eat--too long for the time allotted for lunch.  The tip from an experienced teacher was for me to read aloud a couple of chapters of Mr Popper's Penguins after lunch, and those children who had finished (and cleaned up, etc) could come and listen to the story.  It wasn't a magic wand solution, but it was an inducement for everybody to eat promptly, and it meant that the children who had finished were peacefully occupied without disrupting or being disrupted by the children still eating.

There are a few logistical issues with me doing this here, namely that my son starts melting down if he's missing out on something other people are doing.  Still, I am trying to take the tack that it's his own time he's wasting.  We usually watch half an hour of television after dinner, but I have started insisting that he finish his dinner at least half an hour before his official bedtime, or it will be too late to watch anything.  As is often the case, I am not confident that this consequence has produced results, but I am satisfied that there is a consequence.

Table Manners

I admit it.  We're not huge on table manners in our house.  It is only recently that I've felt ready to tackle "Please keep your mouth closed when you chew!" with my son. Cutlery is used as the child desires: my son uses a fork but usually not his knife; my daughter will poke her food with a fork a bit and then use her fingers.  I suppose if my son regresses to fingers in the future, we'll have to make an issue of this, but letting them train themselves has worked so far.  And the children are allowed to get down more or less when they want--I am tired of trying to eat my food while a child is wriggling and crying less than a foot away.

A few months back, I did start stamping down on "I don't like it," since my son had a terrible habit of coming into the kitchen while I was cooking and telling me that.  These days, nobody is allowed in my kitchen if they say nasty things about the food.  Previously, my reply was always "You don't have to like it, but you do have to eat it."  That still gets trotted out sometimes, but we are also making it clear that "I don't like it," is rude.

My anonymous hero here is a woman whose forum post I read years ago on some message board or other.  Apparently, at the first whine about the food, the offending child was sent packing from the table with no second chances or alternative eating options.  I haven't quite had the nerve to do that, but I sometimes wish I did.

So mealtime for us is very much a pick your battle scenario, and most of the work that needs doing I will continue to procrastinate on.  But it is past time for me to firm up the why we eat when and what we eat into a ruleset for nutrition that will be logical for the children--or at least for my questioning son who is very much at the age of trying to understand the universe.  It won't hurt my daughter either.

I'm currently mulling that over and also striving towards healthier eating habits for all of us.  The plan is to post up the results of my cogitation when they've reached coherent form, but that might take awhile....

Monday, 15 October 2012

Tantrum Updates

My daughter is now fine with her shoes.  Mostly.  She'll occasionally still trigger a meltdown because of the way her shoes or her socks (or this morning, her leggings) feel.  Or else she'll be insistent that she puts them on herself, and she can't, so eventually I have to do it for her and she'll have a tantrum over that.  Basically, we still go through at least one tantrum most mornings, and it's very wearing.

The possible silver lining here is that it provides me with an opportunity to talk through my feelings with my son.  This morning, she was sobbing all over me while I was trying to hang up the last of the laundry on the clothes-horse.  Finally, because I was feeling the urge to slap her just to vent my feelings, I picked her up, put her in her room and shut the door for the minute it took me to finish the laundry.

My son asked why I had done that.  I explained that I was getting upset by her crying, and that I was losing control of my temper.  I put her in her room so that I could get a break from her and get back in control of my feelings so I wouldn't shout at her or at him.

It's probably very beneficial for my son to see such an example of how other people process their feelings.  It's a chance for him to think about it when he isn't emotionally affected.  On the other hand, I do feel like I could do with a break from being the example for my son's psychological education.  And when I'm battling to remain calm, it's really really hard to listen to my son's questions without snapping at him to just be quiet and leave me alone!

Oh, first world parenting problems!

Going back to my son's meltdown issues, it turned out that allergies really were playing a larger part than I had realised.  We gave him Benadryl at night for about ten days, then stopped, and he immediately went back to easily triggered tantrums.  Fortunately, the ragweed pollen seems to have stopped, but a big bottle of Benadryl is likely to remain a staple of our medicine cupboard just in case.

Finally, this post at Sense of Wonder is a fantastic suggestion for dealing with meltdowns.  I'm not sure my son's quite there yet, but I plan on practicing this script from now on, at home and in the classroom.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Cold Weather and (mild) Sensory Issues

The weather's turned cold here, which means we're getting into long sleeves, trousers, shoes and even coats again.  Much as I love our long summers, it does have the drawback that the children completely forget what it's like to have clothing on so much of their skin.  I've often had complaints and fussiness from my son about the change of wardrobe, but my daughter, coming into her second winter, is bringing things to a new level.

I did actually have to take her to the doctor about a month ago because she'd been going into hysterics over some capri leggings I'd tried to put on her.  This was following on from occasional agitation with her nappy or sandals, and I wanted to confirm that I hadn't missed anything crazy, such as her hip displasia recurring.  Physically, she passed with flying colours, but the doctor watched her reaction to me putting the leggings on her, and diagnosed some sensory issues.

Although sensory processing disorder can be a real problem, neither the doctor nor myself felt that she has that kind of issue, so the advice was to get her accustomed to the clothing and come back if I feel it's out of hand (spoiler alert: it's not).

Shoe Issue (bless you!)

Anyway, with a bit of persistence (and protest on her part), she's comfortably wearing leggings and long sleeves.  On Monday, I finally got around to buying her a pair of shoes (as opposed to sandals).  I'd been holding back on this a bit, because she's got wide feet, which means I'm not just going to pick up a cheap pair at Target.  I want something that will fit properly (and that isn't pink.... seriously, why do we have so much pink on girls' shoes?  It's not a neutral colour!  I want something that can go with everything!).

So we went to Stride-rite, and she was in heaven because she adores shoes.  She wanted the Spiderman ones, and I was tempted because she does have a lot of red and blue outfits, but then I saw the price tag Spiderman commands and moved to more standard fare instead.  A non-pink pair of wide-fitting shoes with a butterfly motif (she likes butterflies!) was located, we donned socks, she tried them on and everything was absolutely fine.  Sale!

Then the next time I put them on her, about an hour later, she took one step and had a meltdown, desperately trying to pull them off her feet.

I know they fit perfectly.  I know they're well-made.  I know she can walk comfortably in them.  I think that the actual problem might be the toe-seam in her socks, but I'm not sure if I can avoid that.  At any rate, I can't afford to buy a bunch of different shoes to find a pair that works (though I might have to look into some different socks).

So, it's time to be cruel to be kind, and de-sensitise her.  I have some tactile sensitivity myself, and I've chosen that option before too.  Ultimately, she's going to need to wear shoes, and there's no easy way forward for that.

Operation Shoe-Acclimatisation Begins

We started yesterday, at T J Maxx.  I put her in the car barefoot, and put her shoes and socks (and coat) on only once we arrived.  She started shrieking immediately, so I carried her into the store then set her down, and let her go into full on tantrum mode.

The best way for getting my daughter out of a tantrum is to let somebody else deal with it.  She will be so horrified that she'll immediately gain control of herself so she can rush to me.  When I'm on my own, that's not an option.  In those instances, my policy is to crouch down beside her and offer a hug, but she has to get up to receive it, and I'm not waiting around for it.

Yesterday, my conciliatory offer resulted in her screaming the place down.  I gritted my teeth, stood up and browsed the nearby clothing ignoring her.  Eventually, she pulled herself up and came to me, and when I picked her up, she immediately put her head on my shoulder and started sucking her thumb, the surefire sign that the tantrum is over.

I carried her like that for a minute then set her down, and she happily ran all over the store for the next twenty minutes with all footwear on.  Then we got back into the car for a five minute drive to Target--and she pulled her shoes and socks off.  Sure enough, she melted down the moment I tried to put them back on.

I experimented with a different tack which was to sit her in the trolley (cart for Americans) and tell her that she had to wear her shoes if she wanted to get down and walk.  I spent ten minutes trying to do my shopping while stopping my screaming toddler from hauling herself out of the trolley.  Then I wrestled her into the shoes and repeated what had worked in T J Maxx.  Again, once she'd had her tantrum and calmed down, she wandered about in her shoes quite happily.

We went to the library that afternoon... lather, rinse, repeat....  It's going to be a rough couple of weeks.

Onwards and Upwards

That said, I'm already feeling more confident.  Today although getting shoes on was just as much of a nightmare, once she was settled with them, she did not stop to take them off.  With her sandals, it had become very common for her to sit down after fifteen minutes or so and pull them off, and she couldn't last a car journey with them.  Instead, I had to tell her to take her shoes off when she climbed on the sofa, and later on, when she went for a bath.

So there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Unfortunately, I'm still not sure how long this tunnel is.  I just know it's going to involve at least two tantrums a day and stressed out Mum and big brother (big brother can get very upset by her tantrums, but he was a hero this afternoon and blew raspberries on her tummy while I put her shoes on).

One thing I might do is buy a cheap pair of fleece-lined crocs knock-offs for when we're just popping out to hang up the washing, or if she wants to go out on the deck.  I'm not a big fan of crocs, but that style of shoe is meant to be good for kids with sensory issues, and she'll be able to put them on herself without having to worry about socks.  They can function as slippers too... if I'm really lucky, perhaps her slipper-hating brother will want some of his own.

So just the latest in the expected line of parenting hurdles.  If nothing else, I finally have stories of public tantrum embarrassment to proudly share with other parents.  My son never went in for them, and I've always felt somewhat sheltered, as a consequence.  Not any more!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Autumn Updates

So now that we're back on an even keel (and, thank god, we are), I should do a couple of updates on everything.

I have two big life improvement projects this autumn.  One is food, and that will require a post of its own sometime.  The other is to ditch the stroller (I know, I should say 'pushchair'; it's one of the Americanisms that we've adopted).  I am a firm believer in the rule of thumb that a child can walk a mile for every year of its age (although I'm a bit fuzzy on where you stop), and so, now that it's not too hot to carry my daughter if she does get tired, we are going on excursions sans buggy--with a very few exceptions for all day trips.

This also means I don't have a stroller to load up with paraphernalia, so I'm trying to cut down on what we take with us.  There goes the nappy bag, too!  I've reverted to my usual handbag, which in previous years was sized to hold my wallet, phone and a paperback book.  Now it holds my wallet, phone, nappy (or two) and a pack of wipes.  And that's it!

In practice, I quite often take the camera bag with me as well, so I am lugging that around, but for the most part it's bliss to just walk around the zoo, or the botanical gardens, or the playground without having to look for ramps or find a place to park the stroller.  I feel liberated!

It's a relief in many other ways.  One of the mistakes I made when my daughter first started walking was to let my three year old son get into the stroller when she wasn't in it.  Suddenly, riding in the stroller became a coveted position by both children and they started fighting over it.  With the stroller gone, they don't worry about it.

It's going to be an ongoing thing to build my daughter's stamina up, but I've been trying to get out alone with her twice a week for a little walk at her pace, and the cooler weather here has meant that we've been spending almost every afternoon outside too, and I'm already seeing improvement. 

If she asks to be picked up, I try and encourage her to keep walking, distracting her if I can... but I don't push the issue further than that.  If I end up carrying her, I'll usually try and set her down again after a few dozen yards, usually at a change of path (i.e. at the start of a boardwalk, or by an offshoot trail) or when something particularly attractive comes into view.  Generally, that works.

As I said, she's already doing better.  This afternoon, we went for a walk around the Botanical Gardens, and although she had to be carried for a little way on the path back, I was able to set her down to 'climb' a tree, and then she walked the rest of the way.  She was clearly tired, because she was going so slowly, but she held my hand tightly and never once asked to be picked up.  I'm thrilled.  I can't wait to be able to do proper rambles with the children, exploring woods without having to always be 'in carrying distance' of home / the car. 

Also, one of the things we figured out while we were in the UK this year is that walks are one of the best ways of tiring your children out without tiring yourself out.  I find that if I take them to the playground, I get worn out before they do, but with walking it's the other way around.

Meanwhile, way back at the start of the year, I tried to figure out how I wanted my son to learn to read and what my role was in that.  He's still plugging away at the moveable alphabet at school, 'writing' words by sounding them out but has not made the leap to reading by the same method.  I've followed a variety of different activities to support his literacy, but what is currently working for us is to just look at the front cover of whatever book we're about to read and talk about the sounds in the title. 

Since he knows all the basic sounds, i.e. his letters, I'll usually point out a few letter combinations to him.  Mostly 'oo', 'ee', 'th', and 'ar'.  Also because he has a strong vowel in his name and a 'y' ending, I've explained to him that those letters can make two sounds (I've been saying that 'y' at the end of a word is usually an 'ee' sound). 

I'm trying not to require anything of him with this exercise, it's just a time that works for us to talk about this kind of stuff.  We spend a few seconds on the title, or one word in the title, before reading the book.  (We also talk about who wrote the words and who drew the pictures, and where the book came from, because he likes to know).

The other thing he's been doing lately is running his finger along the line of text in books he's memorised, or virtually memorised.  It's only a handful of books he's doing that with, but when he forgets what the words say, I'm trying to get him to look at the first letter of the word to know what sound it starts with and jog his memory.  That's not producing notable success, but I figure that any reminder to look at the individual letters is a good thing.

He recently found Where the Wild Things Are at Barnes and Noble and was greatly excited since he'd had it read to him several times at school.  For almost a week, that was the only book he wanted to read!  But he started drawing his finger across the title and saying the words, so I got him to find the 'W's for 'where' and 'wild' and the 'th's for 'the' and 'things' and the 'ar' for 'are'.  I'm not entirely convinced that he is spotting the letters, but he now says the correct word for where his finger is, and gleefully shouts 'Arrrr!' at the end.

So while there are still daily ups and downs, and various other "Well, bugger, I failed at that," moments, the past week has felt very much like constructive progress.  Hooray!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012


The vacuum of posts in this blog is ridiculous, but it had its reasons.  We've had a rough few weeks in various small ways, the little drawbacks of family life all piling up and leaving me in a place where I didn't want to write about it, because it would mean dwelling on the stress in my free time.

Three Year Old Regression
The core of this has been my son's recent behaviour.  It's not the only factor--travel fatigue, sickness, etc. etc. have all played their part, but he has been the big issue.  I'm not going to go into the details, because I think that would be counter-productive. Suffice to say he's been having tantrums and meltdowns at the drop of a hat, and we've seen a lot of regression to baby mannerisms and clinginess.

This is pretty normal for late three's (he's three years, nine months), from what I can tell through Google and talking to my friends.  Contributing factor A is mental development. He's more aware of the transitory elements in life, object impermanence if you will, but certainly that there are few guarantees, and this is making him insecure. 

Contributing factor B is sibling rivalry. As his sister (now 19 months) grows older, he's relating her more to his age group, and therefore any difference in treatment is more obvious: e.g. I'm more likely to pick her up and carry her if she's upset; I won't insist on her using her words when she asks for something.

So this is normal and not in itself anything too tough to handle, except for a couple of nights last week when he woke up in the middle of the night and flat out refused to go back to sleep or leave us alone.  The real problem with it was my highly subjective reaction, which let his behaviour get under my skin.

Disclaimer before I continue: I am writing about the bad times.  There have been good times in the past few weeks where I was thrilled to bits with my son.  I'll get back to those at the end of the post.

I Don't Like Not Liking Him
I find tantrum-throwing four year olds and relentlessly whiny children deeply unpalatable.  This is a hangover from work where I've had to deal with both of them.  While I learned how to cope with them, I regret to say I privately scorned the parents for their children's behaviour.  Now karma's come back to bite me as my own child exhibits this behaviour.

Also, up until now, I've always been able to tell myself that my son's misbehaviour is age-appropriate and only to be expected.  This kind of behavioural regression, even if it actually is age-appropriate, is a lot harder for me to be philosophical about.

Just to really highlight things, my daughter is (mostly) delightful and a strong reminder of how gorgeous my son was at this age.  I feel like I've lost the little boy I loved and have ended up with... something I'm not comfortable typing for posterity.  Something unlovable.

I'm not proud of my reaction or my feelings.  I've read before that there will be times when you find it hard to love your child, or put another way, that you won't be able to like them despite your unconditional love.  I thought I'd experienced that before now, but I hadn't appreciated that there will be long term phases (not just a few hours) where I will be so disappointed in my child that I become one mass of maternal insecurity, blaming myself for letting him get to that point and hating myself for feeling this way about my own child.

And that's why I felt I needed to post this.  To admit that I struggle, and to share those struggles with other mothers who are going through or will go through the same thing.  Half the purpose of this blog is solidarity.

Problem Solving
Anyway, we've been tackling this issue ever since we got back and I realised pretty quickly that I was going to need to tone down my gut reaction and remain calm when my son kicked off.  This promptly turned me into a pressure cooker, and I started snapping at my husband instead--or worse, losing my temper with him for losing his temper with our son because if I was having to hold it in, everybody else could too!

We did discover that hay fever had been aggravating him, but for the most part, dealing with his behaviour has been trying to figure out his insecurities and tackling them one at a time. 

He started crying at the school drop-off, something he hasn't done since his fourth day of school, eighteen months ago!  I talked to the school, finding out who deals with him the most during the morning which turned out to be the new assistant.  The old assistant, who left at the end of last year, was probably his favourite member of staff.  I've been explaining to him that Miss L will take good care of him, can always call me if he needs me to be there and will give him a hug if he needs one.  He seems unconvinced, but I like what I've seen of the new assistant, and I think once he's got used to her he'll get more confident.

She told me that the first thing he does when he comes in in the morning is go to the reading area and read a couple of books before going to work, so now at drop off, I kiss him goodbye and tell him to go and read a book.  It's all trying to help him move through that transition.

Equally, he's suddenly developed a fear of the dark.  I took him to Target and let him pick out a new nightlight (we have one already, but it's not very bright).  He doesn't want us to leave the room when he's going to sleep, but we are firm that we want him to fall asleep on his own. 

This seems to be clinginess rather than an active fear of monsters or anything, but it's been really tough getting him to stay in his room until his nightlight goes green (which happens at 6:15am).  He's on Benadryl for the allergies right now, which has definitely helped.  Beyond that, we're just trying to be consistent and enforce suitably dire consequences.

Et cetera, et cetera.  I'm trying to reduce the double standards, either being more demanding of our daughter or being less demanding of our son--where appropriate.  I'm being quicker to cuddle him and carry him on occasion.  I don't think a little bit of cossetting now will do him any harm, and honestly, I tend towards a pragmatic attitude with both children. 

Still to work on: being better about planning in advance what we're doing and telling him.  I do try and ask him what he wants to do, but I think the not knowing whether we're going out or staying home is causing him some anxiety--he always wants to go out, and he is afraid he will be disappointed.  We're particularly bad about this at weekends.

None of these are overnight solutions, but we do seem to be coming out the other side of this phase.  Whatever bug(s) was running through the house has passed, and after a patch of sleep deprivation last week (assorted causes), I'm back on an even emotional keel--aided greatly by my husband taking the children out for about four hours over the weekend; I cleaned the kitchen thoroughly and felt both virtuous and mentally-rested.

More to the point, I feel happier about my son again.  He's still whiny and he still has meltdowns on occasion, but it's getting easier to focus on the good stuff, the stuff that makes him him and the son I adore.

Positive Thinking
On that note and to sign off, I'm going to list some of the lovely things about my son.  Both because it's good for me to remember them and because it's not fair on my son to omit them.
  • I love listening to him play games, making up his own adventures.
  • I love how he dances spontaneously and sings songs that morph from standard songs to his own creations and back again.
  • I love that he wants to go and open the door for his sister when we hear her wake up from her nap.
  • I love his wicked, gleeful smile.
  • I love how he wants to play with his sister.  He's yet to reach a 'no girls' phase (I've probably jinxed this now).  Not only that, he can play nicely with her.  Yesterday, they amused themselves for forty minutes and I only had to intervene twice.  Twice!
  • I love that he's recently got over a huge hump of fussiness and has started eating things with cheese in, drinking milk and sampling different kinds of meat!  (Still fussy, but drastically less so).
  • I love how he's running his finger along the text in books he's memorised, still trying to figure out the reading thing.
  • I love reading to him. I'm surprised by how much more fun it is reading to a three year old than a toddler (more interesting books and no "Again!" as soon as I've finished).
  • I love that for all his flaws, he's still above average when it comes to listening to me, behaving appropriately, taking turns and saying 'sorry'.
  • I love our moments when it's just me and him.  For two years, it was just me and him most of the time, and there is something unbelievably special about reclaiming that every now and then.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Post Holiday Post

We've been back for a week, but I haven't felt much like writing.  It's always exhausting going back to the UK.  Most of our family are in the north of England (and Wales) and some of my family are in the southwest; in the road-trip between the two, we try and incorporate meals with a few friends in the south, and then there's always a pack of mutual friends from university who we meet up with for one weekend.  It's insanely fun and I love it, but it's not at all restful.

The annual trip is something I consider hugely important, all the moreso for our children, so they get to meet their extended family and get some experience of England.  Thinking about it though, this wasn't something I had the option of in my childhood.  My father was in the navy, and we moved to Hong Kong for three years when I was one, back to the UK when I was four, and then to the States when I was nine (we came back when I was eleven, at which point I started boarding school and gained a permanent base in the UK, wherever my parents traveled). 

During those posts, I never saw England, though in my earliest memories I was always very clear that we would go home there one day.  My mother's sister and my father's parents were up for traveling out to visit us, but I would only see the rest of the family when we lived in England.  On the other hand, when I grew older, I was very conscientious about making the trip abroad to see my parents every year, and this has carried on now that I'm the one living abroad. 

While some people have felt that I must lack roots, leading such a childhood, I've always identified very strongly as British and been very firm that England is my home (even when my husband and I moved out to the States, I insisted on the proviso that it was only temporary).  That said, there's a cultural knowledge base that I lacked.... not so obvious these days, but I remember struggling with it through high school and university.

I hope to assuage this in my children.  It's a lot easier for me to keep in touch with the UK than it was for my parents.  When we were in Hong Kong, international phone calls had to be carefully scheduled by letter and kept as brief as possible owing to the cost; today, my parents and I video chat most weeks in my living room, with the camera trained on the children playing on the rug.  BBC America is a channel, and it's not difficult for us to get hold of current British children's programmes.

That said, you can't beat the firsthand experience of a trip through the motherland.  Not to mention so many of our friends have children the same age as ours, who (for now!) our children are eager to play with.  Just having some idea of what British children are into is going to be such a big deal when we do come home and the children have to make a fresh start at a British school.
I'm realistic enough to know that I can't give them a completely British childhood, nor would I want to.  They're American too, and I think it's absurd to dismiss that or make them feel its undesirable.  I'm just trying to give them as much familiarity with the UK as I can.  Because that's where we'll go, "when we go home."

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Toddling through the green and pleasant land

We are currently in the middle of the annual trip to the UK, always a whirlwind tour of friends and family, but always much loved, if only as an escape from the heat of a Virginia summer.  We have been watching the Olympics, reacquainting the children with their extended family and embracing the British countryside via long walks in the sunshine and cool breeze.  It's wonderful.

I will probably have a lot more to say about the traveling and the attempts to find routine in other people's houses in future posts.  But right now, I am going to enjoy being the middle of three generations under one roof.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Book Review: The Snail and The Whale

The Snail and the Whale is written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, who are best known for The Gruffalo, although really any of their books are worth a try.  We have about half a dozen of Julia Donaldson's rhyming picture books, since my mother discovered that they were a safe bet for my son.  It's hard to pin down a reliable favourite, but this is the one that surprised me most with how much it appealed to him.

The reason for this is that it isn't especially funny and there's quite an abstract side to the plot.  The story follows a snail, who lives on a rock by a dock and dreams of travelling.  She hitches a lift with a humpback whale and gets her wish, only to be left feeling insignificant due to her small size.  Then the whale beaches himself, and the snail saves him by writing a message with her slime-trail on a school's blackboard, kicking off a rescue mission (no huge claims to realism here!).

While the idea of somebody small doing something heroic would seem an obvious story for children, the book has a slow build up to that climax, taking several pages to tour the world with the snail.  I'm not sure what captivates my son so much, but I love reading lines like:

This is the sea
So wild and free.
That carried the whale
And the snail on his tail
To towering icebergs and far-off lands
With fiery mountains and golden sands...

Perhaps that's the answer.  I always believe that one of the important factors in choosing a book to read to children is to choose one that you can read well.  Public speaking will never be my thing, but even I can tell that I'm more expressive with this book than some of the others we've tried out.

With that in mind, one of the common critiques I find with any of Julia Donaldson's books on Amazon is that the rhythm doesn't work out.  Personally, I've figured out the rhythm to all the books we have, though some of them are more difficult than others... the Snail and the Whale has a tendency to suddenly go slow (yeah, it's been a while since I studied metre in poetry, so apologies for the clunky terminology here).  It might be worth flipping through any of her books before purchase, to make sure you have a feel for the rhythm.

Anyway, as I've already said, I love the text in this one, where she gives her descriptive powers more of a workout.  Similarly, Axel Scheffler puts his cartoony detail to broader use, sketching out some impressive landscapes.  I confess that I rather wish a different artist had been used, since I would have loved to see a 'prettier' rendering, but I suspect there are just as many people who are delighted that they stuck with the same illustrator instead of going for something more saccharine.  It's just a personal taste thing.

Agewise, my son has been loving this book since soon after he turned two--he's currently three and a half.  It's too long for my eighteen month old daughter, who has shown no particular interest.

Notes for the Parent

Nothing here likely to upset your child... a couple of sharks appear in passing, which might be considered scary, but no comments on the food chain!

The protagonist is female, always a nice touch, and although she spends much of the book being carried around by the (male) whale, she takes the more active role in the narrative, devising her own way of achieving her dream, and likewise, figuring out how to save her traveling partner, and when she returns to her home-rock, she has finally earned the respect of her fellow snails.

In the diversity stakes, the human cast are predominantly white, but the class of children feature one black girl and a boy who looks to be of Asian (e.g. Pakistani) descent.  Of the firefighters helping with the beached whale, two are black and one is female.

The school is a traditional primary school, with desks in front of the blackboard and a strict teacher telling the children to be quiet.  Obviously, I'm biased here, still, I am a bit annoyed that the school is given a negative image.  Children's opinions count for more, of course, but if you are trying to avoid negative school imagery (e.g. with a child about to start), this will not be the book for you!

Educational stuff

While it's not overly realistic, there's a nice feel of geography in the pages without going into anything too specific.  The snail's home-dock and the school by the beach have typically British scenery, but we also get a taste of the Antarctic (judging by the penguins) a tropical and volcanic island, under the sea and a North American coastline--complete with bald eagle.  I can't spot any obvious errors in Axel Scheffler's details, and my son enjoys spotting the various fauna in each new location.

Also, the snail writes in cursive, which is a nice touch if you have a child learning that.

All in all, highly recommended, as is just about any Julia Donaldson.

For your own personal reading pleasure, I will recommend Dear Zari: The Secret Lives of the Women of Afghanistan.  It compiles some of the 'life stories' broadcast on the radio show, Afghan Woman's Hour, along with the personal experiences of the author who hosted the show.  While some artistic liberties have undoubtedly been taken (along with steps to preserve anonymity, these are real stories and as such make for a pretty devastating read, often being the story of how a woman got into a state of despair without any cheerful resolution (though there are some uplifting stories).  There are also a diverse range of personalities in these stories, despite the recurring themes, and also a look into how Islamic culture and religion often clash (with culture generally winning).

Eye-opening, and made me appreciative of the rights my daughter and I have.  It's a book I'd like my daughter to read in another fifteen years or so, despite the grim tone.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Talking and Speech Delays

My daughter is learning to talk.  It's a fascinating little process, which started a few months back with: "Ma-ma." 

These days her expressive vocabulary extends to: "Mama", "Bye-bye" (with sign), "Go!" (exclamation mark required), plus signs for "again" and "no".  Arguably, she also has a sign for "I don't want you to do that," but that's hitting, so I'm not counting it.  We also have a few environmental sounds popping up as she makes select animal and vehicle noises... "Ee" for "Cheese" when we take a photograph should probably be in this category.

This is not very impressive for a child of almost eighteen months, but it's a huge novelty for me, because at this age, her brother wasn't speaking at all.  He would very intermittently come up with a word, but a week or so later, it would be gone again.  His doctor gave him a pass at fifteen months, because he plainly understood what was being said to him, but at eighteen months we were referred to a speech therapist.

Speech Therapy

I should make it clear that my son falls more into the category of late-talkers who start speaking in whole sentences at the age of three.  He didn't; he started using single words at twenty-one months, but the point is that he started talking when he was ready rather than because of an underlying issue.  I have no intention of undermining the problems that speech-delayed children can have (I've dealt with a couple at school), so I want to put that disclaimer in.

In other words, my son didn't have any communication frustration or difficulties in comprehension. He wasn't being prevented from talking by a physical defect.  His expressive (i.e. spoken) vocabulary was non-existent but his receptive vocabulary (i.e. what he could understand) was good.  An eighteen month old should be able to understand 100-200 words, and at the very least, he was safely in that range. 

Although I doubted that there was a problem, I went ahead with the early intervention programme, because it seemed silly to assume that I was right.  As it turned out, I was... but what if I hadn't been?

The first assessment was of our circumstances, and a very pleasant woman assailed me with a long list of questions about my mental state and what resources I had for support, and anything else that might be a contributing factor.  I couldn't give her much until we got into the medication during pregnancy part since I'd gone through both IVF and Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome.  We ended up with a long list of drugs, which unreasonably made me feel helpful.

The second assessment actually was of my son, and involved four people, two of them playing with him and two taking notes.  They evaluated him for everything, and he was on track for his age except for expressive speech.  The other thing that bothered them was that he wasn't doing environmental sounds.  He would mimic a lion's roar and a snake's hiss if asked, but although we had a cat, he wouldn't attempt a meow.

They asked me what targets I would like to set, which I'm sure some person has established as a way to make parents feel that they are being listened to... except it also makes us feel put on the spot.  If it wasn't for my teaching experience, I would have had no idea what should be normal for a year's time.  But we hashed out a few short-term and long-term goals, which more or less ended up moot as he 'graduated' therapy by the first of our deadlines.

His speech therapy consisted of a lovely woman coming over every Friday morning to spend an hour playing with us on the rug.  Her purpose was mostly to illustrate ways to incorporate language into play.  She gave me a few direct tips about encouraging mouth muscles (play games waving cheerios about on the end of your tongues), and I noticed that she discreetly checked my son for some of the early signs of autism, e.g. she invited him to do pretend play, which is something you don't find in autistic children; my son was happy to indulge.

We both adored her, and I was quite sorry when, after a few months, my son had caught up to the low end of 'normal'.  The only problem with speech therapy was the cost, but at least that was within our means.

Baby Signs

Our speech therapist also did some signing with my son, but this was something we were doing anyway.  I had been given the Baby Signs book when I was pregnant and had, in first-time-parent fervour, eagerly perused it and drank in every 'baby conversation' in its anecdotes.  Then I discovered that in practice, I never had both my hands free and my son's attention at the same time.  To this day, I have absolutely no idea how the really successful baby signers do it.

Even so, I signed when I could, and my son's lack of signs (and, potentially my daughter's, though I've signed much less to her) was a big tip-off to his lack of interest in communicating.  I had a friend whose son couldn't talk and was frustrated about it.  When they started signing with him, it was like a switch went on in his brain.  He couldn't get everything together for the spoken word, but he could sign.

In my son's case, he did at least use and retain a few signs: "More", "All done", waving and shaking his head.  It's possible that the availability of these signed words slowed his attempts to master the spoken words, although the general consensus with baby signing is that it's more likely to speed up speech acquisition than delay it.  I see no reason to disagree with that, and even if it did have the opposite effect on my son, I'd still think he was the exception rather than the norm.

Baby signing came into its own when he did start talking though.  He started picking up more signs first, and then one day he started saying "Up."  While not technically his first word, it was the first word he both spoke and signed.  The difference between that and the ones that had gone before ("yes" "go" and "cracker") was that he immediately started saying it in a variety of different contexts--though not for "pick me up" surprisingly.  He also kept on saying it.

From that point, he surged forward picking up all kinds of words both spoken and signed, but he was more likely to say words that he could also sign.  I'm in no way trained in this, but I'd guess that the physical action helped code the speech into his brain.  Back in high school, I used to pace around a room while memorising a passage of text, which might be the same thing (or could be totally different... like I said, I'm not trained in this).

For our part, the signs were a lot easier to understand the speech, so for several months they were a comprehension aid, and I regularly referred to this website for new signs.  They phased out gradually, I'd guess by the time he was two and a half--certainly before my daughter was old enough to start observing them.

We never got the experience with signs that the book promised, but I was glad we had them as a resource.  I don't think they're essential, and as I've already admitted, I've done very little signing with my daughter.  Still, while I've not refreshed my memory on specifics like 'apple', I do try and attach gestures to certain words.  For me, it falls into the "It won't harm, and it might help," category.  But it's not something to stress over.  If you've made the decision not to sign, feel comfortable in that.  After all, every baby learns some signs, even if it's just 'bye bye' and 'shh', and finger-play songs probably provide the same mental stimulation.

But I absolutely recommend it for any speech delay... even of the "He'll talk when he's ready" variety.

Getting Used to Normal

I never really expected my daughter to have the same speech delays, since she's not nearly as laid back as my son, but I had no inkling of what normal speech acquisition is like.  After all, a twenty month old is much further advanced in mental development.  My son might not have leapt into full sentences, but he would apply the same word to different contexts comfortably--and was unlikely to say a word if he couldn't!

My daughter on the other hand, went from babbling "Mamamama" to saying "Mama."  I've never been called Mama before.  My son went straight to a Mummy/Mommy hybrid, though now he's picked up Mama from my daughter.  I can't say I had a particular interest in being called Mama, but when it actually started, when it became her first word, oh, I was an addict.  Over time, Mama has become a more general term for "I want attention," but it's still firmly attached to me.

"Bye bye" crept tentatively into her vocabulary while "Go!" I regret to say, was picked up from Go Diego Go, her brother's current favourite show, and was initially said only in reaction to seeing a picture of Diego or Dora the Explorer.  However, her brother has picked up on her exclamation with such enthusiasm, that it's getting used in many more situations--by all of us!

Beyond the words, she's been so much more focused on her babbling than my son, practicing anything she likes the sound of--including a wide variety of tongue-clicks--and when I make a sound, she'll watch my mouth closely to see what I'm doing.

On the receptive side, I think she might be a little behind where my son was, although I can't be sure of this just based on vague journal entries, but she's certainly at the level she should be.  Her favourite book right now is Bright Baby's First 100 Words which is hauled out several times a day.  Unlike her brother, she's a lot more attentive to those environmental sounds, and delights in pointing to animals or vehicles to hear the sound I attribute to them.  For some, she'll essay her own version, although it's somewhat random.  She'll say 'hoo' for owl and 'pfft' for camel but won't attempt 'moo'?

At any rate, I'm comfortable that she's coming along at the pace that's right for her, and she's showing no signs of frustration which is the important thing.  As for her brother?  He's got the typical three year old verbal diarrhoea these days, and we have no concerns about his linguistic future.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Update on the summer

Has it really been over two weeks since I posted?  Eh.  Between heat and other things, I've not felt like writing.

My son started back at school last week.  Rather than have three full months off, which always seems too long a break to my British mindset, I decided he could do the July summer session at school.  It's generally too hot in July to make outings pleasant, I am prone to heat exhaustion so I am not much fun, and the school takes them to the pool almost every day, which is probably the best thing for them in this weather.

That said, a couple of weeks ago I was feeling quite sorry that our time at home was coming to an end.  I'd really enjoyed having both children, planning days that didn't revolve around the school run.  Every week, I took them on at least one 'adventure' that was out of our normal routine, and we generally just made the most of our freedom.  But that last week that he was off school was the week of the heatwave, and suddenly going back to our quiet routine seemed much more appealing.

Still, my project to get used to doing housework with the kids around has been a roaring success.  I don't mean to imply that we have some kind of Mary Poppins effect going on where we all sing and dance and work together as a happy team.  There is still likely to be crying and whining... but not always.  For the most part, I am staying calm and giving the children attention where needed and where possible.  I am also being firm about when they need to keep off the floor that I am mopping--the suggestion is for them to stay in one area where they can play in full sight of what I am doing.  If they don't, they get moved behind the baby gate on the stairs so they can't get to me, until I am finished (which only takes a few minutes). 

Generally, I am succeeding in enforcing this consequence calmly and without anger.  They have become accustomed to the ruleset and to seeking each other out for attention--or playing by themselves.  Indeed my son is beginning to go off to his room to play independently with his toys. I've been awaiting this particular development most impatiently, but now that he's starting it, I'm feeling a twinge of panic that soon he'll be in his room all the time and we'll never see him.

But the house is certainly tidier.  I even managed to clear off the bookshelves so that I could replace them with the nicer bookshelf we bought a couple of months ago, a project that I'd been putting off because I couldn't face the child interference.  I've said before that I'm a rollercoaster tidier, but getting such obvious results for my efforts has given me a more sustained burst of motivation, and I'm still working through those little projects that I hadn't want to deal with before.

That said, my next self-improvement quest will be to keep a closer eye on my daughter, and be ready to drop what I'm doing and help her play with her toys as needed.  She's a lot more chaotic in her play than her brother ever was, and that's because I'm too busy to sit down and play with her in a more orderly fashion (which sounds bizarre, but I'm referring to simple, repetitive activities with a clear sequence of events, which is actually very helpful for a toddler).

So when she gets out one of her toys that she can't do independently yet, e.g. a puzzle, I want to be on the ball and ready to sit down with her and play with it.  And to make sure she puts one toy away before getting the next one.  Basically, going back to having cleaning be the secondary activity, the one I do when she doesn't need my attention, rather than giving her attention when I'm not cleaning.

So that's where we are.  And despite the heat, I really am very happy right now, and feeling quite regretful at the thought of returning to work next year.