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“Never leave your homework til the last minute.” I don’t know how many times in the last ten years I’ve given that particular piece of sage advice, but apparently not enough for it to sink into my own head. Or maybe that’s unfair. It’s not that I don’t start things until the deadline, it’s just that – what? I’ve landed myself with too many things to do? I set myself unreasonable and unrealistic targets? I’m inherently lazy and want to watch tv and not work in the evenings or at weekends?

Procrastination is a curse. We (that’s we teachers, we writers, or we busy people, by the way) know this only too well. And yet.

According to Flylady (life coach par excellence for those struggling with domestic pressures, whether as full time employment or in combination with paid work), procrastination is a form of perfectionism. It’s a crippling kind of perfectionism that whispers “you’ll never do it well enough, so why bother?” I definitely see a grain of truth in this, and recognise the fear that paralyses and prevents any kind of progress.

I’m kind of regretting starting this blog post now, because I don’t have an answer. What I do have is a terrifying to-do list and the certain knowledge that I’m not good enough.

How do you get past that rabbit-in-the-headlights stage of looking at your workload?

The reasons I know it’s now Spring…

We are feeding goldfinches regularly at the moment, and we saw a swallow flying over the garden today, so it’s official – Spring is finally here!

I haven’t exactly been appreciating the long winter, so I’m certainly pleased to feel a change in the air. I feel like it’s given my energy levels a little bit of a boost too (although that could just be recovery following a particularly nasty chest infection last week…).

What says ‘It’s Spring’ to you?

Top Five Things You Shouldn’t Say to the Wife of a Stay-at-Home-Dad

This was originally published back in June 2011, but unfortunately it still stands…

1: But does he do the cleaning/dusting/washing/ironing etc?
Er, yeah  – that’s clearly part of the deal. (Not to mention none of your business! I bet stay-at-home-Mum families don’t get quizzed about the nitty gritty of their domestic arrangements).

2: I’d still have to clean the toilet myself. Don’t you?
Er, no. (Strange as it may seem, men are just as capable as women of getting things actually clean).

3: But don’t the kids want you when they’re sick? It’s natural, isn’t it?
It’s probably natural if you’re the one who’s done the bulk of the caring. The kids are perfectly happy to have Daddy look after them.

4: Did he lose his job? / Can’t he get a job?
Although this is often said in a sympathetic way, commiserating with me, it’s still pretty rude. This is our choice, not an accident; if he were unemployed, that’s probably how I’d describe it rather than saying he stays at home. Again – I doubt husbands of stay-at-home-mums get this question.

5: Wow, that’s a lot of pressure of you to ‘keep’ the family.
This is also very often a sympathetic comment, but one I doubt male single earners get.

Generally speaking, many people still find our situation either hard to understand or fascinating. I always answer questions as though I’m happy to, but really I’m sad that in the 21st century a family with a working mum and a stay-at-home-dad is enough of an oddity to create interest. Clearly, many people believe in ‘natural’ gender differences, especially when it comes to parenting.

Family Friday: Some Recent Highlights

A few snippets of kid-related fun from the last few weeks:

  • “Are they real acting meercats in the adverts?”
  • 13 yr old special: “Eeew. I’ve just realised. You’ve done icky stuff (this means ‘had sex’) at least twice.” (We have two daughters. Remember that moment of realisation? This one came in a shop – Boots. We were buying cold medicines.)
  • The Tooth Fairy Visit. “My tooth’s fallen out (in bed) but I don’t want to leave it out tonight because I need to write her a letter.” OK, letters are nice, right? Of course, she also wanted a letter back and this meant that paper needed to be left out for the fairy to use. Paper which she had decorated specially. Thankfully she fell asleep quickly, so it wasn’t a Christmas Eve style event. There were considerable nerves about getting the letter right though, since there could be no second chance. And then when she wanted to take the letter to school as other kids had, we were worried about handwriting not matching, until she mentioned ‘X’s tooth fairy does this and Y’s tooth fairy does that”…

Tuesday Tidings: Why we’ll stick to toys from now on

These days are gone …

We had a bit of a scary time on Sunday (but all’s well now) when our lovely little Jessie hurt her throat playing with a stick. She had run to fetch it and made the most hideous high-pitched noise. We ran to her, thinking she’d fallen and hurt her leg or something, and it took us a while to figure out what was wrong. It seems the stick had gone down her throat and bruised the back of it, making it difficult and painful to swallow. There was no blood, so we were confident she hadn’t cut herself, and we could see the stick on the ground, so we were able to check it was all there and not splintered in her mouth.

She was clearly a poorly girl, slinking home and then not moving around once we were home. Her gorgeous beard was all slimy with drool and we couldn’t get her to drink, so we had to call the vet and see if we could take her in (I should mention again that this was Sunday). They felt they should see her, and gave her an antibiotic just in case of splinters and potential infection, and a painkiller/anti-inflammatory, with instructions to bring her back the next morning. If she wasn’t better then, they’d anaesthetise her and explore her throat for cuts and/or splinters. Luckily, she was much improved on Monday morning and was her happy usual self by last night.

Don’t worry, she can still play!

Whilst seeing what we should do for her, I naturally googled for advice on dogs hurt by playing with sticks and found some very scary stories. We have had a lucky escape and a fairly light warning. Jessie seemed very unwell and unhappy indeed, but it must just have been bruising for her to recover so quickly. We won’t let her play with sticks again, and will make sure we always have a toy with us. She did pick up a stick within 100 yards of entering the park today, but thankfully she’s pretty obedient and knows “leave” and “drop”. Jessie has lived with us for just over a year now and she’s about two years old (we got her from the Dogs Trust). We ought to have many more years with her yet.

Please, if your dog likes sticks too, I would urge you to think about alternatives. We would never have thought something like this could happen, but it’s absolutely not worth it when there are other ways of playing the same game. The vet was all-too accustomed to dealing with ‘stick damage’, as they called it.

Family Friday: top tips for walking with kids

We’ve taken our kids walking for several years now. The youngest was probably three when we started regularly walking as a family (she’ll be eight in a fortnight). We’re not enormous distance hikers – five miles is a long walk to us, and we probably more regularly do around three.

One of these has been helpful but you absolutely can enjoy family walks without one! (She’s only been with us for a year, and is out first family dog.)

So, here are my top things that encourage kids to enjoy the great outdoors:

  1. Checklists of things to spot. This has easily been the most helpful single thing to get the kids involved. We have a book of family walks which helpfully includes checklists tailored to each route, but we also make out own for other walks. It’s important for the list to be a mixture of easily-spottable things (depends on the route and sometimes the time of year, of course, but cows, acorns, swans are good standbys for us), specific features of particular walks (a windmill, a standing stone) and sometimes number-based challenges (how many herons can you see etc). 
  2. Snacks – ideally hidden ready to be produced at a ‘flagging’ moment. As well as the obvious boiled sweets, dried fruit is good. Water is, of course, essential.
  3. Stiles, brooks and livestock (ideally separated from you by a fence!). I could never have predicted the amount that stiles increase the fun of a walk by 🙂 and paddling in or crossing a brook is also a joy. Spotting livestock is popular as well, but some kids are made nervous by walking through a cow or sheep field.
Do you have any to add?

Family Friday: we love English Heritage!

We have been members of English Heritage for three years now and absolutely love it. It’s been brilliant on UK holidays in particular, as there are so many places you can just visit on a whim. And there are often great events in the summer like jousting, falconry and medieval music – at no extra charge! Finally, quite a lot of their properties allow dogs in the grounds (or in the case of ruins like our local Ashby Castle, all over the site).

This week (on Monday in fact, in recognition of Lammas, the grain harvest), we went to Sibsey Trader Mill in Lincolnshire and had a great time. We were able to see it in full sail and saw some of the inner workings. More was available to view but cowardice got the better of us after two flights of, er, ladder. I didn’t even manage to get an inside pic, as we were too busy being scared 🙁

Recovered from the ladders! 

Anyway, our youngest, who has recently become close to obsessed with the song “John Barleycorn” was thrilled to be able to actually see grain being crushed “between two stones” and was amazed to see that the mill can work with three different grains at a time.

We can also recommend the tea room 🙂 I can personally vouch for warmed fluffy scones with jam and cream!

What should children and teens read?

A few things have made me think about this lately: Gove’s ill-fated ‘approved’ reading lists for UK children, that Wall Street Journal article that prompted the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter, and my 12 yr old’s struggle with a book outside her usual reading.

As with most things related to children, people have opinions about what’s ‘good’ for them to read, or even more prescriptively, what they should read. Our hapless Education Minister believes in the canon and the classics, suggesting that there should be lists of books to be recommended for each school year, and that kids should expect to read 50 books per year. Often these arguments end up linked to general intelligence or, more disturbingly to morality, as though only morally upstanding citizens read, and a good dose of literacy could innoculate our youth against crime.

The WSJ article that has caused so much outrage focuses on concerns about what type of reading should be available to kids. Centred on the belief that only ‘dark’ material is available to teens these days, it implies that negative experience shouldn’t be presented in books for this age group (or perhaps for anyone…). Quite rightly, authors and lovers of YA are protesting that in fact there is a range available – not all teen titles feature horrific future worlds or supernatural violence – and anyway, within these dark storylines, the message is frequently one of hope, strength and generally positive attributes that we would want to nurture in our teens. Hence the wonderful #YAsaves hashtag.

Finally, my own daughter’s slight struggle in reading “The Railway Children”, which of course I remembered fondly, showed me loud and clear how problematic it could be to force challenging older (‘classic’) texts onto reluctant readers. As is clear from the reviews here, I am a reader of YA and I read it because I enjoy it, and also because I enjoy writing it. Having taken another look at the E Nesbit classic, at my 12 yr old’s prompting, I realise how much more difficult a read it is. Obviously there have been differences in the language in the 107 years since it was first published, but also people’s behaviours, expectations and beliefs are quite different to today. She enjoyed it nonetheless, but probably wouldn’t have read to the end if she hadn’t been required to, and she did find reviewing it difficult, because she wanted to say that it was hard to read, but felt that was too negative a comment. This was the third book she’d had to review and the first time she wanted to discuss a review book with me.

In all, I suppose my (not very earth-shattering) conclusion is that children and teens should be encouraged to read by being allowed to explore a range of material. Unfortunately, however, it seems to need saying at the moment.

I don’t think we can (or should attempt to) shield kids from anything and everything negative in the world, and I believe that books have a role in allowing us to explore and extend our emotional lives, which is best achieved by letting us into experiences that we wouldn’t necessarily have ourselves. As a teacher and a parent, I am convinced that setting books which won’t engage kids is the very best way to turn out non-readers. Seeing my booky daughter struggle has absolutely shown me that a kid who didn’t already believe in the power of books would simply see that difficult text as evidence that they were right to see books as boring.

Birthday Celebrations

Family traditions around birthday celebrations are a special kind of folklore that can be very localised. People may celebrate with particular food or family customs. In our family, if a birthday is a ‘school day’, presents are opened after school, usually once everyone is home. As in many families, a cake is an important part of the celebration of a birthday, sometimes baked by some of us, sometimes bought. We tend to only do candles on the cake for kids’ parties, not family celebrations.

I personally tend to view my birthday a bit like New Year, as a natural time for looking backwards and forwards and checking how far I’ve come. This works particularly well for me as my birthday falls in May, so a good time for measuring progress on New Year resolutions and the like. It’s also nearly the end of the school year cycle (they’re sitting their exams in the next few weeks), so the end-of-a-cycle thing works professionally too, and this is a time we’re all naturally talking about how we’ll change things for next year.

It’s interesting how birthdays tend to cluster. For us, this is a busy week, with my birthday yesterday and my husband’s to come on Saturday. We often have a joint celebration and sometimes joint gifts (films, music and edible goodies we like, but here’s a hint: domestic-themed joint presents are not so loved!). The kids’ birthdays aren’t far apart either, being 29th September and 10th October. Oh, how I remember the older one’s 5th birthday party when the little one was 11 days old and I was somewhat tired…

Cakes with candles are now common to many industrialised cultures, but did you know that in Japan and China, for example, it was traditional to celebrate everyone’s birthday at the New Year? And that in many African cultures, individual birthdays aren’t particularly marked? In that context, coming-of-age rites are important at specific milestone ages.

Do you mark birthdays in a way that is particular to you? Do you know of interesting traditions to celebrate birthdays?