Everything is perfect

Children aren’t looking around wondering why Clara is fluent in French or Luke plays junior badminton or Minnie has stronger collection of googly eyes and fuzzy pipe cleaners in her craft drawer.

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I saw one of those “quotes of the day” on Facebook the other day that read: “When I’m with Mummy everything is perfect.” I groaned and probably made a gagging face.

I must have had five or six conversations this week, with different Mums, about feeling guilty about not “doing enough” with their second, third or in one case, fifth child. We have access to millions of things our own parents didn’t: toddler groups, soft play, messy play, swimming, kids mornings at the cinema, craft ideas on Pinterest, baby music classes, sensory classes, sign language for babies, football for toddlers, rugby for toddlers, oh I could go on for eternity.

But the result of these wonderful itineraries are the perfect images of childhood and parenting that we see on social media, and the horrible feeling that everyone else is stimulating their child so much more than we are because we’re knee deep in laundry (literally) or trying to sort the bathroom cabinet out or matching up tupperware lids or bagging up old clothes or rearranging the toy storage or rustling up food and snacks fifteen times a day or looking for lost keys.

All I could think about was that silly Facebook quote and how suddenly it made sense. I think the little ones just want us to step away from Facebook and Pinterest, put our phones down* and smile happily into their little faces as they find a bug on the floor or they master a new karate chop on their brother.

I have touched on this before in my post “Lazy Pig”. But as half term looms, and my only solid plan is to visit Poundland for party supplies for BUB.2’s fifth birthday party next weekend (I dream big), I am going to remember that silly little Facebook quote and try to hold on to the fact that children aren’t looking around wondering why Clara is fluent in French or Luke plays junior badminton or Minnie has stronger collection of googly eyes and fuzzy pipe cleaners in her craft drawer.

They’re just looking at Mummy looking at her phone and wishing she was looking at them.

*Without my phone I would go mad, MAD, I tell you. I just should probably hold onto it for dear life a little less.

The beautiful ones

These kids didn’t have anyone telling them they were a failure or that they had to pass tests to be successful. And they’re now top of their profession and internally renowned in a creative field.

I’ve been transcribing some interviews with top fashion designers and hairdressers, the guys who headline at London Fashion Week. The big shots. As I listened to these hugely successful creatives talk about their journey I have been struck by a few common themes in all of their stories.

Their passion started young. Really young. Growing up in a small town in southern Italy, a famous hairdresser went to work in a barber shop aged 11, for something to do. This same top stylist to the stars worked as a shepherd and fell in love with animals and nature. He learnt to build walls with his builder uncle. An uncle who was a suit maker taught him how to stitch and draw patterns. From another relative, he learnt how to mix paints for cars by hand. He learnt about colour. At 16, he said, he had “learned everything”he needed to build this incredible career. In a town where there was “nothing to do”.

Another hairdresser was cutting pony tails off My Little Ponies at three-years-old. One of the world’s biggest make up artists found some vintage make up at her grandma’s house, which she used to draw with and add water to, build shapes with, to see what happened. Another watched her French mother putting on her make up at a nice boudoir mirror with great precision. She was mesmerised.

These people took this spark and put themselves in the right place. In the right fashion colleges. The right salons. The right neighbourhoods. They put themselves where people who were leading the way hung out but the spark was there long, long before. In some cases, from a very early age. And that spark, along with a heavy dose of confidence, talent, commitment and courage, led them to the very top of the fashion industry.

These kids didn’t have anyone telling them they were a failure or that they had to pass tests to be successful. And they’re now top of their profession and internally renowned in a creative field.

I am taking part in the May 3rd Kids strike, taking a stand against SATs, sending a message to Nicky Morgan and the Government that our kids don’t benefit from rigorous testing at seven and eleven years old. Not only do they not benefit, they are being harmed by them.

What they need is the time, space and freedom to find their spark.

The current Government is not allowing them that. It’s treating them as statistics. Little lives to be measured and assessed based on how accurately they can do arithmetic or identify an adverb in a sentence.

Little lives whose confidence, courage , talents and commitment will be destroyed, whose spark could be lost forever, if we don’t take a stand. On Tuesday and for as long as it takes.

If you feel the same, there are things you can do to help the campaign:

If you can’t, please share the campaign and show your support.

 

 

The word as arrow

Will the magic of reading and writing be thwarted by attempts to understand and label the grammatical cogs behind it before creativity has even had a chance to bud let alone blossom?

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Whenever I am asked why I became a journalist, I pretty much trace it back to one afternoon at school. An ordinary English lesson in an ordinary school in an ordinary part of England with an extraordinary teacher.

Mrs Packwood, one of our ‘A’ Level teachers, had printed off an acceptance speech made by Václav Havel when he received the Friedenpreis des Deutschen Buchandels, the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association, on October 15, 1989. I have never forgotten the excitement I felt as she read that speech to us and my sudden appreciation of the power and significance of words to human society.

“Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile, words that are harmful—lethal, even. The word as arrow.”

In the whirl of death threats against Salmon Rushdie at the time, the content of this incredible speech electrified me. “We live in a world in which it is possible for a citizen of Great Britain to find himself the target of a lethal arrow aimed—publicly and unashamedly—by a powerful individual in another country merely because he had written a particular book.”

The thrill I got as she read the phrase “The word as arrow,” has never left me. This speech popped into my head again this week as I prepared my letter to my children’s school, explaining why I was taking part in the May 3rd kids strike against SATs.

I thought about how much I loved school and how inspired I was by my teacher. And how teachers in primary schools are being robbed of precious time to illicit this sort of response in their pupils. With endless learning of grammar rules, complex arithmetic and comprehension, in order to pass the Year 2 SATS, what is being lost?

I couldn’t shake Vaclav’s sentiment that words can build human society and destroy human society and that they can illicit great joy and great suffering. They are us.

“Words can be said to be the very source of our being, and in fact the very substance of the cosmic life-form we call Man. Spirit, the human soul, our self-awareness, our ability to generalize and think in concepts, to perceive the world as the world (and not just as our locality), and lastly, our capacity for knowing that we will die—and living in spite of that knowledge: surely all these are mediated or actually created by words?”

And our Government has reduced the learning of the magic of these words to complex grammatical labels that mean nothing to a young child.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan today got it so, so wrong in her address to the National Association of Head Teachers’ conference in Birmingham.

“What are the limits placed on a child’s imagination when they cannot write down their ideas for others to read?” she asked.

WHAT?

Michael Rosen, a fierce critic of the current way of teaching and testing, hit back on his Facebook page by saying:

“Nicky Morgan is posing the idea that when this comes to one specific matter – ‘writing’ – first you have to learn how to write, then you can be creative. This supposes that we can’t learn how to write by being creative! What an absurd and illogical idea. Anyone who has worked with young children has observed hundreds, if not thousands of occasions, when children have been inventive and creative and pushed at the frontiers of what they can (and can’t do) with a pencil in their hand making words and sequences of words.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t think a six-year-old needs to look at a sentence and identify the expanded noun phrase, just to use an example from my child’s homework last week. It just seems to frustrate and bore him.

Is that going to help him write? Will it improve his ability to put ideas down on paper? Won’t he naturally write a collective noun phrase at some point anyway? Won’t this endless learning and testing of grammatical rules just deaden any excitement about words? Will the magic of reading and writing be thwarted by attempts to understand and label the grammatical cogs behind it before creativity has even had a chance to bud, let alone blossom?

I hope not, but I’m fighting just in case.

 

 

 

 

Let Our Kids Be Kids

The data is for schools, for the Government. It has no bearing on my son. The other day I broached the subject of the May tests with BUB.1 and he started talking animatedly about the Easter bunny. Relief flooded me.

IMG_7915My two school-age BUBs enjoy school. They skip there and they skip back. They go to a great school where they get taken on fantastic school trips, have regular dance and sport sessions, visits from exotic animals, musicians, people with disabilities talking about the clever ways they adapt. There was a temporary planetarium in their school hall a few terms ago. They are the luckiest children in the world in terms of being safe and cared for by their wonderful teachers in a great environment.

I’m taking my children out of this fantastic school on Tuesday 3rd May as part of the Let Our Kids be Kids campaign, in protest against the externally imposed Key Stage 1 SATs and the government’s decision to turn all schools into academies.

I can’t sit back and watch as their enthusiasm and curiosity is stifled by a curriculum that puts emphasis on advanced (for a six or seven year old? In parts, for me, a degree-educated journalist) arithmetic, grammar and comprehension. Every week the homework is tedious preparation for these tests and saps the life force out of my August-born six-year-old who is expected to sit a week of tests in May. Since he started Year 2, he has expressed increasing frustration with the work load, the focus on eyes-down, learning by numbers.

None of this is the teachers’ fault. The teachers are wonderful.

At the start of Year 2 I used to pass my six-year-old’s classroom window on the way back from dropping my four-year-old into his classroom. Immediately, as soon as their coats were hung up, they were sitting down on the carpet with their pens, trying to complete the sums displayed on the board at the front. Hunched over, doing mental arithmetic, when moments before we’d been jumping over pine cones and talking about what’s for lunch. I realise the morning is the best time to get these little minds working, but before everyone has even had a chance to sit down? No song, no welcome, no chance to say hello to everybody first? The teachers must feel there is no time, that there is so much to get through.

BUB.1 is struggling to keep up, probably because he is the youngest but maybe also because he’s quite easily distracted, but in the most part he shrugs it off. He’s fascinated by birds, engines, dinosaurs, skeletons, the Ice Age and he’s kind. His school report tells of a lack of concentration. BUB.2 already worries when he can’t get thing right or doesn’t know the answer. He is fascinated by animals, football, and he’s hilariously funny. His school report tells of a lack of confidence.

I’m doing this for both of them. I’m doing it because this open letter to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan is exactly how I feel.

I have no idea what BUB.3 will be like yet. But I know that I don’t want her to be squeezed through a learning sausage factory and to be told in her school report that at four years old she is anything other than herself.

Since following the campaign and talking to people about it, I have heard about children crying before school, feigning stomach ache, undressing themselves before they leave the house, because they don’t want to go. This is disastrous for them and for their families.

I don’t put any pressure on my child about SATs testing.  The school has emailed us example test papers for all the subjects. I’ve printed them off, looked at them and filed them under “Let’s not worry about that”. I, along with most of the parents I speak to, ignore the emails that show us what a child’s handwriting is supposed to look like at this age. My son’s looks like he sneezed out a decomposing spider. He tries hard.

The data is for the Government. It has no bearing on my son.  The other day I broached the subject of the May tests with BUB.1 and he started talking animatedly about the Easter bunny. Relief flooded me.

I don’t care about these tests. I just want them to stop so the teachers can focus on being teachers with the freedom to teach in an inspirational and child-friendly way and the kids can be kids and continue to love learning about things that matter at seven and eleven years old.

If you feel the same, there are things you can do to help the campaign:

Sign the official petition https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/122183
Like the Facebook page: Let our Kids be Kids

And, if you can, join us in taking our children out of school on 3rd May to show our support for teachers and our rejection of externally imposed SAT exams. If you can’t, please share the campaign and show your support.

 

 

Mud pies and rose-petal perfume

You see them get lost in their own world. It is THE world. This is a world you cannot create for them, or buy tickets for, but one into which you must just gently shove them.

trampScary Mommy got it right. In her post ’10 Ways to Give Your Kid a 1970’s Kind of Summer’ she called it. Every. Single. Thing. Apart from number 4 and 5, because my children are too young. But apart from that. Rock on.

I’ve written about this before in Lazy Pig. The idea that an endless search for stimulating activities and mind-developing, memory-making, instagram-worthy endeavours, might in fact be robbing our children of the one thing they need the most. The need to weave, out of the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, something magic.

For weeks now, everywhere we go, we are subjected to a soundtrack of BUB.1’s whine “I want to go home.” We could take him to the beach, Legoland, the moon, he’d want to go home. And that’s flattering and it’s fine. So this half term, we have spent half the week playing with his cousins near Manchester and the second half flopping around the house. Literally, ricocheting from one meal to the next, from fighting to laughing, TV on, back door open, toys strewn, socks OFF.

All I have heard is squeals of laughter. No one has moaned, complained or wished they were somewhere else. Today, Sunday, the last day of the break, they didn’t even change out of their pyjamas. BUB.2 wandered around with a very 1970s blackcurrant squash moustache for much of the day. We caught up with homework, we managed to get the stuff in the loft that has been clogging up a bedroom for weeks, WW bought a drill, we pottered. We caught our breaths.

There have been highs (butterflies emerging from their cocoons – thank you Insect Lore), and there have been lows (many many many many many spilled drinks).

For much of the week, we are all apart. One at school, one at preschool, one at work. Sometimes I don’t want to spend this precious time together packing bags, driving, finding toilets, looking for change for parking, saying over and over again “Come on, we can go home soon, just try to enjoy yourself. OK, WHO WANTS AN ICE CREAM?”

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One of my happiest childhood memories is lying in the garden with my Dad, side by side on our sun loungers, chatting about the universe.  And making rose-petal perfume with my friend Sarah. Bouncing a ball against a wall. Riding my bike around and around the same bit of path. I don’t remember feeling like I was missing anything.

Whenever I try to spoon feed my children “fun” activities, they tend to look at me like I’m insane. But watch for 30 seconds while they play with some friends their own age (or not even their own age, or not even humans, sometimes just a bug on the path) and you see them get lost in their own world. It is THE world. This is a world you cannot create for them, or buy tickets for, but one into which you must just gently shove them.

Earlier today we were talking about going back to school tomorrow and BUB.2, my preschooler, said “I don’t want to, I like staying home best,” to which I replied “But you’ll have fun with your friends and anyway I’ll pick you up at 3 o’clock!” His heartbreaking response was: “Can you pick me up at zero o’clock instead Mummy?”

So over the summer, when I see all the posts about fun activities and ideas to keep the kids amused, I’ll just sling them my old rusty muffin tin and tell them to make mud pies while I watch from the open back door, clutching a cider ice lolly.

 

 

 

Cuddle Fairy

Baby don't go

I expected torrents of tears. Snorts of despair and denial, frantic rubbing of face with tissues. And that’s just me.

IMG_7627.jpgI expected torrents of tears. Snorts of despair and denial, frantic rubbing of face with tissues. And that’s just me.

It was BUB.1’s last day at his first pre-school today and the leaving ceremony they inflict on us during morning ‘circle time’ is a killer. I cast my mind back to BUB. 1’s first term when I had to sing along to the ‘Goodbye song’, as a little girl I hardly knew skipped off to big school. I was a mess. What is wrong with me, I thought. And again, and again, every time I was witness to one of these events, I would fight back hot tears of sadness and sentimentality.

Maybe the other Mums are right. Maybe it’s because it’s the first upheaval in our little ones’ lives that we can’t control, can’t protect them from, can’t stop happening. Or maybe I’m just a blithering idiot who needs to get a grip.

And so to yesterday, when the first round of goodbyes began. Ten in all this term. I wept for those children. And to last night, when I went to bed dreading my own son’s ceremony at 3pm this afternoon, during the final sing-song of the day. The feeling of tightness as I arose. I wanted to be strong for him, to allay his worries about what lies ahead for him (another pre-school in another town, just as lovely I’m sure). But he has made strong attachments to several little characters at the school and I know he will miss them.

But what is this? At 9.15am this morning they asked if I would like them to do it now, with the three other leavers that day. I had no tissues. I had nowhere to run. But better this than dread it all day, I thought, so yes. And he was up first, as we sang the ‘Memory song’ and then his ‘Goodbye song’ which we had been practising for days to prepare him (me). The presentation of a folder and two books brimming full of photographs and observations about my beloved boy, and a fluffy “memory bear” for him to keep.

And not a tear from me. Or him. And just a little face next to ours, one of the little characters that BUB.1 is most fond of, asking: “Where is he going?” to which I answered the name of his new pre-school, many, many miles away from this one.

“I am going there too,” he said, plainly.

Lazy pig

I spent the majority of my childhood bouncing a tennis ball against my bedroom wall, and I often wonder if in today’s rush to fill our little one’s lives with endless activities we might be missing something? Or am I just a lazy pig?

I spent the majority of my childhood bouncing a tennis ball against my bedroom wall, and I often wonder if in today’s rush to fill our toddler and preschooler’s  lives with endless activities we might be missing something?

I was recently stuck inside for almost two weeks with BUB.1 and BUB.2, nursing a ghastly, medieval, chronically painful sore throat. During the lock down I stumbled across a wonderful article called “I’ll never be a proper Mum” that appeared in The Guardian just over two years ago. In it, Sali Hughes talks about the pressure to be an alpha Mum and the single line that saved me was this: “The only person who expects me to make a papier-mache piggy bank is me.”

Oh, and with it the weight of guilt about our incarceration and back-to-back CBeebies regime lifted. With the rain pounding down outside, we just sat and played for a long time and I noticed, really noticed, for the first time the look on my one year old’s face as he turned the pages of a book, something I might have seen but maybe not registered if we were racing out the door to a music class or toddler group.

My Mum’s generation spent a lot of time indoors, most of them not having cars, and didn’t have access to the myriad of classes and groups we do. Don’t get me wrong, I value the power of a collective moan with other Mums and the chance to offload some of that energy in a safe, happy environment. But I do sometimes wonder if might we be missing the simple pleasures of a swift walk around the block before the rain comes or a cup of tea with a friend, and time to see our children’s faces, rather than bustling them into car seats and buggies and driving them off to their latest appointment.

I know that the days I spend just mucking around with the kids, rather than trying to fit lots in, are the hardest and the best days, the days when I am utterly exhausted at the end and covered, literally, head to toe in food, sweat and tears. The days when we throw a ball around or put flowerpots on our heads. These are the days I feel most like a Mum, what I always thought being a Mum might be like, rather than the Mum I sometimes feel I should be.

Or am I just a lazy pig?