Monday, 26 September 2016

Homework?!

Phew!  Got in less than a year since my last post!

Which is a real shame on Henry, as it has been an awesome few years but it is very difficult to prioritise this as four-year olds are exhausting.  Really exhausting.  Parenting is considerably harder work than I ever realised it would be.

The big recent change is my awesome boy has started school now.  All grown up!  We are very lucky and he skips happily into his class each morning without a backward glance, but does give his adult (whoever opens the door that morning) a big smile.  He has also come back with positive reports every evening so all in all we are delighted with him.

But here's the rub.

At the end of his first full week in school he has been set homework.  And something in me wants to scream and shout about this being ridiculous and a sign of how our education system has drifted from things that matter!  Four year olds should not be getting homework - they should be getting memories and play and attention, not phonics and writing.  It doesn't happen in [insert name of probably Scandinavian country] and the children there are happier than Charlie after he finds the golden ticket.

But before I do all that shouting I have taken a couple of breaths and attempted to think about this rationally.

He has not actually been asked to do anything that I would not want to be doing anyway.  A bit of practising his letters and some reading with a loose notion of him identifying any letter sounds that he knows.  Nothing too onerous and the kinds of things I'd want to do for him.

(A brief interlude - I am a huge fan of phonics.  All the reading research shows us this the best possible way to help children learn to read, provided it is offered within the context of adults continuing to read to children, develop their vocabulary and a high level of verbal interaction.  If those things are in place you cannot go wrong with phonics.  If they are not, there are probably bigger concerns)

So it got me to thinking about how fortunate Henry is in comparison to other kids.  A relatively stable home, with two parents who both work but are fortunate that one is only part time so he does not need to do breakfast or after school clubs.  A nice house in a nice area.  Plenty of food (perhaps too much for me). People who want to spend time with him and do not believe that much is learnt through computer games or television programmes.  So many children do not have this and I wonder if schools think that they need to compensate for this and do so by instructing parents how to provide an environment that supports their efforts.

Sadly, my visceral reaction to this would suggest that the approach is not necessarily the best one.  I think a number of teachers and schools could learn by adopting the policy of Brandy Young.  Homework has only been shown to support educational progress in a rather limited way, most of which is not supported by the kinds of homework that seem to get set.  Spending time together, sharing books, playing and getting to bed at a good time is all easier in a household that is not stressed from having to comply and feeling judged by your child's class teacher.

Unfortunately, for Henry I am British.  So I have grumbled to anybody who would listen about the pointlessness of the situation and then sat down with him and practised his writing after dinner and read his school book twice.  I don't want to be the parent that gets talked about in the staff room.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Tantrums and tears

Picture the scene.

A father is carrying a screaming child who he has wrapped up in front of him from one end of the gardens to the car park.  The child is crying out that the father is hurting him; it appears to be a firm but non-restrictive hold.

Some passers-by wince.

"That would never be our child" thinks a father.  "Ah...wait.  This is my child.  I am that parent.  Bugger."

I thought we had some tantrums during the terrible twos and I entered Henry's threes with a certain air of smugness.

"Yeah, he's had some tantrums, but nothing too bad."

Smug sod.  I hate past-me.

Henry has very clearly been demonstrating that we are not in control and we are nothing like as good at this parenting thing as we thought we were.  He has demonstrated some real barnstormers in the last two months.  On two occasions I have worried that the incident might end in pea soup.

And here is the really difficult part to accept as a parent.  No matter how patient you might be, how good your distractions might be, how much you ignore and how focussed you are on the good - three year olds get tired.  And they cannot be controlled.

Nobody can be controlled, except yourself.  You can attempt to create conditions that give the illusion of control, but really all you are hoping and praying for is that the child makes the choice you want to.  And in this period of development, sometimes, he or she just thinks:

"To hell with what you want.  I am an individual!  A small, tired, incredibly vocal individual!  Hear my roar!"

And all that is left for you as a parent is to weather the storm and pick up the sobbing pieces afterwards.  Because once the storm has blown itself out you are left with a very vulnerable, upset little boy that doesn't really understand what just happened and needs reassurance that everything is ok in the world.  It would be so easy to get caught in a vicious cycle where each other's frustration feeds and adds to the other's.  The trick to parenting is securing their world and putting aside, for the moment, everything that was triggered in you - the lack of control, the frustration, the guilt and, I will admit it, the anger, and get back to being what your little boy needs you to be.

It is so very difficult, but so very important.  Acknowledging we are human is not something we do often enough as parents.  Emily and I are very lucky to have each other, close family and friends with children of a similar age that we can share stories with, offload and seek advice without fear of judgement.  I dread to think what it would be like without them and I appreciate them every day.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Holiday?!

Oh my!  Of all the activities you could choose to go on with a three year old, I am not sure camping for a holiday is a sensible one.

Holidays are generally considered to be periods of time where responsibility is lessened and those involved are able to relax and enjoy themselves.  Camping with a three year old does not tick these boxes.

My three year old is a particularly loud one, I believe.  He is also quite highly strung (see my previous post - I am not blaming him, I accept responsibility and this is merely an observation).  He is highly social - which makes him rather demanding of attention.

So when mummy and daddy take him and attempt to erect a tent and all the paraphernalia that will make the experience more comfortable and enjoyable it can be a quite considerable test.  Then there are the nights which are filled with very different sensory experiences as we attempt to settle him down.  The mornings, generally, begin earlier than usual (campers are early risers!) and my wife and I are not great at just 'going with it'.  We have friends that are superbly gifted at this and we admire and resent them in almost equal measures!

But, as with many things I am finding in my life, we do it because we think it will be good for Henry.  Campsite culture comes with a sense of freedom and independence, even for young children.  There is a deliberate move away from the technological distractions of modern family life (although I will admit Henry sat in the car playing a game on my wife's phone whilst we erected the tent - the previous camping trip he had walked around with a mallet 'fixing' the ground.  Our mallet has now broken).  We walked, we visited the beach.  We ate dinner on our laps and biscuits in bed.  We drank hot chocolate before bed.  We looked at stars.  I am already beginning to look back at it with more affection than I recall feeling at the time and while holidays remain as expensive as they do outside of term time (for example, see this article) camping is likely to be the forseeable future of holidaying for us. 

So I best get back to eBay to try to find that piece of equipment that does that thing that will make all of this easier.

Me and fatherhood

I think my last post started with a lament about how long it has been since I posted, and this one (over a year later) can only begin in the same manner.

The problem I have found recently is how easy it is to let life just carry you through as a passenger without any sense of steering.  The loss of my father nearly four years ago has played heavily on my mind in this intervening time and I realised around six months ago that it had begun to affect my relationship with Henry.  You could use the label depression; a GP has with me and I am now seeing a counsellor.  I am not particularly interested in labels, more trying to understand why certain choices are made and how these seem relevant or appropriate.

I hold a firm belief that children are the product of their parents, and while nature plays a role nurture is considerably more powerful.  If a child is causing problems, I would argue, you need to check for whom the behaviour is a problem, why the behaviour is occurring and what in their environment is causing it.  As a result, when Henry started to behave in a way that was a problem for me I realised I could not blame him; I had to look closely at myself.

This coincided for me, fortunately, with a course on mindfulness.  I would heartily recommend this approach.  It has not changed me dramatically, but it has made enough change to help me correct my course and get back to parenting Henry in a manner that I believe is more positive and healthy.

It is so easy to place blame elsewhere, to talk about how others affect you and the reason for bad outcomes is not within your control.  I am currently on a journey that is teaching me that I am responsible for what happens in those around me, and this includes Henry.  My parenting problems are not 'solved' (will they ever be?) by any stretch of the imagination.  A recent camping trip and a reluctant sleeper tested my resolve greatly!  But I am certainly feeling more in control.  And when things go badly, or well, I know again where to look.

This has been a bit of an introspective post, one that focuses more on me than Henry, but I will not apologise for that.  A significant part of me and fatherhood is, indeed, me.  And I believe it is important to remember that both in a critically reflective way, how am I affecting the situation around me, and with mindfulness and kindness, forgiving myself when I get it wrong.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Happiness

Dear Henry,

You are a little young for this letter right now, but I hope in time it will become more meaningful to you.  I originally wrote a letter very similar to this one for Naomi's naming day as a present, but as I was writing it I realised how much I wanted you to understand the lessons within it.  

I hope that by the time you read this you understand a little more about your dad and what I do for a living.  I am a psychologist so I am interested, simply, in how people think and feel and behave.  I also believe these three things influence each other.  This is important and I will come back to it.

What I am not, is a particularly practical man - you will have realised this by now as every time something goes wrong we call Steve, Jamie or Granddad!  When Steve and Sarah asked for something personal for Naomi the best that I could come up with was ...happiness.

I need you to pay special attention now.  Are you listening?  Sitting comfortably?  No other distractions?  Good.  Then I will carry on.

Happiness is not something that just happens.  We are not passive recipients of some floating cloud that rains good emotion down upon us.  The Dalai Lama (very cool guy, look him up) has said that:
"Happiness is not something ready made.  It comes from your own actions." 
We need to work at it and we need to use it.  If you do not it withers away and becomes harder to find.  If this happens you are less likely to feel good about life.  So my gift to Naomi, and now to you, is a collection of pointers on how you can ensure your own happiness as you grow and move through life.

I have another couple of important points that I need you to understand before I get to what I consider to be the practical bits.

Firstly, happiness is not about stuff.  It is not about possessions.  The positive emotion that can be found in things is, generally, fleeting and unsatisfying.  Secondly, happiness is made better by making other people happy.  If you do good, you will feel good.  This is something your parents do very well, although I am never entirely sure if they realise, or give themselves credit for, how good they are at it.  Watch them and learn from them.  Make people feel special and you become special and feel special.  Simple sounding, isn't it?

So this is what I would like you to do, to help you stay happy and healthy in life.

  • Do things for people, connect with them, pay them attention.  If you value others, you will in turn be valued.  Remember how important people are and respect them for their own humanity, not because of what they can do for you. Something you can do for yourself is to...
  • Exercise.  This may be a cliché, but it really is the most powerful way to feel good about yourself.  And while I am on the subject of feeling good about yourself...
  • Accept who you are.  Do not chase others' ideas of who they think you should be.  It is your skin and you need to live in it, so accept it and be happy with it.  You will not be getting another one! So don't worry about it and...
  • Try whenever possible to live in the moment.  Appreciate the things around you, the sounds, the sights, the smells, the touch, the taste.  Life is about experiences, a person is the sum of what they have seen and done, so appreciate them.  Strive to make those experiences positive and fulfilling.  To do this you will need to...
  • Keep learning.  We never stop growing as people.  If you allow yourself to stop, you stagnate.  Keep yourself occupied and trying new things and never be afraid to say "I don't understand". To do this you will need to...
  • Stay positive.  Optimism is one of the most powerful pieces of psychological armour you can possess.  You will experience setbacks, downs and lows.  But remember that is all they are and it is within your power to change things.  So much of life is based on how we interpret it.  Choose to interpret it positively and this will help to...
  • Ensure your life has meaning.  Look to involve yourself in something bigger than your own small world.  We are tiny specks in the sea of human experience, but enough of those specks together can move worlds and change lives.

I hope by now you have realised how important I believe attitude and the things that we choose to do are in helping us to live happy lives.  What I cannot do in this letter is tell you all the ways you can do this. If I am honest, I hope you don't need this letter as I plan on being around long enough to teach you these lessons myself, but you never know do you?  And at least if it is here, I know something will be passed on to you.  Something that I continue to need to remind myself is to treasure the good times.  This can be difficult when you are tired, and stressed, and in need of space - but it is those times when it matters the most.  If you find yourself slipping, stop.  Look around.  There are some many beautiful sights to behold if we just take the time to look.

I would like to leave you some lifework.  Start to write down the things that make you feel grateful, proud or happy.  Don't be afraid to think big (I live in a safe democracy) or small (I had an awesome meal today!), but do think and do record them.  This act alone will go a long way to keeping you happy.

I hope you come to enjoy, understand and appreciate this gift.  But, more than that, I hope that with or without this letter you lead a happy and fulfilled life my son.

With all my love, my precious boy

Dad

Friday, 18 April 2014

Henry - this isn't space, everybody can hear you scream

We are going through quite a special stage with Henry.  High pitched, ear piercing, glass shattering screaming.  Seemingly out of the blue, without warning Henry will let rip with a banshee cry.

Why?!

I have no idea what purpose it serves, I have not found a strategy to prevent him from doing it, a stern word sometimes stops it being instantly repeated but not always.  We cannot work out what it's about, or what to do about it.

Other parents have told us their children went through this stage, but I can honestly say I have never heard a child like him in the past.  Generally, he is noisty and loud and the sound is one of excited, happy amazement.  This feels like it has evolved simply to push our buttons.  And, perhaps, therein lies the solution?  Yet, ignoring it does not make it go away

This may sound relatively minor but that is only because you are reading this and not hearing that.  It has got to a point, recently, where Emily would not come to dinner in a hotel because people seemed to move away from us.  Now, I am fairly robust as a person and parent, but that really does make you wish you were not there when people move away!

This seems just an opportunity to offload - unless anybody has a suggestion?  All would be gratefully received!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Two years and counting

It's been nearly a year since I last wrote here, which is a shame given the shear amount of development that has gone in Henry's life.  I have finally succumbed to marital pressure to put finger to keyboard again and update the blog.

Henry turned two last week.  The notion of a child turning two brings with it fears of tantrums, which we have avoided, in the main, so far.  He is definitely attempting to exert a personality, and we can see frustration from wanting to communicate more than he feels able but mostly, we have all survived.

He is a running, stomping, jumping cheekly little boy now - a devilish grin appears to get him out of most tricky situations.  What has been noticeable in the last few months, and again I would say it is a result of his cognitive development moving at pace, is the development of fears.  He is having a major water wobble and clings to us if he is in out of his depth - but absolutely loves the water if it is shallow enough.  He has also been a little fearful of our tortoises, but as he gets used to them again (they only recently came out of hibernation) this seems to be easing.

What is hardest is knowing how to deal with it.  Do we soldier on, exposing him to these risks and hoping that desensitises him?  Or should we be child led, letting him dictate the pace but running the risk of ingraining these anxieties?  As in most things I imagine the answer is somewhere in the middle but these are the challenges that make parenting such an exhausting, difficult and frustrating calling.  However, the smiles, the giggles and the reminder that the world is a fascinating and wonderful place continues to make it all worthwhile.