Encouraging a Reluctant Reader – Top 10 Tips:

girl-160172_1280I am writing here from the experience of having been a reluctant reader as a young child myself and from having a seven-year-old without much natural enthusiasm for reading. Her twin, on the other hand, loves it, so I know that parents are in no way wholly responsible for their child’s loveof reading. There are just a few ways in which you can ensure you leave the door open to your child one day loving to read.

I am going to assume that you know the basics of making sure you have lots of books at home, that you read every day to your child (with enthusiasm!) and that you have books that interest your child. Beyond that, here are my Top 10 Tips:

 

1. Work out why they are reluctant

The most likely reason your child is reluctant to read is because they find it an effort. Talk to their teacher if you have any specific concerns, but a child can find reading hard work even if they have no learning difficulty. Just make sure there are no other obvious reasons why they might not enjoy it: negative responses from others, feeling pressured, eyesight problems, over-tiredness, or being given books that are either too challenging or too easy. Also, think about what times of day they are reading – are they well-fed, well-rested, and have had a chance to play? For some children it’s just that reading is not high on their list of priorities when there are far more fun activities they can imagine doing instead!

2. Be enthusiastic

I can’t emphasise this enough. The most important role you can have in this is to encourage and praise your child when they read, especially if it is a big effort for them. Try to remain enthusiastic even when progress seems slow. You may not be able to make your child love reading, but you can help them avoid hating it.

3. Change the location

Go to the park, sit on a picnic blanket in the garden, read at the library. Just change the scene.

4. Have someone else listen to your child read

A visiting family member, a family friend, a patient older cousin… Anyone who will be non-judgemental and encouraging. Get them to say something like, “Mum tells me what an amazing reader you are. Can you read me a story?” Small children can also be a good choice, as your child might enjoy the role reversal, but be aware that little ones have a limited tolerance for slow readers and so this can backfire.

5. Use soft toys as listening companions

I pretend my kids’ toys are whispering in my ear that they want to be read to. Get them to be interactive, and every so often have them respond to the story – jump with excitement, hide behind a cushion in fear, look closely at a picture… Illiterate furry animals who fall down in amazement when your child reads a particularly challenging word also go down a treat.

6. Wear a silly hat

Well, not specifically a silly hat, but do something fun when it’s time to read. Say that whoever reads a book gets to wear the hat, sit on the special cushion, read under the table… Whatever it is that you think your child will find surprising or amusing. Novelties wear off, so think of new ones. The wonderful thing about kids is that it doesn’t even have to be that imaginative. If you say it’s special, and demonstrate it yourself, they will want to copy you. I once just put a scarf on the back of my chair and said it was the “special red reading chair” and my twins were arguing over who could sit on it first!

7. Don’t feel limited to books 

Any reading is good reading. It could be that your child might prefer to read something other than stories – this is often particularly true for boys. Try comics, junior magazines, toy catalogues, reading apps, kids’ websites – my son loves the Lego site. Even if they only manage to read a few words, and the a lot of the time is spent looking at pictures or playing a game, the important thing is that they are associating good feelings with having to read words.

8. Let them read below their assigned level sometimes

It can be tempting to keep pushing, especially when you see the glimmer of progress, but let them read books that they can read confidently if they want to. After all, many adults like to indulge in an easy-read. The general rule of thumb is children should know 9 out of 10 words in a book they are reading, but it can be a nice break for them occasionally to read something where they know every word. It’s also a good reminder for them to see how a book they once found hard has become easy for them.

9. Keep it varied

If you can take away one tip from me, this is it. If your child finds reading burdensome, making the act of reading repetitive and unchanging only makes it worse. I know lives are busy, and you can’t make reading a special experience each time, but every so often try one of the different suggestions I’ve made – cycle through them. If you feel you have got into a rut and either you or your child are dreading reading together, make a change. It’s refreshing, and will prevent forming on-going bad associations with reading for both of you.

10. Be patient

Reading involves a lot of different skills that need to come together in order to make sense out of the written word. Some children pick this up quickly, while others need more time. With good teaching and encouragement they all get there. I didn’t enjoy learning to read as a child but when I grew up I loved studying literature, worked in publishing for a while, and now writing is my hobby! A slow start doesn’t have any bearing on what kind of reader your child will be as they grow up.

 

If the Ugly Sister Got the Prince: Teaching Your Kids About Unfairness 

One of my favourite stories growing up was Cinderella – not the Disney one, but the beautifully worded and sumptuously illustrated Ladybird Fairytale, with the three royal balls, satin slippers, and sisters that were beautiful but so bad tempered that they appeared ugly. I read and reread that story so many times, mainly coveting the three increasingly beautiful ball gowns, but the subliminal message was clear: be good and kind and good things will happen to you. Be greedy and mean and you will get nothing but bitterness. This is a good message that we all try to teach our children, and we try to reinforce it as we bring them up: from the beginning we teach the difference between right and wrong with praise and reprimand, reward and punishment. But what happens when they grow up and see that others around them sometimes do the wrong thing and get away with it? Or when they do the right thing and lose out?

“Er, excuse me - actually, it was my shoe… Oh, never mind.”

“Er, excuse me – actually, it was my shoe… Oh, never mind.”

I first started thinking about this when we went to a local Easter Egg Hunt. It shouldn’t really be called a “hunt”, more of a “scramble” (ha, ha!) as the eggs are just scattered in full view on a flat field and someone shouts “Go!”, opens the flood gates and the children run all together to grab some for their Easter basket. All the children are told at the beginning that the maximum they can collect is four, so that there are enough to go around. But of course many children completely ignore this rule and I could see them with overflowing baskets filled with at least twenty eggs. My two have had fairness so drilled into them that they obligingly picked up their allotted four and moved off. But they noticed that other children had ignored the rule, and not only had they not got into trouble, they were actually benefitting from disobeying as they had far more chocolate than those children who were being good. It’s essentially the equivalent of the ugly sister successfully forcing her foot into the slipper and the prince giving her a full-on kiss on the mouth.

Of course, as a parent, if you notice this injustice you can counteract it to a certain extent, by providing an extra treat for having been good. But you can’t take away the fact that those other children have still ended up being rewarded for their bad behaviour, and will probably continue to do so as their parents clearly don’t see a problem with it! So how do I teach this reality to my children, when it is so different from the message they are getting at home, or from the poetic justice they read about in their stories? How do I make sure that they continue to choose to do the right thing, when they see themselves lose out because of it?

Partly, I can explain that although those children have the immediate reward of more chocolate, there are less tangible, indirect disadvantages to their behaviour. In the long-run their greediness will mean they will have trouble maintaining friendships as people won’t enjoy being around them. But this is another way of teaching that in the end justice will be served, and this isn’t always the case. I know from my own experience at school that those children who are pushy and unpleasant never seem to be short of like-minded friends. I can’t really judge the quality of their friendship, but I think once you are getting into those technicalities, the message of justice you are trying to teach your children has got a little lost.

So there needs to be a more robust answer that I give my children when I am encouraging them to do something that, although right, means they end up with less than those who are doing wrong. I think the only way to do it is to be honest: life is unfair at times, others will get away with being naughty, but external reward is not why we try to do the right thing in the first place. We do the right thing because it is the right thing. But how do you make a child understand the value of this?

I always try to explain why something is right, and mainly it involves telling them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. “Think of the children who ended up without any eggs because of those other children’s greediness. How would you feel if it were you?” Their stock response to my “How would you feel?” question (I do it a lot!) is always “Sad.” They obviously get the gist, but I do try to increase the vocabulary so they understand the different emotions involved: disappointed, frustrated, angry, upset, hurt… Children usually start out very self-centred – you have to teach empathy. But I believe that once you open their eyes in a consistent way to other people’s feelings, it’s a form of enlightenment that stays with them for life.

I would like to believe that those greedy children will eventually learn empathy (and some manners!) but the reality is that many of them probably won’t, and may never even realise there is value in behaving differently. They will never know the happiness that comes from making someone else happy. So, if the ugly sister gets the prince – do you want Cinderella bitter about the injustice? No, we want her happy that she didn’t marry a capricious prince, and bold enough to leave her tyrant sisters in order to do some charitable work for people who deserve it. Justice needn’t always be poetic, just personal.

———————-

Image source: Ladybird Books Ltd. See it on Amazon here

 

 

How to appreciate your children’s childhood

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

So often I hear people with older or grown-up children say to me “appreciate this time – it’s so precious, and over so quickly.” I tend to reply, “Oh, I do.” But what does it really mean to “appreciate” it, and how do we make sure we are? My twins are growing up so quickly I can feel time slipping through my fingers, I wish that I could slow it down. I think to myself if I can’t do that, I can at least make sure that I am appreciating every moment. This occasionally becomes an almost obsessive concern where I feel that I must cherish this time so that when they are grown up I can look back and feel that I really made the most of their childhood. And then I see the state of their bedroom, or I find the sofa covered in Lego pieces and I confess appreciation stops being at the forefront of my mind. However, when I see them fast asleep, still curled up the way they did as babies, I wish that I could hold onto every precious moment. The problem is it’s much easier to think that when they are unconscious.

Occasionally I might read a news article, or hear a terrible story about some tragedy involving children, and I find it can affect me deeply. I imagine myself in those situations, and I tell myself to be so grateful for all that I have. I hug my children a little tighter, and remind myself not to get stressed about things that don’t really matter. I certainly do appreciate what I have at those times. While I think it is a very good thing to remember how lucky we are, tragic-thinking induced appreciation (for want of a more eloquent description!) is an exhausting and anxiety-inducing state to live in. It is also very hard to hold on to day-to-day as mundanity takes over your life. I also feel that it’s a self-defeating method, as part of my brain is clearly thinking some dark and nightmarish thoughts while I am busy “appreciating” how wonderful my children are. Surely there is a better way of making the most of this time?

I don’t claim to have found the answer, but these are the thoughts and ideas I have had on the subject:

Don’t get too hung up on it

A couple of hundred years ago people probably didn’t concern themselves too much about whether they were appreciating their children’s childhood, they were just hoping the mother survived childbirth and the offspring survived infancy. It’s likely still the case in many parts of the world. Remember that “appreciating” childhood is what we get when we’re not worrying about basic survival.

Put the iphone down from time to time 

The main way I feel I end up not appreciating time fully is when I get distracted. It’s so easy when you have a smartphone to be sending a text, checking an email or just generally browsing in a dazed “I just need to zone out for a few minutes” way. The trouble is you may look at the phone to find the answer to a question the children have just asked, but then notice there’s an email or text that’s come in, and start checking that as well. Sometimes you just need to put it down and not look at it. Designate phone-free times of the day. We now have a rule of no phones at the table, so mealtimes are just for conversation. I also try to ignore any texts coming in if I’m in the middle of an activity with the kids.

Indulge in mundanity

I feel guilty sometimes that I’ve wasted my time on things that aren’t really important. But recently, I’ve started to look at it differently: you are always going to waste a certain amount of time on things you later think don’t really matter. That’s one of the perks of not being constantly aware of time ticking away in your life. If you live in a constant state of “appreciation”, you will exhaust yourself. Those who feel they can afford to waste some time on things that don’t matter too much are lucky. But…

Once in a while try to reset the clock

Occasionally just stop and reflect on how you spend your time with your children, and make tweaks accordingly. Make sure that you don’t put those things that matter to you (or to them) at the bottom of the to-do list everyday. I also find it very easy to get into bad habits, whether it’s being distracted by my phone, or getting constantly bad-tempered trying to get the kids out to school on time in the morning. Think about how you could do things differently to break whatever habits you have got into. Acknowledge that this will have to be a repeated process (unless you are more disciplined than I am) as bad habits are so much easier to keep than good ones.

Experience it all

Not all parts of parenting are enjoyable. Some of it is just plain hard work. You can’t love all of it. I know that there are whole chunks of the first year of their lives that I truly can’t say that I appreciated. Sleep deprivation is simply not something I ever cherished and I was relieved when the worst of it came to an end. Does that mean I was wishing away their childhood? Partly, but only because I am a normal human being who reacts to sleep-torture in a healthy “I want it to end” sort of way. But while I hated that aspect, I adored the first smiles, giggles, kisses and discoveries not to mention the softness of baby skin. Being a parent includes feeling exasperated, exhausted, frustrated, and irritated on a fairly regular basis. That’s a true parenting experience. But if you manage to feel all of that, and still find joy when they run up for a cuddle, or overcome a fear, or reach a new milestone, then you really are appreciating the wonder of their childhood.

When One Twin Stops Believing in Father Christmas

There are days that you start in the morning, thinking they will be like any other day, driving in the car with your 7-year-old twins, and then your daughter asks you “Mummy, are you Father Christmas?” Bam, a seminal part of their childhood is over. What can I do? I have to answer honestly, even though every part of me wants to say “Of course not!” Seven seems so young – I just want to cry. I had recognised the death knell last month when she asked about the Tooth Fairy. The problem is, Joy isn’t really ready to hear the truth. It’s her brother who is, and it’s him that was telling her that these things didn’t exist, which propelled her to ask me outright.

Ernest has questioned his belief in magic for some time now. He already asked me last year whether Father Christmas was real, and at age six, I really felt he was too young to know the truth and I did what any sensitive, intuitive, thoughtful mother would do: I lied. However, it was really just the beginning of his questioning phase, and as the year progressed he often would say “I don’t believe in magic” and “I don’t believe in fairies” much to Joy’s consternation. Although I feel that age seven is still a bit young for my liking, I realise that this is a natural stage his development. Even as I mourn the passing of this particularly sweet and magical part of his childhood, I recognise that he is developing very strong reasoning skills, and is certainly far cleverer than I was (I believed for far longer than was reasonable…) If he were a singleton, that is probably where the story would end, with a stern reminder not to give away the secret to any younger siblings. But he is not a singleton, he has a twin, with whom he shares everything, including his disbelief.

Perfectly logical to some...

Perfectly logical to some…

One of the perpetual challenges of raising twins is the fact that although you have two children of the same age, they will develop at different rates. Ernest is ready to stop believing in magic, and is not particularly affected by knowing the truth. Joy, however, is very definitely still in the magical childhood phase where the line between imagination and reality is not just very thin, but at times disappears entirely. She will frequently claim that she has seen magical creatures, that her stuffed animals moved by themselves, and that she used her “magic.” When I answered her questions about the Tooth Fairy, she said “but how come I saw her carry the tooth off with her friends?” She isn’t lying; she genuinely believes it, because right now her reasoning skills haven’t quite developed to the level of her brother’s. This is why I felt it so particularly keenly when she asked me the questions about the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas – she was expecting me to support her understanding, and tell her that they do exist, in the same way as she comes to me to arbitrate other disagreements she has with her brother.

So what happens when one twin is ready for the truth, and the other isn’t? Well, I can’t speak for other twin parents, but the result blindsided me: complete denial. To begin with, she went through the disappointment of learning the truth, and even said that she had had her doubts, as “If Father Christmas loves children so much, he wouldn’t wait until they were asleep to come. He’d want to talk to them.” (Her reasoning certainly works sometimes!) She questioned me very carefully about the different presents she had received, and where I had got them from, in the same way as she had asked to see the teeth I had collected in my role as Tooth Fairy. Each question I answered felt like another little piece of her childhood was being chipped away.

But a couple of days later, the denial kicked in, in the same way it had with the Tooth Fairy. When I had shown her her baby teeth, she had thought for a while, and then announced “I know, you help the Tooth Fairy. You collect the teeth, but she leaves the coin.” Her desire to believe was so strong, it eclipsed any logic. Something very similar has happened with Father Christmas. For Christmas we had bought her a very grown-up looking alarm clock in the shape of a pocket watch. She was sure that Father Christmas had made it himself, because she had never seen any clock like it. So she managed to work and squeeze the reality I was showing her into a shape that fitted her image of the world. It went something like this:

“I know Father Christmas gave me this clock because it doesn’t exist in any shop. So that means that Mummy is lying about Father Christmas not existing to keep Ernest happy, because she knows that he doesn’t believe in magic.”

Voilà! She can now stop being disappointed, because clearly the deception was about him not existing, not the other way around! I must say I was astounded, and to begin with a little concerned, at her ability to twist reality and evidence to suit her own vision. But right now her understanding of the world is simply not evidence-driven. Young children are able to hold opposing pieces of information and believe in both simultaneously until they get a firmer grasp on logic. The very part I was so disappointed to have taken away from her childhood, that is the belief in magic and a tenuous hold on reality, was the very thing that was actually protecting her from the truth. Ernest can’t make her stop believing, because she is just not ready yet.

I don’t know for certain if deep down she knows Father Christmas doesn’t exist, but doesn’t want to believe it, or if she simply does not give much weight to logic and evidence when drawing conclusions. She is on a fascinating cusp between asking for proof, then denying its admissibility. I know eventually she will learn to sort through the conflicting pieces of information in her head when she is ready. But for now I’m not going to push the point. All I know is that I have two happy twins – one that is satisfied to have worked out the truth, and the other who makes houses for fairies in the garden. And I am going to enjoy it while it lasts.

 

How I teach my kids to swear

cursing

Yes it can, but remember to practice safe swearing, kids!

My children had some friends round for a playdate the other day, and as they were having a snack one of their friends asked them, very matter-of-factly, “Does anyone know the F-word?” I had just stepped out to the kitchen, and blustered back into the room loudly offering more snacks and a change of subject. Unfortunately, everyone’s attention was piqued, and I realised it wasn’t going to be that simple. “Is it ‘fart’? my daughter asked a little coyly. I was rather relieved, and frankly slightly amazed, that she hasn’t overheard me over the years. Another friend piped up “I think I know the S- and C- words.” I tried to hide my astonishment, but I can’t help but think, and hope, that in this friend’s mind those words were ‘shoot’ and ‘can’t’. I wasn’t about to wait to find out, as I offered more food to put in their mouths. Then I had four sets of eyes turned to me, as they realised that I of course, being grown-up, would know. “What is the F-word, Mummy?” asked my son.

I aim to answer truthfully in all things, but I certainly wasn’t about to teach my children, let alone their friends, the worst swear words in the English language! I just said “It’s a word grown-ups use sometimes, and shouldn’t, but I’m not going to teach you it.” Of course lots of “why?”s ensued, but finally I managed to distract them with something else.

I was relieved when their attention had moved on, but it did get me to thinking about the whole issue of swearing, and what I want to teach my children about it. Eventually they will learn all the F-, S-, C- words and more. But how do I want them to learn about them? Will I tell them swearing is wrong? Are there certain words I’m ok with, and others not? Then I realised in many ways I had already begun the process.

If, like me, you have seven-year-olds at home, chances are they have already started the beginnings of swearing. I’m not saying they know the sorts of words we associate with swearing as adults, but my two are nonetheless fascinated by saying things that they are discovering are taboo. The number of conversations we have at the table where they start giggling uncontrollably because they are talking about poo or genitalia. They have learnt that the things they aren’t supposed to show in public are mightily hilarious to talk about in public. Isn’t that the root of most swear words? It strikes me that swearing is innate to humans from the moment they prefer to shut the bathroom door.

I think there is a swearing spectrum, and wherever you place yourself on it should be what you teach your children about it. Personally, I never swear in front of people I don’t know extremely well. In private it’s fair to say I have a bit of a potty mouth (especially when I’m driving!) and my husband and I actually like to out-swear each other with innovative combos for fun. But I think only my husband and my closest friends know that about me. So for me, swearing is all about setting and context.

Often my twins will come out with very silly sentences involving toilets or body parts, and of course they reinforce it in each other as they fall about in a heap of hysterics. Initially I thought I would just let it go, and let them have fun with it, but it really can drag on for an awfully long time if I don’t intervene! I then came to the conclusion that since this was becoming a regular feature in our daily lives, perhaps I should start teaching them a few rules about when it’s ok to be rude and when it’s not. If they are playing at home I let them do it as much as they want. I probably don’t even hear most of it! I have told them that it can be funny to say rude things sometimes, but there are rules about the time and places where you do it. The main rules I have are:

  • not around other grown-ups;
  • not around younger children;
  • not loudly anywhere where they could be overheard by either of the above;
  • not in the classroom;
  • limit it at the dinner table!

I don’t like giving my children rules without explaining why I have them. It can be a confusing concept for children to understand that something can be wrong at certain times, and ok at others. I wondered whether it would be simpler for them just to learn that they shouldn’t be rude, and work out for themselves that they need to do it in private so that they aren’t overheard. But then I considered that they are already learning that there are things they can’t show or do in public. Some of these they are learning instinctively, like closing the toilet door. Others I have to teach more explicitly, like telling my daughter not to do headstands in a dress in a restaurant. The point is, they already are learning that we moderate our actions according to settings, so it stands to reason that the words we use to describe these things are also setting-dependent. Once I made the link between what they do and what they say, it made more sense to them. The difference is just that we keep the behaviours private for our own benefit, while we keep our language private for other people’s. I also explained that we don’t say these things in front of younger children because they are too young to understand these rules themselves. As for the dinner table, it’s just an extension of good table manners.

I still have to remind my two of these rules on a regular basis, as they often forget themselves in the heat of a particularly side-splitting toilet-related idea. But they do understand the concept, and in time I’m hoping they will be able to stick to the guide so they can have good manners while still enjoying the silliness of being seven and beyond And when the time comes when they learn the big-hitters of the swearing lexicon they will have something to refer to when judging when to use them. I just hope it won’t be for a while yet…

Mummy is from Mars…and also from Venus

Mars Venus

Different planets, same solar system…

I have come to the realisation that I am an annoyingly contrary parent. I could blame it on having twins with very different personalities… and so I shall. I sometimes feel that being a twin parent is an opportunity to witness a nature/nurture experiment in action. But it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. Although my twins were born on the same day to the same parents, and have had as similar an environment as it is possible to have, that doesn’t make their upbringing identical. They have one very big difference in their experience: me. Since they are both so different, I end up being different to them, while hoping that they don’t pick up on any inconsistencies!

I first became aware of it when my two first started to be properly mobile. My son, who I shall call Ernest from now on, (not his real name, but appropriate nonetheless) was a very cautious toddler. We used to persuade, encourage and cajole him to climb on a climbing frame, or go down a small slide. “You can do it!” I would say. “It’s completely safe – I’ll catch you,” I would coax him. We praised every tiny step towards overcoming a fear. We would call him courageous, brave, grown-up – you name it.

And then there was my daughter, who I shall call Joy (again, not her real name.) While Ernest was trying to pluck up the courage to go down a two-foot slide, she was hurtling headfirst down helter-skelter. While Ernest was reluctantly climbing onto the first rung of a rope ladder, she would be jumping off the top level of a climbing frame with gay abandon, utterly trusting that we would catch her, whether she’d warned us or not. And was I praising these feats of bravery and courage? Not in the least. “Joy, be careful. Think before you jump. Check it’s safe first. Not so high.” We were desperately just trying to keep her alive!

And it doesn’t stop at those first days of teaching courage to one twin, and caution to the other. As they get older, and their personalities continue to develop in very different ways, I find myself constantly promoting the opposite of what they naturally want to do. Ernest loves his Lego sets, always following the instructions to the letter, never using any item for anything other than its original purpose. Joy takes a scarf and wears it like a dress and puts pencil cases on her feet as shoes. Am I congratulating Ernest on his ability to follow complex instructions and praising Joy’s out-of-the-box creativity? Well, yes, sometimes. But I’m also telling Ernest to use his imagination and make up his own constructions (thank you The Lego Movie – that helped!) and Joy to use things as they were intended otherwise they get damaged.

You try to be completely fair as a parent. As a twin parent, you are acutely aware that any inconstancies in approach are immediately recognisable, and cannot be explained away as “he/she is older/younger than you.” I realise I am often giving mixed messages to my twins. To one twin, I’m the one that’s constantly trying to get him to do things he finds scary, playing down the consequences, and teaching the value of taking a little risk. To the other I’m the one preventing her from just experiencing care-free fun, telling her to stop and think first. Their memories of me when they are grown-up may not match up entirely! But being fair with twins, or with any children, does not mean the same thing as treating them exactly the same way. Children are all born different, and you have to alter your parenting style accordingly, which becomes very obvious when your children are the same age.

Sometimes I do listen to myself when I am telling one twin they should be reading more, and the other one that they should be more active, and I wonder “why am I constantly trying to push them away from their natural inclination?” It’s not that I don’t value what they are doing naturally – I must do, because I’m always trying to get the other twin to do it. I have to remind myself to stop and marvel at the things they can do naturally, without any push from me. I just also see a value in teaching them what they wouldn’t think to do for themselves, because it will help them be more balanced and rounded (and safe, in my daughter’s case!)

So how to get around this and not have your children think that you are inconsistent or unfair? The first step is to be aware of it, and think about how your children will hear what you are saying. They may see you encourage their twin to do something you are telling them not to do. Make sure you explain why. If you know why you are doing it, your children will understand when you explain.

Make sure to praise what they are doing naturally so that they know you feel there is a value to what comes more easily to them. There are always two sides to every coin: if your child is very cautious and afraid of risk, they are likely to be very good at understanding consequences and keeping safe. If they don’t think before they act, and don’t consider safety before doing something, they may be more adaptable to change and open to new experiences. (This is also a development issue that resolves as they get older and experience more “consequences.”) If you have a child that is a bit rigid about keeping to the instructions, it means they are very good at structured, logical thinking and problem-solving. If they never want to follow the instructions or use things as they are meant to, it probably means they are very creative and independent-minded.

I may be different in what I encourage each twin to do, but the underlying message is always the same – I want to help them to be the best versions of themselves they can be. I don’t want to mould them into something they are not, but that doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from a little encouragement to develop aspects of themselves they wouldn’t think to do on their own. I just must always remember to temper it with an understanding of their underlying nature.

I think it’s impossible to ever disentangle genetics from environment. I am different to each twin because they are different to me, which starts an endless feedback-loop where you no longer know how much is genetics and how much is your response to those genetics. So what do I say when someone asks which of the twins’ traits are nature and which parts are nurture? It probably depends on who’s asking…

Decoding your child’s school day

confused

“We basically did nothing all day.”

I think it’s a fairly universal truth that it is hard work to find out from your children what exactly they have done all day at school. If you do manage to extract something more than a “nothing” or an “I can’t remember”, there can still be obstacles. Here is a fairly typical conversation I had with my daughter when I picked her up from school the other day:

Her: “They said I was ok mummy”

Me: “Who said you were ok?”

Her: “The lady in the office.”

Me: “Why were you in the office?”

Her: “Bailey took me.”

Me: “Why did Bailey take you?”

Her: “Because you take someone with you when you go to the office.”

Me: “But WHY WERE YOU THERE?!?”

Eventually it transpired that she had had a sore throat, but that the “lady in the office” had decided it was mild enough to wait till home time.

A parent’s impression of their child’s school day can be rather nebulous, and so I thought I would share a few techniques I’ve developed to get a bit of a firmer idea of what their school day is like.

1.  Ask the right questions

I can’t emphasise this one enough. If you ask a completely open question like “How was your day?” or “what did you do today?” you are opening yourself up to “fine” and “I can’t remember.” Most children, and some adults too, draw a blank when they are asked such a broad question. They can probably only conjure up what they did in the last couple of minutes, and that’s only with a fairly attentive child. You should only expect answers that are as good as your questions.

2.  Be specific 

Here are some examples of more closed questions that may get you a better answer:

Who did you sit next to at lunch today?

What game did you play at playtime?

Who makes you laugh in your class?

What was your favourite part of today? (A bit open, but sometimes works)

Is there anyone you don’t like to play with?

What book did your teacher read to you today?

If you’re lucky, this will be an opener for a conversation that will end up providing you with a lot more detail. Your child is more likely to remember and recount events when it’s part of a natural conversation.

3.  Ask about what interests them

For a lot of children, this is often playtime! Asking about what spellings they worked on and what they learnt in maths might not be the most scintillating conversation for your child, and they may not make much effort to remember. This may be what you want to find out, but if there is something specific about their learning you want to know, I recommend asking the teacher. So ask about the games they played, who they like to sit next to, who brought the tastiest snack, and who is the cheekiest child. You’ll end up learning a lot about their social groups, and how well they are fitting in.

4.  Do your research

If you do want to know a bit more about what is happening in the classroom, then do a little research on the subject. Find out about the class’s timetable, what themes or activities your children are working on, and which teachers they are working with. Hopefully the school will have already provided you with a lot of this information, but if not, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Then think of specific questions related to it, eg “Did you start your nature picture in art today?” or “which instrument did you play in music?”

5.  If you can, volunteer

This is a great way to have an insider’s view of your child’s school day and to put names to faces. Plus your children will love having you come into the class – it makes them feel very special. Even if you can’t do this regularly, see if you can offer to help on any one-off school or class events.

6.  Don’t believe everything you hear

A teacher once said “if you take what your children tell you about me with a pinch of salt, I’ll take what they say about you with one!” Even the most truthful, honest and intelligent children misinterpret words and actions sometimes. So before you are incensed and ready to give a teacher/other child a piece of your mind over something your child has told you, just breathe and get your facts straight first! It might all be a misunderstanding.

7.  Be prepared for the conversations that come at awkward times

Children have incredible timing. It will be just when you are rushing to get them out the door, or when they have got to bed really late that they come out with something like: “N told me I was mean” or “N made fun of me”. These are the moments when your children are needing your guidance and reassurance, but why couldn’t they have bloody told you at 4pm when you had nowhere to be and you had just asked them how their day had been?!? You can’t control when these issues will pop into your child’s mind, and I feel it’s really important to deal with them when they arise. You can’t recreate these moments at a more convenient time, because their attention will likely have moved on to something else, and the message you wanted to give will be lost.

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Even with all this effort on your part, you are still likely to get your fair share of “can’t remember” and “nothing”. The fact is you are never going to know everything about your child’s day. Children begin their independent life when they start school, albeit in a very limited and controlled way. They are making their own friends, taking on new responsibilities, and having a life separate from you. This means you should accept that you cannot know everything they are doing. The best you can hope for is to create as many opportunities for natural conversation, and be available when they do want to talk. Try not to get frustrated that they can’t remember the details you would like to know. I know that at the end of a long day when my husband asks how my day has been, my mind draws a blank and I find myself saying “Fine…”