An Agnostic’s Guide to Answering Your Children’s Questions About Death

 

Talking about death to children is not an easy thing to do – far harder than teaching the facts of life! But how do you approach it when you are not sure of your own answers? I have tried to put together the worries and questions my children had, and how my husband and I, as agnostics, approached the answers.

I remember the first time my children came in contact with the death of an animal. We were taking our dog for a walk one day when they were four years old and came across two frogs on the road that had been run over by a car. As far as an introduction to death is concerned, it was gentle enough, being animals that they weren’t attached to, but also rather gruesome as they were very flattened and there was some blood.

I tried to avoid the area around the frogs, but it was too late – they had seen and were instantly fascinated.

“What’s that, mummy?”

I couldn’t do anything but be honest, “Those are two frogs that have been run over.”

“Are they dead?”

“Yes.”

After that, many more questions started about death, and continued for months. They made that leap that I had been dreading, which was to ask if humans die, and if they would die. And, of course, if I would die. Every question ended up cutting me to the quick, as I felt that this knowledge of death was a loss to their innocence much more significant than any talks about where babies come from. My main problem, of course, was that the questions they were asking were questions that plague me, and for which I don’t have a clear answers.

If I had a strong faith, I think the questions would bother me a lot less. Equally, if I were a confirmed atheist I would probably not have too many qualms about saying that your time on earth is all there is. But I am neither of those things. I’m a wishy-washy, undecided, befuddled agnostic. But I am also someone used to giving straight answers to my children’s questions. So here are some of the questions I was asked, and the way my husband and I chose to answer them.

My children were between the ages of four and six when the burst of questions came, and so we gave answers that we felt were appropriate for that age. We based them loosely on a foundation of religious belief, while not sticking to any particular religious doctrine.  We mostly made it up as we went along. We decided that since we don’t know for a fact what happens after death, we may as well make it sound pleasant!

What happens after you die?

I knew that I couldn’t possibly raise them with the idea that there was nothing after you die. For me, the idea that you would cease to exist was too frightening a concept to give a young child, even if it is what I fear may be the reality. It makes for a much more gentle introduction to death to say that it isn’t exactly the end, just the end of one state and the beginning of another. Who is to say that’s not the truth?

The next question what exactly do we say is on the other side? We had been raised Catholic, so heaven was the most natural recourse we came to, rather than reincarnation. I was raised with the idea of heaven but no hell, so that was what I went with. My husband and I decided to paint a very traditional view of heaven, as a beautiful and magical place that was accepting of all beings – human, animal, insect. Just beware of making it sound too enticing, as my children started getting the idea that they really wanted to go to heaven right now! I explained to them that it was a place that you can’t visit – once you are there you have to stay. (This message got a little confused when they thought they had already been to heaven; it transpired they had confused a glimpse of the afterlife with a lovely holiday in Devon!)

Does your body go to heaven?

The differences between my children became very evident during our conversations about death. My son took everything at face value, and was entirely satisfied by my answers.  My daughter, on the other hand, would mull over everything I said, and kept coming up with some new questions to ask:

“Did the frogs go to heaven?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

“But they were on the road. How did they go to heaven?”

And so began the next phase: the soul. I actually feel that this is the central part to an agnostic’s answer about death. I don’t believe in any one religion. I don’t feel comfortable teaching my children a particular religious doctrine, because I don’t believe in it. But the idea of a life force is something that I would like to believe in. Who’s to say that it doesn’t exist? The concept of a God doesn’t even need to come into it.  So I feel safe to tell my children that they have a life force, or soul, that exists beyond just their body.

This answer, which I felt quite proud of, actually freaked out our daughter rather a lot.

“But I want my body!”

So we decided to say that you get a new body in heaven, and it can be whatever body you want. She was determined that she would feel different as it wouldn’t be her original body. I tried all sorts of approaches to help with this: your body changes all the time, but you don’t notice it (new skin cells, hair growth), you’re already growing all the time, becoming a grown-up and you don’t mind that. But nothing helped. This went on for weeks and months, especially at bed-time. Eventually we realised that what she was afraid of was the fact her normal body would be left alone on earth. She asked me if I would be in the same grave (or, to use her words, gravy) as her. I said “yes, of course” and she was completely reassured by that, and hasn’t mentioned it again!

I’m worried heaven doesn’t really exist

This was something that my son asked. He is much less ready to believe in things that he doesn’t see, he questioned the existence of Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy from a very young age, so this was another on his list.

In this area (unlike for Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy!) I decided to be fairly honest early on. I told them that in fact no one has been to heaven and back again, because it’s not a place you visit, so it isn’t something that anyone has seen. However, what happens is different people believe different things about what happens when you die (I mentioned reincarnation – they weren’t convinced!) and that it’s a question of what you feel not what you know.  They both seemed to be happy with that answer – one because he thought there probably wasn’t, but it didn’t bother him, and the other because she felt there was, which she found reassuring.

I don’t want to go to heaven without you

This one was a heartbreaker. Another from my daughter. I made it simple and said that I would be there waiting for her, to which she then replied “I don’t want you to go to heaven before me.” This then became the idea that upset her a lot, which of course is a common fear for children. We told her that we had to go a bit before her to get her room in heaven ready for her. She was still troubled by it, and in the end we just told her that we would only go when she was happy for us to go and get her room ready when we are all very, very old. It was reassuring enough, and hopefully by the time it becomes an issue we really will be very old!

Are there baddies in heaven?

This is the problem when you don’t want to introduce an idea of hell! Of course I said “no” but then my son asked, “but where do the baddies go when they die? Do they go to a baddie heaven which isn’t nice?” I found it incredible that they had made up hell all by themselves! We were very firm that we were not going to introduce any concept of hell, as it just creates fear and guilt. I told him no, there is not a baddy heaven. What happens is that when the baddies die they are able to realize that what they did on earth was bad and so they become good. “But what if they don’t become good?” I simply said that they all do, because you understand a lot more when you die.

A little note on prayer

My daughter was upset when my parents’ dog Aramis died, and told me that she was going to miss him, and wished she could tell him that she missed him.  I’ve also talked about my grandmother, and she said how she wished she could have met her. I therefore brought in the idea of prayer – I told her that you can say a prayer to those who have died, and tell them all that you want to.  I also told them it was a good time to say thank you for all the good things that have happened in the day. I think regardless of any religious belief, it’s a good opportunity for reflection, and is reassuring to feel you still have a link to people (or pets!) that you miss. I have over-heard my daughter on many occasions saying her prayers by herself:

“Good-night grannie, good-night Aramis, good-night squashed frogs…”

 

 

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Children with Christmas Birthdays: A Survival Guide

tree-1283772_1920As with most people, the run-up to Christmas is absolute chaos in our household. However, we have the double bonus of having twins with a birthday the week before Christmas itself. If you have children with a birthday around this already jam-packed time of year, then you know what I am talking about: a manic period of birthday AND Christmas shopping, birthday AND Christmas party preparations, birthday AND Christmas gift-wrapping, answering relatives’ requests for birthday AND Christmas gift ideas. The list goes on. I love the Christmas season, but there are definitely times when I wish I could bury my head in the sand until Christmas day itself when everything is magically ready. If you want to how to be super-organised and glide seamlessly from a fun-filled birthday to a fabulously festive Christmas without breaking a sweat… then please let me know as I haven’t worked that out yet. Until then, here are a few tips that I have learnt over the years that I find helpful. Maybe share with friends and family members who might not be quite so familiar with what you are going through. I don’t promise this will make you less busy, but they are the honest tips that I try to keep to (unlike “start preparing in July.” Fantastic idea. Never managed it.) 

  1. Do a clear-out of toys and games that your child doesn’t use. It will look like Santa parcel-bombed your house shortly, so be fairly brutal. You could say, “If Father Christmas sees you don’t have any room for gifts, he’ll have to get you something small.” That often focusses the mind. Or just do it when the children aren’t around.
  1. Do understand that when you ask people to “buy small” they will probably ignore you. Instead you could try to ask for “experience” gifts. Less immediately exciting for the child on the day itself, but it can be something special that the giver can do with the child. A visit to a fun attraction, cinema/theatre tickets. There are lots of choices. Book/magazine/comic subscriptions are also good.
  1. Do prepare as early as you can manage. The earliest I’ve really managed to start is October. Before that you have all the added chaos surrounding the start of the new school year.
  1. Do keep an ongoing “present idea” list on your mobile at all times I don’t just mean for the children, but you still have others to buy for and little time in your brain-space to even think about them at this time of year with everything else going on.
  1. Do ask friends and relatives to come up with their own ideas (if you think they will be reasonable!) I’ve found that one of the hardest parts of this time of year is how exhausted my brain becomes trying to keep track of everything I need to do. When you are also asked to come up with ideas for other people too, then it’s ready to melt. Plus before you know it you’ve given away your best ideas! This is only suitable for those you trust not to ignore number 2 too much.
  1. Do ask relatives to clearly label gifts they send from Amazon One of the difficulties I have is that people very kindly order gifts for the children for both Christmas and birthday from Amazon, and I have to chase up, or look through emails, to get the explanation of which gift is for whom, and whether it’s for Christmas or birthday and often who it’s even from. I recommend you ask people to add the details in the address eg: “Jane Smith (BD, from Granny)” or “Jane Smith (xms from Aunt E.)” The added bonus is the ability to answer with confidence when you are asked “did you receive what I ordered?”
  1. Do ask people to gift-wrap their own gifts Sometimes it’s not possible with online orders, but often it is, and you can tell people that for you it’s really worth the extra it costs them. Ask them to buy a smaller gift if they don’t want to spend the extra on gift-wrap (it’s true Amazon does over-charge somewhat). It circles back to number 6 above, and also saves you a lot of sorting and gift-wrapping time.
  1. Don’t worry too much about keeping birthday and Christmas celebrations completely separate There are certain rules of etiquette with a birthday around Christmas – you don’t wrap a birthday gift in Christmas paper, you don’t give a joint birthday and Christmas gift (though you may spend more on one than the other). I also used to extend this to only decorating the house for Christmas after the birthday was over. However, I’ve learnt that the fun of Christmas actually accentuates my twins’ enjoyment of their birthday. The two are inextricably linked for them, and they look forward to opening their birthday gifts under the tree. Equally, I sometimes put Christmassy gifts in the party bags.  Just go with it!
  1. Do consider having an additional celebration for your child another time of year Some people celebrate “half birthdays” so that your child can have a special day that isn’t shared with Christmas festivities. Personally, we celebrate my twins’ Saints Days (it’s a French tradition). It doesn’t have to be anything big – we gave a small gift and have a day where they get to choose a special meal. It’s something family can also celebrate. It’s additionally useful with twins as they not only share their birthday with Christmas but also with each other! This gives them an individual celebration, albeit on a smaller scale.
  1. Don’t be too hard on yourself You will end up letting something slip, whether it’s managing to do all the Christmas cards, or finding the perfect gift for someone. Keep a little time for the bits you enjoy about the season – I love making my own mince pies and Christmas cake. Yes, it adds more to my to-do list, but I get such satisfaction eating my own handiwork! Oh, and always put on some Christmas music and sip on a festive drink when doing the wrapping-up. The gift-tags may become haphazard, but the time will fly by!

 

 

Help! What Are Phonics? A Confused Parent’s Guide

If you have children who are learning to read, you are most likely going to have heard about synthetic phonics. Many of you might feel confused by them, and not really know what they are, or why they are taught. Being a linguist, a primary school teacher, and a parent who taught my children to read, here is my breakdown for you, explaining why they are worth the effort, and why your child may become a better reader and speller because of them.

Why Phonics?

The fact that you are reading this means that you successfully learnt to read, probably without the use of phonics. You may feel that synthetic phonics looks like a much more complicated way to teach reading and writing, and that if it is confusing to you, how will a child understand it? In fact, synthetic phonics is an easier and more logical way for your child to learn. The reason it is so hard for those who weren’t taught it as a child is that it is a completely different way of thinking about the foundation of spelling in English, and of the relationship between the spoken and written word. Children who have no preconceptions will accept it quite easily. Adults who learnt very differently will find synthetic phonics almost like a foreign language (initially). And here is why: the core principal of synthetic phonics is to teach children first about the sounds that make up English, and then teach the ways of spelling that sound. The way you probably learnt started first with the alphabet, and then you learnt how you put the letters together to make the different sounds. At first it doesn’t sound like a big difference, but in fact it dramatically changes the way you think about the English spelling system.

The alphabet may seem like a logical place to start. But once you learn a bit more about English, you realise why it falls short. We actually have 44 unique sounds in English, give or take a few depending on accent. These sounds, or phonemes, are the building blocks of all the words in our language. We have 26 letters in our alphabet. You can see the problem. We make up for the shortfall by using a combination of two or more letters to make the sounds that don’t have a unique letter of their own, e.g., /th/ or /oo/. If we had a simplified spelling system, we would have just 44 spellings to learn. But, because of the long and varied history of the English language, we actually have around 200 spelling combinations, or graphemes, in common usage. One sound can be represented many different ways: think of /oo/ in ‘boo’, ‘glue’, ‘chew’, ‘flute’, ‘fruit’. Also, one spelling can represent more than one sound: e.g., ‘ough’ in ‘thought’, ‘though’, ‘rough’, and ‘through.’ Learning all the different spellings, and which words to use them in, is a complicated business.

The reason the traditional way of teaching isn’t as helpful as synthetic phonics is that it assumes that there isn’t really a logic to the English spelling system. We weren’t taught why English was difficult to spell. I remember being taught that some words ‘can’t’ be sounded out, and many times you just have to memorise difficult common words. When you learn through synthetic phonics, you begin to understand that this isn’t really the case. Yes, English spelling is horrendously complicated, but you can find a logic to it. A complex logic, but it is there nonetheless: so it isn’t that ‘the’ can’t be sounded out – it’s that the letter ‘e’ is representing the sound /uh/. When you find a pattern to what you are learning, it becomes easier to remember and to build on that knowledge. Understanding that disconnect between the alphabet and the number of sounds in English demystifies our spelling system. It stops being an illogical, jumbled mess, and starts being more of a complicated puzzle to put together.

Learning to Read with Phonics

One of the cornerstones of synthetic phonics is the pronunciation of the sounds, or phonemes. In order to successfully put the phonemes together to build a word, you need to ‘blend’ them together. So, /s/ /a/ /t/ glides together to become ‘sat’. For this you need to know how to pronounce each sound correctly, which is often where parents, and some teachers, fall down. (Listen to the sounds here). It’s important not to add an extra ‘uh’ sound at the end of consonants – for example /s/ is a hissing ‘ssss’ sound, not ‘suh’, and /t/ is an under-the-breath tut, not ‘tuh’ This is important so that children hear just the sounds that make up the word, and nothing extra, otherwise sounding out ‘sat’ may sound like this: ‘suh-a-tuh’ which is actually confusing to a child. They find it hard to hear the word ‘sat’ when it is sounded out this way.

Along with using the alphabet as a starting point, the traditional method also taught us to use other ‘cues’ to help us decipher a word: look at the picture, guess from context, guess from the first letters of the word. The reasoning behind this is perfectly understandable – it speeds up the process of reading fluently. Children don’t spend a long time sounding out each word, and they are thinking about the meaning of the word they are reading, not just the sounds. Although this may initially make children faster and more fluent readers earlier on, it actually encourages bad habits. Children very often just look at the first letter of a word, and don’t let their eyes travel across the whole word. This means that while they may gain earlier speed and fluency, they lose accuracy. Once texts become more complex and context isn’t obvious or pictures are absent, they will find it harder to decode difficult words.

It isn’t that the traditional method doesn’t work. It does – I learnt to read this way. It’s just that synthetic phonics works better. English is a particularly difficult language to read and spell, as can be seen in the fact that English-speaking countries including the UK, Australia and the US, have worryingly high levels of illiteracy and semi-literacy compared to nations with simpler spelling systems. The consistent and logical approach of synthetic phonics will enable children to become more accurate readers and writers, building a solid foundation for the more complex literary skills they will continue to develop throughout their education.

Recommended further reading/watching

Oxford Owl – website dedicated to all things reading, writing and maths. They have an excellent section on synthetic phonics full of information and ideas for parents.

Phonics International – I used this as a resource for teaching my children and for informing myself. The first unit of resources are free, including the excellent alphabetic code chart, but the rest require paid membership. It is fully comprehensive for either home or school use, but a little intense for non-teachers.

Cbeebies alphablocks – entertaining for children, informative for parents.

Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics – an invaluable resource for my children. Each book introduces a new sound, or group of sounds. The stories are extremely well written – they only have words containing the sounds the children have learnt so far, along with a few high frequency words. Each book builds on the previous one, increasing the number of sounds and high frequency words the children read as they progress through the levels. Parent guides also included. Find them on Amazon here

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.