Tag Archives: parenting

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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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.

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…”

CONFESSION

Naughty or nice?

Naughty or nice?

I am going to admit to something that is taboo for a grown-up to say. Especially for one who has been a teacher and professes to love children. But here it goes: There are some kids I just don’t like. I know that sounds mean; how can I dislike a small child? But when I became a teacher I learnt that children are smaller versions of grown-ups: some you love, some you think are OK, and there are just a couple you really have an aversion to. (The trick is not to show it of course!)

It was brought home to me the other day when my daughter told me something that had upset her at school. This is a new school for her, and her first time in a proper big school, having only attended a small Montessori until now. She has settled in amazingly well, and is so eager to please her teacher. She was working hard on making a pattern with coloured wooden shapes, and a boy threw something at her work. She asked him to stop, but then he did it again and upset all the shapes and the pattern she had been making, and there was no time to start again. I asked if she had told the teacher, which she had, and the teacher had told the boy off, so at least I knew it had been dealt with.

She was obviously upset by the fact he had ruined what she had been working on so hard, but what mostly had upset her was the fact that he had seemed so pleased about it. She told me, “He looked happy that he had damaged it and upset me, mummy.” She was so confused by this idea. I could feel my inner protective-lioness creeping up. Just who was this beast-child? I wanted to go and tell him exactly what I thought of him. There is nothing like upsetting my child to bring about my taboo-hatred. Here was my sweet little girl with nothing but kindness and generosity in her heart, being exposed to deliberate meanness. She just could not understand why someone would derive pleasure from upsetting another person. To be honest, I’m a grown-up and I still don’t get it. I felt a little chink of her innocence being taken away.

Up till now I’ve always tried to explain naughty behaviour in other kids as having a cause – either they want attention, or they are tired, or they have got into bad habits. Just because someone does something you don’t like, it doesn’t mean you should stop liking them. But what about those people who just get a kick out of annoying others? Children often start out pretty self-centred, and generally have to be taught compassion and sympathy. But we all know adults that don’t ever develop it, and they were all children once.

You know when you send your children to school that you are letting them into the world without you, to fend for themselves in that brutal social jungle called the playground. This won’t be the last time my daughter has to cope with someone behaving in a way that upsets her. We all have to learn that while we shouldn’t put up with people being mean, it’s something everybody experiences from time to time. I have to teach her that it’s perfectly reasonable to be upset by that behaviour, and to tell the teacher, but that at the same time some kids are just like that, and to try to concentrate on the good things that happened at school.

This was a small incident of course, but it played on my mind how I should approach teaching my children to cope with unpleasant behaviour in others. Finding the balance between being patient and compassionate of others’ bad behaviour, while not accepting being a victim of it, is a tricky business. I try to teach them to find the good in people, and look for what may be provoking the less desirable traits; the “even good people do bad things” approach. I think it makes for a much more tolerant society if we do. But I also have a responsibility to teach them that there are some people you are just not going to like, and that is perfectly normal. That’s how we feel as adults, and so we should expect no differently of our children. It’s just important to ensure they know how to draw that distinction, and not be overly accepting, nor overly intolerant.

Of course that applies to me too. And I like to I think I’m pretty clear on how I draw my distinctions, as a few days later I intervene when my son is upset with my daughter: It turns out she was gleefully breaking up a sand pile he had been making. “What are you doing?” I say. “You know that was upsetting him. Why would you do that when you wouldn’t like it done to you?” “Oh, sorry Mummy.” She says, chastised. A time-out ensues. “Ah well,” I think to myself. “She must be over-tired…”