Tag Archives: parenting

Balloon Mortality

Tick-tock

I think I am not the only parent who slightly dreads their children being given balloons at a party. This was especially true when mine were toddlers. I knew eventually the tears would come, either because of the loud bang of its bursting, or the disbelief that what had once been a beautiful brightly-coloured, round play-thing had suddenly been reduced to a limp rag. Usually both. I used to be sorely tempted to try to avoid the situation entirely, and not bring home balloons after parties, as I did get a bit fed up with the rigmarole, to be honest. But then I had an epiphany: balloons are often a child’s first introduction to mortality.

We all know children have to learn this lesson eventually: nothing lasts forever. But it’s a hard lesson to accept, whether you are a child or an adult. And nothing teaches it quite so simply or eloquently as a balloon. There is no escape from balloon grief! Either they are plucked in their prime with a dramatic “pop”, slowly deflate and wrinkle to a soft mass, or ascend directly to the heavens.  Either way, the ephemeral life of a balloon is something every child has to face. And perhaps how we deal with our child’s disappointment may be telling about our own approach dealing with certain of life’s unpleasant inevitabilities.

I realised the way in which I reacted to my children’s distress may well affect how they cope with that concept in the future. My first impulse was denial and avoidance; let’s try not to have too many balloons, and prevent the upset. But then that denies children the pure, unadulterated joy of a maddeningly lightweight ticking-time-bomb-ball. Plus it turns you into a meanie. And, besides, you are really only delaying the lesson. Yes, it may all end in tears, but it’s mighty fun until then.

Another approach we can have as parents is to say “don’t worry, I’ll get you another balloon.” Bearing in mind my analogy, I’m not sure this is the best message to give! After all, balloon bereavement needs a little grieving time… I also think that it’s important for children to realise that they can have a lot of fun with something, and that it has to come to an end. I’m really not trying to be a spoilsport here, but I think we can make a rod for our own backs if we try to prevent the inevitable disappointment. Regularly providing an immediate replacement for the lost balloon doesn’t allow your child to be consoled some other way; a cuddle, a different toy, playing a game. Before you know it, they will be expecting you to resolve any disappointment and provide them with a substitute. They won’t learn how to cope with it another way.

As children grow this is a message that will have to be repeated in a variety of contexts – the end of a party, a broken toy, a good friend moving away. And, of course, that first introduction to death, whether it (hopefully) comes in the form of withered plants, dead insects, or the loss of a pet. The message remains the same, even if the degree of sadness may vary considerably. You can’t protect your children from unhappy events, or disappointing outcomes, but you can teach them how to handle them.

So perhaps what parents have to do is learn to accept our child’s reaction. They will have balloons. Those balloons will expire and your child will be upset. Just go with it, sympathise with them, explain the laws of balloons. And then try to distract them with something else. It is still just a balloon after all.

 

 

 

 

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Learning from your mistakes: it takes practice

Beautiful, but not perfect

Beautiful, but not perfect

I was recently watching a documentary by Stephen Hawking called Into the Universe, and there was a line in it that really struck me. He said “there is no such thing as perfection.” In fact, the creation of the universe was reliant on that fact – if all matter had been perfectly geometrically scattered after the Big Bang, then none of it would have started to clump together to form the beginnings of stars and planets. Everything would have remained in a perfect state of geometry, all pieces of matter equally distant from the next, balancing all gravitational pull. Hawking goes on to say

So next time someone complains that you have made a mistake, tell him that may be a good thing. Because without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.

It’s not such a radical idea I know. We all say “nobody’s perfect”, but having the very notion of perfection presented as something imaginary, that cannot be found anywhere in the universe, is something that speaks to my annoying perfectionist side.

I’m not a perfectionist about everything – one look at the state my house is in most of the time can tell you that. But I can be hard on myself when I make mistakes. I have even been known to avoid a situation rather than risk making mistakes or making a wrong choice. I am much more comfortable in my familiar academic territory of researching a subject, learning the theory and then trying to apply it, in a perfectly ordered, structured way. And then I had children.

Parents often say “babies don’t come with a manual”, but you know if they did, I would have read it cover to cover, underlining important passages! Nothing slings you in at the deep end like having a baby (or, in my case, two.) For all my baby-book research beforehand, I was utterly clueless when it came to the reality of parenting. Everyday you are faced with the multiple mistakes you make – the only way to learn is trial and error. Not an easy thing for a perfectionist. Any time my babies had too much wind, or didn’t feed well, or vomited, I agonised over what I must have done wrong, and was frustrated that I hadn’t found the right answer. And then finally, just as I would start to feel as though I had got the hang of something, they would insist on growing and developing which meant I had to start from scratch again, learning something new, like weaning or potty-training. At each new stage I was clueless once again, making countless mistakes, feeling like I was making it up as I went along.

My children are six now, and my role as a parent has changed significantly over the years. The balance starts to shift at this age from mainly seeing to their physical needs, towards dealing with emotional and psychological needs. And one of these issues is helping your child learn to learn through their mistakes. You don’t want your children to be perfectionists (perfectionism is, after all, an imperfection!) and you don’t want them to feel bad about making mistakes. I am acutely aware that children learn primarily by example, and if they see me upset by my mistakes, or worse still, impatient with their mistakes, they will feel inhibited to try something new for fear of getting it “wrong.”

Luckily I’ve had six years to get used to making mistakes of my own, and in many ways I have also learnt from my children. I’ve watched them have to learn every single one of their skills through trial and error – after all, no baby comes out of the womb walking, talking and dressing themselves. I have admired how they didn’t give up until they could crawl towards the forbidden electric cables, pick up and swallow that tiny piece of muck, and take my best pair of shoes from my wardrobe and put them on their own little feet. Each one of those was a personal achievement which they never would have managed without practice and patience. Learning through our mistakes is something we are all born innately to do, in order to achieve the many skills we take for granted. I don’t think many of us would blame a toddler for falling over on his 2nd step, or mispronouncing a word; we all know it takes a lot of practise to walk and talk. In fact we often find the mistakes along the way quite entertaining. This is something us perfectionists need to remember when trying to achieve the more complex skills we, and our children, strive for later on.

So what can I do to not inhibit my children’s natural instinct of trial and error, or to mitigate any part of them that may be naturally perfectionist? When I feel I’ve made a mistake, I now try to ask myself afterwards, “What should I do next time that happens?” And then try to stick to it (that’s the hard part!) I don’t hide my mistakes from my children, I tell them when I think I did something wrong, and explain what I think I should do instead next time. I apologise to them if I think I’ve been hard on them for something they didn’t deserve. Initially I thought “Will I damage their image of me if I admit I did something wrong?” but I think what I am doing is giving an honest account of being a grown-up, and being human. We make mistakes, we sometimes make a lot of them, but it’s how we deal with them that counts. And of course, I encourage them to stick at something even if it’s hard and I try not to be impatient with them for not showing speedy improvement.

I still make plenty of mistakes. I wish I were more patient when my children are incredibly slow at getting ready for school. I wish my first thought when something gets spilt or broken wasn’t “why can’t they be more careful!” The main difference now is that I realise there is no such thing as a perfect parent. The best I can hope for is to keep learning to learn from my mistakes, so that I’m not constantly making the same ones, but rather coming up with new mistakes all the time.

So next time you strive for perfection, don’t; the Universe depends on it.

 

The third option: Combining breast and bottle for twins

1526989_538866736209850_352082975_nThis is a piece I wrote a few years ago when my twins were three. I thought it might be useful for anyone who is about to, or has just had twins and is contemplating the difficult issue of breast- or bottle-feeding. It doesn’t have to be either/or, and after a lot of muddling through, I managed to combine the two with my twins for seven months. It is quite a long piece, but I feel it covers a lot of issues you don’t find in twins books. A shortened form of it appeared in the Tamba magazine in 2011.


My twins are now three years old – life is so much easier now than it was a year ago! The first few months after their birth were the hardest of my life, despite being over the moon to have my “instant family”. Part of what made the time immediately after the birth so difficult (apart from the sleep deprivation and getting over a twin delivery!) was the anxiety and guilt over the decision not to exclusively breast feed my babies. I can look back now and feel happy that I managed to mix breast and bottle-feeding for seven months, but it wasn’t plain sailing partly due the fact that there is almost no information on how to successfully combine breast- and bottle-feeding twins. I muddled through and found a way that worked for me and my babies, but I felt that I wanted to share my experience with twins-mums-to-be in case it can be of any help.

Great expectations

I was always certain that I would exclusively breastfeed any baby I had, and when I discovered I was expecting twins, it never occurred to me that I would treat them any differently than if I had had them as singletons. After reading a couple of books about twins, plus the tiny sections on twins in other baby books, I felt confident that that was not only possible, but straightforward. I’ve since realised it was just the first of many situations where I had to let go of the idea that I could approach raising twins in the same way as raising a singleton.

There is a lot of information available on the benefits of breastfeeding, but next to nothing about bottle-feeding. This is to encourage mothers to breastfeed, and rightly so, however what happens if you find you are unable to? Where is the information on how to choose formula, how to ensure you don’t over-feed your baby, what to look for in a baby bottle? And what about if you don’t want it to be either/or – where is the information on combining the two? This is particularly important when it comes to twins.

No matter how many books you read or advice you listen to, nothing prepares you for the reality of caring for and feeding two newborns. My daughter fed within a few hours of delivery, but my son wasn’t interested. I felt so exhausted from the birth that I probably didn’t persist with feeding them as frequently as I should have within the first 24 hours of birth. This may be a contributing factor to the fact that I simply did not have enough milk to feed my two exclusively, and I never experienced the milk let-down. They lost a lot of weight in their first week, which is common, however they lost up to the maximum that is considered “normal” and were dehydrated.

I tried pretty much everything to build up my milk supply – I ate and drank as much as I could (my hips regretted it later!) I fed the babies frequently – sometimes every hour or hour and a half – which meant I sometimes had no gaps between feeds, because as soon as I finished feeding one baby, the first one was hungry again. I felt that my breasts never had the time to “reload. I then started to feed them simultaneously to save time, but I found breastfeeding very painful at the beginning, partially due to both twins being tongue-tied. Having pain in both breasts at the same time was hard to bear. Also, as a novice at breastfeeding, it was hard to latch one on and then latch on the other – the first one always seemed to slip off, which increased the pain.

Bottle guilt

After a week of this, and my babies still being dehydrated, unhappy and losing weight, the community midwife told me to top them up with a bottle. I was initially reluctant, but I really had no choice as they were not thriving, and they were not receiving enough nourishment from breast milk alone. In a way, it was a relief that I no longer had a choice, but I felt like I had failed at my first task as a mother. I felt guilty that I dreaded each breastfeed because of the pain, and that maybe this had contributed to their failure to get enough nourishment; I felt guilty with every top-up bottle I gave because I felt they weren’t receiving all the benefits of breast milk; I felt like a failure as a mother and as a woman because I alone couldn’t provide the most basic of needs to my newborns. I thought to myself “How would I have cared for them in the wild?” All I can say is sleep deprivation, first-time-mother panic and the guilt of not keeping to the letter of what is recommended is a potent combination for feeling depressed and anxious.

I certainly don’t mean this as doom and gloom, and “look how hard I had it” – all parents of multiples have it hard to start with, and I was very lucky in other ways – mine weren’t premature and I had a lot of support from my husband and my family. I did manage to muddle through and continued to combine breast and bottle until mine were seven months old. Here’s what ended up working for me:

Practical guide to combination feeding

I started out breastfeeding each baby in turn, then passing each to my husband to top them up with a bottle. This didn’t work for me. The whole process used to take about two hours from start to finish, even with two people. I also never knew how much to top up with, and in fact we ended up overfeeding the twins (yes, it is possible with bottles) and they vomited frequently, had bad wind and tummy aches, which didn’t help the colic. I realised at the end of my husband’s four-week paternity leave that this wasn’t sustainable, even with support. I woke up one morning (or night – it’s hard to tell in the early stages!) and realised I had to change the routine if I was going to be able to continue to breastfeed at all.

I decided literally to half breastfeed, half bottle-feed. I would breastfeed one baby and bottle-feed the other for one feed, and then swap over at the next feed. Alternating feeds worked really well for me. It meant if I was on my own, the process of feeding two babies didn’t take so long because bottles went down a lot faster than a breastfeed. I could monitor, at least half of the time, exactly how much the babies were taking, and I knew I would have enough breast milk for a feed now that I wasn’t trying to split each feed between two babies. Also, it meant that if I did have someone else around, they could give the bottle at the same time as I breastfed, which saved a lot of time, especially if we were out and about (the few times we were at the beginning!) It also meant that over-feeding was not such an issue, since I could more or less follow the guidance on the formula packet, without trying to guess how much breast milk they had taken.

I always used to start the feeding cycle with the bottle feed for a few reasons: Firstly, because formula takes longer to digest than breast milk. By starting with a bottle, it meant that it was always the baby who had last had breast milk who would go first, and the one who had taken a bottle would have a longer gap before their feed.  That way, I tried to reduce the number of times I had to sit through one baby crying with hunger while I was feeding the other. It’s not fool-proof! It also meant that the baby that was going second didn’t have to sit through a whole breast-feed (which takes a long time at the beginning) until they got fed. Bouncy chairs were a God-send at that time, and can pacify a peckish baby until his/her sibling has finished (also not fool-proof!)

If either looked like they needed a top-up between feeds, I used to offer the breast, so that I kept my milk supply up and they didn’t start getting more bottle than breast, and then start to reject the breast. It also meant that they weren’t too over-full for the next feed and get out of step with their sibling. My milk supply easily coped with what was the equivalent of feeding one baby. In fact, once my two started to go a little longer between feeds at night, I started to have enough milk in the mornings to breastfeed both (one after the other. I confess I never mastered the art of breastfeeding in tandem). Then at the 11pm (ish) feed, my husband gave two bottles so that I could have some extra sleep.

If it happened that I was giving an odd number of feeds in a day, for example seven, I would alternate daily which baby got four breast feeds in a day so that I didn’t end up with one having more breast than the other. After a while, I actually did end up giving more bottles to my son than to my daughter because he was the hungrier baby, and she was a very windy baby and was more comfortable after a breast feed.

Nights didn’t follow too much of a pattern. I just tried anything to get them to sleep – sometimes just offering the breast so there wasn’t the hassle of preparing bottles, sometimes just giving bottles in the hope that formula would keep them fuller for longer.

Finding a routine

I did have to stick to a feeding routine in order for this to work. I only started doing that when they were a few weeks old – I don’t think newborns are really capable of any routine to start with, and I think muddling through as best you can is probably the only way, until you find something that suits you and your babies. I eventually worked out (with the help of my health visitor) how many feeds the babies needed in a 24-hour period, and tried sticking to a 3- to 4-hourly cycle once they were a few weeks old. Again, this was an adjustment as I never thought I would impose a rigid routine to newborns, however I needed to get the twins in synch somehow, otherwise I really would have lost my mind! I was as flexible as I could be, and did offer top-ups of breast-milk if they were hungry.

It was always a bit of a juggle when the babies grew out of one routine and needed a new one, for example, when they were ready to drop a feed. It’s difficult to tell if they are ready to drop a feed if you have them in a routine and not feeding on demand. You end up being afraid of changing the routine in case it messes everything up and your babies end up cranky, and you more tired. Again, I had a good health visitor who helped me with that.

Concerns over nipple rejection

I am very lucky that my babies took so easily to combining breast and bottle, because I know that some won’t take to bottles at all, and some won’t go back to the breast once they have had the quick and easy flow of a bottle teat. I don’t know if I had particularly easy babies in that respect, or if I by chance introduced the bottle at the right time for them to accept both. I can only tell you what worked for my babies.

I introduced the bottle after they had been exclusively breastfed for one week. I thought that would be too soon, but it worked fine. If you introduce the bottle very late (say, a month or two down the line) they apparently may not take to it at all, however I obviously personally don’t have any experience to say that authoritatively. The type of bottle I used may be significant – there are a few on the market that say they are suitable for combination feeding. I personally used the Tommee Tippee “Closer to Nature” bottles, which to me looked the most like a breast(!) These served me very well.

I also tried to replicate the latching-on to a breast when I bottle-fed. I would rub the teat by their lips, and wait for the babies to open their mouths for the bottle, rather than shoving it in so that they didn’t get out of the habit of opening their mouths to latch on to the breast. I didn’t do that all the time, because sometimes you just want to take advantage of the faster bottle and get it done quickly. This is probably the only problem I did have with combination feeding – my babies sometimes didn’t try to latch on properly to the breast. This problem did resolve itself, and eventually they did swap between the two as if it were second nature to them.

Happily ever after

I managed to keep going like this for six months, and then I gradually weaned them off the breast when I felt ready, and when I felt my babies were ready. After a while, I looked forward to breastfeeding my babies, because it no longer became a source of guilt, stress or pain. It did become a lovely feeling of closeness between the babies and me that no one else can feel.

I hope that this opens up a third option to twin-mums that isn’t discussed in many books. I’m sure there are a lot of different ways of combining breast and bottle, and if that is what you want to do you will find your own way that works. I only wanted to show that it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, and share the practicalities of how I went about it. I also hope to prevent other twins-mums who may not be able to breastfeed exclusively, from feeling the guilt that I went through. If your babies have received any breast milk at all, you are doing really well, because it is far from simple with more than one baby, and, I believe, practically impossible if you are not receiving support from others. In any event, your babies are not going to remember whether you breast-fed or bottle-fed them, but whether you provide comfort and love. There is so much more to being a mother. I hope my experiences are helpful to you, but do whatever is right for you and your babies.


 

In a nutshell

  • Breastfeed one baby and bottle feed the other at each feed.
  • Alternate which baby gets the bottle or breast at each feed.
  • Start with the bottle feed since formula takes longer to digest than breast milk.
  • Try to get your baby to latch on to the bottle as if it were a breast.
  • Don’t feel guilty about not following the guidelines to the letter.

 

Flying with Kids – Top Ten Tips

ImageIt’s soon going to be holiday season, and I thought I would write a few tips about flying with young children. I have been doing long haul flights with my twins since they were three years old to visit family abroad, so my husband and I have negotiating airports and planes with young children down to a fine art.

Here are my Top 10 Tips:

  1. Be prepared for airport hell, but know it is short-lived. Bear in mind when you arrive at the airport you will have your luggage, your hand luggage, your children’s hand luggage, car seats, possibly a stroller, and children to contend with. It’s not a pretty sight. There is no such thing as travelling light with kids, and people are not always eager to help or be patient with slow-moving meandering children. It’s ok. You will get through it, and once you are through security it’s a breeze.
  1. Trunkis are fantastic!! The airport itself is the worst bit of the journey. There’s usually a lot of walking, queuing, waiting and mad dashing. Having a trunki your child can sit on when waiting for security, or be pulled along on when their legs are tired is a godsend. They are a mixed blessing, as you will find if you pull your child too fast on it you may lose them as you round a corner. And there is a very strong possibility you will find yourself carrying the trunki, your hand luggage and your child, but on the whole they are a help. Plus children LOVE to pack them like a grown-up.
  1. Plan your hand luggage. Having a good hand luggage system is something I have refined over the years. I recommend that everyone take one small item of hand luggage that can fit under the seat in front of them, in addition to any normal hand-luggage case they take. That includes the kids. You want these small bags to have anything you are regularly going to need for the journey – toys, tissues, books, wipes, medicines… Anything you are not likely to need during the journey, put in the overhead locker. You don’t want to be messing around getting bits you need from those bags either as you get on the plane or during the flight. This is the best way to make your flight time easy and stress-free. I have a small vanity I take for that purpose, and each child has a trunki in the overhead locker and a small backpack under the seat with toys for the journey. I don’t know why it took me several flights to work that one out!
  1. Pack a change of clothes for the kids in the hand luggage. Just in case.
  1. Let normal rules go out the window. So they want to eat their dessert first – so be it! All children presented with a tray with all the courses in one go would choose dessert first and spoil their appetite. I like to spoil myself on a flight, and your kids will be that much happier if you let them spoil themselves too!
  1. Bring a few snacks. Airlines don’t give as much food on planes as they used to, and the gaps between meals can be a bit long for the children (and adults!) Think biscuits and cereal bars rather than chocolate or yoghurts. You’re going to be in the same clothes for a while, and it’s easier to clean off crumbs. Plus, if your plane is delayed you don’t want starving children to contend with. Consider buying some bottled water once through security, as you can’t pack any in your hand luggage.
  1. Locate the sick bags as soon as you get to your seat. You’ll be thankful of those extra seconds if the time comes.
  1. Plan simple things to keep your children busy. A plain notebook and some crayons (no felt tips!!) can be the source of endless entertainment, and is open-ended so they can use it in a variety of ways. Avoid things with small pieces like lego or Barbie’s shoes, as you will be spending your whole time picking them up from under your, or some increasingly annoyed passenger’s, seat. Of course ipads can be great, but the battery doesn’t last long! Stories, colouring-in books and sticker books are also great, and can be brought out in the airport easily too. (Did I mention the airport is the worst part?)
  1. Bring a variety of toys/entertainment, but don’t show it all at once. Keep the mystique so you can get their attention if needs be. If your kids are happy watching lots of TV, lucky you, you’ll have a peaceful flight. I recommend getting a few new items as gifts, removing any packaging first. It doesn’t have to be expensive – a new notebook, a fun pencil, an activity book. I wouldn’t bother wrapping them as then you are left stuffing wrapping paper in all available spaces.
  1. Choose things that don’t need too much adult intervention – you want to be able to watch the movies! This may sound selfish, but being on a plane is the closest thing I get to luxury – someone is not only cooking my food, but giving it to me and tidying it away at the end! And I’m allowed, even encouraged, to eat in silence in front of the TV! Where else do you get that opportunity? So no, this is one occasion where I am not reading lots of stories to my children. They are busy drawing, colouring in or watching TV.

 

 

 

 

Twindividuals

There is a line in The Sunscreen Song by Baz Luhrmann which goes “Don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either.” I often think of that in reference to bringing up children. It’s easy to view any positive behaviour your child displays as being evidence that you did something right, and any negative behaviour to be a testament to your failure. I think having twins is a trial by fire which teaches you very quickly that the influence you have as a parent is limited. That first year may be gruelling for the lack of sleep and colic in stereo, but you learn very quickly that what works for one baby does not necessarily work for another, something that may take longer to learn if you have just the one.

I remember at the few baby groups I managed to get out of the house for, a major topic of conversation among new mothers was how long their baby slept. There was always some mother there who claimed her newborn slept seven-to-seven, which seemed to be the Holy Grail of newborn sleep. There was a certain false modesty to how they would say it that showed they thought they had cracked the secret to baby sleep. It left the other mothers (who were the majority) asking her to reveal her secrets, and feeling that they had missed something. I personally believe those mothers of fantastic baby sleepers probably were doing the sorts of things any of the mothers were doing, but had babies who were naturally good sleepers. I also have a sneaky suspicion they had babies who weren’t very hungry and could bring up burps like little troopers. You feel so lost, sleep-deprived and out of your depth when you first have a baby that you keep looking for the miracle answer to having a contented baby. Of course the truth is, there is no one right answer.

From the moment my twins were born they had different personalities and needs. My son wanted to be held all the time, and would cry if left alone. My daughter was more laid back, as long as she wasn’t suffering from colic. My son would get cold very easily, my daughter too hot. My son was ravenous every 2 hours, my daughter had to be coaxed to feed. And as for sleeping, well they did have that in common: they didn’t like it at all, and certainly not at the same time. Here I was performing my own psychological experiment of nature versus nurture, and nature was by far the big winner.

I’m not saying that as parents we don’t have influence over our children. Of course we do. It’s just that the form that influence takes is dependent on the individual baby. I’m sure you could take a naturally good sleeper and manage to create an environment that would make it very difficult for he or she to sleep. But on the whole, if you’re not doing anything drastically detrimental, whether your baby sleeps when you want them to will be down to their own physiology and personality. Likewise with how well they feed, how well they take to weaning, how easily they are potty trained, how sociable they are… the list goes on.

Each one of the milestones I went through with my twins showed me how a person’s approach to any situation is completely dependent on the individual. I still remember my twins’ first taste of carrot – my son gave me this wide-eyed appalled look that something other than milk had been unceremoniously put in his mouth. He then burst into tears when we laughed at his funny expression. My daughter opened her mouth, swallowed the carrot, looked faintly bored, and opened her mouth for another mouthful. Their two reactions demonstrate very effectively their two very different approaches to new situations, which persists even now. It was programmed into them at birth.

I need to make sure I cater my parenting to my twins’ individual needs, recognising that each one has their own likes, dislikes, abilities and weaknesses that are entirely unique to each of them. My aim is not to mould them into my own idea of what they should be. My job is to encourage their best traits to blossom, and help them mitigate traits that are obstacles to their wellbeing, whatever those traits may be. So next time someone congratulates me on how well my children have behaved in public, I mean it genuinely when I say it is all them, not me.

 

 

Learning for Life, not for Rewards

The book that has had the most effect on me in in my life, in terms of how I look at the world, is a piece of non-fiction called Next of Kin by Roger Fouts. Fouts was a research assistant on the very first project teaching a chimp American Sign Language (“Project Washoe”). The book taught me many things: the process of language acquisition, the origins of human language, the profound similarity between humans and chimps and the vanity of thinking we are so different from other animals. What Fouts learnt from researching chimps was that we should not be researching chimps. (He went on to found a sanctuary for laboratory chimps.)

There are so many aspects of the chimps’ behaviour that give us insight into human behaviour that I could not possibly mention them all here. However, I will share one right now, which has been playing on my mind as I think about how I teach my children. It is a passage where Fouts describes the process of learning. He states that conditioning, which is often used to “teach” research animals to behave a certain way, is entirely contrary to learning. A system of reward and punishment actually hinders a subject’s natural capacity and curiosity to learn. Fouts quotes Desmond Morris when he observed chimps doing freehand drawings. Chimps love to draw, much as young children do. Initially the chimps would take a long time over each drawing, carefully making the desired lines on the page. But once the researchers started to give a reward each time the chimp did a drawing, hoping to increase the frequency of the activity, an interesting thing happened: the quality of what each chimp produced went markedly down. Morris says

 Any old scribble would do and then it [the chimp] would immediately hold out its hand for the reward. The careful attention the animal had paid previously …was gone, and the worst kind of commercial art was born!

When I read this I was immediately struck by what that meant in terms of teaching my children. Were the sticker charts I sometimes get out for them in fact holding them back?

I have been teaching my children to read and write for the last 18 months while living abroad. Initially, I would do activities with them to teach them a particular sound, and I would give them a sticker for each activity they did. They had a sticker chart to mark their progress, with the promise of a little gift or treat once the chart was completed. This worked quite well, although I noticed they were much keener to do the work when their chart was very near completion. All of a sudden they wanted to read three books in a row, or do multiple writing activities to reach the goal. Of course that’s not really what I wanted, as reading three books in a row without much care isn’t as useful as one carefully read book a day for three days. I also noticed that once a new sticker chart was started, they were much less interested in doing the work, as the promised treat seemed a long way off.

This isn’t really surprising behaviour, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the sticker chart itself might be a stumbling block to their learning. Without realising it, I had made the achievement of stickers appear more desirable than the achievement of being able to read a book. I started to think about the fact that if I wanted them to do reading and writing, they needed to want to do it too. So I had to make the activity attractive enough that to capture their interest and curiosity. As Fouts says,

Learning cannot be controlled; it is out of control by design. Learning emerges spontaneously, it proceeds in an individualistic and unpredictable way, and it achieves its goal in its own good time.

This is wonderful in theory, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes I just feel out of ideas, and often they would probably rather play freely than do what I suggest. And sometimes you just need your children to learn what you are teaching. But the times when I have been a little more imaginative, the children have been much more engaged and able to concentrate for longer. I also avoid giving them a sticker for an activity that they have enjoyed, so that they don’t get the idea that what they just did was in fact work!

All this also made me question the use of sticker charts, or regular rewards, in general. I’ve watched Super Nanny – I’ve seen the results of a well-used sticker chart. But is it possible that we are made to believe that they are the only way to get our children to behave or do what we want? Should we be conditioning our children so readily? Maybe we need to take more effort to make the behaviour or activity an end in itself. The problem with giving consistent rewards for a given behaviour is that once you take away the reward, the behaviour may disappear also. I don’t want my children to stop reading because I don’t give them a sticker after each book. I want them to pick up the book because they enjoy reading. In the same way, I don’t want my children to stop eating their vegetables because they aren’t getting a sticker for it; I want them to eat vegetables because they understand it’s good for them. If conditioning inhibits natural learning, I think it also inhibits natural good habits.

I’m certainly not suggesting we should not reward children for doing something good. I think encouragement and praise are very important for children and adults alike. I just think that when we give an automatic reward consistently each time a child does something we want, we are teaching he or she the value of rewards, rather than the intrinsic value of the behaviour. There are always times when the benefit of what we want our children to do is much more obvious to us than to them, and I am not opposed to a good dose of bribery in those cases. And sometimes I find that the use of rewards is the only way to promote certain behaviours that I have failed to cajole, explain or rant into being. But before I reach out for the trusty sticker chart again, I will try to see what I can do to turn something that I want my children to do into something that they want to do for themselves.

 

Where the F*** are my Slippers?

I am constantly asking my children to wear their slippers in the house, as our floors are hard and easy to slip on in socks. It doesn’t matter how many times I ask, it always seems to be surprising news to them. Here is a typical daily conversation with my daughter:

Me: Where are your slippers?

Her (in a joyful, sing-songy voice): I have no idea, mummy.

Me: When did you last have them?

Her: I don’t remember.

Me (getting irate): How can you not remember? Go and look!

(Off she goes and returns merrily some minutes later)

Her: Good news, mummy, I found one of them!

This would all seem like normal child/parent behaviour, only I end up having a little pang of guilt as I say the words. The reason? Because more often than I would like to admit, I end up saying to myself (away from children’s earshot, naturally) “where the f*** are my slippers?” And I have absolutely no idea where they are, or even any recollection of where I last had them. Replace ‘slippers’ with ‘mobile phone’, ‘handbag’, ‘car keys’ and you get a pretty good gist of how I spend my days, not to mention how organised I am.

Once again I am aware that I have turned into a hypocrite. It turns out that everything I get fed up with my children for doing, are the very frustrating behaviours I have myself. Even worse, they are the behaviours I remember my mother complaining about when I was young. I lose things. I get distracted. I eat slowly. I avoid tasks I don’t like doing. I don’t tidy things away. The list goes on.

Of course the worst part is the knowledge that children can sniff out hypocrisy like bloodhounds. So I end up with three options:

  1. Try to hide my not-so-good behaviours from my children
  2. Try to improve my behaviours
  3. Care less about their not-so-good behaviours.

The first one is not an option. They are going to notice that I am hunting around for car keys while they are waiting at the door, or that I’m wearing socks when I’m telling them to look for their slippers. The second one is clearly the best, noblest option. But I know that I am simply not going to turn into someone who keeps an immaculately tidy house, who never procrastinates and who knows where everything is at any one time. In fact, I think I would find someone who was capable of all that a little bit frightening.

So that leads on to number 3. Obviously, as a parent, I want my children to be the best little people they can be. But part of that is recognising that they will never be perfect, or rather, that it is their ‘imperfections’ that make them the wonderful little people they are. My daughter’s head is often in the clouds. In her mind it makes perfect sense to wear just the one slipper, and have the other one stuffed down the back of the sofa. It’s what makes her so imaginative. My son wants to do everything as carefully as he can, which is why cutting up his food or getting dressed can take an eternity. It’s also what makes him so precise with his drawings and so honest when he’s done something he shouldn’t have.

On the other hand, I still have a duty to get them to improve certain behaviours, but I just need to keep in mind that my expectations should be compatible with their personality. My daughter will probably always be a little disorganised, so trying to turn her into an organised person is probably impossible (especially as she doesn’t have the best example to follow!) The best I can hope is to help her be more organised. My son will probably always have a preference for precision over speed, but I can help him balance the two a little more. I need to become a little more accepting of their strengths and weaknesses, and realise that while I may have influence over these, it is limited.

As for me? I am going to become more accepting of my own weaknesses. I have come up with another option:

  1. Accept hypocrisy as a natural part of parenthood.