Tag Archives: Raising Kids

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.

 

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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

 

 

When One Twin Stops Believing in Father Christmas

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

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

Perfectly logical to some...

Perfectly logical to some…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How I teach my kids to swear

cursing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.