Monday, 30 December 2013

We're better outside

Kneeling on the bed this morning, staring at gusts of wind blowing the bamboos so hard they rocked the fence and horizontal rain hammering on the window, it didn't feel like a good day for going out.  We decided last week that today we would go to the zoo.  We have vouchers for annual membership of our local children's zoo every year for Christmas from my lovely in-laws and today was our last chance to renew if we wanted to make use of a 30% renewal discount.  Yet the weather was so foul we worried about the potential flooding on the roads, and the kids have had coughs again, and there was still another cupboard to fit in the almost completed kitchen, and, and, and ....  All in all we felt ...bleurgh.

In the end we let the cash savings be our deciding vote and jumped up, wrapped the kids up in layers (vest, long sleeved t-shirt, short sleeved T-shirt, jumper, coat, jeans, willies, scarfs, hats and gloves - they walked like they were in full body casts at first) and headed out into the wild Sussex weather.  Anyone living up North, or in a country where it's currently snowing, is probably shaking their head in disgust at my wimpiness having read this, but this is the south coast of England.  Apart from the last few years, when we've had a bit of snow in January and February, we mostly just get drizzly winters.

Generally, having both worked outdoors for years in all weathers, we generally go with the adage 'there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes' and today really proved it.  It peed down constantly all morning in a freezing, wind-blown assault.  We were the only people on the Thomas Train ride other than the driver and a sparrow.  In the outdoor areas we charged from exhibit to exhibit completely alone apart from keepers and other staff.  In the indoor sections we shared an impressed moment when a rhinoceros iguana sneezed snot all over the glass of it's habitat, and another stood with another family watching a monkey scratching it's bum.  The car park had been quite full - it turned out everyone else was squeezed into the soft play area that smells of nappies and over excited children.  We avoided that.  No-one else saw the beavers come right up to the wall to sniff at us - we kept our hand to ourselves, but they were close enough to tickle had I thought they would appreciate it and not mistake our fingers for food.  We got a personal talk about the Asian short-clawed otters.

It was fantastic.  Cold and wet, but immense fun.  We came home feeling less tired than when we left the house in the morning at 10am.  Very occasionally we prepare badly enough that we regret going out in bad weather, but usually it is like today and the very act of running around outside recharges us.  It drives me a little crazy when parents say their kids are 'naughty' when they just have energy they haven't been given a chance to burn off.  Walking and running around outside in the air every day is the best thing any of us can do for our kids, and ourselves.  So I'm off to hit the study books now, with the kids having sailed off to sleep happy and tired at 7pm and Matt swearing gently under his breath as he attempts to replace the inner tube on Ollie's bike ready for tomorrow's adventures. Hopefully without having caught pneumonia.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Gender equality in parenting, the media and toys

The boys whipping up a steamed
I'm a firm believer in something wonderful that is happening all over the country, and all over the world, right now.  Parents are providing great role models for their kids and breaking down gender stereotypes about 'boy jobs' and 'girl jobs'.  Dad's like Matt are making steamed puddings with their boys  just as well as they tackle the tiling, and mums like me are wielding the power saw with at least as much skill as the iron.  In some families this is about a couple helping each other out and playing to their strengths, and in other families there is a single parent, or two mums, or two dads, all working hard to provide their (or someone else's) children with a fantastic start in life by not limiting their expectations of themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if the media, including books and films, is lagging behind in the gender equality stakes.  When the fantastic newsreader Moira Stewart was dropped by the BBC she said 'it's not that they're ageist, racist or sexist, they just don't want an old, black woman reading the news'.  By limiting the people children see on TV to certain roles we are limiting their expectations of what is 'normal' for them to aspire to.  It's a difficult line to walk though between providing positive role models and making every show so politically correct it creaks.  For example there's a great show on CBeebies called Get Well Soon which explains to children about common ailments and injuries.  The doctor is a man and the nurse is a woman.  Is this reinforcing gender stereotypes and perpetuating an age old tradition of male doctors outnumbering female ones to some extent, or to an even greater extent female nurses outnumbering male ones?  Or is it just reflecting society as the child is most likely to encounter it and therefore representing a realistic view of the world which makes the show believable (singing fuzzy puppets aside)?  So should we be evangelically enthusiastic about promoting gender equality in every casting decision in every show?  I don't know the answer to that but I'm not sure we've got the balance right at the moment.
The kids admiring my floor laying skills 

One element of gender in the media that really does cause concern however is in the constant heavy handed bombardment of children with advertising for toys which are 'boys toys' or 'girls toys'.  In our house we sidestep it to a large extent by really limiting screen time in general, and not watching channels with advertising with the kids.  However, any walk down a supermarket toy aisle gives ample examples of the problem.  If you can only buy bright pink kitchens and pan sets, how does this tell children that everyone in a household should be able to enjoy and share in cooking? I suspect that most children will not be aware that pink only became a 'girl colour' in Victorian times - many a Viking warrior sailed to battle resplendent in pink in earlier times.   So what can we do about gender stereotyping in toys?

I think parental tolerance of children's preferences is the first step.  If your little boy has no interest in traditional girl's toys, don't make a big deal out of it in the name of equality - lots of stereotypical boy's toys are things that boys often show preference for, such as trains, to a greater extent than most of their female playmates.  In the same vein, if your daughter wants to be a pink princess, that's fine too, although many a parent feels that the only princess their daughter should be emulating is Princess Leia.  Conversely, most of the mums with boys that I know have at least one son who prefers pink, nurtures a baby doll and pushes a pram - both of my boys love their cheap pink toy pram.  Our job as parents is to provide varied opportunities for imaginative play and learning, and encourage the interests our children have as well as extending their experiences, but not necessarily to dictate what they play with.

The second step is looking for toys which are not so obviously stereotyped.  If you're looking to get a toy kitchen for example, you could hunt for one which isn't pink.  We got a lovely natural wood and painted white one from a certain Swedish furniture shop which has survived a year of boisterous daily play from two small boys so far (Toby squashed our donated plastic one flat when he was learning to walk).  The boys also have a yellow kettle and iron from a forward thinking supermarket - our nearest supermarket only had pink ones.  By boycotting 'blue for boys and pink for girls', and spending on less gender specific colours, manufacturers and shops are given a clear message about parents wishes.

The third step could be to contact toy makers and shops directly.  'I wanted to buy my daughter some of your building blocks recently but was surprised to see that you felt girls would only be interested in using pink bricks to build a beauty salon...' may be the route you wish to go if this is something that really bugs you.

Whatever they see in the toy shop, in books, films or television though, you are your children's most important role model when they are small, and it is your attitude to what you can or cannot do which ultimately will inform their expectations of themselves.  No pressure there then!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Festive salt dough decorations

 Making salt dough decorations is a firm favourite of a tradition in many families.  I came across it for the first time last year watching 'Kirstie's Homemade Christmas' on TV and we had great fun, if not the most attractive results.  This year we've refined our technique somewhat and have ended up with some prettier and less soggy decorations.  This is a lovely activity to be done in ten minute bursts, which suits small children's attention spans. It encourages creative play, basic maths skills in measuring, and makes children feel good in contributing to the family's preparations for Christmas.  If you don't celebrate Christmas, the activity is just as good for making fun decorations for any other festivity.

The basic recipe is really simple.  This year I used a recipe provided by my local children's center, but I halved the quantities as we ran out of table salt.  The children's center recipe: 2 cups plain flour. 1 cup salt. 1 cup water.  Mix to form a dough (adjust quantities of water or flour to get right texture).  Model into shapes (not too thick) and cook on a very low heat for several hours.  The models can then be painted.

 The boys helped with measuring out the ingredients, which is really simple in this recipe as you use cups rather than weights.  Don't panic if you don't have a standardised measuring cup (this is a more common measuring technique in America, here in the UK recipes usually give weights in grams, or ounces if it's an old recipe).  Getting it right is about ratios, so as long as you use the same sized container as your 'cup' it doesn't matter - e.g. a 'cup' could be a half filled mug, or a plastic drinking cup, or a small bowl so long as you use the same thing for each measurement.

From our experience last year, getting the dough rolled out fairly thin helps in the drying process later on.  This needed surprisingly little intervention from me as both boys are becoming dab hands with the rolling pin.  Sharing the rolling pin is something they were initially not keen on, but it all builds social skills.  We then shared a star shaped cookie cutter to make the shapes, but any shape you have would work fine.  I'd avoid anything with details that are too fiddly and liable to break off like the thin legs on reindeer shapes.  I then put the shapes on a sheet of baking paper on a metal baking tray into a low temperature oven (about 80 centigrade).  Before you put them in the oven don't forget to make a hole in each one if you intend to string them up - a skewer wiggled around to make a hole worked well, making the hole a bit bigger than you want as they tend to close up a bit in the oven.

To make cleaning up the table more fun, we rolled straight into another messy play activity - rolling toy cars and trains through shaving foam.  If you haven't read about this before, the 'value' cheap shaving foam has the least perfumes and is just soap, so even if your little ones ingest some it is pretty harmless - obviously avoid eyes and use your judgement about when your child is old enough to enjoy this.  I find it helpful to have a clean damp flannel on hand for when one of them does get some in their eye.

The next stage of the 'clean up' tends to cause even more mess, but the laughter is worth it.  The boys get a cloth each to help wipe the table, and then a bowl of warm water on the floor to wash the foam off their toys.  This usually ends up with the boys and the floor soaking wet, so to avoid slipping I try to be prepared with old towels and also supervise closely by getting down on the floor and splashing their toys with them.  In this picture the we had floor was ideal for messy wet play.   It was the old stick-on floor tiles that were underneath the floor we had to remove following our washing machine leak.  I put down new laminate tiles yesterday, which I don't think will take so kindly to being really soaked so this phase of the activity will have to move upstairs to the bath in the future.  The bath is where we end up anyway to make sure the last of the soap foam is removed and everyone is warmed up and dressed in dry clothes.

I baked the shapes for 5 hours, then left them to dry outside the oven, then put them in again for another couple of hours.  It has to be a really low heat as you are just drying them, not cooking them.  We found last year that a higher heat just burns them in patches.  This is the big reason for getting your shapes thin - uneven or thick shapes don't dry well.

When the shapes were dry and cool we painted them with poster paint.  This made the shapes a little soggy and cracked when it dried, so I'm sure someone will have a better alternative, but poster paint is child safe so I'm not worried about an imperfect finish.  Besides which, the following day we then put so much glitter on the shapes it's hard to tell they were painted in the first place.  The final stage (tomorrow) will be stringing them up on very thin ribbon, interspersed with some silvery metal charms we kept from some Christmas crackers.  Another lesson from last year though - if you want to keep the shapes, put them in an airtight container with a desiccant added, for example a plastic tub with salt in it, or sachets of silica gel.  We did not do this and stored them in a cardboard box in the loft with the other baubles.  When we got the decorations down we had a lot of mushy dough shapes sticking the baubles together, oops!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Santa doesn't stop here

Free image
The parent forums on Facebook are full of debate at the moment about what to do about Santa and whether or not to perpetuate the myth.

I wouldn't dream of telling anyone what they should do with regards this, but if you're looking for 'middle way' ideas that allow kids to join in but without the full on deal, this post may be of interest.  Nothing in it is intended to say anyone else's ideas and traditions are wrong so hopefully no offense is given, this is just our own ideas and rationale.

We decided that we want the kids to know that the gifts they get are made or chosen by family and friends, not a magical stranger with the ability to give them anything in the world that they want.  This means that expectations are kept realistic and there's no heartbroken children who didn't find a pony under the tree on Christmas morning.

Santa doesn't come to our house because we're helping him out when he's very very busy by going to see him before Christmas.  We take the boys to see Santa in his house at our zoo where he stays for a few weeks before Christmas.  The boys get a gift from Santa, and we tell them they're really lucky because if he came to our house they wouldn't get to see him because he comes very late and they'd be asleep in bed and miss him.  Toby's too young to understand and Ollie seems satisfied with this explanation so far.

We have never told the boys that they must be good or they won't get Christmas presents.  For us gifts are a demonstration of affection, not a bribe for behaving in a way that we would expect them to anyway.  Unless you would seriously consider withholding gifts it's not a good idea to threaten it.

We don't do Christmas wish lists.  We ask the boys if there is anything in particular they'd like and try to keep our eyes open to any particular interests they have in the run up to Christmas.  Ollie named three Octonauts toys last year that he liked, so we got one of them for his birthday last November, his grandparents got another, and the third he waited for until this year's birthday.  It means that each toy is well played with and not just lost in the jumble of the toy box.  We got a lovely book from a friend for his birthday last year - The Dinosaur That Pooped Out Christmas - about Santa sending a boy who was too greedy a dinosaur which ate everything.  This has been a favourite all year and may be helping with Ollie's understanding of how much stuff he already has and how lucky we are.  It's also something we talk about from time to time - not asking for things all the time because we have lots.  When Santa asked him this year what he wanted Ollie said 'whatever's in here' holding up his parcel from Santa.  When pressed did he want a car he said 'no it's OK I've got lots of stuff'.  He'd wanted his Octonauts toy for so long it's like he's not bothered about anything else.  Toby said 'choo choo' which is pretty much his answer to everything.

I'm hoping we're getting a middle ground - the excitement of decorating the house and tree, of choosing, making and giving gifts, but without the emotional exhaustion of kids who's expectations are sky high and end up being disappointed.