Monday, 30 June 2008

Time to break some rules

There has been an incredible transformation in our house since my last blog entry.

The TV has hardly been on after school - although our son is still wedded to his computer games- and my daughter and I have found other things to keep us busy. We've been to the park after tea, we've been swimming, cycling, entertaining friends for play dates, playing "Sorry", and one evening last week the kids went to the driving range with their Dad whilst I was working away.

The net result is that the kids are far more engaged, with us and with each other, and, especially in the case of my daughter, far more articulate and mature.

She's only five, but actually my daughter's at the age where as a mother I have to encourage her not to behave babyishly any more.

Prior to our conscious efforts to spend more time with her rather than relying on electronic media to entertain her, she was routinely behaving as if she was still 2, frequently reminding me that "I'm your baby, Mummy".

Kids frequently get a bum rap for "attention-seeking behaviour", as if they do this on purpose, with no other reason but just to make life hell for the adults around them. We can always choose how to respond to this. Either we can react impatiently, and perpetuate the mistaken thinking that kids are indeed out to get us, or we can get curious about why they are behaving in this way. Kids seek attention because they are missing something from us - either a feeling of comfort, or because they are ready to learn something new.

My daughter's babyishness I now recognise was both of these things. It's the only way she knows to demonstrate that she needs me. She wants me to respond to her in a particular way, to give her reassurance, and also to show her the way to grow up.

Little did she know that this behaviour was actually "turning me off", and causing me to back off from her and react impatiently, giving me cause to retreat ever deeper into my own world of distractions. I guess this is the viscious cycle that it is easy to fall into, such that parents develop a misconception about their children's behaviour and what it means. What I needed to do was wake up and get curious.

By paying attention to what our children's behaviour is really about we are instead able to respond in a way that is far more appropriate for both of us. In my daughter's case we both needed to learn something new about each other - I needed to learn that her babyish tendencies were actually a cry for attention, while she needed to learn that it's time to grow up, and I can show her the way.

Showing her the way has involved taking on new habits, and breaking a few rules.

For example, the rule that floats generally around young children, that they need to be in bed early, eight o'clock at the absolute latest, really needed to be broken in our house. This is because my daughter was neither tired enough nor secure enough to say goodnight to us so early, particularly in the light nights of June, and especially if all she'd done since she came home from school is watch TV, pick at her tea, get shouted at, watch more TV, then get impatiently packed off to bed.

It is truly shameful having to admit to all this, but really in my daughter's world this is what was happening. No wonder she didn't want to eat her meal at tea-time, nor go to sleep at bed-time.

Breaking the early bedtime rule has meant that we're more open to doing more activities after school and into the evening. School finishes at 3pm, there's still a good six hours left of the day, which are desperately difficult to fill if we've got an unbreakable set of rules in our mind about getting our kids to bed early.

Likewise, the rule that I'd made up about feeding my kids fresh home-cooked food every day has also had to be relaxed in the face of spending time having fun after school. Don't get me wrong, feeding our children properly is still high on my agenda, but not at the cost of leaving them in front of the telly while I concoct in the kitchen.

My daughter has been much happier on a diet of fish fingers, hot dogs, omelettes and "time with Mum" than she ever is sitting at the table in front of lentil bolognese or roast dinner. Sometimes we need to recognise that our kids need a different type of nourishment than just food.

Of course the other spin off benefit of all this is that when the kids do eventually go to bed they sleep much better, with fewer requests for yet more drinks of water, night lights, trips to the loo, or making sure that the dream -catcher is hanging straight, or that the house spider (which has become a pet) is safely in its corner.

Kids are past masters at making up all kinds of excuses to bring us closer to them, to help them feel secure and comfortable. The trick is to recognise what lies behind these tactics, and respond to what our children are really needing, in a way that works for everyone.

The postscript to this has got to be "be flexible". Because my husband and I both work from home this can be both easy and hard. Easy because we're our own boss and needn't work to strict "office" hours; hard because it's much more fun to be with the kids, so sometimes work doesn't get done when it should. As with everything there has to be balance, and an open mind about breaking rules, especially ones that we may have created for ourselves.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Another moment of Parental Inspiration

Intellectually and theoretically I know it. I advise others about it often. I'm pretty much aware every time I fall foul of it myself - and berate myself endlessly about it. But actually doing something about it invariably proves extremely difficult.

What am I talking about? Quite simply, the blatant, unassailable fact that kids don't deal very well with distracted parents.

When parents become distracted and preoccupied, we lose patience with our kids, as our attention and focus are elsewhere. If things are anything like our house, as parents we become increasingly reliant upon siblings, computers and TVs to provide our children's entertainment, so that we can have some peace and quiet to devote to our current distractions.

Sooner rather than later the sibling rivalry kicks off in time-honoured fashion with squealing and squabbling, as it becomes increasingly apparent that our children cannot be in the same room as each other without World War Three breaking out. In reaction to the bickering we temporarily awaken from our preoccupations to shout at them and tell them to behave themselves, so that we can go back into our own extremely important parallel universe of distraction and preoccupation.

All in all the children end up feeling not a little abandoned and "got at", which in turn triggers a feeling of insecurity. This then triggers attention-seeking behaviour in them, which in turn pushes the parents to impose increasingly punitive measures, until we've nowhere left to go short of locking our children in their rooms and forgetting about them for a bit. We all know that feeling of utter exhausted helplessness when we've literally run out of sanctions and threats, and our kids are still driving us up the wall.

If you can relate to this in any way I recommend you take a moment to step back and assess how distractedly you are behaving towards your children, and how much you're trying to put them off in favour of "more pressing and important" things.

It all came to a head for me this weekend when my own feelings of guilt at putting off my own kids yet again finally imploded. I decided that a family conference was needed and that we all needed to pay more attention to each other instead of hiding ourselves in our separate rooms to indulge our separate distractions.

I told my son that he needed to spend less time on his computer as it was making him forget how to relate to people rather than machines (Oh physic - heal thyself!!) And I told my hubby that we both needed to make more of an effort to be with the kids when they come home from school so that we can start getting on better as a family.

Of my daughter I shared my observations that her listlessness and disinclination to eat properly at mealtimes is directly linked to how much time she was getting to share with us after school instead of being mesmerised by the Cartoon Network.

My request was that this week we try an experiment - that we all try to resist electronic media as much as possible so we get to do other activities together and we get to talk more.

In response to this our five-year-old daughter became extremely animated, and started making suggestions about all the things she's been dying for us all to do together if only we'd been less distracted - "We could play a game, or go to the park after tea, or go swimming after school, or we could all go to the playing field and you can play cricket while I ride round on my bike without stabilisers...."

It's heart-breaking really.

Meanwhile our ten-year-old son has already become a bit of a hardened cynic and he began his habitual snarling at each of his sister's suggestions (except maybe the one about cricket). For this he received a severe dressing down from his father, who also agreed to make more of an effort when the kids are home from school to do stuff instead of languishing in front of his PC.

So, as a result of our family conference we have enjoyed an extremely pleasant weekend. On Friday afternoon we went to watch some Twenty20 Cricket in Bristol; on Saturday afternoon we went to watch the kids play golf in their respective tournaments, then in the evening we played Sorry instead of putting the telly on; yesterday for Fathers' Day we did a bit of a cycle ride around Swindon, called at a pub with a playground for a couple of drinks, then came home for a barbecue.

The kids have been a lot calmer, brighter and happier, they have played together really nicely, and to top it all our daughter ate 3 lamb kebabs for tea last night, which is some kind of record on her recent eating form.

The only reason why changing our experience is ever difficult is because habits are easily formed but tricky to break. It's so easy to fall into lazy habits as a family and not take the time to share activities and be together. Playing board games, joining in their play and enjoying the long days to go out for a walk or bike ride after tea are little ways to reconnect with our kids and put our own distractions to one side. I've noticed that not only does it help our kids behave better, it also makes the distractions far less preoccupying and significant.

The more we're aware of our habits, the more chance we've got to change them.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Gadget phobia, self-actualisation and holiday memories

I've finally sorted out my photos, and know now how to upload them onto my PC without having to limply get out of the way while hubby sorts it. I hate that!

He gave me my lovely new digital camera for my birthday, and I could tell by the way he hovered around me after it arrived, and while I was taking it out of the box, that he couldn't wait to get his hands on it and see how it worked. He was almost taking it out of my fingers when I told him to back off. I point blank refused to allow him to touch it before I'd figured out FOR MYSELF how to put the battery in, charge it up, use the zoom, understand the various settings, and actually take the pictures.

I just knew that if he picked it up before I had chance to do all these things then he would become the "new gadget expert" instead of me, and I would become dependent on him knowing how to work the thing. It would end up with me never using it myself because I wouldn't know what to do with it unless he explained it to me. And constantly having to have things explained to me is a serious drain on my personal pride, so something which I tend to avoid.

I know this sounds rather irrational - what would be the problem with me looking at the instructions myself? - but the point is I wanted to become the expert before him! If he became the expert first then, every time he saw me pick up the instruction manual to figure out what to do with the thing, he would be over in a shot telling me everything that he'd discovered about it.

Don't get me wrong, I know he has every good intention and only wants to be helpful, but my habitual reaction is "Oh well you deal with it then because you know more about it than me."

As I write it strikes me that this is a key way I "give away my power", to use a corny, new-agey, self-actualisation bit of jargon, and deny myself new learning, experiences and expertise. This is also the main reason why, despite being a complete music nut, I haven't caught up entirely with I-Pods and MP3s and the like, and why I have only just recently discovered how to send text messages on my phone - yes really.

Anyway, since I banned hubby from fiddling with my new camera, I've become a bit more savvy, and a whole lot less dependent. I have been sending text messages to my new friends in Manchester and Turkey and I've been uploading photos onto Facebook!

Even so, I'm still extremely grateful for all the sophisticated computer and network kit we've got at home - and for the fact that hubby, also affectionately known as "technical monkey", is the one who maintains it and makes it work. Because quite frankly it would have me tearing my hair out.

Without further adieu, here's some lovely pics from our recent holiday in Jard-sur Mer, western France:

The harbour at Jard sur Mer at sun-down

Swimmming pool at Camping Les Ecureuils where we stayed in a Eurocamp tent.

Playing on the beach

The beautiful and practically empty Plage de La Mine.

Our bike ride on my birthday. Our daughter was very pleased that she got to sit in the trailer because the rental place didn't have a bike small enough for her to ride safely!

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Distractions, procrastinations and solutions

Ooh dear - the time between my blog posts is getting longer and longer. I'm not losing interest -honest!

The kids went back to school yesterday and I had a list as long as my arm of things I would get on with given a bit of peace and quiet. We had a great holiday in France (I'll blog about it soon when I've managed to figure out how to upload the photos off my camera into the correct place on the PC without hubby having to take over), but the kids were really starting to drive me mad by the end of the two week break. (Something else to share my pearls of wisdom about.)

A couple of things came up over the weekend that I needed to get out of the way early doors this week, not least updating my CV for a new coaching opportunity which sounds interesting - and which is probably the only role I've seen in a very long while which I actually feel appropriately and adequately skilled for.

So yesterday I spent the entire day updating my Curriculum Vitae - well not the ENTIRE day - I still found time to catch up with some old mates in Canada, Australia and Brighton on Facebook. How distracting is all that social networking malarky? I could spend the whole day either looking for people I know and inviting them to be "my friend", or tapping happy messages to all the other people who are already my friend, whether I "know" them or not!!

I do love it - though it does require a resolution of steel not to keep skipping back to check for messages! (Don't stop sending them lovely people - just know that I'm working hard to resist chatting to you all the day long.)

It's amazing what other things I can find to do before I get down to doing the stuff I've got to do. There's always another load of washing to put into the machine or hang out to dry, or a load of stuff to tidy up or put away. It's not that I'm avoiding doing stuff particularly - I like doing what I do - I just like feeling that I've got clear space behind me and in front of me before I start.

I also think I like putting off the moment where I no longer have a big list of stuff to do, having done it all. I like having the list! It's comforting and exciting ("just think of all the stuff I've got to look forwards to!"). I guess it also gives me some sort of purpose (I must be important because look at all these things I've got to do!) Usually I won't admit that my to do list also includes things like "do the ironing" and "buy washing up liquid", but even having those things on there gives me some kind of focus, and once they're done I just love the sense of achievement I get when I tick them off!! It occurs to me that this is a much more productive feeling to get addicted to than the feeling of always having something to look forwards to.

OK so now I'm revealing my saddest secrets. I procrastinate because I'm afraid of running out of things to do. As if! Or looking at it another way, I'm buying creative thinking time so I can make sure I develop the best ideas possible. This also needs to be treated with caution as I have the tendency to loop off into different dimensions of the universe which are completely irrelevant to the here and now.

For example yesterday my hubby read a draft of the covering letter I was going to send with my CV. I hadn't been mulling it for that long, but I was looking forwards to writing it and I knew already that there was STUFF I WANTED TO SAY. So away I typed and then I said to hubby "Come and read this."

It was about 200 words long and contained precisely 2 sentences. Imagine! The longest, most jargon-filled sentence with the least amount of punctuation that you can get away with. I could feel my husband about to pass out through lack of oxygen intake even as he read it silently to himself in his own head. His sense of utter confusion at what I'd written was palpable and I knew that his verdict wouldn't be glowing.

Thankfully he responded by giving me just three simple questions: "What are you applying for, why are you suitable, where can they contact you." Some people are just born to cut through the crap.