Random Musings: The learner driver

My eldest child is learning to drive. She has been taking weekly lessons with an instructor for a little over six months, practising her skills in between by driving my little car. Sitting with her while she drives terrifies me and she knows it. I console myself with the thought that when she sits her practical test she will likely be nervous. Driving under my supervision gives her practice at driving under pressure.

Her lessons are expensive. I do not begrudge the instructor his fee but the longer it takes my daughter to pass her test the more the costs mount up. Encouraging her to practice as much as possible therefore makes sense but for her to practice either my husband or I must be in the car. While he is at work I must take my turn.

In recent weeks our weather has turned cold and wet so my boys have been less inclined to cycle to and from school. Bus fares have increased markedly so I decided that it would be a win win situation if my daughter drove everyone in each morning. This decision is proving to be a challenge to my well-being.

Automatic transmission cars are becoming more popular but most cars in this country still have manual gear shifts. Pulling out of busy junctions into rush hour traffic is not a good time to stall the engine; I try to stay silent as Daughter restarts the car and pulls away in a screech of spray. Changing gears whilst navigating the busy roundabouts en route requires concentration; I try not to flinch as the car veers worryingly close to kerbs as she accelerates away from each intersection.

I am not a particularly skilled driver and I recognise that I am a nervous passenger; my husband’s driving regularly causes me concern. He seems to take it as a personal slight if a car pulls in front of him, his irritation obvious in his demeanour and language. He will overtake furiously and then coast along, his mind focused on fuel economy. The irony of this variation in style is apparently lost on him. He chooses routes on distance rather than navigational ease. He and his dad will discuss at length alternative, potentially faster routes with the eagerness of alchemists. I suspect that my slow and steady driving along the best maintained roads irritates him as much as his driving decisions can irritate me.

This is all about trust and control yet with driving the biggest risk comes from others. My daughter will benefit from being able to drive but it is hard to put aside thoughts of the road traffic accidents that so regularly cause delays near our home. When my husband is late back from work that is where my imagination takes me.

I drive as little as possible, preferring to cycle, walk and use the trains. Our rural location, inclement weather and patchy public transport require me to use my car more than I would wish. Friends tell me that my real worries will start when my daughter passes her driving test and goes out on these roads alone.

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Mothers and daughters

I have been reading a lot of thought provoking posts recently on how we raise and treat sons and daughters, boys and girls. Expectations about gender have been discussed, from the pinkness of girl’s toys to allowing boys to wear dresses if they wish to. Whether we, as parents, should actively encourage gender neutral play or just let our kids do what they want and go with the flow.

I did not dress my daughter in pink when she was little, and she had few dresses. With two brothers growing up behind her I was always aware of the cost of clothes and how short a time they were worn for. I dressed my daughter in outfits that could be passed on and bought her toys that all three could play with. I took hand me downs from anyone generous enough to offer them, and most of these came from boys.

She did have a few dolls, but I only remember her playing with one just after her younger brother was born. She asked for real nappies and discarded the play bottles, hitching up her t shirt to feed her ‘baby’ from her toddler chest while I nursed her brother. She soon tired of this game and returned to her soft toys, trucks and Lego. At three years old she had more interesting games to play.

When they were little I remember one of her brothers kicking out at her; and their grandmother, appalled, telling my son that he must never, ever kick or hit a girl. Had she not added the girl bit I would not have objected to the reprimand. It was the kick that was naughty, not the fact that she was a girl. I would have been just as cross had my daughter kicked her brother. I did my best to raise them to follow the same rules, with no special treatment based on gender.

All three of my children played football and hockey, trained in judo and joined Scouts. My daughter did try Brownies and Guides, but never felt that she fitted in so well. Boys were more straightforward, less moody, more willing to build rockets, play outside in foul weather, get muddy without fuss. At least some of them were, the ones that she wished to play with.

It suited our family to have a daughter who showed little interest in her looks or her clothes, although I didn’t give this much thought until last year. She surprised me by deciding that she wished to attend her school Prom, so we needed to consider dress, shoes, hair and make up. I began to see a pattern amongst her peers that, perhaps naively, surprised me.

From the small sample that I observed, the daughters of mothers who dyed their hair blond and their skin tan, did the same. Mothers who liked impractical shoes and would not leave the house without make up, had daughters who chose to wear high heels and make up. Mothers with a more relaxed attitude to their looks had daughters who were happy to allow their natural beauty to take centre stage.

Given that most sixteen year old girls look fabulous whatever they wear, all the girls at the event looked amazing. I did not enquire but suspect that each mother thought that their daughter looked at her best. I certainly perceived my daughter as beautiful, although I often do even in the most ordinary of situations.

My surprise was, I guess, more that the daughters reflected their mothers choices so clearly. I wonder which of them would be most appalled at this thought.

Much as I love my mother I have never aspired to be like her. I see little similarity between us in either looks or outlook. So many of the young girls I observed seemed to be clear reflections of their mother’s tastes.

I can see both my husband and me in our daughter and I like that. She is also an individual in her own right. Perhaps sixteen was just too young and these young ladies will find their own way in the years to come. I am aware that my choices for myself are now influenced by my daughter, so perhaps it should not surprise me that some of my influences may rub off on her.

My sons seem so much less like me than my daughter, although my elder son is his father in just about every way except looks. I know that many of my views and habits now irritate him so perhaps he is reacting against that, or perhaps our influence as parents is not so great and my daughter merely tries harder to please.

The nature versus nurture debate is an interesting one.  There is no doubt that, as they grow older, parental influence diminishes, as it should if the world is to progress.

My children give me hope for the future because they do not dwell on gender, race or creed as so many adults did when I was growing up. They expect equal treatment as a right. Perhaps it is time for we adults to listen more to our young people and less to conventions that have caused the problems we are now trying to avoid.

The generations move on and so must we, guiding lovingly and mindfully until our young people are ready to lead us into the future.

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For my daughter

You are beautiful, but it is not your beauty that defines you. After that first, perfunctory assessment it is your wit and empathy that will colour opinion. Never compromise what you are; if others do not appreciate your worth, move on.

I realise that, although I have encountered many of the issues that you must face, my experiences will have differed from yours. I grew up in a time and a place far removed from that which you must experience. I do not ask that you do as I say, although I may ask you to consider a point of view alongside others.

Be aware that, however irrelevant other’s may appear to you, their counsel may contain some nugget of wisdom. Learn to listen that you may proceed mindfully. There are lessons to be learned in even the most obscure of places.

Your thoughts and feelings are valid; do not allow others to diminish their worth. The things that matter to you should not be dismissed as irrelevant just because they are not appreciated by those you encounter as you move through your world and this life.

Strive to be the best that you can for your own edification and satisfaction. Others will come and go but you will always have to live with yourself. Take care of your body and your mind; they are the constants in the ever shifting sands of your life.

Sow seeds of kindness and generosity; the rewards you reap may take time but will be plentiful. Do not be afraid to let go of those who tether you to a place that limits your ability to flourish. Make your own path if those that exist do not take you to wherever you wish to go.

Do not rely on others for your happiness. Take personal responsibility for what you are and what you may become. This world owes you nothing, but offers so much if you choose to seek out and work for that which you desire. Learn from your setbacks; do not be cowed by challenges. There is often more than one way to achieve a goal.

Be open to new thoughts and ideas; consider carefully other’s reasoning and beliefs. It is possible to be respectful and considerate whilst maintaining one’s own integrity. When new information is uncovered, challenge the established dogma to ensure it remains as incontrovertible as you were led to believe. Changing one’s point of view is less shameful than fighting for a flawed premise.

It is possible to be practical and still follow a dream. Life is fluid and ever changing; take charge of yours. There will be times when events are beyond your control; do not give up or blame others. Your destiny is in your hands.

Do not be afraid to love, but give your heart wisely. A soul mate will not seek to change you, but will enhance what you already are. If you do not feel comfortable with what you are asked to be or do then desist. Others should not expect you to live by their standards; those who truly care about you will respect your wishes and love you for what you are.

Wherever you go in this life, whatever path you choose, know that you are loved beyond measure. I would change nothing about you other than to wish that you could see yourself through my eyes and thereby realise just how wonderful you are. I wish you nothing but happiness and personal fulfilment. I will always be there for you.

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Giving advice

I want my children to lead a comfortable life. What parent doesn’t? When they have important decisions to make over subject choices at school; when they are mulling over career options that they may wish to aim for; I am there offering boringly sensible advice that basically boils down to looking at how they can earn a substantial amount of money.

In my experience, even the most creative and imaginative people struggle to achieve contentment in life if they are struggling to pay the bills. Money may not buy happiness but a lack of money can stymy dreams. It is not necessary to be rich but it is necessary to have enough to get by. These days it seems to cost rather a lot to just get by.

And then I see the slightly older kids who have made use of their abilities, worked hard, made the sensible choices, had the luck to get into the good universities on the sought after courses, graduated with impressive results, yet still ended up back at their parent’s home unable to find a job. They took the advice to aim for the well paid job but cannot now make the leap onto the first rung of the ladder.

I remember my mother trying to persuade my siblings and I to aim for the careers that she saw as safe and respected. She wanted us to be teachers or to join a bank; to get a job for life that paid a comfortable wage and would lead to a good pension. She could not have imagined how the world would change in the course of our working lives.

I look at the world around me and I feel so old; I do not know how best to advise my children. They have their dreams and aspirations yet I find myself telling them to save their creativity for a hobby; to put their ideas of working for a better world aside because it may make life tough for them. And I hate that I am sounding just like my mother.

Do not get me wrong, I know that my mother loved us and wanted only the best for us (and still does). She was offering us her wisdom based on the experiences that she had been through. It is how I now look back on that advise and how I am glad that I did not do as she wished that makes me realise that I must let my children find their own way. I should encourage them to take risks if that is what they want to do.

Who am I to offer advise anyway; what do I know of the future world that my children will have to deal with? Perhaps the cynicism, energy and desire that they display could make a difference; perhaps the dreams and creativity could lead to success. Just because I know people who tried, failed and subsequently struggled does not mean that this will happen to them. Working hard and making all the sensible choices is no guarantee that they will find success and happiness.

I have become the older generation. My children are growing into the people who will have the chance to shape the world. When I look at how they talk and dream and live I am given huge hope for the future. I must not allow myself to quash their idealism for the sake of a life that may no longer exist in the years through which they must live.

It angers me when I read of employers berating the youth of today for having unrealistic expectations when they enter the world of work. It is the young people who have dreams and ambition who will work hard and come up with the innovative ideas that may just lead to a better world. I want to see improvement and change. I do not like the way things are now with the selfishness, nepotism and corruption endemic in the higher echelons of power.

If my children are to make a success of their lives then they must do so through their own efforts; I cannot do it for them. I had my chance with my own life, now it is their turn to make their mark in whatever way they can.

I will never stop hoping that their lives may be comfortable and happy; I will continue to offer the best advise I can. What I must remember is that they have options and must be free to explore even those that seem so risky to me. I want them to be able to enter the adult world with passion, enthusiasm and belief. I would be doing them a huge disservice if I were to quash their dreams because the world as I knew it demanded skills that they are capable of developing, but which may not be the key to the life that they wish to live.

Each generation enters a world that is different to the one before and must find their own way; I cannot tell my children how it will be. The best I can do is to encourage and love them, whatever choices they make. Their lives are their own. They will fly their own course with or without my encouragement. It is the parent who finds it hard to let go.

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Pressure to parent to a standard

New parents are inundated with criticism thinly veiled as advice. The excitement and anticipation of a first pregnancy can all too quickly descend into panic when that amazing little bundle of humanity is placed in the parent’s arms and they are expected to know what to do and to cope. Little wonder that, whilst trying to recovery physically and mentally from the effects of the birth, the sleep deprived mother can feel overwhelmed amidst the attention and concern of well meaning friends, relations and the so called experts.

I am sure that I was not alone in being profoundly shocked at how much my life changed following the birth of my first child. I had fondly imagined that I would continue much as before, simply bringing baby along. Instead I became isolated and exhausted; I felt obliged to pretend that all was just great when anyone sought me out, but tried to avoid contact with those who would try to mould my behaviour to that which they believed was best for baby. Their pearls of wisdom made me feel such a failure; in my sleep deprived mind, if I should be doing things differently then I was being perceived to be doing things wrong. At the time I was all too ready to believe that this could be true.

Sixteen years and two more children later I have a different mindset but I am still learning. Sure I would now feel confident caring for a baby, a toddler and a young child; I have been there and done that with results that I find pretty gratifying. What I haven’t yet sussed out though is the best way to raise teenagers. As our children grow and change into the individuals that they will become, we as parents need to learn as we go along how to deal with each new phase of their lives. After all the unasked for advice that I have been given over the years, some of which I have tried but that was so wrong for my particular children, I am wary of listening to anyone other than myself. My instincts have been far more helpful than any book, newspaper article or voice of experience from someone who doesn’t live my life with my kids.

There have been times though when I have given in to the peer pressure because I didn’t want my child to feel that they were missing out or because someone managed to convince me that I really ought to act in a certain way. Looking back, these were the times when I did get it wrong for my children.

Take sleepovers. Books aimed at young girls often tell stories of happy friendships cemented at fun filled overnight events. When my daughter asked to have a few friends round to stay for her seventh birthday I agreed, albeit with some trepidation. It turned out that sleepovers were not so common at such a young age; she may well have been the first in her class to host such an gathering. I learnt from the lack of sleep not to allow a repeat performance until she was several years older, and then only if the girls did not disturb the adults. I threatened no more sleepovers ever if this rule was broken and my daughter understood and agreed. She has enjoyed having many friends round to stay since without issue.

My younger son had a single friend to stay quite a number of times before he asked to host a larger gathering when he was ten. I set the same rules but they were broken big time. Four boys continually doing roly polys around the mattress strewn room at 2am, and the noisy hilarity that ensued when asked to stop, was unacceptable in a home where others wished to sleep undisturbed. Sleepovers for him were summarily banned; if friends cannot be trusted to behave as asked then they are not welcome.

My elder son lost his right to birthday parties involving groups of friends when he was nine. Without asking my permission, he invited a boy from his class who was known to be particularly lively. This boy ended up dancing on the table during the birthday tea which subsequently descended into a near riot. Since then I have limited my son’s friend invites to one person at a time and only for short visits. As he has grown older I have got to meet few of his new school friends. He has generally preferred to keep much of his social life away from home and private.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when he asked if he could have a few friends round to stay this weekend to celebrate the end of term. It seemed only fair that he be allowed the same opportunity as his siblings to prove that he can host such an event sensibly. As long time Scouts and regular campers I am quite used to my children sleeping out in mixed groups. The fact that he wished to have both boys and girls round seemed healthy to me; it should be possible to be friends with both sexes, without prejudice or preconceived notions of expected, unacceptable behaviour. I have always tried to take the view that I will start out by trusting my children. It is only if they abuse this trust and act foolishly that I will impose restrictions on what they may or may not do.

Once again though, it seems that I am breaking new ground. I was required to talk to a number of the parents of the young people involved in tonight’s proposed gathering to reassure them about nocturnal arrangements (separate rooms for boys and girls) and the proximity of adults (my husband and I will be present in the house at all times). As these people do not know anything about me or my family I can understand and appreciate that they require a little reassurance. However, a seed of doubt has now been sown; is my instinct to trust these young people, most of whom I have never met, naive?

My personal view remains that, if a parent thinks that their child may act foolishly, then they should not grant permission for the child to take part in that activity. I am not going to spoil the evening for my son by sitting in with this group of fifteen year olds (how embarrassing would that be for everyone!); he will be responsible for ensuring that rules are followed and must bear the consequences if things do not go according to plan. I can keep an eye and an ear on what is going on but cannot offer guarantees about how other people’s children will behave.

My instinct tells me that it is a good thing that my son is comfortable about bringing his friends home; that a friendship group containing both boys and girls offers balance; that he can be trusted to understand the rules and ensure that they are followed. The questioning and unspoken criticism of a minority of other parents has, however, tarnished my confidence. I have allowed myself to care about what other people think of me; I wish I could be stronger than that.

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The things kids say

I remember the days when my kids laughed uncontrollably about poo and wee. These words were so funny and naughty.

Then there was the time when one of them said ‘fuck’ and I seized up and asked why they used that word. They didn’t know, but realised it was a no no. It was not repeated in our house for a lot of years.

I once pulled out of our village on to the major ‘A’ road between the local market towns and managed to stall the car mid carriageway; I am a rubbish driver. My reactionary vocabulary included the words ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’  and other words that I was unaware I could use so naturally. My kids were sitting in the back of the car, on their way to their weekly swimming lesson. and said nothing. I got the car started and pulled us away from imminent danger, my claims not to be a sweary momma in tatters.

I have this quote in my head, that foul language shows a lack of knowledge of interesting vocabulary. I even had an online discussion about this with a highly intelligent friend who had studied English at the best university in the world and disagreed with me. Nothing teaches like experience.

Living in a house with three teenagers (okay, number three won’t get there for a couple of weeks yet, but he is practising hard) I am learning about modern life as much as I ever did at school or university. Language was created to allow us to communicate. There are polite and offensive words, but I can no longer classify any of them as unusable. Neither can I agree with some of my friends that we should be banning our children from uttering them.

I want my children to relax and be themselves when they are at home. I want them to feel that they can make informed choices and not be condemned; that they can be whatever they choose to be. If they do not conform to the model that I was brought up to believe was the correct way to behave then I would like to be given the opportunity to consider the changing world in which they will need to survive. I would like to be given the option to change my views based on previously unconsidered evidence.

The language that we use to communicate allows us to understand others, and them to understand us. We need to be aware that how we express ourselves will be used to judge us. Language must be adapted to circumstance but none needs to be banned, especially in the home. I would rather understand the full extent of my children’s lexicon and the feelings they express than have them constrained by some perceived need to treat me as too sensitive to hear what they really wish to say.

I am the grown up. I have heard all of these words before; I even use them from time to time. This does not make me, or my kids, bad people.

swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuva...

Letting go

The sun made an appearance yesterday. It took a while to warm everything up after an unseasonably cold week, but by the afternoon it was feeling quite pleasant outside. After a lazy morning spent escaping into the world of my book I was ready to go out and enjoy some fresh air. We decided to cycle up the hill for a walk around some local gardens that open to the public at this time of year. A gentle stroll in beautiful surroundings sounded ideal for the sunny afternoon.

My son complained that I cycle too slowly. I am well aware that my fitness is not what it was this time last year. I have put on weight and find it harder to push myself physically. There always seem to be reasons to take it easy: joints that ache, muscles hurting, tiredness from lack of sleep. Perhaps I am being too kind to myself. If I am to enjoy the long cycle rides that I accomplished regularly throughout last summer then I will need to put more effort into my workouts at the gym.

The gardens were lovely; well worth a visit. Masses of flowering rhododendron bushes with carpets of bluebells make for a colourful show. We wound our way through the undulating paths and marvelled at the colours and scents. My son was as taken with the massive oak trees towering above as with the flowering bushes. These were proper trees with a history, not just planted to be felled for wood after a few years growth.

We found a seat with a view over the countryside beyond the gardens and enjoyed the coffee we had brought in our flask. We vied with each other to invent bad puns, playing with words as is our habit. Wandering slowly back to our bikes we discussed a return visit if the weather holds; I will be surprised if we manage this. There never seems to be enough time or good weather to get out and about as we would wish.

The downhill ride home was not fast enough for my son. He wants to experience the excitement of speed, impatient with my restraint. It seems that I am now always aware of the potential for accident and injury; wary of risk and adventure. I see bumps and bruises, broken bones and lacerated skin where he sees an attempt to escape limitations, to feel freedom and exhilaration, to fly.

Letting go of our children happens gradually yet the realisation that they are moving on can be a challenge. My daughter is away camping with friends this weekend. She is preparing for a big summer trip, a chance for her to demonstrate her ability to act independently. My son is also fighting for more independence but does not show the same day to day sense as his sister. He rails at my demands yet shows little initiative. I wonder if I make it too easy for him; would he rise to the occasion if given no other choice?

As parents we try to treat our children equally and fairly, yet they are individuals with differing requirements and abilities. They are so sensitive to favouritism it can be hard to offer the experiences from which they will benefit the most. More and more I find that the best days out are those spent with each child alone. It is not just that they can each have my undivided attention, but also that the day can be tailored to their interests. Enjoyable family times that used to be the norm are now few and far between.

The dynamic of the family changes when one child is away. We missed my daughter at dinner last night; her banter with her brothers ensures that conversation is amusing and flows. My boys interests are harder to share; I do not keep up with the latest in car engineering or computing. It is left to my husband to answer their questions despite his normal reserve.

My son wants to spend time in my company, for which I am grateful, but cannot mask his impatience at my unwillingness to grasp at life as he does. He cannot see that I have been there, done that and moved on. He cannot understand that my excitement and anticipation have waned. I cannot explain why this has happened; I have lost my desire for adventure.

It used to be that my appetite for advancement was insatiable. I sought out new experiences, new places, with focus and determination. Now I feel no need to push and dig and fling myself forward; I want to enjoy the here and now rather than what is to come. I am not trying to stand still, to hold life back. I am willing to learn and to stretch my mind, it is the focus of my interest that has changed. I can no longer summon the energy to follow others with eagerness; I wish to make my own path.

Today I have awoken to another sunny day, one that is forecast to be warmer. My husband and younger son were up and out early, cycling to our local pool for a morning swim together. Perhaps I will manage some time in my garden with my hens before preparing a big dinner for when my daughter returns.

I need to allow my children to move on, and to establish a life for myself that does not revolve so closely around them. It will be quite a few years before they no longer need me but the balance is shifting. I learn as much from them these days as they do from me. In so many areas of their lives they are leaving me behind and I must let them go.

For now though, the we are at the start of a week long holiday. With no work and no school we have the freedom to go up and out as we please. Perhaps we will indulge in a few days away, plan a mini adventure. I must make the most of this time with my children. This now time is precious, whatever the future may hold.

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Coping with inactivity

The continuing cold weather is impacting our normally active household. Low temperatures and biting winds make the warmth of the house with all it’s modern, electronic entertainments so much more appealing than venturing outside. We are like hibernating bears in our cave, peeking out from time to time to see if the winter snow has gone, then curling up by the fire to await the arrival of spring. I am in two minds as to whether this period of rest is beneficial or time wasted.

Modern life can be so hectic as we try to meet the demands and fulfil the desires of those around us whilst pursuing our own interests and ambitions. It is important to allow ourselves periods of rest and inactivity but I find that too much sloth makes me sluggish and can bring me down. I need to keep myself active to avoid the mood drops.

It can be hard to avoid trying to make the others in my household conform to what works for me. My children have all the pressures of school work, assessments and exams to deal with alongside the angst of the teenage years. I am torn between giving them the space to use their free time as they choose and trying to encourage a little socialisation and contribution to the family. Increasingly they are forming a unit amongst themselves that does not include their parents. I guess this is a natural progression but makes me feel so old!

Having my husband home for the long, holiday weekend forced me to make a little bit more of an effort than I do when it is just me and the kids. The house got properly tidied, we had family round for a meal and I joined my husband at the gym for a workout. I was trying to fit in with what I thought he would want to see happening; it is hard to know if I picked up on this correctly or not. He has returned to work with a nasty cold so cannot be expected to exude cheer.

I am trying to avoid living my life as I think others want me to. Now that my children are older this is no longer necessary and it gives them the wrong message. Young children need a constant carer who can teach by example so playing the part well is necessary. Teenagers, on the other hand, need to learn that adults do not exist purely for their convenience. I am more than happy to offer them whatever support they need but I do not intend to let them walk all over me. I do still feel the need to encourage them to live mindfully. They probably see my suggestions as nagging; it can be tricky to get the balance right between remaining interested and involved without stifling them.

I like to be around when my children are off school even if I am not required. In the busy routine of our term time lives it can be hard to relax with them so the holidays offer us a chance to randomly chat and do small things together. It also gives me an excuse to put my feet up more often than I normally would as they pursue their own interests. Whilst I may get to the end of a day and feel that I have achieved little I do believe that this should not always be required. So much of our time is spent preparing for the future, be it earning money that we can then choose to spend to improve our lives, working for exams that will open doors to a better life or working out to keep our bodies in better working order. Alongside these important tasks we should not be forgetting to simply enjoy living. However we choose to fill our down time, if we are enjoying what we do then the time is not wasted.

Perhaps it simply feels wrong to be spending such a long holiday doing so little because in previous years the Easter break has offered weather warm enough to enjoy spending extended periods of time outside. This year it has not been possible to even wrap up against the biting cold and enjoy a walk; the weather is just too unpleasant.

For now we will continue to hibernate and try to simply enjoy each others company. The children may be frustrated by the need to stay indoors but a little time to relax should enable us to recharge our batteries and reconnect with each other. The return to routine will come too soon; the warmer weather cannot arrive soon enough.

English: Black Bear mother and cubs in den,, h...

Getting away

What do you give the man who already has everything that he wants? This week my husband celebrated his fiftieth birthday, his first half century, the arrival of his sixth decade. Knowing that it was approaching he had made it very clear that he wanted neither a party nor an expensive, surprise gift. I couldn’t let the milestone pass unmarked but, when asked, he could think of nothing that he wanted. What a fabulous situation to be in! Nevertheless, something had to be done, some token gifts offered to show that I cared. The best solution seemed to be an indulgent night away.

My husband does not like surprises so the idea was discussed in advance and plans were made together. Advice was sought from friends, facilities at hotels researched, days were booked off from work and cooperation from the children agreed. When everything was finally organised I started to feel rather excited about this short trip. He couldn’t, after all, be sent off on his own – I was going too.

We had only been away overnight, just the two of us, once before in our married life. Although it had been pleasant enough I had been too worried about my young children to fully enjoy it. I knew that they were being safely cared for, but was concerned that they would not understand why mummy had disappeared. I imagined them feeling abandoned, being concerned and worried but unable to put that into words. I envisaged them being traumatized, losing their carefree happiness and security, becoming clingy and unsure if I would be there for them when they returned from their next outing without me. I had a good imagination about these things.

This time was different. As teenagers, they were rather miffed that we were going to have fun and eat yummy food while they missed out, but having the house to themselves without us to tell them to do homework and go to bed early seemed adequate compensation. If I didn’t trust them then I might have felt some concern about the eagerness with which they embraced our plans. I like to think that they were just happy to see us doing something for ourselves. I still have a good imagination.

Getting away without the kids after so many years of holidays planned around them made me feel young again. I was able to pack a suitcase just for me. There was no need to take practical, mummy clothing or to leave something behind to make room for their things. There was no need to limit luggage so that we could carry everything when the children threw a strop and would not help. Even after I had packed all that I needed, wanted and a bit more besides, I still had room in my case. My husband looked quite bemused as he put his little overnight bag in the car and helped me with the luggage that normally suffices for at least two of us for a week. I was having fun already.

I had decided that the key requirements of the hotel were good food, a room with a view and indoor leisure facilities in case of bad weather. I also liked the idea of staying on the coast. Living in a land locked county of England I do sometimes miss being close to the sea. As a child trips to the beach were a regular occurrence as we lived within a half hour drive of a glorious stretch of sandy coastline. I love the sound of the lapping of the tide and miss the long walks along the beach that my parents insisted on when I was young.

My husband and I had booked into what I hoped would be the perfect hotel and set off for it in glorious sunshine. I was a little perturbed by the few flurries of snow in the air, but the car was warm and we could play our choice of music without complaints from the back. A couple of hours later we had reached our destination and were in high spirits. This was going to be good.

We had a little over twenty-four hours at the hotel, but seemed to pack in so many lovely experiences. Arrival day was freezing cold with a biting wind but we managed a walk on the beach, around the harbour and along the residential streets of Sandbanks (which has, by area, the fourth highest land value in the world – the house designs are stunning) before the cold drove us inside. We made good use of the hotel’s leisure facilities, braving the outdoor hot tub and warming ourselves in the sauna and steam room. My  husband likes to make use of everything available so even swam in the outdoor pool – brrrr.

Our room had a balcony on which we drank his celebratory bottle of champagne, well wrapped up against the cold, while watching the yachts from the local clubs sail by. My ever active husband had brought a book and it was good to see him spend some time relaxing while I prepared myself for dinner. We had drinks and canapes at the bar before sitting down to one of the most delicious dinners I have ever eaten. It was a fabulous day.

In the morning we stuffed ourselves silly at the breakfast buffet. With so many tempting choices it was hard not to try them all (I am so unused to hotel living). After a short rest to recover from our gluttony we packed up and headed back to the beach for a long walk along the sand and promenade. The sun was still shining but the biting wind had eased so we were able to enjoy this comfortably. When our legs grew tired we stopped at a beach side cafe for coffee; even this is an indulgence for us. Our coffees on the go are normally preprepared and carried in a flask, drunk in the shelter of the car.

We headed home feeling overfed and windblown, but also pampered and indulged. From the state of our kitchen it was clear that the children had coped well without us, eaten sensibly and seen no need to waste time clearing away or washing up. The hens had been cared for, lights switched off and doors locked. I was happy that all had gone so smoothly.

It was a lovely way to celebrate a birthday. As parents it can be too easy to forget that we are people too. Now that the children are older they do not need us to be around them all the time and the occasional taste of independence can give them (and us) the confidence to know that they can cope on their own. Perhaps one day we will do it again. I hope so.

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Active kids

Newspapers often carry articles discussing ‘studies’ into methods of parenting. These are generally written in a critical style and will, over time, offer contradictory advice. This weekend there were reports of a government advisor who believes that children whose parents enrol them in too many organised activities lose the ability to think for themselves and are therefore unable to cope with living independently when they are older. I sometimes wonder if these advisors have children themselves. I can see that, taken to extremes, any method of parenting could be detrimental. However, most parents listen to what their kids want and offer gentle encouragement or admonishment. If a child is active, whether through organisations or free play, it is likely to be because this is what the child wants.

Over the years my three children have tried so many different sports and activities that it can be hard to remember all the things that they have done. They have attended regular training sessions for ballet, gymnastics, swimming, football, horse riding, hockey, cricket, golf, taekwondo, judo and archery, They have joined rainbows, brownies, guides, beavers, cubs, scouts and explorers. They have attended weekend drama schools, taken piano lessons and joined badminton and ping pong clubs. There have been activity camps with climbing, kayaking, raft building and caving. They have even chosen to go on week long residentials where they could race karts and quad bikes. Some of the regular activities were enjoyed for a year or two before the time was needed to fit in the next interest, others they still attend regularly.

There have been periods when they were younger when it did feel as if we had no time to sit down and just relax. The logistics of getting each child from school to activity after activity meant packed teas eaten in the car and homework being done as they waited for a sibling to complete a lesson. I did not, however, insist on them doing any of these things apart from the swimming lessons (they had to keep these up until they could swim a good distance with a strong stroke). All activities were started because they heard about how amazing it was from a friend. They would try a couple of classes and, if they wanted to continue, would be enrolled for a term. Once paid for I insisted that classes were attended regularly, but when the bill for the next term came in they were always given the choice of continuing or leaving. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of uniforms, kit and sports equipment that is no longer used.

Alongside these organised activities we did a lot of walking and cycling as a family. We also went swimming together each weekend for many years. Our village abuts the estate of a large house with grounds open to the paying public and a large, exciting adventure playground. We would buy season tickets for this each year and the children would regularly meet up with friends to play. They were always free to go out around the village but more often chose to have friends back to our garden which we had turned into a mini playground for them. Quiet moments were rare.

Far from taking away their independence the experiences they have gained from taking part  in so much has given them the confidence to face new situations and challenges. They know that they can have a reasonable attempt at most sports and are used to going to new places and working with people they do not know. It has not always been logistically possible (or necessary!) to drive them everywhere so they have got used to travelling under their own steam and, as they have got older, have learnt to use public transport. My eldest child is now capable of organising herself.

I do not hover over my children constantly but I do like to know where they are and what they are doing. I also like to support them in their interests and encourage active participation in support of clubs they belong to. I take an interest in their lives and feel they will be happier if they leave their laptops regularly and participate in something more active and sociable. They are of an age where this cannot be forced and they value free time so it is particularly pleasing that they still choose to take part in a good number of activities.

To suggest that parents should organise less for their children and allow them to play free or get bored ignores the alternatives available to the modern child. When the majority of houses contain multiple computers and televisions a child is as likely to switch on and tune out rather than run around outside. There are also fewer and fewer parents who are happy to have their child run free. I have lost count of the number of parents who have voiced concern to me over the years that I have expected my eight or nine year old to walk the few hundred metres home from school or the village hall unattended (even in the dark!), or who has complained that my child was being noisy, boisterous or engaging in rough play whilst out with friends. When my son fell out of a tree he learnt a valuable lesson. Yes, he could have broken his neck, but that could happen on the stairs at home.

My hackles will always be raised when unasked for criticism and advise are offered. If parents are to do their job then they must be allowed to make decisions based on how their kids are and how best to encourage them to be good citizens. There will always be extremes – parents who ignore their children almost entirely and those who make every decision for them – but most parents that I know encourage but do not force. I think that my kids are amazing. I hope that most parents think that of their kids. They are also individuals and will react in different ways to the same treatment, just as adults will. If the government is trying to parent the nation then I would advise them to learn a few lessons in parenting themselves.

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