Not just on a Monday

I am linking up with the Manic Mondays Blog Hop!!

Perfection Pending

After a fun and restful weekend I had a few things to catch up on this morning. Actually, I have the same things to catch up on most mornings. These are just a some of the joys that can be experienced when sharing a house with teenagers.

First off, on school days, I need to drag myself from my warm and cosy bed in order to check that they are awake. This has to be done with some stealth because, you know, they are perfectly capable of getting themselves up in the morning and do not need Mom to wake them. Except sometimes they do. Sometimes the alarm just doesn’t go off (of course it was set the night before, it’s not their fault!). Thus I can be found tiptoeing silently through the darkened house as I check that there is a light on in each bedroom.

Once I am sure that they have woken up I can grab myself a cup of coffee and return to my bedroom. It is unwise to try to converse at this time of the morning. Teenagers have a lot to think about first thing and none of it is any concern of Mom’s. Unless something major has been forgotten, in which case I am expected to sort it out in the five minutes before they leave the house. I find it is best if I keep my head down and leave them to it until they are just about ready to go.

Once they have banged the door behind them I can start my day proper. I wander through their rooms, turning off lights, folding back bed covers and gathering abandoned clothes from the floors and laundry baskets. Sometimes these jobs have been done by the capable teen, but they lead busy lives with important tasks to complete; like homework, computer games, chatting to friends, Tumblr updates. Locating all those abandoned socks and placing them in a basket for washing is not high up on their priority lists. Luckily for them there is a reasonably efficient laundry fairy to ensure that their wardrobes always contain clean clothes.

Next up I start the daily hunt for dirty dishes. If teenagers are one thing it is hungry, always. After school snacks, early evening snacks and late night snacks all get carried up to their rooms on plates which then vanish from sight under piles of paper that I dare not tidy away in case a homework goes missing. They assure me that they have a system, which works until they lose a particular book. Thankfully for all concerned I have a good record of finding these missing books, often cunningly hidden in full view on their desk or bedroom floor.

Cups of tea and glasses of water are finished and the crockery abandoned in the strangest of places. I find mugs on window ledges when I pull back curtains, empty glasses on shelves in every room. Mugs also gather on the table in the landing, or on the floor of almost any room in the house. I gather these up and transfer them to the dishwasher. I am so grateful for my machines.

All these snacks create crumbs, easily dealt with using my vacuum cleaner. Except the floor is still covered with those papers, books and magazines that I dare not move. I tentatively ease the cleaner around the small areas of carpet that are not hidden under debris, determining to come up with a suitable bribe at the weekend to make them sort out this mess. In their eyes of course it is not a mess but a filing system that I should just leave alone.

Sometimes I try to clean a little more thoroughly but this is generally unwise. Much as they like to have a tidy room, if I have moved a single thing then it is my fault next time anything is lost. Room tidying is best done with them in attendance and only when we are both in a good enough mood. Strength and resilience is vital.

As they drift in from their day, late afternoon, I will offer drinks and snacks and try to converse. I can never be sure how this will go. Sometimes they feel pleasantly chatty, but often I get the barely tolerant ‘It was fine‘ when I ask about their day. Such a response quickly conveys that their lives are none of my business and could I just leave them alone, which I do.

Until dinner time. I insist on a family dinner time.

Don’t get me wrong, I think my teenagers are fabulous. I remember hating being told to clean my room and keeping much of my life private; I do not have a problem with any of this. The fact that I can remember is, though, beyond their comprehension. Someone as old as me cannot possibly remember back so far as my teenage years. How can one’s parent ever have been a teenager?

In my children’s eyes I once had a pet mammoth and certainly never had fun or went to parties. When I look back at photographs of my parents or teachers taken when I was my children’s age I am amazed at how young they look. In my eyes they were always old, and I understand that this is how I now look to my children.

I try not to nag as I gather up yet another handful of mugs from a random location, or find the trousers that a son needed this morning abandoned in a heap behind a door. The trail of mud on the stairs that tells me a child had to grab a forgotten book from upstairs after they had put on their shoes to leave irritates but is easily swept. I try to support more than remonstrate.

My children will have time enough to learn better housekeeping when they leave home and have to pick up for themselves. When I am left with pristine rooms and a solitary silence I will miss this daily routine.

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A month out of the country

Tomorrow my beloved daughter is setting out on an adventure that she has been preparing for and looking forward to for close to two years. She is travelling to Madagascar on an expedition organised by Explorer Scouts.

I am aware that these sort of trips have become de rigueur amongst late teens. Many schools take their sixth form pupils away to some remote and seemingly dangerous destination in order to test their stamina and team skills. As a parent it can be hard to gauge just how big a challenge these highly organised excursions will be; it can be hard not to worry just a little.

The cost alone will put off many potential participants. In order to encourage a view that any may join in, the organisers emphasise the need to fundraise throughout the many months of preparation. In practice this is only likely to cover a fraction or the cost, with parents expected to make up the shortfall.

Some of the older students may have part time jobs and therefore be able to contribute, but this was not an option open to my daughter due to her age and the constraints of exam preparation. Apart from a couple of days bag packing at a supermarket and a few stints babysitting for friends, the cost of the trip and the required equipment (which added about 50% to the initial estimate) had to be met by us, her parents. I was unwilling to ask friends for sponsorship or support. Having agreed to let our daughter go we felt it was our responsibility to get her there. We were very grateful when my mother made a generous contribution to funds early on.

However, the money has been found, the ticket paid for and the equipment purchased. All is now packed away in the specially fitted rucksack ready for the coach pick up tomorrow. My daughter will be away from home for a month during which time she will not be able or allowed to contact us. I will find that rule very hard to cope with.

Thanks to the prevalence of mobile phones this has not happened on her many, previous trips away. On these occasions she has been able to send me a daily text with a little update on what she has been doing so that I may be comforted in her absence by the knowledge that all is well. This trip to Madagascar will include a ten day trek which will count towards an achievement called the explorer-belt. During this time the team must not receive any outside support which precludes contact with home. To ensure that the requirement is met, no personal mobile phones may be taken on the trip. She will have no means to contact me all the time she is away.

As a family we have never travelled abroad. Both my husband and I did our share of exploring the world as students and young adults. It has always seemed unnecessarily expensive and troublesome to go far with the children. During their time at secondary school they have taken part in a number of trips to Europe but never further afield. Perhaps this was one of the reasons for my daughters enthusiasm for this trip; to her it really is the ultimate adventure.

The large group of scouts travelling out have been divided into contingents; my daughter is a Lost Penguin. We love the films (Madagascar / Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa) and this seemed so appropriate. She is taking her own little penguin to keep her company during the cold nights in her tent. The temperatures in this part of Africa are currently lower than in England.

A trip like this is a fantastic experience for the participants but is also good training for the parents. Letting go of our children is a gradual process and one that takes some getting used to. I expect that I will miss my daughter far more than she will miss me; I do hope that this is the case. I will feel that I have done my parenting job well if I can bring my children up to manage fine without me, but to freely choose to offer me their occasional company anyway.

For now though, I face my daughter’s departure with some trepidation but also a great deal of eagerness for the wonderful time that I hope she will have. I want her to experience adventure; to build her independence and resilience and to gain confidence in her abilities. I know that she is an amazing individual; I want her to realise this as well.

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Smile and wave boys, smile and wave

Allowing kids to mess up

Amongst the blogs that I follow on WordPress there is a fun one by Dorkdaddy. This blogger does awesome things with his kids like this Lego Maniacs and this Walking On Air. I read these posts and I think what a fabulous childhood his kids are having. He is creating so many amazing memories for his kids to look back on and treasure. I would never have been willing to spend the money on such projects given that I couldn’t be sure that I could successfully get them to work or that my kids would respond as his have done.

Even the more simple achievements such as this one Butterbeer… YUM!! would have worried me – a bit like letting my kids paint at home. With three children under five to care for I could never rely on being there to provide the necessary close supervision at the stove or mixing stuff up. I didn’t want my furniture finger painted while I dealt with a toilet visit or stopped elder son pouring black paint all over his younger sibling’s prized creation.

One thing that I could let them do though was chalk paving slabs. I would buy cheap buckets of of thick chalks and, on a dry day, let the kids loose on our patio and driveway. With chalks there were no limits; walls, slabs, fences and outdoor furniture could be decorated. Whatever mess they made would be washed away with the next rain shower; the kids and their clothes could be washed just as easily; they had fun. I do remember one friend’s dad picking up his daughter after a particularly creative afternoon and exclaiming at the state she was in. I felt a bit guilty about that.

My kids were not bought good clothes or expected to stay tidy. They were provided with cheap and practical outfits, many of them handed down from relatives, and I never worried about mud and mess. I learnt from experience that when other people’s children came to play at our house their parents had to be warned that they may get dirty. I don’t think that the parents always understood how literally I meant this. Our garden has interesting slopes, perfect for racing sand trucks down or for sliding and scrambling on. They get very muddy when wet.

We have a big sand pit that I filled with cheap, builders sand which can turn kids and their clothes orange before it is washed through often enough with rain. The pit held two tonnes of sand so was not going to be kitted out with the sanitised stuff advertised as safe. I am a firm believer in letting kids get messy, thus building their natural immunity to bugs. My children are rarely sick.

Playing in this sandpit my kids and their friends would build castles and tunnels; craft out canals; fill them with water from our rain barrels; sail plastic boats between fortresses manned with plastic dinosaurs, dragons and knights. That sandpit gave more pleasure over more years than the expensive climbing frame and swing set that soon lost their novelty because every child’s garden had them.

Our garden also has a section of gas pipe linking a raised deck to the lowest ground and providing a tunnel slide. Visiting kids loved to clamber up this on the outside; the unprotected drop from the top gave several of their parents palpitations. The rope ladders and wobbly fireman’s pole (a section of scaffolding sunk into concrete) provided enough perceived danger to feel exciting. Yes, I allowed risks to be taken.

The only time visiting kids encountered real danger was when a group of them played hide and seek inside the house with all of their parents present at a party we threw. They managed to knock a large and heavy television off a chest of drawers while trying to crawl behind it; I still thank God that no child ended up underneath the fallen and broken mass. That was the last time that I let visiting kids run free and unsupervised upstairs. I know what my children are likely to do but could never guess how other people’s children would behave or how their parents would react to what I saw as normal children’s interactions. Leaving them to sort out their own problems, and learn from the experience, was not always seen as acceptable.

From what I can see, Dorkdaddy is an amazing parent, providing his kids with awesome experiences. I have friends who do this in different ways. They spend the school holidays taking their kids around theme parks and attractions, to movies and shows, giving their kids memories to discuss and treasure. I guess I just do things differently.

I know that there are times when my kids feel that they are missing out because we wait for the latest ‘must see’ film to come out on DVD before we buy it. We have not done Disneyland or even travelled abroad as a family. What we have done though is walk and cycle and camp together. We get messy, climb trees, cook on an open fire and talk endlessly.

I am way off being an awesome parent but I do my best, as all parents that I know do. I hope that when my kids are grown up they will look back on their childhood as a happy one. Whatever else passed us by we didn’t fuss, we got dirty, and we didn’t follow convention.

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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...

Other people’s children

Despite being a mother of three children I have never considered myself to be particularly maternal. I have enjoyed every stage of my children’s lives and feel hugely privileged that I have been able to devote my time to raising them, but I have found that the older they get the more I enjoy their company. Giving birth to the three of them within a three and a half year time span has helped. The sleepless nights lasted for years and coping with the demands of two toddlers and a newborn challenged me, but they are close enough in age to have had the same needs and enjoyments as they have grown. We have been able to have a lot of shared fun as a family.

My husband and I came to live in our village while we were still young, working professionals. We moved into our newly built house and looked forward to getting to know our neighbours, many of whom were also young professionals. This met with mixed success. When the majority of one’s time is spent at work and there are no children to make demands at the weekend (thereby allowing great flexibility to get up and go when the mood takes) it can be a challenge to be around enough to get to know anyone new. There were some great organisers amongst our new neighbours and we joined in with the occasional meals out and street barbeques to which we were invited. It was my husband though who succeeded in socialising regularly with the local men as he was willing to go to the village pub once a week and stay out very late. Even then I didn’t have the stamina or the will to join in with the similar, regular outings organised by the ladies.

As the year’s passed the young couples of our acquaintance started to have babies. This was of interest but I have never been one to wish to cuddle a newborn however cute. If I am honest, I don’t really find babies cute. Neighbourly nights out for all were now confined to a Christmas meal and a summer barbeque. Over time I stopped going to even these. Cliques had been formed and I found trying to make small talk with virtual strangers, who all seemed to know each other well, exhausting.

When I left my job to have my own babies I found that life became very lonely. I did not have a car and had got to know very few people in the village. I tried to join the various groups that existed – Mums and Tots, Playgroup and children’s church organisations – but never felt that I fitted in. The mums all seemed to know each other so well and to be confident around each other’s children. I discovered that other people’s young children terrified me; I had no idea how to play with them or to make them behave. I came to dread my slots on the parent help rotas and was much happier hiding in the kitchen doing the washing up than trying to interact with the small people.

By the time my children had moved up to the village primary school I knew a good proportion of the young mothers by sight and name but had still made few friends. It was not until my youngest child started school that I began to socialise with a friendly group of mums with children in the same year groups as my three. After seven years of lonely parenthood I had finally managed to join a clique. It was a good feeling to be a part of a lively social scene and I enjoyed many events and get togethers with these ladies and their families until our children moved on to secondary school. By this time most of the mums had returned to work and the balance of our lives had once again changed.

When one has children at school it can be hard to find suitable, paid employment. It is possible to hire a nanny or book a child into a day nursery, but by far the most popular type of job amongst the ladies of my acquaintance was working with children. I know a surprisingly large number of teachers, teaching assistants, nursery workers and child minders. I could not do these jobs. I still have no idea how to make other peoples children behave. These ladies, on the other hand, are more than confident about admonishing any child they deem to have behaved in an unacceptable way. I don’t know how the kids feel, but they scare me!

The young people that I was required to look after probably sensed that I was out of my depth. One cannot have children without allowing them to have friends round for play dates so the responsibility could not be avoided. It can be so easy to ensure that one’s own child behaves; treats can be removed, trips cancelled, favours withdrawn to get them to respond to requests. Just as adults are paid to do a job, children can be bribed to behave in a certain way. Other people’s children can run riot and the worst that can be done is refuse to have them back to play. I have done this on a fair few occasions.

Of course I recognise that, as the adult, it is I who am responsible for the child. They will take their cues from me and test the boundaries with abandon. I was a hopeless case. The worst experience I had was a children’s party when one boy decided to dance on the table during feeding time and several others followed suit. So much noise was being made that my admonishments may not even have been heard; the children were undoubtedly well out of my control. I am glad to say that my son, whose party it was, did not join in, but he has not been allowed a party since. With friends like that I could not trust him to distribute invitations wisely.

Having done my share of welcoming young children to our house and garden for my three to play with over the years it has come as a great relief that  they are now old enough not to need my constant supervision. We still have plenty of visitors but they sort themselves out; I do not need to feel responsible for their behaviour and can trust them to be sensible in my home. If a child is invited round who does not act appropriately then I will still ban their return. I have not had to do this for some time.

We each raise our children in the best way we know how and, as parents, can see the many good traits in our offspring. It has always perplexed me that so many parents do not seem to be able to see that their little darlings also have negative behaviours. After a few, failed attempts at discussing issues with a child’s parent I gave up mentioning them as it seemed to result in nothing but bad feeling between the adults. I now try to avoid other people’s children when I can.

My three have chosen their enduring friends wisely and I am happy to interact with those who appear at our house from time to time. I am quite relieved that my children do not choose to socialise with the youngsters whom I failed so miserably to control on their early play dates. They may well have grown into sensible and responsible young adults but, if not, I would probably still struggle to know how to react. If I can treat them as equals, as adults, then I am fine. The only children that I seem to be able to properly understand are my own.

English: Silhouette of a child

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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