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July 02nd, 2015

Is it possible to enjoy children’s parties?


I read an article recently about children’s parties, where to host them, what party bags to provide, where to source the most fabulous cakes and find the best entertainers. Well, it left me longing for a simple game of pin the tail on the donkey. Then a friend told me about an 8 year old’s party her child had been invited to at the Mandarin Oriental where champagne was flowing –well the parents would stay if that was on offer wouldn’t they? I have been aware for many years that the children’s birthday party has become an arena for competitive parenting where adults seek to outdo each other in providing the most of everything. When my son was about 7 the party entertainer of choice at the time was Ali-doo-lally who made the party child so much the centre of attention as to exclude everyone else there. But what do the children get from such an event, apart from a sense of extreme entitlement and ludicrous expectations and perhaps a sugar hangover? Do your children even enjoy parties? The article I read didn’t say anything about preparing the children.

Well of course not all parties are grandiose examples of parental one-upmanship and can involve some simple party foods and fun games. But even then do your children like parties? Your child may love a party but you have misgivings about sending them because of how they behave when there. Some children will love parties but there will be some kids who find them quite difficult too. Some children are shy and don’t have the social skills to enjoy being with a crowd of children. Others may find the noise, lights and number of people overwhelming. This child may find the number of activities and foods too much. Some children get over excited and hyped up and then behave badly. Recently doubt has been cast over whether sugar, long thought to be the culprit for hyper behaviour, is to blame. But whether it is down to food consumption or the excitement of the occasion and a pack mentality some children will run around and shout uncontrollably. Then there’s the inevitable disappointment of not winning the games or even not receiving the gifts which may lead to tears. Are you wondering why you’d ever bother hosting a children’s party? And there’s the clean up afterwards. 

If your child has been invited to a birthday party (or indeed is the birthday child or a sibling) and you want to prepare him for it here are 4 simple ways of ensuring it goes well: (these ideas are for children under the age of 8 –if you have a teenager there’s an altogether different set of rules)

  1. If your child has a sensitive temperament then he will need coping mechanisms for all the stimuli you get at festive gatherings. Teach him about his own temperament by making a habit of describing for him all the sensations and emotions he experiences. Let him know that he needs to protect himself from overstimulation. Depending on age you could ask him for ideas about how he could protect himself from too much noise. He might suggest cotton wool/ear plugs in his ears! Make sure he’s well rested before a party so that he can cope. Make sure you reduce the amount of stimulation in that day –so no shopping mall trip to get the present on the way there! Electronic stimulation is also a factor so no computer time beforehand. Get your child to think about what he can do if he feels overstimulated at the party. Can he go somewhere quiet like the bathroom or the garden or a bedroom for a bit? You may need to set this up with his host.
  2. If your child is unconfident in social settings you can prepare by using role play at home. Use her dolls and teddies to practice how to behave and what to say. Get to the party early as it’s easier to talk to one or two people than to come into an established crowd.
  3. When preparing for a party its best to ask your children how they will need to behave rather than tell them, otherwise it just sounds like a nag and they will tune you out. If they’ve said how they will behave it’s more likely to happen. Don’t threaten a punishment for poor behaviour, or offer a bribe for good behaviour either. Instead look out for signs of the type of behaviour you want to see and mention it to them. We get more of the behaviours we pay attention to. Eg you’re eating with your fork –that’s just the way you’ll eat at Sam’s party. I like the way you walked into the house from the car even though you were excited about seeing Granny. That way nobody got knocked over!
  4. Ask them how they may feel when the party child gets given presents or if others win games. For younger children you may need to suggest that they might feel a bit jealous or sad or disappointed that’s it’s not them winning or receiving the gift. Don’t tell them off for feeling that way or tell them you don’t want them to feel like that. Don’t say jealousy isn’t nice. Instead acknowledge that it’s natural and that we all like to win and receive gifts. Ask her what she can do if she feels that way so that the birthday child’s experience is not spoiled. She may suggest coming to get a hug from you if you’re there or an older child may be able to do something else to comfort herself or remind herself that she can have another go in the next game (or say something inside her head to alleviate her frustrations!)

 

Enjoy!

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June 18th, 2015

Celebrating Fathers

Father’s day in the UK is on the 21st June. I know some people are a bit bah humbug about these ‘Hallmark’ days and regret the commercialisation of such occasions but I think we should seize the opportunity to celebrate fathers.

There is the risk, especially with newborns, that women can take over parenting and assume (or have thrust upon them) an ‘expert’ role which Dads can go along with in some relief. But this is to miss out on a great resource and ‘expertise’ that men bring to parenting. Men have a unique style to their parenting that women tend not to have and children who don’t experience this are missing out.

Some dad facts:

  • Dads are more involved with children than ever before –in childcare and in housework. (The time spent by British men on domestic work rose from 90 minutes per day in the 1960s to 148 minutes per day by 2004; British fathers’ care of infants and young children rose 800% between 1975 and 1997, from 15 minutes to two hours on the average working day  despite the fact that over this period fathers’ time spent at work was also increasing. Fathers in two-parent families carry out an average of 25% of the family’s childcare related activities during the week, and one-third at weekends. (Source: The fatherhood institute)
  • Many studies have shown that when dad is involved in his children’s lives they have better educational, developmental, health and social outcomes (Source: The fatherhood institute,)
  • If dad is emotionally involved as an emotion coach and play partner the following outcomes can be predicted: (the Gottman institute)
    • Better self control abilities
    • Acceptance by peers at school
    • Better social competence and emotional intelligence
    • Higher verbal ability test scores (Ross and Taylor 1989 Do Boys Prefer Daddy or His physical style of play?)
    • Better academic performance
    • Increased empathy (longitudinal study (300 families) done by Stanford University beginning in 1950s)
    • Better social relationships as adults
    • Higher self esteem
  • Studies show dads are just as competent as mums to care for babies and know what to do when babies cry. (Ross Parke 1976 Father-Mother-Infant Interaction in the newborn period: Some findings, Some observations and some unresolved issues.)
  • Fathers make unique contributions to their children and infants respond to involved fathers differently than to mums. They are more wide-eyed playful and bright-faced. 2/3 of 2 ½ year olds will choose dad over mum as a play partner.

Where fathers are not present in their children’s lives the kids really benefit from being involved with ‘uncle’ figures.

What are the differences in style?

When considering the question what do mums and dads contribute to the role of parent ask yourself what would each do/say when watching a little boy climb up a climbing frame or tree?

Dads typically say “go on, you can do it. Well done, reach for it.”

Whereas Mums might say “Be careful, watch where you put your feet, take your time.”

Fathers tend to foster independence and encourage adventure. Mothers are generally caretakers and teachers and are often more cautious.

This is what the kids think:

Mummies are smaller and Daddies are bigger.

Dads normally go out to work and you come out of mummy’s tummy.

Dads have fun and mums don’t.

Mums listen and Dads don’t…it’s the same for all my mates.

(Source: Netmums March 09)

While we don’t want to minimise the importance of the nurturing, the encouraging and the listening that mums are traditionally good at let’s celebrate what dads do well:

Play

To begin with Dads do play with kids, while Mums sometimes don’t give it as much priority as they do the laundry, the cooking, the chauffeuring and the supervising of homework and music practice etc. When Roald Dahl died his children wrote about their memories of him and predictably they valued the story telling and creating he encouraged in them. My guess is when we die our children will remember the play times and the conversations with us rather than the fact that we always ensured they had clean and matching socks.

Dads tend to be more physical than mums in the way they play. Mums generally play visual games and are verbal with babies and young children while dads are more physical and tactile. There’s much that is good about both styles and children benefit from both. Rough and tumble play by dads predicts better self control abilities in their children. (Source: Gottman institute)

 

Encourage independence and risk taking

Dads encourage kids to climb higher, go to the store on their own, go down the highest slides etc while mums may have to stifle the urge to keep their babies safe. Encouraging self reliance and reasonable risk taking in children encourages them to discover what they are capable of and to grow in confidence. If children become fearful they will not grow and will not acquire essential life skills and coping strategies for dealing with the world.

 

Allow kids to experience uncomfortable feelings

When dads recognise their children’s struggles and allow them to experience some frustration and learning through failure they are helping children grow through experience. When we protect our children from their feelings of discomfort or frustration we can prevent valuable learning in the same way as if we prevent them from making discoveries physically. Although we shouldn’t shield our children from uncomfortable feelings we can help them identify them and manage them by acknowledging what’s going on. Eg I can see you’re feeling frustrated with those wretched shoe laces –but I like the way you’re persevering. You don’t give up easily do you?

 

Don’t judge or compare self with other parents

Dads are less prone to perfectionism than women in the parenting field and less apt to compare and judge their own or others’ parenting efforts. A great combination in a dad is that willingness to trust his instincts with an openness to new ideas.

 

Being a good role model

Dads are needed as good role models for their sons, especially in areas like school work, responsibility, handling physicality and aggression, how to treat women, how to handle and express emotions and seeking support when they need it. Men can show their boys how to be determined without taking competition to harmful levels. Dads are also important models for their daughters as they show them how to relate to the opposite sex. How a father treats his daughter sets up expectations for what she’ll look for in adult relationships with men. Involvement in his daughter’s life profoundly affects her self esteem.

Mums, while encouraging your children to show their love for their dads, let your partners know what you appreciate about them this father’s day.

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May 22nd, 2015

Why teenagers need the skills and confidence to help in an emergency

Guest blog by Emma Hammett of 'First Aid for Life'

When considering First Aid training the priority is generally to train new parents, child carers and equip people for First Aid for the workplace. Babies and children are accident prone and it is vital that those caring for them are able to help if something happens; there is a duty of care for workers, however the other major group of risk takers are our teenagers. There is currently a campaign to introduce First Aid training to the national curriculum as currently only 2 in 10 schools offer First Aid training and there is no doubt that empowering the next generation with these skills will save lives.

A survey, commissioned by the British Red Cross revealed startling statistics:

  • One in seven young people (aged 11-16) have been in an emergency situation as a result of a friend drinking too much alcohol.
  • More than 532,000 young teenagers have been left to cope with a drunken friend who was sick, injured or unconscious in the last year. 
  • 89 per cent of 11-16 year olds had found themselves confronted with some kind of medical emergency.
  • A quarter of young people have had to deal with asthma attacks.
  • A third of teenagers have had to cope with someone with a head injury.
  • One in five teenagers have had to help someone who is choking.

Crucially: when faced with these emergency situations, 44 per cent panicked and 46 per cent simply didn’t know what to do.

In the survey’s most compelling statistic, 97 per cent of young people, believed first aid education would improve their confidence, skills and willingness to act in a crisis. 

5 vital first aid skills that all young people should know:

If I was to prioritise the key areas to empower teenagers to save lives it would be for them to be completely confident in the following areas:

  • Understand the importance of the recovery position and how critical it is to put someone who is unconscious and breathing into a position that will keep their airway open – particularly if they have been drinking.
  • Know how to calmly asses if someone is seriously ill or injured – what signs to look out for and what to do.
  • Understand how to treat a major bleed – the best way to stop the bleeding and the position to put them in to treat shock.
  • How to help an adult, baby or child who is choking
  • How to help someone having a serious asthma attack or acute allergic reaction. 

First Aid  is a life skill and gaining a First Aid qualification is invaluable to young people striving to achieve their Duke of Edinburgh and Sports Leadership Awards and is highly sought after by UCAS – particularly if applying for a medically related subject. Parents would feel far more confident leaving their little ones with a teenager who has been equipped with the skills to help if there is an accident and Sports and kids clubs see First Aid skills as a necessity. 

Therefore not only are the skills hugely valuable, likely to be used and could save a life; the qualification gained is likely to increase a young person’s chances in this highly competitive world. 

First Aid for Life runs courses with numerous schools and clubs and provides scheduled courses suitable for young people to attend. We also love running bespoke courses for groups of friends and are happy to tailor them for specific requirements such as post exam trips away, GAP years and sports qualifications. Please contact emma@firstaidforlife.org.uk, www.firstaidforlife.org.uk or call 0208 675 4036 

In addition http://www.onlinefirstaid.com has a specific First Aid for Teenagers course which will allow them to access these vital skills on their computers and mobiles.

 

 

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May 13th, 2015

Getting Boys to Talk

Some kids talk more than others.

If you’ve got more than one child chances are you’ve noticed this. Some of that is down to temperament and some may be attributable to gender. I have a daughter who is very extroverted. She used to come home from school and tell me everything that had gone on in her day in the first 2 minutes. I had to gear myself up for the onslaught the minute she got home. I became really grateful when the kids got home at different times so I could focus on all their different needs. With Gemma my challenge was just to listen, not to jump in with advice. When I buttoned my lip and let her know I was listening the storm would blow itself out and often she would find her own solutions. She would talk in order to work out what she thought about things. She just needed to be heard.

I also have two sons who happen to both be introverts.  They like to think through things before speaking. When they got home from school they liked to chill out and wouldn’t offer anything about their day until the evening. I had a friend with a son with a similar disposition and she used to say she only found out what was going on in her son’s life through what I told her I’d heard from my boy.

Many boys don’t talk about their feelings. Traditionally men weren’t encouraged to and perhaps unwittingly we still give boys messages that in order to be a man they need to manage alone. Sometimes parents still say “big boys don’t cry” or we tell them not to make such a fuss or to be a big boy. If we tell our children to ‘man up’ what do we mean?

If dads model talking about how they feel about stuff then boys learn that it’s ok for men to do so.

The best way to get a boy to talk is not to sit down for an eyeball to eyeball conversation but to do an activity together. This is what Steve Biddulph calls ‘sideways talk’. Some of my best conversations with my sons have been while we’ve been walking or even doing the washing up together. When I picked them up from school we were more likely to get a conversation going if we were walking home. Usually pumping them for information about their day didn’t work. We all know that the answer to the question “How was your day?” is “fine”, with all the information that doesn’t convey. Young children live in the moment and often can’t be bothered to dredge up what happened earlier in their day. Some will actually want to keep their school world separate from home. They certainly won’t tell us anything if they think we’re going to judge, criticise, or perhaps even advise them.

You start the conversation. Tell him about your day. Tell him about age-appropriate things that you care about. Thank him for listening and maybe tell him you feel good talking to him. If you think he has something on his mind tell him you think he might be a bit worried about something. You can tell because of his body language or facial expressions or because of what he has said or done. Try to put yourself in his shoes. If you think you know what he’s feeling describe what that might be like for him. He might not talk now but you’ve opened the door for a conversation. If he does talk don’t say much, just nod a lot. Don’t judge and DON’T offer advice.

I remember when my older son was preparing (or not) for exams he started being mean to his younger brother. He used to do that a lot when he was younger and I was afraid we were slipping back into old patterns. In my anxiety and frustration I was tempted to tell him off or punish him but I realised in time that it might be connected to the exams that he showed no signs of caring about. I talked with him about how he might be feeling, detailing his anxiety, wondering whether he was afraid of letting us down, speculating that it might be difficult to follow in his academically able sister’s footsteps, even that he might be cross with himself for not having worked harder earlier. He didn’t say much…but his body language changed –his shoulders were less slumped and he made more eye contact. And his behaviour toward his brother changed.

I’d like to say he aced those exams but that would be fiction. But he developed better habits for the next set and, more to the point, he learnt to process his feelings well and find appropriate outlets for his frustrations and fears. This son still doesn’t talk a lot about his emotions but he is a great conversationalist and has good emotional awareness - he knows how to manage his feelings.

 

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April 21st, 2015

Improving your Child's Attention Span

Does the fruit of your loins whom you love to death sometimes seem to have the attention span of a gnat? Does your darling child forget what you’ve asked him to do on the way to do it? Are you worried about their future at school?

My boys used to fidget, get up and down, need the loo, stare out the window or chase imaginary rubbers (erasures) around the floor rather than focus on homework.

Instead of concluding that lack of focus is hereditary (as you get distracted by incoming emails and Face book messages) consider first what is realistic to expect for your child’s age (and gender). Under 8s generally fidget and wriggle around a lot and it isn’t always an indicator that they’re not paying attention. Boys generally move around a lot more than girls do. They are impulsive and they forget things. All of this is normal. Research gives us a rough rule of thumb for how long children should be able to focus on a learning task.

Attention span for learning = chronological age + 1

This means that a 6 year old should be able to focus for about 7 minutes on a task that is a learning activity. He can focus for a lot longer on a game that he’s engaged in. So motivation is a key factor. This is a clue for adults trying to get kids to focus –try to make the task interesting or fun!

Other things that will help expand on your child’s ability to focus that you might like to try in the holidays:

  1. limit time spent on electronic games and TV

Most children’s games and TV are designed to be very fast-moving –they flick from one image and idea to the next very quickly, discouraging sustained thought and puzzling out solutions. Several US studies have found that too much time in front of a screen can affect development of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, attention and self-control.

  1. encourage activities involving sustained thought and listening 

Get children interested in construction toys, craft and jigsaw puzzles and give them mysteries to solve such as on http://kids.mysterynet.com/  Play games that involve careful listening like Simple Simon. 

  1. provide opportunities for physical release of energy and enough sleep 
  1. make sure kids are getting enough ‘down time’

Kids need down time to just think and be creative. Make sure they have some non-scheduled time where they can just gaze out the window and come up with some brilliant scheme.

  1. use descriptive praise

When we praise our children descriptively and specifically it really focuses their attention on what they’re doing in a much more effective way than by pointing out what they get wrong. Comment when they’re focused on a task and they’ll do it more.

  1. build your child’s emotional intelligence

Research shows that parents can influence the development of the pre-frontal cortex and encourage emotional intelligence in their children by recognising and validating their children’s feelings. When they do this children can process their feelings and move on. This greatly assists focus. Kids can’t pay attention to learning tasks when they’re consumed by emotions.

  1. when you ask them to do something just get them to do one thing.

Children under 8 can’t retain more than 2-3 pieces of information at one time.

If you use these 7 fun, easy ideas your child’s ability to focus will definitely improve.

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March 20th, 2015

Can boys play with dolls?

I think parents these days are often mindful about stereotyping on the basis of gender and try to avoid it by not dressing their children in ‘gendered’ colours (but did you know that up until the early 20th century pink was thought of as a strong boys’ colour?), providing them with opportunities to play with toys and to take part in sports or activities generally associated with the opposite sex, exposing them to different role models (in literature and in reality) and speaking to them in gender neutral terms. 

But it’s actually really easy to get caught out by little gendered remarks that slip out unnoticed. For instance have you told either your sons or daughters to ‘man up’? What does that mean? If it means to toughen up and be strong is that an attribute just for men? If it means don’t give in to your feelings or don’t talk about your feelings or, worse, don’t have those feelings, what are we saying about men and emotions? The answer to that last question was made abundantly clear to me once when I was giving a workshop on Raising Boys. I was talking about encouraging boys to identify and manage their feelings when one father said “I would question my son’s masculinity if he was talking about his feelings”! 

Sometimes with the best of intentions we’ll say things like “big boys don’t cry.” In hundreds of little ways we give our sons the message that it is weak and unmanly to express emotion and to be a man is to cope on your own. Statistics show what terrible repercussions this has for adult men not seeking help when they need it –men don’t even go to the doctor let alone ask directions! More seriously the suicide rate is much higher in men than women. 

It’s just as problematic if we’re giving limiting messages to our daughters. Have we fallen into the trap of calling our daughters ‘bossy’ for behaviour that we would find acceptably assertive in our sons? I hope you’ve seen the wonderful you tube video ‘Run like a girl’ by Proctor & Gamble which aims to celebrate the phrase rather than allowing it to be derisory. 

And of course there is still much stereotyping in music, the media, video games and in film through images and the behaviours portrayed by men and women despite recent efforts by children’s programme makers. Certain ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ qualities are ascribed to men and women. And children will be exposed to a lot of gendered stereotypes in shops with pink and blue aisles and packaging as well as boy toys and girl toys. 

There is much that parents can do to avoid these stereotypes and to offer contrary images and messages to those absorbed through the media etc. But what if, in spite of your best efforts, your child is the one coming up with stereotypes for boys’ and girls’ behaviour? 

One parent told us that her three and a half year old son had been making comments like "only boys can play with this…" to which the mum responded that "Actually boys AND girls can play with the same toys!" she was curious as to where this fixed attitude came from as neither she or her husband had ever consciously stereotyped boys vs girls. She said she always tried to use gender-neutral words such as ‘firefighter’ instead of ‘fireman’ etc. 

It is perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate behaviour for a young child to explore his or her identity including gender roles. Research has shown that children may be born with gendered tastes in toys, in that girls prefer dolls over cars and nothing we do or say can change this! However up until the age of 12 months boys are equally interested in dolls. It is only after this age that boys show a preference for toys with wheels, whereas girls continue to prefer dolls. This suggests that this is attributable to social factors rather than genetics. By the age of 3 or 4 children have surprisingly definite ideas about what behaviour and dress is appropriate for boys and girls. By this age most children when interviewed give stereotypical answers about behaviours appropriate for male and female dolls -100% of the children interviewed in one study said the female doll liked to clean the house and took care of the babies while the male doll went out to work! 

These perceptions of ‘boys’ toys’ or ‘girls’ toys’ and dress and behaviour show a normal, healthy development of gender identity and a natural inclination to want to fit in with their sex. This adapting to belong is a sign of good social skills but parents are wise to offer contrary messages as well. The strongest message we can give our children is through what we model so if boys see their dad sewing on a button or cooking a meal they will think that is an appropriate activity for a male. Likewise if mum mends the fuses or changes a tyre then obviously women can do those things. Children will model themselves on the same gender parent so dads please let your sons know its ok to talk about your feelings.

Children this age are very black and white –its only as they get older that they can understand the grey areas of life, including the idea that boys and girls can do things beyond the stereotypes.

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