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:


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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July 10th, 2013

How to Combat School Break Boredom - Before it Sets In

Things to do lists

Guest blog by Kelly Peitrangeli of  myprojectme.com

“I’m bored.” “I don’t know what to do.”   Sound familiar?

Inevitable words out of the mouths of children during the school break.

It’s great to organise outings and social get togethers, but don’t feel you have schedule their every move. Children need the time and space to transition from busy school life to laid back summer break. It’s ok to feel a bit bored, they just have to learn to overcome it.

A few summers ago I pre-empted the cries of boredom by getting my kids to create a Not Bored Board. It worked a treat and they do it every year now.

Here’s how:

•    Grab a notebook. Get your child brainstorming and writing down ideas to do at home.

•    Divide it into sections: Things to do alone  – read, puzzles, art, lego, play solitaire, listen to music, build a fort, take photos or videos. Things to do with siblings – board/card games, make believe / dressing up, trains, cars, dolls, outdoor games and sports, singing, dancing, choreographing a show, hide & seek. Things to do with you – games, sewing, arts and crafts, cooking/baking. They can rummage through the toy cupboard for more ideas.

•    Next, give them a big piece of poster board to turn their brainstorm session into an art project. They can write, draw, clip photos from magazines or print from the internet.

•    Proudly hang the Not Bored Board and refer them to it whenever they’re stuck for what to do.

Top tip: The most effective time to do this is before school breaks up, when they’re still fantasising about how great all of that free time will be!

A bored child really struggles to think of anything to do and your suggestions never seem to appeal. Get them to create their board before they’re bored and the ideas come fast and furious.

While they are off occupying themselves, use the time to get your own things done and to have a little “me time”. You’ll have more energy and patience on long summer days when you get small breaks from the kiddie action.

Reward your children for periods of entertaining themselves by having quality time with you afterwards. Be fully present and engaged with them during your time together. No checking emails, taking phone calls or prepping dinner. They will soon learn that by occupying themselves for a while each day, they will have your undivided attention later. Good for them – and you.

Happy Summer!

Kelly Pietrangeli is passionate about helping mothers quickly identify where things could be better in life – and taking action. As a busy mother herself with two musical boys and a DJ husband, life is anything but quiet. She overcame her early struggles with motherhood by taking courses with The Parent Practice and has evolved into the happy mama she is today. Kelly is excited to launch www.myprojectme.com on September 17, 2013. In the meantime, check out the Project Me for Busy Mothers Facebook page:  Facebook.com/myprojectme

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January 31st, 2013

2013 Is the time to slow down

Do you ever feel like life is a race and you are left wondering where the finish line is? Are you worried that life will overtake you? Do you feel that your life as a parent  is one big race against time with our quest to ensure our children are doing x in order to achieve Y and not be left behind. Whether it’s speed walking, speed dating, speed dialling and heaven forbid speed drive-thru funerals in USA there is a need for us all to just SLOW down and perhaps not cram so much into our day.

Carl Honoré’s latest book on Slow Parenting  raises some really key questions for us all as parents and has been written as a response to the helicopter parenting we have been seeing where parents are micromanaging their children’s lives to such an extent that parenting is now seen by some as product development or akin to a professional pastime.  Students are not coping at University  – unable to stand on their own and Merrill Lynch offers Parent Days to cater to the professional pack of parents ready to try and negotiate their offspring’s salary package.

As a society we are going badly wrong – robbing children of their childhood as evidenced by increasing cases of mental health issues, eating disorders, binge drinking, substance abuse and prolific teenage sexual activity.

So what can you do as a parent to find your tempo and ensure your children have a balanced journey of discovery?

  • Less is more – spend less, do less, stimulate less
  • Don’t buy elaborate toys for kids that do all their thinking for them and direct how they should play; rather buy them generic blocks and let them build whatever they want. There is no evidence that so-called educational toys have any impact on learning whatsoever
  • Breakfast  in bed for kids, and grown-ups; or other spontaneous events
  • Schedule in unstructured time – yes it probably needs to be scheduled!
  • Have family meal times together. Harvard research indicates this is better for language development than reading stories
  • Create family rituals around birthdays and family events
  • Have regular calendar nights on a  Sunday evening
  • Get up 10 minutes earlier
  • Limit the use of screen time and be disciplined about use. It is insidious and creeps into every corner of our lives. Never allow screens in children’s bedrooms
  • Stop and look at leaves, or sunsets, or clouds….

So if you are worried life will overtake you – you’re wrong. Life is where you are now and when we slow down we find life has a natural groove that is richer more pleasurable and more fulfilling – we may do fewer things but what we do, we do well.

When the Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore – home of tiger mom culture – spoke on the National Day of Singapore about the Singaporean style of parenting, and  launched an attack on tiger mothers in a speech last year , you know it’s time to change . He berated parents for “coaching their three- or four-year-old children to give them that extra edge over the five-year-old competition”. And he added: “Please let your children have their childhood…Instead of growing up balanced and happy, he grows up narrow and neurotic. No homework is not a bad thing. It’s good for young children to play, and to learn through play.”

So when was the last time you stopped and allowed your child to have those moments looking at the ice crystals  and the snow patterns or the rain drops?

When was the last time you took a really deep slow breath and felt the natural air ticking over of your respiratory system – breathing in and out long deep breaths to their comfortable conclusion, until you are flooded with calm.

We all know it’s time to slow down.

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May 03rd, 2012

Does homework extinguish the flames of curiosity?

Although many 7-year olds (and their parents) are celebrating the scrapping of government guidelines saying they had to complete an hour of homework each week, the rest are still labouring away. And while a few voices, getting increasingly louder, are asking “what are we doing this for?” the reality is that in the UK children start homework in Year 1, and by Year 10-11 are completing up to 2½ hours a night.

And few of them like it. And not many of us enjoy it either

Homework can be the single most stressful issue in a home (at least 50% of parents report having serious rows with their children over homework that involve yelling and crying – the reality is probably higher given a natural reluctance to admit that these things happen) and homework can come to dominate our schedules, and our conversations with our children.

In addition to our parenting role, which can be stressful enough in its own right, in the evening we have to don our teaching hat, and support our children who have already been at school for maybe 8 hours already to do more work sheets, essays, test papers etc.

The ‘quality’ moments where we build and boost our relationship with our children are usually the first casualties of the ever-increasing levels of homework. It also reduces their time for unstructured play or thinking and processing timeHowever, we all want our children to do well at school, and while the debate will continue to rage about whether children need homework, how much should be set, what type, when it should start, and the rest, back at home the parental role is to help our children cope with whatever homework they bring back.

So, what is homework for?

It may seem like a simple question, but the answer may not be that straightforward and until we understand what we are hoping our children will gain from homework , we can’t be sure HOW to help them.

Is homework to improve their learning? Or for them to gain study skills? Does homework teach children about responsibility and self-discipline? Or as Alfie Kohn suggests in ‘The Homework Myth’ is homework simply something they need to get used to, because that in itself is a life-skill they need to learn?

There’s a lot of research about homework – although most of it starts from the premise that homework should exist and then aims to demonstrate that it benefits students.  In ‘The Homework Myth’ Alfie Kohn lays out the case against homework.  The evidence he presents is compelling, if a little overwhelming.

And the central problem is that we’re just not asking the right questions – we ask how we can strengthen our children’s back muscles so they can carry increasingly heavy back-packs, and we don’t ask why they’re carrying so many books, and whether it is doing them any good.  We ask how much is the perfect amount of homework in order to increase test scores, and we don’t ask whether tests are a good way to improve learning. We accept homework, and we content ourselves with asking questions about the detail, rather than challenging the concept.

These are good questions for parents and schools to ask and we need to educate ourselves about this. I do believe it is important that we question rather than simply accept, that we talk to each other, and share our concerns with our schools; that we don’t meekly accept without question something that we don’t always believe is right for our children. For now we have homework and so I want to focus on how we can help our children not just cope with it and not lose their natural love of learning but to be motivated to do it, to develop creative thinking and to get into independent habits of study.

Many schools officially encourage parents to let them know if a child is struggling with homework. But it’s not easy to do this – there are many credible reasons why we feel uncomfortable about it. We may accept that homework should be difficult, that children will dislike doing it, and we don’t want to be seen to be indulgent to our child, or cause a fuss…. It’s a long list. (My 11-year old son didn’t want me to discuss a recent comprehension with his English teacher because he didn’t want his mates to see that his mother had come into the classroom – it’s my world, he said, and it’s not cool for your mum to come in….).

So, as well as considering taking an active role in the homework debate for future children, what shall we do for OUR children in the here and now?

First, let’s go back to the question of what we hope our children will gain from doing homework.

In our classes we ask parents what characteristics they want their children to develop. No parent has ever said they want their children to buckle down and accept things without question, instead they say they want their children to be curious, self-motivated, to know themselves, to be confident to share their opinions, and much more.

Let’s look at a few of the qualities that we strive to bring out in our children, and see how they relate to homework.


Taking ownership

In theory, homework COULD teach our children to take responsibility for their own learning, but, in real life, we don’t often give them the chance to take any responsibility for it. The school decides it must be done, the teacher decides what it shall be about, and, in most families, the parents decide the where, when and even how. (“Use this pen, sit here, no you can’t have music on, underline this, rub that out…..”) In fact, we usually don’t even let our children have the responsibility of remembering to do homework – a Californian study found that parents raise the topic of homework within 5 minutes of meeting their children after school!
What shall we do?

(1)        Hold back asking them about their homework – give them a chance to mention it first, and take ownership of their homework.

They may remember and mention it themselves, which is a great opportunity for Descriptive Praise, or they may not. Rather than believe the worst (they’ve forgotten it, they don’t take this seriously, they’ll never achieve anything in life unless I make sure it gets done….) instead, take a breath and consider why they may not have mentioned it. Chances are they’re used to you bringing it up, or they’d simply rather tell you about something else about their day first. Or, of course, they’re not looking forward to it…

If you really can’t wait to raise the topic, try a gentle reminder (“Do you think we’ll get some time after tea to play that game?” or verbalise their reluctance (“Guess the last thing you want to think about right now after a busy day is your homework….”)

(2)        Rather than impose the homework schedule that you believe is best, involve them in creating it.

Sit together and discuss the where’s and when’s and how’s – it’s perfectly reasonable that you set the parameters (they need to be where you can hear/see them,) and it’s effective and fair when they take some ownership of the details (have a snack first).

I have, in the past, dictated the chair my sons sat on, and the direction they faced. I insisted homework was attended to before anything else, including a meal. Then I realised I was using the food as a lure, and I wasn’t comfortable with this. As growing boys with growing appetites, they needed food before they could concentrate for another nano-second, and as normal boys with huge energy levels, they often need to blow off steam first before settling down for another session of study.  So, the routine in our home has changed recently – their favourite option is eat, play, study, which (rather unsurprisingly) is my least favourite option! However, it’s working so far.

Start small, and let them make small choices about their homework NOW so they can make big choices about their homework IN THE FUTURE. (We don’t get better at making decisions by having them made for us!) Much resentment is avoided when they feel they have a measure of control.

(3)     When the homework is completed, encourage them to look through their work and suggest improvements to you.

This replaces us pointing out the errors they have made– not only is this de-motivating, it doesn’t help them get into the habit of checking their own work, and spotting improvements. When we encourage them to look for themselves, it helps them get used to the idea that they will make mistakes, but they can identify them, and put them right and move on.

“You’ve managed to get lots of capital letters and full stops in here. They make your sentences easy to understand. Can you find any places where a full stop or capital letter would make it even clearer?” “You’ve been working hard on your spelling, and it shows in this piece of work. Are there any words you’re unsure about and would like to check?”

Creativity, motivation and the love of learning

The majority of homework is repetitive – and while some repetition is necessary for transferring to our long term memories things like times tables, spelling words and French verbs (and even then there are more creative/fun ways of  doing this) doing the same thing over and over again is boring for those who can already do it, and depressing and stressful for those who can’t. Not only that, it can limit our ability to search for alternative ways to answer problems, and research shows us over and over again that doing something because you HAVE to do it decreases motivation.

“Homework may be the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity.” Deborah Meier, quoted in ‘The Homework Myth’

Of course we want to teach our children – let’s allow the teachers to focus on the front-end academic side, and let’s focus on teaching our children about real-life. And there’s an awful lots of maths, English, Science, Geography and History in our every day world – there’s even a fair amount of Latin!

What can we do?

(1)        Go out – and take school learning into other areas, and make it fun!

We can visit museums, galleries, exhibitions, theatres, as well as watch films and TV programmes, about the topics they’re studying.   Or simply go for a walk and talk…. Or let them go out in the dark to see the stars or let the children take the lead on how to pursue an idea as they do in some schools in Finland, a country at the forefront of academic excellence and one that eschews the ideas of homework and testing.

(2)     Stay in – and make fractions and ratios real

It’s not as hard as it might seem – watch a bath run and see how things sink and float, or how much water is displaced, or ripples move; make a cake or salad dressing, and weigh ingredients and see how they mix together or not; have a Victorian evening, with candles and playing cards; plot holidays on a globe or atlas, dress up like an Egyptian, make an ant-factory, have a scrapbook or project about anything that interests them.

3)          Model an interest in learning

Each and every time we sit down to read a book for fun, or pick up a dictionary or search the web to find something out we don’t know, or visit a museum or art gallery or go to a talk or do some form of training we set our children a great example that learning takes place throughout our lives.

Independence and involvement

Children are encouraged to do their homework on their own. However, research is showing that working with others, brainstorming and collaborative work, is more productive than working alone.

So that brings up the contentious issue of parental involvement.  We know we’re not supposed to actually do their homework. (In my experience, my ability to do their homework didn’t last as long as I expected or hoped it might…. but then I ‘learned’ a lot by rote, and out of fear, perhaps it’s not surprising most of it has evaporated.)

Research shows that when parents get involved, the level of stress rises.  When parents are told that the homework is for a test, they tend to interfere with the homework more, and the child tends to do less well on the test. When parents are not aware there is to be a test, they tend to stand back more, and the child tends to do better in the test.

What can we do?

(1)     Discuss their homework with them in a positive way– not is it finished or where have  you put it, but ask their opinion, share ideas and thoughts.

This is particularly true for reading. Of course, repeated practice helps children become proficient readers. But reading for enjoyment’s sake is one of the first casualties of homework. Once a child has to read a certain amount of their book, or read for a set amount of time, it becomes a chore and the love is lost.

“The best way to make students hate reading is to make them prove to you that they have read.”Alfie Kohn in ‘The Homework Myth’

After your child has read, either with you or on their own, rather than sign the reading book, talk for a few moments about what they’ve read. If appropriate, perhaps your child can fill in the reading book – putting the date and number of pages read – and give it to you to sign-off. It’s these tiny acts that help them feel involved – that homework is something they do, not something that is done to them. Don’t reward kids for reading other than to praise them for their progress – it should be enjoyable for itself and if we dangle a carrot then we are undermining that message.

(2)        When they moan and complain about homework, hear them.

When we listen to their complaints we may worry that we are agreeing with them. We worry that if we validate the negative things they say they will become negative about other things whereas we want them to be positive. None of this is true. (“I hate this homework, why do I have to do it?” “I hate it too, and I don’t understand why they keep giving it” –this is agreeing – as opposed to “It’s tough having to sit down and do more maths, when all you probably want to do is curl up, or run outside, etc.”-this is empathising)

We’re allowing them to tell us how they feel. How children feel about homework is very important as it affects their whole relationship with school, studying, and learning. When we empathise with them, we can actually lower their reluctance or resistance to doing it and let go of their negative feelings. When we try to explain or cajole them to do it, or make them feel wrong for complaining, we give them the message that their instincts and emotions are wrong, and they need to learn to over-ride them and get on with doing as they’re told. Not only that, they can’t talk about it with us because we’re not going to hear it. Not really the life lesson we want our children to learn, nor the relationship we hope to have with them. When they feel heard they have the experience of someone validating their perspective. When we acknowledge their point of view we can help them be calm and move on.

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February 28th, 2012

What if we could encourage creative thinking and curiosity in our children

girl thinking

Children discover a very important tool for survival when they play –especially when they engage in fantasy play. They learn how to imagine and talk about things not present, they learn how to pretend and speculate. This is such an important tool for life to learn as it enables those who master it to plan, project, conceptualise and to think creatively. When children engage in fantasy play they are involved in an age old process of story telling that enables them to make sense of a sometimes confusing and unpredictable world and find solutions to problems.

Clearly there are inspired entrepreneurs who are examples of creative visionaries such as Bill Gates, who once envisioned a computer in every home; or Steve Jobs’ vision for the series of iProducts; or, Richard Branson with his plan to send people into space.  And with the subsequent generation led by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergei Brin and Larry Page, certainly ‘what-if’ questions are being posed regularly (there’s even a management consultancy called WhatIf! in London).  Clearly these ‘what if’ conversations can and do exist, but in a culture of over-scheduled and hyper-parented children, many of whom are simply learning all they need to know to pass a test, are we instilling in them a sense of ‘what-if’curiosity, or are we simply giving them all the answers?

What is the magic trick to raising kids that are imaginative, creative and curious?  Here are some tips that we think can support you in making it happen:

Play – Allow your children time for unstructured and non –adult directed play.  Let them dig holes in the garden, plant seeds, make dens, allow their imaginations to run wild.  Limit the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen. Give them toys which don’t do all their thinking for them or direct how the game should develop – the simpler the better.

Ask – don’t tell Ask questions of your children that will require more than a yes or no answer.  Even in the madness of the morning routine, you can ask them what they need to do rather than nag them.  They can think for themselves, and will respond to questions more positively than to nagging. We get into the habit of repeating ourselves because we say our children don’t listen but it is the very repetition (nagging) that causes our children to tune us out.

Be interested in what they have to say.  Toddlers will go through the “why?’ stage.  Don’t shut down their questions.  They’re simply trying to make sense of their world. Sometimes you can respond to a question with a question of your own or a direction to where they can find the answer. “That’s a very good question – I wonder if you’d find the answer in your book about dinosaurs/on the internet?”

Encourage awareness of the wider world Talk to your children about things that happen in your life, within your community and around the world. Don’t just talk about world disasters but when they come up rather than leaving them feeling detached and helpless, encourage them to do something to help (e.g. donate some of their allowance to charities to support relief efforts for things like the Tsunami in Japan; or make up a relief package made up of things from their own toy collection and your kitchen cupboards). Encourage an attitude of solution orientedness. Point to solutions people have found such as discoveries in science and medicine. Inspire them with your enthusiasm for new inventions- many men particularly find it easy to be inspired about new gadgets!

Trial and Error Allow your children to fail. We love Michael Jordan’s quote “I have missed over 9000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games; been trusted with the game-winning shot 26 times – and missed.  I failed over and over and over and that is why I succeed”.  Practice won’t necessarily make perfect, but it will sure make things better.

Praise the qualities that will encourage a ‘what-if’ child.

-          Persistence When you see your child persevering at something (even if it’s your toddler trying to get a pea on a fork!) This should be easy to spot as small children get up time and time again when they fall over.

-          Effort When your child puts extra effort into riding a bike or skateboard, learning their spelling, practicing the piano or building a Lego tower.

-          Ingenuity Your children will come up with ideas … if you ask them.  Allow them to contribute to solutions to problems involving them and others in which they are not involved. Eg “does anyone have any ideas how Mummy can remember to take her phone when she goes out?”

-          Improvement Children of all ages are learning every day.  Make sure to notice those small improvements, whether it is a small child remembering to flush the toilet or a teenager remembering to text to say they’ll be late.  You will get more of what you pay attention to.

-          Curiosity Don’t denigrate the ‘why’ questions.  If you don’t know the answer, it’s great modeling to say, “you know what, I don’t know!  Let’s go find out”.  If you model curiosity for learning, it will rub off on your children.  And be grateful that Google does exist!

Play a ‘what-if’ game when your children ask for your help in solving a problem.  This is great for so many reasons including that your children start to see that you trust their ideas, and they learn to trust themselves to figure things out. It’s really simple! It’s nothing more than a conversation with each sentence beginning with ‘Yes, and what if …?’  If your child asks you if they can do something, say build a spaceship, the conversation could go something like this:

Child: What if we get that big empty box from the garage and build a rocket

Parent: Yes, and what if we get the Christmas lights from the attic and stick them to the box?

C: Yes, and what if we get out the paints and decorate our rocket?

P: Yes, and what if you get that jumpsuit Granny made for you and use it as a spacesuit?

C: Yes … and the ski goggles and my bike helmet.

P: What if you need to steer the rocket?

C: What if we get a plastic plate to be a steering wheel?

P: Yes, and you can’t leave your toys behind!  What if I build a toy box inside the rocket?

C: And I might get hungry.  It’s a long way to the moon.   What if I make a snack?

You get the idea.  It’s simply a way of opening up ideas and new possibilities rather than stifling creativity.

Focus on the process, not the result Sophie, age 9, is obsessed with creating a dance camp for kids when she’s 12.  Instead of shutting down the idea because she can’t be bothered, her mother is encouraging her to think about all the things she’ll need to do to get the camp going – whether it happens three years down the road or not.  At the same time her mum is praising her for things like creativity, contribution, fun, sharing and collaboration.

For a younger child carrying their own cup but spilling quite a bit try hard not to take over and do it for them. Instead say something like “You are trying really hard to carry your cup over to the table without spilling it. I watched you walking really slowly and I see that you have discovered that if you keep your eye on it and look up occasionally you spill less and still don’t bump into anything. You are figuring it out all by yourself. There’s a cloth for wiping up on the kitchen bench.”

No idea is wrong Encourage healthy dialogue about ideas within your home.  Discussing an idea will teach your child how to take it to fruition.  It will also help them separate the good from not-so-good ideas!

Create an ideas forum –having regular family meetings is a good idea for many reasons including providing a forum for discussing ideas, finding solutions.

Probably now, more than ever, our children need to be curious, innovative, and have the skills to take something that starts as an idea and take it to fruition.  We once heard someone say that today’s children need to learn skills for careers that don’t currently exist. What do you think Mark Zuckerberg responded when he was a young boy when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up? The whole idea of social media didn’t exist. It is a completely new and innovative industry. He clearly grew up with an innovative and entrepreneurial flair.

Perhaps many of our own children possess the same ability.  As one of the founders of The Blue School in New York says in the film ‘Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture’, “kids come to the table with this creativity and this love of learning.  Let’s just not take it out of them”.

It’s hugely exciting to think about the possibilities that will arise from raising ‘what-if’ children rather than raising kids that are waiting to be told what to do all the time. By encouraging ‘what-if’ conversations, we are more likely to raise children who can imagine, pretend, conceptualise, plan and solve problems. This will help them not just make sense of their world, but redefine it.

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January 19th, 2012

Top Tips for helping children handle parties

Children's parties

There is an assumption that children and parties go together like bread and jam. And parties are important for the social development of our children.

In many ways, children and parties do have a natural affinity – they both tend to be full of activity and noise, and they’re often somewhat chaotic, and usually quite exhausting!

Parties present a different world to children, a world where the rules are often very different and this can make it hard for them to know how to behave.

Some children don’t enjoy parties – and others enjoy them too much! Either can cause challenges for parents.

There is a wealth of information about how to organise a successful child’s party and plenty to say about whether or not creating a Fabulous Event for a 3 year old is appropriate. But for now we’re going to focus on how parents can make a party a success for the child themselves, helping them feel better, and behave better, and gain from the opportunities offered.

In our experience, these are the 3 main areas parents worry about – and some ideas about how you can help your child:


Nerves and reluctance to join in

Some children throw themselves in with abandon as soon as they arrive. Others hang back and find it hard to join in the merriment. Many children feel anxious or insecure in unknown situations, and this can be exacerbated if they are also to be separated from parents/caregivers. (Separation anxiety doesn’t just affect 18month-2 year olds – it comes in fits and starts, and often another peak is at 5-6 and at 7-8 years old.)

When it looks like our child is not going to join in, it can make us feel disappointed that they’re not going to enjoy themselves, particularly if we’ve made an effort to get there, or worried that they’re out of their depth and we’ve done something wrong, or we can’t help them or that they’ll grow up to be a social misfit!

Being the life and soul of the party is not for all of us! And most parents would choose “being a good friend” over “being a party-animal” for their child! If your child’s temperament means they are more cautious, and reserved, this doesn’t make them wrong- it’s just who they are and we need to accept and support them. Understanding our children’s temperament helps us find ways to help them. For example:

  • Talk with them beforehand about how they feel about parties – acknowledge that there is a pressure to enjoy parties, and empathise that parties can feel overwhelming. Wait for them to respond – and allow them to tell you if they don’t enjoy parties – some children are particularly sensorially sensitive and find the lights, noise and activity more stressful. You can empathise about worries they may have WITHOUT making them more worried. This might sound like: “I know you’re looking forward to Charlie’s party because he’s your friend, and I wonder if you’re also a bit worried about what’s going to happen at the party? Sometimes there is so much going on, and it’s loud and there are lots of people and it is hard to join in games….”
  • Discuss with them what friendship involves – it’s not all about playing games at parties and being a standout leader in a group- the ‘popular’ one. Friendship is also about being kind, sharing, and helping others. Encourage your child to see themselves as a good friend, even if they don’t like joining in noisy, boisterous activities. This might sound like: “I know Molly likes music and dancing, and they’re not your favourite things to do. You and she are good friends though – she loves coming here to play with your doll’s house, and spending time with you.”
  • Notice and descriptively praise any progress in the right direction – if your child watches the activities or games from a distance, clutching your hand, that’s better than running out of the room. Some children watch entire puppet shows or balloon displays from the doorway or stairs. At least they’re engaged, as far as they feel they can be, and they have created a great coping mechanism for themselves. Acknowledge them: “I see you’ve settled yourself down there where you feel comfortable. I think you want to watch the clown lady, and you want to make sure you can see your friends, even though you don’t want to sit with them.” One mum helped her child acclimatise to parties in small steps by letting her stand next to her and gradually helping her move closer to the action, until finally the girl said mum could leave!

Over-exuberance and not wanting to leave

Some children jump in feet first, and commit to having a full role in every aspect of the party and may even take over somewhat. And, with no sense of time, and no awareness of all the other things you have to do that afternoon/evening, they find it impossible to leave when they are asked.

  • Practice at home beforehand – do a role play of leaving the party and walk through with your child all the stages involved – from finding their coat, saying thank you to the host, and good-bye to their friends. Have some fun, you can even swap roles and let your child be the host and you can be the reluctant leaver. Role plays work well because they help children practice things they find hard in a safe, non-judgemental, non-pressured, supportive environment.
  • Plan something interesting (and calming!) to do afterwards – discuss and agree this with your child beforehand. When you arrive, you can empathise with their reluctance to leave – rather than make them feel wrong for wanting to stay – and gently remind (rather than nag or threaten!) them about the planned activity at home. This might sound like: “Gosh, you look like you’ve had lots of fun, and now it’s time to leave which isn’t so much fun, is it? Do you remember what we practiced? And what we’re going to do when we get home?”

The evening after the party…..

Once we’ve got home safely, it’s tempting to believe it’s all done and dusted.

Actually, it takes children a remarkably long time to calm down after the intensity of a party. After all the hype, nerves, adrenalin and sugar, it’s difficult for them to adjust to the order and expectations of the real world again.

The more tired they are, the harder it is for them to do anything – including going to sleep. Yet all we want to do is collapse into bed! This can mean we ourselves are not calm, and this doesn’t help.

Rather than pushing them to go to sleep earlier, it can help to start the wind-down to bedtime earlier and make time to do something smoothing and calming. Even if it means they go to bed at the same time as normal, they should fall asleep more peacefully and have a better night’s rest.

Ideas include: deep “sleepy” breathing, gentle massage, having candles/bubbles in the bath, reading favourite stories in your bed. When you’re reading it can help children relax if you gradually slow your voice down and lower the volume, making longer pauses between sentences. It might also help to stroke the child in a rhythm that matches your reading.

It may help to modify some rules or expectations about the evening to allow for the earlier mayhem – for example, if you usually require that your child puts their dirty clothes in the laundry basket, maybe you can do this for them. It doesn’t mean the rule is broken, it’s just the rule applies to “normal” days and doesn’t apply on party night! If you want to maintain any house-keeping rules, be prepared that they might be forgotten, not done so well, or done very slowly and grumpily!

Over all, it always helps us to look at things from our child’s perspective – in time they will be able to do this for you too. When we consider the experience they’ve had at the party, it’s not hard to see how they may crumble or explode later at home.

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October 31st, 2011

Halloween Horrors!!!

Are your children excited about all the Halloween trick – or- treating? Do they adore dressing up? Or are they fearful at the thought of venturing out in the dark night and encountering all the scary ghoulish faces. Many children under the age of 6 have difficulty divorcing reality from fantasy so for many of our younger children this truly can be a night of horrors.

In addition many  of us as parents are confused about what Halloween represents as a festival  and may worry about the pagan or Christian origins of All Hallows Eve being taken over for commercial purposes. Relax – for the children this day is about dressing up, being with friends and the age long tradition of collecting sweeties and telling jokes! (The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays dates back to the  Middle Ages and includes Christmas wassailing. On Hallowmas (November 1) the poor would go door to door receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls’ Day, (November 2).)

Here are some top tips to make Halloween a success:

Talk to your children about what may be frightening them – is it the costumes; the scary masks; the symbols or images of blood and gore? Make sure they get that you are listening and understanding and not treating their fears as if they are silly or babyish. Once a child feels heard and his feelings validated he is in a far better place to look for solutions.

  1. If you need to take a young reluctant child along with older ones let him know you will support him, holding his hand or whatever else he needs to feel safe. Keep reminding him that there are real people under the costumes and if you know who then name them.
  2. The costumes sold on the high street can be very scary so let your child decide what he is going to dress up as. If he wants to be Batman or a Power Ranger then let him be……..  Equally if he is happy to dress as a devil/monster for the night then again let him do so and be assured this does not mean all his  belief systems about what is right and wrong will be threatened. Research indicates that children who are able to dress in scary costumes are more likely to overcome their fears and be more resilient.
  3. If your child is nervous about trick-or-treating, then set up for success by enlisting the help of a few friendly neighbours who know you are going to visit. Start well before dark and ensure you have some of your children’s friends by your side to help them get into the festive spirit.
  4. If trick-or treating is really out of the question, then invite people to the house for a Fancy dress party with Halloween food and games. Children feel safer and secure in their own home and by involving them with Pumpkin carving and house decorating they will feel successful and involved.

Ultimately the key lies in listening to your child’s fears – they are very real and let him decide how much/little he wants to participate. Be aware that for children with sensory sensitivities the sounds, smells and feel of everything different may send them spinning. So have empathy – they may be HAVING a problem not BEING a problem and if we tell him to “grow up and stop being a baby” and “face his fears” they will feel very misunderstood and learn it is not right to be afraid. Over time your child will learn with the right support to deal with his anxieties and fears and become more resilient.

Halloween is here to stay – commercially it becomes bigger each year. You may choose not to take part but if you do, explain to your children what are your values that prevent you from joining in and empathise if they would like to do what many of their friends are doing. If you do choose to take part to make it a success requires a little planning.

Your child may not be fearful at all and look forward to trick or treating and getting sweets. You may need to remind them (by asking the children) about what to say at the door of participating neighbours (only call on those households who are participating-decorations are a good indicator) and to say thank you. To avoid sugar overdosing you may also need to establish some rules ahead of time about how many sweets can be consumed on the night and thereafter. The whole experience can be very exciting so be prepared for it to take time to wind down. Start the whole evening with plenty of time to do the trick or treating round and get home in time for a wind down and maybe a hot milky drink before bed.

Enjoy your ‘guising’ and ‘souling’ and your pumpkin carving and wrap up warmly!

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July 29th, 2011

Lessons from the Wimbledon Fortnight

One of the perks of living in London is the opportunity to attend world-class events.  Recently I was lucky enough to be at Wimbledon’s Center Court for the final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.  Djokovic won in 4 sets, and he was the deserving winner.  He simply played better tennis on the day.

Athletes can be a tremendous inspiration; providing lessons in how to be at the top of their game and remaining confident, yet also maintaining humility.  Rafael Nadal summed it up so beautifully in his speech following his defeat by Djokovic.  He said:

“First I would like to congratulate Novak and his team for his victory today and his amazing season.  It wasn’t possible [for me] today in this final. I tried my best as always. Today one player played better than me.  I will try another time next year.”

Here’s what I like about what he captured in those short sentences:

  1. Djokovich won, Nadal lost and Nadal can still be happy for Djokovich and what he accomplished.
  2. He acknowledged that he was beaten by the better player on the day.  He says that he played his best, and he understands that on that particular day, his best wasn’t good enough to win.
  3. That he will leave the court with an increased commitment and motivation to learn from his loss; to look at what he could have done differently; and to refine his game and improve so that July 2012 might see a different result!

Apparently one of the things players see before heading on to Center Court is the classic Rudyard Kipling poem If

If you can meet with triumph and disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same

This is such an important lesson to instill in our children.  The ability to win with grace and humility and the ability to lose in the same way.  Defeat can lead to (at least) two outcomes: it can shut you down so you no longer want to try; or, you see it as a source of inspiration.  Defeat can be the opportunity to take stock with what you have achieved, re-clarify and re-commit to your goals and take some time to refine your skills.

Yesterday’s match demonstrated that, for Nadal, doing your best is not the same as (in that particular match) being the best.  While doing your best might not result in a first or second place finish, it will always provide an opportunity to assess your strengths and weaknesses and see them both as things to learn from and improve upon.

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January 17th, 2011

What every child wants - presents or your presence?

Parent and children working together

As the recycling trucks take away the last bags of ripped wrapping paper and broken up boxes, homes are full of new toys and games. In the playgrounds, children are comparing notes about who got what, and, at home, they are busy determining which are destined to become much loved favourites and which will be gathering dust on the shelf.

After all the recent focus on presents, it’s interesting to read about some research from Cardiff University which concluded that 75% of 11-12 year olds rated spending time with their family, above spending time with friends or time alone. When asked what they enjoyed doing with their family, the children didn’t mention playing games or being taken shopping or on day-trips or outings. They talked about “routine” and “ordinariness” and about the feeling of “having someone around”. What the children seem to value is a time to rest and relax, with a sense of control and security, which they get from being WITH us, rather than being with friends, or indeed from having the latest gizmos, gadgets and games.

In our classes, we talk about making sure you spend some “Special Time” with each child at some point during the week.  It needs only be 5-10 minutes, and it can take place at any time of the day and anywhere. The point that makes it “Special” is that is guaranteed and regular time with you – uninterrupted by anything or anyone. There are many benefits, but the beauty is the simplicity. You don’t have to do anything with them, just be with them. If there is a particular conversation or an activity, it’s at their urging and under their direction.

But I was still not sure I’m that great company for my children, until I asked my eldest (aged 10 years) what was good about the recent holidays, and the answer was “just being at home with you”. It surprised me, in the lovely way it does when you realise they sometimes know more and better than we do….. I asked what was so good about “just being at home” because personally “just being at home” can drive me mad….. And the response of “I like knowing you are here, and knowing where everything is and what is going to happen because I feel safe” very much confirmed the Cardiff University research.

Now, I don’t think my child feels particularly unsafe anywhere else. There are no signs to cause me any concern in this area. But I had not thought about it like this before. The world outside the front door really can be pretty big and scary, even when you’ve reached double digits, and I realise now I hugely underestimate the comfort and pleasure our home and my presence in it gives my children.  I don’t always need to add anything particular – although being actively engaged with your child is always going to be something you wish you did more of.  Sometimes I just have to be me and be here.

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January 10th, 2011

Stop Playing Seriously and Seriously Play!

We are now well into January.  The Christmas tree has been taken down, life is slowly getting back to normal and I’m feeling that this has been one of the best Christmas holidays ever!  And, it’s not over yet!  Just over 3 weeks into the holidays, and I’m getting a bit sad that my daughter will soon be heading back to school.  As I think back to December 15th, I remember almost feeling a sense of dread that the holiday would be so long!  Now, though as she is heading up to 8, she is a total joy to spend time with, and I have had a really great time playing, baking, reading, drawing … all the things that she loves to do.  It was really a holiday where – inspired by theDiane Loomans poem, decided to ‘stop playing serious, and seriously play’.

The holidays started with a magical blizzard, that left many people here in London stranded, unable to get their planned flights either out to see family, or heading somewhere warm.   We were already planning on staying in London, as my Mum was coming to visit, so we could really enjoy the snow.  During the weekend of the big blizzard, we were all out in the park building snowmen and had a great time throwing snowballs and making snow angels.  Sadly for all those who were trying to reschedule flights, they didn’t necessarily see the fun side of the weather.

The snowy days brought to mind a Maya Angelou quote: You can tell a lot about a person about how they manage these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights.  I would add to that, a dumping of snow while you’re stuck on an airplane on the runway at Heathrow not knowing whether you’re going to take off on that lovely trip – and with small children who are getting increasingly tired, hungry and bored.  You can prepare all you like, but things can still go awry.

What can help you in those unpredictable moments is the ability to stay calm – almost surrendering to the fact that there is very little you can do to change the situation.  About the only thing you have any control over is how you are going to approach it!  You can go down many different routes: the complaining route (‘these airlines …’ ); the victim route (‘why does this have to happen to me?’); the practical route (attempting to make new travel arrangements); or the ‘let’s make this fun anyway’ route!  Choosing to not get swept away by feelings of frustration and sadness about possibly missing out on your vacation, and actually choosing a more positive approach works on so many levels.  First, there is the obvious benefit of having happier children.  There is also the added bonus that your children are learning a great lesson about how to deal with situations when things don’t go swimmingly.  If you’re able to stay calm and creatively deal with the challenges, you’re giving your children an amazing lesson in how to deal with the challenges that life will throw at them.

So now that the parks are green again, the Christmas cookies have all been eaten and the decorations put away for another year, I’ve decided to take on a renewed commitment to stay calm when life gets crazy, and to always remember to take time to seriously play! Happy New Year!

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