Remove Daily Friction

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I am more pleased with myself than is appropriate. It is often relatively easy and inexpensive to remove daily sources of irritation, but even easier to put off such tasks. I have just spent all of five minutes on Amazon purchasing an additional charger for my Fitbit and iPhone, plus a new set of headphones. Being able to charge everything at work as well as at home will be oh-so-convenient! And being able to adjust the volume on the headphones rather than digging around for my actual phone? I’ll feel like I’m actually living in a first world country.

Timely Reminders


I can’t resist the temptation to resume unsolicited advice, aka Tuesday Tips.

I don’t like having items on whatever To Do list system I’m currently using if I can’t do them straight away, or don’t plan to do them for quite some time. But god forbid I try and remember such things. There are various methods for not losing track of tasks to do later, but my favourite is to put it into my calendar on a sensible date in the future. It looks like an event, and that’s enough for me to take note.

David Allen advocates a tickler file, but checking paper files is something I have not done in this century. If you prefer an e-mail reminder, my colleague is a huge fan of followup then (thanks Jessica!)

In any event, anything to preserve working memory.

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Doing Things by Half


Long time no blog! Is great to be back – I have missed this space.

I’m diving in to share a New Year’s Resolution success. I resolved (again) to floss regularly. I don’t know why I find this task so horribly onerous; I absolutely dread and loathe it!

Usually I resolve to floss every night. This time I tried cutting the task in half. I resolved to floss the upper jaw on odd days, and lower jaw on even days. That really helped me to get started. Now I give myself the treat of a day off. If I do the whole mouth one day, I’m off the hook the next day!

So far, so good. As an all-or-nothing person, doing things by halves doesn’t come easily to me. If I don’t have time for at least 30 minutes at the gym, I don’t go. Better to do 15 or 20 minutes. Another one I fall foul of on a regular basis is thank-yous. I want to be the type of person who writes thoughtful cards, and sends them through the post. So I don’t write a quick text or e-mail. But I don’t get round to sending the card.

2016: The year of doing things half-arsed.

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Article for The Conversation

Summer babies are schooled in low self-esteem

Alison Pike, University of Sussex

Eight years ago, my niece was born three weeks premature at 10 pm on August 31. She started school just after her fourth birthday; had she been born just two hours later, she would have started school just after her fifth birthday. At that age, one year’s development makes a huge difference and it may affect children’s sense of self worth as much as it does their performance.

It is part of efforts to address this that fewer children than expected started school this September. The Department of Education recently relaxed its stance on the cut-off date for school entry, a welcome move. Parents of summer-born children can now ask local authorities to consider their individual child’s circumstances, characteristics and abilities, and decide whether it is in their child’s best interests to be young or old for their year.

Puppet show

But does it really matter? Oh yes, it really does. As popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, the academic advantage for children relatively old in their year is long-lasting. A child born on the “wrong” side of the cut-off date is at almost twice the risk of having language difficulties and behaviour problems reported by their teacher at the end of the reception year. Although such difficulties diminish over time, summer-born children are more likely to have special educational needs, and do significantly less well in their GCSEs.

Georgia and her puppets.
Author, Author provided

Additional compelling evidence has emerged from Georgia Leith’s doctoral research. Using a series of interviews with friendly, furry, puppy-dog puppets, she asked 85 pupils in Year 1 about how well they think they are doing in school. For example, one puppet would say, “I’m not good at maths,” and the other puppet would say, “I’m good at maths. How about you?”

Other interview items asked children directly about how they compare themselves to their peers. So the puppets offer up: “I read better than other kids in my class,” and “Other kids read better than me.” On the whole, the children tended to align themselves with the higher achieving puppet. It is noteworthy, however, that the younger children reported lower levels of academic competence than did their older class-mates.

Comparing oneself to one’s peers is part of the human condition. It is heart-breaking to realise that these younger children’s developmental disadvantage may be affecting their self-esteem. If I had a summer baby, I would certainly err on the side of holding them back.

Danish example

But will this really solve the problem? Won’t this just shift the problem on to spring babies? My sons’ school is large – with 120 pupils per year, divided into four classes. Why not divide the children by the season of their birth? That way, children will be comparing themselves to peers of nearer the same age. This might work for primary schools in large towns, but, of course, it’s not a helpful suggestion for a small village school.

Something to shout about. Are Danish kids better served?
Marko Djurica/Reuters

One country that bucks the trend of disadvantaging children who are young for their school is Denmark. Gladwell explains this: “They have a national policy where they have no ability grouping until the age of ten. Denmark waits to make selection decisions until maturity differences by age have evened out.” This is all well and good, but it is hard to imagine how a teacher of 30 children is expected to improve all of their children’s reading without some form of streaming. A more radical approach may be required.

This dovetails nicely with calls from many experts that formal schooling should be delayed for all children until the age of 7. David Whitebread and others argue that younger children do better in contexts where they have the freedom to learn through self-directed play. Delaying formal teaching leads to better attitudes to learning, better mental health, and has no deleterious effects on academic achievement.

Such a delay in formal instruction may be of particular benefit to children young for their year. Although there is a developmental difference between a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old, it is not nearly as profound as the difference between a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old. But such a change to our culture of early and frequent national testing and league tables would be nothing short of a revolution, and seems unlikely in the short to medium term.

In the meantime I think I might drop our headteacher a line about the seasonal classroom idea.

The Conversation

Alison Pike, Reader in Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Children Behaving Badly

girl-563719_640I like children who are compliant, respectful, and well-behaved. I often feel enraged by my children’s rudeness. As a parent, I think I could do a better job in socialising them to be more cooperative and respectful. But not all of the bad behaviour is a bad thing.

Any social worker will tell you that children at risk of being taken into care are angelic. That good behaviour stems from fear, of course. A limited level of poor behaviour can be seen as a sign of being at ease, having a safe-haven, and security.

Our 7-year-old’s pattern of behaviour is a common one. He gets glowing reports from his teachers, other parents and the like. He saves the bad stuff for us, and that’s as it should be. For a child with an as-yet under-developed frontal cortex, it’s not such a poor self-regulation strategy.

It’s a tricky one — on the one hand I am reticent to let myself off the hook. I think that our boys could be better behaved, but I’m glad we don’t live in an era of children fearing physical punishment and the like. That leaves parents having to be more thoughtful, creative, energetic, and consistent to get better behaviour.

I’m exhausted at the very thought. A bit of bad behaviour isn’t seeming so very bad.

I Know How She Does It


(I know, long time, no blog. Let’s put that subject on the back-burner for now though.)

Over a year ago I completed a week’s time log for Laura Vanderkam’s Mosaic project. The book came out several weeks ago, and I gobbled it up straight away. It was one of those books that didn’t really teach me anything, but was comforting to read because I agree with Laura’s opinions re working mothers, time use, and the damage caused by (too much) whining. I read what she says and keep thinking, “Exactly!”

The book is about how women with “big” careers and child(ren) organise their time. She analysed 100+ such women’s time-logs of a single week. There is some imperfect quantitative info in the book that is fascinating, and also plenty of insights & strategies from looking at specific women’s logs.

We agree that:

  1. Most people over-estimate the number of hours they work. She is more understanding of this tendency than I am.
  2. It is far better to focus on quality time with one’s children/family, rather than to focus on minimising hours of childcare.
  3. Typical women could learn a thing or two from typical men, re lowering domestic standards. Stop trying to get your partner to do more stuff, just stop doing the stuff.
  4. Relatedly: outsource, outsource, outsource the cleaning, etc.
  5. From the mosaic of the rush-hour of life that is raising small children, you can focus on the stressful, awful moments — but don’t.

This last point came to mind lots over this past weekend. Sian was attending a course in London, so out of the house from 7-7 both days. It would be very easy to write a whiney narrative:

First off, Sian FORGOT to let me know about a birthday party on the Sunday, which meant that my careful arrangements for a day-trip with another family had to be un-done. Harry was distraught, not about the day-trip, but because this postponed a particular X-Box play-date from Saturday to Sunday. Tragedy, apparently. The park that we met said family at on Saturday afternoon (in place of the day-trip) was disgustingly busy. We were hot and bothered, sunscreen application was a drama, and H was really not on good form. In one of his moods where he doesn’t seem to want to play with designated play date, and keeps moaning at me. Embarrassing, annoying.

Sunday should have been better, but started badly because I could not find Tom’s shoes. We were running late, and I yelled, and felt bad about it, and that made me behave even worse. The marathon-length party on Sunday meant I had to keep Tom entertained, and the cash seemed to leech away uncontrollably at one of those fun-fair type places. Due to poor organisation, I also had to buy the birthday present while the party was happening, and wrap it outside in the wind, tape getting tangled and present looking, well, wind-swept. To top the day off, Tom fell asleep in the car, and would not be woken. In consequence, the boys were in and out of bed until 9 at night.

What a horribly exhausting weekend of solo-parenting.

All of the above is true, but it wasn’t like that. Not really. Just as true to say:

On Saturday morning we went to the gym, so I had two hours to myself. Finished listening to an absolutely brilliant audiobook whilst walking around Stanmer Park. It was a beautiful day, and it was great to have some time to myself to charge up for the rest of the day. We saw our friends in the afternoon, and had an early teatime at Pizza Express. The green space outside was clear of any exhibition stuff, so the kids could run around between courses. We could have a grown-up chat and enjoy their wholesome play that was in plain view, but out of earshot. Perfect.

Sunday morning it was raining, and lucky for me, our usual Sunday morning skate-park friends invited us for a pancake breakfast. I did try and moan a bit to the Dad about the solo parenting of late. He actually laughed in my face, reminding me of my recent jaunt to NYC. And then proceeded to entertain all 5 boys for a good hour so I could have a good chin-wag with his lovely wife. Next up was H’s party. Tom beat me at crazy golf, before a spot of trampolining. Confession – I love watching the teenage boys who hang out there all day practicing their tricks. We then had a lunch date at Pizza Hut (it was a pizza-heavy weekend), and Tom the charmer came out with, “I’m having a lovely day with you, Mummy.” Harry’s delayed X-Box date came over on Sunday afternoon. I must admit, I let Tom nap so that I could have a little snooze myself…

It was a great weekend.

And for the record, I’m very happy to have a partner with sufficient get-up-and-go to sometimes get-up-and-be-gone.

Evening Routine: Parenting Project Update

This month I’ve been working on my evening routine. Some success, some failure.

The good news is that I’m reading actual books! Banning the phone from bed was the key, and it’s a nice bonus having a fully charged phone every morning. I’ve also been better, though far from perfect, about flossing.

The idea of eating dinner at the table has not worked as well. Two problems. First, I broke a cardinal rule of self-improvement: you can only change yourself, not other people. But if I’m honest, this is just an excuse. After putting the children to bed, I’m spent. Fighting the path of least resistance is futile.

The other fail has been turning out the light by 10:15. This is actually more difficult now that I’m reading the actual books. Exhaustion at 8 turns into “I’ll just finish this chapter” at 10:30. Hence starting the week on 6 hours 50 minutes of sleep, and feeling distinctly tired.

 This week I mean it. Lights off (or kindle closed) by 10:15.

Slummy Mummy Manifesto


People often ask if it helps or hinders to have an extensive academic knowledge of parenting. I think it’s a mixed bag, but I do appreciate it when I see other parents doing things that I know the evidence indicates do not need to be done. More often than is fair, taking the lazy approach is actually better, or at least no worse, than being a more proactive parent.

Such as:

1. Urging children to eat. I’ve covered this extensively in previous posts, but is it not fantastically freeing to know that you are doing your best by your children to simply provide a balanced, healthy diet, and THAT’S IT. What they choose to actually eat is their business.

2. Insisting children wear additional clothing. OK, this one is not exactly based on evidence, but it baffles me. From the age of say 3, why on earth do parents play a part in their children’s decisions about how many clothes they require to keep sufficiently warm? Granted, I do not live in Canada; here in England it is not a big deal if a child mis-judges and is a tad chilly. This is not even what happens. What I see is parents in the park who threaten their children with going home if they do not put on their coat. We know that being cold does not actually cause colds. (And these children are not even cold.)

3. Reward charts. Rewards often backfire. They teach children that an activity/food/behaviour is only worth doing for the reward, rather than for its own sake. Children rewarded for colouring with magic markers ended up doing it less than children given no reward. I often reflect on the way that schools do things. Children don’t get a reward for tidying up at school, it is simply an expectation, a routine. Harry once told me that if I wanted him to tidy up at home, I should ring a bell and put on dance music. Point taken.

4. Homework. In the primary school years at least, there is no consistent evidence that it is of any value. We are super lucky. Our school does not monitor such things, so we hardly do any. Occasionally we ask Harry if he wants to read to us from his reading book. Sometimes he does, often he does not. I have sometimes forced it, and felt a fool. Spellings and multiplication tables? No thanks. That book stays in the bag. What I don’t like is parents being responsible for the homework getting done. I want my children to feel the compulsion, and then I will happily help.*

5. Clean clothing and brushed hair. OK, again not exactly evidence-based, but I hear parents moan about how challenging it is to get their children ready for school and the like.   My method is that the boys can’t access screens until they are dressed. And they do this themselves. For about half of Harry’s first year of school, he wore his trousers backwards. He didn’t mind, and we were fine to let it go. At that time the rule was no breakfast before getting dressed. His shirt was often filthy before school began. As for hair, we keep it short, and we do not own a comb or hairbrush. Before anyone calls the social, I can assure you that our children are reasonably clean, and do not smell. We have low, but not no, standards.

Slovenly? Perhaps. But I refuse to sweat the small stuff. The big stuff keeps me plenty busy.

*I am aware that this might be inappropriate for children who struggle academically, and would thus benefit from additional one-on-one support.

Game of Books

Have I mentioned my monthly Happy Dinner with mum-chums? We started about 18 months ago, on the back of our lynchpin* member reading the Happiness Project, and suggesting we all read it and meet monthly to come up with happiness resolutions for the coming month. I had read the book already (obv), but never would have dared to suggest such a thing. So American. So earnest. I was thrilled. The lynchpin and I may be the ones most enamoured with Rubin and constant vigilance over self-improvement, but all six of us love a monthly dinner-date.
 Sometimes there is just chat, but I adore structured fun. This past Friday I realised that the upcoming dinner had no agenda. Lately I have been obsessed with books — reading and listening to them, reading and listening about them. I was inspired to suggest a game. We all brought along a book that we had read, and thought would go down well with at least some (or one) of us. The books went into a bag with no peeking, got jumbled up and then revealed. We then wrote down our guesses as to who had brought which book, with winners able to choose first.

The non-drinkers won over the drinkers, and I was thrilled to choose L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. A Very Happy Dinner.

*lynchpin — she who most of us know better/see more of than any other member

A Minimalist Wardrobe


I enjoyed very little about pregnancy other than the safe arrival of a healthy baby at the end of it. There was one unexpected pleasure, however. As I knew that this would be my one and only pregnancy, and I didn’t want to splash too much cash, I purchased a very limited maternity wardrobe. Including a few hand-me-downs, I had maybe 4 pairs of trousers and 5 tops. The surprise was that I loved having such limited clothing choices.

The baby is now 7 years old, and over that time I have become more minimalist about my wardrobe. I have found my sweet spot now; my wardrobe contains 3 daytime outfits, 2 gym outfits, and 2 sets of pyjamas. For footwear, I have a single pair of boots in the winter months, a pair of slip-on shoes, and pair of Fit-Flops in the summer months, plus running shoes and rain boots. There are a couple of external factors that help to limit my wardrobe. First, I have a job where I can (and do) wear the same sorts of clothes that I want to wear in the evenings and weekends. Second, living in southern England, the climate is reasonably temperate. Even without these factors, however, I suspect I would be very minimalist, by modern Western standards.

I am so much happier with my clothing now that I can’t help but be evangelical about it. Here are the top 5 advantages as I see them:

  1. Decision fatigue is a very real phenomenon whereby our mental reserves are depleted with every decision we make. By having so few clothes, and at any one time up to half of these will be in the laundry, I have very few clothing decisions to make. This leaves my brain capacity free for other matters.
  2. Every six months I allow myself to completely re-invent my wardrobe. With 3 daytime outfits worn in rotation over 6 months, each outfit gets approximately 60 days’ wear. I feel no guilt at all either throwing garments away (when worn out), or giving them to a charity shop (when still serviceable). I do sometimes put away a few pieces for the next seasonal 6-month cycle, but most pieces are new. For example, at the moment a black tunic is in rotation from last year, but the other 2 tops and 3 bottoms are new.
  3. Along similar lines, I feel justified in buying relatively expensive, well-made garments. I know that each piece will get a lot of use; the cost per wear is very reasonable.
  4. One’s own personal clothing is the perfect place to start becoming minimalist. Unlike other aspects of a family home, decisions here do not affect anyone else. As the most minimalist member of my family, I enjoy the refuge of my drawers and quarter of the closet. They are so very bare, everything is in a single tidy layer, and I have complete control over the space. Blissful in a home with young children.
  5. I find that I make far less clothing purchases that I regret than I once did. There is something about knowing that you are committing to wearing the item 60 times that makes one very careful. If I do make a misstep, I am rather hard on myself – I continue to wear the item, though less often than the others. And the regret doesn’t last forever – soon enough the six-month cycle is up.

I dare you to try it. Choose your three favourite outfits and put away the rest. A risk-free experiment in minimalism.