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Those were the days my friend…

My latest post at Families Magazine online –


This used to be my playground

During half-term I met a friend for coffee in a café on the far side of a nearby park. Walking through the park to meet her, I passed the play park that used to be my regular haunt when the girls were just a little smaller. As I walked round the perimeter heading towards the café, I glanced across at the children and parents climbing and hiding and shouting and laughing and my head was filled with memories of the times I spent there with my own children.

My very first solo walk with my tiny, fragile new born in the gaudy green-checked pram we were kindly gifted from a friend was in that very park and my memory of circling the play park with my heart in my mouth tempting myself to believe that I really was taking a walk in the park with my very own baby, just like a real parent, is still so vivid. I still have the large reddish brown leaf picked up from the path as a memento to place in my baby’s box of memories as a reminder of our very first outing (I started out with good intentions at least, although this habit of collecting keepsakes did not last much past her first birthday, and my second daughter was lucky if I managed to keep her birth certificate somewhere safe!).

As soon as Ana was old enough to sit in a swing, I made this play park my home from home. I quickly discovered that a visit to the park with a 6 month old was not a significant time filler and, after 20 minutes maximum in the toddler swings, we were pretty much all-parked out and ready to move on to the next brief activity, but as she got bigger and began to venture onto the slides, this park became as much part of our routine as tea and cake with friends (and distinctly healthier!).

Many a Saturday morning was spent with Ana, and later her baby sister too, crossing the park to visit the library before wandering round between the climbing frames braving the chilly winds or enjoying the sunshine depending on the season.

Many a day in the summer holidays was spent packing up a picnic and heading to the park to meet with friends and spend a few hours enjoying the luxury of free fun, fresh air and green space offered by a city park.

Many an afternoon was spent standing below the monkey bars waiting to catch a falling child or just to be there as a security blanket as they demonstrated their considerable muscular superiority over their puny mother!

And so, last week, as I walked past the play park, I remembered with fondness the part it has played in our lives. Its role is not quite over for us: at 7 and 9 the girls have not yet outgrown the park and we still visit reasonably frequently and still will for some time I imagine, but the days when it figured as the centre point of our entertainment schedule are fading now.

Much like the rest of parenting, I realised that afternoon that we only really appreciate things when they are soon to be gone. I’ll be the first to admit that I spent many days shivering in that park and wishing I was at home in my nice warm house; I spent many hours cursing as I was begged and cajoled to run round the edge of the lopsided circular tyre shape that has replaced the roundabout in many modern parks but is frustratingly difficult to manoeuvre without scraping your limbs on the floor; I have spent many trips to that very park attempting to find a secluded spot behind a tree for one or other of my daughters to pee because there were no nearby public toilets.

At the time, I did not relish any of these things, but now – when I see my play park years drawing to a close – I rush to cherish those memories, to box them up and hold them close and chide myself to remember the times when this used to be my playground.

What’s their age again?

As parents, trying to manage the less desirable elements of our children’s behaviour; encourage just the right amount of independence; and steer our kids towards age-appropriate toys, games and activities, it is useful to have some kind of gauge on what exactly is ‘age-appropriate’ for our children’s current level of development.

In the early years, this is relatively straightforward:  don’t give them small toys they might swallow; try to keep them from chewing on electrical cables; and accept that full on meltdown tantrums in a public place are par for the course in the notorious ‘terrible twos’.

As our children get older however, things becoming a little less clear cut.  The more they grow, the more they appear to diverge from any kind of common path and so the less we are able to look to their peers as a guide to what type of behaviour they ‘should’ be displaying.  I know as I write that last ‘should’ in its quotation marks, that there really should be no ‘should’ about it. Our children are individuals and they progress at their own pace in their own unique way, so why should we look to what others do or what others expect?

Well, maybe we shouldn’t, and maybe the fact that I do makes me a bad parent, but the truth is that – if I am honest – it DOES matter to me what other people think of my children and I DO judge my own parenting – in part at least – by the extent to which their behaviour and actions reflect society’s expectations of their age group.

And so, as my eldest child hits 9 and my youngest turns 7, I find myself pondering (more often than I probably should) on what exactly they ‘should’ (there it is again!) be doing at this age and how they ‘should’ behave and interact with others.

Some of my current worries include:

  • ‘Should’ my 9 and 7 year old children really be able to swim by now?

I know the answer to this one:  yes and yes and yes!!  I MUST probably should get this sorted as soon as possible by getting them back into swimming lessons. It is at the top near the top of my list of things to do. I promise.

  • ‘Should’ I be able to trust my 7 year to walk alone to the end of a road without appearing to need to get as close to the edge as she possibly can, worrying surrounding car drivers and her mother in equal measure?

I am guessing that this is one of the situations where it totally depends on the child.  When my 9 year old was 7, this would have been no issue, but with my current 7 year old it is a different story:  her awareness of things around her is really poor.  I’m not sure if it is the delay in getting glasses sorted for her ( or a more general attention problem, but I don’t really trust her road sense at the moment.

  •  ‘Should’ my 9 year old be able to tell the time consistently and with reasonable accuracy?

Umm…I think probably yes.  It is in the diary at the back of my mind as something we need to work on this half-term soon.

  •  ‘Should’ my 7 year old really be waking the neighbours with her screaming tantrums on a Saturday morning?

I think, probably not.  And I think my neighbour thinks probably not as well.  In fact, I think my neighbour probably thinks he would like some nice, quiet new neighbours as soon as possible!

  •  ‘Should’ my 9 year old be able to tie her shoelaces with ease without shouting in frustration and giving up in a temper?

Maybe if I bought her more shoes with laces, then yes.  Given that I wimp out and buy Velcro shoes instead, then probably no.

  •  ‘Should’ my 7 year old have a better grasp of Geography than might be implied by the following questions and observations from recent weeks:
    • When approaching Wimbledon at midday this weekend: ‘is London the same time as Portsmouth or is it night-time in Portsmouth now?’
    • An observation enroute to London: ‘It’s a bit weird that London is in the United Kingdom, but Poland isn’t.’
    • On the (approximately 40 minute) journey from Portsmouth to the New Forest: ‘Is the New Forest a different country?’
    • In an email to a friend currently visiting New Zealand: ‘Can you speak the language in New Zealand yes or no?’

Well, I guess the final one is a reasonable enough:  New Zealand is very far away so why would she assume they speak English? But her grasp of basic geographical concepts is amusingly, but also rather worryingly, poor.  Every journey longer than 30 minutes prompts the question ‘Is this a different country?’ Is this typical of a 7 year old?  Who knows!

For my 9 year old in particular, life appears to be balanced between two worlds:  the grown-up world of increasing independence, the first stirrings of romance and the excitement of the impending ‘tweenage’ years and the child’s world of play, adventure and limitless imagination.

This weekend I witnessed those two worlds very much side-by-side in my daughter’s thoughts and actions with the emergence of her two greatest secrets:  the first (moving into the grown-up world) marked by a Valentine sent to a boy at school she has ‘loved’ for some time and the second (firmly in the child’s world) announced when she offered to tell me her ‘biggest secret’ this weekend.  After a significant build-up during which I steadied myself with a slight feeling of apprehension, she finally whispered letter by letter that she is ‘actually H A L F. W O L F.’  I think she actually half-believes it, suggesting reality and fantasy are still very much intertwined in her world.

If I ever thought there were clear cut lines on ‘age-appropriate’ behaviour, then recounting these incidents has served to remind me that there really are no rules.  So, there are many 9 year olds who can tell the time with ease….that doesn’t mean that Ana might not forge a successful career as an Olympic timekeeper!   So, there are 7 year olds who are aware that leaving the county does not mean we are entering a new time zone and need to get our phrasebook out….that doesn’t mean Faith won’t one day circumnavigate the globe with only the stars to guide her!

You know, and I know, that children are all different.  They have their own skills and talents and their own particular struggles and challenges.  Sometimes, in the desire to appear a good parent, I (and maybe you too) forget this.  But maybe I should check myself next time I find myself saying ‘You are 9 years old, you should…..’ because that ‘should’ is an unnecessary burden on us all.

I can see clearly now…

As with most things in my parenting career, we begin with a mother who is slightly more self-absorbed than she really should be.  Feeling very pleased with my published article in the back to school issue of Families Magazine, I spent some time reading and re-reading my article and swelling with pride.  During one of my many read-throughs, I managed to glance at the article next to mine, which was on the importance of taking your children for regular eye-checks.  ‘Drat!’ I thought to myself.  ‘I meant to do that last year!’ Resolving to take my parenting job more seriously, I took on board the very sensible advice in the article and booked an eye test for both my children for the very next week.

Our first appointment made me wonder if we really were the only family who appeared to make the job of all health care professionals as difficult as we could possibly manage:

Early on, we required reinforcements to be brought in when Ana found it impossible to keep still whilst having her eye examined on the impressive looking ‘big eye machine’ and required much coaxing and cajoling from two separate opticians in order to remain still long enough to get any meaningful results.

Moving to the examination room, I cheerily answered the questions regarding my children’s eye sight with assurances that ‘No.’ they had never shown any signs of sight problems and that this was just a routine check.  However, when Faith began the test proper and started identifying the letters, numbers and pictures she could see on the screen, it very quickly became apparent, even to the untrained observer (i.e. me) that she was really not doing as well as one might expect of someone with no sight problems.  As the task continued, I started to wonder if maybe she had shown signs and I had just failed to notice them.  It was true that she was quite clumsy and did walk into things on many occasions, but then that is also true of me and appears to be completely down to poor co-ordination and a general lack of awareness!  Maybe – I started to ponder – she actually had shown signs of squinting at things and I had just interpreted this as one of her many eccentricities (and believe me, there really are many!).

The optician began to identify the apparent issues: neither eye was great, but one was significantly under par – a lazy eye that needed dealing with pretty sharpish if we were to avoid serious problems in the future.  As I sat nodding my head in shamefaced silence, the realisation that I had failed to identify a significant health issue in my youngest daughter slowly dawning on me, Faith was busy driving the optician to distraction.  Twenty minutes in and she was clearly fed up of the whole process.  She start shifting around and moving the glasses off her nose to scratch underneath, causing them to fall to the floor on more than one occasion.  The optician persisted, making encouraging comments from time to time in an attempt to keep her focused, but it was no good.  Any initial curiosity had faded and now – getting on for 40 minutes after we had arrived in the shop -Faith had reached saturation point. The lovely optician quickly realised this and decided to move on to Ana, but by this time we were about 20 minutes away from closing time and I think we all knew we were flogging a dead horse.  So we cut our losses and made a new appointment for a fortnight later when we would finally get to grips with who needed what intervention.

So two weeks later, when we had all adjusted to the news and Faith had started to get excited by the prospect of wearing glasses, we headed back for our rearranged appointment, blissfully unaware that it would be a full two and a half hours before we would be leaving again!  After a friendly welcome from our new optician friend, things started to go downhill quite quickly.  Both children were to have eye drops to help with their eye exam and we were warned that this would sting.  Clearly, I should have reciprocated this warning to the effect that my children really did not do pain or discomfort with anything approaching stoicism (  First up was Ana and after a good 10 minutes wrangling, including extra support and comfort from me, she finally had eye drops in both eyes and was reluctantly proceeding with her test.

Once it was confirmed that there were no major problems here, it was back to Faith and straight away we hit a stumbling block: having witnessed her sister’s objections to the drops (and not being of a naturally compliant nature in the first place), Faith was not eager to get the job done.  Twenty minutes later and I am guessing the optician was wishing she had chosen a career path that avoided children in all forms because no-one was having fun as we attempted to wrestle Faith into submission and get the wretched drops actually in her eye.  Once again, I wondered to myself whether all families really could create this much havoc everywhere they went or whether we were just particularly skilled in this regard.

To cut a very long (remember the two and a half hours) story short, we managed (just about) to squirt at least some of the magic drops in Faith’s eye before being sent away to wander round the shops for 20 minutes for them to take effect.  Using the time wisely to search for potential Christmas presents, the girls soon discovered that the drops did have the professed effect in blurring their vision and they took a macabre pleasure in trying – and failing – to read the small print on the back of boxes.

Thus rejuvenated, we returned to the torture chamber opticians to finally complete our epic adventure.  Ana’s was straightforward with a slight prescription, but nothing requiring treatment or glasses.  Faith’s (naturally) was more of a challenge and eventually (possibly in a desperate attempt to finally be rid of us!) the optician completed her work and Faith had a prescription.

Of course, we were not done (oh no!) as we now had to choose two pairs of glasses.  Being a bit of a soft-touch (and quite frankly, by this point, wanting anything for an easy life!) I told Faith that she could choose one special pair (with extra cost) and one plain pair (for free).  It will not surprise you to discover that the lovely purple Converse glasses she chose turned out to be too big and needed 20 minutes of careful manipulation (checking – going back to adjust – checking – going back to adjust – checking…… you get the picture) before FINALLY we were able to pay and escape at 5.50pm, having arrived bright-eyed and bushy tailed for our 3.20pm appointment all those hours ago.

And the moral of this story?

Well, there are many:

  1. The sensible advice about eye tests: please make sure you take your children for regular eye tests as I am clear evidence of the fact that you may well not notice their sight problems in the course of everyday life.
  2. The advice for parents of younger children: get them in training early to be able to sit still for more than 5 seconds at a time.
  3. The advice for opticians: if you see my children heading your way – run!
  4. The advice for similarly harassed mothers: persuade someone else to take them for their sight test to avoid the embarrassment, annoyance and generally energy-sapping trauma of the whole thing!

faith glasses

Look at her! Butter wouldn’t melt!  Don’t be fooled for a second by that innocent face!

Holding your nerve 

Many of my recent posts have been about not knowing what the best course of action is in managing my children’s behaviour.
But say I have decided on a course of action and am pretty happy it is the right thing at that time, even then it is not always so easy to see it through. There are many reasons why I might consider bailing on my plan of action.  Here are just a few of those reasons and the resulting effects on my actions:

1) Laziness and selfishness – Two weeks ago, after a particularly explosive weekend of anger and irritability (Ana’s rather than mine) I found myself handing out the rather hefty consequence of a week-long TV and internet ban for my errant 9 year old.  Very quickly she – and I – realised that a week is a surprisingly long time when you have no recourse to the calming, soporific influence of the TV.  Having made it through the school week without reneging on my ban, we arrived at the weekend and things started to get more challenging.  On Saturday afternoon, when Mike and Faith had gone into town, Ana and I were left to mooch around doing our own thing.  I sat down to some marking and Ana had homework to do.  I was keen to have some background TV to lessen the trauma of an afternoon’s marking, but what about the ban?!  Would I:

a) Sacrifice my own TV viewing to stick to the ban: selfless and unlikely.

b) Banish Ana from the living room so that I could watch TV alone: harsh even for me!


c) Make up an implausible story that gets me out of the ban whilst pretending it is still in place: genius – I’m in!

And so, I found myself telling Ana that she was not really watching the TV. I was. She just happened to be in the same room.

Outcome?  BAILED.

2) Being worried about the views of others – Last weekend we met up with friends to go for a peaceful countryside walk.

Ha ha!

I have been walking with my children enough times to know in advance that ‘peaceful’ is about as far from the reality of their version of a countryside walk as you can get.  As we began trudging up the hill in the mud, you could almost sense the woodland animals running for cover to escape the screeching laughter.  We continued in this vein until we reached the top of the hill, by which time Faith – tired and cold – had had enough.  After a tussle in a muddy puddle with Ana, she was well and truly finished and began screaming as if she were being stabbed with a hot poker.

Now, I had adopted my usual strategy of walking away and leaving her to it, sure in the knowledge that EVENTUALLY she would give in and catch up with us.  However, I hadn’t accounted for the arrival of a group of walkers heading towards Faith, with me far in the distance.

I hesitated momentarily, but my fear that the walkers would a) assume something terrible was wrong with Faith and worry (her screaming did definitely suggest this might be the case!) and/or b) think I was a bad parent for abandoning her; made me turn back and run to rescue her.

Outcome?  BAILED.

3) Being worried about the neighbours – On Thursday, both my children in turn decided to have a catastrophic meltdown involving significant shouting, door banging and rivers of tears.  In Faith’s case, this went on…..and on…….and on…….and got progressively louder and louder.

I – quite unusually – remained calm in my attempts to deal with her torrent of emotional outpourings, but when my normally laid-back and very friendly next-door neighbour banged on the wall, even I started to think I might need to change my tactic.

This time though, in the safety of my own home, and confident that no other strategy was going to calm her any quicker, I stuck to my guns and waited it out.

Outcome:  HELD MY NERVE!  Go me!

Postscript:  I bumped into my neighbour at the weekend and apologised for the outburst.  He initially feigned a lack of awareness about any specific incident, but as I struggled to recall which day it had been, he quickly came to my aid and reminded me – rather too quickly – that it had been Thursday evening…so possibly slightly more noticeable than he may have suggested.  Oh dear.

Maybe next time I need to bail on the home front in order to save my friendly relationship with the neighbours and choose to hold my nerve when around people I actually won’t ever see again (like on that hill!).  Either that, or I need to invest in some soundproofing for my kitchen – and quickly!