Peace Out

(Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 26th September)

I think I’m probably overdue a light hearted post here in my column but as I popped onto twitter for a client earlier I noticed that it is International Day of Peace today so I’m afraid that you lovely lot are out of luck… I will try to write a vaguely funny post for next week but given that there is a running joke in my family about my lack of sense of humour, I’m not promising anything! So…peace. Obviously I’m not about to claim that I have the answer to world peace, ending the conflict in Syria or uniting the bickering Labour Party but I have been thinking about peace on a much, much, smaller (but arguably still significant) scale.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about stereotypes and concluded that the best way to effect change is by focusing on one interaction at a time. I think the same thing applies to peace and unity. There are a million clichés about how to behave to other people. Turn the other cheek, forgive and forget, love your neighbour as yourself… And not forgetting the golden rule; treat others how you’d like to be treated. And trite as they might appear, I think they do hold a lot of truth and wisdom, even if it has been watered down by overuse.

It’s easy to hold onto grudges, to let anger and resentment fester. No one wants to be wronged, insulted or taken advantage of. But sometimes we need to check our issues at the door, be the bigger person and make that first step to resolving the problem at hand. Time and time again, small disputes escalate into situations much bigger and nastier than they have to be. One bit of advice I was given just before getting married has stuck with me over the years; never to go to sleep angry with each other. I think it’s sound advice as the longer an issue remains unresolved, the more the details can get twisted, misremembered and blown out of proportion.

My thoughts on this all are that the less friction there is in the grassroots of a population, the more harmonious society will be and hopefully this might filter up to where it matters. I’m not naïve, I do realise that global and political disputes are much more complex and deep than a work colleague spat or neighbours arguing over property rights. But even if my theory is well and truly flawed (and it probably is!), surely it can only be a good thing if you’re feeling more peaceful in the here and now of your life? So choose which cliché you will and start living it, the road to a more peaceful life starts here…

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If at first you don’t succeed…

(This was published in the Express and Echo a few weeks ago)

A moment of madness overcame me last week and having toyed with the idea for a while, I signed up to run the Great West Run next month, 13 long miles around the streets of Exeter. The reality started to sink in not long after and I realised that although I work out regularly, as most of it is weight lifting or HIIT (high intensity interval training), I ought to actually get out and start running… Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I never run. It’s just that for the last six months, I have been running a 3 or 5 mile run once a week or so, hardly regular training.

So in the last fortnight I’ve done a 6 mile, 6.5 mile and 7.5 mile as I’ve started my training. I’m entering unknown territory though as I’ve perused running blogs that are talking about taking nutrition (or jelly babies!) with you for when you hit something called ‘the wall’, training plans and working out your pace. I tend to just put my shoes on and go! I’m experiencing a real learning curve but actually enjoying it. I’m having to do some research, to ask for help and to take baby steps. And there has definitely been a certain amount of eating humble pie. I optimistically planned a 9 mile run this weekend, building on from my 7.5. Unfortunately though, I left the house for it not long after a dinner and an awful night’s sleep and managed just 6 miles before admitting defeat. I was reminded of the old saying, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again. So I’ll do some short runs this week to keep going and try again next weekend, this time leaving enough time to digest my roast dinner!

It’s an important lesson to learn and remember though and one I’m trying to impart on the kids at the moment. Both Isaac and Sophia have had moments of extreme frustration recently as they have attempted to do something new and not immediately succeeded. Both of them decided they wanted to give up straight away and it took a lot of reassurance from Dan and I that not many people can pick up a new skill and instantly do it. I love the confidance of youth, the thought that they want to do something so they will just do it, no questions asked. But our task now is to gently tend to their bruised egos when they can’t immediately play badminton on an adult sized court, shimmy up a pole in the park or play the new piece of music note perfect first time. And me? I’m realising that if I want to actually manage to run this half marathon I need to keep practising, to keep running. And more importantly, I’m trying to remember that it doesn’t matter how fast (or slow!) I run it on the day. It’s a cliché but true, it’s the taking part that counts!

Smashing Stereotypes

As we’ve ventured into our first ‘proper’ year of home education with Isaac this week, I’ve been thinking about stereotypes, specifically about boys and their attitudes towards learning. I had read a lot about boys being slower to learn than girls, about them struggling with sitting still and concentrating more than girls, about them needing a later start to academics. And although that might be true for a lot of boys, I think there is a danger if we assume that that is true for all boys. Just as there is a danger if we turn certain assumptions into absolute certainties for any group of people, regardless of age or gender. Isaac has surprised me this week by asking to do some work at the table when Sophia has been and by really engaging with phonics and maths. In fact, I tried to encourage him to only do a little (thinking he’d get bored) and two days in a row he protested that he wanted to continue and spent an hour engaged in what I term ‘sit down’ learning. 

Whilst, broadly speaking, there are some stereotypes that ring true I’d argue that a lot of them have little basis in reality and, at times, can be more damaging than they are helpful. Without throwing too many sentimental cliches into the ring, we really are all incredibly unique. We can talk broadly about tendencies, about learning styles, about attitudes. But to state that someone will behave in a certain manner without having spent any time with them just isn’t helpful. Sophia is at times a bit of a girly girl (although that hasn’t always been the case) and her favourite books are the Magic Rainbow Fairy series. However, simultaneously, her favourite TV show is Pokemon, she’s desperate to learn free running and has requested a wood carving knife for her birthday. Likewise, Isaac loves superheroes, dinosaurs, Darth Vader and lego but absolutely loves drawing, craft activities and baking and is incredibly sensitive to how people around him are feeling, dispensing cuddles to those he senses need a lift. Putting either of them into a box based on one aspect of their personality will only serve to limit their future possibilities and discourage certain activities which they might really excel at. 

Obviously, stereotypes extend massively beyond the girl/boy divide in children and can be much more damaging than these early throwaway comments that we make but nonetheless, it’s an issue that needs addressing. It’s hard to get out of a mindset that is constantly perpetuated by our culture. I often find myself complimenting my friends girls on their clothes yet rarely do it to their boys. I’m much more likely to dismiss Isaac’s raucous behaviour where I’d pull Sophia up on it. Neither of these are acceptable and when I realise I’m doing it, I make a conscious effort to stop and either find something more meaningful to talk to my friends children about or to have the same expectations when it comes to my children’s behaviour. Being someone that massively suffers from foot-in-mouth syndrome, I’m constantly reminding myself to think before I judge, assess and speak. Stereotypes need to be smashed and the only way to do that is to start small, one interaction at a time. Not all girls like dolls, not all boys play football, not all children are in school (!), not all British people drink tea! 

Parenting Hacks

The internet is full of what are called ‘hacks’; lifestyle hacks, beauty hacks, parenting hacks… for those not au fait with this vernacular, they simply mean tips or tricks to make things a little easier on yourself. I overheard Dan having a conversation with a new parent recently as he talked about the reality of how you end up parenting in comparison to your initial expectations. Not that I’m saying that our standards have slipped after three children…just that we’ve streamlined what we deem to be important and what we’ve realised can be negotiated or ignored. Of course, these things differ from family to family, everyone has their own line of what they deem proper or acceptable.

Rather than detail any specific tricks that I use to make my parenting journey easier, I thought I’d just mention the single biggest approach that I’ve started to employ whilst raising and nurturing (or trying to!) three small people. And that is simply to not care so much. I obviously don’t mean not caring about the children but I mean not caring about mess, about what other people think, about screen time vs structured activities vs autonomous play. This is something I’m still working on but I’ve realised that I’ve wasted far too much time over the last seven years worrying about things that ultimately will have little or no bearing on anything of lasting importance.

In the early months with Sophia I was obsessed with the idea of routine and getting her to sleep a) through the night and b) by herself. After three children I can tell you with certainty that all children are different and will achieve both milestones in their own good time. Sophia was happy by herself at night by 1 and slept through the night not long after, for Isaac it took almost three years for both and Elijah is following in his brothers footsteps. Similarly, with the first two I worried about what they ate, how much they ate, when they ate…Eli is a grazer and prone to phases of eating barely anything alternated with eating like a horse. To be honest, I don’t have the time or energy to be worried about this, I know adults who prefer to graze so I’m assuming that this might just be his preference.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt to relax about though is mess. There are a lot of memes and sayings about the value of spending time with your family and friends over having an immaculate house and although some of them are rather cheesy, I think they are nonethless very true. I’m a clean freak by nature so this is something I still have an internal struggle about but on the whole, I’d rather spend time with the kids or do something I want to do, be that going for a run, baking a cake or doing some writing rather than tidying from dawn to dusk. So my number one parenting hack, advice or tip is just to relax. Stop worrying so much about unimportant things, enjoy the journey and all the mess and variety it brings. Cheesy…but true!

Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 29th August.

Walking with kids

I think it’s fair to say that growing up, we were a walking family. Come rain or shine, we could be found (not always willingly!) striding across moors and mountains, stopping only to admire the view and refuel for the next stretch. The funny thing is that even if none of us actually wanted to go out for a walk when a parent first suggested it, 9 times out of 10, as soon as we were out, we enjoyed ourselves and were glad to be there. You can’t beat a good walk in the great outdoors for chasing away the cobwebs or lifting yourself out of a bad mood.

Now, as a parent myself, I’m trying to pass down that same habit (and joy – mostly!) of walking to my own children. One of the best bits of parenting advice my Mum gave me was to make sure that we get outside for a walk at least once every day. It sounds simple but remembering to do that can make a massive difference to our day. As soon as the kids start bickering and bouncing off the walls on one of our designated ‘home’ days I can be found barking ‘Right! Shoes on!’ and ushering everyone out the door as quickly as possible. An hour or two later we return from our wander around the goat walk or down to the rec much calmer and happier.

Recently, whilst on holiday in Dorset, I decided I wanted to follow the South West Coast Path from our campsite into Weymouth. Sophia opted for a lift in with our friends instead but Isaac was keen to join Dan and I for the relatively short 2.5 mile walk. As we trekked along the edge of a cliff, taking in the breathtakingly beautiful views across Weymouth Bay, my heart was warmed as Isaac declared to us ‘I do love it when we go walking’. This boy of ours nearly sprinted up Catbells in the Lake District and just thrives being outside, feet pounding the earth. Sophia is slightly more of a reluctant walker but will get into it, especially if she is motivated by letter boxes on Dartmoor or the promise of an ice cream at the end! And I can tell Eli is going to follow in Isaac’s footsteps (pun intended); he is the busiest toddler I know and loves to be out of the pushchair or sling, toddling along beside us.

I love that they are happy and eager to go walking with us as a family activity. I really think that it’s great for both body and soul (as well as being free – apart from the incentivising ice cream of course!) and look forward to increasing the mileage as they get older and exploring more of the off-the-beaten-track walks our country has to offer with them.

Walking (a bit of) the SW Coast Path

Published in the Exeter Express + Echo on 21st August

A festival for everyone

Festival season is most definitely in full swing and my newsfeed is full of pictures of tents, bands and amazing shows that friends and families have been to over the last few weeks. This year, there seem to have been very few wash outs and plenty of great experiences. Most recently was the very local Sidmouth Folk Week and they were blessed with plenty of sunshine for their beach side concerts and celidhs. We haven’t been to any this year (though my very blessed daughter is off to Beautiful Days this weekend with her bestie!) due to Elijah’s age…his latest favourite thing to do is to run as fast as he can away from you laughing hysterically and somehow, I didn’t think this would make for a relaxing festival experience!

I look forward, however, to choosing one to attend next summer. But which one? Therein the problem lies! I won’t lie, taking a family to a festival can be a fairly costly experience and so, for most of us, we have to choose carefully as we’ll only go to one. I remember as a teenager, the choice was much more limited. There was Glastonbury, Reading/Leeds, V Festival and Download and possibly a few more small ones setting up but nothing like the plethora that exists these days. There really is a massively wide variety, a festival for everyone. From alcohol and drug free ‘green’ festivals like Green Gathering and Into the Wild, family friendly festivals like Camp Bestival and Shambala, purely music oriented festivals like the legendary Glastonbury, folk festivals and even a rising number of Christian festivals such as Creation Fest. We went to the latter a few years ago and had a great time. Unusually, it was a free festival where you only paid (a modest fee) for your camping and situated on the Royal Cornwall Showground you could choose to go to the talks in the day or just head to the beach before being treated to a great lineup of all sorts of different artists in the evening. We’ll certainly be heading back there before long I’m sure. Another favourite of ours is Beautiful Days, just a stones throw away from us at Escot. It was such a friendly, inclusive and fun festival. We had a great time last year, even with the massive volumes of mud, and definitely will return once the boys are just a touch older.

Although it’s easy to be cyncial about the hype surrounding festivals, especially when they cost the same as a weeks camping, I really do think they are worth making the effort for. There is something about hundreds or thousands of likeminded folk pitching up, enjoying music and entertainment together and shedding their day to day lives for a pop up instant community that just can’t be beat. It is a one-of-a-kind, uniquely special experience and one definitely worth trying if you haven’t before. And although our very own Beautiful Days is sold out, there are still some festivals with tickets left that you could try this summer, from the rock based Reading Festival to the folksy Towersey Festival. Why not jump in and see for yourself?

‘festival girl’ (self named!) at Beautiful Days

Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 15th August. 

Back to School (sort of)

The last six weeks have flown by and somehow, we’re now at the beginning of September and with it, another school year. Although we’ve chosen to home educate we still follow national term times and so have spent the summer in the same manner as thousands of other families…having long lazy mornings, plenty of beach trips, a bit more TV than usual and generally just relaxing after a year of more structured learning and activiites. This September, my number of school age children has increased to two as Isaac would be starting reception (and Sophia year 2) if the kids were at school.

Up unto this point, I’ve slotted learning with Sophia into life with the boys with us finding chunks of time wherever convenient to carry on with what she’s studying. However, I’m guessing that this year I will need to adjust that style slightly as the balance leans heavier in favour of ‘schooling’ as opposed to entertaining babies and toddlers! I will do the same with Isaac that I did with Sophia at this age and that is to take a very minimalist approach to education. 4 is still so young and I know that at school, a large part of reception is learning through play. I’m also aware that generally speaking, boys tend to be slower than girls in terms of sit down learning. Although having said that, Isaac has expressed an interest in learning to read and write so I think we’ll slowly start with that and see how he gets on. I’m looking forward (mostly!) to the challenge of working out what his learning style is and identifying the best way to capture his attention and engage him. I’m slightly apprehensive about how much Elijah might interrupt us but hoping I can distract him with certain activities or toys when the older two need my attention.

From past years experience though, I know the biggest challenge for all of us will be establishing and maintaining a routine over the first few weeks. After a languid summer of spontaneity and no commitments, adjusting to having certain groups to attend and things that we need to achieve each week will be a bit of a struggle I’m sure. The big two have also taken to sleeping in late and still being in PJs come 9am and although we don’t have to be dressed and out by a certain time, I like to get into the habit of being ready for the day by a reasonably early time. I’ve got mixed feelings about the end of summer but can at least say with confidence that we’ve definitely made the most of our summer and are probably ready to get back to some semblance of normality this week. So parents of Exeter, I salute you as the summer holidays have finished and although I don’t have the school run to do (and massive sympathy to those of you that do!), I’m feeling solidarity with you as we start another academic year.

Sophia enjoying her summer off!

(Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 5th September)