Raising Girls Who Are Switched On, Not Scared

When I’m running on my own on trails or secluded country roads and I spot a man coming the other way, regardless of the time of day or light levels, I make a mental note of his appearance and what he’s wearing. Just in case. I am not alone in doing this.

When a man in a pub makes lewd comments about my appearance, I do not always respond the way I’d like to. Just in case. I am not alone in doing this.

When heading home by myself at night, I will choose the route that is more public and better lit, even if it’s a substantial detour. Just in case. I am not alone in doing this.

I’ve been having lots of conversations with the women in my life about this recently. And how about how frustrating, unfair and angering it is that in 2019, we still need to take these precautions more than our male counterparts. We’ve discussed how we first knew that we needed to take these precautions, about the undercurrent of fear that we experienced as we first started to venture into the world by ourselves as teenagers, all those years ago. About how really, by doing these things, we are perpetuating the myth of victim blaming; that if she was more careful, she would have been safe. And this is not OK. Violence against women (and obviously men) is the fault of the perpetrator. Always. End of story.

But more pressingly for me at least at the moment, is how to raise girls to be women that are switched on, smart and safe but not scared. How do we prepare them for the reality of the world once they’ve left home or are starting to be out without parental protection. You don’t want to put the fear of God into them, to leave them instantly distrustful of anyone who crosses their path. But you also want them to be sensible and have a good awareness of how to stay safe. Obviously this is something we teach all of our children. Learning how to behave in society is essential for a future world that is hopefully kinder and more productive than the one we currently exist in. But it breaks my heart that I will have to teach my daughter this with more of an emphasis on personal safety than I will my sons.

When it comes to the how though, I am so very open to receiving wisdom and suggestions from those around me raising girls, whether they be younger or older than mine or already grown up. My instinct is that it will come down to lots of honest, open conversations. It will mean answering hard questions truthfully, to philosophical discussions about why things are the way they are. We’ve already spent a long time dissecting why I’m less comfortable with her being topless in public spaces than her brothers even though she’s only 9. She wasn’t satisifed with the reasons and I don’t really blame her.

We’ve come a long way since the suffragettes in terms of representation and rights of men and women. We no longer need male guarantors to have a mortgage or a credit card. We can spend our own money in a pub (up until 1982, we could be refused service). We have the right to equal pay (although the pay gap is far from closed). We can work on the London Stock Exchange, access the contraceptive pill and obtain a court order against a violent spouse. All these examples have come from this list, a simultaneously depressing and celebratory read. But not far enough. I want my daughter to live in a world where she’s feel as safe as her male counterparts. To feel as valued and listened to as her male counterparts. To feel as powerful as her male counterparts.

And for want of knowing what else to do, I think it starts with talking. Talking to her, to her brothers, to anyone who will listen! So please join the conversation with me and let’s raise our girls to be switched on, but not scared.

A Better Version Of Me

Recently, I’ve started thinking more and more about the traits that the children have inherited from me and Dan. It began with a startling realisation that Isaac’s insistence on holding everyone to impossibly high standards (himself included) is something straight out of Dan’s personal rulebook. Sophia has inherited my clumsiness as well as my love of sweet things (and tendency to overeat at times)! Eli is the first to admit fault in the case of damaged posesssions or general mischief and that’s me all over; as a teenager I told my parents the first time I drank alcohol and when the police might be callling because I was hanging out with people whose idea of a good time was to throw eggs off the top of a multi storey car park…

What’s interesting though is when you see your child in a situation you were in in childhood, anticipate how they’ll react and they then take you by surprise by how they deal with it. Case in point…when we moved, Isaac was desperate to join a local football team and to my surprise, Sophia (having shown no previous interest in the sport) decided that she wanted to try it out as well. She’s always wanted to give everything a go, not wanting to miss out on any available opportunity so I suppose it was just another example of that.

Anyway, fast forward to their first training session. They are in separate groups and Isaac gets stuck in and shows a natural aptitude for running around and kicking the ball. Sophia however, a little like me, appeared to have two left feet, little interest in the game and at times seemed more interested in dog walkers at the other end of the field than in where the ball was. As I watched her, I felt my cheeks redden as I saw her out of her depth in a team full of seasoned players. When they finished I fully anticipated embarassment, perhaps some tears and definitely a refusal to come back. She walked towards me and I merrily asked how she’d found it. Her response? ‘Great! I’m going to come again next week’. I couldn’t have been more shocked! I’m so used to seeing her as mini me that I couldn’t believe how confident she was and willing to give it another go. (She has since given up but only after realising they play all year round, whatever the weather. She liked it but not enough to play in pouring rain and freezing temps!)

A few other occasions since have made me realise that she is the lucky possessor of an unfailing confidence in her own abilities. She was mildly surprised when she couldn’t do an unaided headstand on her first ever attempt and her life ambitions are to own a bakery and be the first woman on the moon. She truly believes she can do anything she puts her hand to and is eager to give everything a go. Where she does struggle, she just ploughs on through and is an amazing example to us all!

The more I look at the kids, the more I’m able to recognise the traits they’ve inherited from both Dan and myself and how the combination they have is a new and improved version of ourselves. More often than not, the characteristics I see in them that we share are positive and whilst obviously they have their own flaws and foibles, they seem less pronounced then in myself and Dan. Maybe it’s because they’re young and haven’t had time to develop but I am starting to appreciate why some people invest so much in their children, hoping they’ll do what their parents couldn’t.

Obviously, I don’t want to put any pressure on my kids. I’m not expecting them to win Nobel Prizes, play sports at national level or discover the cure for cancer (although obviously I’d be bloody proud if they did!) I simply want them to grow up and live healthy, happy lives that have a positive impact on those around them. But it is interesting to think that perhaps they will take the best of us both and use it to go further than previous generations have.

I don’t know if any of your know ‘This Be The Verse’ by Philip Larkin but up until this point, I always thought there was a grain of truth in it. It reads…

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
And I suppose that whilst that can be the case for some parents and children, I’m really hoping to actually achieve the exact opposite as I traverse down this rather tumultous road of parenthood. I’m sure they will inherit some of our flaws and have plenty of their own but I want to actively push against the sentiment in Larkin’s poem. I want to build them up and instead of handing on misery, I want to hand on happiness. I want to hand on an integrity of spirit, the confidence to challenge what is unfair and unjust and the belief that with hope and positive actions, we can change our path. And given the state of the world that we currently exist in, I truly believe that if we all try to do this for our children, the world will be a better place.

The Joy of Spontaneity

Since we got back from Italy, sibling relationships have been a little, ahem, tense in our household. Whether it’s a delayed reaction to moving, a combination of pre-teen girly hormones and the testerone surge of the boys or just general grouchiness I don’t know. But it culminated in a series of unfortunate events over the weekend (which I won’t go into for the sake of privacy) that left both the older kids feeling bruised and a little downtrodden. Eli, very unhelpfully, tends to always contribute to my discussions with them about treating each other in a loving way by chiming in ‘It’s not me Mummy, I didn’t do that! I wasn’t grumpy!’. (He’s right though, he doesn’t seem to get quite as involved in the fights and is the first to relent in the hope that he can restore happiness to his big siblings who he adores). Anyway, I digress.

So this morning, I left them playing some convoluted game involving lego whilst I went for a run (Dan was working from home, obviously!) and told them they could continue playing their game whilst I was gone on the proviso they didn’t fight. I also explained that we’d get on with some work once I was back. An hour later I returned and they were all still completely engrossed in their game. I had a shower and pondered whether to interrupt their play or not. However, it had been so long since I’ve seen them playing in such a calm, cooperative and clearly enjoyable manner together that I decided to put the ‘academic work’ on hold for the day and let them keep playing. I thought that allowing them time and space to heal their somewhat fractured relationship was more important than reading and comprehension. And we had a lovely day. They played until lunch and then we headed out to Bovey Tracey for a 4 mile walk around Parke (a National Trust estate) with friends before heading home for dinner and cake with Bake Off. There were literally no fights all day, minimal whinging and it felt incredibly restorative for us all.

It got me thinking about the importance of spontaneity, of not being rigid in sticking to plans and in being able to recognise the most pressing needs in a situation. I often feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day and having recently have started to feel the tell tale symptoms of anaemia returning have realised that once again, I need to step back and take stock. Today (don’t laugh guys…I know I’m a absolute stereotype of a hippy home ed Mum!), that meant not making my own bread and hummus (my recent habit in efforts to cut down on waste) and telling Dan to buy some from the shop. And when it comes to the kids, although I certainly don’t think I’m making them too busy, I do need to be able to reevaluate what’s important. And sometimes, missing a day of our more structured learning to play and then go for a stomp in the woods is infintitely more important than sitting round the table arguing about who’s cheated in the maths game we’re trying to play or trying to juggle three different sets of work at once.

This is short today because I’m tired but basically, if you or the kids are feeling grumpy and tired, it’s OK to cancel all your plans and take a break! Go for a walk, visit the library, bake a cake, swim in the sea (with a wetsuit maybe at this time of year?!)…do whatever makes you all happy. Being in touch with what you all need for harmony and a peaceful life is so important and trumps everything else I reckon. I’m hoping that today was a turning point for us all and we can see more days of calm and less of the ridiculous fighting that has characterised the last few weeks. Wish me luck!

 

Do as I say… (not as I do)

Although there is obviously a degree of hierarchy in families, I’ve been thinking recently about just how little control chidren have over their lives and the extent to which we can help them manage what must feel like an unfair situation where their lives are dictated by us, the parents. Every parent has a store of anecdotes about children who are fussy about food, difficult to potty train or particularly defiant at bedtime. The common factor here is children trying to be in control of at least one aspect of their life. At the end of the day, you can’t force a child to eat, to sleep or to wee when we want them to.

It’s a difficult situation in some respects. It goes without saying that children need boundaries, that parents often know better/best and that unfortunately, children cannot choose what they do and when they do. It would be a completely unsustainable, unsafe, and chaotic way of life. But how can we allow our kids to have a little bit of control over their own lives? How can we can make them feel like they are listened to and respected?

Respect goes both ways and I do think that it is worth trying to treat our children like we would treat our adult friends and families. They say your child is your mirror and if we talk to them in a more equal manner, hopefully, in time, they will return the gesture and start talking to us instead of shouting or crying when life isn’t going their way. If we saw a friend sobbing in a corner, would we snap at them to stop crying or would we ask them what was wrong and try to help? If we wanted to leave the house at a certain time would we bark at our other half to put on his shoes and wait in the garden with no warning or would we have a conversation earlier in the day about our expectations for the morning?

There are some elements of life that are non-negotiable. Roads must be crossed safely, school or other extra curricula activities start at a set time, a reasonable bedtime is necessary for adequate sleep. But, there are many ways in which we can give our children a little bit of choice and allow them to exercise some control over their own lives. Letting them choose what they wear in the morning, allowing older kids to pack their own lunches, negotiating a bedtime that allows that extra chapter to be read without being too late… They may seem like small gestures but in the grand scheme of things, they can help a child feel like they have more control over their lives and hopefully will be less grumpy, more content and happier to help and be part of the family.

Maybe some of you think I’m being a bit soft but children are just small humans and autonomous beings. And whilst I agree that they lack the maturity and benefit of age and experience to make some decisions sensibly, I don’t think that means that we should treat them any less respectfully than we’d treat our adult peers. So next time I’m hollering at them from the bottom of the stairs to get to the table for dinner, I’m going to try and remember that I chastise them for shouting at me from another room and realise the double standard. If I want a harmonious family, I’ve got to be a key part of achieving that through the way I talk to and treat the kids.

Nothing But the Truth

In the interest of full disclosure, I figure that as well as sharing the funny or adorable ancedotes from my children with you, I should also share the downright ugly. My children have been nothing short of foul this last week. The fighting has been incessant, the whinging has been prolific, the singing annoying songs has been off the charts. Yesterday as we drove home from an afternoon on a beautiful beach near Kingsbridge (where to be fair, they had mostly put their grumpiness on hold) they were kicking off in the back of the car. Eli was shouting at me because I wouldn’t put his window down as we drove at 70mph down the A38, Sophia was grumpy about something Isaac had done and Isaac was howling because he’d been told off for purposefully annoying Sophia. We pulled in for fuel and I glanced over at the campervan next to me. In it was another family with two young children. The parents looked relaxed and happy, the children were smiling. They looked like something out of an advertisement! I was green with envy. Dan got back in the car….’why aren’t our kids like that?!’ I asked in desperation, nodding in their direction.

To be fair to my children, they are perfectly capable of being lovely. They often play long complicated make believe games, they give us lots of cuddles, they read books and build lego creations together. We have long periods of mostly harmonious living with just the odd niggle. But these periods seem to be interspersed with phases where everyone clashes, all the time. This time round, I think it is probably something to do with getting back into the swing of things after the Easter break combined with far too much sugar over the last week (we’ve finally finished the chocolate today). I’m hoping that the permanent sugar high will wear off and as their normal routine continues, they might ease back into a more peaceful state of being.

I know it’s not permanent but it’s oh so annoying when it happens. I hate nagging and chastising all the time, I can’t bear them not listening to me and I feel oh so sorry for our neighbours or anyone in the vicinity! Mostly though, I feel so sad at the thought of them being so unpleasant to each other. Sure, I wasn’t best friends with my siblings at the time growing up but mostly I remember playing with them and getting on. Maybe my parents will remember it differently but I don’t remember being quite as mean to them as mine can be to each other. It’s probably rose tinted spectacles as I reminisce and this is probably completely normal behaviour but nonetheless, I hope this phase passes quickly and we’re back to giggles being more commonly heard than screams!

Enjoying The Ride

As a general rule, I don’t really subscribe to the notion of the terrible twos, the tiresome threes or the fearsome fours. I think that at any given age, a child will present certain challenges but also provide a whole heap of joy as well. That said, there is definitely a point where your baby-turned-toddler gains a certain degree of awareness and you know, as their parent, that their actions aren’t always so innocent anymore. Elijah has been heading this way for a while but this week, when he strolled into the living room with a cheeky grin on his face, purposefully concealing a foraged knife and screwdriver behind his back, I knew we were there. (Third time round and we still suck at baby proofing!)

I swear toddlers were designed to drive you to the brink of insanity with their mischievous and testing antics before drawing you back with a heart melting smile or a gigantic cuddle, little arms wrapped in a death grip tight around your neck. I think all parents of small children often have moments where they’d give anything for a brief respite. A break from re-directing small curious hands, a break from clearing up food from the floor and walls, a break from tidying up what feels like thousands of small toys that have been spread around the house over the course of a morning.

But after having several conversations with parents of teenagers this week, I’m starting to see it from the other side, to realise the benefits of toddlers and small children that I know I’ll miss when they are over (mostly). To know where they are at all times doesn’t feel like a blessing right now but I know that when they are teenagers, out with their friends and staying out past their given home time, I’ll remember these days with fondness! I don’t have to worry about who they’re with, what they’re doing and what time they’ll be home. That aspect of their safety at least is a given. And at this age, as their parents, we are still their one true love. It might be overwhelming to be loved with so much force but before long, they will no longer want to be near us 24 hours a day (or at all!), they’ll argue with us, they’ll think they know better.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know there will also be amazing aspects to having teenagers. I’m looking forward to proper conversations with them, to eating out and knowing it’ll be an easy enjoyable evening, to seeing who they are as they blossom into adults. But I suppose that’s my point. Every stage of parenting is a mixed bag, there will always be challenges and there will always be joy. So as Eli is currently evolving into an exceptionally cheeky pickle of a small person, I will not wish it away too much. As one of my favourite fellow parents says, all is a state of impermanence, so I will take the good with the bad and just try and enjoy the ride!

Love is…the absence of judgement

On two separate occasions in the last week, Eli has been rescued by a general member of the public. The first time, one of the big kids opened our front door and he darted out and down our pedestrianised road with Dan in hot pursuit. Unfortunately he didn’t stop when he got to the actual road and ran into it before being caught and brought to safety by a passing gentleman. The second time, we were at Decoy Country Park walking around the lake. He jumped off the path into a puddle/ditch but misjudged the distance and landed on his bottom, covered in muddy water. Luckily, he was in no danger and wasn’t particularly upset (just as well because I was laughing at him)! I was perhaps 100 yards away when it happened and a lady walking her dog hoisted him out as I came to his aid.

Both times, Dan and I were obviously very grateful to the people who had helped. Both times, we were met with stony silence and quite obvious judgement that we had let the situations occur. Before I rant, I’d like to clarify that the majority of people that I’ve encountered during my parenting journey have been kind, supportive and understanding of the nature of children. But, unfortunately, from time to time I have received nothing short of disdainful judgement at the behaviour of my children, silly situations they’ve got themselves into or parenting choices that I’ve made. And it drives me crazy!

Regardless of whether these people are parents or not, surely everyone realises that these tiny human beings are unpredictable, prone to immature behaviour and not always the most compliant to the demands from those looking after them. So I absolutely cannot fathom why people think the best way to react is with pointed looks, snarky comments or tutting. Parenting is HARD. A lot of the time, when these things happen, parents are doing their best to manage the situation, keep their children safe and get to where they’re going. Be it a child screaming in the supermarket because you won’t let them carry the biscuits, a toddler who has escaped his watchful but exhausted Mum or energetic children not looking where they’re going and knocking into someone….these parents do not need to be chastised. They need sympathy, understanding and to be cut a bit of slack. Parents often don’t have the kind of support from extended family that previous generations did and it can be a lonely experience at the best of times without being told you’re doing it badly from a complete stranger. I’m reminded of the old saying, if you don’t have anything nice to say…then don’t say anything at all!

Whilst looking for a title for this week’s column I stumbled across several quotes about judgement and ended up choosing this one from the Dalai Lama as it seemed particularly apt. Love is the absence of judgement. Nothing good comes from judging other people. So next time you see a child behaving in a way that is less than ideal, why not decide to act in a loving way and offer the parent a hand, an encouraging word or simply smile at them. They’re doing the best they can and having that support from a stranger might make all the difference to that moment for them.