Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sacrifices of a Stay at Home Mum?

Brew of the day: Lime tea

Quick maths… If I fed my family processed, de-natured junk food I would save at least £100 a week. I invest significantly in my family’s present and future health and well-being by shopping locally at our organic farmers’ market and making all our meals from scratch. It is, without question, the biggest expense of our week. As a rule we don’t have dessert. The cupboards don’t have biscuits, chocolate, crisps or ready made meals. (poor deprived mites!)

Whenever I want to revamp the budget and look at where I can make changes, I always feel sick to the stomach at the thought of feeding my girls anything less than I do. When I look at what other families are feeding their kids, I have one of my “I’m from another planet” moments. Isn’t it obvious that if you want to fuel a machine you have to put in the right ingredients? My husband once, accidentally, put a tank full of diesel into our unleaded run car. Not a popular lad. Not a cheap mistake! Yet we do this to our kids’ bodies all the time and think they’re ok! How long do we seriously think we can run their ‘machine’ on coke, crisps, that awful gooey, processed, cream cheesey stuff with bread sticks without serious consequences? And why don't mums make the connection between sugar-filled dairy yoghurts (which they've been told are healthy) and their kids' snotty noses? Ain't rocket science, you know?

I don’t often give thought to the fact that I’ve spent the past ten years as a stay at home mum, not contributing in any significant way to the family income. A few days ago I shared an experience with my girls that made me realise the ‘cost’ of being a stay at home mum and feeding my kids healthily and ethically. It can’t be ethical to put poison into another human being’s body day after day, can it?

This week I was in Carlisle in a business next to the new Laura Ashley home design shop. I said to the kids, ‘oh let’s go in there and browse’. I love Laura Ashley clothes (beyond the budget of a SAHM) so knew I’d love their home accessories range. I was right!

We had a fab time browsing all the delicious goodies which give a home that comforting feeling. The three of us visualised having patchwork quilts and lovely thick cushions for our dining chairs, with matching fabric napkins. We ooed and aaed over the gorgeous sofas and thick plush rugs. We couldn’t drag ourselves out of there very easily.

I’m not a shopaholic (though probably would be if my purse was heavy!) and for the most part I don’t have material inclinations. I’m not one to get sucked into adverts (unless it is for the latest feel-good chick flick!). Despite this, I would thoroughly enjoy a beautifully decorated home from floor to ceiling and all the bits in between. Watching the delight on my daughters’ faces as they imagined having such beautiful décor and accessories in their own home, has had me questioning the value of these past ten years. I spent a few days thinking of all the things they’ve been deprived of by me not having earned the equivalent of say £150,000 in the past decade. Gosh, we could have had our own home by now, rather than renting.

How different would my daughters’ lives have been? Is my love, my constant availability to the family, remotely equivalent to £150 000?

So what have they actually missed out on? Fancy bed covers, curtains, rugs and wall paper. Pretty, beautiful, psychologically nurturing. Is it any more nurturing though, than having someone at home to read stories, bake, cuddle, go bike riding with? And what about the annual overseas holidays? We had a trip to Italy a few years ago paid for by someone else as a working holiday mission. Other than that, our two nights away at Berwick upon Tweed last year was the closest we’ve come since.

What did the girls get instead of pretty things? A mum who chose to give up a life of fancy clothes and shoes, fine dining and to stay at home with them so they had the constant presence of a loved one...someone who would care for them no matter what. A dad who was willing to let go of his ideal career in order to be available each day and to enable us to live rurally rather than in a city. I don’t know if my kids will grow up to appreciate the sacrifices which we felt were in their best interests or if, indeed, they’ll compare their childhood to other kids and wish instead they’d had Nike shoes, Barbie dolls and an Ipod.

There are some in the media who take vindictive delight in describing my parenting style as selfish. I’ve always found this confusing. Why is it selfish to put the wellbeing of your kids first? Where else should they be for goodness’ sake?

None of us know how long we’re on this Earth for. My hope is that before I leave here, I will have helped to instil a deep sense of self worth into my daughters that they can go forth whole, happy and free. Their needs have been met as much as I’ve been humanly able to do. And I’m sure that they’ll be equipped to deal with any needs we haven’t been able to meet..

I often think that if I didn’t see my 40th birthday next year, at least I can be certain of one thing. My girls know they were loved with a passion and they meant more to Paul and I than a brand new car, fancy curtains or dinners in top restaurants.

It was no sacrifice.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A wonderful childhood

Brew of the day: Apple & Rosehip (nice and autumnal!). Welcome to Saturday Morning Cuppa ~ readers, old and new.

The reaction to the Daily Telegraph ‘letter’ from 110 experts has generated publicity as far as Australia. I’ve been stunned to watch it divide the nation. There are those who think kids have never had it better and there are those people who can genuinely see that modern technology holds the biological needs of childhood to ransom.

I’ve received many emails and letters from people and organisations in full support of the campaigning letter. One in particular is from The Children’s Society which has launched The Good Childhood Inquiry ~ the UK’s first independent national inquiry into childhood, which aims to renew understanding of childhood for the 21st century.

They state that children and young people are at the heart of their inquiry. They have already asked thousands of young people what they think makes for a good childhood. In their letter to me, they want to know what I believe constitutes a good childhood.

To answer this, I needed to reflect on my own childhood. How could I not? My experiences have shaped who I am and are fundamental to my advocacy for freedom in childhood.
My own childhood (except school!) was spent in freedom. We moved from the city (Brisbane, Australia) to a 700 acre property a few hours away, on the Darling Downs, when I was about six years old. Over the years, as a family, we experienced prosperity and failure. One of the reasons my Dad bought the property, was in reaction to my mum and I becoming vegetarian. He bought calves to rear for beef. Do loving spouses do things like that?

The cattle rearing was disastrous. We moved on to growing soya beans (hey, hey, that’s more in alignment with vegetarians!!) but they didn’t cope with the ongoing drought.

My parents wised up and started to think long term. They planted something like 30 000 radiatus pine trees and thousands of walnut trees. They felt it would be of huge value in the future.

A lot of time in my childhood was spent helping to water these trees by hand (not with a hose, but by bucket, with rotted horse manure soaked in the water ~ thanks mum!!). Think: every fly in Australia hovering around your mouth. Aggh.

My dad then moved into horses and we had about 70 horses at one stage. I loved riding and would spend hours up the mountains. My neighbour Cherry (she lived a few miles away) and I would spend every available moment on horseback. I loved to take my sleeping bag and camp overnight on the mountain, baking potatoes over the campfire.

Even when I wasn’t riding, I’d be off exploring. We had an amazing creek that ran through our mountains and it would keep us kids amused no end.

My dad spent most of my childhood working overseas in Papua New Guinea as an oil exploration manager. I didn’t see that much of him as he worked away for months at a time. In his heart, he felt he was providing us with a good childhood by earning plenty of money. What was that song? Money can’t be me love….

Ask any child who loves their parents what they’d prefer. Presence over presents any day. I do believe his absence in childhood is directly responsible for the relationship he has with his adult children now. Clearly I can’t speak for my siblings, I can only observe, yet I know without question, that had my mother worked away from home in the same way my dad did she and I wouldn’t have the bond we share today.

Outside of school, I truly had a rich and fun childhood. Always up trees or creating adventures. One of my favourite times was when we hoisted an old tractor tire up by a thick rope to the large Pepperina tree in the garden. With the inner tube removed, and a piece of wood wedged between both sides to hold it open, two kids would sit inside, facing each other. Another would fill it with warm soapy water..and then!! They’d push us into the tree trunk. Water everywhere.

Waheeeeee ~ splashes, suds, screams! And then there was the time we ran naked through the garden wearing nothing but mud from head to toe.

Another time, we got hold of an old, large, corrugated iron water tank...tipped it on its side and then a few of us climbed inside and ‘walked’ it for miles along the dusty dirt roads where we lived. Kinda fun, yet kinda stupid given you can’t steer such a ‘vehicle’ let alone see where you’re going.

Talking of corrugated iron, my older sister, Heidi, sports a neat scar on her cheek from one of our favourite activities. We would take a sheet of corrugated iron, drill two holes at one end and thread thin rope from one side to the other. Starting at the top of a grass hill we’d sit on top and steer it down the hill (usually a couple of hundred metres). My sister hit a tree! The idea is not to hit trees, but to slide to the bottom. All our fun was child instigated. I don’t recall every being bored as a child. It simply wasn’t part of my vocabulary. We made our own go-karts too. ‘Twas wicked fun on the remote country roads where we lived.

Kids wouldn’t be allowed to do half the stuff we did these days. But I don’t suppose we asked our parents for permission. We just got on and made our own fun. We’d spend days playing hide and seek in amongst fields of tall growing corn. Our neighbours lived a few miles away, either side of us. There was always some distance to cover, on horse, foot or bike, in order to add playmates to the soccer or cricket team in our orchard. Having seven siblings clearly shaped me as a human being in a way that would have been impossible had I been an only child ~ even though I always wished I was the only one!

Many of my cherished childhood memories involve my mother. I loved it when she’d let me stay home from school. She just ‘knew’ when I needed to stay away. We’d eat together in the garden and chat, chat, chat. During my childhood, we spent many nights together sleeping on the trampoline just making wishes on the umpteen falling stars that fell our way. Somehow, as a kid, any cares or worries just slip away when your tiny body is face to face with the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. You come to realise that all this earthly stuff is just an illusion. I learnt a lot about life from experiences like that.

Mum had a unique way of making life special. Every day was a celebration. I try and bring some of that magic into my daughters’ childhoods. It’s the simple, yet priceless, moments upon which we build memories. Each morning I’d awake to a freshly squeezed orange juice. Do you know how many oranges it takes to make a glass of juice? About four! She made this for all of us children. Every morning.

When there are eight children, it is pretty well inevitable that there will be fall-outs from time to time. The one thing my mum was always clear about was making sure we never went to school or to sleep without resolution.

I’d come home from school to a meal on the table. Every day she made each of us a plate of freshly chopped, grated, sliced assorted vegetables.

Mum bought fruit and vegetables in bulk and was always juicing apples and carrots for our growing bodies. It didn’t rain that often where we lived, but when it did thousands of mushrooms would emerge. We’d go off collecting them with my mum and then she’d make the most incredible mushroom soup I’ve ever tasted.

Her nourishment went way beyond food though.

At night, without fail, she’d read or sing or play the harmonica or mandolin as we drifted to sleep. Both of my parents always kissed me to sleep at night. My mother always tucked me in. It takes but a few moments for such a ritual, yet this act of love has an enormous impact on a child.

I’m 38, and my mother is one of my best friends. We have a fairly similar outlook on life, share a very wicked sense of humour and have a bond that has come from the many years she invested in me. It hasn’t made me dependent on her in a way that people often fear if a mother and child bond well. I love her dearly and often wish she lived with us or nearby. And yet I chose to leave home at sixteen and spread my wings. Since then I’ve nearly always lived in other countries. I believe this trust in my self came because of the unselfish nurturing which enfolded every day of my childhood. She was a constant in my life.

We had a tv growing up, but there were very strict rules. I was allowed to watch Little House on the Prairie, the Waltons and the Disney movies. My tv watching was very minimal and well and truly balanced out by the active outdoor lifestyle I was afforded in sunny Australia.
My own children have been raised without television. Now they’re older, they do get to watch DVDs ~ no surprise if I tell you that it most often comes in the form of the Little House and the Waltons! Good wholesome programming, that’s what I say! The deal is though, if they want to watch an hour’s worth of DVD then they have to spend the equivalent time on their bike or walking. They are not allowed to spend hours watching a screen. And I insist that they are as far away from the screen as possible. Chores, music practice and exercise always come before any screen based leisure. I watch DVDs with them, and certainly shows like the ones we watch always bring up lots of questions about morality and life ~ so we are able to use it as the basis for a learning experience, not just entertainment.

From the heart of my childhood, I bring to my children a desire and determination to give them the most nutritious food I can. I make meals from scratch, often with the girls alongside helping me.

My mother never took me to doctors, instead she used colour healing or herbs if I was not well. I clearly remember one day needing to stay home from school because I was under the weather. My mum put me out to sleep on the trampoline in the sunshine!! She brought me water throughout the day. I often wondered, as a kid, if she was unsympathetic but I can look back now and see that she taught me not to be a victim of my own misery.

We always ate our meals as a family ~ without a tv or radio blaring in the background. This is the same for my children. And we say a prayer of gratitude before each meal. From the earliest age they’ve learnt to be grateful for the journey our food takes from field to plate.
A few years back, the Sunday Mirror did a feature on our diet. At the time we were eating a 100% raw vegan diet. The sensational title to the article was These kids have never had coke or crisps!

Can’t you just see it now? EVIL MOTHER denies poor children life’s staples.
My chiropractor told me this week of a family in the USA who decided to feed their dogs the same as they fed their children. That is, coke, crisps and other junk food. The RSPCA heard about it and took the dogs away. CRUELTY!! They didn’t take the children…

Funny, isn’t it, that we don’t consider our body to be worthy of the same understanding and respect as we show other animals.

My children hear how much they are loved about half a dozen times each day. They’re kissed and tucked into bed each night by both parents. Despite being prolific readers, Bethany and Eliza still love to be read to.

Now the nights are drawing in so quickly, we find ourselves snugged up in bed together while I read from their favourite books.

My children laugh a lot. We all do. We have unpleasant times too, make no mistake. For the most part though, we enjoy each other’s company.

It’s easy, sometimes, to question my parenting and wonder if we are giving our children the very best. And then I have times, little moments in a day, which come forward begging me to take notice and realise “YES”, they have got a wonderful childhood.

A few days ago the girls turned up with lots of red above their eyes.
They’d gathered blackberries and created ‘natural’ eye shadow from the deep purple juice!

And then, a few weeks ago, there was rather a lot of noise coming from the bathroom. I checked in to see what all the laughter and screaming was about. Eliza had created some bubbles from the shampoo and was scooping them together to ‘read’ the bubbles (like tea leaf reading). She predicted Bethany was going to marry Johnny Depp!! They were howling with laughter.

What’s your average 10 year old doing these days? Odds are they’re texting, chewing gum or wearing the latest brand clothing to impress their mates!

I’m very conscious that my upbringing was aided enormously by the environment I grew up in. And equally, my girls have a rural lifestyle even if we don’t have property of our own. They have the freedom of a small, safe village (ok, apart from the dangerous speed at which the farmers whiz by on their tractors). I do know though, that even if we had to live in the world’s largest city without so much as a garden, that I would ensure we spent as much time out in nature as possible. Every city and town has green space. Parents just have to prioritise their time to give children opportunities for REAL play.

So, what do I think makes a great childhood? I certainly don’t believe it includes testing and learning useless things by rote for the duration of childhood. Nature didn’t create us to learn in this way!

None of my heart-warming memories from childhood include school (except, of course, school camps where I got to practise my mischievous skills: like vegemite on black loo seats, or Vaseline on white ones; or cling film over the toilet bowl. TOP TIP: Gotta do it last thing at night though so when people go they don’t notice . Eliza thrives on my *naughty* stories!)

My experience has shown me that love, freedom, respect and honouring the biological needs of a growing body is vital to happiness and glowing health. Freedom to play; freedom to learn in a way appropriate to each human being’s learning style, as well as healthy, nutritious, life-giving food and beverages. To quote Jamie Oliver, “If you’re giving your kids fizzy drinks you’re a f***** ar*****”. That’s m’ boy!

I completely had my buttons pressed this week to hear of mums boycotting and sabotaging Jamie’s healthy school dinner campaign. These mums are turning up at lunch time with junk food for their kids. They’re taking junk food orders for other kids! Apparently these mums don’t like what Jamie Oliver stands for!!

READ: They don’t want their growing children to have their body optimally nurtured.
How do you work with that sort of mentality? Clearly they are acting from what they believe to be a place of love. In this day and age, though, there is hardly any excuse for such ignorance when it comes to something as fundamental to well-being as what we put in our bodily vehicle.

This week in the news we hear that eating a packet of crisps a day is equal to drinking almost five litres of cooking oil every year. A recent British Heart Foundation survey of 8-15 year olds revealed that one in five children munch their way through at least two packets of crisps per day - the equivalent of nine litres of cooking oil a year. Crisps are just one aspect of today’s nutritional norm. What happens when we add all the soft drinks, burgers, pizzas and so on? The parents of these kids clearly don’t seem to care.

The Times’ response to the Daily Telegraph letter can pretty well be described as sour grapes. They’d declined to publish our letter and instead one of their columnists called us the Toxic 100. They used all sorts of excuses to dismiss our letter.

I feel The Mother magazine has been a voice in the wilderness on the issues discussed for these past five years and finally there is an outpouring of acknowledgement from all sorts of places about the issues which I hold close to my heart.

I’m not pretending that there was once a golden era of childhood. What I am suggesting is that actually, with everything we know about the human mind, body and emotions, this should be the BEST time in history to be a child. But it isn’t. One in ten kids has clinical depression. 91% of 12 year olds have a mobile phone. I don’t even have a mobile phone!
51% of ten year olds have a mobile phone. Why? WHY???

Those anti the Daily Telegraph letter say kids are so lucky to have mobiles and they’re so proficient with modern technology. How can it be harming them? Clearly these parents have never taken notice of all the research showing the connection between brain tumours and overuse of mobile phones.

TV (or any screen based leisure) does not promote imagination. There are some fundamental differences between children and adults in how their brains develop. And these differences apply to how we view a television.

All children suffer from watching television because it stops movement and poorly stimulates the senses. They don’t get to scan the picture or practise eye/hand co-ordination; they tend not to ask questions or explore topics. They don’t practise gross or fine motor skills. Initiation or motivation is not needed. Creativity or analytical thinking is suppressed. TV does not promote logical thinking because of the nature in which tv programmes are made. Adults get so caught up in television being an educational tool (which it can be) that they simply don’t want to hear about things like cathode rays. There is a huge difference between tv being a source of information and a distraction from living. As parents we’ve chosen to guard against the latter for the sake of our children.

In issue twenty of The Mother I’ll be publishing an exclusive interview with our very own Dr Richard House and Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood. They were the instigators of the now infamous letter. (See below.)

Our culture HAS to sit up and take notice of what is happening to our children. We can’t kid ourselves that the computer generation is doing ‘just fine’. This has become the era of lazy parenting and the cost is high ~ both to individuals and to society.

Go out and play with your kids today. Go on. Have some fun. Make a memory. Let today bring some magic into their impressionable hearts which will then go on to ‘feed’ your grandchildren in ways you may never know.

And do the same tomorrow. And the next day. And the next….

With love ~ Veronika ~

Dear Letters Editor,
As professionals and academics from a range of backgrounds, we are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children’s behavioural and developmental conditions. We believe this is largely due to a lack of understanding, on the part of both politicians and the general public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.
Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust - as full-grown adults can - to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed ‘junk’), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.
They also need time. In a fast-moving hyper-competitive culture, today’s children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum. They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.
Our society rightly takes great pains to protect children from physical harm, but seems to have lost sight of their emotional and social needs. However, it’s now clear that the mental health of an unacceptable number of children is being unnecessarily compromised, and that this is almost certainly a key factor in the rise of substance abuse, violence and self-harm amongst our young people.
This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible ‘first step’ would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that
public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century
this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades.
[Any readers wishing to contribute to this debate can contact us by logging on to:]
Yours sincerely,
In alphabetical order:
Professor Peter Abbs, University of Sussex
Liz Attenborough, Manager Talk to Your Baby Campaign
Robin Balbernie, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Jean Barlow, Teacher Consultant, Rochdale Children’s Trust
Sally Barnes, writer and consultant on early years education
Geoff Barton, headteacher King Edward VI School, Suffolk
Camilla Batmanghelidjh, founder, Kids Club
Virginia Beardshaw, CEO, I CAN
Dr Robert Beckford , University of Birmingham, Documentary maker, Professor of African Diasaporin Studies
Professor Ron Best, Roehampton University
John C. Beyer, Director of Mediawatch UK
Sir Richard Bowlby, President, Centre for Child Mental Health
David Brazier, Ph.D., Rev. author, abbot
Professor Tim Brighouse, Commissioner for London Schools
Mick Brookes, General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers
Professor Greg Brooks, University of Sheffield
Dr Christopher Houghton Budd, economic historian
Christabel Burniston, President, The English Speaking Board
Jean Clark, Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
Paul Cooper, editor Soccer Coaching International
Pie Corbett, author and literacy consultant
Arthur Cornell, Chairman, Family Education Trust
Jill Curtis,
Professor Tricia David, Canterbury Christchurch University College
Marion Dowling, President, British Association of Early Childhood Education
Dr John Dunford, General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders
Margaret Edgington, Early Years specialist consultant and author
Peter Elfer, Early Childhood Studies, Roehampton University
Michele Elliot, Director, Kidscape
Professor Colin Feltham, Sheffield Hallam University
Anne Fine, author and former Children’s Laureate
Helen Freeman, Director of Publications, Scholastic Magazines
Dr Marilyn Fryer, C.Psychol. The Creativity Centre Ltd.
Di Gammage, Play Therapist, University of Plymouth
Jan Georgeson, University of Gloucestershire
Melanie Gill, child forensic psychologist, Commonsense Associates
Christopher Gilmore, Atma-Dovetales Educational
Sally Goddard Blythe, Director, Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology
Diana Goodey, educational author
Prue Goodwin, literacy specialist, University of Reading
Rob Grant, Lecturer in Development Economics, University of East Anglia
Baroness Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution
Dr Natasha Grist, University of East Anglia
Andrea Halewood, Chartered Counselling Psychologist, Roehampton University
Grethe Hooper Hansen, former head of S.E.A.L., educational consultant
Robert Hart, Analytical Psychologist
Colin and Jacqui Hawkins, children's authors
Sylvie Hétu, international trainer, International Association of Infant Massage
Brenda Hobbins, founder, Osiris Educational
Patrick Holford , Chief Executive of the Food for the Brain Foundation
Dr Richard House, Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, Roehampton University
Dr Frances Hutchinson, economist
Virginia Ironside, journalist and author
Julie Jennings, Chair of the Early Childhood Forum
Sue Johnston-Wilder, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education, Open University
Dr Paul Kelly, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Martin Large, author of Set Free Childhood
Dr Penelope Leach, author, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Institute for the Study of Children, Families & Social Issues, Birkbeck College, London
Dr John Lees, University of Greenwich
Professor Del Loewenthal, Roehampton University
Dr Christine Macintyre, Hon Fellow, University of Edinburgh
Neil McLelland, Chief Executive, National Literacy Trust
Dr Peter Martin, Principal Lecturer in Counselling Psychology, Roehampton University
Mildred Masheder, writer on childhood, author of Positive Parenting
Dr Brien Masters, Director, London Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar
Dr Roland Meighan, educational publisher and author of Comparing Learning Systems
Montessori Education UK
Michael Morpurgo, author and former Children’s Laureate
Professor Janet Moyles, emeritus professor at Anglia Ruskin University
Craig Newnes, C. Psychol., editor of Making and Breaking Children's Lives
Vincent Nolan, Synectics Education Initiative
Chris Oakley, Psychoanalyst, The Site for Contemporary Psychoanalysis
Haya Oakley, Hon Sec of The College of Psychoanalysts
Lynne Oldfield, Director, London Waldorf Early Childhood Training Course
Jayne Osgood, Senior Research Fellow, London Metropolitan University
Sue Palmer, literacy consultant and author of Toxic Childhood
Dr Lindsey Peer , CBE
Professor Michael A. Peters, University of Illinois
Gervase Phinn, former school inspector and author
Professor David Pilgrim, clinical psychologist and academic author
Sir Jonathon Porritt , environmental campaigner
Denis Postle, psychotherapist and author of The Mind Gymnasium
Linda Pound, Early Years Consultant
Philip Pullman, author
Tom Raines, Editor, New View magazine
Dr Graham Rawlinson, educational psychologist, University of Sussex
Professor Colin Richards, HMI (ret.)
Dr Alex Richardson, Mansfield College, Oxford; author of They Are What We Feed Them
Denise Roberts, (Editor, My Child magazine)
Veronika Robinson, Editor of The Mother magazine
Dr Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and writer
Professor Andrew Samuels, University of Essex
Sally Schweizer, Early Childhood Advisor, teacher trainer, author of Well, I Wonder
Wendy Scott, former early years adviser to the DfES
Dorothy Selleck, Early Years consultant
Dr Aric Sigman, writer, broadcaster and author of Remotely Controlled
Pippa Smith and Miranda Suit, co-founders of Media March UK
Professor Margaret Snowling, University of York
Professor Ernesto Spinelli, psychotherapist and counselling psychologist, Regent’s College, London
Dr Pat Spungin,
Dr Stephen Sterling, Schumacher Reader in Education for Sustainability, Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Plymouth
Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown, Director of Health Sciences Research Institute, University of Warwick
Professor Brian Thorne, University of East Anglia and the College of Teachers
Dr Sami Timimi, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, Lincolnshire
Nick Totton, Editor, Psychotherapy and Politics journal
Dr Rona Tutt , OBE , SEN Consultant, Speaker and Writer
Norman Wells, Director, Family Education Trust
Dr David Whitebread, University of Cambridge
Hilary Wilce, columnist and author of Help Your Child Succeed At School
Bryony Williams, nursery manager
Jacqueline Wilson, author and Children’s Laureate
Sarah Woodhouse, Right From the Start education and support project for parents

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Shallow Questions...a shallow culture?

Brew of the Day ~ Pukka’s Ginger & Lemongrass Tea, for clarity.

Ok, so here it is. I spend most of my days with my back firmly facing towards humanity. The craziness of what we’re doing to each other, to ourselves, to the planet has me shaking my head and walking away.

Cursed as I am with a curiosity that courses deep in my veins, I tend to look back over my shoulder from time to time to see if ‘we’ have learnt anything. And then, before I know it, I find myself walking back into the melting pot wanting to do something, ANYTHING, that might help to bring some answers.

I’m realising though, that perhaps my role in life isn’t to offer answers, but to encourage others to ask questions?! Not helpful, when one’s inclination is towards being a hermit.

Two things happened this week to bring home to me the lack of in-depth questioning which happens in our so called ‘intelligent’ culture.

Firstly, I was a signatory to a 110 name-strong letter/petition to our ‘culture’ against the toxicity of childhood. It was printed in the Daily Telegraph (which will now be taking it on as a campaign) and the basis of a front page article and an editorial! Waheeeeeeeeeeeee. Or so I thought!

It certainly got people talking. To my disappointment though, the questioning by all the journalists I heard on this important topic was so shallow I was left putting my shoes on ready to walk away again.

During a TV interview and also a radio interview, the issue was trivialised and dismissed by the journalists and guests, as if the signatories were just a bunch of middle-class liberals with nothing better to do. Huh??? Because OF COURSE today’s kids are so well off. Can’t us Muesli Knitters see that? Their lives are better than kids lives have ever been...and wow, isn’t it GREAT that they have mobile phones so mummy and daddy know where they are all the time! Why doesn’t any journalist ask the obvious questions like, “WHY is junk food not ideal for growing bodies? Why is breast better than formula? What advantages are there of feeding a child till they self-wean? What harm do mobile phones do? How does watching six hours of television (or computer) a day limit creativity/use of imagination?! Why is it better for a child to be raised by a loving parent rather than a DVD?!”

AND THEN, if we ever get a journalist able to think outside the box a wee bit, hopefully they’ll have the respect to allow their guests to answer the questions! What came through loud and clear in the interviewing, was how defensive the journalists were about the points raised in the Daily Telegraph. Their reaction was not unlike that of a grandmother who had bottle-fed her own children when confronted by the obvious multifarious benefits of breastfeeding would have for her grandchildren.

People just don’t *get* what our techno-culture, junk-food diets and lack of quality family time are doing to children. I’ll happily keep my kids as part of a *controlled experiment* against Toxic Childhood and all its insidious and life-depleting consequences.

Here’s an irony. My kids aren’t journalists, but their daily questions on life are so in-depth (possibly because they’ve not been raised on mind-numbing tv) that they could be giving courses to the new breed of tv and radio ‘personalities’.

I was invited to go on a new tv show, called Real Lives, which will air in November on ITV. Filmed in front of a studio audience, I came home realising that I didn’t actually get to say anything *intelligent* that would help to open people’s eyes to the biological and anthropological NORM of full-term breastfeeding. WHY? Because of the shallow questioning! For example, some macho Latino guy in the audience said to me, “Is it true that your breasts get bigger when you’re breastfeeding?”

“er, yeah”


I assured Mr 4 foot-nothing Macho Man that I’d have been quite happy with an A cup! Seriously though, where can you even go with such questioning, especially when the camera is off searching for an equally useless question.

I’m realising that, as frustrating as it is for me to spend 8 hours in train travel and umpteen hours hanging about London for just 15 minutes air time, that despite all the shallow questions, what IS happening is that for each tv or radio interview I do, at some level I (and other women/men like me) am slowly (painfully slowly) chipping away at our culture’s judgements, insecurities and phobias about breastfeeding and more soulful living and lifestyle choices.

But I don’t want to chip away!!!!!! I want a massive bloody bulldozer and to clear a path which will allow broadcasters and tv presenters to ask in-depth questions and for them to not be scared of the answers, or to be protecting their audience from having their brains stretched. You see, once we open to and accept a new idea, there simply is no turning back. A person can’t ‘unstretch’. What do you have to do to get your own tv show? Thing is, our culture doesn’t DEMAND intelligent broadcasting. It wants car crash tv because it has been so desensitised by its own technology and food processing choices.

It is said that when 20% of a culture has taken on a view, then it becomes a society ‘norm’. A critical mass. This gives me hope.

That means, even for my shite maths, only 1 in 5 people need to embrace a more expansive, holistic view for it to be accepted as the done thing. Isn’t that so empowering to know we don’t have to have everyone on board? Clearly I’m a see the glass half-full, rather than empty, sorta girl!!

Things are changing in our culture. Others are chipping away too. I had a couple of nice surprises this week. At Dublin airport there was an amazing juice and smoothie bar ~ so many fresh juices and juice combinations to choose from. And at Euston station is the Camden Food Co. ~ an organic and fair trade take-away with fresh juices, smoothies, fruit, dried fruits, nuts and healthy sandwiches.

A few years ago businesses like these would have had difficulty surviving. The time is right now. If people are starting to make the connection with their food choices, then hopefully they’ll make the connection with what they’re putting into the minds, hearts and souls of their children.

At the moment, however, most of our culture’s children are having their soul murdered in the toxic landscape we’ve collectively created or ‘allowed’ to happen. Speak up, and don’t be afraid to ask deep questions. Ever.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Once upon an Irish Morning...

Brew of the Day ~ Lemongrass

This week my family and I went to Southern Ireland. I’d been invited to speak at a Home Education conference on unschooling.

First we stayed with our lovely friends Siobhan and Alex (and children Joe and Rhiannon) in their mobile home. I walked into my dream. They live on a 3 acre field surrounded by trees ~ blissful privacy! My girls loved their compost loo as it reminded them of the outhouse in The Little House on the Prairie series.

Water is provided by a well. In the evening when all the kids were asleep, it was wonderful to chat with Siobhan and Alex by candlelight, with nothing but a sky full of stars as witness.

The following morning I managed to get in my ‘daily’ walk and it was brilliant. It was invigorating to walk in a completely different environment. The change of scene allowed me to be totally immersed in everything around me, instead of being swamped by the usual day to day thoughts and pressures. Every note of birdsong, the horses grazing, looking out over the bog fields ~ I absorbed it all.

I thought it always rained in Ireland?! Nothing but glorious warm sunshine for our visit. We had the pleasure of meeting Siobhan’s mum and to see where she grew up. I’d heard many times about their amazing (tiny) cottage where she grew up with all her siblings (I think there are 9 children in all). Her family learnt how to be self-sufficient on their 1 acre of land growing all their own vegetables and fruits. You know that wonderful feeling of making a meal from vegetables you’ve grown in your garden? We sat down to a sumptuous lunch full of garden produce. Beautiful! This is what life is about!!

We then travelled from County Meath to County Wicklow where the conference was held in stunning Glendalough. The B&B we stayed in the night before the conference was called Mountain View Lodge and was literally at the base of a mountain. Waking up to such a stunning view set me off emotionally as it reminded me of my childhood home (just trade pine trees for eucalyptus trees). And then the breakfast staff put on Irish music (like When you were sweet sixteen)… Pathetic blubbering mess I was for a wee while. God, I'm such a marshmallow!!! (er, minus the gelatine, that is)

I found it interesting to meet the Irish home-schoolers as they clearly share the same joys and pains as home-schoolers in probably most countries. Personally, it was most helpful to put my own experience about unschooling into words. We can easily take for granted our holistic and authentic parenting and lifestyle choices. I feel I've finally stamped into my consciousness how incredibly rich the path of unschooling is for our family.

Back home now to glorious sunshine (gonna be 22 degrees Celsius up here in Cumbria today! waheeeeeeeeeeeee ~ garden play time) and also preparing to mail out our next magazine.

I’d hoped to include my talk on Unschooling here today, but it seems as if Blogger might crash and die a painful death if I do!

Instead, I’ll leave you with the poem I read to open my talk. I have difficulty reading it out loud, without wobbling, as it really hits a chord with me. (Try reading out loud!!)

Have a fab week, Veronika…

As If We Had The Right
By Winnie Durdant-Hollamby

If we’re too afraid
To listen to the needs of the children,
How can they become whole
Or good enough parents themselves
When we have denied and denied
The validity of their needs Wholesale?

Isn’t it human rights abuse
On an unimaginable scale
When we say to our children:
“You’re not good enough as you are.
You need improving.
And furthermore, this is how…”

And then we send them away
From us – the ones they love
And trust most,
Send them to spend long days In loveless buildings
Where well-intentioned, overstretched grown-ups
Strive to implant this
Improvement Into them, whether willing or not?

“Best years of your lives!” And “It never did me any harm!”
But were they really – and Are you sure it didn’t?

If we really listen to the children
What do we think they will ask for
That is so terrifying?
Do we really think they want
Limitless sweets and ice cream, Computer games, rap cds, game shows,
And never, ever to get out of bed?

Is that what we fear?

Or do we suspect in our most secret hearts
That all they are asking for is our time?
That all they really need is our love?
Without conditions Or strings Or expectations?

Why, despite all we have had the chance to learn,
Do we still seek to make them like us?

As if we had the right.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

one in a million mum

Brew of the Day ~ Apple and Cinnamon.

What does it take to be a one in a million mum? I ask this because a chat show in the UK is looking for one.

Isn’t such a quest demeaning? We’re all unique. How do we judge what makes someone a fab mum anyway? Is it by what we do or by who we are?

Surely any mum who nurtures her child is worth celebrating. It’s easy, far too easy, when you have strong views on parenting styles to simply dismiss other mums. But you know, ultimately, it all comes down to love. It’s a rare mum who doesn’t love her kids. Granted there are many who do, yet don’t show it to their kids, probably when until it’s too late to make a real difference. And then of course, there are the mums, like the one I saw yesterday, who drive their car with kids in the back, all windows SHUT and puffing on their fag. Where’s the love in fumigating your kids?

I know as I write that, I’m being judgmental. It’s just that such demonstrations of ‘consciousness’ (NOT) always stop me in my tracks. Good mothering is about thinking (and acting) beyond your own needs and desires. If you want to smoke and inhale all that stuff, fine! ~ but leave the kids out of the picture. I find myself (unhealthily) sitting in judgement of people like that as quickly as most of this country judged me to be an *unfit mother* for breastfeeding full-term.

During the week there was a big hoo haa about whether lesbian mums and overweight mums should be allowed IVF.

Good lord! Whatever next?

I do wonder though, if we can’t conceive naturally, then perhaps we ought to consider other options, such as adoption. That aside, who on Earth are we to judge whether someone is suitable to be a mother because of sexual orientation or body size? Because that’s what we’re asking, in essence.

We certainly wouldn’t stop an obese woman conceiving naturally, so what right do we have to suggest she can’t have IVF? I’ve been gobsmacked by the levels of discrimination in this country.

The first ‘marriage’ I officiated as a celebrant, was for a lesbian couple. One of them already had two children ~ and she’ll forever remain in my heart as an amazingly loving mum.
There are women are thin as sticks conceiving, who aren’t actually much, if any, healthier than overweight people. No-one questions their right to become a parent.

One of the most loving, beautiful, caring, sensitive, divinely wonderful mothers I know, is overweight. I would think any soul who chose to incarnate through her physical vehicle to come Earthside would be blessed beyond belief in a family of extraordinary love. To me, she’s a one in a trillion mum. She’s one of those people, that whenever she crosses my mind, a tear always comes to my eye. And it is because she is so giving, caring, loving, thoughtful. All perfect ingredients for mothering.

But we don’t measure stuff like that do we? We measure things like looks, career, body shape, husband’s career …how shallow our society has become?

There have been times in my parenting journey where I’ve wondered if my daughters would have been better off with another mum! Clearly, that was on bad days only. And then there are other times where I silently thank Her Upstairs that she brought these precious creatures my way. I feel so blessed and grateful that they didn’t journey their lifetime with another family. I’d have missed so much.

I think to my own mum ~ as unique as they get. And I cannot begin to imagine how different I’d have been as a person had I not had her influence in my childhood. And yet my 7 siblings walk such a different path through life, seemingly uninfluenced by her at all. I realise that conception is no accident. It’s not random chance that we end up where we do.
Recently I was at an event where I knew quite a lot of people. Chatting with a friend, I pointed to two of the children we know and I said, “Aren’t they just the greatest kids?”
She agreed wholeheartedly and then added, “but what do you expect? Their mum is a fantastic mum.” My friend started beating herself up as she compared how patient and kind this mutual friend is.

I stopped her short. “It’s easy to be fantastic, enthusiastic and patient when you don’t see your kids for 30 – 40 hours a week! I’d even look like mum of the year if I wasn’t with my kids 24/7.”

We don’t do anyone justice by comparing our parenting. Each of us is different. Some of us have more challenging kids. Some women have crap partners which make it like parenting another kid, and then some. Some families have huge financial burdens which make every day a challenge, as they wonder how to put the next meal on the table. Some women sleep with a stranger every night. Some women have kids with permanent health problems. Some women live with unfulfilled dreams. Others live every day as a compromise, just in order to exist. Some parents have extended family around who bring huge blessings to everyday life.

Who are we benefiting by comparing our own unique situation to someone else’s?

It’s so, so easy to compare and then belittle ourselves.

When I first came to England, I met a home-schooling mum with four children. I was mesmerised when I entered her home. It was amazing. It really felt like a home...lived in, loved in…REAL.

Someone was in the kitchen making chocolate brownies, another child was practising flute, another was reading, another was drawing. It was winter. The fire was on, everything was cosy. The memory of that visit will stay with me forever because it represented what I imagined our homeschooling life would become, once our toddler girls grew older.

In the seven years since, I’ve often felt like I’ve fallen short of being a ‘good’ home-schooling mother (whatever that actually means!), because of the memory I had in that family’s home. I tend not to factor in that it was a ‘snapshot’ in time…and that not every day was like that for them.

Each of us brings something magical to our family. We do so in different ways. Another friend of mine, who loves being a stay at home mum, often says she wonders if she should be doing something ‘more’. She watches all her friends doing volunteer work or campaigning, etc. And yet, to go into this person’s home, to me, is always a transforming experience. It reminds me of how children ‘should’ be brought up ~ that is, in the heart of their mother.

Her youngest, at two, helps put organic flour in the bowl to make their daily bread. A candle sits flickering on the long, wooden farm house table as another child draws a dinosaur. In the far corner of the room, another child is dancing. There is a sense of connectedness, of love. Children don’t get that in a day care centre.

This friend is a one in a million mum. But then so is my friend who, with her husband, made the most incredible cubby house for their kids. It’s totally awesome and had ME wanting to play in it.

Then there is my friend living with her three children in a yurt amongst cherry trees. When I arrived, by chance, a few hours after her youngest child was born in there, and stepped into that magical space, I knew she was one in a million.

Another friend of mine drives her daughter a hell of a long way to school because she was incredibly unhappy at her local school. Doesn’t that make her a one in a million mum?
I’ve another friend of mine, with eight children, who are all home educated. She manages to make them fresh, wholesome foods every day. They practise attachment parenting, so all their kids have been raised lovingly in slings, and sharing the family bed. Another one in a million!
Can you see what I’m saying? We’re all special. We’re all unique.

It’s funny, but just when I have finally got to a stage where mothering feels easy-peasy (for the most part!), I’m very aware that a door has opened to a new chapter in the journey. Who will I be when I get to the other side? It’s not something I can predict.

My girls always want to hold my hand when we’re out walking the roads around here. Usually they want me to stop and have a cuddle too.

The other night, as Bethany and I were coming back into the village, we noticed a bunch of the village kids a little way down the road. She ever so subtly slipped her hand out of mine. My maths might be shite, but I straight away put two and two together… She didn’t want to be seen as ‘a baby’.

I smiled at her and whispered, “It’s ok honey, I understand. I used to be embarrassed about being seen with my mum too.”

“I do love you though mum,” she said.

“I know.” And we shared a smile to seal our secret.

I just wonder how long it will be before she won’t even want to walk near me. Or talk to me.
Bethany is the Queen of Dress Ups…she’s spent her whole walking life being one character or another. Yet last week, when Eliza was desperate to wear a (to me) hideous Disney princess dress to town, Bethany rather lost the plot. “She can’t wear that to town!”

About a month ago she wouldn’t have even noticed. Call it hormones, call it awareness of others her age...whatever it is, it means changes for all of us. There’ll probably be many occasions where she’ll wish I wasn’t her mother. Remembering my own teenage years will give me empathy, I hope.

Don’t go looking for the mum in a million on the tv, or in the newspapers or on the radio. Don’t get sucked into ‘not good enough’ when the latest Celebrity Mum of the Year is announced, because the Mum of the YEAR, every year, can only be found in one place. And she’s in your home. She’s you.

Autumn has come early. I’m starting to feel the chill in the evenings. I can’t quite snuggle up close enough to my beloved at night. How is it that men’s bodies can generate such warmth? ‘tis a mystery to me!

I’ve concluded Autumn is quite a cunning season really. She dresses up all fancy in gold, red and yellow ~ bearing gifts of apples and pumpkins ~ puts you in a party mood and subdues the lighting a wee bit, and somehow you get caught up in it all while she’s sneakin’ in the colder weather!

Enjoy your apple and cinnamon tea ~ a gorgeous combination, me thinks! Next week’s blog will be on Sunday morning…shall we make it brunch?