Making the most of a new life


A change is as good as a rest

Well the Easter break is now over and we already seem to have dropped back into our routines again as if it never happened. It was a good break and Jake, in particular, had a much needed rest.

I do not remember school being so tiring when I was a child, but I guess that it must have been; I certainly do not think that I was awake for hours in the evening and I am pretty sure that I was always in bed and asleep well before 8. But it has certainly been clear to me that Jake finds school to be tiring, and was really struggling during the last week of last term as the weeks of learning built up. Even in reception class there is a great emphasis on children improving and developing their reading, writing and maths; and Jake has certainly learned an awful lot since he started in September. But this does take its toll on one so young.

This is not to say that he does not enjoy it, and he was so keen to go back on Monday morning that we were waiting for the gates to open at school. But because he finds it so tiring we are really mindful of how he can spend his time out of school, and try to find a balance between different sorts of activities. So while we do listen to him read, and help him to write and count; we also encourage him to play both inside and outside and we are quite happy to let him watch TV in, what we think, is moderation.

I would go further than that and say that allowing him to watch some TV is important because he clearly does find it relaxing and, provided it is the right sort of TV (BBC Cbeebies and good quality films), we also find that he learns while he watches too; he has certainly improved his vocabulary watching the likes of Ice Age, Madagascar and other films. This does not stop us having the discussion (argument) about him watching more as he always, of course, tries to push the boundaries of how much he can watch especially during the holidays when he has more potential watching time.

This is why we also try to get out and explore the area around us, either by going down to the local playgrounds/ parks, or visiting museums and places of interest. Of all these though the one that I most enjoyed during this break was taking the boys up into the Peak District National Park, which we are very fortunate to live close to. We had a great time exploring the woods, tramping through what was left of the snow (Sam even found a submerged stream and ended up to his waist in snow), and playing pooh sticks.

All in all it was a busy time with lots to do and see, but Jake looked great on it and I hope that he will remember his trips out with the sort of fondness that I do. It is great to get out, and I am looking forward to a summer of exploring new places and introducing the boys to the joys of being outside.

When we got to the car park at Longshaw Estate, where we were visiting, Jake asked me “where’s the playground Daddy?”. I thought for a moment and nearly said “there isn’t one”, then looking round it struck me and said “it’s here Jake, it’s all around you”. I was pleased that I thought to say that, and even more pleased that the boys embraced the concept, and now want to think of more ways to help make it just that for them.

There are plenty more holidays coming up so suggestions gratefully received.



It seems to be one of those issues that nearly all parents that I know struggle with. How much TV do we let our children watch and, for parents of older children, how much time are children allowed to spend playing video games etc…? TV watching is certainly something that is a consistent live issue in our house, and is likely to be for many years to come; and it is not something that is new. I remember that many of my school friends were not allowed to watch commercial TV at a time when children’s programming was on for only a couple of hours a day, something that seems very tame against today’s media choices for children.

Over the years there have been many reports and (oh the irony) TV programmes about how much children should or should not stare at a screen, whether it be a TV or computer (and the differentiation is becoming less all the time); and the internet has brought what seems to be yet another layer of worry to the already fraught lives of parents.

The alternative to this often seems to be that we must entertain our children if we are not going to allow them their electronic fix, which is where I found a story on the BBC website to be of great interest. It reported on work by Dr Teresa Belton of University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning, who argues that boredom is not the negative issue that it is often made out to be because out of boredom can come our most creative moments.

I can see much sense in this argument since I have certainly found inspiration during times of inactivity, most notably when I spent six months in bed after a back operation in 1986; and in the months between my redundancy and the beginning of my coaching course last year. In both cases a complete change of direction in my life occurred and I regard them as very creative times in my life.

Now I am not suggesting that we submit our children to anything like that level of inactivity, but that we should sometimes resist the temptation to see the alternatives as being either ‘watching’ or doing something with Mummy or Daddy. Yes it may be boring: but boring can lead somewhere.

As I am thinking about this I realise that we saw something of that last Sunday afternoon. We had just come back from being outside in the freezing weather, we were all very cold, and I for one was certainly not wanting to entertain any further trips outdoors. All I wanted at that moment was to defrost with a hot drink. The boys were hankering after some TV and did not seem to be in the mood for anything else, when up popped the suggestion to get the Play-Doh (other malleable putties are available) out. An hour later the boys were still playing, occasionally involving us in their game and serving us Play-Doh food (Jake, apparently, was the Sous Chef). They played nicely together and were very creative.

Only time will tell whether reading about Belton’s research will change the way I parent, and there will always be times when it is easier to switch on the TV than any of the apparent alternatives. Nevertheless, thinking about it will make me less afraid of the ‘b’ word, and I will try to get the boys to embrace their boredom in the future who knows what they may create as a result.

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 1. Party

Welcome to the ChangingDad twelve blogs of Christmas. I thought that, given this is the first Christmas that I have blogged, there will probably be quite a few things that I want to write about, but perhaps not at the same length as I usually do. So I intend to write 12 shorter blogs over the Christmas period not actually covering the 12 Days of Christmas, which run from 25th December to 5th January, but over the time when we celebrate.

It was the Christmas party for the children in the’ Early Years’ at Jake’s school last night, and it was a first for a number of reasons: it was Jake’s first disco, it was his first ‘social event’ without either Karen or I being with him and it was the first time he had money in his pocket to spend as he wanted.

This for me was a sign of how much Jake has changed over the last few months since starting school. He has become far more confident, he has in a number of ways become more independent, he has started to read and can do simple maths, and he has, for the first time, expressed what he wants to be when he grows up (a tram driver).

The look on Jake’s face when I gave him money to put in his pocket last night was an absolute picture. He realised that he had crossed a rubicon and I could tell that he felt very grown up. What is more, and I hope that his is a good sign for the future, he brought some money back. However, when I suggested that he gave the money back to me he quickly decided that it should go in his piggy bank; where he saves for going to ‘Ernie-versity’, as he likes to say.

Christmas is a time when we take stock and look back to see how things are different from previous years. Jake had a brilliant time at his party, he is certainly different from last year: perhaps more than I had realised.

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After having moved into our new house and getting the boys settled, the next step was school. Getting a school place for Jake had not been straight forward. I also felt that the fact of him going to school had seemed very abstract, although we had very much linked our move to Sheffield with him starting at ‘big school’ and this, for him, was part of the excitement of our moving.

One thing that I was expecting was that I’d get emotional when I first saw him in his school uniform. I wasn’t wrong. He looked so proud and grown up wearing it; and he was very excited. It was also good that his grandparents were there too as we were able to mark the event in a more traditional German way, which involves giving him a package (in the shape of a cone) full of sweets and things that might be useful to him at school (not to be left out Sam got one too for starting his new nursery). I like this tradition because it says that going to school is an important stage in life, and I think it also shows that we place a value on learning.

When we got to school Jake seemed very confident and not phased at all by his surroundings (he has been there once the week before for an hour) and seemed to settle relatively quickly. We were very relieved that he seemed ok, especially as some children seemed quite upset about being there, and had no worries about leaving him there. We felt that we had prepared the ground for him well, but most of all it was Jake who had shown such confidence in going there, and when we picked him up he was very keen to go again the next day. Jake has now been at school for three weeks and he is loving it. He has noticeably grown in confidence and seems to be considerably older than he was just a few weeks ago. He seems more motivated to go that he ever was with nursery.

The same is the case with Sam who has also had to go through this big change. But for him it was much more unexpected because, since he’s only 2, we weren’t really able to prepare him for the changes that were coming. He didn’t know that he’d be staying with his grandparents while we flew back, didn’t know that we were moving house, and didn’t know that he’d be going to a new nursery: a nursery that his brother wouldn’t be attending like before. I think it’s fair to say that Sam has been a little bit more insecure than before, needing reassurance that Karen and/ or I are in the house, but he has generally coped very well and, like Jake, now seems to be well settled in his new environment and growing in confidence.

I have been amazed by the resilience of Jake and Sam. Despite going through a series of very big changes, none of which were really under their control, they have found the resources not only to cope but to thrive. I would like to think that this was partly down to the fact the Karen and I provide them with certain constants in their lives but whatever it is they seem to flourish in their new surroundings and I really have a sense of us settling down to our new life as a family, ready to embrace that next round of changes that come our way, whatever they may be.

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Berlin #4 – Language

One of the things I have enjoyed about coming to Berlin/ Germany over the years is that I have gradually picked up some language skills. This would probably surprise my old teachers since I was pretty awful at languages when I was at school. In fact I got a pretty miserable fail in French, and the only thing I remember from a whole year of German lessons was how to ask where the ‘Tram Stop’ is, and that’s only because I loved it that ‘Strassenbahnhaltestelle’ was a pretty long word for ‘Tram Stop’.

So while I never really got the hang of how to learn a language at school I guess that it is a bit different when you are immersed in it, and need to speak/ understand it on a daily basis; and as not all of Karen’s family and friends speak English it is important that I learn how to communicate with them.

Over the years I have taken a couple of courses (which generally start with how to book a hotel room, the very thing I don’t normally need to do in Germany) most of my language acquisition has been by trial and error (mixing up the words for ‘legs’ and ‘sanitary towels’ being a particularly embarrassing example of ‘error’), and this time I have been especially pleased that I was able to go through the whole process of getting new glasses, including the eye test, entirely in German.

One of the things that we were very clear about when we had children was that they grow up bilingual, and Karen is very strict with Jake about him talking in German with her. While this meant that Jake was a bit slower in both languages to start with, he suddenly started to fly with both when he was about three, and I have been amazed on this visit especially about how he has settled into German life almost as a native speaker. He does occasionally substitute the odd English word when he is talking, but his confidence in speaking and understanding both English and German, and his ability to switch between the two, is very impressive. It has meant that he has been able to make friends over here and understands situations very quickly. I’m sure that Sam will be the same as he already understands a lot and has both English and German words in his limited vocabulary.

Jake’s ability to pick up two languages so easily really shows me just how much capacity children have to learn new things, and how are motivated they are to do so; if for no other reason than because it helps them to make sense of the world around them. Similarly it tells me how much we need to promote and encourage that, something I’ve touched on before when talking about our problems (now resolved) in getting Jake into a school after we’ve moved house.

So as Karen and I fly back to Britain shortly to move house it is comforting to know that, as we leave the boys with family in Berlin for a few days, they will not feel like strangers in a foreign country. Rather they will be in a place where they feel at home and can communicate well with their those around them. If that was the only reason for them to learn two languages it would be well worth it.

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To nursery and beyond

Today marks another of what seems to be many big changes in family life at the moment, because today is Jake and Sam’s last day at their nursery. For Sam this is because we are moving house, so he will start at a new nursery when we move. But for Jake this is his last ever day at nursery before going to ‘big school’ in September.

It was difficult to judge how Jake was feeling about it this morning. He seemed excited about the fact of his last day, and he really enjoyed making a thank you card with Karen yesterday. But he also seemed a bit sad too. We had already noticed a change in him over the last couple of weeks as many of his friends left after their ‘graduation’, so for him things were already changing. On the other hand he is also excited about going to see his Grandparents next week, then moving house, then starting big school. It’s a lot for him to take in.

Jake started at his nursery when he was about nine months old and, apart from a few wobbles, has thoroughly enjoyed his time there. He has made friends, learned lots of new things, and got on very well with his teachers. For me it’s now difficult to imagine what it was like to first take him into the baby room, but when I try to, it fills me with so much amazement as to how much he has grown physically, intellectually and emotionally over that time. How he has, as he moved through the classes, gone from being a baby to become a toddler, and then a boy. That he has taken most of this in his stride, too, is equally amazing.

However, bearing in mind how much more change is coming up in the next couple of months, means that we have to take a lot of care in how we present it, and how we go through it as a family. I think we’ve done o.k. so far because Jake seems to be up for what’s ahead, so we need to make sure that this doesn’t lead to disappointment.

Managing expectations is something that I have long been familiar with in a work setting, but I also find that it is also something that is relevant in a family setting too. It’s easy to create some sort of great future utopia for our children, but it also needs to be realistic: something that we can deliver. I find that one of the worst feelings is when the boys are disappointed, they can’t hide it at that age which is good but hard to deal with.

So as Jake and Sam have their last days in Schoolroom and Toddlers respectively today it will be important to help them make their transition into the next phases of their lives by being positive but truthful about what lies ahead. But if we can offer them the background security and confidence in our home and family life let’s hope they can really fly to the next challenge.

As Buzz Lightyear (might) say: To nursery and beyond!


We really need some education

One thing that Karen and I didn’t think we were going to be stressed about with our house move was finding a school for Jake. After all the school local to where we are going to live has had good reports, but has also had places every year. This confidence has turned out to be misplaced and with less than two months to go until the start of term, he still does not have a confirmed place. I shan’t bore you with the ins and outs of why this is except to say a mixture of council mistakes and a baby boom have left us in this situation, which I’m sure will ultimately be fine but doesn’t feel like that at the moment.

Until taking redundancy at the end of 2011 I had worked in education for fifteen years, and so know the utter dedication of the majority of people who work in it. I also know how hugely transformative it can be. I went to University as a mature student after having worked for some years straight after school, and the experience really did change my life giving me confidence, skills and knowledge that I have put to good use over the intervening years. I am now enrolled again at a different University and am finding this experience to be equally transformative, but in different ways. And I am reminded of this today because I begin a three day workshop which I am looking forward to hugely because, on the basis of the previous ones, is going to be an amazing experience.

This is why I so desperately want the boys to have the best education that they can so that they can have the lives that they want to have. So that they have options, and the confidence to grab opportunities when they come up.

We have been lucky so far in as much that the nursery that they have been going to has been excellent. They have been so happy and well looked after there, and after this good start we are really keen for them to carry on thriving. This has been brought home to us recently when doing ‘Jake’s day’: something we do every night with him when taking him to bed. Until recently we used to take him through the day, but now he’s started to tell us everything that happened as nursery that day. It is so great to hear him recounting in quite specific detail the things that he has done.

It shows he’s happy, he’s changing, he’s learning and he’s having fun. Surely these are the ingredients of a great education. It’s what Jake experiences at nursery, and it’s exactly what I am experiencing with my course too. It goes to show that you are never too young or too old to learn, and I for one hope that I never stop learning both formally and informally.

Here’s to great, transformative, education.