Book review and giveaway: Kids Don’t Come With A Manual

Parenting books

After the baby years, there was I thinking I wouldn’t bother with any more parenting books. Despite my best intentions, I never got to the end of them and what I did read was 20% useful and 80% forgettable when faced with a bawling child. When I was asked to review Kids Don’t Come With A Manual: The Essential Guide To A Happy Family Life by Carole & Nadim Saad I expected it to join my other good intentions on the dusty pile under my bed. But I was surprised. It’s the first book focusing on children (rather than babies) that I’ve managed to read from cover to cover. More importantly, it’s one that I’ve been able to apply to my own daily battles with a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old, with – dare I say it and tempt fate? – a degree of success.

As the book proclaims: ‘Parenting is a Balancing Act!”. The book was driven by the authors trying to reconcile their opposing parenting styles. Throughout the book, both give their perspective on how taking a new approach has forced them to adjust their behaviour, reassuring you that no parent is perfect. But the book isn’t about how to fix your parenting differences with your partner. Its real focus is on providing balanced, practical tools to help you deal with the everyday challenges your children present you with, helping your children become happy and self-reliant adults and maintaining a good connection with them throughout their lives.

The authors’ objective was to “find practical, tried and tested evidence” for a balanced (and effective) style of parenting. That they have formulated their own approach by bringing together existing research and parenting books makes me less inclined to feel lectured at and more inclined to take on board their advice. Parents are sensitive types when our methods of parenting are called into question! The commonsense approach may on occasion make you feel you’re being told what you already know, but this is in fact reassuring – it confirms that good parenting isn’t rocket science. What I like about this book is that it’s very easy to remember the practical advice and then apply it in those moments of need when anything more than simple coping strategies would fly from your mind.

The initial chapters on ‘preventative tools’ are fascinating. They look at how to parent ‘pre-emptively’ rather than ‘reactively’. This lies in recognising that children’s behaviour demonstrates their desire to gain control over their lives and achieve a sense of belonging. Understanding why children act as they do and how important our reactions are can help nip difficult behaviour in the bud before it flares up, as well as build a more positive, nurturing environment. The ‘What a child may be thinking’ sections in the book force you to step into their shoes and shine a torch on your own behaviour – not always a comfortable experience but nonetheless an invaluable, mind-changing insight. “It can be difficult to accept and admit”, write the authors, “that despite all the love we have for our children, we may be exacerbating their ‘mis’behaviour through our own reactions.”

Whilst the authors recommend reading the chapters on ‘preventative’ tools first, this doesn’t stop it being a book you can dip into and still find useful. There are practical tools throughout for dealing with different challenges and, as the authors say, the “beauty of this is that even if you were to read and apply just one tool alone, in isolation, you would be very likely to experience a significant and positive difference”. The final part of the book deals with troubleshooting the ‘top 20 parenting challenges’ (eg, refusing to cooperate, whining, taking too long to do everything – sound familiar?) and is a quick reference to the best tools to use. I can see myself filling this section with post-its.

Truth is, we can read as much about parenting as we like but if we don’t find the advice easy to put into practice then we might as well never have picked up the book. Kids Don’t Come With A Manual has taught me new tricks for managing situations that would have previously resulted in me losing my cool and spiraling into the ugly vortex that is Parental Guilt. I knew that some of my ‘techniques’ were far from satisfactory but this book has given me a deeper understanding of why they were failing. This new insight has provided the kick up the backside that I needed. I can honestly say I feel a long way towards being a calmer parent. Of course, the tantrums haven’t disappeared completely nor has my children’s hearing improved significantly but I can deal with everything more effectively and with a renewed determination to remain calm. (And, yes, I’m feeling a little bit proud of myself!)

If kids did come with a manual then this book would probably be it.

Kids Don’t Come With A Manual: The Essential Guide To A Happy Family Life by Carole and Nadim Saad, Best of Parent Publishing, paperback, £12.99 (Kindle £6.99)

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The unbearable heaviness of right and wrong

Clouds

Becoming a parent changes you in funny ways. You become more prone to tears – Christmas adverts always get me – and more susceptible to the cuteness of bunnies, kittens and videos of babies doing funny things. But there is also the other extreme. You can become hardened and more conservative with a lower case C. Wrongdoing and the ills of society become amplified and the overwhelming instinct to protect your offspring kicks in.

I’ve never been a supporter of the death penalty. There can be too much room for error and an eye for an eye isn’t a concept of justice that I feel comfortable with. It is with shock then that I sometimes find myself thinking – totally against my principles but entirely aligned with my instincts as a parent – “If you hurt my children then I will want to kill you”.

Watching the excerpt from film-maker Leslee Udwin’s documentary on the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012, my heart literally felt like it was being squeezed. I could hardly breathe. I wanted to cry. This wasn’t just anger and revulsion at what had happened but also despair at the evil humans are capable of. Then there was the lack of remorse from one of perpetrators of the attack. Can the human brain malfunction so fundamentally so as to not be able to recognise basic right from wrong? In the cold chill you’re left with, it makes you wonder what kind of world you have brought your children into.

Who should be blamed? Should it be the perpetrators’ parents? (Perish the thought I could bring up a child who could commit such an act.) Do the skewed views on women in a particular society make such behaviour acceptable or understandable? No. By shifting the blame we gift them a lack of responsibility. When it comes down to it, humans should know right from wrong. Regardless of what beliefs your society has bestowed on you, surely there must be something in every human mind – however small, however buried – that flickers to tell you that you are about to do something vile, something inhumane. To make someone cry for help, to rape, to murder is wrong. There is no way of justifying it and, ultimately, no one to blame other than the perpetrator.

I’ve always thought that the death penalty could potentially do society a huge disservice. What if the condemned person had gone on to do good? What if someone we executed had instead spent their life in prison searching for a cure for cancer and found it? That’s not an eye for an eye – that’s an eye for millions of eyes. Perhaps a far-fetched and unlikely scenario but it’s a valid point worth contemplating. Who are we to take that potential away?

Yet for this scenario to occur, someone needs to make a judgment call on whether a person should and could be rehabilitated. To judge how someone will feel or how much they can give back to society 5, 10, 50 years down the line can only be a guessing game. Sadly, Leslee Udwin’s documentary suggests that Jyoti Singh’s rapists weren’t going to sit in a prison for the rest of their lives feeling repentant, dwelling on how wrong their behaviour was. There is no punishment in that. Why then shouldn’t the death penalty be the most appropriate justice? There is nothing they can contribute to the world other than to fuel anger.

Of course, the death penalty is murder too – there is absolutely no getting around that. In an ideal world it simply wouldn’t exist as there is so much more wrong with it than there is right. But somewhere inside I still want to protect my children. I want to eradicate the world of people who can commit such acts as that in Delhi and who probably wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. It’s a frightening way to be made to feel and it creates an uneasy conflict in my own beliefs in what is right and wrong. I am unsettled by it and I am certainly not proud.

Take Me Out: a feminist’s dream?

ITV dating show

Take Me Out. It riles me. It grates with all my principles. It makes me feel embarrassed. Most of all, it makes me fear for the giant steps that women are currently making through campaigns such as This Girl Can and No More Page 3 (if you ignore the childish and aggressive behaviour of The Sun with regard to the latter). If I have these concerns then why do I continue to let my 6-year-old daughter watch Take Me Out? It’s all about the lessons she can learn.

“There’s a boy and a girl and if they switch their light off they don’t like him and then there’s one person left and they go on holiday to Fernando’s.” That’s how a child sums up the premise of Take Me Out, ITV’s 21st century (apparently) dating show. Simple, innocent, unquestioning. Of course, it’s great Saturday night entertainment and along with many other forms of entertainment where women aren’t given credit for having anything other than breasts, make-up and a desperate desire to meet Mr Right, many would say that it should just be treated as a bit of light-hearted fun. (Which brings us back to Page 3.) But as with many media portrayals deemed harmless and fun – think back to the racism in British TV shows in the 1970s – the potential for lasting damage, particularly on impressionable minds, is serious.

Why do I let my daughter watch it? Because her cranky mother with her feminist leanings sits next to her and provides a social commentary. Hands up – I enjoy the show. I enjoy it not because it makes me feel good about being a woman in 2015 but because of the constant amused disbelief it generates. It pleasurably raises my hackles and gives me full licence to pontificate to my daughter about everything that is wrong with the programme.

You shouldn’t judge people on their looks alone

In the last episode we watched, the majority of the girls switched off their lights on first sight of the man. What a blast to his self-esteem. We all form an immediate opinion of people based on first impressions – that’s normal – but we have to learn to recognise that shortfalling and then think beyond it.

“Won’t those girls who switched off their lights be really sad when they find out what a nice, interesting man he is?” I venture. Her argument was that the rules say you’re allowed to switch your light off in the first round – “No likey, no lighty, Mummy”. A rule’s a rule and I should probably be proud that she respects that.

It takes some effort to explain to a 6-year-old why it isn’t acceptable to judge someone based on how they look; they are still taking the first steps in developing empathy and mostly they are the centre of their own universe. Yet it doesn’t hurt to prod them in the ribs with a not-so-gentle reminder of how cruel TV ‘entertainment’ can be.

“Look mummy, she’s got trousers on”

As we watched the parade of girls at the beginning of Saturday’s show, I started to tut (quite rightly) about how they’d forgotten to put some of their clothes on. My daughter countered that the studio was probably quite hot. Fair point, but I went on to say how much better they would look dressed a little more … elegantly. My daughter told me that I’m not as stylish as the girls on Take Me Out. And they’re at least 20 years younger than me, dear daughter, and, as they are single and in all likelihood childless, they have a disposable income to deploy on looking ‘stylish’.

All is not lost though. When my daughter pointed out that one of the girls was actually wearing trousers (skin tight but at least no flesh on display) I congratulated myself with unashamed smugness that some of what I’ve preached might just be sinking in.

Fortunately, my 3-year-old son has no interest in Take Me Out. If he did then, yes, I would let him watch it too. And, yes, I would be equally keen to point out its inadequacies to him – perhaps with more vehemence than with my daughter. Part of that is that, whilst inequality continues, women are in dire need of help from men. It’s not up to women to fight alone but it will take more than Ed Miliband and Benedict Cumberbatch wearing t-shirts with slogans to force change from the roots up. Perhaps Take Me Out is another small step to educating the men and women of the future, providing we’re savvy enough to use all that is bad about it to do good.

2015: the year of channeling Elsa

Frozen

I like to have a New Year’s theme rather than resolutions. 2015 will be no different. But where to find a theme? It’s not until you have small children and are denied exposure to deep philosophical musings that you are by necessity forced to find meaning in Disney. Only when you reach this state can you consider adopting a song from Frozen as a mantra. And so it is that 2015 is the year of letting it go.

Thankfully, my daughter didn’t succumb to the Frozen obsession so I don’t tear my hair when Elsa lets rip on the mountainside. In fact, it still brings a tear to my eye as a good power ballad should. If I’m going down the song route for a theme, I could have adopted Ms Swift’s decision to ‘Shake It Off’ but quite frankly that’s something you do with dandruff or a nasty cold.

When 2015 makes me feel a bit arsey, I’m going to make the conscious decision to ‘let it go’. Or – as Gwynnie and Chris might put it – I’m going to consciously uncouple with anything that makes my hackles rise. This isn’t just about other people (and I’m thinking specifically of you here Man in Seat 11B). It’s about letting go of the self-inflicted time-wasting, procrastination and naval gazing that often sees me reach the end of a day having achieved very little at all. That can be a kingdom of isolation and it looks like I’m the queen. (Ahem.)

What else will I be focusing on?

LET IT GO: Checking Rightmove. An affliction of St Albans residents who are prone to an eternal preoccupation with house prices (when not worrying about school catchment areas). Rightmove searches simply confirm that (a) you don’t get much for your money here, and (b) that the truly rich really do have very little taste.

LET IT GO: Parental guilt. The Big One, often felt to be insurmountable. Letting go of this should not be confused with a lack of interest in your children or with allowing them to eat cheese strings and wear pyjamas to school every day. Letting go of parental guilt means not turning in/on yourself when your child doesn’t have anything planned for after school on a Wednesday and you don’t use that time to stuff their reading diary with Dostoevsky.

LET IT GO: Online groups for mums. Obviously I’m not referring to my hometown for our group is an unparalleled example of harmony and commonsense. If I were witness to any ugly online behaviour (which again I must stress I am not) from women with too much time on their hands, I would certainly be trying to let go of the overwhelming urge to bang their heads together.

There are some things that I will not be letting go of in 2015. First, my pelvic floor muscles. I’m still working on those (thanks kids) but fortunately I’m not in Elsa’s position of not being able to hold it back anymore. Secondly, myself. This New Year theme shouldn’t be confused with actually letting myself go (which is something I’ve pretty much done already and is thus no challenge).

On that note – as, with a mouthful of chocolate orange, you pour the residual Christmas booze down the sink before heading off down the gym – I wish you all a very Happy New Year and a calmer, less buttock-clenching 2015.

 

 

Flying with kids: a note to the man in seat 11B

plane travel

When you become a parent, you soon discover a lot of things that will make you feel really rubbish at your job. Sometimes it is your own children who wield this power but more often than not it’s other adults. I am writing this post whilst being made to feel like the most awful parent of the most terrible children in the world. As it is so raw, you must forgive any lack of compassion on my part. I’m not in the mood for putting myself in someone else’s shoes (or flight socks in this case). Being quite cross does that to you.

I am on a plane. A shortish flight of 5 hours. It is 7pm and the kids have been up for nearly 12 hours. The period before take-off is one of the trickiest parts of a flight for anyone shepherding small people. It’s that tortuous time when you’ve yet to fire up the iPads and have just realised that by packing the wrong flavor of crisps all hell will be set loose. What you don’t need at a moment like this is for the man in the row in front of you to ask to move seats. Before you’ve even left the ground.

So here are a few words to you, man in seat 11B. The words that thankfully won’t leave my mouth now that I’m placing them safely on paper.*

You don’t have children, do you? I don’t say that in a looking-down-at-you kind of way. I’m just stating the bleeding obvious. If you did then you would understand that overtiredness plus being strapped into a seat don’t make for a quiet child. You’d understand that telling me to take my child “for a walk” is going to wind me up. If you were a parent, I also doubt you’d have such a ludicrous hairstyle – adults learn that with the responsibility of children they have to grow up a bit. However much we might try to resist morphing into a grown-up, there are some ‘styles’ that just don’t cut it on the school run. Sorry to get personal with you but I take your reaction to my child very personally. Touché.

My 3-year-old may have shouted when I dared to produce those wrong crisps. He may have kicked the back of your chair. You may have overheard me tell him that he shouldn’t do that, but considering where your head seems to be firmly stuck I’m surprised you can hear a thing. Let me tell you, my friend – if you didn’t have your seat reclining then the little legs behind wouldn’t have been able to reach you so easily.

I thought perhaps you’d asked to move because your seat was broken. (I kindly gave you the benefit of the doubt and was prepared to tolerate having your ridiculous hair-do and incessant nose-clearing in my lap for the whole journey.) This turned out not to be the case as your seat was fine when the cabin crew asked you to put it upright. That you put it straight back down again as the woman walked away is testimony to your arrogance. I wonder whether you would have done the same if it had been an adult rather than a child behind you. Not that I’m questioning your manhood. Perhaps you think you need your seat reclining because you are so generously endowed in that respect. But I’ll hold back from any further comment on what/where/who is the enormous c*ck.

So whilst you appear not to like my children, there are – I know you’ll find it hard to believe – quite a lot of things that I don’t like about you. I’m tempted to make the remaining four hours of your journey hellish. Fortunately for you the kids are now firmly plugged into their entertainment and no amount of bribery could entice them away to scream in your ear or perform the 1812 Overture with their feet on your seat (which is still reclining). I do hope though that one day you will be on a plane with your children and someone will ask to move away from you. You might feel rather small and remember that once upon a time you were a bit of an ar*e. For the moment I think I’ll just read a dinosaur book quite loudly – I really hope I don’t wake you.

* Postscript: After much huffing and head-turning on the part of the man in seat 11B (or Mr Nobby Nobhead as I now call him), my son accidentally jogged his chair and sparked a full-on row. I don’t say boo to a goose so it takes some provocation for me to shout at or argue with a stranger. Suffice to say, my suspicions were confirmed – the man in seat 11B is indeed an idiot.