Tuesday, 31 January 2012

In Praise of Good Behaviour

I am awash with parenting books at the moment.  None of which are making the blindest bit of difference, I should point out, other than rendering me more confused and exhausted than I already was.  Which is saying something.
First up is Divas and Dictators (by Charlie Taylor)  which is great, and promises to give me well behaved children, but THERE’S SO MUCH IN IT, I’m really not sure where to begin.  Do we do one behaviour-changing tactic, or all or them? Why isn’t there a chapter titled: “What to do if your child is FOUL at home but remarkably sweet when you are not around”?  But I tried to get into the spirit of it, and so got all crafty and creative at the weekend and made this:
What do you mean, “what is it?” -  it’s a Good Behaviour Snake, OBVIOUSLY.  (And as you can see, with every sticker he earns, we get to drink a bottle of wine – we LOVE the GBS). As instructed by the book I involved the Boy, asking him what little treats he wanted along the way, to encourage him on what I assumed would otherwise be a verrrrrry slow rise up to the Snake’s head.  It quickly became obvious that I needed to rail-road all of his suggestions – a HUGE car! A GUN to kill foxes! - and inserted ones I might actually get around to providing;  however, I did concede power on the big reward. 
“I want a dinosaur!” 
“And a dinosaur you shall have, my ferocious little fellow. Let go of my leg.”
“A BIG dinosaur!” 
“A BIG dinosaur with buttons that go ROOOOARGH when you press them!”
“Um, ok...” (surely the Natural History Museum will have one of those?)
“A BIG dinosaur with buttons that go ROOOOARGH when you press them AND A SPACE SHIP and he climbs in the spaceship and says ROOOOARGH and FLIES TO SPACE and EATS THE MOON!”
He is absolutely dead set on this – it was the first thing he mentioned this morning - so if anyone has any idea where I might find one please let me know.
Initially the GBS was intended to improve his behaviour towards the Girl.  I have a horror of him bullying her, and tend to overreact at any non-gentle interaction between them, so figured that maybe a GBS might be able to help.  Plus D&Ds counsels against using a sticker chart for general good behaviour – it needs to be specific. 
The Man however doesn’t think that he’s particularly bad in his behaviour to the Girl, and there are other areas we need to focus on.  So we colour-coded Mr Snake and now have three categories of behaviour, for his three worst habits:  Shouting, screaming, throwing and generally being angry (he now must use his Big Boy voice to communicate);  throwing food, wandering away from the table mid-eating, and refusing to feed himself (“Sit nicely at table”, which includes not throwing food and must feed himself); and being nice to the Girl. 
This is where things have started to go a bit Pete Tong.  We either give him a sticker every time he manifests any good behaviour in these categories – in which case we’ll both be pissed by lunchtime and I need to find a moon-eating space-travelling T-Rex today – or we hand out three stickers once a day upon contemplation of the day’s behaviour.  Which isn’t exactly the instant reward that a 3-yr-old needs.  As a result, three days in, both the Boy and I are bored of the GBS, the Boy wants his dinosaur NOW, and actually I’m tempted just to get him one (wherever it might be), because if I have to listen to “I caaaaaaaaaaaaaan’t waaaaaaaaaaaaaaait” one more time, I’ll be taping him to the wall and covering his shouty gob with wine stickers. 
And this is why I’m such a crap parent - because I’m totally unable to do anything properly, don’t follow things through, and fall at the first hurdle. 
If only we lived in Paris!  Yes, I too am reading French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman, which is a bit of a media darling at the moment.  At the risk of isolating myself from every other commentator, while it’s well-written and clearly alot of work went into it, I’m finding it a bit of a drag really.  I was all into it for the first few chapters, but now it just reads like a litany of everything I’m doing wrong.  (Although in my defence, we were – and still are – pretty French when it comes to their sleep (for which read: if they cry at night we mutter OhFuckOff and roll over) and as a result their behaviour between 730pm and 745am is pretty exemplary.  It’s just the other 12 hours that we continuously cock up.) I can’t help feeling that it’s too late to start introducing most of the concepts laid out in it to the Boy, although I’ll admit that really, I just can’t be arsed.  And reading about how brilliant the Parisians are is starting to piss me off.
I started The Idle Parent, by Tom Hodgkinson, and while I can see the merits in his arguments, I get all eye-rolley and spluttery when I imagine the carnage that would result if I was to let my kids basically do what they wanted.
And so my final hope for toddler salvation is the eminently wise and utterly brilliant Win the Whining War & other Skirmishes, by Cynthia Whitman (which seems to be unavailable in the UK, so I had to order a second-hand copy from the US, and waited for what felt like months. Where did I hear about it?  Well funny you should ask;  a complete stranger approached me in the park when the Boy was having a... moment (a very very LOUD moment) and recommended it.  Oh the shame. But thank you for your interjection, kind lady;  it’s not the easiest things to tell a stranger that they’re fucking up and I appreciate it.) This instructs me to ignore bad behaviour and praise-praise-praise good behaviour.  In this regards it’s very like Divas and Dictators, however actually tells you how to ignore.  (By contrast the famous Dr Green – author of Toddler Taming, and he of the tying his kids’ bedrooms shut fame – just says “Ignore Them” over and over again, which isn’t much help if they’re throttling their sibling / stealing a teenager’s skateboard / nicking packets of crisps off a shelf in a deli and spreading the contents all over the floor (all of which happened on Sunday afternoon).)
Anyway, all the experts are agreed that praising is the key to changing kids’ behaviour.  D&D says I have to give six – SIX! – pieces of praise for every one bit of criticism.  Which is a bit much, if you ask me.  How about two gentle words for every shouty one, and one of these, which so far has been a winning solution in our household:
Chocolate nut cookies*
You need:  (For a VAST amount of cookies)
  • 125g softened butter
  • 225g any type of sugar 
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract, optional
  • 1 egg
  • 30g Cocoa (or more if you like it chocolatey)
  • 175g plain or self-raising flour (if plain, add a couple of pinches of baking soda or powder)
  • Two large bars of chocolate, any type, roughly chopped up into big chunks
  • 150g nuts (or whatever sized bag you have), any type, roughly chopped 
Preheat the oven to 180C / gas 4.
Beat the butter, sugar and vanilla in a bowl until smooth, then beat in the egg.  
Stir in the flour and the cocoa, then add the chocolate and nuts.
If you have the time, stick the dough in the fridge for a while – at least an hour, preferably two. (Otherwise just go ahead and bake them.  Cooling them helps to stop them from spreading so much, so you get more chew and less crunch.)
Scoop up a tablespoon full and place on a baking tray lines with non-stick paper;  space the dough about an inch and a half apart.  
Cook in the oven for about 12 mins (maybe a bit more, depending on your oven). 
When they first come out of the oven they’ll still be soft, but they harden as they cool.
If you are lucky enough not to have to hand them out as rewards or bribes, they’ll last for a few days in a biscuit tin.  
Serve while telling your children how great it is that they’re sitting at the table, you like very much how they’re not flicking milk at each other, and if they can please put their willy in their pants (him) and stop eating marbles (her), that would be great, thanks.

(*It used to say "adapted, barely, from Dan Lepard" but then I was told by people from Dan Lepard's website that the recipe was copyrighted, so I did what all cooks** do (even, I'd imagine, Mr Lepard himself) and I took the basis of the recipe and played around with it and changed it, and frankly, made it nicer. Just as well really I didn't do what I nearly did when the battery on my camera went, and pinch his picture...)

(**Not that I consider myself a cook, but you know what I mean.)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Sh*t My Children Say

By children, I mean the Boy, mainly.  The Girl has yet to cotton on to this whole speaking thing.  She’s still a huge fan of the gallic shrug, and its related God-You’re-Stupid glare, but her linguistic skills are limited.  To her already meagre repertoire of “wow” and “thiiiissss”, she has – 5 months on – added: “yes”, “apple-juice” and “no” (actually “nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnO!”).  We have most fun with yes - “yeth!” – which she says with so much glee and positivity, in response to anything you ask her, no matter how mundane (“Did you sleep well?” “YETH!”;  “Would you like some apple juice?” “YETH!! APPELJOOOOS!”; “Do you despair at having me as your parent?” “YETH!”).
The Boy tho’ – a whole different kettle of fish.  Seriously, the stuff that comes out of him. I blame nursery and children with older siblings.  (And, perhaps – perhaps - myself.) 
So, sh*t he’s said in the past few days, which have caused me to pause and blink:
“Oh Mummy, why are you so narky?”
“Nobody cares about me, bloody bloody hell.”
“What are you doing Mummy?”  (I gave him a look generally reserved for the Man, assuming it was obvious to anyone but a blind man – one with no sense of smell - that I was changing the Girl’s nappy.) Pause. “Are you just doing your best?”
“Do I have a girlfriend?”
“Daddy has bigger boobs than you Mummy.” [I’m not sure who was more upset at that remark, the Man or me.]
[Unable to open his seat-belt] “Oh for Chrissake.”

“Man?  MAN! Why your dog has such a silly face?” [To a dog-owning stranger in the park.  He had a point however; the mutt was no Lassie.]
“Mummy, why do girls and ladies and mummies have fu-ginas and boys and men and daddies don’t?”
And possibly the worst – to my ears anyway:  “I want to eat MEAT.”
In fairness this last one wasn’t entirely apropos nothing;  the Man was eating a sandwich with meat in it, and the Boy was grazing.  “Why can’t I have the bit in the middle?”  “Because there’s meat in it.”  “Give it to me.” “No.  You don’t eat meat.  “I WANT IT!” “No.” “I WANT TO EAT MEAT.”
When he was born I decided we agreed that he could choose to eat meat if he wanted to when he was 4.  Back then, with his plucked-chicken limbs and wobbly head, he was never ever going to be a sturdy four year old. But suddenly it isn’t that far off, so I’ve exercised my entirely unreasonable prerogative and declared that he can choose at 7.  (My reasoning is, I suspect, based on the philosophy of the Jesuits: Give me a child until he’s 7 and I’ll give you the man.)  But now he’s gone and beaten me to it!  What to do?
Hardcore indoctrination, obviously.
The ensuing conversation went as follows:
“Well you can eat meat if you want, but I don’t think you should.”
“But why?”
“Because it’s animals that have been killed and chopped up and then people gobble up all the bits.  Which is awful because there are lots of other things we can eat instead.”
“Why do people gobble them all up?”
(Before I could answer the Man interjected:  “Because they taste FANTASTIC!”)
“Yes Mummy, they taste ANFASTIC!”
“Yes, but still it’s an animal which has been killed,  just so you can eat it.  Which isn’t nice.  And there’s no reason to eat meat, because we can eat lots and lots of other things.”
“What other things?”
“Well... Pasta and cheese and risotto and fish* and...”  - sensing that he wasn’t entirely convinced – “...sweets and chocolate and crisps.”
To which both children replied in unison: “YETH!” and were duly rewarded with certain of the aforementioned foodstuffs in reward for their staunchly held non-meat-eating principles.
Another minor victory this week was getting – with no persuasion whatsoever - the Boy to eat soup.  But not just any soup – this soup, nabbed from Hugh FW’s "Veg Everyday" book.  It’s a thing of sublime beauty.  And it’s not just me who thinks so. (“Oooh Mummy, this is de-lish-us.  Please can I have another bowl?”  Enough said.)
Curried Sweet Potato Soup (adapted, slightly, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Who really should rename it - “Curried Sweet Potato” just sounds so... blah, doesn’t it?  It doesn’t do the soup justice at all, which would be more accurately described as tangy coconut-y citrus-y soup.  With sweet potato.)

You need (for a big pot, at least 6 bowls):
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 or 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • A lump of ginger as big as your thumb, chopped fairly finely
  • A quarter of a red chilli chopped  (Actually, HFW calls for 1-2 red chillies.  If I was making this for adults only, I’d use between half and one red chilli.  For kids, I think err on the low side, but a teeny bit gives it a nice lift. Of course if hot spice is your thing, then adjust accordingly.
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 3 large / 5-6 small sweet potatoes (about 700g), peeled and cut into 1 inch dice.  (If you don’t have enough sweet potatoes, make up the difference with carrots.)
  • 1 litre veg stock
  • A handful of coriander, chopped
  • Juice of at least 1 lime (I find 2 gives it the zing I like)
  • 400ml tin of coconut milk
Glug some cooking oil in a pan and when hot add the chopped onions, leaving to cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes.  Stir occasionally and turn the heat down if they start to brown – you want them soft, not crisp. 
When soft, add the spices, ginger, garlic and chilli. Leave for another few minutes, before adding the sweet potatoes.  Stir well to cover in the spice mixture, then add the hot stock.  Bring to a boil, and reduce to simmer. 
When the sweet potatoes are soft – about 15 mins – add the chopped coriander, then liquidise the soup with whatever liquidising instrument you have, until smooth.  Add the tin of coconut milk, and the juice of one lime and stir well.  Taste, and add more lime juice and salt and pepper, as suits you.
Serve with anything.  As long as it’s not meat.

(*Fish don’t count... [I know, I know....])

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

How to Suck Eggs (not Soothers)

Remember the last line of the previous post?  On the off-chance (ahem) that you don’t, I mentioned jinxing myself.
As soon as I typed that, the Gods of Jinxdom’s wee ears pricked up with glee and they set furiously to work, throwing shit at me from all sides.  First, a day into my detox, I started to feel a bit shaky (more shaky than your average puritanical vegan).  Then my throat started to tingle.  Within a few hours my throat was ON FIRE and over the next several days alternated between fire, a nest of hornets, and shards of glass.  Everything I ate (good, wholesome, Moby-esque food) was like swallowing bubbling lava.  So I summonsed the babysitter and took to my bed for a day. 
To punish me for this (and bearing in mind that my day of convalescence had no effect whatsoever on my ill-health) the Boy picked up a bug at nursery which he used for Show and Tell at home on Friday.  Actually, it was more Show and Yell.  At one point he was lying – writhing – on the bed beside me, moaning and occasionally shrieking (when he remembered to).  He was a pitiful sight and I, his mother, should hence have been filled with pity.  Instead he just pissed me off, moaning things like “rub my tummeeeeee”, purely because he could see that I was typing (once I started to rub his tummeeeee, I was severely told off for making him “uncomfeeeee”).
Sometimes I suspect I don’t have the wiring needed to be a decent mother.
My bad luck was exacerbated by the sudden and shocking realisation that 3 solid years of sleeping with his Soo Soo (a soother) has resulted in very very wonky toddler teeth.  This realisation manifested itself when the Boy stood beside me in the bathroom, copying my anti-septic gargling;  looking down at him I had a bird’s eye view of his open  gob and got such a shock that I swallowed several ounces of dettol.  Uuuugh. Clearly, poor Soo Soo had to go.  Luckily, the Soo Soo fairies were partying in town that night so they swung by in the early hours and relieved me of future enormous orthodontistry bills him of his symmetry-destroying mouth-piece.  The fall-out has been immense, the replacement gift adored by day, but spurned come bed-time, when the only thing that will suffice is a packet of immodium his beloved Soo Soo.  His daytime nap has vanished, lost to the waves of grief, and night time brings a cacophony of bizarre songs (eg: “You are my Soo Soo”, sung to the tune of “You are my Sunshine”;  when he gets to: “Please don’t take my Soo Soo awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay” there isn't a dry eye in the house.)
Nevertheless, throughout the throat, sleep and shit-torment, I struggled on with my detox.  I know - what a wally.  With each glass-shard-filled mouthful I battled forward, convinced of my eventual bounty.  In fact, I just got sicker and sicker.  Finally, I caved, and had – horror! – a great big bowl of DAIRY-FILLED porridge.  And then later, some risotto.  Made with WHITE rice (not to mention the butter and parmesan [ohsweetnectaroftheGods]).  Strangely, the breadsticks dipped in olive oil I had didn’t cause me to shriek in pain; nor the cheese-on-toast; nor the litre of hot-chocolate... Instead all were soothing and caressing and veritably cajoling my poor swollen tonsils as they slipped past.
And so, on the orders of Dr Google, I am forsaking my detox until I am well enough to partake in it once more.  All hopes of glamour and glowing rude health at the mega-birthday-bash on Saturday have been abandoned, but at least there’s now a chance that I might actually make it there, instead of wasting away at home, a gaunt pale figure body attached to an enormous pair of tonsils. 
The following is what I credit with having saved me:

I feel all Delia, teaching people how to boil eggs.  But because it’s very easy to cock porridge up, most people tend to think it’s pretty revolting.
It is, in fact, a thing of great beauty.  And piss-easy to make.  There are two tricks to it.  Firstly, used cheapo, finely cut rolled porridge oats – the own-brand stuff sold in 500g packets in supermarkets.  Organic oats, while no doubt of preferred provenance,  are too chewy and don’t soften enough.  Secondly, cook it slowly (“slow” meaning 7 minutes or so), in a pot.  None of your microwave nonsense.  And that is it.  Oh, the proportions are important too, so I might as well just write out the recipe.
Restorative Porridge
You Need (for two medium bowls):
  • One cup’s worth of finely cut porridge oats (you’ll know they’re finely cut if there’s what looks like flour at the bottom of the in the bag)
  • Two cup’s worth of milk – any type. (I used skimmed, but would actually recommend semi- or whole milk)
Tip the oats and the milk into a pan.  Put over a low heat and leave, stirring occasionally, to come to the boil (about 7 mins). Stir rapidly when it does, and serve straight away. 
That’s it! No salt or sugar or the dew from early-morning Highland bracken.  Bye-bye watery gruel eaten in your thread-bare gaberdeen, hello tiny angels of joy singing from within...
You might want a topping, for which I always recommend a dollop of yoghurt and either jam or honey.  I find the yoghurt gives it a sharpness and breaks down any gloop element of the porridge.  You’ll see that I got all fancy today and had honey, banana and nuts.  That was purely because I was taking a photo of it.  Usually it’s just jam and yoghurt.  Either way, it’s bloody delicious. 
Wan, hoarse vegans, take note...

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

2012 - Hold on to your Hats!

Suddenly, it’s almost the middle of January, and the New Year is galloping off out of sight. I can’t be exactly sure how that happened, although I suspect it might have had something to do with NO NURSERY, and alot of Very Questionable Parenting.  For FOUR WEEKS. 
I am weary, as my grandmother used to say.
Anyway, it being the first post of the year, I’d like to wish you all a very very happy,  eventful and adventurous one (if you have the energy for either events or adventure;  or even, come to think of it, for happiness).  At the very least, I hope you all get a break from parenting, questionable or otherwise, now and again.
In the brief pockets of time I’ve had to myself over the past month (now, for instance, while the Man is cooking me dinner;  and yesterday while the Boy was glued to Toy Story 3 and the Girl was examining the contents of her lady-bum) I’ve been ruminating on New Year Resolutions.  I have been advised by many people, wiser than I, to avoid them or, at the very least, to resolve to do something I quite like doing anyway. Which I think sort of defeats the purpose somewhat.  And doesn’t give me anything to beat myself up about when I realise in February May that they’ve all fallen apart.  This is what I’ve come up with so far:
Speak more slowly to the kids.  To the Boy in particular.  It struck me over the holidays that the Man and I talk at a million miles an hour, and cram way too much information into what should in fact be relatively simple instructions. (Eg:  “Comeandputyourshoesonyourblueshoeswhichareunderthesofawehavetogettotheshopsnowquickcomeonputthemonwhyarentyoulistening” – in the same amount of time it would take a normal person to say:  “Put on your shoes now”).  Perhaps it’s not so much that the Boy doesn’t listen to us, rather that he can’t make head nor tail of what we’re saying.  It also has the added bonus of keeping me (somewhat) calm:  it’s near impossible to lose your rag if you’re talking like a record set at 33rpm (try it and see;  at best you just sound like an aggravated village idiot). 
The downside – apart from sounding retarded – is that I’m virtually unable to switch from slooooooooooooooooooowwwww taaaaaaaaaaaaaalk to normal talk at the end of the day.  So the Man is subjected to kiddie-speak for the time it takes me to down a G&T, by the end of which I’m usually back up to speed.  Literally.  
Stop travelling with the kids so much.  This came to me when we were in Sweden for Christmas.  And again when we were in Dublin, a week later.  And then again when we were away for the weekend the day after we got back from Dublin.  It creates way too much laundry and ill-temper, and leaves me broke and exhausted and confused.  The kids love it, of course, because while travelling, they exist largely on a diet of lollipops, dvds and staying up late.  I do not like any of these things and tend to not like the children very much during this time either.  In the interests of maternal mental stability harmony, I shall be culling all non-essential family travel in 2012. 
Detox for a week at some point this month. I have to be careful about this one – the last two times I’ve done it, I’ve found self in the family way not long soonafter.  It’s not a crazy cabbage-soup detox nonsense – just no alcohol, no sugar, no salt, no wheat, no animal products... Basically, I become a very very dull vegan for a few days.  I’m hopeful however that I’ll get organised enough to make it a bit more interesting this year (by the cunning addition of crack cocaine!  Ok, maybe not);  I got two fantastic cookery books as gifts over Christmas – this one and this one – and I LOVE them both.  The plan - just as soon as I’ve finished all the biscuits in the house - is to create a 2 7-day food plan using no-alcohol no-sugar etc etc recipes from both of them, and surround self with fruit and nuts, so I don’t  have the opportunity to lapse.  Then, just in time for my friend’s mega birthday bash at the end of the month, I will prise myself from my vegan sugar-free cocoon, lithe and lovely and (ready to become a) lush...  
Abandon, for good, all thoughts of getting the kids a puppy.  I occasionally toy with this crazy notion, usually on my return from the park when the kids have been falling over every mangy mutt which crosses their path.  So it was with joy and excitement that I skipped over to Ireland with them last week, giddy with the anticipation of their meeting their grandparents’ new canine addition.  Noone warned me, however, that puppies are basically furry, scratchy, bitey toddlers. In fact, they comprise the very worst elements of toddlerdom, with added teeth and claws. This dog – beautiful tho' he was – whined and cried and chewed and pissed ALL DAY LONG.   At one point I heard the Girl screeching blue murder and looked down to see him trying to, ahem, make love to her... I’m not sure who was more traumatised – the Girl, crouching, shaking and dishevelled, or the puppy – hauled up by the ears and thrown the length of the room, mid-hump. Anyway, the whole experience gave me the reality check I needed about introducing any further chaos into our lives, so puppies ‘r’ not us.  Not this (or next) year anyway.
And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.  Do let me know, however,  if there’s anything obvious I’ve missed, or which you think could add a layer of interest to what is, 11 days in, panning out so far as quite a dull year.  Talk about jinxing myself...