Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Our Favourite Reads: Seventh Edition

Back again after a long absence is the latest in a series of posts about all of my favourite children's books that come through the house. With weekly trips to the library, I suppose you'd expect more of these, but then, I've tried to save these posts for the absolute best of the best. So it gives a real thumbs up to this edition's authors that their books have brought back my once regular efforts.

The Emily Brown books are brilliant. My hat is off to Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton. The illustrations are cute, and the formulaic writing is brilliant. There's a great repetition of sounds and sentence structures that's perfect for toddlers, no made-up or intentionally misspoken words (my one gripe about the Charlie & Lola books), and a great picture of a child's imaginary worlds (Emily and her rabbit Stanley go into outer space, search for the source of the Nile, and scooba dive off the Great Barrier Reef).

In Elephant Emergency Emily Brown and Stanley go on adventures with their friend Matilda, but Matilda's Mummy keeps calling their emergency telephone. Only problem? She's not calling about emergencies. Emily Brown is at the end of her tether when she is the one with an emergency and Matilda's Mummy is unavailable!

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown involves a spoiled queen who insists on having Emily's stuffed rabbit Stanley all for herself. Emily Brown rebuffs offers from the queen's Footman, Army, Navy, and Air Force, but the queen is insistent. In the end, it's up to Emily Brown to teach her an important lesson about toys.

I've loved these books from the minute they came back with us. Ethan can already tell me how Emily Brown puts the emergency telephone back on its cradle, and knows to recite the rat-a-tat-tat on the garden door when the queen's henchmen come to call. These are the sort of books that know their target audience well & will stretch them to learn new words & phrases with ease. I'm already resolved that the boys will have their own copies of these before the year is out.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Tech and Toddlers

Alright, I have to jump in now. Particularly as I definitely have a dog in this fight (disturbing as that metaphor is).

As evidenced by the fact that I'm currently on my laptop blogging (as I listen to a podcast playing Just A Minute from BBC's Radio 4), I'm definitely in the camp of people who have a positive attitude towards technology. I have a laptop, we have a desktop, I have a smartphone, and at Christmas we bought a tablet. And guess what? Horror of horrors, I let my 2 1/2-year-old son play with some of these things. He watches Toy Story and Cars on our home computers, I've loaded up episodes of Sarah & Duck on long car trips when Ethan gets bored and irritable, and he has his own user on the tablet to play puzzle games.

So, when I saw this nonsense on the Huffington Post, I had to take a look. To be frank: it's scaremongering. It's reactionary, misleading, and - while well-intentioned - not helpful. I seriously side-eye anyone whose academic rigor is so lacking that they can reductively blame modern technology use, wholesale, for delayed development, epidemic obesity, sleep deprivation, and mental illness. All of those things are much more complex issues than Cris Rowan made them sound in her article. Not to mention, she didn't even make a good case for a causal relationship between heightened technology use by children and any of these conditions. Thankfully, the HuffPo gave airtime to another article which addressed a lot of these points. (Incidentally, most of their rebuttals boil down to Rowan's repeated confusion of correlation and causation and ignoring third-party issues in order to make a stronger case.)

To indulge in a bit of anecdotal evidence: I remember as a kid when we got our first PC. It was a Commodore 64, and I must have been about 6 years old when my dad first set it up on our first floor landing outside of my parents' bedroom. A short time later - after a few games of Jet Boot Jack - the Commodore died and we got a Compaq Presario. My sister and I played all sorts of games on it (including my favourite PC game ever), most of which - if I'm being fair - weren't overtly educational. Sure, I learned how to type properly with that computer: I learned to use the Microsoft Office Suite back when most computers still ran Windows 3.1 (feel old yet?). I learned how to surf the internet and use a search engine on that computer, but mostly it felt like a toy. When I was 14 or 15, my grandfather bought me a Gateway and I did my summer AP assignments on it. I learned to navigate the infancy of social media: chat rooms, MySpace, and AIM. I never realised until later that my years of typing, chatting, surfing, pointing, and clicking had given me useful skills for the workplace and for keeping up meaningful relationships with friends and family half a world away.

And yet, I still got outside, climbed trees, rode bikes, rollerbladed around the car park pretending to be a drive-thru waitress with my best friend, held footraces down our close, and developed the best pitching arm of all the kids on our street...even including the boys in little league. While I never got to keep my tech in my room (beyond my stereo, that is), I never had restrictions on its usage. My mother saw me use it for play and for school. I still did my homework, practised my music, and kept up a healthy social life.

I expect that my boys will be able to do the same. Sure, they're much more inundated with advanced electronics and technology from an earlier age than I was, but that doesn't automatically mean that they're doomed to be obese, lethargic, attention deficit, violent addicts. To suggest a ban on these technologies is irresponsible. Does my son need his own tablet? No. He's two. That's why he only has occasional use of the family device. But should I be restricting all watching of Disney DVDs and CBeebies on iPlayer? No. He needs to be taught responsible consumption of media from an early age. Being allowed small portions of fun things - while it may bring on tantrums when it's time to put toys or tablet away - will help him to mature and learn. He'll learn what my rules are. He'll learn that every activity has its place. He'll learn that throwing a tantrum won't get him what he wants and that disappointment is a part of life that we all deal with.

But do you know what else my sons will learn from being trained on technology from a young age? They'll learn how to do research; something that their historian mother knows is an invaluable skill for school, university, and life beyond. They'll learn STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, maths). With a mechanical engineer for a father - someone who is himself a STEM ambassador at work - we'd be remiss if we kept them from being able to easily develop the sort of skills my husband uses every day in his job. They'll be technologically literate, which is so important; but here's the thing: it won't be at the sacrifice of their social, emotional, physical, or mental development.

Unless you want to move onto a commune or join an Amish community, there's little escape from technology these days. Yes: it's always good to take the time to unplug and unwind, but an outright ban just tilts the ship too far in the other direction. For every stereotype of children using smartphones at the dinner table, or parents distractedly yelling at children while playing Angry Birds or checking Facebook, or overweight children parked on the sofa with cheese puffs and Call of Duty, there are responsible people. People who teach their children limits, as well as technological prowess. Who see smartphones, iPods, tablets, and PCs for what they ought to be: tools to navigate life in the modern world rather than crutches or babysitters.

The real key is to teach balance. To teach healthy respect for handheld tech as a tool: something that makes our lives easier...not something that is our life. Rowan's ostrich-like attitude, her reactionary totalitarian tactic - the ban - isn't helping anyone. It's not helping the children who need to be exposed to technology to learn how to navigate the world around them, and it's not helping the adults who need to be taught healthy limits and self-regulation. And if we're saying that these people who use the TV to babysit their children, or who can't tear themselves away from Candy Crush Saga long enough to be an engaged parent are exactly the reason Rowan calls for a ban, then guess what? Big Brother hand-holding, draconian restrictions, and fearmongering aren't the way to improve them as people.

Of course there will always be people who have the requisite personality and skills to overcome a generational divide in technology adoption, but why bet on your child having the ability to jump an unnecessary hurdle? Teach computer skills and responsible media consumption in the same way that you teach them how to read, how to share, or how to show good manners: early and often.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Stylish Little Men: Elias and Grace

So it's been absolutely ages since I did one of my Stylish Little Men posts. With two little men to dress now, I thought it was time to bring it back; especially when I spotted the cute duds at Elias and Grace - courtesy of a blog post on Babyccino Kids.

I will say this, though: this particular edition is more of a mood board than anything else. Don't get me wrong - it's adorable stuff! But when you can spend £30 on a pair of baby leggings (WTF?) and £80 on a toddler's jumper, it's time to admit that the prices have no basis in reality. I haven't spent £80 on a jumper for me! Let alone someone who will outgrow it in 6-months and get wee, porridge, vomit, and Nutella on it in the meantime.

1) A t-shirt and jean shorts is always a good way to go. Stain-friendly and low-maintenance without looking babyish.
2) Oh look! It's the £80 jumper and a pair of jeans. Seriously. If I'm paying £80 for a jumper for my toddler, I want it to wash itself, and perhaps be made of mithril so it never wears through or snags on the car seat clips or swings at the playground. At least the Breton stripe is a good place to start, style-wise.
3) Olive khaki is a brilliant colour for a coat. It's the sort of piece that means that even when your kid does decide to dress themselves, they never have to look like they dressed themselves.
4) A button-down cardigan is a great piece. And, provided it's not a filthy day at the playground, it can be dressed up or down for just about any sort of day out.
5) Striped t-shirts are lovely, and putting the stripes on a diagonal on the breast pocket is a nice touch.
6) When it comes to the littler boys, a side-button onesie is a great idea. For sick days and doctor's trips, having the option to get them undressed without having to fight to get things over a sweet little melon-head is great. Plus, with leggings, all but the most explosive of nappy changes can be accomplished without sacrificing an entire outfit.

For now, though, I'm back to finishing Hot Fuzz before walking the boys to the health visitors' clinic and a trip to the playground.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Mommy Mondays: Changing Weather

Thanks to my mother-in-law, I got a lovely day off last week to do some shopping for myself while she looked after the boys.

The only new item here is the skirt. With the weather finally shaping up to be nice again, it felt good to pick up a few things. The skirt is an H&M basic, so it was only about £7 in the end. H&M is brilliant for inexpensive basics like the stretchy skirt, tank tops, cardigans, and leggings. Also, it's the best place I've found over here for jeans - both normal and maternity. Usually jeans shopping is a pain, but knowing now that H&M have cuts that fit my shape makes the whole thing a breeze.

It's been fun lately trying on new looks with my chambray top. I'd been meaning to get one for ages. It's a brilliant neutral to mix & match with different things. I like the idea of dressing it up with the skirt for family things at church or a date night. I'll have to see both of those pieces in other outfits as the weather keeps improving. Especially as we have a get-away planned with my parents to the coast!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Some Thoughts on Vaccinations

In general over the past few years, and more frequently in recent weeks, I've seen plenty of articles in my Twitter and Facebook feeds about various facets of the anti-vaccination campaign and its consequences; it's proponents, detractors, and controversies. Now, considering that I took my lovely 9-week old boy to get his first round of vaccinations earlier this week at our GP's office, it's pretty damn obvious where I stand in regards to all this nonsense. But, without name-calling or vitriol, I want to spell out my position and the reasons behind it.

To start with a fairly inflammatory statement on purpose: if your kids aren't vaccinated, don't expect them to play with my boys. This has nothing to do with me crucifying your character based on one decision you make for your family. I'm a parent too: I get the very natural impulse to reduce risk for your children. You love them. You want the best for them. But here's the thing: the diseases we're vaccinating against are so much worse than the temporary discomfort of an injection, a slight post-immunisation fever, or the slim possibility of complications. We as a society have lost sight of just how awful diseases like mumps, measles, and rubella are precisely because we've been so effectively protected against them for so long by vaccines and the resultant herd immunity they give us.

If your kid is one of the few who is likely to suffer ill effects, by all means, take the advice of people who have been trained in this understanding of the world around us and skip the vaccines. But for those who are simply exercising their right to disagree & do their own poor research...I'm not exposing my kids to the risk of disease because you want to conscientiously object to science. Thanks. It's a bit like a seatbelt, in my opinion: you put it on every time and hope against hope that you never experience a car crash where you need to use it. Likewise, I vaccinate my sons and hope that their immunity is never tested by being exposed to someone who actually carries polio or rubella.

I'm not going to enumerate all of the science behind the vaccine debate: other people have done that far better than me - among them Dr. Steven Novella - and so I'd just pass their work along for reference.

So yes: a few of the articles I've linked to will resort to words like 'wing-nut' or 'nut job' or 'loon'. Despite their (to me) understandable, but unfortunate choice of words, I think the points still stand.

But why, you may be asking, aren't there any good sources on anti-vaccination? Why nothing from the Natural News or a health & wellness site? Well, for the simple reason that not all evidence is created equal. I'd like to refer to the brilliantly concise site Your Logical Fallacy Is... to pinpoint just some of the problems I often see with the anti-vax argument:

False Cause: otherwise known as "correlation doesn't equal causation", this conflates two independent phenomena. Just because the noticeable signs of autism coincide with the current vaccination schedule, it doesn't mean vaccines cause autism.

Straw Man: misrepresenting one person's argument to make it easier to argue against. This one tends to take the form of a misunderstanding of scientific principles.

Bandwagoning: or the appeal to popularity. In the anti-vaccination articles I've read, this tends to work in the opposite form. It's not your usual, Nancy Reagan style peer pressure scenario: "everyone's doing it, Dave...", but rather: "don't be sheeple! Follow the evidence! If all your friends pumped scary-sounding chemicals and viruses into their children, would you do it, too?" The popularity, or lack of it, for any given position is not a reliable indicator of its truthfulness or validity. The one place where this tends to hold some water, however, is in the consensus opinion of experts in a field. With the caveat that our understanding can always be improved or deepened, if a group of people with in-depth knowledge and extensive study of a subject come to an overwhelmingly similar conclusion, it's not bad practise to give some weight to their collective understanding of reality. (And for the record, 'in-depth knowledge and extensive study' does not mean 4 hours with Dr. Google.)

Genetic Fallacy: assuming something is good or bad depending on who said it. While this happens on both sides - discrediting a given article based on where it appeared (like the Natural News) - it often happens when anti-vaxxers decry any claims made by "science" or "the medical industry" as if these were monolithic entities who all speak with some sort of hive consciousness like a bad sci-fi movie. All claims need to be taken into consideration on the merit of what they say, not just who said them. That said, you should probably trust the word of a medical doctor above my own in a discussion about how the body reacts to vaccines, because biochemistry, immunology, and pharmacology aren't subjects I know anything about. I can armchair diagnose until the cows come home, but it's not my area of expertise. On the other hand, if you want an opinion on Regency fashion and neo-Classicism, you're better off talking to me than, say, the Surgeon General.

There are plenty of other logical fallacies evident on both sides of the debate, but in the end, I'll stick with the overwhelming body of evidence that vaccines do what they say they will and protect us from what were once devastating diseases. I will accept the fact that just because something sounds scary and convoluted and unpronounceable doesn't mean that it's's irresponsible of me to require the world to fit into my limited understanding. The better proposition by far is to expand my understanding to encompass the intricacies of the world around me.

To use a good-old-fashioned cliche, "no man is an island, entire of itself". Vaccination isn't just a choice you make for your own family like whether to shop organic or join little league or attend Mass. It's a public health issue, and while I'm far from advocating an Orwellian compulsory vaccination program, credible research and scientific reality shouldn't bend to misinformation, fearmongering, and indignant and misleading rhetoric about rights. Rights aren't the issue here: health and safety are.

As the old saying goes, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions". And I have no doubt that most parents in the anti-vaccination movement have the best of intentions; but when we're dealing with the health of our children, intentions don't count nearly as much as results. And when the result is a resurgence of horrible and preventable diseases, we need to seriously consider where good intentions have led us. 

Monday, March 10, 2014


I know that growing up, my sister and I always got told just how much we looked alike. In our teenage years it was especially least to me. I always insisted that it was so easy to see how different we looked. Victoria took after our mom, while I took after our dad. Different builds, different eyebrows, different noses, different far as I was concerned it didn't take a genius to see that there was no way anyone should be mistaking us for twins.

Related? Sure. Gorgeous? You betcha. Twins? Nope.
Of course, now that I have two boys, the tendency to compare them is inevitable. From the get-go, everyone has either one of two opinions:
1) Tristan looks just like Ethan, or
2) Tristan looks so different from Ethan.

Personally, I fall into both camps. Day-to-day, seeing them both moving, wriggling, smiling, and crying - they look like the same little person to me. When I feed Tristan, I often flashback to feeding Ethan at the same age. The nose, the shape of the head, the big blue eyes...they all seem astonishingly similar to me. So much so that sometimes I have to remind myself that Tristan is his own little person, and not Ethan 2.0

But in pictures? Well, that's when I have to start leaning the other way...

I see the eyes, the nose, the mouth (my mouth, incidentally...they both got that from me) and that's about where the similarities end. Perhaps part of it is that Tristan has always been fatter in the face than Ethan...partly a product of being a whole pound heavier at birth. Perhaps it's the absence of the awkward Friar Tuck hair that Ethan had for a good 7 months. Certainly, it's partially due to Ethan having my lopsided chin and Tristan inheriting a lovely, manly chin dimple from the Husband's side of the family.

It's so funny to look at them, side-by-side, at almost the same age, and to really appreciate just how different they actually are. Even now, at such young ages, they are most certainly their own distinct people. Ethan is my mellow and affectionate child: he loves hugs and cuddles, he's very self-contained, and - for a toddler, at least - he's been historically fairly taciturn and even-tempered. (Those last two have only started to change very recently!) Tristan, on the other hand, is already much more vocal - both in joy and indignation - than his big brother ever was. Where Ethan would sit in placid silence, Tristan coos and overlaps smile upon gummy smile. Where Ethan would cry, Tristan screams and yells. He likes to be held, but will fall asleep if well-fed and then benignly ignored...Ethan always required rocking or feeding to sleep.

I don't know what other differences will surface as they both grow older and their personalities develop and their understanding of the world around them deepens, but I will say this: already I think I see the start of a beautiful friendship. They remind me of me & Victoria...and that can only be a good thing.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Finding the Good

If Twitter were a person, I'd shake its hand. It's a bit like my town crier: an informant on the goings-on of the outside world. In the age of social media, Twitter is my equivalent of sitting at the kitchen table of a morning with a hot mug of coffee, reading the daily newspaper. Considering I've only read an actual physical newspaper once in the past 6 months, that's sort of a big deal. And it came up in conversation recently.

In an entirely un-serious attempt to out-adult each other last night, my sister and I exchanged exclamations of our grown-up activities, tit for tat:

V: I have a savings account, and a line of credit. I'm going to a freaking RETIREMENT COUNSELING session on Thursday!‏ That's what I do with my days off.‏ I go to financial planning classes.‏

Me: I have two kids and can't sit cross-legged on the floor for as long any more!‏ I found a white hair knees get stiff. I'm no longer fighting acne, but using an under-eye moisturizer at night.‏ I enjoy Twitter because it helps me keep up with current events.

V: I'm getting a subscription to The Economist.‏ And I donate to public radio.‏

Me: I donate to children's hospitals.

V:  I'm taking up quilting.‏ I am OFFICIALLY our mother‏.

Me: ‎Shopping with coupons, sorting the laundry before throwing it in the machine, FOLDING the laundry when it comes out of the dryer.‏

V: I have a banker.‏ I have a banker that I call when I want to do things with my money.‏ get the idea. But here's the thing: that mention of Twitter was legitimate. Sure, I use it to make jokes about being a mum and to post that video of Benedict Cumberbatch on Sesame Street, but I follow people for the interesting news stories. Just take a gander at some of the specimens of human awesomeness I've found thanks to social media:

I do love the things I find to read online. Anyone else found something inspiring or thought-provoking to check out lately?