Showing posts with label teenagers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teenagers. Show all posts

Monday, 30 April 2012

A parents' guide to bringing up teenagers - by teenagers

What a brilliant idea. As parents scratch their heads in puzzlement about their teenagers, two 17 year old girls have written a new guide to help them navigate their way through the tricky teenage years.

Louise Bedwell and Megan Lovegrove (above), who are both sixth formers at Nonsuch High School for Girls in Cheam, spent six months researching their book. It’s called Teenagers Explained: A Manual for Parents by Teenagers and not only is it full of sage advice, but it tackles everything from social networking and mobile phones to friends, clothes and messy bedrooms. All the things that make parents tear their hair out, in fact. 

Above all, the two girls reckon that three things are crucial when it comes to understanding teenagers - communication, understanding and compromise.

“We wanted it to be a real ‘tell it like it is’ manual from teenagers’ perspective,” says Louise. “Teenagers can feel awkward and self-conscious and that can make it difficult for them to talk about sensitive issues so they end up bottling things up, which makes them stressed and moody.

“It can lead to those awful tense moments and stand-offs, usually followed by big emotional explosions which end up in blazing rows. Parents need to read the signs – there are times to talk and times not to. But teens also have to realise that their parents are usually only asking out of concern and in your best interest.”

So, if you’ve got a teenager in the house, here are some tips from Louise and Megan:
  1. Listen to us. Pay attention to what we say. Don’t ask questions about stuff we’ve just told you as it feels like you don’t care.
  2. Chat a lot. It doesn’t matter what it’s about.
  3. Bribery by means of food (brownies always go down well) is a good idea, from encouraging to talk with you or to reward them for doing schoolwork.
  4. Don’t patronise. Treat your teen as a fellow adult (when we deserve it).
  5. Support us emotionally, whether we need a big bear hug or someone to moan to.
  6. Don’t try and dictate our lives. Be there to guide us through.
  7. Don’t laugh at your teen, whether at their choice of clothes, the way they act or the fact that everything is one big drama. Try to see things from a teenage perspective.
  8. Pretending to be “down with the kids” is not funny, especially in public or in front of our friends!
  9. Don’t pressure your teen to bring their boy/girlfriend home (it will make us more likely not to).
  10. Lastly, cliché, but it will get better. Every nice, civilised person you know was once a moody teenager.
Teenagers Explained: A Manual for Parents by Teenagers by Louise Bedwell and Megan Lovegrove (White Ladder Press, £9.99)

Sunday, 22 April 2012

It's London Marathon day

It’s the London Marathon today and crowds of brave runners are limbering up in the spring sunshine. In our house we all feel a bit sad not to be there. 

My husband’s competed in the race six times and the rest of us always pitch up to cheer him on from the sidelines. 

We start at Deptford, scoot across to Canary Wharf and then hop on the tube to watch him as he staggers to the finishing line in the Mall, usually (hopefully) in just under four hours. We shout ourselves hoarse for everyone – from the world’s elite athletes, running like gazelles and making 26 miles look like a piece of cake, to the thousands sweating it out at the back. While we scour the crowds looking for him, it’s fun to spot the runners dressed up as Tarzan or Elvis Presley or assorted fruit and vegetables.

It’s always such an inspiring day, with people running for a multitude of different reasons. Some run in memory of loved ones, others to achieve a lifetime’s goal. Virtually all of them do it to raise money for charity.

One year my husband ran the 26 miles in honour of my wonderful mum, so it was especially moving. He wore a T-shirt with her smiling face on the front and raised £7,500 for the NSPCC, her favourite charity, along the way. She would have been very proud.

But for the last couple of years he's sat it out, reckoning he hasn't done enough training to compete. So this morning he's set out on a seven-mile jog through Oxford with our teenage son. The trouble is, he looks a bit glum not to be waiting for the start at Blackheath. “I’m definitely doing it next year,” he says.

PS. Good to everyone running today!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Satchels, blazers and ties - what's the point of school uniform?

The fixation with school uniform is a mystery to me. Education secretary Michael Gove clearly believes blazers and ties are the key to success in schools while lots of commentators reckon uniform improves students’ behaviour, encourages loyalty and belonging and means pupils don’t compete to look cool. But as I’ve written in a previous blog, I don’t see why children can’t wear what they like – as long as it isn’t inappropriate, too revealing or covered in offensive slogans.

I vividly remember the dramatic moment when my daughter stopped wearing uniform and started wearing exactly what she wanted.

Just before her GCSEs, in a bid to mark the last school uniform day in style, she and her pals set about customising their outfits. Even Stella McCartney would have been impressed by their efforts.  Some girls accessorised their school clothes with fuchsia-coloured tights and towering platforms while others wore Ninja Turtle shells they’d constructed from cardboard.

My daughter made a typically bold decision. First she chopped up her navy school polo shirt, closely followed by the kick-pleat skirt she’d worn every day for five years. She then hit on the bright idea of sewing all the ripped-up bits of her uniform back together again and transforming them into a fetching halter-neck and hair-tie. With a final flourish, she painted shiny white stars all over her skirt and wore the whole outfit to her school’s traditional “muck-up” celebrations – the last uniform day before exams began.

When my son arrived home that night, he was far from impressed. He took one appalled look at his big sister and declared: “That’s the silliest school uniform I’ve ever seen...”

As I watched my daughter rip her school uniform to ribbons (it was falling to bits anyway), I couldn’t believe that 12 years had flown by since her first day at primary school. It seemed no time at all since she was excitedly setting out for her reception class in a grey pinafore, purple jumper and matching socks. At four, she was so proud of her old-fashioned leather satchel that she insisted on taking it everywhere she went – even on Saturdays and Sundays. It made a brief reappearance a couple of years ago when, thanks to Alexa Chung and Mulberry, satchels came back into fashion again. Now sadly, it’s been consigned to the depths of the cupboard once more.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Teenagers, cars and insurance

When my teenage daughter celebrated her 17th birthday I rashly promised that I’d buy her a car once she’d passed her driving test. We lived 20 miles from her school at the time, a journey that took more than an hour as the number 59 bus wove its way through the pretty villages of north Oxfordshire. Not surprisingly, she couldn’t wait to ditch her bus pass and drive her own car.

It took her nearly a year to do it but she passed her test first time (thank you to BSM’s wonderful Tracey). So despite my misgivings I threw caution to the wind and bought her a second-hand Renault Clio. That’s when, like many other parents, I discovered how expensive it is to insure a car for a teenager. So when the Sainsbury’s Bank Family Bloggers Network asked if I’d like to run a guest post on car insurance for teenagers on House With My Name, it seemed like a pretty good idea. Here it is:

Will you be paying for your teenager’s car insurance?

Most teenagers can’t wait to pass their driving test and discover ultimate freedom with their first car. Before you know it, a savings account will be empty and a new motor will be parked outside, waiting to be driven by an ecstatic teenager. Only trouble is, it could cost them thousands of pounds to insure. 

Cue an intervention from loving parents, who are only too happy to help out. Is there any harm in lending a helping hand? Well, that’s the question. So to avoid any major headaches, it’s important to be aware of the pros and cons.


First things first – if the new driver is to have their own car, it will be worth their while choosing one with a small engine. Anything sporty or with modifications will add to an already large insurance bill. 
Some insurance companies won’t even insure 17 to 20-year-olds, even with a small car. This is mainly due to the high risk posed by younger drivers, especially 17 to 19-year-old males, whose average claim according to 2010 figures is £3,433 – almost three times more than a male over 50. 

Now, that’s not to say all teenagers are dangerous drivers, but it explains why insurance providers are wary.

‘Fronting’ the policy

Many parents choose the option of adding their teenager as a named second driver on their own policy, and this can be a good way of saving money. However, deliberately ‘fronting’ a policy for a teenager when they are in fact the main driver of the vehicle is considered fraudulent. If the young driver was to have an accident, the insurance company could refuse to pay out, and might even prosecute. 

Insurance providers have methods of discovering who the main driver of a vehicle is – they might examine the contents of the car or trace who’s been paying for the fuel bills. So if you’re going to name anybody on your own policy, make sure they remain the second driver – and that they drive safely, of course.

Protect your no claim discount

So adding a teenager to your own car insurance can save you money, but there are also disadvantages. For example, they might not be able to build up their own no claim discount this way, and that could be important in reducing their insurance bills in the future. So consider choosing a policy that offers a no claim discount to second drivers, as well as the main policy-holder.

Another disadvantage is that your own insurance premium could increase with a young driver added, plus you may risk losing your own no claim discount if the second driver has an accident.

Every teenager is different

As a parent, you’ll know your teenager the best and make your decisions accordingly. Some might feel it best to delay the age their offspring starts their driving lessons, until they’re older and in a better position to pay their own way – and their insurance bills might be cheaper by then too!

Some parents might consider lending their teenager a percentage of the insurance premium, on the condition they’re prepared to earn the remainder. This option allows them to appreciate the responsibilities of being an adult – surely an important lesson.

Whatever option you choose, it's essential that you and your family pick a car insurance policy that meets your needs.

Guest blog written by Jules Anthony. 

Thursday, 29 March 2012

From intrepid reporter to chronic worrier

What on earth has happened to me? I’ve trekked across the Masai Mara to discover who murdered a beautiful young woman in the prime of her life, stood on the doorsteps of drugs barons and murderers and covered court cases that gave me nightmares. Yet, here I am having sleepless nights over the slightest things.

The bottom line is that I need to give myself a firm talking to – and stop all this worrying nonsense. I was thrilled a couple of weeks ago when Yummy Mummy? Really? asked me to write a Mother’s Day meme. As I said at the time, I didn’t have a clue what a meme actually was but once I’d worked it all out I jumped at the chance. Anyway, one of the questions was “what's the hardest thing about being a mum?”

Without even thinking I wrote the following. “Worrying. I always reckoned being a mum would get easier as my children got older, but now they’re almost grown up I worry about them even more.”

I didn’t bat an eyelid as I typed the words but reflecting in the cold light of day I realised I was on to something. The carefree girl I once was has turned into a worrier of the first order. For goodness sake, I worry about everything – from my teenage son’s scary bike antics to his dreaded exams to the fact that my daughter’s currently living it up in Berlin with friends. It all sounds wonderful, except she’s staying in a youth hostel dormitory with people she doesn’t know.

I’ve met lots of fantastic bloggers online recently, most of them years younger than me and many with babies and toddlers to look after. As I read about their chronic lack of sleep and how on earth you ever find time for yourself and looking chic on the school run I’m torn in two. I feel half relieved that my 24/7 parenting days are over and half nostalgic for those far-flung times. I made a right meal of them but the truth is that I don’t think I worried quite as much then as I do now.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

What are eyebrows for?

“I’m just off to have my eyebrows shaped,” I told my teenage son.

He looked up momentarily from his Xbox game, an astonished look on his face. “You’re having your eyebrows shaved?” he said. “Isn’t that what happens when people get drunk at parties?”

Well not at the parties I go to, it doesn’t. But when I quizzed my son he told me about a friend of his who’d fallen asleep at an all-night do and woke up a few hours later to discover some mean person had shaved his eyebrows off. The effect was so dire that the poor boy resorted to drawing them back on in black felt-tip pen, which of course looked a million times worse.

Anyway, that unfortunate incident got us to discussing a thorny issue. What exactly are eyebrows for? Whether they’re bushy (à la Denis Healy) or sleek (à la Madonna) they’re pretty odd things really. Whatever beauty writers say about them framing your face I’m not at all convinced.

My son quickly got on the case and came up with the following answer. Apparently eyebrows are there to keep water, sweat, dirt and debris (yuk!) out of our eyes. So when we sweat or get caught in a downpour the arch shape of our eyebrows cleverly diverts the rain to the sides of our faces. How smart is that?

My son is the finest finder-outer I know. He troubleshoots my regular computer crises, suggests new music I might like (Lulu and the Lampshades for one) and can give an hour-long lecture about the origins of Aerogel.

Even more useful, his IT know-how is second to none.  When I got a new computer recently I didn’t have to lift a finger. He and my daughter unpacked the box, set it up in ten minutes flat and then typed out an idiot’s guide for their techno-dinosaur mum to follow. The way things are going they’ll be running the entire household single-handed in no time at all.

PS. After my recent post about London's Big Egg Hunt I've just spotted my second giant egg. Only 198 to go!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The day I was mistaken for a dirt jumper

My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw the email.

“Hi Emma,” it read. “We know quite a few places to do dirt jumping. Are you an experienced rider or are you just beginning to get into the sport?”

For the uninitiated, dirt jumping is a sport that involves cycling at top speed down a ramp, leaping high into the air, maybe doing a couple of twirls on the way down and then landing (hopefully the right way up) on a pile of soil. In other words, it’s a completely mad thing to do. The very thought that a fairly sane, middle-aged city-dweller who prefers to keep her feet firmly on the ground at all times would contemplate taking up dirt jumping made me laugh out loud.

But after a few seconds of puzzling over the email, everything fell into place. I’d been trying to help my bike-crazy son find some new places to pursue his hobby and had emailed a shop up north for advice. And for some reason, they’d assumed that it was me who was the dirt jumper.

Funnily enough, the email arrived soon after I read an interview with Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust (she's just announced that she's stepping down to become Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge). She told The Times this week that children’s freedom to roam unsupervised has shrunk massively since the 1970s. “Children are missing out on the sheer joy and physical and mental well-being of being able to play outside and experience nature in all its messiness,” she said.

Well, not in this house they aren’t. We’ve lived in towns and cities since my son was five but he’s had more fresh air than any child I know. Not because of anything I’ve done but because as soon as he was old enough to ride a bike he grew obsessed with performing cycling tricks. The higher and scarier the better. In fact one summer he leapt merrily off a local hill on his bike, came adrift in mid-air and crashed down on to his handlebars with a horrendous thud. Result – a collar bone broken in three places and two months off bikes.

So, even though I’m forever worrying about him, my son definitely hasn’t missed out on “the sheer joy and physical and mental well-being of being able to play outside.” If only…

Monday, 5 March 2012

Car boot sales and getting rid of stuff

“Car boot sale...16 years of junk gone and £150 better off...result!”

Those were the words of my friend Jennie on Facebook last night. Her update status caught my attention the instant I spotted it and I immediately set about trying to persuade someone to do a car boot sale with me. My daughter says she might, so you never know, maybe I’m making progress.

Our family has a real problem with stuff. Accumulating it, I mean. And I’m the worst. I simply can’t throw anything away – from my children’s first shoes to my faded Evening Standard newspaper cuttings.

To everyone's horror, when my father had a sort-out at home and asked us to go through some of our childhood belongings, I came back with yet more stuff.

I swore that since I was 21 when he and my mum moved to their house in the wilds of Dorset, none of it could possibly be mine. How wrong could I be? Within the space of a few hours I’d found my Brownie badges, my first Timex watch, some Janet and John reading books, a set of scary school photographs and even my university thesis on Christopher Isherwood. I offered my daughter a load of treasures – a Biba T-shirt I thought was the bees-knees, a Squeeze CD and my A level history notes on the Russian Revolution. She took one look and said “er, no thank you.”

The best find of all though was a tiny, yellowing newspaper cutting of my mum’s that fell out of my history notes. I’d cut it out 25 years ago and kept it to read again. I never imagined that by the time I set eyes on it again my own children would almost be grown-ups and she wouldn’t be here anymore. But as I stood in the attic and read her words, time stood still and I could hear her voice so clearly in my head.

“I don’t think my children owe me anything,” she’d written. “I had them because I wanted them, because they’ve given me endless hours of joy. I’m in their debt, not they in mine.

“And if they want to emigrate to Yemen, as long as they’re doing what fulfils them I don’t think they owe me a letter, kindly or otherwise, a phone call, a card come Mother’s Day or Christmas, or even a hand-crocheted shawl, if ever I should come on hard times.”

Monday, 27 February 2012

Jacqueline Wilson, B*Witched and sleepovers

A wave of nostalgia sweeps over me every time a gaggle of girls in navy blue polo shirts and matching skirts walks past the house. It seems no time at all since my daughter was a wide-eyed 11-year-old who loved Jacqueline Wilson books, glittery pens and a band called B*Witched (oh dear, she’s going to be furious with me for mentioning that).
But amidst all the wistfulness, the one thing I DON’T miss are sleepovers. The custom of inviting not one best friend, but four or five, to have supper and stay the night didn’t exist in my youth. But these days sleepovers are de rigueur for girls. They involve watching DVDs like The Sleepover Club, playing raucous music till all hours, eating vast quantities of sweets, chatting till 3am and getting up four hours later. And if you reckon your daughter has dark circles round her eyes the next morning, she won’t look half as tired as you feel.
Sleepovers are most parents’ nightmare – and they get worse as children get older. When my daughter was little we’d be lucky if she and her pals went to sleep by 11pm. One friend who stayed was terribly homesick while another felt ill in the middle of the night (probably after all those sweets) and had to be driven home.
Once the girls turn into teenagers, sleepovers involve even less sleep than before. They all bed down on the floor of the sitting room, watch a load of films back to back all night and emerge at dawn for endless rounds of hot buttered toast.
The worst part of it all is that having had practically no sleep the girls are pale, weary and in a filthy temper for the rest of the day. My exasperated husband always declared we should make the Sleepover Girls sleep in different rooms and switch the lights off at ten. The fact that this would have completely defeated the object of the whole exercise didn’t bother him in the least.  

Monday, 6 February 2012

Why this year's snowfall made me sad

We were walking along St Giles when the first snowflakes fell. With temperatures below zero and our feet turning to blocks of ice, the snow had been threatening to arrive all day – and finally it had. With a vengeance.

My teenage son took one look and immediately walked faster, keen to get back to the warmth of home and the excitement of his Xbox. I felt a bit sad. This was the first time snow hadn’t made him leap up and down in excitement. Up until a year ago he’d take one look outside and think “sledges, snowmen, snowball fights with the boys next door.” Before I knew it, he’d be grabbing a jumble of clothes (no coat of course) and would be frantically unlocking the back door, desperate to hurl himself into the wintery world outside.

He’d be as happy as Larry all day. He’d get through four changes of clothes (all those snowballs), build a snowman taller than himself and rootle about in the garden shed for the sledge my mother gave him. I remember the year he came back inside at the end of the day, soaked to the skin, exhausted and beaming with happiness. He then rushed upstairs to post a cheery message on Facebook. “Yay, no school,” he wrote. “Thank you snow.”

But now he’s 17 he’s not interested in a paltry few inches of snow. It might make the dreaming spires of Oxford look even more beautiful, but he needs several feet of the stuff to play in. He wants to leap off mountains and do scary twirls in the air on a snowboard. Sadly, our current frosting of snow just doesn’t cut the mustard as far as he's concerned.

PS. My husband times his work trips to the Far East impeccably. While I’m gingerly picking my way along the icy Oxford pavements in my grippiest shoes and wondering whether I can get the car out, he’s on a flight halfway across the world. Next stop – Kuala Lumpur. Temperature – 25 degrees C.

Image: Oxford snow by tevjanphotos, Oxford Light

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The only time you see teenagers out with their parents

At the crack of dawn next week my son will thrust a hastily downloaded Google map at me, plug his favourite Justice tracks into the car’s audio system and we’ll set off for yet another university open day (snow permitting!)

The only trouble is that after visiting a handful of universities already, they’re all starting to blur into one. Neither of us can remember which boasts 22 Nobel Prize winners, which has a library with four million books and which serves coffee that tastes like old socks.

University open days are a new and weird phenomenon in our lives. When I went I more or less stuck a pin in the map and hoped for the best. Today’s teenagers get bombarded with leaflets and letters, spend hours trawling through the UCAS website and are encouraged to visit universities all over the shop before applying. The only trouble is that when they get to open days they meet academics in tweed jackets quoting statistics like 1,000 applicants for fewer than 100 places.

Even more bizarre is the sight of thousands of 17 and 18 year olds trailing round campuses with their middle-aged parents. Some look dead embarrassed to be seen out with their mums and dads, while others are clearly livid that their parents have muscled in on the trip. I’ve scored a double. I’m in both categories.

And this year there’s something new to worry about. The newspapers are full of doom and gloom about tuition fees trebling to an eye-watering £9,000 a year and students being saddled with debt for the rest of their lives. I take one look and stuff the papers in the bin. This university lark is hard enough without worrying about that right now…

PS. Forget my hankering for a 2CV. I’ve just spotted my new dream car outside Jamie Oliver's restaurant in Islington (see above!)

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Star charts for teenagers

The shelves of my local bookshop are groaning with parenting guides. They range from Potty Training in One Week (I’m not at all convinced!) to Divas and Dictators: The Secrets to Having a Much Better Behaved Child. When my children were little I bought lots of titles like these, before chucking them (the books, I mean) aside and realising I was better off muddling through the parenting minefield without their advice.

The one thing I never understood was the idea that parents should reward good behaviour by putting stars and smiley stickers on a special chart. I tried it a few times but my independent-minded duo refused point-blank to go along with this idea for a second. Even at the age of four or five they couldn’t care less about sparkly stars.

I was so aghast at my failure that when I interviewed childcare expert Professor Tanya Byron a few years back I asked what she thought. To my utter relief she admitted that sticker charts aren't all they’re cracked up to be.

“The big error in parenting is that we give too much attention to the behaviour we don’t want and not enough to the behaviour we do,” she said. “Sticker charts are very good for getting parents to focus on specific activities for specific periods of time. But to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever done sticker charts with my kids. They once did a grumpy Mummy, nice Mummy sticker chart for me though – only I took the stickers and stuck all the smiley ones on.”

Phew. That made me feel an awful lot better. My daughter’s twenty now but I’d love to see my son’s face if I suggested a teenage sticker chart. He’d get a smiley face if he tidied up his room, switched off the bathroom light and brought his washing down. Somehow I don’t think it’ll catch on…

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The gut instinct that made me buy the House With No Name

A new report says it’s far better to make decisions on gut instinct than dawdle too much and agonise over what to do.

The research, reported in the Daily Telegraph, issues stark warnings claiming that people who think too much before coming to a decision risk damaging their love lives, careers and even their health.

It’s not the most festive message of the week, I know, but there’s definitely something in it. The speediest decision I ever came to was to buy the House With No Name, my ramshackle farmhouse in the south of France. If I’d spent ages struggling over what to do for the best, I’d never have been brave enough to go ahead.

Actually, the main spur was having an intrepid husband and wildly enthusiastic children who egged me on like crazy.

The first time I’d heard about the place was when one of my dearest friends sent me an email saying: “Beautiful place. Great potential. Most beautiful setting. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside with some ancient oaks. Very old farm with heaps of charm. It has a very good feel to it.”

I’m the weediest person on the planet and much to my horror – and before I’d even set eyes on the place - my husband put an offer in on my behalf. The offer was much lower than the asking price so I naively assumed it would be rejected out of hand by the elderly owner and her four grown-up children. Except, er, it wasn’t.

By the time I pitched up a couple of weeks later to see it, accompanied by the estate agent and the notaire (Uncle Tom Cobley and all in fact), the owners were excitedly making plans to move into a new house with all mod cons in the nearby town. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to wreck their plans by saying “I'm sorry. This is all a horrendous mistake. I’m catching the next train home.”

So in my case, I took precisely zero minutes to decide to go ahead and buy the House With No Name. And even though my gut instinct took a little bit of persuading, I’m so glad I did.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Why don't teenagers wear winter coats?

Arctic blizzards are set to battle the UK this week, the north is blanketed in snow and even here in the soft south there’s a wintery chill in the air.

Bearing all that in mind, it seemed perfectly reasonable to ask my son whether he planned to wear a coat to school this morning.

“No,” he growled, hardly glancing up from his bowlful of Frosties. (At least he eats breakfast – a survey published this week said only one in two of us eat before leaving home in the morning.)

But teenagers’ aversion to coats is a mystery to me. My daughter was exactly the same when she was at school. Even on the coldest, wettest days she’d head for the bus wearing a threadbare jumper and short school skirt and insist she didn’t feel cold at all. “I’m fine,” she’d mutter, “really warm” – oblivious to the fact that her chattering teeth and blue lips gave the game away.

My son can’t protest he hasn’t got a coat either. I’ve spent a fortune on the blooming things. Last year I figured that if I bought him an ultra-chic Superdry one that he really liked, it would do the trick. My plan worked for a few days but then he met up with friends at a pizza place near Magdalen Bridge and carefully hung his coat by the door. When he went to retrieve his coat at the end of the evening it had gone. In its place was a flimsy cotton jacket – obviously left by the person who’d nicked my son’s lovely, warm coat. The following day the temperature dropped to minus degrees so, worried he was going to freeze, I went out and spent my week’s earnings on an identical one. An identical one that he never wears.

I just hope that he’ll eventually follow his big sister’s example and wake up to the wonderfulness of coats. One day my daughter announced out of the blue that she was off to Topshop to buy a winter coat. She came back a few hours later with a stylish navy number that she still loves. Result!

PS. I mentioned last week how I can’t wait to see Steven Spielberg’s War Horse when it opens here in January. But considering I cry at anything (apart from that John Lewis ad), I was worried by the Times reviewer’s verdict on the New York premiere. “If you don’t cry in War Horse, it’s because you have no tear ducts,” he wrote. We have been warned.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pyjamas - what not to wear at the school gate

Mornings have never been my strong point. In the days when I took my daughter to the bus stop soon after 7am I used to rush out looking like I’d been pulled through a hedge backwards, without a scrap of make-up and my hair unbrushed. I’d then dash into Sainsbury’s to buy the papers and hope I didn’t scare the cheery man on the till or, horror of horrors, bump into someone I knew.

My lackadaisical approach wouldn’t go down well in London's Notting Hill, where yummy mummies like Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer swear by glossy hair, immaculate make-up and high heels at the school gate. If you don’t wear the right outfit, some mums have warned, your children might not get invited round to play by their friends.

My teenagers are fiercely independent now but even when they were younger they were appalled if I ever tried to escort them into the classroom.

But at least I didn’t have to worry what I looked like. I cheered up no end when I realised I was a lot more appropriately dressed than parents doing the school run in some parts of the country. Why? Because at least I was dressed. A couple of years back the head of one UK primary school was so appalled at the number of parents arriving in their nightwear to drop off their children that he appealed to them to show a little more respect. Known as the “pyjama mamas,” some were turning up in baggy pyjamas and slippers while others sported dressing gowns and curlers.

As the head wearily told his local paper: “People don’t go to see a solicitor, bank manager or doctor wearing pyjamas so why do they think it’s OK to drop their children off at school dressed like that?”

PS: On the subject of night gear, a report in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph said millions of us stay in our pyjamas till midday on Saturdays. And shock horror, four out of ten sometimes go the whole day without getting dressed. I’m guilty of the first (not the second), but I’ve got one question. Does the Telegraph know that pyjamas are all the rage as daywear these days? Fashion designer Stella McCartney included a rather fetching paisley pair in her spring/summer 2012 collection while the likes of Celine and Louis Vuitton have featured them on the catwalk too. So don’t assume that the woman wearing pyjamas in the supermarket has just stumbled out of bed. She could be the most fashionable person in town.

PPS: I couldn't resist these gorgeous tartan reindeer (above) I spotted at Bicester Village. They're the best Christmas decorations I've seen by far this year.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Sleep deprived parents and Christmas shopping

My teenage daughter arrives home for her university reading week laden with history books, files, an enormous bundle of washing and these sky-high Topshop shoes.

“Try them - they’re really comfy,” she says. So I do, and amazingly they are. Well, until you wobble and fall off, when you’re liable to be carted off to hospital with a broken ankle. And as for hobbling round London on the tube or walking into Oxford, forget it.

But the main reason she’s back home for a few days (well, apart from seeing us lot) is to catch up on her sleep. A full-time student, she spends her spare time working three nights a week in a chic Shoreditch bar, running the university art society and partying with her friends. Wow - I’m not surprised she’s tired.

It’s ironic that she’ll happily doze till lunchtime these days, considering she was a very wide-awake baby who slept for five hours at night if I was lucky – and never in the daytime at all. Her sleeping was so dire that my South London GP referred us to a sleep clinic but that didn’t do any good either. It was years and years before she changed her mind and decided she liked sleeping after all.

But despite the solitude and profound lack of sleep I wouldn’t swap those days for anything. She laughs when I tell her about the endless nights of playing soporific Enya tracks to her and about the way I used to climb into her cot and lie beside her in a desperate attempt to get her to nod off. At least I don’t have to do that now.

PS: A new Good Food magazine survey says that in these dire economic times one in three of us are planning to “make or bake” our Christmas presents. Not for the first time in my life, I feel completely inadequate. I can’t think of anything I can "make or bake" that anyone would actually want. Suggestions gratefully received...

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The dreaded dog debate

Oh dear. The dreaded pet debate has raised its fluffy head again. My children’s young cousin is about to become the proud owner of a puppy and my usually laid-back teenagers are green with envy.

They claim they are deprived children because they’ve never owned a pet. Well, apart from a sickly goldfish in a polythene bag that my daughter won at a fair. It swam listlessly round its tank a few times, survived less than 24 hours and she never clamoured for another.

But dogs are different. Over the years they’ve come up with a host of arguments about having a puppy in the house. They’d call it Coco and promise faithfully they’d be in charge of feeding, washing and taking it for walks. My daughter’s stance isn’t at all convincing bearing in mind that we live in Oxford and she’s just moved into a student flat in Shoreditch, but still.

Deep down I know (and I reckon they do too) that there’s one person who’d end up on 24/7 dog duty - and that would be me. Several friends whose children faithfully promised to take sole charge of the family dog report the novelty wore off within weeks and then they were lumbered for life. Katie, a Lancashire pal who’s admittedly grown fond of her children’s Labrador, reckons the dog’s far more trouble than a baby. So far the puppy has chewed gaping holes in the sofa and Katie’s Nicole Farhi jacket, howls if she’s ever left on her own and as for training – hmmm, let’s just say there’s quite some way to go.

I still feel mean for not agreeing to my teenagers’ dearest wish though. And I wobbled a few years back when I discovered my son sadly herding a gang of snails (all named, of course) into a little enclosure outside the back door.

“I’m never going to have a pet so I’ve decided that these will have to do instead,” he said morosely.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Why I moved from the city to the country - and back to the city

My daughter was a year old when I got obsessed with the idea of moving to the country. We lived in Camberwell, south London, at the time and even though I loved the house, with its pocket-handkerchief garden and scruffy Georgian facade, I hated the traffic and noise.

In the space of a few weeks, one neighbour was mugged in the next alley-way and another had her bag snatched while her two small children looked on. One night I glanced out of the back window to see flames soaring 20 feet into the night sky. Joyriders had stolen a car down the road and set it on fire next to our fence.

Then out of the blue my husband was offered a new job in Blackpool. Within weeks we’d let our house and rented a farmhouse in the wilds of rural Lancashire. Our friends thought we’d gone completely mad. The way most of them reacted you’d have thought we were emigrating to Siberia, not 200 miles up the M6.

But it turned out to be the very best thing. Downham is one of the loveliest villages in the country. It looks like something out of a picture book – complete with pub, church, post office, stream with ducks, even a nursery school. What more could you ask for? We were entranced by the clear air, stunning views and hearty walks up majestic Pendle Hill.

My son was born in Lancashire (and still supports Blackburn Rovers in fact) and I’m sure the lifestyle there, playing on his bike and swinging on a rubber tyre hanging from a huge oak tree near the house, gave him a lifelong passion for outdoor pursuits. When a friend came up from Manchester with her young son she marvelled at the way he hared off down the field. “I’ve never seen him run that far before,” she said. “At home I always have his hand clamped in mine. I’m terrified to let him out of my sight.”

But sadly, after a few years of living up north, we had to move south for work. With the children growing up fast, the idea of living round the corner from schools and shops seemed oddly appealing. So we decided to have a change and moved to Oxford – where even now, the novelty of being able to walk out of the house at all hours to buy bread, coffee and a bottle of Pinot Grigio still hasn’t quite worn off.

PS: My husband's finally succombed to the inevitable and bought reading glasses. I helped him choose a chic tortoiseshell pair in David Clulow and texted a picture to our daughter. "Are you trying to make him look like Bill Nighy?" she texted back. Hmm, she's got a point. Since Bill Nighy's my number one pin-up, I think I probably am.

Picture of Downham: Lancashire County Council

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The gym is as boring as I thought it would be

Sport is like Marmite. You either love it or hate it. I won a running race at primary school once and reached the heady heights of the netball team a few times but that’s the extent of my sporting prowess. Until recently, that is. My teenage daughter suddenly decided to join the local gym – run by the council, incidentally, and far better value than a posh one. After a few sessions though, she declared it would be much more fun if we went together. I was horrified and refused point-blank - except that she went on and on about it so much that eventually I gave in.

The gym staff insisted I had an induction session to discuss what I wanted to achieve (their words not mine). “Not that much” was my response. As they explained the minutiae of the treadmill, exercise bike, cross-trainer and other scary-looking machines, I glanced around at the other members, all honed and bronzed and with legs up to their armpits. “I’m worried that I’m going to be the oldest person here,” I told the instructor, who looked about twelve. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said airily. “Our oldest member is eighty-five.”

What to wear was the next problem. I picked out an old T-shirt, some £5 jogging bottoms from Sainsbury’s that I bought for my son years ago and he refused to wear - and a pair of plimsolls that had seen better days. “You look completely ridiculous,” said my daughter. She was so embarrassed to be seen with me that she frogmarched me straight to a sports shop and made me buy some proper trainers. Next she persuaded me to order some chic Sweaty Betty trousers. The only trouble is that the dreadful joggers are far more comfy.

So what have I learned after two weeks of my new keep-fit regime? Mainly that the gym is just as boring as I thought it would be. In fact it is so tedious that I’ve resorted to planning it around TV programmes I want to watch. The upshot is that I’m no fitter than when I started (mainly, says my daughter, because, I don’t “push myself enough”), but I’m very well up on the news.

PS: I haven’t spotted any eighty-five year olds pounding away on the treadmill. Either the instructor was fibbing or the gym has had such a stupendous effect that the eighty-five year old looks twenty-five.

PPS: COMING SOON - Starting this week, I’m featuring a book review on House With No Name every Friday. So if you love books and are looking for new reads – or if you’ve read something fantastic and want to recommend it – I’d love to hear from you.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Is four too young to start school?

September is the month of new school uniform, sharpened pencils, and melancholy that the long summer holidays are over for another year. With my son starting year 13 tomorrow, his last year of school, I’m feeling extra nostalgic. It seems no time at all since his very first day, when he was a small boy with white-blond hair, a uniform that was far too big for him and a wide grin.

Actually, looking back, I’m sure he started school far too young. His birthday is in August and he was exactly four years and three weeks old when he pitched up in the reception class of a primary school in North Yorkshire, where we lived at the time.

He was utterly bewildered to be plunged into the classroom when all he wanted to do was play outside. At play school in the village hall he’d resolutely refuse to sit still and write or draw, always rushing to ride around on toy cars or play in the sandpit. It would have suited him much better if we'd lived somehwre like Sweden, Denmark or Finland (a superstar performer when it comes to education), where formal school is delayed till the age of seven. Up until then, young children focus on “play-based” learning and spend as much time as possible outdoors.

A primary school teacher friend of mine has been telling me for years that children start school too young here. She reckons school is especially difficult for boys between the ages of four and six. They hate sitting still for long stretches, loathe colouring in endless worksheets (girls love it!) and would far rather be charging around the playground. She always makes sure her lot get plenty of time outside. Even on rainy days she sticks on her coat at the small primary where she teaches and everyone goes outside for 20 minutes to run off steam.

At 17, my son’s had more than enough time to get used to the notion of school – but as a boy who prefers action, he’s still not ultra-keen. Even now he’d rather be whizzing down hills on his bike than sitting in a classroom learning about protons and neutrons and memorising French verbs.

PS: The picture above shows him with his big sister at the age of seven, on a hearty Lake District climb.

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