From Don’t Be Silly Mummy: Parenting Posts

A ‘Pretty Poor Indictment’ of a Headteacher?

A letter from the headteacher sent to parents of students at St Michael’s Academy, and posted on their website, has been doing the rounds online this week. This is the section of the letter that has been causing a stir:

‘A very big thank you to all of you who send your children in to school looking clean and tidy and ready for their school week. These are very important life habits to get into which will serve them well in adult life. Unfortunately I have noticed an increasing number of children who are coming to school in a pretty shocking state. They are dirty, unkempt and not in appropriate school uniform, if in any uniform at all. Today, being that it is a Monday, quite a few have returned to school in dirty clothes and obviously haven’t had a shower in readiness for Monday morning.
There are also an increasing number who are not making any attempt to wear black school shoes, in line with school policy. There are also a lot of children who are getting themselves up in the morning and in to school as their parents are still in bed. In a country where there is plentiful running water and washing machines, and shops like Tesco offering entire school uniforms for £10, it is a pretty poor indictment of the parenting skills of some of our families.
I totally appreciate that life is hard for some of you but please make sure that your children are clean and ready for school and that includes the correct clothes. Starting next week I intend phoning home to contact parents of children not in uniform including black shoes, and you will be asked to take them home.’

Well, yes, I agree that this is ‘pretty shocking’. No, not the uniform standards set by the parents and students, but the standards set by this headteacher, as a professional and representative of the education system.

There would appear to be two main possibilities in respect of the allegedly unacceptable appearance of these students.

The first is that there are no substantial difficulties facing these families that prevent their children from being well dressed, clean and prepared. In that case, one would probably have to question exactly how poor the standards being seen really are. It seems fairly unlikely that ‘shocking state’, ‘dirty’ and ‘unkempt’ would be anything other than over dramatic. Less a case of serious issues of hygiene and neglect, more a fuss about superficial matters – or a petty reaction to non-compliance – that really does not justify this reaction.

The second possibility, of course, is that there are students at the school facing significant challenges, whose home circumstances really do lead them to arrive at school with hygiene issues and clothing deemed unsuitable. Now, this may well be a situation that cannot, and should not, simply be ignored. It is likely to indicate a need for support for the students and their families. However, this letter does not offer support. It offers judgement, condescension and humiliation. There is no real compassion (I do not count the shallow and dismissive pretence at the start of the final paragraph as any form of genuine concern) for problems at home, no practical assistance or help for struggling families and students. There is nothing but an (extremely rude) admonishment to sort out the problem.

If standards of dress and hygiene are really below an acceptable healthy living level, one would have to assume that, at least in most circumstances, neither the students nor their parents want it to be that way. Presumably, if they could change it, they would. And if they can’t change it, a nasty, sanctimonious letter, lacking in empathy, is not going to suddenly solve the problem, is it?

What exactly are this headteacher’s priorities as an educator? Uniform and appearance standards apparently justify a scathing letter, but I do not imagine that she has sent letters out criticising parents for not having enough books at home, or not being interested enough in current affairs to talk to their children about news and politics. I am not suggesting for a second that she should do so, but these factors would have much more relevance to children’s behaviour and performance in school than whether they are wearing black shoes. If students in her school have such difficulties at home that they are unable to come to school clean and well dressed, perhaps she should appreciate what is important, which is surely that they are coming to school. In fact, even if her students and/or the parents are simply disinterested in what she considers to be appropriate dress standards for school, she should still appreciate that, if she is seeing them in their ‘shocking state’, they are at school. If students are going to be disinterested in something, better their uniform than their attendance, no? Are appearance standards really worth the risk of making students and parents feel alienated and attacked by the school, particularly those already facing struggles in their lives?

There is someone here who should feel ashamed. The educational professional who believes that it is acceptable to insult, belittle and humiliate students and parents. Who places so much emphasis on appearance and compliance, that she apparently did not think better of sending out a disproportionately rude letter, lacking in a proper sense of perspective. A woman who cares more about appearances than the education or the welfare of her students, or who at least has so little awareness that she is unable to see when she is giving that impression.

To paraphrase the lady herself: I appreciate that life is hard for many in the teaching profession at the moment, but this is pretty poor indictment of the skills of some of our educators. (Oh, and basic human compassion, politeness and a sense of perspective ‘are very important life habits to get into which will serve [you] well in adult life’, Madam Headteacher.)

Two Year Development Reviews: Do They Work?

I’ve been considering writing about the two year development reviews carried out by Health Visitors for quite some time. (In fact, The Toddler’s second birthday and her review were right around the time I first started blogging, six months ago.)

I have to admit at the start that there were no concerns raised at The Toddler’s review, which may make this seem an odd post. I hope people will see what I am getting at, even though I have no reason at all to be personally disgruntled (and I am not, I might add, despite what the pronoun jokes may suggest). It is just that, despite the unproblematic review we happened to have, I couldn’t help but feel that the process was pretty flawed and, in fact, kind of unnecessary.*

Now, I absolutely see the value in carrying out checks in order to try to pick up real problems in a child’s development (or families who may be struggling) early. That makes sense. There is a long gap between birth and school, and of course identifying any problems within that period could lead to better management and treatments for children.

My issue is not with the idea of reviewing children, it is with the method used. The checklists/questionnaires, the little tests, giving parents a score for their children. Does it really need to be done this way?

It seems to me that, where there are actually concerning developmental delays or behavioural issues, a trained professional should be able to identify that by simply watching the child during the meeting, and having a casual talk with parents. Is it necessary to be quizzing parents with what can feel like test questions? Keeping scores for two year olds? I’m sure there would be some children felt to be borderline as to whether there is cause for concern. But, presumably, some children are borderline on the scored system too. Those children could simply be monitored with further checks, surely? I would guess that is probably pretty much what happens anyway.

I wonder how accurate this scored system really is. A lot relies on reporting by the parents. Is it truthful? I am sure many people can work out the answer the Health Visitor is looking for – how many give that regardless? I expect I would be told in answer to this that the Health Visitor can get a reasonable idea if the parents are exaggerating the child’s progress from what they observe of the child. Indeed. So why don’t they just do that? Remove the pressure of making parents feel like they are being tested.

Aside from the accuracy of parents’ self reporting, there is the question of whether the little tasks and tests the toddlers are asked to complete at the review really serve any useful purpose. I have an example. One item The Toddler was marked down on was in the fine motor skills category, because she failed to thread beads on to a string for the Health Visitor. Now, I am not suggesting that The Toddler was capable of doing this. It may very well be that she could not do it; she had certainly never tried before. What interested me was that it was marked that she could not do it, and was therefore lacking in that aspect of fine motor skills, but the test did not actually show that. The test established that she did not do it, but not whether she could do it. You see, she had never tried before and she did not try then. She felt that there were more fun activities she could do with the beads and the string, and she entirely ignored the Health Visitor’s instructions. So was that a test of fine motor skills? Or was it a test of how willing toddlers are to follow instructions? This made me wonder. That happened to be the one thing The Toddler refused to comply with on the day, and it was not a big deal, but how many people’s children refuse to complete lots of the tests? We all know the answer to how willing toddlers are to follow instructions is not very. Do all children who don’t carry out the tasks get marked as lacking the skill being tested, regardless of whether that was demonstrated one way or the other?

Then there is the list itself, and the way it is scored. The checklist/questionnaire appears to represent a fairly arbitrary selection from the multitude of things a toddler might be able to do, as indeed you would expect if you tried to make a checklist to summarise the multitude of things a toddler might be able to do. Furthermore, there seemed to me little consistency between list items in terms of relative difficulty. For example, one item relates to combining two words together, another to using pronouns, rather than names, most of the time. I don’t consider those to be close to the same level of difficulty, or particularly likely to be seen at the same stage of development. To use The Toddler as an example, she was using two words together from about 20-21 months old. By the review at 24 months old, she was speaking in sentences of five-six words. At that time, she was using pronouns about 50% of the time and names the other 50% of the time (if anyone is interested, she was also therefore marked down in this area). By about 27 months, she was using pronouns nearly all the time. I do not dispute that some children may be using pronouns fully by two, though I think those children would be in a minority. However, I would expect any child who can properly use pronouns to also be able to speak in fairly complex sentences, far in advance of two word pairings. Therefore, if the checklist expects children to be able to use pronouns, should it not expect them to be able to speak in multi-word sentences too? This is why I say it is arbitrary and inconsistent. It is a very mixed selection of things most children could do at two years and things few would be able to. Which is okay in a sense, but makes it difficult to judge the meaning of the scoring. Even if the way the scores are viewed is designed to take account of the different levels of difficulty in the list items (dealt with further below), and even if it is not expected that an average child could do all of the tasks, it is hard to escape the impression given that the child was expected to be able to do all of the tasks.

What of situations where the child is able to perform tasks beyond those allowed for on the list. There is no provision for extra points for tasks the child could perform over and above those on the checklist. Whilst I am quite sure it is not the intention, I couldn’t help but feel that this creates an air of negativity. In effect, any area of ‘failure’ (even if it is for a task of a clearly higher level of difficulty than others) is highlighted by receiving zero points, but there is no corresponding system of crediting achievements over and above those listed. How then can you truly say you are assessing a child’s development? Surely you need to assess all areas where there has been progress, as well as areas where there may have been less progress? Is it really okay to highlight to potentially anxious parents that their child is not using pronouns (I am planning to really do this pronouns point to death) all the time (though probably most are not at two), but give no mention to how good their sentences are because that is not on the list? (For that matter, why are the pronouns (told you: to death) getting a mention at all? Is it likely that children not using pronouns at two are going to spend their life talking about themselves in the third person?)

Parents are subsequently given a copy of the checklist and the scores. There is no context to the scores, no explanation given. Perhaps the discrepancy in difficulty levels of the tasks is balanced by the way that the scores are viewed. So that, for example, 30/60 is actually the average score, and, say, 45/60 would be above average. Therefore, the points lost on items that would be clearly developmentally advanced do not prevent the child’s score from reflecting their appropriate level. I do not know if this is the case, though. Of course, the Health Visitor will have said if there is concern, no concern, the child performs above average, etc. However, I doubt that stops people from wondering about the score. Wondering if 35/60 is average? Low? Is 60/60 well above average? Or are the children supposed to get close to full marks? Who knows? Why give people scores without any context? What is the point?

Then there are the averages used to make these lists, to determine where points are given or taken away. Is any account taken of common differences between boys and girls, for example? Are different assessments used? Maybe, but I did not get the impression this was so. How would a single set of criteria based on the averaged development of two year olds allow for common gender differences? There are exceptions, of course, but boys tend to be very physical in their play and communication, girls much more vocal. If all children are being assessed against an averaged criteria, does this review tend to show a lot of boys as below average in language development, and many girls above average? Are more parents of boys therefore told there may be some language delay? I do not know if this is the case, but I do wonder. In truth, what is actually shown if you compare typical boys’ language to typical girls’ language is not developmental delays versus developmental advances, but simply developmental differences.

I should just say here, that I have no doubt that most Health Visitors actually administer these assessments in a sensible and pragmatic way. I am sure that they look beyond the scores in reaching their views on development. I am sure they recognise the limitations of the system, and issues such as developmental differences between genders as well. However, I don’t think that changes the fact that having scored lists creates comparison and competition. I don’t think it changes the fact that maybe, in ensuring that children are monitored and reviewed, we have gone just a little bit too far. A little bit too far into making everyone worry about and compare every little aspect of children’s development.

Of course, I am sure that these checklists/questionnaires, and the tasks set to the children, are not supposed to be referred to as tests. I am sure that the official line is that the scores aid the Health Visitors, and are nothing for parents to be concerned with. But this is my point: if you score them, people will always see them as a form of test or assessment. If you present people with scores, they will always worry, analyse and compare them. If we are not testing two year olds, why have the lists, tasks and test-like elements? And if we are testing two year olds, why on earth are we testing two year olds?

So, whilst there is clear value in identifying children with real difficulties, in order to provide the support needed at the earliest opportunity, I simply wonder if this is really the best way to be doing it. Is assessing two year olds against arbitrary criteria necessary? Is there a risk that this system is causing a disproportionate level of concern about minor developmental differences or delays, that are likely to even out of their own accord by school age? (Has anyone ever really needed to give thought to the percentage of pronoun use employed by a two year old??)

Does the mere act of providing parents with a checklist, a score for their children, risk causing unnecessary worry, putting pressure on parents and children, and fostering a culture of competitive parenting that is not healthy? We already carry out formal testing of very young children in schools. Social media is already full of competitive parents displaying rose tinted accounts of their children’s behaviour and achievements. There is enough anxiety for parents. There is enough pressure and competition. We do not need to be looking to highlight and record areas of ‘failure’ in two year olds, surely (and, indeed, I doubt that is the aim of the system, but it is implicit in the method used). We do not need to be comparing children to other children, let alone some invented ‘average’ child.

Perhaps most would not agree with me, but I would much rather see simple chats and observations carried out, with no lists and no scoring. Following which, any children about whom there is real cause for concern are referred for appropriate support, and everyone else is simply told there are no concerns and their child is doing fine. Not how fine their child is doing in comparison with other children. Not anything to worry about nor anything to brag about. Nothing about bloody pronouns.** Two year olds don’t care if they can say 50 more words than Susan next door. When children start school, no one can tell who walked at one and who was closer to two. Children develop at different rates. In most cases, can we not simply allow them to do so, and enjoy watching it happen?

(*It should be noted, of course, that I can only base my observations and opinions on the way our review was conducted, which may not be the same as everyone’s experiences.
**I am not as upset about the pronouns as it may appear, it just struck me as quite a good example of the possibly unnecessary elements of the process.)

A Message to Anyone Who Feels Confused or Bullied About Breastfeeding


(*Note: I wrote one post about breast or formula feeding, actually about how we should not even bother to debate it because it does not matter, and did not intend to write more on the matter. However, I have recently read some news reports about pressure and bullying some mothers have felt over how they feed their babies, and it makes for quite upsetting reading. So, at risk of debating the issue myself, I am writing this one further post.*)

This post is specifically aimed at new mothers or prospective new mothers. Because, if you found this post, you have probably been looking online for advice or support about breastfeeding. And, if you’ve been doing that, you are probably unsure about what feeding method you want to use, or you are struggling with breastfeeding. You may have found some great support and advice. In which case, carry on as you were. But there is always a risk, if you have googled advice about breastfeeding, that you have been dragged into a guilt-ridden swamp of ‘information’ about the magical properties of breast milk, without which your baby will surely die and you will be branded with a ‘worst mother in the world’ stamp right across your forehead. If you have found your way into this swamp, and now feel more vulnerable and confused than you did when you started, do please read on.

Breast milk is not the Elixir of Life. It does not have magical properties. It’s great. It’s an amazing substance. But, actually, so is formula. Some very clever people have made it so. They have manufactured a substance that is capable of being a substitute for breast milk and nourishing a baby. So that’s pretty amazing too, right?

Yes, breast milk has immune benefits. Yes, it is probably easier on the gut. In the scheme of things, these are not really massive differences or benefits. Breast milk isn’t making anyone invincible. It’s not curing ebola.

Does breast milk make children more intelligent, thinner, more successful, or any of the other claims put forward by the breastfeeding lobby? No. It doesn’t. The apparent correlation between breastfeeding and improved outcomes for children in those areas is coincidental. It exists because there is a correlation between those outcomes and greater socioeconomic advantage, AND there is a correlation between higher breastfeeding rates and socioeconomic advantage. The privilege and opportunities afforded in society to the group of women who make up the majority of breastfeeders result in the apparent benefits for their children, not the breast milk. But, of course, it is difficult to conclusively prove that the breast milk is not responsible, because to do so would require experimenting on babies and forcing certain groups of mothers to feed in a specific way . That would clearly be unethical, and so the evidence of correlation between breastfeeding and positive outcomes in areas such as intelligence remains, ready to be preyed on by the breastfeeding lobby as evidence of the benefits of breast milk, despite being almost certainly nothing of the sort. If you look at the children of mothers who, in all respects except for breastfeeding, fit the same profile as the breastfeeding mothers, their children will show the same outcomes. I am such a child.

You will not condemn your child to stupidity, obesity or failure by not breastfeeding. Talk to your child, read to them, play with them, hug them – all the things you obviously intend to do anyway! These are the things that make a difference to development. And genetics, of course. Can’t do much about those.

It is nice to encourage breastfeeding, of course it is. But not ever to the extent that anyone is made to feel panicked or vulnerable, or anyone is encouraged to make a decision that puts them or their baby at risk. No one should be told, as I have seen happen, that taking unregulated breast milk from strangers in Internet exchanges is better than using formula. Of course it isn’t. Do you know that is breast milk? That the mother doesn’t drink alcohol? That she has no blood borne illnesses? That she properly sterilised the pump and containers? Do you know where the milk was stored? For how long? It’s reckless, and no one should be telling worried mothers to do that. If you cannot, or do not want to, give your baby your milk (or milk from one of the regulated milk banks), give them formula. It is fine.

No vulnerable woman with mental illness should become so convinced that her baby needs breast milk that she stops taking medication she needs in order to be well. A baby does not need breast milk that badly, but it does need a healthy mother. No one, in short, needs to be listening to suggestions that breast milk is the be all and end all. That is not true.

So this is my message for new mothers, or prospective new mothers, who are worried about this, who have been panicked by what they see on the Internet, by what the so called ‘breastapo’ say. It is nice to try breastfeeding, if you can and you want to. But it is not that important in the scheme of things. Your child will not end up horrendously disadvantaged by not being breastfed. Don’t tell anyone, but breastfeeding isn’t even the norm in this country. The biological norm, yes, but not the norm in practice. Perhaps that is why some women are being so aggressive about this: it’s insecurity and defensiveness. Trying to validate themselves by putting others down. Because, truth be told, breastfeeding mothers, beyond the first few days or weeks, are a pretty small minority. That is a bit of a shame. But it isn’t your problem. You don’t have to be the one to take responsibility for improving the statistics. You have to do what’s right for you.

And I will tell you – as someone who is a breastfeeder, who has exclusively breastfed two babies long term – no sensible, intelligent, reasonable, relatively caring woman (breastfeeder or not) will see you struggling and tell you that you must breastfeed or your baby will suffer. Not ever. She will never tell you to panic over this, to be stressed about it, to cause your baby to feel stress about it, or to feel guilty about it. She will never tell you that you are selfish or harming your baby if you don’t breastfeed. She will not tell you breastfeeding is easy and everyone can do it. Anyone who tells you those things is not someone whose advice needs to be listened to. Good advice, helpful advice, will always encourage you to do what you can do, what you can cope with, and not to look back. Focus your energy on your time with your baby instead.

Stay at Home Mothers Made Sacrifices Too

*Deep breath. Wades in well aware that she may regret this.*

I see quite a lot written about working mums* and the guilt, the feeling of missing out, the lack of choice. I have great sympathy for all of these feelings, and, to be very clear, this post is not a criticism of those emotions, nor of mothers working. Nonetheless, and maybe I will turn out to be alone in this (in which case, I am probably setting myself up for a tidal wave of indignation, though it is really not my intent to offend), something bothers me in a lot of what I see written about this subject.

It is this: there generally appears to be little acknowledgement of the fact that being a stay at home mother is not always a choice either. Or, worse, little acknowledgement of the fact that often there has actually been a choice by both working and at home parents, and that stay at home mothers have made sacrifices for their choices, too. The suggestion, sometimes explicit, sometimes implied, often seems to be that stay at home mothers are privileged and fortunate to have what working mothers do not. It is there in every statement that a working mother wishes she were ‘lucky enough’ to have had the option to stay at home. The implication is that to stay at home is a matter of luck and good fortune, not something that there may have been no choice over, or something a family has made significant sacrifices (that perhaps the working parents did not wish to make) in order to make happen. It may well be that it is often not the writer’s actual intent to suggest this. But, regardless of the intent, the implication does remain: that it is a position of privilege to be a stay at home mum.

Whilst not disputing that certain people may (wrongly) be guilty of judging the particular sacrifices made by working mothers, I don’t think that there is much dispute that there are sacrifices made. Is the same true of the sacrifices made by stay at home mothers? I am not sure that they receive quite the same level of recognition or discussion. That being a stay at home mother is not more often just vaguely regarded as the position of the privileged (or even, by a few unpleasant specimens, regarded as the position of the lazy). I want to highlight that many families with a stay at home parent have to make difficult financial sacrifices to enable that position, the stay at home parent themselves may have sacrificed a career, and for some families there is not even a choice at all. Why is this perhaps not discussed as much as the hardships facing working parents? Maybe partly because many stay at home parents enjoy and appreciate looking after their children, of course. I do. But many working mothers enjoy their jobs, too. I don’t think this is the whole explanation. Because, while many stay at home parents are happy with their role and the time they spend with their children, would they also like to be able to provide more for their children? To have some financial independence? Yes, many would. But we don’t seem to talk about that. Is it because we wouldn’t want anyone to infer that we don’t like looking after our children, that we don’t appreciate the time we spend with them? Is it less acceptable to mention the sacrifices of being a stay at home parent?

Consider the situation if I was to write that it upsets me that I can’t provide for my children, and that I wish I was lucky enough to have had the option to have an income, and to be able to give the children more material luxuries and opportunities. I imagine many working parents would indignantly think, ‘Hang on a bloody minute: luck? It’s not luck. I chose to go to work to provide for my children, and I have to miss out on spending time with them as a result. If you want to have more money, do what I do and go to work.’ And that would be a reasonable response, as far as I am concerned. But it should apply the other way around, too, and I think there is something of a subconscious mindset around that says that it does not. Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone knows really that stay at home parents have made sacrifices, would agree this if asked, but there remains a tendency to be unthinkingly dismissive of it. I am not sure how many people really consider that perhaps when a working mother states that she wishes she were fortunate enough that she could have stayed at home and not had to work, stay at home mothers may also be just a little indignant. That there may be a mother who stays at home who had just as little choice in her role, who maybe feels sad that she can’t provide financially for her child. Or a mother who knows that, in order for her to stay at home, her family gets by on a fraction of the money that working mother’s family does. Maybe even gets by on less than the working family would have on a single income, who knows? Maybe she feels that she is accepting the sacrifices that came for her to stay at home, and that others could have done so too, had they wanted to. And maybe, just maybe, she feels like she should not mention any of this, for fear that she would be accused of not appreciating her time with her children, or of not showing sufficient empathy for the feelings of the working mother.

In truth, when it comes to working or staying at home, there are really only two groups of people: those who had a choice, and those who did not. Not having a choice is not the preserve of working parents. There are those families who really cannot in any way afford to live on one person’s income (or single parent families, where there is only one person to provide an income), but who do have free or affordable childcare options, for whom working is the only available path. Equally, however, there are those with no one to provide free childcare, and no (or insufficient) assistance towards childcare costs, for whom the cost of childcare would exceed what the second person could earn, making one parent undertaking the childcare the only viable option. In both cases, the decision is made for the parents by the limits of their circumstances. They may or may not be perfectly happy with the arrangement they have had to pursue, but this is not particularly relevant: there is no choice regardless.

Then there is everyone else. The people with some level of choice. Now, there are, of course, a few people who have such privilege that they have literally any option they want available to them, and little sacrifice to make. We can all agree that we hate those jammy sods (sorry – just kidding). But this is rare. For most, this is not how it goes. Instead there is choice, but it has constraints. Sacrifices must be made. Having it all is not an option. Decisions have to be made, priorities assessed, myriad considerations taken into account. And, guess what? There are no wrong answers here. All the possible decisions are valid. All the considerations have merit. Children can benefit from being cared for by a parent at home. Equally, children can benefit from having a comfortable, more affluent lifestyle. We all want to spend time with our children. We all want to provide well for our children. How much you like your job and the potential for career development is, of course, relevant. So is the availability of family members to provide childcare. It is perfectly acceptable to decide that you will take a greater degree of financial hardship because it is important to you that you stay home with your child. It is perfectly acceptable to decide that you want to be able to maintain the standard of living or the lifestyle you have for your child’s sake, and cannot do that on one income. It is perfectly acceptable to decide that you love spending time with your child, but do not want to surrender a career you enjoy.

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with whichever decision anyone makes. What I am saying is that perhaps we all need to accept the consequences of those decisions. Perhaps we need to take responsibility for the fact that this is what we chose, we reaped the rewards and paid the price of whichever path we followed. We should not be jealously comparing ourselves with others who made a different decision. We need to acknowledge that they have made their own sacrifices, ones we chose not to make, in order to have those benefits we covet. That should not be brushed under the carpet. You cannot choose the starter and main from a two course set price menu, not be willing to pay extra for dessert, but complain about how unfair it is that someone else had the dessert, how lucky they are. It is not luck: they made a different choice to you. They skipped the starter. (Yes, analogies are not my strong point. And clearly this is not exactly analogous, as in my menu scenario there is obviously only one correct option: dessert. Sorry, starter people – what are you thinking? I digress.)

It may not feel fair. The available options may be hard, imperfect, limited. But that is life. Apart from those few jammy sods we have all agreed to hate (sorry, again), everyone is either having to make similar decisions, determining their priorities, sacrificing on something; or they are simply having to play the hand they were dealt. Perhaps the level of choice we have in modern life has given rise to the idea that there must be this elusive option of having it all, and that we should therefore feel dissatisfied and cheated if we do not. For most people, however, having it all simply does not exist. Perhaps we would all be happier if we accepted that. Accepted that we make our choices, pay the price, and that nearly everyone else is doing exactly the same.

None of this, of course, is to say that there is anything wrong with working mothers saying that they feel sad that they do not see their children as much as they would like. I suppose what I want to say is: working mothers, don’t beat yourself up with guilt over your choice (or lack thereof). You made the decision that was most right for your family, or you simply got on with the only option you had, and I am very sorry for what you feel you are missing out on. But perhaps you could be careful to remember that stay at home mothers made a decision and sacrifices, or did what they had to do, too.

No working mother should feel judged because she had to, or chose to, work. But, equally, no stay at home mother should feel resented. Nor should she have the decision she made to stay at home, and the price she has paid for it, undermined by being dismissed as someone who has merely had luck, ‘luck’ that may be acceptably coveted by those who did not make her sacrifices.

(*Everything I have read has been from the perspective of mothers, and I am a mother, so I have – mostly – referred to mothers, but of course the points can apply to fathers too.)

Bob’s Algebra, Fred’s Hair: Should Schools Dictate Appearance?

With new stories of children sent home for failure to comply with their school’s uniform or appearance rules, we seem to be back to the question of whether schools should be allowed to dictate students’ appearance. On one side you have those supporting the students’ individuality, arguing their rights and freedom of expression are being infringed by the schools. On the other, those who argue that the students and their parents knew the rules, and the rules are there for a reason.

I don’t believe either of these positions quite cuts to the core of the issue. The answer to whether schools should be allowed to dictate pupils’ appearance must surely lie in what we believe schools should be achieving, what we believe their purpose is in respect of how they shape children.

Firstly, let’s just put to rest a couple of fallacies that are sometimes trotted out in support of uniform policies: that they save parents money, and that they create equality (thus reducing bullying). School uniforms are expensive, and children outgrow them at a rate of knots. Furthermore, children don’t wear uniforms outside school, thus creating a need for normal clothes in addition to the uniform. Normal clothes that could have also been worn to school if the school had no uniform. No, uniforms do not save parents money. Nor do they create equality. Students will always find a way to distinguish themselves: a way of wearing the uniform that is the way, accessories that you must have to be accepted. There will always be the popular ones and the unpopular ones. There will always be bullies. Uniforms don’t, as is sometimes suggested, prevent children from being able to tell whose parents have less money. The tendency of teenagers to form cliques, and to judge and pick on others, comes from their own insecurities, their fragile sense of self, and from what they learn from adults. (If you want to see the latter point in action, take a look at the comments from many adults on the articles about the girl with the leopard print hair. You’ll see where children learn judgemental behaviour.) Not only do uniforms not prevent students from bullying others, it could even be argued that uniforms, by telling children it is important to be the same, actively encourage the idea of intolerance towards those who are different.

Oh, and I suppose creation of a school identity should be briefly mentioned, too. It can, of course, be said that uniforms do achieve this aim (whether this needs to be an aim is perhaps more questionable, and that it can in any case be achieved without the need for a full uniform is indisputable). However, identifying the school certainly provides no justification for restricting students’ hairstyles, piercings, shoes or tightness of trousers (all the areas of appearance forming the usual subject matter of the disputed cases, in fact).

So, school uniforms are not about money or equality. School uniform and appearance codes are about conformity. Some rules exist to keep children safe. Some to tackle bullying or other unacceptable behaviour. Some are about the structure of the school day. Others the standard and level of work required from students. These rules all serve some specific purpose relating to the educating of children. What purpose do uniforms and rules on appearance serve? How do they further the students’ education? They have no point beyond the promotion of conformity. A rule for a rule’s sake.

Such rules are, of course, effective for the purpose of psychological conditioning. This is why so many exist in the military. Rules about tradition, appearance, ceremony, ritual. They have no direct significance to the work carried out by the armed forces but, indirectly, they are relevant to the effective running of a military. They exist to ingrain obedience and order; to create a mindset of following rules for the sake of following rules, even when you don’t agree with them or can’t see the point. It is not hard to see why that is important within the military, where it is necessary that people follow orders without question simply because they are orders. It is also, of course, important to encourage those in the armed forces to identify as a group, not as an individual. Rules that exist to make everyone look and act the same help with this. If the armed forces did not have a mindset of compliance and conformity, there could be chaos and disorder in potentially disastrous circumstances. These types of rules thus play their part in a form of psychological conditioning that is necessary for an effective, organised military.

But schools are not the military. Is conformity necessary for effective education? Or is it actually damaging to education, hindering free thinking and independence? This brings us back to the point: the need for uniforms and appearance codes surely depends on what you want to achieve. If your main priority is to make as many children as possible conformist and obedient, seen and not heard, then, yes, uniform codes probably help. They serve to instil in children the idea that they must all be the same and they must follow rules, regardless of whether the rule has a point.

Is that really what we want for our children? There is an important distinction between school children and the armed forces. The armed forces are a self-selecting group; they are people who have chosen to submit to these rules and this type of psychological conditioning. Children do not choose to go into the school system. Whilst those in the military know that all these rules they live by are a consequence of something they chose for themselves, for a child who does not agree with these school rules, they are simply alienating. Something forced upon them for no real reason. Do we want to alienate children from the education system?

Further, those in the military have selected their path, have decided that a military career is what they want, and worth obeying the rules for. Children’s futures are not yet decided. Among our children are the potential leaders, inventors, researchers, teachers, artists. For those futures, is conformity something to aspire to? Conformity and group mentality may be important in some areas of life, but in others freedom and individuality are everything. Do we hinder potential in those areas if we crush children with rules and uniformity?

Yes, children need to learn rules. Rules are part of society. But there are numerous other rules in school for them to follow. Just going to school is itself a rule. The question is not whether they need to follow rules, but whether they need to follow rules that serve no other purpose beyond the following of the rule.

Finally, what are we afraid of in allowing children to be individual, unregimented? Again, this is not the military. It is not a risk of chaos in a combat zone. If a whole year 9 maths class has strangely coloured hair and non-regulation shoes, what do we think is likely to happen? Is Bob’s ability to do quadratic equations dependent upon the colour of Fred’s hair? (In fact, ironically, anyone who thinks it is probably didn’t grasp the difference between independent and mutually exclusive probabilities in their own maths studies, despite their regulation hairstyle.)

I believe there is one thing military strategy can certainly teach us here, and it isn’t the psychological conditioning of conformity, it’s this: pick your battles. Being individualistic and non-conformist does not indicate that a child does not have potential in education and beyond, possibly even quite the opposite. If we are willing to alienate or exclude a child from education over purple hair or tight trousers, I can’t help but feel we may be missing what is actually important.

Why Breast v Formula Should Not Be a Debate

baby-105063_1280 We all know the breastfeeding versus formula feeding debate. We’ve all heard the passionate, and often outright hostile, arguments on each side. Many of us probably have an opinion one way or the other. Well, this post is not going to be about mine. No, I am not here to wade into the debate, I am here to ask whether it should be a debate at all.

I think not. You see, in this country (and the rest of the developed world), both breast and formula feeding are valid options. This feeding dilemma is not, in fact, a dilemma. It is a choice. An extremely fortunate choice between two options that are both ultimately safe and acceptable.

Yes, breastfeeding is obviously what nature intended. No, it being a natural process does not mean that all mothers and babies can do it. That is not how nature works. In nature, in all species, there are young who are unable to feed effectively. They die. It is natural selection. We as a species have developed to the point where we deem it unacceptable for some of our young to simply be allowed to starve. As with so many aspects of life, we have interfered in nature and developed alternatives. That’s great. But some of us seem to have forgotten along the way that, of course, not every mother and baby is able to breastfeed just because it is nature. We should appreciate the amazing alternatives that have been developed, rather than insist that all mothers must be able to breastfeed if they really tried.

About these alternatives. So they aren’t natural. A lot of things in modern life aren’t. They have been carefully formulated, used for generations. They are safe. They work. Formula fed babies grow up just fine. Yes, there are certain benefits to breast milk that formula milk cannot replicate but, in the developed world, the difference won’t be life or death, the impact is not significant.

Breast milk is cheaper, it’s quicker, it’s ready prepared. Of course, it puts every feed onto the mother. That is not always very convenient or practical in a modern world. Mothers do not sit in a cave and suckle young these days. They are expected to do things, see people, go out, often work. 2-3 hourly feeds, requiring the partial exposing of body parts, can be a strain. Formula, meanwhile, is more difficult to prepare, costs money, doesn’t benefit the immune system. On the other hand, feeding can be shared with other people, and no one feels awkward about doing it in public. It’s swings and roundabouts. There are positives and negatives to both options.

The key is that we have this choice. We have a choice and it really doesn’t matter which option we choose. Not in the grand scheme of things. Whichever way you decide to feed your baby, there will have been pluses and minuses, and your baby will have received nutrition, will have grown and thrived.

This is not a dilemma. There is nothing to debate. A dilemma is when you are HIV positive (communicable through breast milk), and have no option but to breastfeed your baby or allow it to starve. A dilemma is when formula milk has been aggressively pushed as an alternative by the formula companies, but there is no clean water to make it with, no sterilisation facilities, and you cannot afford enough formula to properly feed your baby. A dilemma is when you are too weak yourself to effectively breastfeed an infant, but have no other safe options available.

The choice we have in Britain is between two non-harmful, acceptable alternatives. Yet, we manage to fight about this choice. For some women in the world, their choices are between which potential cause of death they want for their baby. AIDS? Deadly water borne infections? Starvation? That is a ‘choice’ people should be fighting about.

Arguing over breast or formula, judging and criticising others for making a different – but still perfectly safe – choice for their child, is surely a monumental waste of time and energy. Preaching to another British mother for feeding in a different way from you is pointless. Nothing is achieved. She won’t appreciate your interference. Wouldn’t that energy and passion for the cause be better spent campaigning for those mothers in the world who desperately need help to be able to give adequate and safe milk to their babies? They would appreciate your interference.

Put the effort into a real crisis, a debate worth having. Make a difference. Because irritating Cheryl next door over breast being best isn’t making a difference to anything, except maybe Cheryl’s Christmas card list.

The Baby’s Birth: In a Rush, Baby?

A quick little post that was originally featured in The Mc-Allens’ Throwback Carnival on August 3rd 2015:

As she is about to turn one year old, it seems appropriate to make my throwback memory The Baby’s birth.

The Baby was a few days late. I probably should not have complained about how slow she was being. She took it too seriously. I woke up early in the morning very sick. The contractions followed. The Baby was born in my bed less than an hour from the first sickness.

The Other Half called the hospital and they said to come in. I explained to The Other Half that there was definitely not time to get The Toddler up, get in the car and get to hospital. The hospital were no help. My midwife had said that, if I went into very quickly progressing labour, given that my first labour had been unusually short for a first baby, I should call an ambulance. The Other Half called an ambulance. I told The Other Half to read the section in the baby book about how to deliver a baby yourself. It later transpired that The Other Half did not actually read it, because he had apparently not grasped why I was telling him to read it. No idea what he thought was the reason – sudden inexplicable concern about his lack of reading materials?

A lovely rapid response paramedic arrived. She had never delivered a baby. She looked terrified, and kept checking on the expected arrival time of the ambulance in an increasingly panicked tone. An ambulance and three more paramedics arrived just as The Baby started to be delivered.

One of the paramedics had once delivered a baby. The others looked bemused. The birth time was recorded as under 30 seconds. The paramedics could not get a midwife to come to the house. The placenta would not deliver. No one present knew what to do about that. The placenta eventually did deliver and, in the apparent absence of any chance of getting a midwife, the paramedics decided they would have to take us to hospital.

The Toddler, aged 15 months, had been woken by the influx of paramedics. The Other Half had therefore brought her into the room. She was present for her little sister’s birth, toddling around in the background, rooting through the paramedics’ paperwork, entirely unconcerned. A paramedic gave her breakfast while I got cleaned up for hospital. She was having a great morning.

As for The Baby, now almost a year old, she is just as willful and determined to do things her own way as she was that day. Now she is the one toddling in the background, rooting through any paperwork she can get her hands on. Happy (nearly) Birthday, little girl!

Why Childhood Vaccinations Should Not Be a Choice

The Baby is about to have her first MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella) vaccination. The Toddler had hers a little over a year ago. The Baby’s upcoming vaccination has prompted me to explain to the anti-vaccination movement why they make me so angry, and why I do not believe participation in childhood immunisation programmes should be the parents’ choice.

Of course, this subject can not be discussed without mentioning that study, the one that resulted in widespread panic about the MMR, reduced uptake of the vaccination, outbreaks of measles. The study, of course, claimed that there was a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. To be completely clear, that study was completely discredited many years ago. The research was proven to be falsified, the doctor was struck off, and the paper was retracted. In the years since it was published, there have been multiple large studies worldwide that have shown there is no link between the MMR and autism. Yet the entirely incorrect belief that there is a link continues to be peddled by anti-vaxxers. In the years following publication of that paper, MMR vaccine uptake levels dropped dramatically in the UK. Having risen over the past few years, levels are now roughly back to those seen prior to the study, but remain lower than those recommended by the World Health Organisation. During the period of fallen vaccination rates, measles was declared endemic again in the UK. The anti-vaccination movement in both the UK and US remains vocal.

Before I tell you why I do not believe you should have a choice to refuse vaccination, I firstly have a question for anti-vaxxers. It is this: if you are so concerned about autism that you would refuse to vaccinate your children at the mere suggestion of a risk, why are you not concerned about what measles could do to your child? Actually, there is no need to answer. The answer, presumably, is that you don’t know what measles could do. Thanks to widespread vaccination, we have forgotten what full-blown measles is capable of. There were millions of cases of measles in the UK and US each year prior to vaccination programmes. It is still one of the, if not the, biggest causes of death from a vaccine-preventable illness in the world. It is highly infectious, infecting around 90% of non-immune people exposed to it. Severe complications, which can include brain damage, blindness and pneumonia, occur in around 30% of cases. The majority of measles deaths occur in children under five years of age. Non-immune pregnant women who contract measles risk miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. Measles is an unpleasant, highly infectious, sometimes debilitating, potentially deadly disease. Yet, you, the anti-vaxxers, apparently decided it was preferable to an alleged small risk of autism.

So, here is the problem with the argument that it should be the parents’ choice whether their children are vaccinated. It is based on the fallacy that this decision only affects your child. It is based on a major misunderstanding of the purpose of mass immunisation programmes. It assumes that they are about individual immunity. They are not. They are about herd immunity. The point is not concern for the health of specific individuals, therefore the decision should not be made on an individual basis. These programmes do not work if they are allowed to be about individuals. The rise in measles outbreaks in Britain and America since the MMR scare are testament to that fact.

The point of mass immunisation programmes is to protect the community as a whole, thereby reducing pressure on health services, and ultimately eliminating serious illnesses. If a high enough percentage of the population is immune, the spread of the disease can be stopped. For highly infectious diseases such as measles, this herd immunity requires 90-95% vaccination rates. Below this, the disease will start to spread again. There will always be some people who cannot be vaccinated and are immuno-compromised, for example, babies too young to be vaccinated and cancer patients. They are protected by herd immunity. Illnesses can be effectively controlled, or even eradicated, by vaccinations and herd immunity. Measles was. It was.

So, no, participation in mass immunisation programmes should not be your individual choice. It is not about you. It should be civic duty, like numerous other regulations you are required to comply with for the good of society. Your ‘freedom’ to make this decision is not relevant. You lack individual freedom in many aspects of your life. Very few rights are absolute. Most are qualified, to allow for rules and regulation in society, to allow for the interplay between your rights and the rights of others. Nor do you have absolute control over decisions about your children. You are required to put your children in car seats. You cannot choose to put your child in the car without one because they are ‘your child and it only affects you’. You are required to have your children educated. If you refuse medical treatment your child is deemed to need, you can bet that the hospital will invoke the inherent jurisdiction of the courts to override your authority and force treatment in your child’s interests. This is not different. This is simply another aspect of life that has nothing to do with your individual beliefs; where the decision does not only impact on you, and therefore should not be yours to make.

On that point, why would you believe it should be yours to make? Your all important choice not to vaccinate your child could have put my children at risk for the year of their lives that they were too young to have the MMR. Where is my choice? Where is the choice of the parents of the child with leukaemia, whose only protection is herd immunity, and who will be desperately vulnerable if exposed to measles? It should be a requirement to vaccinate your children. Instead of lamenting your lack of choice (in being forced to accept the protection of your and other people’s children from potentially deadly illnesses, no less), you could consider how lucky you are. In many parts of the world, people have no choice about childhood vaccinations, either. They have no choice to receive them. They have no choice but to watch their children die from diseases we are able to prevent.

This is what I want to say to anti-vaxxers: your thinking represents the worst of egocentric, entitled, misguided, selfish behaviour. Childhood vaccination programmes, meanwhile, represent an amazing achievement in medical science, and they are not about you.

(If you still feel inclined to criticise vaccination programmes, may I suggest you look up smallpox. Just look it up. Look up the terrifying prognosis and infection statistics. The horrifying symptoms. How it was eradicated.)