Book Review: Screen-Smart Parenting

smart screen parenting

I consider myself to be quite tech savvy.

I use and enjoy social media, understand the etiquette of posting on internet forums and can decipher most text-speak acronyms. I think the internet is a good thing, even for children, but I was born in 1970 and so am a ‘digital immigrant’.

My children, on the other hand, are digital natives and have never known a world without the web. They take apps, tablets and smartphones for granted in the same way that people born in the 70’s and 80’s did tape recorders, television and digital watches. We can only imagine what their children will consider normal.

There is no doubt in my mind that technology has a lot to offer today’s youngsters, but I’m also aware that the internet contains things unsuitable for children’s eyes and minds. Like most parents, I want my children to be able to experience the web appropriately, have fun and be educated while staying safe.

I’ve run the gauntlet of opinions when it comes to children’s access to technology. I’ve flipped from thinking that a child under the age of 13 simply doesn’t need internet access on their phone, to wondering if it’s all too much hard work and maybe we should just let them free range online and trust them to come to us if they encounter a problem, then back the other way again. I worry that my kids are spending too much time staring at screens but don’t know where and how to draw the line. It seems that everyone has an opinion on the best way to  approach this issue and  Jodi Gold is no exception.

Except that Jodi Gold, MD is not just anyone. She is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice and Clinical Assistant Professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York City. And she’s written a book that will help you work out the best way to manage your child’s access to technology.

This is a book for the parents of all ages, from newborns to teens to almost grown ups. It’s full of sensible, practical advice and explains how to supervise your child’s digital footprint without stifling their online experiences. It is non judgmental, but explains the digital world our children live in, in a way that will leave you feeling relatively calm and in control of the situation.

I do wish I had read this book a few years ago, as my eldest two are now at secondary school and are well into their digital journeys. It’s more difficult to set down new rules for tweens and teens who have already had an element of internet freedom, than talk about boundaries and expectations to younger children who have yet to be unleashed on the world wide web.

Still it’s good to see that a lot of our house rules around technology are reflected in the pages of  Screen-Smart Parenting. This is a book I will keep close and dip into often, and I would urge all parents to read it at least before their children start school. The earlier the better, really.

But even if your children are older and already set in their digital ways, this is a book that still has much to offer and will give you a frame work to help you guide your children develop the tech savvy they need to become good digital citizens.

I was sent a copy of  ‘Screen-Smart Parenting: How to Find Balance and Benefit in Your Child’s Use of Social Media, Apps, and Digital Devices‘ to review but the opinions given above are wholly my own.

Soundscool Grade Five Theory Course Review

One of the much-lamented sticking points of sitting music exams is the Grade Five Theory rule. If you follow the ABRSM syllabus, then you have to pass a formal Grade Five theory exam before you can sit a Grade Six practical, no matter what instrument you play.

The reasons behind this rule are sound; in order to play and understand music in the higher grades, you really need to have a sound knowledge of how music is put together. It’s not just random, after all!

Theory  is not the most exciting subject in the music world, especially for children. And unless they have extra theory lessons, progress can seem very slow. My eldest sat and passed her Piano Grade 5 Practical in December 2013, and has just finished working through the Grade 4 Theory syllabus last month. This year she is sitting her Grade 5 practical for the Double Bass and after she can’t go any further with exams until she gets the theory equivalent under her belt.

DD1 disliked learning theory from her current piano teacher and was reluctant to devote any more of her lesson time to it. So I decided to take drastic measures.

I went online and Googled ‘Grade Five Theory Course’. I think I was looking for an online course of some sort; something that was a little bit more lively than the books she was working through with her piano teacher.

The second result down lead me to the Soundscool Website. And it sounded like it was just what I wanted.

Soundscool is a small music school not far from Reading in Berkshire. Daniel and Sandra welcome students into their lovely home and teach them piano, singing and cooking.

Soundscool Kitchen

They are a bit far away from us to use them for regular lessons, although if we lived in the vicinity I definitely would. But they also offer a two-day, Grade Five Theory course.

The course has been running for three years and during that time hundreds of people have attended. All of them have passed the Grade Five theory exam after doing the course and following up with 10 past papers afterwards, many with merits and distinctions.

We had half term coming up, and they were running a couple of course during this time. Unfortunately, both were already booked up. I send Daniel an email anyhow, and after some discussion about DD ( what instruments she played, and to what standard) he said they could fit her in to one of the half term courses. I said yes please!

Next I had to convince my 13 year old daughter that giving up two days of her half term would be a reasonable use of her precious holiday. She was not convinced, but I managed to persuade her with the promise of a night away with some one to one time with me. Luckily enough she is still fond enough of me to consider ‘mum time’ a positive thing and she eventually agreed to attend the course.

After reading the information about the course and finding it involved cooking and food, as well as theory, I was sure that DD was going to enjoy herself. But she was anxious about not knowing anyone, not being able to understand the course material and of the dreadful possibility that she might be bored.

She needn’t have worried. She thoroughly enjoyed herself over the two days and was almost in tears on the first night when I told her the next day finished an hour earlier. She made new friends, got to try out dough and pasta making, had plenty to eat and came away confident and enthusiastic about Grade Five Theory. She said that she now understands a lot of things that had confused her before and she is looking forward to sitting the exam.

Soundscool class

I honestly didn’t expect her to be so fired up about it and was thrilled to have such a positive response from her about it.

The Soundscool Grade Five Theory Course cost £200 for the two days, which included all materials, food, drink and cooking ingredients. This may sound expensive, but in London we pay £22 for a half-hour piano lesson so £200 wouldn’t even cover 5 hours worth of theory instruction. Doing this course DD got 9 hours worth of theory tuition and two hours of cooking, craft and food.

She won’t sit her exam until June, so we have plenty of time to go through the practice papers, but we are both confident that she now has the skills and knowledge to do well.

Both of us would recommend this course as a fast and fun way to prepare for a Grade 5 Music Theory exam.


RIP The Lurcher

Willow in Autumn

About a month ago, I wrote this post, about the Lurcher being hit by a car.

She went on to have surgery on her kneecap, which seemed to go well, as she was weight bearing on the leg two weeks after her surgery. Then her sutures came out and she was allowed to go for up to 4 x 10 minute walks a day.

The first day she seemed fine, but things didn’t look quite right by the morning of the second day. And by the third day after her stitches came out, she was not walking on her poorly leg at all. I took her up  to see the surgeon who had operated on her and he confirmed she would need more surgery. But it was her tendon that was a problem now, and he felt that a special implant from the States gave her the best chance of recovery.

We did discuss the possibility of amputation as this would mean a much quicker recovery time, but the Lurcher wasn’t yet five and very accident prone. We felt that if her leg could be saved, it should.

So we waited for the surgeon to find one of these implants, then for it to be allowed into the country ( this took almost a week), then yesterday we drove her up to the veterinary clinic and left her there. She was upset at being left, so I didn’t make a big deal of saying good bye, as I was sure I would be driving west to pick her up today.

But it wasn’t to be. Last night, when the Surgeon rang to say the operation had gone well, and she was recovering nicely, I managed to relax for the first time all day.

Then 10 minutes late her was back on the phone with bad news. Our beloved Lurcher had collapsed and died shortly after he had got off the phone to me. They had tried to resuscitate her, but to no avail; something had gone terribly wrong.

We could opt for a Post Mortem but it would cost more money and not necessarily answer any questions. We’ve said to leave it but will get her cremated and have her ashes returned. It may be just ‘one of those things’ but we are all devastated by the loss of our lovely girl.

This is the last photo we have of her, taken yesterday before we headed off up the M40.

lurcher on the sofa

As you can see, the sofa will now have a lot more empty space on it.

Run free Willow. We hope the rainbow bridge has plenty of comfy beds and squirrels to chase.

Why You Should Have Pet Insurance

Yes, I know it’s expensive especially if you live in or around London, but can you really afford not to have it?

I know, I know. Your pets are healthy and don’t get sick, and you are very careful that they don’t have accidents.

But sometimes accidents happen, even when no one is careless.

Willow at the vets

This is The Lurcher, in the doggy equivalent of intensive care. Yesterday she chased a fox  onto a road and got hit by a vehicle.  The red bandage on her front leg is keeping a catheter in place that allows her to be given fluids into a vein continuously. Under the blanket her side is shaved, as she’s had to have air drained out of her chest to help her breathe properly. And you can’t see in this photo, but one of her beautiful back legs is broken. She’s in shock and a lot of pain.

This photo was taken about 4 hours after the accident happened and she was stable, but out of her little mind on painkillers. She didn’t even look up when I said goodbye and left.

The accident was nobody’s fault.

I am supposed to be staying off my feet at the moment as a previously diagnosed ‘soft tissue injury’ of my left foot has turned out to be another stress fracture. I’ve already been limping around on it for 4 weeks, and it appears to be healing just fine, so the consultant felt another four weeks of semi-rest should do the trick.

So, I’ve had the dog walker in to walk our dogs three times a week instead of once. I’ve used our dog walker for ages and she’s absolutely trustworthy and sensible, so when she rang me 15 minutes after she’d picked our dogs up, my heart sunk.

She told me The Lurcher and another of her minded dogs had been running around in the local nature reserve, when they flushed out a fox. Lurchers are sight hounds, so their instinct is to chase anything that runs. The fox ran, and The Lurcher followed. Up the bank, out an exit and onto the road.

Unfortunately for The Lurcher there was a council truck coming over the crest of the hill at the time she ran out onto the road. The driver swerved to miss the fox but hit The Lurcher instead. It was a high vehicle, so the bumper was exactly the right height to hit The Lurcher’s chest and leg. A smaller dog might have gone under the truck completely and come out the other end unscathed.

The poor driver was shaken up but kindly carried The Lurcher back up the bank,  as she had run straight back down again after the impact, then stopped , obviously in pain. Our dog walker had other dogs to round up and get on leads, but as soon as she had them safe, she rang me.

When I turned up, about 10 minutes later, The Lurcher was looking pretty depressed. She didn’t want to move and was grunting while she was breathing, also she wouldn’t put weight on her left hind leg which had a wound over the knee.

We got her in my car and I drove her to our local vets. About halfway there I could hear her breathing get worse and she was getting very distressed. Part of me wanted  to stop and calm her down but I knew there was nothing I could really do, so kept driving.

Our local vets gave her some fluid , oxygen and pain relief, then told me to drive her 15 minutes away to their larger vet hospital, as she would get better care there. At this point I rang DH and explained what had happened. Thankfully he was able to get home to collect the kids from school, as I spent the next 3 hours sitting in the waiting room as the vets and nurses worked to stabilise The Lurcher.

Finally one of the vets came out and told me The Lurcher was breathing more easily after having a litre of air drained from her chest and was looking brighter having been given fluids. I was able to go and see her, but I don’t think she realised I was there. She’s not the brightest dog in the world and the drugs weren’t helping with her mental capacity.

Today, she is brighter and is able to get up on three legs. She hasn’t had any more air collect in her chest but it is still quite difficult and painful for her to breathe as her lungs are bruised from her accident. She has to be breathing more easily if she is going be able to have an anesthetic and surgery to fix her leg on Tuesday, when the orthopedic surgeon works from this hospital.

The Lurcher is going to be in hospital for 5-6 days at least, and she will need orthopedic surgery at the end of that stay. The cost of this treatment will be in the thousands so I’m very relieved that we have insurance!

Luckily the vehicle that hit our dog wasn’t damaged, as we’d have been financially responsible for that too.

In short, accidents happen even when everyone is taking all due care. And when pets are involved, they can cost a lot of money.

Don’t be worrying about the cost of your pet’s health when things go wrong.

If you have a pet, make sure they are insured. You never know when you might need it.



Girls And Boys Come Out To Play

In this day and age, I find it hard to believe that we are still subjected to the old ‘Girls’ Toys’ and ‘Boys’ Toys’ debate. But it seems there are still companies out there that think the general public needs guidance about which toys boys and girls should play with.

Come on people, it’s 2014. Surely we should have left these ideas back in the 1900s?

But no. Unbelievably, gender-stereotyped toy marketing is alive and well, online and off, according to the Let Toys Be Toys campaign. Just under 50%of the sites they surveyed still present their wares as appropriate for Boys or Girls. I’ve come across one of these sites myself while looking for presents for the kids online.

Wicked Uncle has been around for a few years now, but has some fantastic toys. It’s just a pity that the only way you can navigate the site is by looking for ‘BOYS PRESENTS’  or  ‘GIRLS PRESENTS’.

Gender stereotyping toy markieting

Sites like Wicked Uncle defend their choice to market toys by gender by saying ‘  The whole point of Wicked Uncle is to be age and gender specific to help customers. An uncle without a daughter of his own needs an ‘appropriate’ choice to assist his buying a good present for his niece. By ‘appropriate’ we have a huge range of presents from pink & girly to science & rockets, all of which are age appropriate as well (eg 6+ age guidelines). Yes, we are led by the commonly recognised blue for boys & pink for girls colour scheme, but this makes it clear & easy for our customers, as everyone knows it.’

So there you go, companies like Wicked Uncle feel that children need to be given ‘appropriate’ toys only.  However,  these days many people are challenging these ideas.

As well a couple of apostrophes, Wicked Uncle could really do with an alternative way of navigating the site. I’d prefer to see the gender navigation disappear altogether, but how about at least categorising toys by theme, age range or price as well?

Some of you may be wondering if gender stereotyping toys is really that much of a problem. Is it really hurting anyone?

I’m with the Let Toys Be Toys campaign on this one and feel that children should be encouraged to choose and play with any toy they like the look of. Offering toys dependent on gender serves only to limit the range of toys deemed ‘appropriate’ for a child’s gender, and they may therefore miss out on discovering an activity or craft that they really enjoy.

If a child has already developed a taste for a ‘non- appropriate’ toy for their gender, for example dolls for boys or vehicles for girls, then they may decide to stop playing with them,if they are then told that their interests are ‘wrong’.

And while we are on the topic of gender stereotyping, I thought I’d slip in this little gem.

It seems that it’s not just toys that are still being deemed gender specific these days. There are ‘appropriate’ words for both boys and girls too!

A friend of mine, knowing I have an interest in such things, sent me these photos yesterday.

girls words

boy's words
These were being sold in the shop of the very popular Willows Activity Farm in Hertfordshire. I didn’t know that ‘chocolate’ was a word for girls, while ‘swimming’ was for boys! Did you?

toys for boys and girls

The Gallery: Babies

4 day old baby

13 years ago today, I spent the entire day waiting to go into labour. The rest of my NCT class already had their little bundles of joy in their arms and I was absolutely convinced that I too, was going to have a baby by  the time 4.12.2001 rolled around.

Of course, I didn’t. Only 5% of pregnant women give birth on their Estimated Delivery Date, but such is the power of the ‘EDD’ that almost every first-time pregnant woman believes that their baby will miraculously spring forth from their uterus on time.

The clue is probably in the word ‘Estimated’ and despite my determination to offload my not-so-little passenger, the consumption of two pineapples and much staircase climbing, she refused to make an appearance on that day, or the next, or the next, or the next.

In fact, she didn’t even have the grace to show up before 42 weeks of pregnancy  and had to be chemically evicted in the end. Despite the horror stories that you often hear about induction, it was absolutely fine. I just wish I’d taken the pain killers earlier; there are absolutely no medals handed out in child birth.

DD1 was born 1 week before Christmas and apparently we have ruined her life by saddling her with a birthday so close to the 25th of December. I tell her I’m sorry that she has such a inconvenient birthday, but if she had chosen to arrive when she was supposed to, it would have suited us both fine.

Despite her dissatisfaction with her birthdate, the fact  remains that in 2 weeks’ time I will have a teenager on my hands. I am more scared of this stage than I ever was of giving birth.

It’s going to last longer than labour, there are no pain killers available ( unless wine counts) and medical intervention isn’t an option. Wish me luck.

This post was written in response to this week’s Gallery over at Sticky Fingers.


The Last Nativity

Eight years ago I was sitting in our primary school hall, watching my eldest take part in the school Nativity Play. She was an innkeeper, wore a tea towel on her head and had a single line. She remembered it and the words came from her loud and clear. I was the proudest Mum ever as I watched her up on that stage but for some reason I found myself welling up.

I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember what I did with DD3 that day, who was just under a year old. Perhaps a friend looked after her? I can’t remember. But I know that DD2 was at nursery; I remember thinking that the next year I’d have two girls in the Nativity, up on the stage.

That second year I realised that our school Nativity changed very little from year to year. Each Y1 class does a little play then the Y2’s provide the choir, while the Reception children act out the Nativity. It’s very sweet and over the years, as I’ve watched my children on stage as bells, stars, turkeys, donkey sellers and soldiers, DH and I have gradually learnt all the words to all the songs.

Today we went to watch our ninth Nativity play. There was some trepidation as the school now has a new head teacher, and we thought maybe he might have changed it all. We needn’t have worried. It was all exactly as it should be.

DS is now in Y2 and he was in the choir today, singing his little heart out and stopping only to pick his nose now and again. I got to the school a whole hour before the play started in order to get a decent seat. It was worth it as DS was able to see us straight away and he grinned and waved.

It was a lovely play and although DS was ‘only’ in the choir, DH and I watched every move he made. I found myself remembering the first time his eldest sister had been up on that stage;  at that point DS didn’t even exist. That thought made me feel weird and as usual, my eyes leaked a little.

But today I had a reason, as today’s play was also our Last Nativity. Next year DS will be in Y3 and the Upper School does something different for Christmas. We will never again hear those songs or watch very young children trip up over their costumes, or forget their words. Part of me feels relieved but another part feels sad. That’s a bit of school life that we can now put behind us as a family.

But if you are lucky enough to be going to watch your child’s Nativity play this year, pay attention, listen carefully and take some photos if you are allowed. Because time passes, children grow. Life happens. And sooner or later you  too will be sitting in a school hall, holding the tears back, watching your own Last Nativity Ever .


Calm Down! It’s Only November.

It’s not hard to tell Christmas is galloping over the horizon.

In case we need reminding, the TV is blaring out Christmas adverts between programmes, the high street festive lights have been on for a couple of weeks and the stores are fully stocked with all the chocolate goodies you expect from Christmas. I’ve even seen photos of Christmas trees on my FaceBook  timeline.

But today is the 25th of NOVEMBER, so we have over 4 weeks to go. Isn’t it too early for trees and carols?

I’m not saying people shouldn’t be getting organised with presentsand supermarket deliveries, but surely it’s too soon for all the decorations and advertising? It seems to get earlier each year, doesn’t it?

I was Googling to see if I could find any proof that we do indeed have Christmas foisted upon us earlier each year, and I couldn’t find any dates; just a description of something called the ‘Christmas Creep’. It tells of stores around the world stocking Christmas products in October, or even September and assured me that I’m not just imagining the whole thing.

There should be a law against it. The beginning of December is early enough, otherwise the countdown until Christmas just gets boring. Can’t we just put it all off until December, then declare it open season?

In our house, our eldest was born a week before Christmas, so a lot of the focus is on her birthday until that’s done and dusted. We do try and get the tree up before her special day though, and I can remember her asking, when she was very young, if all the decorations in a huge shopping mall were for her birthday. One year we left getting a tree quite late, and she was upset by its absence. So the tree usually  goes up around the 15th in our house.

However I have been informed that the tree is arriving on the 4th this year, so it seems Christmas Creep is a definite issue here. I’m a little worried the poor thing will be a mere twig by the 25th! Oh well, bring on the mulled wine and Christmas songs.

When do you think the Christmas Kerfuffle should start? When does the tree go up in your house?

grumpy cat


Does Charity Start At School?

This year, neither of my children’s schools did anything for Children In Need.

Nope, nothing. No dressing up, no spots, no donations. Nothing.

And I don’t really care. Our primary school has never been much into asking the kids to dress up. To me me this is a good thing.  When you have four children, the last thing you need is two days’ notice for your child to have to dress up as an orange animal, from a country beginning with ‘Y’ or as their favourite vegetable. In this house just finding a clean uniform is a major achievement. Trying to out together costumes once a year for Halloween is enough for me, thank you very much.

So I don’t mind that our schools did nothing for CIN, but I was surprised to find that some people have very strong feelings on the subject. There was a long thread asking why we didn’t do anything on our  School Parents’ FB page, and I know ours was not the only PTA in the country that was harangued on social media for our lack of participation.

A lot of schools do participate in raising funds for CIN and other charities, but should it really be up to schools to do so? CIN is a nationwide appeal and if nothing is done at school or work, surely you can watch the broadcast on TV as a family and donate that way? Our primary school supports local charities through food donations and collection buckets at concerts and assemblies, and our secondary school encourages fund raising by pupils as part of the curriculum. Neither school is uncaring, but at this time of the year parents and pupils are working hard for a different type of charity. There seems to be a limit to parental generosity, especially when it comes to time and effort.

Both of our schools, primary and secondary, have their school fairs this weekend. The money raised by these events will go directly back to our children in the form of resources that will benefit them, and the children who come after them. This money doesn’t pay for added extras anymore; it’s required for absolute necessities such as new buildings, classroom supplies, new books and fire extinguishers.

Our primary school has just under 700 pupils in it. Even allowing for single parents and multiple siblings, that means there must be over 1000 parents associated with the school. Our school fair committee has been trying to man 10 games stalls for 3 hours each. They were looking for 30 people to do 1 hour at a stall during the fair and as usual, found it difficult to fill these slots. Isn’t it amazing that out of 1000 parents, committee members had to go begging to find 30 who were willing to help? That 30 hours is just for help from people with the games on the day; the parents on the fair committee have already spent hours of their own time collecting items, sorting donations, soliciting raffle prizes, organising stalls and ticketing tombola prizes.

These are not parents who are too lazy to organise something to raise money for Children In Need. These are parents who already have too much on their plate. And it’s always the same parents year after year.

When one of these committee members joined in with the ‘Why Hasn’t Our School Done Anything For Children In Need?’ thread, and asked if anyone complaining would like to organise something for CIN next year, the thread died a quick death.Funny that.

It seems a lot of parents would prefer to send their child into school in something cute and donate to a nationwide charity, than make more of an effort to help their school raise money for their own children. Of course it doesn’t have to be either/or, people could do both, but supporting a Big Cause by throwing some coins in a bucket will always be the easier option.

Is it always the best, though?




The Gallery: School

It’s back-to-school week and I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. My kids have been back 2/3 days and are getting into the swing of it. New teachers, new friends and in DD2’s case, a new school. It’s going to take me a few more weeks of running around like a blue-arsed fly before it becomes my new normal again. I’m still on holiday time.

The big excitement this year is that DD2 has started secondary school this week. So far it’s been okay. She’s not as naturally organised as her big sister and has some sensory issues, so I had my concerns about how she would cope.  But she’s managed to find her way around the school, get to two days worth of lessons on time and already has a little gang of friends. That’s a good start , isn’t it?

So, now I have two in primary and two in secondary and I feel a bit divided.

The primary school is just up the road; I can hear them playing at lunchtime from our garden. But the secondary school our eldest two go to  is 7 miles away and although it’s only 20 minutes in the car, I do think of my two big girls often and wonder what they are doing. Secondary school is such a different world to primary; you have to start really letting your children go. Go to school on their own, let them organise their own homework and make their own mistakes.

One of the easiest ways to help them stay on top of their workload when they start high school  is to get a couple of copies of their timetables, as soon as they are given one. Before they have mutilated it too much. You’ll see I was too last in DD2’s case, this year.

Stick one copy near where they keep their books they aren’t lugging into school that day, and stick one somewhere that you have easy access to it too. I stick them above my computer desk.

high school time tables

This will help you keep an eye on what homework your little darling might have each day, and what they might need for school tomorrow. And it’s also useful to have a copy at home for when they leave their copy at school, or even lose their entire bag on public transport.

In that case, having a spare time table doesn’t mean much, but it’s something to cling to.

This post is written for this week’s Gallery over at Sticky Fingers.