Preparing for the princesses

My ‘boys don’t do ballet’ post led to some really interesting discussions on twitter. This is clearly an issue that people feel strongly about and one that affects parents in many different ways. People have sent me links to brilliant articles and sites looking at gender (in)equality. These are particularly good, especially in view of the ballet issue. http://www.pinkstinks.org.uk/cgblog/10/25/What-about-boys-Part-1.html
http://raisingmyrainbow.com/

The discussion has been very timely for us as Mollie is going through a pink phase at the moment. It is partly inspired by her love of ballet and the associated pink tutu imagery but also incorporates princesses and fairies. As much as it pains us, my wife and I are letting her get on with it. Mainly because we are hoping that it will just be a phase and we don’t want to stop her exploring it. We feel comfortable that it isn’t taking over – she has asked for a pink princess doll and a fire engine for Christmas – and we believe in equality. We want her to learn that she can, and should, have access to everything.

There has been a lot of discussion on twitter recently about the gender division in children’s books. This blog made me think about Mollie’s reading habits. Creating Mollie’s virtual library has been insightful in this respect. The picture books that she has enjoyed are, on the whole, gender neutral. There doesn’t seem to be much gender stereotyping or discrimination and the books are often full of lively, intelligent, strong characters of both sexes.

Sadly Im starting to notice this change. Peppa Pig is where the gender programming seemed to begin. Clearly it’s not something you can shield children from entirely. Instead, we have aimed to balance it out as much as possible and show Mollie as diverse a selection of characters and roles as possible. The Charlie and Lola books were the perfect Peppa Pig antidote.

Mollie is only 3 so the majority of her books are still picture books and therefore less gendered. However, she is learning to read and is beginning to pick up early reader books. The difference is really obvious. The fairies and princesses seem to have taken over this age range and I can see the gendering of the covers is starting to work. So Mollie will choose a flaky fairy book at the library and I will grab The Night Pirates to offset it. (If you haven’t come across The Night Pirates, I highly recommend it. Ninja girls for the 3-5 age range. It’s a beautiful book, with no pink!) In this way I’m trying to balance out the stereotypical images of little pink girls who need rescuing.

20121026-135503.jpg

In the interest of fairness, I should say that I don’t always have to offset. I have found a lot of the ‘pink books’ she is picking up do have strong characters in them and don’t necessarily perpetuate the stereotypical role of girl as weaker/less. This has been an important thing for me to learn. Whilst I want to stay aware of what she is reading I also want to encourage her own choices. I don’t want to stop her reading pink princess books through the assumption that they will be bad. They are often very positive. This excellent blog from the children’s book publisher Nosy Crow, discusses this and explains the reasons for the gender skew in publishing. It highlights some very good points and has some great book recommendations.

Nosy Crow’s Kate has written a follow up to her previous post that gives a more personal perspective, describing her own experiences with gendered books. It makes me think that my wife and I are on the right track. That Mollie is on the right track.

So why was I worried about the pink phase and the princess books? Because gender inequality is everywhere and it provides negative role models for our children- boys and girls. But I’m a feminist. I want my daughter to be smart enough to know what she likes and wants for herself, to have access to everything and know that she should have access to everything. And that means that it’s my job to give her access to everything*. Even when that includes pink princesses and fairies.

I’m less worried now because I’ve realised that there are a lot of people out there who are creating positive images for our children. I’ve realised that the good stuff really is out there (please do recommend some in the comments box below) and that Mollie is smart enough to know what she likes and wants for herself. She won’t stand for any rubbish and she won’t be easily sucked in by all the sickly pink marketing. And she’ll always have The Night Pirates there to rescue her if she does.

20121026-135627.jpg

*Disclaimer: ‘everything’ is a big word. Obviously I’m going to exclude the extremes. She won’t have access to a Barbie doll and she won’t have access to a toy tank. But you know, princess dolls and fire engines, they’re in.

20121026-135751.jpg

Boys don’t do ballet

Mollie’s best friend is four and loves dancing and dressing up, and dreams of one day becoming Jessie J.
He is also a boy.

Last week he came to Mollie’s ballet lesson and loved it. He’d looked forward to it all week and was so excited. He picked it up straightaway and was entranced for the whole 45 minutes. Which is a long time for a four year old boy to be entranced by anything! After the lesson they happily replayed what they had learnt, galloping up and down our lounge and discussing next week’s dancing.

But today I’ve been told that he won’t be coming to ballet again. Because his dad isn’t happy with the idea of his son doing ballet and would rather he do street dancing, or something a bit more… you know, macho.

I feel terribly sad on many levels. I’m sad that Mollie won’t have her best friend to dance with. I’m sad that her friend won’t be able to learn something that he so obviously enjoyed and had a talent for. I’m sad that the teacher won’t have a boy in the class anymore. And I feel guilty for taking him last week and showing them what they will now miss out on. But most of all I’m sad that his dad thinks that ballet is too ‘girly’ for his son.

Yes, he likes to dance and dress up. But he also likes to explore and play on his bike and with his football and in muddy puddles. The dance is just one side of his character, and one that his mum has been very careful to nurture equally with the rest. She has done a wonderful job of letting him be himself and express himself in a way that he chooses. He is a happy, creative, confident little boy because of it.

So why does his dad feel the need to stop his ballet? Does he think that male dancers aren’t masculine? That ballet will make his son gay? Maybe he should watch a ballet lift and see how strong the male dancers need to be. And, Dad, stopping ballet lessons won’t stop your son being gay. If he’s going to be gay, he’s going to be gay. And squashing any signs of anything effeminate will only teach him that he needs to hide them from you.
And he’s only four!

But you’re right, probably better to stop the ballet and send him to a street dance class. Where maybe you’ll be lucky and the boys will learn to be macho and strong and the girls will get taught to be sexy and silent.
Good luck with that.

Making time

After my last rant about the parenting-versus-writing issue I have stepped back from twitter a bit. I love the writing community on twitter but it steals time at an amazing rate. So I’ve dipped in, read a few things, chatted briefly with friends and turned it off again. It’s been quite liberating.

Now I only really read twitter in the evenings and at the weekend. So far this weekend has brought Danuta Kean’s Myslexia article on how women writers find time to work. An Alison Moore quote about writing after her baby was born, “If I didn’t sit down and do it every evening, I was admitting that I would never get round to do it.” And Jon McGregor’s response @jon_mcgregor: Striking that I’ve *never* been asked how I juggle childcare and writing, or how parenthood has affected my work. Are men ever asked this?”

This argument is never going to go away, is it. Surely the question shouldn’t be how do women writers find time to write, but how do writers find time to write. Because everyone is balancing writing with the rest of their life.

I have found that less time means more time. When I had whole days, evenings and weekends with nothing to do, I never got anything done. Now that I have considerably less time, I am forced to prioritise. I am making time for the things I care about. I am reading less, but better. Because I am ‘reading like a writer’ and being more critical, which takes longer but gives me so much more. I am making time to write, managing my time so that I have 8 hours a week to write while Mollie is at nursery. Yes it means I have to be organised and some things will slip but I prioritise the important things and let other things go. And most weeks I realise that Mollie’s nursery teachers won’t care if my tshirt isn’t ironed, the dogs won’t mind if I am writing notes on my phone while they are sniffing about on their walk. It doesn’t matter that my house is not a show home. I have a 3yr old and two dogs. It seems time-wasting to try. It’s much more important that I have quality time to play with Mollie, that she is happy. And the real time saver is stepping away from the Internet. Turning twitter off. Ignoring my emails.

For those 8 hours a week I am disciplined. I sit down and I write. I don’t touch the internet, don’t wander out to buy cake. I drink a lot of coffee and I write. Having the pressure of only 4 hours twice a week makes me work hard. I feel lucky to have those hours to do something that I love and I know what a buzz writing gives me when I get in to it and shut everything else out. If the writing doubt creeps in I think about my wife at work and daughter at nursery and I get on with it. I make a deal with myself. It’s this or the ironing pile.
I love writing. I hate ironing. There is no contest.

I am not a naturally organised person. I haven’t backed up my phone since christmas and the other day I drove for half a mile with it balanced on the roof of the car. But I want to write, so I am writing. I am making the time. I am writing this on my phone at 6:30 in the morning with Mollie cuddled on my lap watching her favourite tv show.

I always remember Jeanette Winterson’s response to the ‘I want to be a writer’ question. She simply says “Then write.” And she is right. If you want to write, you write. You get on with it and make time. Male or female, parent or not. There will always be something to distract you, be it work, relationships, twitter or domestic mess. But if you want it enough you’ll make the time to write.

Love, not less

I am always saddened to hear motherhood referred to as a beautiful club that opens up previously unachievable levels of love.
It is not a contest. It is love. We shouldn’t measure it in these terms. ‘I love more than you love.’ ‘My love means more than your love.’ No. Love is personal and can’t be measured against itself.

So when Twitter started rumbling about the article in the Telegraph where Amanda Craig claims that motherhood gives you ‘a deeper understanding of human nature’, I read the article for myself. And then I got angry. There was the same old claim – ‘No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child.’ I had an emotional response to the article that was fed by my own experiences and of those of my friends. I had a bit of a rant on twitter, Stella Duffy wrote a very articulate response to the article and I congratulated her and let it go.

Except that I couldn’t. It bothered me for the rest of the day.

When my daughter was born I lost count of the number of people who exclaimed about the immense, overpowering love that I must be feeling. But I didn’t feel love. I felt broken and resentful and sad. And terribly, terribly guilty. And it was made so much worse by the huge expectation that a mother should love her child immeasurably and uncontrollably. It was also made so much better by my hugely supportive wife, and by close friends who were honest and open and admitted that they had felt the same way. It would come. It was okay.

And it did. But it was far from the uncontrollable passion held in such high regard. It was a gradual love, a learning of this new person in my life.

So, according to Craig, am I less of a mother? Less of a woman? Less able to experience human emotion? Less able to write about the human condition? Am I a bad parent because I wrote about needing my own thinking space during the summer holidays? Is my wife less able to understand human emotions because she isn’t the biological mother of our daughter? Or is she one of the chosen ones because her love for our daughter was so immediate and obvious and open?

Of course not. That’s what these horrible articles and this awful debate do. They make you feel less. And I am sick of feeling less.

I gave it some space and then read the article again. I was still angry. And confused. She seemed to be saying that as a mother you won’t be able to write properly because you won’t have the time or the energy, but if you are not a mother you won’t be able to write well enough because you won’t have a deep enough understanding of human emotion. So that leaves… men? Why must women always be categorised and challenged against their parental status? And why so often by other women?

I understand how lucky we are to have our daughter. Not that long ago two women would not have had that choice. A lot of women who want a child are not able to. We are lucky. But equally, I’m still a woman. Still a person. Still an individual. Not any more for being a mother and not any less.

Everyone writes from their experiences to some extent, but to say that you can’t write outside of them, and miss out on something essential if you don’t have children is ridiculous and really very sad. You don’t have to be a mother to experience motherhood. It’s all around us. And being a mother doesn’t have to define you or limit you. Everyone has something that gets in the way of their writing. Children, parents, work, illness. It’s called life. Virginia Wolf is set up as an example of the perfect woman writer. Childless of course. But her own mind got in the way of her writing. There is always something. Will always be something. The key is wanting it enough to find a space to make writing a part of your life. The key is knowing who you are and not allowing others to make you feel less.

Inspiring a generation

Mollie is in love!

With Miss Gabriella, one of the performers from the circus we visited last week. Since we watched Gabriella spin from the trapeze and somersault on the Russian bar, Mollie has been jumping around the house and spinning from everything that can be spun from. Including me. She has pranced about ‘being Gabriella’ and spent lots of time on her head with her bum in the air, trying to do a handstand.

But the real revelation came from the Circus Wonderland souvenir brochure. Miss Gabriella was an olympic gymnast in the Hungarian team. And, oh look, Mollie! The olympics is on the tv, in your lounge, every day! This has opened up a whole world of joy. No more early morning Fireman Sam. Now Mollie asks for the gymnastics every morning and has decided that, more than anything else in the world, she wants to be a ‘gymnasticer’ when she grows up. She has watched the gymnastics. A lot. And swimming, rowing, athletics, and tennis. She has a little flag that she waves while she cheers Team GB and jumps up and down, wearing her plastic medal with pride.

It’s a shame that Mollie isn’t old enough to have watched and understood the importance of the opening ceremony and last night’s successes. But if she has developed this level of passion from watching daytime events with a 3 year old’s understanding, think what the older children are learning. They are the children who will be Mollie’s role models at school, her future babysitters, mentors and friends. The Olympics really are inspiring a generation.

More than a generation. Mollie is inspired. I am inspired. Watching along with Twitter last night showed a whole timeline of inspiration. Twitter was a giant group hug, celebrating diversity and talent and hope for the future. We were all full of Olympic spirit. Team GB has given us positive role models who, rather than trying to be famous, are working hard to be the best in their chosen field. What a wonderful legacy to leave to our children. It’s not about what you look like, what size clothes you wear, how many people vote for you, who you love, where you come from or how much money your parents have. It’s about finding something you love and following your dream. And anyone, everyone, has the potential and ability to do that.

So we will continue to empower Mollie with as many experiences and skills as we can, start her with some gymnastic lessons, and see where she flies.

Learning through play

On Mollie’s last day of nursery one of the mums asked me what I was planning over the holidays. When I told her I was going to start teaching Mollie to read, she looked genuinely shocked. “Won’t she be bored at school if she can already read?”

Her reaction surprised me.

Perhaps she has an idealised vision of children sat beautifully in a school library, or the book corner of a classroom, enjoying a diverse selection of stories and rhymes with Miss Honey. In reality, there is no school library because it has been turned into a computer room. The books from the book corner have been locked in the teacher’s cupboard because the government suggests that children shouldn’t have classroom access to books beyond their phonics level. There is no time to interact with books because the children haven’t done their Phonics session. Miss Honey is turning bitter, frustrated by a system that she knows won’t work.

So no, I’m not worried that Mollie will be bored if she can already read by the time she goes to school. I’m worried that she’ll be bored by the rote learning of phonics every day. I’m worried that if we don’t teach her at home, she might not learn to read at all. Because she might learn to ‘read’ phonetically but will be lost with the words that don’t fit the mould. Because she might learn to ‘read’ words but wont necessarily comprehend their meaning and relation to story, picture, life. Because she might be put off by the pretend words, the learning from lists, the dull dried version of learning that is currently being prescribed to our children. I want her to experience the joy of language, the magic of words and stories and imagination. And if the government have their way I don’t think that will be easy at school, even with the Miss Honeys of teaching.

This letter from an Early Years Consultant to Michael Rosen shows how sad the situation has become.

I believe that children learn to read through immersion in words and language and books and drama and songs and stories. Through play. Through having fun.

In the first two weeks of the summer holiday we have had fun. A lot of this fun has helped Mollie learn to read. Without her even noticing. And that’s how children learn. No need for huge budgets and plans and rules, restrictions and tests. Just fun.

We turned a dog walk in the field into a Bear Hunt. And then into a trek through Our Jungle. We spotted strange beetles, took pictures and looked them up – in a book! We read books of poems and laughed at the silly ones and made up songs and nonsense smonsense rhymes. Mollie noticed that the words in the worm poem were written down in a wiggly worm line. We read stories together and Mollie pointed out that the word ‘splash’ in The Pig In The Pond sounded like a splash.

20120729-122939.jpg

We went to WHSmiths to choose new books with Mollie’s birthday giftcard (Thank you Lucy and Charlie.) There was only half a shelf of children’s books and they were too high for Mollie to reach. (Well done ‘Smiths!) But we didn’t let that put us off. We got lots down and looked at them on the floor. We looked through the pictures and talked about titles and authors and what the books might be about and what other books the authors and illustrators had created. Mollie chose three to buy.

20120729-122616.jpg

One of her chosen few was The Singing Mermaid. It is about a mermaid that goes to sing in a circus. We had seen the circus arrive at our local park just days before. So we went to the circus and had a magical time. Then we bought a programme and we spent time looking through it together and used it to explain all the fun of our circus trip to Mummy K and Grandma and Grandad.

We went to a charity shop and found a book of fairytales that another little boy or girl had loved before. We played shops and Mummy K made the big bottle for collecting copper coins into Mollie’s book money bottle, for the next charity shop trip.

And in two weeks of fun the closest we got to a phonics lesson was playing with foam letters in the bath.

Summer Survival (or using my daughter to live out my dreams)

It is nearly time for The Summer Holidays. Mollie has one week left at nursery and then eight weeks off. EIGHT! Bye bye writing time. Bye reading time. See ya sanity.

Eight weeks.

I need a project. Something that Mollie and I can do together. Something sanity saving that we can do on the inevitable deluge of rainy days. Something that wont need space or silence, ’cause there certainly won’t be much of that, but will provide sustenance for my book cravings.

I’ve got it! I will encourage hers!

Mollie has just turned three. She loves books. Hooray! She has loved books since she was alert enough to notice them. Exploring books and reading together is a big part of our family life. Mollie has a bedtime story (or six) every night and crammed bookshelves that she delves into during the day. She enjoys making up crazy and hilarious stories and songs and generally playing with words.
I think she’s got the book bug!
My wife and I both grew up with (and through) books and I want to encourage Mollie’s interest and empower her with the ability to read.

So here’s my Plan for Summer Holidays Survival

I will take her book shopping.
To real bookshops. Where she can touch and smell the books and look at the pictures and discover new authors and illustrators. Where she can see first hand the difference between new books and books that have been loved by others- and might have secret surprises scrawled inside the covers. Where she can start choosing her own books to bring home and devour.

I will take her to the library.
I have fond memories of the children’s section of the library where I grew up. It had a magical feel to it. It felt like freedom and peace and potential. It was exciting and full of unexplored words and worlds. I would devour fiction, explore craft books for inspiration, touch and smell all the books.
Our local library is small but has a wonderful children’s section. There’s a great range of books and enough space for the children to explore them. There’s a chair in the shape of a rocket that the kids can sit inside with their books. There is story time and singing time. And there are librarians who are kind and knowledgeable and passionate about books.
Libraries are incredible resources and we need to use them before we lose them. We’ve been taking Mollie to the library since she was a baby, but if I’m honest, I don’t take her often enough now that she goes to nursery. So we will go and we will see what we can learn.

We’ll read together.
I truly believe that learning to read involves more than phonics. It’s about instilling a love of words, books and pictures. It’s learning the connections between words and pictures, words and other words, words and their meanings.
So yes, I’ll teach her phonics, but I’ll also teach her about books and words and illustrations and rhymes and typography and authors and illustrators and drama and singing. Michael Rosen is very articulate about this on his blog here.
I like him. I think I’ll get Mollie some more of his books.

I will make her a virtual library
After a Twitter exchange with Gillian Stern about her daughter’s reading progression from Maisy to Marquez, I started thinking about Mollie’s love for books and how quickly she is progressing. That led me to think about all the books she has read and loved in her little life, how she favours some and asks for others when she’s in a particular mood. I often wish I’d kept a book journal when I was younger, so Mollie’s Library is my attempt to use my daughter to live out my dream – parental prerogative!

And for me…

I will turn this…

…into something that resembles this…

20120708-182721.jpg

Beautiful, isn’t it. I want a rainbow bookcase!
It’s Shelley Harris’ fault. She started it! “@shelleywriter: Here’s some book porn from my blog: http://t.co/cRJyNRVe

Ok, my bookshelves are tucked in under my stairs and are currently part my books, part Kerry’s records and part Mollies ‘art stuff’, but I WILL make it into a beautiful rainbow. You see if I don’t. In fact, you can see that I’ve already had a little test at the top of my shelves. I jumped in without proper planning and had to sit back and contemplate a bit more. But I’ll get there.

Updates on The Summer Project(s) to follow.