On Sunday, the middle girl came home from a friend's birthday party and excitedly burst through the front door with a great big smile on her face, announcing she had great news to tell me. "I know how to blow up balloons!" she declared. The joy she conveyed in this was enough to make even the grumpiest person crack into a smile and wish they were five years old again. Which, is just as well. The sound track to my weekend (in which I was alone with the younger three whilst hubby skipped off up a mountain with the seven year old) had been the seemingly non-stop cries (and back arching that goes with it) of a teething nine month old. The only thing that would placate the wailing one over breakfast/lunch/dinner times was being allowed to sit on my lap and hold/nibble/smear a rusk whilst waiting for the drugs to kick in.
So no prizes for guessing which parent I think had the better deal this time round, eh?!
Anyhow, my camera was close by, so I snapped a couple of pictures of the proud middle girl as she demonstrated her new skill to me with a balloon that we fished out of the random odds and ends drawer (every house needs at least one of those, right?).
So, onto my tips on how to make life with small children easier. I say this as a mum of four who is by no means an expert parent (as you're about to realise), but, I think we can all share the good bits that work for us when we hit upon them, huh? And, I am blatantly hoping this post will spark off a discussion in the comments section, where you can chip in and share your own little gems of brilliance that help you get through the day with your sanity still in tact at the end of it (particularly ones about getting through mealtimes without wanting to throttle one or all of your children, and also succeeding at getting them to tidy up after themselves without the need to be asked/yelled at a dozen times first).
1. Hide the empty Easter egg boxes before you go to bed.
Yes, this was my first fail of the day. Stealing yummy treats from my own children. But we've all done it, right? You get to the end of a long day, children in bed (finally!), and you find yourself craving chocolate. Popping out to the shops isn't an option (either because they're in bed or you are too lazy), and then you remember there is a supply of chocolate gazing down at you from on top of the kitchen cupboards. Whatever naughty act you have been up to, remember to hide the evidence before going to bed, so you aren't confronted with your crime before having chance to wake up properly enough to lie convincingly. In this case, it was my four year old who caught me out. And she did a very good indignant tone of voice when she questioned me about why there was an empty Easter egg box next to the sofa.
I should add to this, that I did apologise. It turns out ice creams after school from the shop round the corner from us were a perfectly acceptable exchange to them for the one lost Easter egg. Who knew, eh?
2. Remember to leave money for the tooth fairy (if your child believes in it).
The seven year old lost a tooth while she was away climbing a mountain. She could just about get her head round the idea that the tooth fairy might not have known where she was staying (nice one, Daddy), but she went to school on Monday morning downright grumpy with our mythical friend after she had failed to show up a second night. Oops. Surely I am not the only forgetful one on this front, am I? As dispelling the myth seems a bit cruel on the younger ones, I considered faking a note of apology from the tooth fairy herself, before opting to leave an extra coin under the pillow (by way of implied apology). I thought the fake note might back fire and lead to more questions I wasn't ready to answer first thing in the morning. Next time round, I'm going to set myself a reminder on my phone or something, timed to go off at my own bedtime, to avoid this happening again.
3. Teach them to make a cup of tea.
Several months on, I am still congratulating myself for teaching the seven year old to do this. Yes, it's handling kettles of boiling water, but I think children can thrive off being shown how to handle risky situations. She feels enormous pride, I heap on the praise ("Oh, that is just the way I like my tea, aren't you clever?!" etc) and occasionally get a cup of tea bought to me in bed as a result. Sending the the child off to perform the grown up task of tea making also acts as a great decoy when needed (i.e. to break up an argument with younger siblings, or to keep them occupied whilst you deal with another child induced crisis going on).
4. "Saturday Sweets"
Some may call this bribery, but I see it differently. Sweets aren't an everyday thing in our house, which is why Saturday Sweets are such a big deal to them. Indeed, the seven year old has been heard complaining on more than one occasion this week that she missed out on hers at the weekend (because she was away for the weekend, having a LOVELY time, I hasten to add - not that she sees the lack of sweets in quite the same perspective). There is a wonderful old fashioned sweet shop in "the posh arcade" in our home town of Bedford, and, each week, the girls are allowed to spend 50 pence on sweets. The ultimate sanction in our house is losing out on this treat. Sometimes, I offer them the opportunity to earn back their right to buy sweets by doing household jobs (even the four year old can do a passable job of hoovering a room when her sweets depend on it). It is a truly tough visit to the sweet shop when one or more child is still not allowed sweets. The ladies in the shop know us well, and I am sure they wince slightly and look a bit sorry for the girl in question when they twig it is a sad day where this punishment has to happen.
5. Send them on an indoor expedition
This idea has been taken straight out of one of the Alfie books by Shirley Hughes. Alfie and his little sister are stuck inside on a wet day, and his (wise) grandmother gives them a bag with supplies (snacks) and sends them off on an indoor expedition, encouraging them to pretend each room in the house is a different type of territory to explore. My girls first asked if they could do this about a year or so ago, and it has become an excellent regular activity that takes up an otherwise dull afternoon in the school holidays. Best of all, beyond the initial set up of giving them suitable snacks to fill their rucksacks with, this activity requires no parental input (beyond being expected to admire their efforts to cross a river in a cardboard boat, etc).
6. Be prepared to leave the house quickly
I am lucky enough that my teacher hubby has more time off during the school holidays than most parents get. But, there are still plenty of days when it is just me and the four of them. Last summer, with a newborn baby in tow, I realised an important coping strategy for times when everything was going pear shaped was to be able to scoop them all up and leave the house quickly. It didn't matter where we were going - what mattered was to be able to have a quick change of scenery. Amidst the noise, I'd declare we were all going out for a walk and that everyone had to have their shoes on and be by the front door in under five minutes. More often than not, the fact I'd felt the need to declare we were all leaving the house meant that at least one person would immediately launch an official protest about my decision (which, I'd ignore completely). Meanwhile, I'd bundle the baby into the sling, pick up my key and cash card and be ready to be out the door (dragging the reluctant one with me as we went). I've come to realise that sometimes, being able to leave the house for just half an hour is more important than stopping to pack great big bags of stuff to cover every possible small child related eventuality. Sometimes we just head to the park, and sometimes it is the supermarket (which has some swings next to it). These impromptu outings can be the thing to stop me from feeling like committing murder in certain situations!
7. Stop thinking everything ought to be perfect (and home made).
This can apply to all sorts of things, be it food or presents for friends' parties. It took me years to realise it didn't matter if they mixed the Play Doh colours up until it became that shade of grey purple it goes. Any other parent who has limited their child to playing with one colour at a time will be able to relate to this. At about the same time as I realised that my children didn't care if the colours got mixed up, the penny started to drop and I realised I could relax and give myself an easier time with lots of other things relating to them. For instance, on the issue of what they wear. I battled with the (now) four year old for about six months over her insistence over wearing leggings and Wellington boots every day, before realising that was a pointless battle. Now that I have four children to get out of the house every morning, I am just grateful that she is so independent when it comes to things like getting dressed.
So, give yourself a break. No one will judge you for it - and most other parents will probably feel relieved to see you taking an easy option from time to time. A very recent case in point for me is buying book tokens (or, if they are with me, letting my child just choose a book for their friend) instead of agonising over what thoughtful gift (be it hand made or otherwise) to give for the many children's parties that happen. As a mum, I have come to think a book/token is a truly thoughtful gift on many levels, not least because it gives the parents of the child one less toy to nag their own children to put away. Besides, having watched my own children enjoy having spending power to choose a book when they've been given a token, I have no guilt in giving them out now.
8. Stop worrying they will starve or be malnourished if they reject the dinner you have put in front of them.
It took me almost a year to work this one out with our eldest, and I am sure I unwittingly turned her into a fussy eater in the process. Thankfully, she eats like the proverbial horse now. That isn't to say mealtimes are a breeze. I have mentioned before that they are often my least favourite part of the day, but that is more to do with the constant getting up and down and generally being outnumbered by them. The middle girl normally causes the most grief, but one thing I have started doing that works is to (after a warning) remove her from the room and make her finish her meal elsewhere in isolation. Or, if everyone else has almost finished (she drags mealtimes on a marathon scale), to leave her in the dining room to eat alone while the others go elsewhere and play/watch TV. It is surprising how fast she manages to eat when she wants to! On plenty of other occasions, I give her a time limit, and she ends up going to bed not having had a great deal to eat. Not nice to do.
9. Don't accidentally whack them over the head with the new Swingball ball.
I have learned this parenting gem over the last week! Oddly enough, it puts them off their new garden toy quite quickly...
10. Assume they will remember (and repeat) all the things you wish they wouldn't remember (and repeat)
Oh, how I regret that easy half hour spent letting them watch pop videos on YouTube. I thought I was being so clever in introducing them to some music I liked and had listened to - if only it wasn't The Spice Girls Wannabe that had captured their imagination so. Six months on, they will still break into a rendition of it at times when I am least expecting them to (and wish they wouldn't -like in the middle of the supermarket). Same applies to when they start school. Oh, I am convinced there are some pretty knowing looks coming from the other side of the table at parents' evenings, and I dread to think what they know about the inner workings of our family life.
And finally, look what gorgeousness the postman delivered yesterday. This is going in a frame as a reminder for the seven year old of her special time with Daddy at the weekend, and, as a reminder to me (for the next time she is having a tantrum) that she is lovely really.
I hope you liked my ramblings. Please feel free to chip in and share your own comments of what works (or funny stories about what doesn't) for you as a parent to little ones.