5 things I’ve learnt about long car journeys with small children…

Thirteen hours in a car with two small children does not sound like fun. Unfortunately, (or possibly very fortunately) I didn’t think about this before I booked our holiday in the Vendee… a thirteen hour drive away. I spent a long time researching ways to entertain a two year old and a five year old (and had two willing volunteers to test them) and here’s five things I learnt:

1. It is important to know where you’re going – printing off a map of the journey with the route on seemed to give Quibble a sense of ownership because he could see where we were. ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ was replaced with the slightly less annoying ‘where are we on the map?’
2. Busy hands make for quiet mouths – Both kids love play-doh, so to make it child friendly I put it in balloons making a stress-ball that could be squashed into simple shapes (although Squeak’s bananas bore little resemblance to the actual fruit). Another favourite was fiddling with pipe cleaners – Quibble made me a crown, a bracelet and a snowman and Squeak, well, she mostly just squashed them.
3. I Spy gets old very quickly – we were bored of it before we left Derbyshire, but we got a lot of mileage from a ‘Who can see..?’ variation and the kids excelled at ‘What am I?’ where we tried to guess the object, person or animal from a noise (Squeak always roared, even after Quibble tried to explain the rules to her). As Quibble loves counting, we tried counting how many of a certain thing (e.g. cow or tractor) we saw in a given time, sometimes trying to predict the answer first. I brought a couple of EyeSpy books with us, and although the kids are too young to start ticking them off and working out their point score, they quite liked going through them and announcing what they had seen.
4. Bags of toys rock – I gathered up all of their smallest toys (many were freebies from magazines) and found two little homemade cloth bags (previously given to them as party bags) to give out special treats whenever they really were bored. Lots of parents recommended wrapping toys, but putting them just a couple at a time in the little bags to pass back required less forward planning, created less mess and meant the same toys could be re-‘presented’. Their favourites were finger puppets, toy phones (they liked to phone each other) and old wallets filled with pretend money and out of date business cards.
5. If all else fails, snacks can save you – We had bottles of water, breadsticks, snack bars, boxes of raisins, biscuits and kinder treats, but the most popular snack by a long way was the fresh baguette we’d bought for lunch eaten Lady and the Tramp-style.

French bread is the best snack!
Baguette babies!

5 things I’ve learnt about how to eat from feeding children

20130902-135554.jpgFive Things I have learnt about how to eat from watching Squeak:

1. Finger foods make excellent projectiles – Cheerios are ideal for this and can be thrown the full length of our kitchen-diner, although carrot sticks make a pleasing ‘thwuck’ when they hit the ground and bananas have the added bonus of sliding across the laminate.
2. Forks and spoons just slow you down – scrambled eggs, baked beans and soggy shreddies are all quicker and tastier when scooped up with your hand – preferably with both hands.
3. A messy eater is a happy eater – food around the face and hands may suggest that a baby has eaten, but definitely proves that they have had fun playing (this may be related to the above points…).
4. Baby can survive on breadsticks alone – versatile for snacks and meals, handy to take out, can be handed back to a child in a car seat while driving and can be clutched two in each hand for at least an hour, should the future supply be doubtful.
5. The best form of bribery is snacks – total silence will cost a small pot of chocolate ice cream and happy child can be bought with a pot of raisins.

Five Things I have learnt about how to eat from watching Quibble:

1. It will always taste better from someone else’s plate – ideally chocolate from Mummy’s plate or anything from Daddy’s plate as these get the best reactions.100_4727
2. You can never have too much pasta – cheesy pasta, pasta with cheese, tomato pasta, tomato pasta with cheese, sausage and pasta…
3. Previous eating habits are no indicator of future eating habits – In less than four years the following have all gone from firm favourites to threaten-me-with-them-and-I’ll-cry: hummus, peas, broccoli, sliced tomatoes, rice, risotto, cake and any kind of soup.
4. Rejected food must not be allowed to remain on the plate – that lone pea may well contaminate the rest of the meal and should at the very least be thrown onto the table.
5. The best form of bribery is snacks – silence will cost a bag of fruity flakes, a happy child can be bought with slices of apple with raisins and chocolate drops and for a chocolate Rice Krispie cake Daddy will never find out what really happened to his car magazine…

5 things I have learnt about being a working parent

When I first went back to work after having Quibble, I only taught two days a week and I hated being there so little. At the start of the new school year I went back to being full time, eventually dropping back to four days and after Squeak was born. I am much happier, which makes me a better parent, but juggling home and work is not easy. Here’s how I try and stay on top of it:

1. Preparation – This is the thing that makes the biggest difference, but is also hardest to keep on top of. In practical terms, Quibble and Squeak’s clothes for the morning are chosen before bedtime, breakfast things are put out ready and nursery bags are checked in the evening. We have a store of children’s birthday cards and suitable presents, to avoid panics the morning of a birthday party, and I use my phone to remind me in advance of themed nursery events requiring costumes, reply slips or payments. And I choose three busy bags to put out for Quibble each day to combat that moment when I’m elbow-deep in cooking and he whines ‘I’m bored of my toys, Mummy’.

2. Share the load – As we both work, Stanchion and I divide up the household responsibilities between us. Some we alternate (early morning get-ups), some we take sole responsibility for (washing or cooking), some we know we just both need to do. Quibble is getting to an age where he can help by laying the table or tidying up toys, for example. Even Squeak will play a game of putting things in a toy bin (although we have to be quick to move her before she empties it again). And if grandparents offer to help, we take it (with lots of ‘thank you’s!).

3. Structure free time – It is tempting to either try to get jobs done or just relax at the weekend, but not only is that not fair on Quibble and Squeak, it means I miss out on playtime. By making sure that at least one of us does some sort of fun outing with the kids (even just walking to the swings), they get a focus to the day and we get to have fun together. During Squeak’s naptime, we try to have a more relaxing time for us and Quibble – watching a TV programme, playing a quiet game or reading books – and having had some quality time, he’s often happy to play on his own for a while so we can get things done. And if either of us need to go and run an errand, we take a child with us – chatting in the car or on the walk gives them that precious one-to-one time.

4. Use cheats and shortcuts – I often read the blogs of stay-at-home mums where they have spent time creating fantastic busy bags or craft activities for their children that I wish I had time for. Luckily, there are hundreds of cheats and shortcuts that can be used, so Quibble’s busy bags contain things jigsaw puzzles, magnet games or stickers. They still entertain him, but take very little time to put together. I buy Mister Maker craft sets when I see them on offer, I steal (‘borrow’) the good ideas that I see my friends doing on Facebook, I shop online to avoid travelling to supermarkets and we also have a cleaner: anything to give us more family time.

5. Cut yourself some slack – This might make it sound like things always run smoothly in the Commonsense house, when of course they don’t. Plans get derailed, things get forgotten, chores stack up. It isn’t possible to do everything all the time. And when time is short, I don’t want to waste it on guilt or worry. In the words of Scarlett O’Hara; ‘After all… tomorrow is another day’.

5 things I have learnt about organising a party for a four year old

1. Have a theme
For his fourth birthday Quibble wants a dinosaur party. I have no idea where this request has come from as he has no dinosaur toys or books – I would even struggle to think of any TV programmes he’s seen with dinosaurs in. He spends far more time playing with cars, pretending to be a knight or a superhero. But he is adamant. And so here I am; organising a dinosaur-themed party, sending out dinosaur invitations and buying dinosaur stickers, dinosaur name badges, dinosaur napkins, cups, plates, tablecloth…

2. Invite people
Quibble spends four days a week at nursery. I recognise many of the children in his class and I even know some of their names, but there seems very little consistency in which ones Quibble refers to as his friends. When asked who he wanted to invite, he would happily give me five names, but these names changed every time. After two days of pulling my hair out, I asked his key worker who he played with most who laughed and said, ‘Everybody, he’s a very sociable boy.’. Luckily, by the following day she had narrowed it down to manageable number.

3. Organise some games
Some party games never go out of fashion. A quick internet search reveals the essentials; pass-the-parcel, musical statues, colouring on stand-by. It also revealed the golden-rule for four year olds: kids don’t like being out – give them stickers or sweets to stop the tears. Of course the best thing about having a theme is ‘theming’ the games, which is why we will be having dinosaur books out (for emergency quiet time), dinosaur pictures to colour, little plastic dinosaurs to excavate in the sandpit and be playing ‘Pin the horn on the triceratops’, ‘Feed the T-Rex’, ‘What’s the time Mr Dinosaur?’ and ‘Musical dinosaurs’. Sometimes, I suspect I am the one who enjoys themed games most of all.

4. Feed the guests (not to the dinosaurs)
I have been to quite a few parties now and there’s really only a few things that kids actually eat: simple sandwiches (ham/jam/cheese), crisps, biscuits and cake. I think I’ll do some sticks of carrot and cucumber so the parents can put them on the plate and we’ll pretend it’s a balanced meal. Enough so grown-ups can pick at the leftovers (even though I will be making sure they have drinks and biscuits). The cake, Quibble tells me, must be a dinosaur cake. Really, it’s all about how it looks as he doesn’t eat cake. Buying one seems too expensive and a quick internet search suggests I should be able to make a stegosaurus by making round cakes, cutting them up, sticking them together in a dino-shape with jam, covering the whole thing in dyed-green buttercream and adding toblerone spikes and chocolate button spots. Just a few easy hours of slaving ahead…

5. Be enthusiastic
At this point I am grateful I am a teacher, because it has taught me that kids of any age respond to energy and enthusiasm. You need to be exciting, on their level and ever-so-slightly unpredictable. Then they will follow you, play the games, line up for the party games and enjoy the organised fun. Especially if you keep encouraging (bribing) them with stickers.