Following the recent parliamentary inquiry into the role of schools in children’s mental health was a pretty grim experience. Just when I thought the stats couldn’t get any worse, a new clutch of horrific numbers would appear. Anyone who claims there isn’t a crisis in children’s mental health just isn’t looking at the numbers. And although the final committee report is full of good intentions, the lack of hard cash to back it up (and the demographic bulge which is about to create a surge in teenage numbers) leaves me unconvinced that change is about to happen.
For those of you who missed it, some of the key statistics are below. Be warned, they are scary and I wouldn’t blame you if you chose to skip them…
Calls to ChildLine reporting suicidal thoughts are up by 33%
Self-harm hospital admissions are up by more than 50%
79% of children say they experienced emotional distress after starting secondary school
In a school class of 30 children, on average, three will suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder
1 in 3 young people do not know where to get help if they feel depressed or anxious
Children’s mental health services (CAMHS) are experiencing unprecedented demand. Waiting times have doubled since 2010/11. 23% of referrals are turned away completely.
During one week in March 2017 there was not a single bed available in the whole country for an inpatient admission for a child/teenager in mental health crisis
Only 40% of parents are confident they could identify mental health problems in their child
Last week I had a frantic call from The Daily Mirror. They had picked up some research on 50 ‘lost’ skills that today’s children are not learning and wanted commentary from a parenting expert. As usual, when it comes to journalism, they needed a response URGENTLY. Please could I come up with a list of the 20 most important life skills children should learn. I had 30 minutes.
The original research had been sponsored by Addis Housewares so was predictably full of domestic tasks such as darning socks and making jam. In my list, I tried to widen this (and make it a bit less gender stereotyped) to include financial management and car/bike maintenance and communication skills. I can’t say it was my most inspired 30 minutes ever but it did get me thinking.
Mulling it over afterwards, what intrigued me was not so much which exact life skills children should learn but how children learn practical life skills and why it is/isn’t happening.
Looking at my own family and friends, it does seem that children are not picking up the same practical skills they would have been equipped with 30 years ago. By the time I was twelve, I could definitely change a plug, make a cup of tea, repair a bike puncture, sew, knit, dust, hoover, grow plants, make an apple crumble and light a fire. I am not sure I could say the same for many of the kids I know (and certainly not for my own). Continue reading →
Take a look at any school playground and you will see that often boys and girls play differently. How do they differ? What are the implications for their child development? What does it mean for how parents raise girls and boys?
Like most parents, I am very keen to support my children to do as well as they can at school. And now that my two boys are in their GCSE years, the pressure is really on. It’s time to translate potential into the kind of results that will open doors to the next stage of their lives.
Now, much as I love him and am blinded to his faults, it’s very apparent that one of my lovely boys could never be accused of being overly engaged with his schoolwork. ‘Do enough to get by’ is usually his motto. Don’t get me wrong, he has a phenomenal ability to focus and stay on task when he is interested. I have no doubt that when he finds his niche he will fly with it. It’s just that his passion and self-motivation seldom seems to coincide with what he is studying at school.
Not ideal for upcoming GCSE examinations.
So when I was contacted by Audiopi to do a review of their GCSE/A Level audio tutorials, I spotted an opportunity. Audiopi offered me free access to all their revision tutorials in return for an honest review. Quick to spot the faintest chance to ignite an interest in actual school topics, I readily agreed.
Predictably, the boy was less keen and not the least bit enticed by the offer of a treasure trove of learning – so I resorted to bribery and offered to pay him a fiver out of my own pocket to do a review for me. Anything to get him at least looking at the website. (Don’t judge me you parents of tweens – just wait till you are staring down the barrel of GCSEs and then we’ll see how many are left on the moral high ground!). Continue reading →
I know it is not just me who finds men and boys so much harder to buy gifts for. Having been outnumbered by the males in my family for so long, I find myself increasingly desperate each Christmas to come up with new ideas to put in their stockings. My husband’s solution is to opt for joke presents but I can’t help striving for something that might actually do the kids some good and not end up in the bin by the end of the day.
Books are, of course the ideal solution. Educational and pocket-sized they are ideal stocking fillers. But choosing a book that will actually be read and won’t just gather dust isn’t so easy. I know there are boys who love reading but there are also lots who will only pick up a book if forced…
So, whether you are buying for dads, sons, uncles, nephews, brothers or friends, here are my top recommendations for books to put in their stockings that they will love and that you will feel good about. Continue reading →
“Is it a boy or a girl?” is one of the first questions we ask about a new baby. But is there a hardwired biological difference between boys’ and girls’ behaviour or is it all a question of how society pigeonholes them? How important is gender in child development? How do parents’ attitudes towards gender affect children?
Is it possible to raise girls and boys in a gender neutral way without the influence of gender stereotypes? What can parents do to counter gender bias in children’s lives? Here are a few thoughts on why gender neutral parenting is doomed to fail but why we should all be trying to do it anyway.
Lots of parents find talking to children about sex, bodies and relationships difficult. But not talking about those topics can send out a powerful message. Feeling that certain bits of their body are taboo can leave children unable to negotiate issues around intimacy – or even just seek medical help – when they are adults. More than half of young women in the UK avoid seeing their GP about sexual or gynaecological concerns and two-thirds of 18-24 year olds say they would be too embarrassed to use the word ‘vagina’ when talking to a doctor.
For young people, being able to talk about their bodies and express their wishes around intimacy is a key component in staying healthy and safe. It is essential for avoiding sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancy – both of which have lifelong and potentially life-limiting consequences. In the worst case scenario, it is the difference between life and death. Diseases such as cervical cancer and testicular cancer strike young and have a much higher survival rate if they are caught early. Half of the young women who say they are reluctant to visit a doctor about intimate issues say it is because of fear of a physical examination. But a quarter of them say it is simply because they would not know which words to use. Continue reading →
Contrary to popular belief, being able to read, write or do arithmetic are the least important skills that a pre-schooler needs in order to be ready to start school. In fact, only 4% of teachers rate these as important factors in ‘school readiness’.
So what is school readiness, why is it important and what can parents do to ensure their pre-schoolers get off to a flying start at school?
The most important factors that determine whether a preschooIer is ready for learning have nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with attitude. The best learners (whether they are four or eighty-four) are independent, confident to try things out and, above all, curious. For a four-year-old, that means being able to manage their own bodies and interact competently with their environment, being able to recognise similarities/differences, trying different solutions to solve problems and using words to ask questions. Continue reading →
Lots of the characteristics that we associate with maturity are related to the brain’s frontal lobes. This part of the brain governs our higher executive functions such as being able to switch between tasks, weighing things up and planning ahead. The frontal lobes are not fully developed until early adulthood (around 25 years old) – which goes some way to explaining why teenagers can look so mature on the outside but make such bad decisions.
There is quite a bit of evidence that girls’ frontal lobes tend to develop faster than boys’. This might explain the truism that girls mature earlier and might also be one factor in why teenage girls do better at GCSEs than boys. Being better at task planning, time management and self-organisation is a real advantage when it comes to studying.
But, while we are waiting for our teens’ brains to catch up and get with the programme, there is a lot parents can do to provide external structures and tools for teaching teens self-organisation skills (regardless of whether they are girls or boys).
A quick glance through the shelves of the children’s section in the library is enough to know that the majority of male figures in children’s stories adhere firmly to gender stereotypes: dads work, boys are brave and none of them do the housework. Not much help if one of your parenting aims is rebalancing gender bias and raising empathetic boys!
So I set out to find some picture books that might provide younger children with a few counter-cultural images of men as caring, emotional, gentle and patient.
This is my selection – I can’t guarantee that you will succeed in raising empathetic boys just by reading these books together (that’s a lifelong endeavour) but at least you will be exposing your young boys to the idea that there is more than a one-size-fits-all approach to being male. (Got a girl? Try these Books for raising confident girls!) Continue reading →
In terms of child development, the differences between boys and girls are far outweighed by their similarities. All children basically have the same needs regardless of their gender. And yet “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” is almost always the first piece of information we give (or ask for) about a newborn baby. Socially, gender is a very important fact.
There are different schools of thought as to whether gender differences are hardwired into babies’ brains or are a product of social conditioning. In reality, it’s almost impossible to disentangle whether differences between boys and girls are biological or social because, right from birth, adults treat boys and girls differently. Continue reading →
Sometimes, if you want to tear teens away from their tech and grab some quality family time, the best plan is to get them out of the house for the whole weekend and as far away as possible from the temptations of that Xbox. Occasionally, I have managed to convince my two to leave all their gadgets behind, but usually I opt for a strategy of booking relatively low-tech accommodation and keeping them as busy as possible once we are there.
Camping is the ultimate option for reducing tech (though I realise not everyone shares my passion for a weekend without a warm shower or a good night’s sleep). The lack of Wi-Fi and electricity means there is simply no arguing about who is watching what or playing which device – it’s a game of cards or read a book or have a conversation!
My mission to find new ways to entice my teenagers to make more time for family activities (and less time for tech) continues. Now that the weather is warming up, the options are widening – and our early successes with indoor caving and climbing and bouldering have predisposed the teens (just a little) to come along for the ride.
The trickiest bit is finding family activities that all of us will enjoy. Two of us like running: two don’t. I love high ropes: my husband thinks they are hell on earth. We all enjoy bowling – but I’m not convinced that bowling really counts as a high-energy family activity?
Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of reward charts. They help children to focus on the behaviour that is expected from them and they remind parents to catch their children being good and pay attention to it.
But when it comes to teenagers, a sticker chart is not going to do the trick. A slightly more grown up approach is required. One version of this is a ‘behaviour contract’.
The idea of a behaviour contract is that, just like a reward chart for younger children, it sets out clearly what behaviour is expected, what rewards or privileges will be earned by doing that behaviour but also what the consequences will be for misbehaviour.
A behaviour contract works best when the target (good) behaviour is clearly defined, when the rewards are achievable and when your teenager cares about the rewards and the consequences. Breaking habits takes effort – from both you and your teen – and behaviour contracts only succeed when both of you are on board. Continue reading →