How To Make Parenting and Everything Else Less Hard Work

IMG_1543-0.JPG I used to say being enlightened seemed like too much work to me. I imagined all the urges you would have to conquer. You would need to study, and meditate, and pray, and do hours and hours of yoga, I thought. It seemed much easier to give in to the urge to eat too much, drink too much, talk too much, spend too much, even if it meant sometimes having a panic about it all. Not to mention, wouldn’t you get bored, just sitting around all day long thinking benign thoughts. I would have to work really hard to tolerate the stillness, the vast silence of enlightenment. I assumed that I was just not spiritual and that was that for the Infinite and I.

I never considered whether it was hard work being unenlightened.

Now, I think that it must be, because you are always acting on urges or assessing your actions. Either you are working to satisfy your ego by attaining goals, or you are trying to recover your resources in some relatively healthy or unhealthy way. Your mind naturally turns to the next step, the outcome, the anticipation of pleasure or success. When plans work out, it is great, but there is always a next thing to think about, so relief is short-lived. When life does not seem to be going well, frustration, anxiety, or despair wraps us in dark cloud. It is like living on a battlefield, mobilising your troops this way and that, day in day out. The rush of winning, or the respite of truce can feel wonderful, but the other side is always there to take you down.

I began to realise that people don’t become zen by winning their battles, but by leaving the battlefield altogether. It is not an act of seizing ultimate control, but one of relinquishing the need for it. I also understand that you can be spiritual by appreciating the moment you are living right now, and putting your faith in people around you. No studying, chanting, yoga, or meditation is necessary. All you have to do is settle down, maintain an open mind, and establish a rapport with the world.

Obsessing over the urge to change, or escape from, your current situation is hard work indeed, and without enlightenment this is what people are doomed to do. Whether you are trying to control yourself or your circumstances, it is a fight that you are creating. This is fabulous news, because you can also walk away from it. I use the pronoun ‘you’ here, not to differentiate between me and you, but in the rhetorical sense to indicate that this applies to myself and others ALL the time.

Sometimes, I can feel when I am fighting my present moment, and stop doing it. At least, I can reliably spot the signs of unnecessary struggle after the fact. I can look at my smarting emotions and realise that I just charged into a battle and came out the worse, but it is all invented anyway, so I can get over it and move on. I am learning.

Like the other day, our youngest daughter woke up crying and I went to comfort her. She carried on wailing and I continued to try and ‘get her down to sleep’. I tried stroking her head, rocking her, offering her a dummy, a boob. Nothing was working and she was disturbing the other kids, which was not going to help.

‘She’ll go off in a minute’ I kept thinking, but she didn’t.

I kept trying to get her off to sleep in her room because I thought ‘what if I set a new precedent and she decides she wants to get up every night?’. Leaving the room was inconsistent with our routine and might disrupt her sleep even further. I had been warned that, now she had entered toddlerhood, it was the time to ‘lay down the law’ and to be firm about rules. I was scared that she had grown into a new phase where the comfort measures she was accustomed to had started to fail and I couldn’t think of anything new to do other than let her lie there and cry.

Our son woke up and also started crying. I tearfully told our daughter that I didn’t know what to do. She kept crying and I lay there unhappily next to her. I gave up on the idea of ‘getting her off to sleep’ and I picked her up. We headed for the living room. She immediately stopped crying and was soon asleep. I sat there by the fire, holding my sleeping baby. Recovering myself a bit. I took her back to bed in her room and she didn’t wake up.

In the morning, I could see the situation for what it was. When our daughter woke up and cried, I tried everything that usually worked to get her to sleep and it didn’t. I was resolute that she should go back to sleep in her room, and was worried about the dire, far-reaching consequences of this not happening. She was unable to sleep in those conditions, so in that particular moment we were at impasse. All I could do was lie there feeling awful and listen to my child crying. It was only when I gave up and we left the room that she could do what she needed, and wanted to do, which was exactly what I wanted her to do too. When I abandoned the conditions about how that should happen, the effect was immediate in both of us.

Doh! It’s always so damn obvious after the fact: “Get out of the way mum! I can’t work like this!”

It is easily done. Parents often get stuck in ideas about how things should be, when actually they just need to look at how things are. Parents are often advised to take control over their children: ‘They won’t like it, but it’s for their own good’. There is a difference though, in helping them to establish good habits, and in trying to force them to conform to an ideal. It is important to have faith that children can guide themselves too. To consider that they sometimes know what they need better than we do. With faith, there can be rapport and partnership.

I can’t say that I see the more enlightened path every time it presents itself. However, I can see how much less there really is to do and to worry about than it would sometimes appear. Looking at the web, you can see that normal everyday things like ‘baby sleep’ have become, not just issues, but industries. There are so many sites devoted to discussions, queries, forums, techniques, so much advice. It’s easy to believe that all this struggle must be really important, vital even, to your wellbeing and your kids’. Especially when you feel tired and depleted, it is easy to buy into the apparent ‘big dealness’ of hitting milestones, and getting your offspring to conform to particular expectations.

Children are working on growing up all the time, so what we have to do is support them. There is not nearly so much worry about kids developing the ‘pincer grip’ between thumb and forefinger, which they become able to do in the second half of the first year. This is a huge milestone in terms of being a human baby, but it is barely noticed because little collective attention is given to it. No one talks about teaching babies how to do it. My goodness, they actually do this on their own when left their own devices!

So, in my humble experience, I have to wonder whether working to ‘teach’ babies how to sleep, is worth the effort. Do you expend more energy getting some sleep any way you can, and not worrying about it too much, but waking up more often, or by putting a regime in place and sticking to it no matter what, through tears and determination? I imagine the answer is different for different individuals, with different babies, in different places. That’s cool with me. I am not here to judge.

For anyone who feels that they are struggling, there is a real alternative to the battlefield. That is acceptance and presence. To stop caring so much about how many hours of sleep, how many wakings, how much time spent in your own bed. To not let the word ‘milestone’ get attached to a number or a date. To just go with the moment, and see what happens. Do a reality check now and again to see if your kid is actually more capable of doing it themselves than you are giving them credit for.

In assuming that kids should set the pace of their upbringing, my workload feels much lighter. All I have to do is listen to them and be prepared to step off the battlefield. When you stop trying to teach and just help them learn, everything feels easier. I hope they feel that too. I love witnessing their pride when they master something, and you never know when something will just fall into place.

There is no need to focus on established routines or future consequences, only to stay with the moment and examine the possibilities that open up. When you stop thinking about the past and future, and focus on NOW, the battle disappears, because the problem cannot survive without some kind of time reference.

Life in general feels much less hard work when you also get off the battlefield with yourself. If you stop struggling with what you want to become or achieve, and the fear that you won’t, this allows the best in you to rise. That is a good old fashioned, everyday spiritual experience. Perhaps there is hope for me and inner peace after all.

What battle can you stop fighting today?

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Sorting Out Anger With Buttons, Containers, Heat, and Waves

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After my Simple Epiphany the other week, I have seen some changes to my mindset. Once you start to think that your thinking is creating your reality, then you begin to be far more selective about which thoughts you give credence to. I have been feeling a lot more positive as a result.

In view of this, I was surprised to find myself losing my temper in a big way over a small dispute with my five year old daughter. How did that happen? Since I decided to accept my human weaknesses, now I can be so frickin’ serene that I will actually be perfect after all right? Yeah, I know. It doesn’t work like that, does it.

At the time I was shocked. I swore I didn’t see it coming.

The time is about 6:15 on a Wednesday evening. I have picked up the kids from school, played, got dinner in the oven, and in a moment I will be putting hot fish fingers onto little plastic plates to cool down. Miss 5 decides that right now, she wants to do painting and there is NOTHING else in the WHOLE WORLD she can do at this moment: Mother, can you not see that I am seized by the muse? Well, yes my darling I can, but it is time for your evening repast.

OK, actually it was more like…

Miss 5: Can I do some painting?
Me: I’m afraid now isn’t a great time darling because dinner is almost ready.
Miss 5: But I really want to paint….Please can I paint?
Me: it’s great that you remembered to say please sweetheart, but I don’t think so. Tomorrow we can paint though.
Miss 5: (face crumples, shrieks) but I really, really want to paint right now!
Me: Look, we have five minutes before dinner and getting out the paints means, taking out paint pots, mixing up paint, finding the brushes and paper, and then Sam will want all those things too. It’s just too much stuff for right now.
Miss 5: I WANT TO PAINT!
Me: CAN’T YOU JUST TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER!!! HOW DO YOU LIKE BEING SHOUTED AT!! IT’S NOT VERY NICE IS IT!! (throws oven glove to floor in fit of maturity)

Now, sometimes I shout, but I rarely yell. Miss 5 and Mr 3 we’re startled. Miss 5 was quite shaken and ran for the door. Mr almost 3 started laughing, which broke the tension, so I tickled him and gave him a kiss. Then I went to find Miss 5. I said that I was really sorry for shouting at her and she must have felt quite scared to be running off. I said that people shouldn’t shout at each other like that. I said I didn’t really know why I yelled at that moment, but I guess I was feeling wound up and lost my temper, even though it was just over a small thing. We had a cuddle and went on with dinner.

I felt awful. It’s a horrible feeling to have just scared your kid.

It then took me two and a half hours to get the children into bed. Aaargh. Then, I cried on husband’s shoulder and had some wine. I was still at a loss as to where that big blast of anger came from.

Looking back, I have a few ideas:

Everyone has their buttons. They get installed in childhood and become apparent through adult experience. As a teacher I had teacher buttons, and as a parent I have parent ones. They get pressed a lot, too.

I have one big button which says ‘We’re going to be late’. Lots of English people have it. Hubster has it. My family has it. His family has it. One day, our kids may well have it, but not yet. I can see that many of my Portuguese counterparts don’t have this button. There is a look of benign incomprehension on the face of my neighbours as I say ‘I must go, or we won’t get to school on time’. I can see them thinking ‘Calma!’.

So earlier, I had gone to pick up the kids from crèche and it took longer than usual. Mr almost 3 wanted to bash the plastic barrier on the stairs so it made a big satisfying noise. While I was disengaging him from this activity, Miss 5 thought it would be fun to go downstairs and hide. All this time, Miss 1 was clinging to me and agitating for a breastfeed. Push, push, push went the ‘we’re going to be late’ button. Then as soon as we got home I put us on a clock. I want dinner at half six, kids in bed by eight thirty. Push, push.

It is ironic that, as someone who loves independence and autonomy, I also have a button which says ‘I don’t want to do it alone’. This had been pushed quite a lot over the last three months or so, due to me feeling overwhelmed. When husband is away at work and I am tired, and there is chaos and washing up all over the place I push this button. It sounds like a violin. Woe is me. Push. I live a long way from my family. Push. Some days I just want to be mothered. Push.

So, on that particular day I had been pushing my buttons. People always say that kids push your buttons, but actually you watch the kids do something totally innocuous and then you push your own button. They are just being kids. They test boundaries and parents try to establish them. Button related stuff is guaranteed to tick you off at times. Often, it is something you do without even really noticing, until suddenly you are caught up in a whirlwind. In our house, things tend to get messy when we are trying to get the kids out the door in the morning. You get in a bit of a bad mood, then suddenly you are raging over something really small and mundane.

After losing your temper comes regret, or maybe embarrassment, or a lingering sense of ineffable nastiness. You beat yourself up for flying off the handle. You think you should have stayed in control. You wonder at the force which temporarily overtook you. Sometimes people talk about loss of temper as a release, but it never feels like one when the recipient of that anger is your own child.

Back to thinking about how I think about things. I wonder if the way that we think about anger in English speaking culture is not very helpful in deciding what to do with that feeling.

Anger is often described as heat in a container: She was getting hot under the collar; She simmered with a slow burning resentment; She felt her blood boil; She needed to let off steam; She exploded.

As with other emotions, we take something physical and use it to map the features of the abstract feeling. This gives the unknowable shape and helps us talk about it. These metaphors have a huge influence on the way we understand our internal experiences, and how we evaluate our external behaviour.

Like a hot liquid in a container, anger is thought manageable and measurable. Yet, when things are really bad we talk about rage. Rage is unpredictable and uncontrollable: She erupted with white hot rage.

There is a certain amount of ‘goodness of fit’ for these metaphors: we do get hot when we get cross; we do find that little irritations mount up over time; we can try to release bad feeling by ‘letting it out’; just as we can become suddenly livid and take ourselves by surprise when we lose control..

However, using the logic of metaphor, we go from basic cookery to huge, bombastic, natural forces in a couple of quick steps. So, when you lose your temper it sort of feels like you were boiling an egg, then it exploded like Vesuvius all over the kitchen for no apparent reason. You feel shocked and kind of culpable, but you still don’t quite know how it happened. After all, if you had turned down the heat on the egg, you might not need to clean shell off the ceiling. To be fair though, this is not the normal result of boiling an egg a bit too long. Yes, you could have acted in some way to prevent it, but the mechanics of what happened are unclear to you.

What if you get rid of that whole metaphor.

In fact, people talk about waves of anger too.

What if anger was like waves breaking on the coast:

Imagine standing on a rocky promontory above the sea. Sometimes the waves just break around your ankles and it is no big deal. Sometimes the waves get bigger and you find yourself in danger of being lost at sea. Sometimes waves even crash over your head and you really panic that you’ll be washed away. But if you stay on your rocky outcrop and don’t let that happen, then the wave will pass over you. You will be kind of soggy for a while, but you will dry out.

I apologise in advance for mixing metaphors: when your buttons are pressed the waves get bigger.

When your mood is bad they get bigger. When you are feeling tired they get bigger. When you are overstimulated they get bigger.

However, the waves are also at the mercy of the elements, not under your complete control. There are periods of calm and good weather followed by stormier seasons. That is just how it is.

You can’t stop the waves happening, but you can choose not to get lost in them. You are going to get wet, but the storm will pass. The sea will calm. You do not need to do anything.

If you just stay on the rock, the storm will pass and the sea will calm.

Then it will get all riled up again, because that is what the sea does.

But the storm will pass and the sea will calm.

Even if sometimes you can’t breath and you feel that the wave will never stop coming. It will. All you have to do is hold onto your rock and wait.

I reckon if you think about anger like this, you might feel less compelled to do something with it. Less compelled to manage it. That compulsion to direct anger at stuff. The urge to say and do not very nice things. It is such a destructive force. All too often though, it is not things which deserve anger that get the brunt of it. It is the people close by. Which is why it is better to do nothing with it. Not bottle it up. Just leave it alone. Recognise that you are experiencing some bad feeling and it will pass in time.

The anger is a heat in a container metaphor tells us that we have to release the anger somehow. We have to find a way to discharge it, or we bottle it up and set ourselves up for a greater, more dangerous explosion later on.

If anger is a wave, then you wait for it to wash over you and then it goes away on its own. No direction necessary.

Whatever caused the waves to be so damn big might need some attention. Look at your buttons! Noticing when you are doing too much button pushing helps the anger waves to diminish and recede. Also, noticing when there is a problem which needs genuine attention. Something which cannot just be borne out. Better to deal with these issues when you have returned to a more relaxed frame of mind. Come back to it when the sea is not so rough.

Sometimes you fall into the waves because it is tricky to balance on a rock while the sea rages around you. Sometimes you jump in, because the compulsion to act on your feelings is just too strong. Everyone does it. It is normal.

But you don’t need to do anything to get rid of anger. You need to let it wash away in its own time. While you’re waiting for that to happen, you can put a bit of attention into self care. Have a nap. Phone your mum. Cuddle your resentful paint deprived child.

The storm will pass and the sea will calm.

Then it’ll rise up again and you’ll end up with a wet bum. Life’s just like that.

At least though, you can kind of explain what happened.

What buttons do you have? Are they familial? Cultural? Just plain barmy?

Keeping It Together: Looking After Your Relationship In The Midst of Chaos

It can be difficult to find the time and energy to care for your relationship once you have kids. In the exhaustion that comes with having and raising three children under the age of four, we have had our fair share of challenges.

The most difficult thing has been balancing the ever-increasing needs and wants of our children with our needs and wants as a couple, and as individuals. The question of how to ensure the wellbeing of one another, ourselves, and the children, all at once, is not always easy to answer. It’s always a bit of a juggling act and we both have trouble keeping all our balls in the air from time to time: We get tired, tempers fray, balls are dropped, or fly off at unexpected trajectories, sometimes landing on our dear one’s toes. In extreme moments, we may propel them in the direction of our other half on purpose. We’re only human after all.

However, we have developed a weekly practice which helps us to acquit ourselves with grace (or at least equanimity) in the circus arena that is our lives. I thought I would share this idea because it has been very helpful.

It is very simple. We have two meetings a week:

On a Sunday night, we have our Planning Meeting: We spend half an hour going through our plans for the week ahead and decide who will do what and when. For instance, we decide who will be responsible for the creche/nursery run on the relevant days. We discuss plans for the following weekend. We announce ambitions like trying to sort out the kid’s toy collection and so on. We don’t always do everything according to The Plan, but the process of making it give us a structure for the week and sets up basic expectations.

On a Wednesday morning, we have our Reflection Meeting: We begin by talking about things which we think are going well in our lives, then discuss any problems that we have noticed, and anything which is bothering us. We decide how we will attempt to solve issues and resolve whatever is bugging us that week. We will evaluate attempts we have already made and refine our strategies.

We have our planning meeting at home, but have found that it is better to have the Reflection Meeting in a local cafe. For a start, it is pleasant to spend time together away from the house, and this also has a distraction-busting effect because we have no other agenda in this place. We do it at a time when we are not going to be rushed, and we are reasonably fresh. This means that we can broach difficult subjects when they arise, with the best possible chance of responding to each other in a constructive way. We can also dedicate time to celebrating our triumphs and being supportive of one another’s ambitions.

Incidentally, we take baby Evie with us, and she either snoozes in the sling or exchanges gummy grins with the regulars while we talk.

Our Reflection Meeting came about after we saw a video on TED, which features a father describing how his family make use of meetings, and why. Follow this link to watch Bruce Feiler tell you how Agile Programming can help you create balance and harmony in the family household.

As the children grow, I expect our meetings will evolve too. I would like to begin having family meetings with the kids when they are a little older, where we can discuss their successes, their troubles, their wishes, how we should expect one another to behave and what the consequences should be for not doing so. I just read a nice blog post about this. Here it is.

These weekly rituals have been really beneficial for us. Knowing that there is time set aside each week for us to really listen to each other is a reassuring harbour in the tempest of our family life and reaffirms our love of one another. I recommend it.

I would love to hear about more useful ideas for keeping a healthy relationship within the context of raising a family. Please feel free to share thoughts xx

The Family Mind Machine

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I’m feeling a bit abstract. This last week I’ve been wondering ‘If my family shared one mind, how would it work?’

Some Important Features of a Family Mind

My family mind would contain two grown up minds, an almost four year old mind, a 20 month old mind, and soon, a primitive little newborn mind. According to Alison Gopnik, author of ‘The Philosophical Baby’ (2009), these minds function very differently. I’ll list the differences between my husband and I, and our kids at the ages we are now. If I were talking about older children there would be a lot less difference because many of the features of what I am calling the ‘parent’ minds start to be acquired while children are primary school age. I am only comparing differences across our particular family as we are right now, so this is a snapshot in an evolving state of affairs.

Parent Minds Vs Young Child Minds

1. Autobiographical Memory

Adults remember things that happened to them in the past, and can link them both to the present they find themselves in, and their imagined future. They know that these experiences are ‘theirs’, different to general knowledge, and are able to understand them as ‘my life story’. So parent aminds have an ‘inner autobiographer’ who catalogues their memories.

Before age five, children have not started to order events in this way. My almost 4 year old daughter knows that she went to theatre on the bus in the past, and that one day it will be her fourth birthday. She remembers specific events and knows about some upcoming ones, but these are lumped together in heaps rather than arranged chronologically. It is like she has a big box of past memories marked ‘yesterday’ and one marked ‘tomorrow’ with her expectations and hopes for the future. However, she does understand that the memory of the theatre is hers, as her forthcoming birthday is hers, and she relishes the opportunity to tell people about them.

As for her younger siblings, they are able to learn from past experience, and use it to guide plans in the immediate future, but the ability to think of this experience as something that happened to ‘me’ has not yet developed. My son has a specific memory of how much he enjoyed the Wiggles DVD when he watched it. He knows he wants to see it again at the nearest opportunity. This is part of the general way of things for everyone as far as he is concerned. Newborn baby knows simply that when she cries she will get attended to, but has no idea where that knowledge came from.

2. Executive Control

Adults have the ability to suppress what they want now in order to get what they want in the future. This is different to making plans to get what they want in the present moment, because it means that sometimes they have to care about a future, imagined, self, more than their present self: I will submit to a thorough and uncomfortable dental cleaning today, so that my future self will not get diseased gums. As well as the inner autobiographer, there is an ‘inner executive’ who is in charge of planning present action and calculating future benefit. In the parent mind, this inner executive is responsible for telling you to do all those things you would rather put off in favour of a nice cup of tea and a sit down, like getting on with the bedtime routine, or stopping the toddler from inserting a ham sandwich into the DVD player.

The ‘pain now/pleasure later’ logic is largely pointless as far as our children are concerned. However, if there is much gratification to be had, and a short period of delay, our eldest child shows she is starting to understand this control.

While my husband and I may not feel like piling the kids into the car and driving to the beach on a Sunday afternoon, we know it will be nice when we get there, and the children will spend many hours happily playing in the sand. My eldest daughter may not want to get in the car, but after being reminded that soon she could be digging a Big Enormous Hole, she will leap willingly into her seat. My son will not care a jot for his future gratification if he is not in the mood for travel and will try to self eject from his padded seat, yelling in frustration. A newborn will be happy as long as needs for food and comfort have been met. Engine noises are comforting and car seats are comfy. What’s not to like?

3. Stream of Consciousness

While adults are swept along in a river of constant thought, young children paddle in a series of rock pools, each with a distinct point of interest. This is partly due to the absence of an inner autobiographer and inner executive, and partly to do with language: young children’s minds are not transported back and forth to experienced past and imagined future and neither do they have the inner voices which accompany this process. The parent minds, on the other hand, are chock full of language, so much so that they are often swept up in listening to the various voices in their head, rather than paying attention to their present environment. This means they may miss the rock pools their children inhabit altogether, but does help with activities such as making plans for the weekend or knowing whether the baby bag is sufficiently full of nappies, clothes changes, snacks etc.

Gopnik describes various pieces of research into when children begin to experience conscious thought. The answers indicate that our 4 year old would be aware of herself thinking when engaged in an activity or particularly absorbing bit of contemplation, but would not consider her thinking ‘switched on’ all the time like an older child. She will sit in the car deep in thought and announce ‘I’ve got a good idea! Let’s make a rocket/cookies/ theatre! ‘ so she has an awareness of her own thinking and of individual thoughts. With little language at younger children’s disposal, it is unlikely that they have conscious, separable, thoughts like big sister. For instance, our son will pick up the phone, put it to his ear, and say ‘hello’ which shows a thought process of making connections between objects and actions. A newborn will learn to smile through reflex, and then repeat the action because it yields such interesting results in those around her. In both cases, there is thinking, but no sign of awareness of thought. This mental set up allows the children to be present in their environment and to seize maximum opportunities to learn from it, without being bothered by a voice pointing out connections between this and other moments, or suggesting they consider a career in accountancy.

These differences between parent and child minds are down to what we use our minds for overall. The children are learning so fast that, every few months, they completely change their understanding of the world. This means they have little use for mental systems which encourage them to hold onto past beliefs, or imagine futures, as the inner autobiographer and executive do. Grown ups and older children develop more fixed patterns of belief and a greater sense of self, which allow them to plan for their own survival and satisfaction in the world, first in near future, and then in the long term. Their future success and happiness may depend on paying attention to their inner autobiographer and executives. Though understandings of the world may change, such shifts in belief occur far less frequently than in infants.

Though this is still a somewhat limited sketch of what parent and child minds do, it gives me something to build my family mind machine on. Here goes…

How Our Family Mind Might Look

Picture a Heath Robinson style contraption with alarm clocks and weird paraphernalia attached to it, whirring and clanking away. The family mind would be a number of different, yet connected, machines which serve different functions:

1. A Memory Library

This could be a tree- like construction which acted as an archive. The branches would house chronologically organised memories which make up The Family History. Here, the life stories of family members would be kept track of through complex notations, and for the most part these would be maintained by the parents. Leaves and flowers could bloom at intervals from the main tree representing the memory of specific events, like the colour, shape, and flavour of the birthday cake we baked. The two older kids and parents tend to these together, adding more as life progresses. Eventually, the newborn’s memory would develop enough and she would join in.

2. The Storage Area

The storage area would have two main sections: one for short term use and the other for the long term.

There would be a long term filing cabinet for beliefs which experience has reinforced many, many times. The certainty that day follows night, or that teeth should be brushed before bed. Even the newborn would start to build up awareness of patterns like these on a rudimentary level, starting by distinguishing a difference between night and day. The parents would keep more of their beliefs in the long term filing system than the children, because they have beliefs which are more static, less prone to change. So, imagine some big, robust filing cabinets operated by hands on springy extendable arms flitting between them storing and retrieving information relating to different concepts, which are cross-referenced with one another.

Imagine that linked to this long term filing machine is a short term belief drop which acts as a filter system for new ideas. Let’s say there is a small canal, with a stream of new ideas arriving on paper boats. Each boat holds a different belief, and they float into a temporary holding pool. Every time supporting evidence is found in the outside world for a belief, or a good link is recognised between it and those already in long term storage, the boat gets heavier. When this happens, the boat sinks down to the bottom of the pool into an underwater processing station. Here, the beliefs are available for short term use. If the beliefs are of long term significance, the mechanical hands can remove items them to the long term filing system. The boats that fail to gather weight float away downstream and are disposed of, as are short term ones which are of no further use. The toddler and 4 yr old make particular use of this machine, though the others in the family also drop beliefs into the boats.

3. The Learning Centre

The storage area is fed by the Learning Centre. This is a roaming robot device which is fitted to obtain information via sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and emotion. There would be fingers, cameras, tongue and nostril like sensors, and probably some lasers too. Why not. The purpose of all these gadgets would be to gather new ideas, new information which are worthy of at least short term consideration. This would be used to update the short term belief drop and long term filing system.

Though the parents make frequent use of the learning centre, the kids all make intensive use of it. This is where they are in their milieu, learning with great efficiency. With their greater understanding of language the parent- operated part of the learning centre would be more concerned with detailed linguistic input, while the kid- operated part would deal more with non- linguistic concepts. However, as they develop their own language use they would rely less on the parent minds to fathom this kind of information for them.

4. The Control Centre

This would be a command pod where you’d find lots of cables, screens, levers and buttons that help the different parts of the mind machine to communicate with one another. There would be a lot of clocks and timers and clipboards keeping everyone on schedule. A crystal ball would be used to gaze at the hypothetical future. Plans would be calculated using input from the other parts of the machine and combining them with these future visions. A steering mechanism would be used to instruct the family in fulfilling these plans.

Some of the activity organised by the control centre would be the province of the parents at first, but be ceded to the children as they become capable of performing them. For instance, the parent would control access to food at first, but as the child learns to self feed this physical activity would fall to them, though the time it occurred might be parent- controlled. This might be part of a larger parent planned activity involving shopping for, cooking, and consuming food. An older child might have more input into these parts of the process, than a toddler.

As the learning centre would be a child dominated mechanism, the control centre would be more the domain of the parents. Though the children might contribute to calculating plans and sending instructions, they would not be able to fully work the clocks or the crystal ball, and they would not have all the access codes to the memory library or storage areas. Therefore, to operate in everyone’s interests, a major function of the control centre is to move the mind machine to locations where the learning centre can be fed, as well as maintaining the various functions of the machine overall.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Drafting out this bonkers family mind machine has been interesting for me, because it really made me think about what my kids are capable of, what they need from me, and how this should affect the roles we play in our family unit.

For example: I had been feeling a bit frustrated because my daughter has been toilet learning for a couple of years now, and she still goes through stages of being accident prone. I do try to keep upbeat and unflustered by accidents, and to accept that this is an ongoing process, yadayada. However, sometimes I think ‘Come on! You know how to avoid this!’. I realise now that the issue is that my little girl cannot put her future self ahead of her present self, so if she is playing an absorbing game she will ignore her urge to wee, even though she knows what will happen. She does like being a ‘big girl’ like her older friends, so she does try most of the time now. This means it is my role to exert some executive planning and remind her to wee at these moments, and praise her for her progress when she remembers the rest of the time. As she learns greater executive control, she will take this role on herself. It sounds very obvious now, but for me, clarity came from writing this.

There is plenty left out of this mind model, that should by rights be there. Imagination and Emotional Intelligence are but two very important areas of a family mind, which I haven’t touched on at this point. Perhaps there will be an update to this effect later on. Enough mad scientisting for now though. Time to listen to my inner executive and get on with making lunch.

I would highly recommend Gopnik’s book to anyone interested in this sort of thing. Follow the link for more info on The Philosophical Baby.

Sent from my iPad

Myths and Lies

There are a bunch of beliefs I have encountered in my first few years as a mother, which I think should be called into question more often. In no particular order of importance:

1. Having children makes you more grown up than people who don’t.

This is something which tends to come up from time to time in conversations with single/ childless friends. They talk about stuff they get up to like travel, late nights, booze, then add a ‘well, I’m still a big kid really’ self- effacing statement. Most parents probably do less of this stuff. There are good reasons for this: they can’t afford to; they do not have a babysitter; they cannot face a plane ride or hang over with a group of assorted mini- people who all want a wee/ to breastfeed/ to ride you like a donkey then hit you in the head with your own shoes. There is nothing whatsoever to do with maturity going on, just opportunity and risk versus benefit trade-offs. If I didn’t have kids, I would be taking my independent, grown up ass off round the world and downing as many dirty martinis as I felt like of a Friday night.

2. Stay at home mums who do not study/work from home on top of their domestic and pastoral duties are slackers who do not care about their careers.

Ok people don’t say this, but it is insinuated an awful lot on websites dedicated to making people feel bad about ‘career gaps’. You know what stay at home mums and dads who work are? Working mums and dads. Part- time working or studying can be a great arrangement, because who said you had to choose an all or nothing approach to working or staying at home. Nevertheless, you have to be able to do something with your kids while you undertake work. Speaking as a stay at home mum who just completed an MSc in Educational Research, it is possible to get a lot done during nap times and when your kids are in bed if you are willing to sacrifice rare hours of rest and recuperation or more likely, time for cleaning, cooking, and washing things. However, if your children don’t sleep well, need your full attention all day long, and/ or you are the only one around to look after them all the time, then this is often not a sane or even possible option. Despite my kids being biddable in their sleeping, I could not have completed my masters without being able to put them in childcare or leave them with grandparents some of the time. I’m sure many stay at home parents would like to be able to pursue their careers, but under their personal circumstances they have had to trade this off. It certainly doesn’t make them lazier or less dynamic than their freer counterparts.

3. Whether working or staying at home, parents “just know” what feels right and will be best for their family.

No matter what you do, you may never be 100 per cent certain you are doing the right thing for yourself or your kids. You may not be totally happy with your lot. You may not be free to choose what you would prefer. You may have days where you feel content and days where you curse yourself for foolishness. It is a gift of serendipity to be certain that you have chosen the best possible path in your particular set of circumstances and to later be proved correct beyond doubt.

4. If you do not buy your baby/ infant/ child a large range of age appropriate toys you will be failing to stimulate their physical/psychological development.

Again, something which is insinuated rather than stated, funnily enough by enterprises like the Early Learning Centre. Babies do not really need specially designed stacking cups. They need stuff to stack. No matter how cool it is, your three year old doesn’t need a purpose built canal system with little boats to float up and down. They need a bowl of water and a margarine tub (with a cocktail stick flag blue-tacked onto it if you are feeling creative). Your child may want a pink and white dreamhouse confection for their assorted barbies/ diggers to inhabit. Using a box instead may not be their first choice, but they will most likely accept that this is better than nothing and exercise their imaginations. Kids need to play. They need stuff to play with. They do not need designing, marketing, branding all of the time. I like buying toys for my kids as I’m sure most parents do, but if resources are scarce then a bit of improvisation will do no one any harm. Damn it, I do really want the canal thing.

5. Children do not benefit from TV.

I really absolutely had a big enormous surprise when I realised how much Charlie and Lola was helping my daughter express herself in English. Shaun the Sheep has become a source of discussion about everything from family roles to mechanics of windmills. Plus there is the indirect benefit that I can distract the kids long enough to whizz round and get a few vital things done or to sit down and have a cuppa. I then have more time and energy to take them out to the park or library, or embark on worthy craft projects. On top of this, i think good quality TV is one of life’s pleasures and am happy to let my children enjoy it too.

6. Kids should be made to eat vegetables or they will grow up malnourished.

Between the vitamins which have been added to cereals, biscuits, pasta and so on, and those that are naturally present in fruit, seeds, eggs, and grains children can get all the nutrients they need without eating cabbage. Not that they shouldn’t be encouraged to eat vegetables and taught about their taste and health benefits, but there is no need to hang your head if your kid is a salad dodger. They’re much more likely to decide to eat up their broccoli if they see you eat it and are offered it without pressure.

7. Babies and young children sleep better as they get older.

Some do, some don’t. If your child is sleeping through the night, every night, you are lucky indeed. Babies can easily swing from one extreme to another. As their brains and bodies take developmental leaps forward, their sleeping can become erratic even when they’ve spent months slumbering angel- like for long periods. Ditto, older kids who begin to imagine creatures who sneak up and eat your toes while you lie in bed or just decide they want to seize control of the twilight hours by issuing endless requests for water, tissues, cuddles. I have heard a rumour though from friends with older children, that this will improve in time. I live in hope.

Phew! That feels better.