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What makes the world go round: other parents

TweetIt was the kindness of strangers that Blanche Dubois relied on, but for people with children, the largesse of other parents makes all the difference in our lives. This was especially brought home to me this week, with the month-long school break yawning before us, unimpeded by school or any other form of childcare. A friend happily agreed to host a 5-hour playdate today so I can attend an event. Another, several weeks back, booked both of our daughters into a weeklong theatre group camp. Still another stopped me in the playground yesterday and said earnestly, “You’re so busy these days. Do let us know if we can help out. We’ll have your daughter over for a playdate or tea anytime.” I also try to reciprocate when possible, but it doesn’t always come out even. Which simply highlights the fact that many times it’s other mums (because it’s usually mums) pitching in that is the glue for creating a community of parents. Too often the “story” about mums is “SAHM v working mums” or “yummy mummies v slummy mummies”. But this week I was reminded (as if I needed reminding) of how valuable it is to have other women who consider your children part of their whole “raising kids” experience. For these women, it’s “no problem” to pick them up when you’re running late. They’re happy to host a playdate and by the way is there anything your child won’t eat? I find it very moving in a way, and while my husband and I often talk about relocating to another part of town, another city or even another country, this network of friendships is evidence that we have truly put down roots here. We are a part of a community of families, all doing our best. That is somethin I’ll truly be celebrating this Easter break....

Playtime is over for New York parents

TweetWhat does any NYC parent worth his or her salt do when they feel their child’s nursery education is not up to snuff? Of course – they sue. The Times wrote yesterday about the lawsuit brought byNicole Imprescia against her daughter’s preschool. You can read that piece on the Times’s site (even if you’re not a subscriber, for £1 you got all of the stories from today’s paper plus extra content on the website. Go on, you know you want to). I lived in New York City for a decade, which is probably why I wasn’t completely surprised by the story. Find out why in the guest post I’ve done on the Times’s School Gate blog. There are also some great comments on the New York Times’s Motherlode blog, including this from one dad: $19K? How about $32K? That’s what I pay for daycare! Is that what they mean by a New York state of mind? Photo: © NYC & Company...

What can happen when you go away for an adult weekend

Tweet So it was supposed to be just a fun little jaunt to Copenhagen. Just a short little anniversary getaway with some friends who got married the same month we did. No pressure, no stress. Drop the daughter off at granny’s, catch the plane the next day, sleep in, walk ‘round, have afternoon drinks, eat well. Perhaps some adult situations. And it was that. Copenhagen is an incredibly liveable city. On Sunday, the sun was out so we sat by the canal, had a beer. People tucked into lunch with blankets tucked around the legs. Even a minor Easyjet delay couldn’t take the glow off the afternoon. Then the next morning I arrived at granny’s to discover that my daughter has spent Sunday evening vomiting over herself, the bed, the brand new slippers granny bought her, her favourite oversized teddy bear, the nursery rug. Grandpa's note read: 12:15 – Projectile vomit covers nursery. Child in guest room. Grandpa in deep shock. 1:15 – Sick again. Yet to make that list: granny’s car, in abortive outing the next day. She had also developed a rash around her mouth that didn’t go away when pressed by a glass, necessitating a quick run to Casualty to be told that she had none of the symptoms of meningitis. Even the rash was the wrong type. I’ve never been so glad to hear she had failed a test. Everyone involved behaved impeccably – grandparents being very che sera sera, daughter not vomiting in the car on the way back to London, smelly teddy bear leaving graciously. But I can’t help feeling this might be the last grown-up weekend away we have for a very long time....

How much should you supervise playdates?

TweetAnother day, another playdate, another late afternoon wrestling with the dilemma: how much do I need to supervise these little monsters? When it’s just my daughter and her older brother, I’m content to let them disappear for ages, knowing that the older one will keep the younger from practising flying out of upstairs window, and the little one will tell on the older one taking scissors to the soft toys. But when it’s not your own children, the consent forms at hospital can be a bit tricky. A big problem is that tiresome measuring-up-against-other-mothers kind of thing. You know when your child goes to their house, the children play outside in the sprawling garden while mum (it’s usually mum) and possibly the au pair/nanny/resident childcare slave as well oversee the action from the pristine open-plan kitchen. Your child comes back knowing new tricks or having learned how to bake bread, whereas theirs returns with a few tips for effective arson. My husband’s no help, as his attitude veers more toward the “no haemorrhage, no foul” school. And I hate to haunt the children’s social interactions like some Poindexter at the prom. They should explore free play, negotiate their own conflicts. Plus, six-year-olds’ game can be boring. So I’m trying to explore the parameters of playdate supervision. Within earshot but out of sight is OK. What about downstairs when they’re upstairs? What about in my upstairs office while they’re in the garden? Do these rules hold when they want to try some facepainting or holding the pet gerbils? So far the only problem we’ve had was the mysterious disappearance of a bag of sweeties. Is that something I can tolerate in exchange for being able to catch up on email and make some phone calls? Absolutely. (Just don’t tell their mothers.) Image: Boaz Yiftach / FreeDigitalPhotos.net...

Should I try to negotiate my child's friendship problems?

TweetKnowing how involved to get with the ups and downs of your child's social life can be tricky. If they're fighting with a best friend or are suddenly outside a group they were formerly in, should you get involved, give advice, talk to other parents and teachers, or just let them use it as a learning experience, even if it's a painful one? Sarah from School Gate (Times subscription required) has been wrestling with these questions. Here's her story. Do you have any advice for her? Over to Sarah: My children think I know stuff; after all, I'm their mother. But (don't tell them this, even though it's true), quite often I have no clue. I have lots of questions, but don't know all the answers. My son is five and a gorgeous boy, fun, out-going and very sociable. He started school last year and loved it, making lots of friends and quickly learning to read and write. But there was one problem and, now the children are back at school, I have a feeling it might rear its head again. But to be honest, I'm simply not sure how to deal with it. There are 30 children in my son's class and I'm pleased to say that they seem to be a lovely bunch. However (and you knew that was coming), there is one boy who is not exactly the child I would have chosen my son to befriend. This child is clever, good-looking and charismatic. He has lots of good ideas and is very creative. So far so good. However, he is also manipulative (yes, you can be manipulative at five) and is always, always, always in charge of my son and his little group of friends (there are about five of them). I noticed this for a while and did nothing about it. True, I wasn't thrilled when my son told me that this child (let's call him Tom) was "always the leader, unless he goes to the toilet and then one of us can be leader until he comes back". And I also didn't jump and down with pleasure when I was told that the child in question didn't want my son to come to his birthday party and then proceeded to change his mind so many times ("you are invited, no you're not, yes you are" etc etc) over the next few weeks that my son eventually told me he didn't want to go at all. He also didn't come to my son's party, but...

The trouble with au pairs

Tweet Brace yourself: your au pair may not like your housekeeping, putting it on par with a Richard Billingham photograph. That's one of the messages from a Sunday Time piece today about a new book called Au Pair (subscription), a look at the experiences of 50 Slovakian au pairs, the nationality that makes up the largest part of au pairs in Britain. Frankly they are horrified at the lives of the middle-class parents they work for, the article says. The article cites cases of au pairs required to comb the stripes on the carpet, of employers being mean with the food provisions. And to be sure, true mistreatment is wrong, especially as it takes advantage of what are often young women in a strange country far from family and friends, often coping with a language barrier. A couple of years ago The Telegraph wrote about actual abuse suffered by au pairs. Yet having had several au pairs who have ranged from terrific to terrible, many of the complaints from the quoted au pairs sound to me more like roommate criticisms. Those annoying parents serve heavy meals too late at night! I can hear them having sex! They don't keep house properly!  These are the issues of a young person who has never before lived with strangers, rather than employee grievances. Of course, your au pair doesn't have the same amount of power as a roommate of equal standing. Families need to encourage shy young women to voice their needs and concerns. Yet I'm fascinated by the self-flaggelation accompanied by criticisms levelled at middle-class parents from young, childless strangers from a different culture. Parenting culture, adult responsibilities and cultural expectations vary. I'm sure our au pairs think I am a terrible housekeeper. That's because I am. I want the tableaux of a domestic goddess but when I have a spare hour at home I'd rather play a game with my daughter or read a book than clean the bathtub. That's why I have a cleaner once a week. But I'm an adult who has made that choice. If the au pair doesn't like it, she can find a family more in line with her expectations. Everyone who uses domestic help has a responsibility to pay fair wages and clearly outline the employees responsibilities. Au pair and nanny agencies need to protect their placements. And au pairs themselves need to be assertive about their rights. Beyond that, we should all agree: they keep their personal opinions about our parenting decisions private, just as I'll keep private my opinion...

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