Dec 172009
 
Mathematics homework

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The twins had finished their homework, and had gone off to play. Next to me the little one struggled on valiantly, ploughing through maths, reading and several worksheets before moving on to rehearsing her lines for the upcoming school Christmas concert. She could hear her sisters playing in the next room, but was keen to keep Miss happy by getting all her homework. It was too much.

Since school restarted in September, when the little one, who’s six-years-old, got a new teacher, we’ve seen the volume of homework she brings back each afternoon increase. Now it’s reached a level that’s bordering on the ridiculous. A six year old is already tired after being at school all day. The last thing she needs when she arrives home is big chunk of homework. To her credit she does it diligently every day, except Friday, which is thankfully homework free.

As I help her with her maths, reading and writing, I can’t help thinking that enough is enough… that outside school hours the priority for young children should be to play and have fun — to learn through non-academic pursuits that expand knowledge, promote problem solving, stimulate imagination, develop spatial awareness and all those vital things that you can’t teach in a classroom. Instead they have homework, which after a long day at school leaves them mentally exhausted, tired, cranky, and almost incapable of constructive play.

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Nov 022009
 

Innocent smoothies latest campaign... innovative, but not all innocent!The girls love making up stories and writing them down. They’re forever scribbling in notebooks, on bits of paper, on the backs of envelopes… anywhere they can really. There are poems, short stories… even full-length children’s picture-books complete with accompanying illustrations, scattered all over the house. One of the twins has even set a career goal to become a writer and illustrator of children’s books when she grows up.

While it might be a bit early for that, I have to admit that some of the stories they come up with are surprisingly good, as long as you’re prepared to gloss over the spelling and grammar errors endemic to an eight-year-old’s writing. They’re entertaining, have a good balance of dialogue and narrative, compelling characters and even a workable plot. It’s fantastic to see the girls ready to engage with and explore written language at this age, but I guess making up stories is an intrinsic part of childhood, and writing those stories down is simply a natural progression of that.

For the last week or so they’ve been putting their love of stories to good use on the web, in an online competition being run by smoothie-maker, Innocent. The company has taken the classic paper and pencil game “consequences”, and adapted it for kids to play online. Traditionally the game involves writing a sentence on a piece of paper and passing it on to the next person. They then read it, and fold the paper over, hiding the original sentence before writing their own… and so on until the conclusion of the story. The web version Innocent has come up with is much simpler… and all the more ingenious for that.

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Sep 182009
 
Truancy hotline road sign.

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I’ve been reading a lot lately about the hand-wringing and guilt parents go through when considering whether they should take children out of school to accommodate a family trip or holiday.

An article in the Times last month claimed that in the UK some 1.5 million school-days were taken for family holidays last year, 325,821 of them without the appropriate authorisation from schools.

Those are pretty big numbers… but I don’t necessarily buy the assertion that this is such a big problem.

Who, these days, can afford to take their family holiday during the school breaks… when prices for flights, ferries, accommodation, attractions and practically everything else are inflated to the max? Not to mention the fact that, if you travel in peak season (i.e. the school holidays) wherever you’re heading is bound to be crammed with throngs of tourists. Thanks but no thanks!

I can see how children bunking school without the school or their parents’ consent is a crucial issue that needs to be tackled head on, and how missing a stint during the latter years of secondary school, with exams looming, might not be the best idea in the world. But seriously, if a child is out for a week here or there during primary or early secondary school, what are they really going to miss?

Not a lot, I’d venture… and think about how much they have to gain.

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Sep 092009
 
Who Said Romance Is Dead

Image by monkeyleader via Flickr

A weekend away in Paris, a beautiful meal for two, or just curling up together on the sofa in front of an old classic film… these are all things that we’ve done, in the past, to mark the passing of our wedding anniversary.

Anniversary’s are a handy way to remind you how special and and significant your relationship is. While romance is characterised by spontaneity, and probably shouldn’t hover around a specific date on the calendar, when you have children tying things to a designated date definitely has its advantages. It’s hard to introduce spontaneous romance into proceedings when you’re busy surviving the rigours of everyday parenting. At least an anniversary gives you something to aim for, helps focus your mind and prompts you to make that extra bit of effort.

Except of course it doesn’t always work out that way.

Our latest anniversary was last Sunday. The plan was to head out for a semi-romantic family picnic at one of West Cork‘s many beauty spots, but, predictably, that notion was scuppered by the West Cork weather. With no sign of the Indian Summer so many people had been predicting, we decided it would be wiser to stay in!

Just like every other aspect of our lives, our anniversary has become as much about the girls as it is about us and our relationship. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a healthy thing, but its the way it is. To the children our anniversary is akin to a birthday… something for us all to celebrate together as a family. In a way I guess they’re dead right: our relationship is the hub of the family unit, the bond that holds everything else together. It is every bit as important to them as it is to us.

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Sep 072009
 
Carpenter school bus
Image via Wikipedia

Column for 02/09/09

I woke up early. Outside the rain, which has been such a prominent part of this summer, pounded on the window and I decided that another five minutes under the duvet wouldn’t hurt.

When I finally surfaced the weather hadn’t improved; resigned to the fact I plodded down to the kitchen for my compulsory caffeine fix before putting the girls’ school lunches together. The mind-numbing routine of school mornings was upon us once again.

The rain kept falling as the girls had their breakfast and we checked and double checked that they had all the bags, books, pencil cases, lunches, water bottles and other paraphernalia that a new school year demands. So much for my recent prediction that the start of school would bring some long overdue sunshine. If anything it just started to rain harder.

After one last check to make sure they had everything we headed out of the house to find a flood forming outside our front gate. Just as the bus pulled up I grabbed my wellies and ferried the girls across the pooling rainwater so they could climb aboard with dry feet. I waved them a hasty goodbye and ran back indoors to dry out.

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Jul 302009
 
ZOMG!!! SWINE FLU!!!!

Image by Amanda-Ruth via Flickr

It seems like eons ago that the WHO declared an imminent pandemic of the A(H1N1) derivative of influenza. The world’s media hit the big red PANIC button. We were all convinced that global human overpopulation was about to be solved by the killer flu strain as it rampaged across the planet. Swine flu coverage was everywhere: on the telly, on the radio, in the papers… and saturating that undisputed barometer of contemporary human interest: Twitter!

That was back in April. Then, as quickly as it had flared up, the radio and television coverage waned, stories about the "Swine Flu" pandemic were relegated to the inner pages, and Twitterers started to tweet about more pressing concerns like the colour of Stephen Fry‘s socks or Britney‘s dog’s favourite ice-cream. Swine flue didn’t just fall off the media radar, it plummeted out of the public consciousness.

The trouble is nobody bothered to mentioned that fact to the virus, which continued its microbial business of infecting anyone and everyone it came into contact with.

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Jun 152009
 
Second round of the French presidential electi...

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Voting is important!

Democracy is something that people all over the world have fought for tooth and nail… it’s something people are willing to die for, and in parts of the world they still do.

We tend to forget that having the right to vote is a remarkable privilege that we should all exercise whenever we get the opportunity. It’s a chance to make our collective voices heard, and to let our public representatives know what we really think. It’s our chance to have a say in who governs us, to put competent stewards in office who will steer this nation’s course to future prosperity. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Democracy is at the very core of the freedom we experience every day of our lives. So it’s curious that exercising the right to vote in the local and European elections last week felt like such a waste of time. I went along, naturally… but it was more out of a sense of obligation than a genuine belief that by voting I could make a difference.

Am I the only one who finds it discouraging that voting has become an exercise in selecting the best of a bad crop rather than struggling to choose between truly exceptional candidates? Maybe it’s just that, like a big chunk of the Irish electorate I’m disillusioned by the ineptitude of government at local and national level, by a farcical and frankly completely un-viable opposition and by the relentless petty sniping of party politics on issues that should transcend political point-scoring.

We took the children with us to vote… it’s important to expose them to the democratic process… although explaining the intricacies of it to eight- and five-year-olds is a bit of a minefield. I think it’s vital for them to realise early on what voting is, why it’s important and what our public representatives do… or at least what they’re supposed to do… on our behalf when elected into office. They were fascinated by the procedure… the registration, the voting booths, and especially the ballot papers — complete with miniature photographs of the telephone-pole-politicians they’d come to recognise over the weeks running up to the election. If they could they would have taken a few sheets with them for "art".

While on the one hand I recognise the value of teaching children about democracy early on, I can’t help feeling that it’s steeped in more than a dash of irony. Parenting is not, after all, a particularly democratic process.

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May 212009
 

Last year I co-authored a book called “Understanding Digital Marketing“. It’s basically a foundation for businesses and marketers on how to harness the internet to sell your products and services and reach out to customers, which of course has very little to do with this column… or does it?

Researching the book meant I had to delve deep into the world of the online marketer, and increasingly the mainstream marketing masses who are adopting electronic marketing strategies to reach an increasingly “wired” customer base. And guess which segment of today’s society is among the most connected? That’s right… our children — especially as they enter their teens!

It’s frightening how much spending power teenagers seem to have these days, and with a ready, peer influenced market spending lots of time online, you can bet that marketers are reaching out across cyberspace and reaching into your wallet through your children.

Marketing to young people is nothing new of course… companies, especially larger brands with massive advertising budgets and seemingly limitless resources, have been targeting children for years. Television adverts for toys, games, fast food, snacks and confectionery do an excellent job of appealing to a younger audience, applying indirect pressure on parents to spend, spend, spend.

But there are a few important differences for parents to consider as mainstream marketing leaps the digital divide and brands start to engage with our children online.

  • What are they looking at?: When children are sitting in front of the television, listening to the radio or reading a particular magazine parents are generally aware of the kind of advertising they are being exposed to, but do you really know where your children like to “hang out” online, and whether the sort of targeted advertising they’re being influenced by is appropriate?
  • How much information are they sharing? Unlike traditional channels like TV, Radio and Print, online marketing is a two-way-street. This is not a broadcast medium, it’s a specifically targeted conversation crafted with the marketers’ goal in mind. How much information is your child sharing with the brands they engage with online?
  • Low barriers to entry mean more brands: compared to traditional media online marketing opportunities are still relatively cheap, and because young people are volunteering more information online campaigns can often be focussed to reach a much narrower and more responsive audience. It means more businesses can afford to engage online, which means teens are likely to encounter a far broader range of advertising than they typically do in other media.
  • No geographical boundaries: the internet transcends geography — so depending on where they go online, children can be exposed to advertising and marketing messages from around the globe — advertising that isn’t necessarily governed by the rules and conventions that parents take for granted in their own country.
  • It’s not just the computer: it’s very easy for parents to assume the computer is the hub of their child’s interaction with the online world, but increasingly mobile devices (like phones, MP3 players and organisers) can hook up wirelessly to the internet. Home games consoles too are often connected… and the in-game advertising your children see when they play the latest games are often streamed in real time from the internet in response to actions taken in the game.

There’s nothing inherently sinister about marketing to children online — in fact, if it’s done responsibly more targeted, measurable, open and accountable marketing can be a good thing. As parents we need to be aware of changes in our children’s use of media, of the way businesses are using digital channels to reach out to them, and the potential impact it can have. Ultimately it’s our job to shield them from harm — in the real world, and the virtual one.

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Apr 202009
 
ssttt! little baby-mouse, sleeping on my hand
Image by e³°°° via Flickr

Do you ever have trouble getting to sleep at night?

Sometimes I do… if I have something preying on my mind: a pressing deadline, a heavy workload, or a particular problem I’m struggling with. Lying awake at night, unable to get to sleep, is a truly horrible experience. Most of the time, thankfully, I tend to fall asleep without too much trouble. Funnily enough, the more time I’ve spent with the girls that day, the faster the sleep arrives.

The girls are also pretty good at going to sleep… not going to bed, mind you… going to sleep. Bedtime can and does involve all sorts of shenanigans before they finally settle down. It’s amazing how seemingly exhausted children get a sudden rush of energy when a parent mentions bedtime. Yes, getting them settled can be a challenge but once they’re down — usually sometime between 8 and 8:30 on a school night — they go to sleep quickly and tend to stay in a deep sleep all night. That, according to researchers in Japan, is a great sign when it comes to establishing healthy sleep patterns for later life. Continue reading »