All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth...

>> Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Well.  Not really.  Although Santa-Baby, whilst we're on the subject, an American smile might be nice...

Christmas is coming, dahlinks, and the goose is getting fat.  (As are the rest of us on all this festive fare and drink.  Not that I care right now, having taken an oath recently to cut out dieting because of the appalling mood it puts me in and the bad example it sets my sons.  Plus, you know, the chocolate.)

Anyway, the end of term is fast approaching, and the seasonal tension is rising.  'Are you Ready?'  That's the question that I seem to hear here there and everywhere when I visit the school to collect the boys at the end of the day.  I smile in a relaxed style and say 'Oh yes.  Just a few presents left to buy.' I'm surprised that my tongue hasn't turned black and fallen out of my head given the amount of times I've trotted out that lie.

Ready?  Am I READY?

Um - no.  Yes, the tree is up, and family and grandparents have been informed of present ideas for the little cherubs.  And Husband and I have had vague conversations about what each of us might like from the other.  But *whispers* really - that's about it.  I would love to say this lack of readiness is a temporary aberration but I cannot tell a(nother) lie - I have previous form in this area.  Pre-kids I actually prided myself on doing all my gift buying on Christmas Eve.  Oh, sweet innocence of youth!  Obviously, now that I have children of my own, that devil-may-care attitude is a distant memory, but I'm not above leaving it until - oh, about now, really - and spending a happy evening going through the internet clicking on whatever is still available in the bargain basement section of the John Lewis 'click & collect' service, particularly when I'm buying stuff to put on the end of the bed on behalf of the big man in red.

Speaking of whom, there's another lie, m'lud.  Boy #1 is 11 and - ostensibly - still believes in Father Christmas.  And Sinterklaas.  And the Tooth Fairy.  And - probably - the Easter Bunny, although we don't need to deal with that issue until April, thank heavens.  Now, I'm not completely naive.  I think we all know that he doesn't REALLY believe in any of them, but is just playing along for the sake of his younger brother and in case admitting any doubt on this matter affects the number of presents he is given.  So he is careful to keep his mouth shut as Boy #2 asks difficult questions (at 8, he's surrounded by friends who are also questioning/unconvinced by the Santa Myth), and when I make my unconvincing replies which normally run along the lines of  'Well, if Santa doesn't put the presents there, who does?'  Boy #1 keeps schtum.

Smart boy.

As for me and my inveterate fibbing about the Potski state of readiness for Christmas (C minus 9 days and counting...  Christ, now I've typed that in black and white I am starting to panic, just a bit), luckily the school corridors are thinning out at pick-up time as the early-leavers sneak out of the country before the final bell rings.  (Just between us, I prefer to think of them as Rats Deserting A Sinking Ship as they leave the rest of us deal with the joy that is the Elementary School end of term party on the last afternoon).  And there are only 2 days of term left, so I don't have to keep the lies up for much longer.  Which is a good thing, really - as I don't want to end up on Santa's naughty list.

Just in case he IS real.  (Because, you know, the chocolate...)


Christmas Shenanigans from Footballer's Knees.

I am blatantly stealing cred from my insanely talented sis, Footballer's Knees, again.  A quick recap; she lives in the UK with her husband Big A, and son J.

Here for your delectation is one of her latest fb missives...

Big A and I are playing the traditional game,'What's behind the Advent calendar door?' As usual, we are days behind, so have a week's worth to open.

'Number 5 - what's it going to be?' I ask, expectantly. 

Big A draws in a breath and sucks his teeth, in the manner of a brown coated hardware shopkeeper, thinking about whether he has 3 mil washers in stock. He's an aficionado of this game and takes it seriously. 'Well, it's early days, so we shouldn't be expecting angels or stars. I'm thinking camel, the ship of the desert...'

''s a star.'

Big A shakes his head. What is the world coming to, when a star makes such an early appearance in the game? 'OK then, if that's the way it's going to be, the next one will be an angel.'

Pause. 'It's two kittens, playing with a ball of wool.'

He shakes his head again. Time to play tough. 'In that case, it's definitely an angel next...'

''s a woman collecting water from a well.'

Big A stands and shouts. 'What the f@ck? What sort of sh*t is that?'

I cover my ears. 'Ssshh, don't swear in front of the Advent calendar. If you can't play nicely, we won't play at all.'

I hang up the calendar and exit the room, leaving him to untangle the Christmas tree lights alone.


Wins and Losses to-date this festive season

>> Monday, 8 December 2014

Win:  Finding you can still fit into not one but two (count 'em, TWO) of your long slinky dresses so you have a choice for an up-coming festive black tie event.

Loss:  spotting slightly more lumps and bumps marring the slinkiness than you are happy with.

Win:  locating suitable  'streamlining' underwear at the back of your knicker drawer to smooth out the lumps and bumps.

Loss:  deciding to celebrate new svelte appearance with a square or two of chocolate.

Win:  It's dark chocolate, mind.  So, essentially, good for you.

Loss:  In fact, since I'm being so good to myself, why not celebrate with half a pound of cheese as well?  And whilst I'm at it, how about a piece of that banana bread I made for the boys yesterday?  The one with the chocolate chips in?  Well, they probably won't eat it - it's far too healthy - and it would be a shame to waste it...


Win:  Heading off to a friends' house and finding the perfect box of Ferrero Rocher to give them, as a joke.  Your plan is to hand it over to said friend - who just happens to be an Ambassador - and say with a knowing smile 'Monsieur.  With these Ferrero Rocher we are really spoiling you.'  As plans go, it's foolproof.  It's brilliant, with a capital B.

Loss:  It turns out that no-one other than the Brits ever saw that advert.  This person is not a Brit, so you have to explain what on earth you talking about and end up feeling like a complete Brit, with a capital T,

Win: It does, however, give you the opportunity to put the original ad onto your blog so that should a similar situation ever happen in the future (not that you ever expect to be invited back to an Ambassador's residence again, after that performance) you can find it much more easily than you were able to this time around...

(Always the silver lining, me.  Always the silver lining).


How to throw a Christmas Bauble Party...

>> Friday, 5 December 2014

What?  You've never heard of a Christmas Bauble party?  Dahlink!  I just can't imagine... Oh, wait.  That was me two weeks ago.  But then an invitation dropped into my inbox, and on Wednesday this week, I went along and was introduced to this hilarious (new) Christmas tradition.  I had such a good time, I thought I would share it with you, so here's my step by step guide.

1.  Invite a group of probably between 10 - 20 girlfriends over.

2.  Ask your girlfriends to go out and purchase a Christmas bauble for anything from £1 - £10.  (Please note; it does not have to be an actual bauble, but something that can hang on the tree is good.)  Instruct them to wrap their bauble as prettily as possible - so that it can't be seen - and leave it on a table just inside the front door when they arrive, so that no-one knows who has brought which parcel.

3.  Once everyone has arrived, ask them to draw a number from 1 to whatever the final number of people is, and hold onto their ticket.

4.  Get everyone seated, and put the pretty packages in the middle of the room.  Then invite the holder of ticket #1 to choose a parcel.

5.  #1 must open the parcel in full view of everyone in the room, so that all the other guests can see what they've received.

6.  Then #2 is invited to take a parcel.  OR - and this is crucial - they can also choose to 'steal' the bauble that has just been opened by #1.

7.  If #2 chooses to steal #1's bauble, #1 gets to choose another parcel to open.  The contents of which may be stolen yet again, by #3, who#'s turn it will be next.  #3, you see, gets to choose a gift from the table, or to steal either of the bauble's already in the possession of #1 and #2.

8.  And so it goes on, with each subsequent person in the numbered order getting a wider choice of baubles to 'steal' from the other players - or of course they can choose, sight unseen, to take a wrapped one from decreasing number on the table.

What is very important to know, however, is that each bauble can only be 'stolen' 3 times.  The person who steals it for the 3rd time gets to keep it.

This party is perfect if you have a group of friends who can be relied upon to keep their sense of humour if their new favourite Christmas decoration is stolen from them at the last minute by someone they usually call their bff, if they find themselves opening the booby prize of the most tasteless bauble imaginable, or if they end up as the new owner of the pair of novelty pants that some joker decided to throw into the mix for a laugh.  Which of course didn't happen to anyone I knew...

And that, friends, is how to throw a Christmas Bauble party, and I promise you - you won't regret it.

You're welcome.


How do you know which movies and electronic games are age-appropriate for your kids?

>> Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Please note; this is NOT a sponsored post; just something I thought might come in handy when we're all casting about for ideas for gifts this Christmas...

As an involved / engaged / helicopter (delete as you see fit) parent, I like to understand what it is my children are watching or playing when they're staring at their electronic devices.  However, researching every single online purchase that my children want to make - and properly understanding the plots and techniques etc that various games use - is something that I simply don't have the time (or, if I'm honest, the enthusiasm) to do.

Boy #2 came home from school a couple of weeks back lobbying to be able to download a new game on the ipad.

"Everyone has it, Mum" he told me.  Hmmm.  I had never heard of this game before.  "Define 'everyone'", I said.  "Well, M has it.  And S.  And O."  Okaaay.  All boys with previous form in the area of inappropriate / excessive internet and electronic gaming use, I noted.  I decided to ask Boy #1 if he knew of this game.

He did.  "That is definitely not the right age group for Boy #2"  he pronounced firmly, family policeman that he is (is it just me or do a lot of oldest siblings - myself included - fall into that category?)  "I've seen it and I don't think it's appropriate AT ALL."

'Appropriate'; that lovely multi-tasking word.  The Potski family use it when certain people Talk Too Loudly In Church, when they Scream At The Top Of Their Voice that their socks hurt as we walk too school , when Bottom Conversations become Too Personal, and - increasingly often - when looking into the content of various forms of electronic entertainment.

Boy #2 was sure his older brother was being too cautious.  "It's fine, Mum.  Let's just try it and see..."  We've done that in the past with disastrous results, so I wasn't convinced that in the case it was the best way to go.

Luckily, I didn't need to try the 'suck it and see' method of trial.  Instead, I was able to pass the buck on this decision to an online resource we use frequently, and who's decision is seen as final by my two occasionally biddable children.  Commonsense Media is a site that gives reviews and age ratings for almost any web-sourced content that your children may be interested in, and which - crucially - gives you an instant and easily accessible list of the reasons why those ratings have been awarded.  For example, this is their review of World of War Craft (which they rate as Age 15):

'Parents need to know that this game is incredibly fun to play and spectacular in terms of its beauty and creativity, but it requires adult involvement to be a positive and safe experience for teens. There is violence, some of it bloody, references to alcohol, and occasionally subtle sexual innuendo. Most importantly, parents need to know that this game is conducted online and may involve chatting with unknown players. Also, parents should set time limits for gameplay: With endless exploration and no clearly defined levels, it is easy to get hooked.'

Whereas this is what they have to say about Minecraft (rated Age 8):

'Parents need to know that Minecraft is an open-ended, exploration and creation focused environment. One of the best-selling, independently developed and published video games,Minecraft's official release was in November 2011 following a lengthy beta test phase that attracted millions of players. Players can create items and buildings from scratch using materials they harvest from the world around them. There is no story, but players will encounter aggressive monsters they can fight using swords and bows. Graphics are extremely blocky, and there is no blood or gore, but the creatures can be a bit scary when they moan or appear seemingly out of nowhere. Parents should note that this game has a thriving online community hosted by private, non-moderated servers. This means players could encounter offensive content in the form of profane text messages and suggestively shaped player-created structures, although players don't have to engage in online activity to enjoy the game.'

So back in Potski Mansions, we input the name of the game in question into the CommonSense Media search engine, and sure enough, Boy #1 was correct; this game was rated as Age 12.   Boy #2 (currently aged 8) was disappointed but was willing to toe the party line.


Although there might have been some reprisal-instigated wrestling that ensued when my back was turned, but hey, I can't be an involved / engaged / helicopter parent all the time...



21st Century Learning

>> Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Who can place this quote:

"... your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not that they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."*

I remembered this quote today when I was having a conversation  with a friend and we found ourselves pondering this question: how much screen time do our children get each day?

In fact, how much screen time does YOUR child get each day?

I'm asking this not because I'm trying to make you feel guilty about the kids flopping down in front of the tv the moment they walk through the door at the end of their school day, or to make judgements about the games they may be playing on the ipad, x-box or pc in their room right now.  No, I'm asking this because I suddenly realised during the conversation I mentioned that I don't know the answer to this question myself.

That is because the amount of tv / computer time that my children get at home each day is, in fact, only one piece of the jigsaw; for 8 hours of every weekday during term time my children are not at home.  They are at school, in an educational environment where, more and more, online resources are an integral part of the teaching lexicon.

And that's fine, that's wonderful.  There are now ways for teachers to enhance our children's learning experiences to a degree that was never even dreamt of when we - the pre-Internet generation - were at school.  Want to know about the recent landing on the comet?  It's there in glorious technicolour, tattooed genius engineers and all, at the click of the button.  Need to teach your class the life-cycle of whales or the migratory pattern of puffins?  Instantly accessible, engaging, and entertaining footage is only the correct search engine term away.  Want your class to research the history of the US War of Independence for a project on national autonomy?  Well, there's no need to send them to the school library or ask them to turn to the relevant page of their dry and dusty text book any more, is there?  You just get your pupils to reach for the nearest handy electronic device (be it school or parent supplied), and ask Dr Google (or the school-approved safe content guaranteed equivalent) to provide the relevant information.

And this is great, this is liberating, this is what the internet does brilliantly.

Except.  Scientists frequently tell us that there are limits to the amount of time that a child - with their growing, emerging, fragile brain and all the establishing neural pathways and synapses it consists of - should spend in front of any kind of a screen each day.  Guidelines vary with each new study but that's immaterial since how are we, as parents, expected to gauge what actually is a 'safe' amount of time for our children to spend using a laptop or similar at home when we have no idea how much time they have already spent doing the same thing at school?

Sure, the on-screen content they have been looking at in school may have been 'educational' - but does that actually make any difference?  Does the part of the brain that deals with cognitive development analyse the information that's coming in from the screen in front of it and make a judgement call on whether or not the length of time the child has been looking it is harmful, saying to itself  'Oh, it's about the lifecycle of an amoeba.  That's educational - part of the National Curriculum.  No need to worry about that screwing with the formation of my synapses, then'?

So when he got home from school this afternoon I asked my 11 year old son how much time he had spent in front of the computer today.  He reckoned 45 minutes in his maths lesson, 45 minutes in foreign language, and 30-45 minutes doing research for a current school project.  Unusually there was no writing on computers required for language arts today, so that was it - in school hours.  But add on the approximate 30 minutes he spent online this morning before school catching up on homework, and the 30 minutes doing the same thing this evening, and we are at, let's see, more than 3 hours on the computer today.

And that's without any screen-based game time or watching any tv (because we simply didn't have time for that), so I reckon it's actually a light day.

Which leads me to my ultimate question, I suppose.  Parents are constantly being asked to take responsibility for the amount of electronic input that their children's brains receive, and I'm happy to do that; I want to do that; it's my job.  But is anyone asking schools to factor the same calculations into their lesson plans and to take a similar level of responsibility in safeguarding their pupils' brain development?

Technology is the future.  It's the way ahead, an inescapable fact of life.  But schools need to work with parents on this whole issue of screen time, because it seems to me that there's a disconnect between what they consider acceptable educational practice and what we at home are expected to allow in terms of safe amounts of access.

*Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park - you can see the fantastic scene where he uses this line here.  Vintage Spielberg.



>> Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Yesterday it was Remembrance Day in the UK (and in various other nations around the world, I know).  I had hoped to take the Boys to see the amazing installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London when we were in the UK a week or so ago, but heavy traffic and a late-running doctors' appointment meant we didn't make it. Life, as ever, got in the way.

However, yesterday Boy #2 came home from school to tell me how his teacher (a South African) had shown them footage from Sunday's ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall London, regaling me with his tale as if it related to events from ancient history rather than to commemorate something that happened within still-living memory.

"The ceremony happened at 11 o'clock, Mum."  Do you know why that was, I asked.  He didn't, so I explained about the significance of the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month.  He nodded sombrely.  "They had rows of soldiers, Mum, all saluting" he said in a low voice, as if to emphasise the importance of what he was telling me.  "The Queen laid a wreath, and then a man shouted something, and all the soldiers stamped.  Then, they played a tune on trumpets that didn't have any buttons on the top."

Cornets, I said.  They were called 'cornets'.

And I was momentarily transported back to when I was similar age and listening to the Last Post being played on various chilly November mornings throughout the years.  My sister and I used to march with our Brownie pack (and later, as Girl Guides) along with veterans, civilians, the mayor and town council, the cubs, the boy scouts, the local army, RAF and naval cadets, and so on in a parade through the very small town where I grew up, every year on whichever Sunday fell closest to 11th November.  We walked from the parish church to the town square, where a stone cross embellished with the names of the local men who had fallen in World Wars I and II stood by the doctor's surgery and bus shelter, and each of the organisations represented laid their flag and a wreath on the steps of the memorial.

It seemed to me, at 8 years old standing in my best coat and uniform listening to the 2 minute silence, that the streets were heaving with poppy-wearing people who had come to pay their respects.  I used to catch the bus to school from the memorial every week day and on the days that I wasn't wrapped in my own thoughts I remember marvelling at how short some of the lives commemorated on the stone had been; only 16 or 17 years long, in a couple of cases.  And I especially remember that even at 8, 9, 10 years old I was struck by the horror and the pathos of realising that some family names were repeated - 3, or 4 times in some cases - denoting the fact that multiple members of the same family were commemorated as having died during the same war.  Imagine being their sibling, I thought then.  Imagine being their mother, I think now.

It seems so impossible to us; the white-hot fervour that drove entire families of young men to enlist.  From our relatively safe 21st century existence, I don't think many of us can imagine it.  But then, because 100 years ago - and more recently - they did, I don't have to.

Back in 2014, Boy #2 was still talking to me in the same low, insistent, serious voice.  "And then we heard a poem, Mum.  I can't remember the words, but they were good..."

Did it go; 'They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.'?  I asked.

"Yes!  That was it exactly!"

And I was struck yet again how many key milestones from my childhood are not present in my sons' lives.  There's little of that here, you see.  I'm not saying that the Russians don't venerate and respect their war dead, they absolutely do.  But the key difference is that the calendar date on which they do so is not called 'Remembrance Day' or 'Armistice Day'.  It's called 'Victory Day', and that is the aspect that is publicly celebrated.  It's more about military parades than about standing in silence, so that's what the Boys have known for the last 5 years.

For some reason I rarely went a Remembrance ceremony in the UK once I became an adult.  I can't think why; I suspect that I simply allowed Life to get in the way.  I hope, though, that if we return to the UK perhaps that might change, and my sons will get the chance to appreciate the value of standing in silence for 2 minutes to honour those who have died in their country's service.  In the meantime I'm going to reproduce the relevant stanza of the poem that the Ode to Remembrance is taken from.

Lest I forget.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon; 'For the Fallen'.


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