Are your kids addicted to their gadgets? Is it time for a digital detox?

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93770-20150125narrowDoes your home provide a perfect habitat for the Greater-Spotted-Xbox? A breeding ground for the thriving i-Pad Mini? In our home, these wonderful little creatures are reproducing like never before…Unlike their forefathers, the ZX Spectrum or the Commodore 64 (who were quite content to wake slowly and spend much of their day asleep) The Gadgets of today require the near constant attention of their owners…they draw us in and crave our company. They do not like boundaries and will sneak, unnoticed into cars, toilets and restaurants given half the chance. (In some corners of the globe The Gadget IS the toilet – if you haven’t seen it check out the iPotty from CTA Digital!). Their possessive nature means they, very quickly, form strong and lasting bonds with their owners, who, without realising soon become addicted to their constant call for company…

Children and young people are particularly susceptible to the calls of The Gadget and, as parents, we are now facing an increasingly difficult battle to ensure that whilst our offspring care and nurture their Gadgets they do not become slaves, attending to their every need in every waking hour! We are fighting hard to ensure our little soldiers do not disappear into a virtual habitat, never to be seen again! Today’s connected-generation are most certainly at risk of over-exposure to The Gadget and this new friendship threatens to change the shape of ‘childhood’ forever. We have a battle on our hands.

163619-20150125Last week, I went to war against the miners, car thieves and lego super heroes that fight for my children’s attention on a daily basis. I persuaded Matthew, my husband, to join my crusade (once I’d got his attention away from his -Mac) and this week we introduced ‘iPad and iSpy Days’…Popular I was not.

The rules are simple…On i-Pad Days, The Gadgets, can join our family and live amongst us, roaming as they do, from room to room… but, every other day, The Gadgets must be allowed to rest…and, if total boredom prevails then there is..of course, always i-Spy!

Don’t get me wrong, i am a BIG fan of The Gadget, I am usually amongst the first to offer a home to each new species, I can see their genuine value and LOVE sharing this with my boys and the children we teach…The Gadget brings us global connectivity and limitless opportunity…Just this week I saw, first hand, the way they can improve dexterity….All three of our boys can now wee ‘no handed’ and, at the same time, play darts and score a triple 20! Granted, it’s a skill I didn’t have as a child but, I have a feeling that, if left to their own devices (literally!) this list of dubious skills would increase…whilst their ability to exist ‘unconnected’ would plummet!

To me, it is about finding a balance. I don’t think I’m alone.

I have been fortunate enough to work with Jim Sells and the team at The UK’s National Literacy Trust and they recently reported that over 3/4’s of our children now have access to touch screen devises at home. 73% to be precise! This figure is rising at a rate faster you can drive a getaway car in Grand Theft Auto! The Gadget is thriving. According to  ‘Digital Predictions 2014‘ from Deloitte, our annual spend on The Gadget has increased FIVE-FOLD since 1999, rising from $150 billion to a staggering $800 billion. This in itself, isn’t a bad thing…but, the tragedy of this evolution is that this ‘technological takeover’ has unfortunately coincided with a drastic reduction in the habitat of our ‘outdoor play’.  As parents we worry constantly about the lure of The Gadget, but, at the same time, we have never been more afraid to let our children ‘out’.

Jan Cosgrove, National Secretary for Fair Play for Children, describes a ‘catastrophic loss of safe play spaces’ as a result of the increase in cars on our residential streets. Their survey found that the top three ‘play places’ of our generation were the ‘fields, woods and streets’ whilst today’s connected-generation list the park, garden and home as their primary stomping ground. Whilst their virtual world has expanded beyond recognition, to the very edge of our imaginations, their ‘real world’ is teetering on the verge of extinction…

IMG_8201But all is not lost! The appetite for adventure and fun still remains amongst young owners of The Gadgets! A recent poll of nearly 3,000 parents and children by Eureka Children’s Museum in West Yorkshire found 81% of children prefer playing outside to watching TV. My own boys are the same they LOVE being outside. They climb (too high), they cycle (too fast) and they love to explore! I am determined that our crazy mud monkeys keep that sense of adventure and. most importantly, keep a balance in their lives. Yes, I worry every time they race out of the front door. I worry about the strangers they encounter and the way they strike up a conversation… I worry when I see them paddle off in their kayaks or find them swinging down a home-made zip wire from the top of a tree…but, that free spirit in me can’t help but smile. Their rosy cheeks and muddy knees take me back to the carefree, crazy, risk-filled days of my  childhood. We built dens on the ‘out of bounds’ land of the Ministry of Defence. We grew up sharing our ‘playground’ with the British Army. Collecting their spent bullets and tunnelling in the back of their sand targets.  We played in streams and swam in rivers. We survived.

Cigarettes come with a health warning. Even the packaging of our food is decorated with traffic lights telling us when ‘enough is enough’ but, as yet, there is no such health warning in regards to time spent with ‘The Gadget’.  How many hours do your children spend in its company? I’d love to know.  How much is enough? How much is too much?

IMG_5706Dr Larry Rosen, recognised as an international expert in the psychology of technology, suggests a 1:5 ratio for children. In other words for every hour they spend with their gadgets they should spend 5 doing something outside of the virtual world. For pre-teens he recognises the increase in usage but warns against losing a 50:50 balance.  But a study undertaken by the University of Maryland found that, when trying to give up their Gadgets for 24hours, four out of five students failed the challenge! They reported severe cravings, anxiety attacks and depression.  They lost their social compass and struggled to find their way through the day.

As a parent I am trying desperately to find a way to ‘lay the foundations’ that will still give our kids access the incredible virtual world at their fingertips but also time for their REAL friends, for playing outside, for real-world communication and thinking skills …heavens, even time to be bored. Our children need time for day dreaming, for mind wandering…their brains need a break from the constant demands of The Gadget… And I don’t want a daily battle.  I know too from talking to my friends that once The Gadget has taken the upper-hand it is virtually impossible to tame it and encourage it back into captivity for evenpart of each week. As parents of the young i-Generation we need to help them find that balance…and maintain it…

…We have survived our first week of ‘i-Spy and i-Pad’ -one day on and one day off.. and no one has died.  No one called Childline. No one left home! Yes they pleaded, they cajoled and bargained but when they had ‘nothing in the world to do’ I offered them the chance to play i-Spy with mum…and they soon something a whole lot more entertaining to get on with! They played outside…they played inside…they wrecked the kitchen making smoothies and (be impressed!) they READ (not because they HAD to but because they WANTED to!)  On our second ‘i-Spy day’ Callum asked twice if he could ‘just go online for a few minutes’ and after being told ‘yes, but tomorrow’ he shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes and concluded ‘Well, we might as well go and play something together then Jack’ and off they stomped to play a game of (real life) darts – together! Granted they ended up fighting, Jack threw a dart into his chair and I had to eventually ban the missiles and bring out the lego but…they survived. And so did I.  Just. My virtual babysitters, The Gadgets, got a well-earned rest and, when they returned the next day, we were all happy to see each other.

I am hopeful that our crazy family can co-exist happily with the various species of The Gadget… I am sure that our lives are all the richer for having them live within our home…I’d certainly miss them if they moved out..but, that said, I know they were on the verge of a coup. They were close to a take-over. They had become my nemesis.  It seems that a gaggle of Gadgets can very quickly oust a parent and try the patience of our most saintly.  These little creatures need to be properly managed if the eco-system that is home is to retain some degree of sanity.

We’ll see how it goes..but, for now, the kids are all outside. Cal is playing football with his friends, Jack (always just a step away from A and E) is up a tree and Thomas, is out chatting to our neighbour… A small but positive victory for parent-kind!

But…me…well, I’m on my gadget… so time to power down and get the plasters and bandages ready…

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5 Things I have learnt about boys!

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Storm Chasing…

There is hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something from one of our three sons! I exist in a fairly permanent and hazy state of confusion, grappling with the ‘world of boys.’  I am outnumbered every which way I turn! Even Ben (our psychotic labrador) confuses me. Why would ANY animal want to eat dishwasher tablets, socks or plastic toys? But then again I wonder the same about our boys…don’t get me wrong, they don’t eat dishwasher tablets, they only suck the occasional sock and plastic toys are just nibbled…but they do eat for England! The three of them make a plague of locusts look like fussy eaters. They are PERMANENTLY hungry, even as they spoon in the last mouthfuls of a tasty roast dinner they are looking hungrily for desserts. The search for food is never ending…When they are not occupied ‘hunting and gathering’ our three are blasting their way through life at hurricane speed with me, desperately holding on for dear life…storm chasing, renovating the trail of destruction that ‘hurricane sons’ leave behind! On a good day I have the energy and optimism to believe I can tame the spirited winds and I haul them back to collect and rearrange the debris..but that’s on a good day.

But, slowly, very slowly, I am gaining ground. If it helps even the odds then I share these findings with my fellow storm chasers and wish you love, luck and energy! We’ll need it!

1. Boys are great collaborators!

IMG_5426At 6.20 (AM!) not so long back we were woken by our oldest son, proudly informing us that they’d learnt a new skill and managed to put together a show for us! All in the 20 minutes since dawn! I rubbed my bleary eyes and ‘took one for the team’, allowing Matthew to snore, undisturbed beside me.

‘Let the show begin!’ announced Cal.

‘First up! The Brakenbury Brothers with their amazing Mexican Wave, using nothing but willies!’ It is at these moments you know you have sons!

2. The more dangerous it looks the better!

IMG_6711We have a wonderful next door neighbour, a grown up version of our middle son Jack. He rides bikes (and I mean BIKES, of the big, black, shining, purring Duccati kind). I can see life magnified when Jack ‘talks bike’ with Gren. His eyes light up and he grins, Cheshire Cat style. Occasionally out comes Gren’s superfast mini moto… and a delighted, 8-year-old Jack runs in to let me know he’s off for a ride. I do that ‘mum thing’…make sure he has his arms covered and warn him ‘It’s not a toy! Be sensible! Don’t go too fast!’… On the last occasion Jack looked me straight in the eyes with his hands either side of my shoulders..

‘Mum, you HAVE to understand. I was BORN to go fast. What could be better than dying do something you LOVE’

‘Doing it TWICE and NOT once!!’ was all I could stammer, realising, not for the first time – that my mission as a mum wasn’t to help him get good grades, or feed him good veg…those early day ambitions have been replaced. Just keep him alive.

3.  Broken Bones are a badge of honour!

IMG_0814

The usual rules do not apply with boys. Warnings of

‘Be careful! You could break something!’ might just as well be spoken in a different language! The aim IS to break something. Only a boy would be told he has broken his wrist and whoop with joy…proudly leaving the x-ray room with a grin!

I was about to console and cuddle our little injured soldier but, as he high-fived his jealous brothers I realised that, once again, I was on the wrong page.

 

4. They have a unique ability to choose their moments….

IMG_8427I am the proud mother to an arm farting King Herod.  I have sat, through an entire nativity with my body prickling with sweat, intently giving ‘eyes’  to son #2 at those moments when I saw the ‘glimmer of opportunity’ flash across his eyes! The chance to hold an audience and make them laugh was almost irresistible to him! It was simply not enough to start a man hunt, searching for the new son of God…oh no, he had to add an impressive arm fart to add a sense of gravity to his request…IMG_8009

…And it doesn’t seem to get better as they get older. I recently learnt that lesson the hard way…when I left my TEN year old son in the barbers whilst I nipped to a cash point. As he sat in the chair and was asked what he’d like…he told them… only it wasn’t what MUM would have liked. A 0.5, tram lines and a blonde fringe! He had time for 2/3 before I returned! Carpe Diem!  Hmmmm….  We had words.

5. It is not possible to take a walk, unarmed!

IMG_5674What is it about boys and sticks?  We can be outdoors for just moments and, even in a meadow of grass, they will search, innately for a weapon. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary thing, deep within their psyche… But, until they are armed and dangerous they will search, relentlessly. Terriers of nature!  Once armed they will charge and run, warrior style, in all directions. This is continued until either a brother has been hit or a coffee shop calls, requiring all weapons are left at the door. A peaceful WALK just does not happen, at least with our boys. Period.

But, despite the challenges…I have to admit I am enjoying the journey. Raising boys is the best adventure I have ever had. I feel I have joined an exclusive asylum to which I now have a life membership… I am surviving…and, so far, so are the boys. Keep chasing those storms and have fun :o)

A ‘Smashing’ Birthday!

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“You can rely on boys to make even the most static of objects into a dangerous missile.”

I’m 44 today! Some looked to me apologetically this morning  and whispered ‘ Happy Birthday, kindly keeping the ‘secret’ from others at the school gate, whilst others offered me a ‘way out’ – ’21 again today eh!?’ and some, like my oldest son, kindly pointed out that I am just 6 years from 50 and therefore almost half way through the abacus of life!

“Mathematics Lesson” by photostockIt was Jack, our middle son, who once realised that the extent of our lives is perfectly illustrated on a frame of colourful beads and there is nothing more sobering than when he whizzes through the lines showing us how long we, at best, have left! But I am proud to be 44! Granted, I was a little disappointed that I thought I was 43 and lost a year in the blink of an eye, but proud to have reached 44 and not died! When friends and family bemoan their next milestone I always find myself thinking that it really IS better than the alternative, of not having reached that milestone at all! So, today, I am proud to be 44 and beginning the climb back down the mountain having enjoyed the view from the top! But…there are advantages of being ‘over the hill’…it’s easier going down…less puffing and panting and more slipping and sliding! You have a clearer perspective on the way back down…

My birthday frisbee!

My birthday frisbee!

Our youngest Tom woke me up this morning asking,

‘Mummy, have you forgotten what I made at art club yesterday?’

‘No’ I answered kindly, ‘of course I haven’t! It was beautiful!!’
‘Pleeeeaase tell me you HAVE forgotten because I want to give it to you for your birthday!’
‘Tom, what was it that you made at Art club yesterday? I can’t remember what it was..’
‘Brilliant!! I KNEW you’d forget what I made!!’

‘Happy Birthday Mum!!’ he grinned, presenting me yesterday’s coaster made from wonky foam mosaic squares.

‘Wow! A coaster! Thank you!’

‘No, it’s a frisbee!’ at which point he demonstrated how well it flew and so my birthday began!

A lesson I have learned…

“You can rely on boys to make even the most static of objects into a dangerous missile.”

Do not be fooled as you raise your boys that you are safe. Even on the morning of your 44th birthday.

Jack (8) made me a fruit smoothy (and destroyed the kitchen in the process). ‘I’ve used my bullet!’ he announced proudly. I am sure that it was the danger wrapped within the name ‘nutribullet’ that led him to put this miniature model of the London Shard in his Christmas list!  It was served in our last remaining crystal champagne glass! Every birthday we get it out for the child celebrating – and today it was my go (a big kid)! Every year, it balances precariously on our breakfast table, only today it didn’t. As I turned to stop a paper aeroplane envelope from flying into the fire I knocked it, smashing it neatly into three sections! Jack, the pilot of the plane, burst into a flood of tears.

.A homemade smoothy in our last remaining crystal glass...

.A homemade smoothy in our last remaining crystal glass…

He is sensitive at the best of the best of times, and the memories attached the glass mean more to him than most.  We sat down together, in the middle of our wrapping paper mountain, and I told him the story of my amazing Nanna Judy…She’d  been given three colourful pyrex bowls as a wedding present in the 1920’s (how times change!) they’d travelled with her when she emigrated to Canada and back to England when they returned to their homeland. As a little girl I’d made her a jelly and accidentally dropped one of bowls, smashing it to smithereens! I froze in terror and was shocked to see her throw her head back and laugh… not angry at the smashed china, but tickled by the jelly in Grandad’s slippers. ‘Things aren’t important’ she’d said simply. ‘You can’t take them with you when you go’ she added. And how right she was. I told Jack the same thing this morning and we laughed at the ‘new crystal cup’ that we’d created! We decided to keep the top part and, each year, from now on (until we smash that!) we’ll remember the lesson that their Gt Nanny taught their clumsy mum that I in turn, shared with my children.

As a mum of boys I have a spectacular collection of repaired frames, armless ornaments and now, a stemless crystal glass! All of which will be priceless reminders of the days we were raising boys!

Photo Credit: Thank you to freedigitalphotos.net for the photo of the little boy with an abacus. ‘Mathematics Lesson’ by photostock.

Dealing with Death

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“The best way to deal with a direct question is with a direct answer. Honesty is the best policy.”

That was the advice given to me by my son’s Deputy Head as I left the staffroom to face my sons with the kind of news you hope never to deliver.

Last week a good friend of ours went missing. Her son is in the same class as our eldest. Just Year 5, still at primary school. Our children had started school together, 5 years ago now. As soon as I heard that Aleasha had left home, on a foggy and cold Sunday afternoon and not returned that night, I knew something was wrong. We all did. Mums know mums. A request for ‘sightings’ had been issued by Essex Police. Aleasha was described as ‘vulnerable’… she had left home without her medication. We knew our friend was ‘out there somewhere’ and we were determined to find her.

AleashaSearchInvitationAs soon as the boys were at school I sent a text to a mutual friend. Individually, we all began looking. Needles and haystacks come to mind. We visited ‘favourite walks,’ old walks and woodlands…our group of mums, texting each other, ever hopeful for an update. After school, we all drove the estates, crawling down the lanes, exploring long forgotten roadways with our children, all keeping our eyes peeled for Aleasha.

A police search helicopter took over at nightfall. Our early sense of urgency was now growing amongst our community. My friend Mandy and I started a facebook event, to try and bring together as many people as possible to search for Aleasha.  Late that night, Aleasha’s Army began to stamp its new collective feet and wanted to help. After increasingly strong talks with Essex Police we began to make headway. There is nothing quite as hard to ignore as a group of mums on a mission. The next day, just two days after Aleasha’s disappearance, we were assigned a Police Search Officer, our good friend and fellow mum, Steph. By now we’d sent out over 2500 invitations to the group and hundreds of people began to contact us for the posters we’d hastily drafted.  Our army of two had grown. We wanted to find Aleasha. That was our simple mission.

Police protocol is to give volunteers a ‘safe area’ to search – an area that is considered ‘low risk of a find’ but that will, it’s hoped, raise the profile of the case. We were assigned, with 30 minutes notice, Essex University. Mandy and I sent out a request to all those who might be free to join us. We spoke to journalists and contacted a good friend, and fellow mum, who worked at the university. She arranged a room, refreshments and was there, 30 minutes later, to welcome those friends, family and strangers who poured in to help us search. Over 100 people joined us. 10 police officers had been drafted in, led by our good friend Steph. We were relieved to be doing something collectively. We wanted to get our good friend home safely to her husband and little boys.

Whatever you believe or don’t believe in doesn’t really matter here…but we prayed, wished and hoped to find Aleasha. We spread out over the extensive grounds of the university and in our groups of ten searched..and searched. We were scared, nervous…unsure…but most definitely determined.

Within 2 hours Aleasha had been found. Sadly, it was not the happy ending we had hoped for. Tragically, Aleasha had lost her life. Our beautiful friend had been found dead. The stunned silence that followed was deafening. It filled the ‘briefing room’ with an air of total sadness. No one had told us at that point. But everyone knew. Somehow, we all knew she’d been found. It fell to our friend, Policewoman Steph Triscott, to take care of Aleasha’s family, the young PCSO who had found her and then to return to us all to give us the news that somehow we already knew.  Mandy and I stood either side of Steph. We all held hands as she ‘did her job’ and told everyone that the search for Aleasha had now been stepped down. It wasn’t the outcome we hoped for but, our mission was to find her. Regardless. To bring her to a point of safety and to end the crippling uncertainty for her family.

An hour later us mums had to collect our children from school.  Just the day our children  had driven around the streets of Colchester, searching for their friend’s mum. It was the first thing they asked about when I saw them…

‘Did you find Aleasha?’

‘Yes.’ I replied ‘We did’.

‘Is she ok?’ they asked. Three pairs of hopeful eyes, fixed upon my face.

Their wise Deputy Head had suggested that ‘honesty is the best policy’… I was torn between wanting to get home to a safe and quiet place to tell them and their urgent need for information.

‘She is peaceful now,’ I explained.

That was not enough. I was skirting the issue.

‘Peaceful?’ asked Callum. Three pairs of confused eyes, fixed upon my face. Searching for clues.

‘Unfortunately, Aleasha is no longer with us.’… I was skirting the harsh truth…desperate to prevent their safe world of happy endings from crashing down.

‘Do you mean she is dead?’ asked Thomas with the clarity of only a 5 year old can bring’

There was nowhere left for me to hide. I knelt down in front of them, looked them in the eyes and said,

‘Yes. I’m sorry, she is’.

There was silence for a few moments as I ushered them towards our car.

As we shut the door, it was Thomas who broke the silence again.

‘I wonder if she’s met God yet. Do you think she’ll like him?’

Children have a unique ability to ‘cut the crap’ and talk from the heart. On our 10 minute drive home they asked so many questions, direct and insightful. The whys…the hows…the what nexts. I pulled in to lay by and answered each one as honestly as I could. I didn’t want them to experience this harsh and sad side of life. I wanted to protect them from the cruel world of crippling mental health, of how it can turn your perception of the world upside down. How it could cause someone so beautiful as Aleasha to walk away from home and never return. I wanted to tell them it was all ok. But it wasn’t. But, as the questioned subsided, Callum said simply. ‘It might be bad now. But it will all be ok Mum. We’ll be ok. Everything will be ok….Won’t it?’

At last I was able to give positive reassurance. Yes, things were bad now. Yes, we were all sad. Our worlds had been turned upside down. Two little boys had lost their precious mummy. But, somehow, with love, support and kindness everyone affected would, one day, be ok. They would rebuild, not forget or stop hurting, but they would learn to live with the terrible news that was now part of our lives.

Instantly, I remembered a time when we lost our third child through a miscarriage. Callum was only 3 at the time. He didn’t know why his mummy was crying. I explained that our baby had died and gone to be an angel. I will never forget his response. He cuddled me and then said… ‘Let’s be sad and go and look up at the stars to say goodbye and then let’s go out and play’. And that’s exactly what we did. We sat on our doorstep and looked up to the stars. Callum waved goodbye and then handed me his bike helmet! Despite feeling dreadful I walked alongside him as he lurched from side to side, stabilizers rattling, grinning from ear to ear. We laughed. He’d allowed me time for grief and then set me back on track for a good dose of happiness.

My own work with the hospice movement and the loss of another good friend a few years earlier has taught me the importance of talking to our children. Communicating. Being honest with our feelings and listening to theirs.  Not being afraid to show our own feelings. I answered their questions simply but honestly. It became clear that their own perceptions of death were each different. For Thomas it was just a fact shared. He thought immediately of the first pet they’d lost. A little chicken, Star that had been eaten by a visiting husky dog. A terrible disaster that they still recall in vivid detail! He wondered instantly what Aleasha was doing in heaven. ‘Do you think she’ll like God? he asked. ‘I wonder what’s it like up there!’   For Jack, I could see fear etched deeply into his little face. ‘Will you be so sad one day that you will want to die?’ He had instantly related the situation to the thought of losing me. It’s been over a week now and today was the first day he went to school without ‘a tummy ache, a headache, tears or an extra hold of my hand’.  Callum wanted to speak to his friend. He wondered if Toby would ever be ok again.  He felt sad. He also understood my grief and wanted to make that better.

We were all trying to make sense of it. All struggling. But at least we were doing it together.

IMG_9932It’s only 10 days since our terrible discovery. On Friday a photo of Mandy and I looking distraught, made front page news on Friday. We were just mums who had tried to find their friend. It felt like a private grief but the search and interest was, understandably public. Next to us, in a glamorous photo, was a smaller picture of our beautiful friend Aleasha. Shining as she always did. Sparkling even. Gorgeous as ever.

‘You look old,’ said Callum factually. Old, pale and exhausted.

‘You look sad,’ said Jack

Tom looked from the photo, up to me and back to the phone then said honestly,

‘Aleasha looks like a princess but you look a bit like Shrek!’  How true. In that moment, I couldn’t help but smile and I wondered to myself…  is honesty really the best policy?I suppose it is. Even if sometimes, the truth hurts….

RIP Our dear friend Aleasha. You will be missed by so many. Shine on. xxxx