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Posts Tagged ‘under fives’

It’s a girl thing?

My not quite 5 year old daughter has very excitedly gone on her first ever trip to the cinema this afternoon, to see the new Disney film “The Princess and the Frog”. Apparently it is notable for having a black heroine (although surely Mulan, Pocahontas and Jasmine are far from white). But living in multicultural London, my daughter is oblivious to such things and is much more interested in the plot. It’s the typical Disney thing – girl meets boy (or frog), they overcome the baddies, get married, she becomes a princess and they live happily ever after.

When I ask my daughter what she wants to do when she grows up, she tells me “get married”, “be a mummy” or “be a princess”. When her girl friends come over to visit, they always immediately dive into the dressing up box, pull out the frilliest costumes they can find, ignoring the doctor, police officer and builder outfits and embark on elaborate imaginative games involving weddings, princesses, fairies and babies. One guest was horrified to see pirate-themed Playmobil toys in her bedroom, exclaiming “Why have you got those? Pirates are for boys!” I’m proud that she responded that pirates are for everyone, not just boys. But just the other day she asked me to buy her some lipstick, claiming that all her friends have it, and threw a diva-like strop when I refused.

It wasn’t like this back in my day. Toy shops like the Early Learning Centre didn’t produce everything in blue and pink versions. We didn’t need Lego to be pink for us to play with it. And we aspired to more than becoming a footballer’s wife or girl band star. What happened?

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There is nothing that fascinates the mother of a young baby as much as their little darling’s development. We watch carefully for signs of progress, be it rolling, sitting up, crawling and the holy grail of baby development, walking! And we assume that other people are as equally fascinated and (particularly in the case of first borns) can be guilty of being an utter bore about it. Get a group of mothers in the same room and it becomes a competitive sport. You may well hear a lot of crowing about how old little Johnny was when he crawled, isn’t he advanced since he walked at 9 months, oh how clever he is because he picked up a piece of plastic tomato with his thumb and forefinger at 28 weeks. Those of us with less exceptional children still squirming around on their tummies grit our teeth and tell ourselves that it doesn’t mean little Johnny is a genius and that ours will excel at school instead of on the carpet.

Except that now, we can’t. A new study indicates that there is a correlation between early development of gross and fine motor skills before age one and cognitive ability at age 5. In the study of 15,000 children:

Children who failed at nine months to reach four key milestones in gross motor development, relating to sitting unaided, crawling, standing and taking their first walking steps, were found to be five points behind on average in cognitive ability tests taken at age five, compared to those who passed the milestones.

Yikes. So babies who are ‘slow’ physically are likely to be thicker? Is that what they are saying? I guess so, but of course like all cohort studies, it means diddly squat for individual children. I am sure many of us with more than one child can point to instances where this doesn’t hold up. But the number of children in the study is impressively large, so I don’t think we can dismiss the findings out of hand. If we take them at face value though, what do they actually mean? Apparently the report says:

‘This finding highlights the importance of early screening for developmental delay at ages under one year, as a tool to promote positive child development.’

So now failing to walk before a year is a ‘delay’?!? [Incidentally, why does the Guardian have to use the headline ‘Children can fall behind as early as nine months’?? Why use the phrase ‘fall behind’? Behind what? Why does it all have to be so competitive?!? Pffffffffffffffffffffft.] I hope that this doesn’t (but am afraid that it will) mean that parents would be subjected to (even more) scrutiny about the development of their child. And to what end? Just because there is a correlation between early crawling and cognitive ability doesn’t mean that if you make your baby crawl earlier (how?!) they will be smarter. Maybe it’s just how babies are? I find the report fascinating, and since it sheds light on how our children develop it’s all good. But I worry that it will be yet another stick used to beat parents with, and we are already obsessed enough about these things as it is. I am having a flashback to my eldest daughter’s 8 month check where the Health Visitor tut tutted about her not being able to pick up a piece of fluff from the carpet in a pincer grip. Maybe that is why she is struggling with maths.

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In last night’s Panorama , Jeremy Vine examined the role of the new Independent Safeguarding Agency. Anyone who works or volunteers with children once a week or more will need to be checked by the new agency. Let me state at the beginning that of course convicted paedophiles should be barred from working with children, but I have doubts that this system will make our children one iota safer and may in fact have very negative consequences. Firstly, of 12,000 calls to Childline last year about sexual abuse only 13 of those accused would have been picked up by this system. The idea that someone is safe to be around your children because they have a clean CRB check clearly doesn’t always work. Statistically a child is more likely to be abused by someone they know well, so where do we draw the line? And if we cannot decide where to draw the line, why stop anywhere? Children are sometimes abused by their parents, so why not check everyone when they book in for ante-natal care? And everyone else in the family? One woman who called into Jeremy Vine’s radio show on the subject said that she wanted everyone who ever came in contact with her child checked: the postman, shopkeepers, bus-drivers.

Not only would that be madness but I truly believe that that level of paranoia risks our children’s safety and mental well-being more than having someone who hasn’t been checked by the ISA in contact with them. What happens to trust? What happens to community? Who does your child turn to for help if they need it if they have been taught that *everyone* is a risk? Men in particular are too scared to approach a child who may need help. My husband has worried that people will suspect him because he is friendly to other children. He worries that people will think our pale-skinned mixed race daughter is not his and he is going to hurt her. And this system seems too ripe for abuse. Unsubstantiated rumours, anonymous tip-offs and stories in the press will all find their way onto your file as soft evidence and it could be down to an office worker in a business park to make decisions that will impact your whole life.

I think they have it backwards. You cannot protect children from the outside in. You have to protect them from the inside out. Give them the tools, as much as it is possible, to defend themselves. How much autonomy do you allow your child over their own life, over their body? Ever made them wear a coat when they insisted they weren’t cold, made them finish their dinner when they said they weren’t hungry, tried to get them to take a nap when they are not tired? Give them some control over their body, let them know they own it and no-one has the right to make them do anything that makes them uncomfortable. Last week my daughter’s trampolining instructor picked her up and threw her despite her protests that she didn’t want to. I could have told her to stop being silly, but I didn’t. I told him that she had said no and she had the right to do that. This week he asked first. She is more confident in her right to say no to anything that makes her scared or uneasy. Then make sure that if anything does happen they know where to go, who will listen, who will act on their behalf.

We should be building community, not tearing it down. The well-being of your children should be everyone’s responsibility not just yours. The number of people who might want to harm them is still very small compared to the number of people who mean well and would act to help and protect them.

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This morning the papers & broadcast news were full of reports that ‘Labour spending has failed to improve child health’ and that a wave of policies were not offering ‘value for money’.

I was interested to see on what grounds these claims were being made, and if it was a fair summary of the Audit Commission report. The Audit Commission are an independent body, who examine what goes on in local organisations – your local council, local NHS trust etc. In this report they looked at government policy, and how it was implemented, monitored and paid for, between 1999 and 2009. Behind the headlines, was a very dry, and not altogether transparent report. The report claims over £10 billion has been spent of services for 0 – 5s. Most of this money has gone into Sure Start – but some has paid for health visitors and children’s centres.

Sure-start has cost what sounds like a fortune (but let’s face it, £7billion over 10 years is chicken feed really)  and if you believed this document has made very little impact. It’s had no impact on obesity. Or on the number of fillings children have. But this document makes no reference to mental health (and anecdotally sure-start volunteers have made a huge difference to mothers I know). It also makes no reference to educational outcomes – which is one of the missions of the sure-start programme.

Of course, a major problem with a report of this type is that children, as we mums know too well, grow up. By focusing only on 0 – 5s, this report doesn’t look at the impact of early spending on health-outcomes as children grow. Money spent on sure-start that helps a three year old, may not have a measurable impact until they are six.

I’m amazed more hasn’t been made in the media of some hidden gems within this document. For example, lone parents, BME parents, and teenage parents all feel unable to access health services because of the judgemental nature of health professionals. This is a scandal – and I can assure you that white, middle-class, middle-aged, married mothers have their problems with judgemental health professionals too.

The real criticisms in the document, which are not as widely reported in the media, are that local authorities simply aren’t doing anything particularly about 0 – 5s. Most government policy covers 0 – 19s. And local authorities find it easy to monitor children when they enter school, and so don’t do very much with 0 – 5s.The report recommends using targeted interventions to improve the health of under 5s, and evaluation of the effectiveness of those interventions. The danger though surely is that we already find health professionals judgemental – so do we want them monitoring the health of our children in order to meet government targets?

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