Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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C is for Cowries

Cowries were the shells. We collected fans, mussels, spirals, sea-smoothed pebbles, chips of oyster, cuttlefish, lambs, interestingly formed driftwood, but we would exchange a whole day’s booty for just one cowrie. It had to be perfect – a chipped cowrie, or worse, a half, was like the unfulfilled promise of ice-cream; disappointing. We loved their heft, the heavy way they lay on our palms, their curved humpbacks, their chiselled parallel channel a river through which we could whistle a pirate air or summon a dolphin. Cowries, like their ancient use, were our beach currency, to be bartered, admired, competed for, battled over. If we spotted a cowrie churning in the shore-break, we would draw blood to be the first to snatch it. The winner would crow over the loser, taunt him or her, but the fight was soon forgotten in taut admiration of the new find. We noted colour, shape, smoothness, perfection of shell, like two ancient farmers discussing the qualities of a dairy cow.

The outright goal of a beach holiday was who collected the most cowries. There were three methods. The first, and most commonly employed, was taking a low-tide walk and examining what the high tide had delivered to the top of the beach. Like everything, this was competitive. We ran to be the first to get to the new dump of shells, and would scour it expertly for the telltale cowrie shape. Distracted by other finds in the mass, one might stay shifting through the layers and be rewarded while the other ran on, impatiently, to the next shell mound. Mocking laughter would drift to the one ahead if he or she left an unspotted cowrie in his or her wake. We would make our way across the beach, overtaking and leaving each other behind, like the crabs that occasionally goosed us, but subjecting the beach to a thorough inspection.

A less scientific but more rewarding method was the thrilling shell-wash, usually at mid-tide. This involved getting into the water and sifting with our toes and swiftly diving fingers in a wash of shells within the waves. A cowrie found tumbling in the water was a huge prize, involving screaming, inhaling sea water and then running up the beach to showcase it to the nearly indifferent adult who was with us. A better class of grown-up would join our excitement, but theirs never lasted as long as ours. Shell-wash cowries could produce thrills days and weeks later, as, back in our bedrooms at home, we’d turn them over and remember the salty triumph of intuition, of knowing that shape in the water.

A third method was taking a walk to a distant beach, where perhaps there were no cowrie-mad children like us and we could have them to ourselves. If we could make it beyond the far rocks, which we achieved perhaps once a holiday since we usually ran home for the loo or something to eat, then we were in foreign territory, a new, uncharted land where we believed mounds of cowries lay waiting for us. Once, accompanied by the uncle who roars at lions, we chanced on a shell-wash beyond the far rocks and found cowries beyond our wildest dreams. Accompanied by the smell of the sugar-cane mill that was drifting burnt sugar downwind, it was a throat-burning thrill, and my brother still has a giant tiger cowrie hauled from the sea that day.

He always won. Younger than me, he was less distracted by things like books, penning letters to friends and watching our parents’ marriage pick apart. He would go out for lonely walks. Our cottage perched on a hill above the beach, and I would watch him, wandering in a pattern that I knew was not random, occasionally lifting one arm in triumph to let me know he’d scored. Sometimes he would disappear round the corner, and I would hold my breath, not fearing for his safety, but worrying how many cowries he was finding unseen. On his return, I’d swallow my envy and admire his haul. Kindly, he allowed me to hold them, to weigh and measure and decide on the afternoon’s best shell. We offered each other our cowrie currency as comfort. It was our new language, an activity apart, one that kept us from the cottage and its atmosphere of loss. As the beach winds whipped our hair and made our skin salty, we were united against now and future pain. We watched for cowries, saw their humpbacks against our retinas at night, felt the heft of them in our dreams, counted our real and dream collections, and left our parents to the sticky business of unravelling our lives.


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B is for Bridget James

Bridget James was my paternal grandmother, an elegant, opinionated, talented craftswoman who could sew a dress, needlepoint a cushion, knit doll’s clothes, bake a fine cake, throw a dinner-party for twenty or rustle up a hat for the races in an afternoon. We grandchildren knew her as “Gorgor” which was my family’s bastardization of the Zulu word Gogo, meaning old lady, her children called her “Mum” and her contemporaries and siblings called her “Bridge” or “Bridgie”.

Bridget met my South African grandfather Neville James in London a short couple of years before World War Two. She was a milliner, crafting exquisite hats for fine London ladies, including, family rumour has it, the Queen. He was a young lawyer, en route to the bar. He fell for the tall, slender, fashionable Bridgie, married her and brought her home to Pietermaritzburg, where they quickly had their first baby, my aunt and godmother Belinda. He then joined the Natal Carbineers, had six months’ training and went north to fight in the desert. It takes no feat of imagination to consider her position – stuck in a humid colonial town with a baby, far from her family and cosmopolitan London life, her brand-new husband at war with no guarantee of return. There are intimations that she suffered, but Bridget was stoical and got on with things. The war never left her though; she abhorred waste and while my grandfather gave out much-coveted twenty rand notes hidden in anonymous envelopes on our birthdays, she was well-known for being parsimonious.

In 1948, Bridget and Neville moved into The Hermitage with their four children, the second oldest of whom was my father Oliver. It was a lovely turn-of-the-century villa, built of solid red brick, with a green tin roof and deep verandahs that gave respite from the heat. She swiftly made her mark on the home, sewing curtains and decorating rooms, and it became a welcoming and gracious place to visit. Bridget and Neville were great party-goers and givers, and the house lent itself to entertaining. As a small child I remember weaving through the legs of partying adults, my grandmother the glamorous centre of it all with her cigarettes and her pink gins. She loved to dress up, to laugh and be amused, and while she became a colonial housewife and mother of four, there was a part of her that remained that London party girl.

There is a family story that epitomises her glamour and zest. She and my grandfather were leaving home for a party, dressed to the nines and ready for a good evening out. As Bridget passed the jasmine bush that tumbled over their kitchen fence, she saw a tiny jewel-like chameleon. She plucked it off the bush, placed it on her dress and wore it for the night as a living brooch. Knowing her love for animals, I like to believe that she would have replaced it at the end of the evening.

Bridgie adored her dogs and for a while the Hermitage was taken over by a family of basset hounds that she raised. They were all named after English counties and our favourite was Rutland, a handome fellow who fathered many babies. As she grew older and dementia threatened, her children joked that while she forgot their names, she never forgot those of her dogs.

She and Neville were enthusiastic travellers, and visited England every year so that Bridgie could see her beloved twin brother Billy, and her younger sister Naomi. They often went to Italy, which Neville had fallen in love with during the war. His favourite places were Florence and Bellagio and, in 1997, I went to both with my aunt Belinda. We remembered Neville and Bridget as we walked the plazas and river-fronts of Florence and sat sipping coffee under the trees at Bellagio.

When I was small, Bridget used to love brushing my hair. I’d arrive at her house and be sent immediately to fetch the brush, which she kept in her dressing-table in the top right-hand drawer. All the way to her room I’d be clutching my right hand in a fist so as not to forget. Opening the drawer was like finding a trove of jewellery, make-up and scents, and I would finger a necklace or try on a bracelet, but I knew not to linger too long amongst the tempting treasures. I’d find the brush and bring it to her on the verandah where she’d be sitting surrounded by dogs, with a tray of tea to one side and some kind of craft project – a cushion, knitting – on her lap. She’d put the knitting aside and then brush my hair, while I listened to the hadedahs shrieking and stabbing the grass.

“There, that’s better,” she’d say. “Now let’s have some tea.”

Life was built around rituals – breakfast, with the invariable half-orange, around the dining-room table, morning and afternoon tea on the verandah with Marie biscuits or her delicious home-made crunchies, drinks at 5pm. Bridget always liked the pink gins I poured her when I was a little older, probably because I was heavy on the gin. Family were required to turn up for Sunday lunch every week and my father created dense atmosphere by regularly arriving late from golf, probably as his form of rebellion. Later when my parents’ marriage fell apart, it took my mother a couple of years to get up the courage to say, “No Bridget, I am not coming to Sunday lunch. Oliver can fetch the children on his way back from golf.”

While Bridget was a wonderful Gorgor, whipping up clothes for my dollies or outfits for me, she could be scary. Woe betide any grandchild who didn’t clear her plate, eat her  peas, or express grateful thanks for the roasts. She was often impatient with her domestic workers, believing that whatever task they were doing from washing the car to washing the dogs, she could do better, and she loved to remind me, in huge inverted commas, that my lifelong best friend was “Jewish”. When I became a cub reporter on the local newspaper, I was friends with an “Indian man”, which caused some disquiet.

After Neville died, Bridget declined slowly. She remained at the Hermitage, visited daily by Belinda and regularly by the rest of the family. We would find her sitting in her study, watching sport on TV, reading the paper, or writing a letter to Naomi. Once she became convinced that the family had taken her to an old-age home, where she was receiving substandard treatment. Finally, after two weeks of complaints, my father hit on a plan. He put her in his car, promising that she was now going home. They drove for fifteen minutes, and then returned to the Hermitage, where he had asked her housekeepers to give her a good welcome. They drove up to the house she had just left, she gracefully received the friendly ululations and settled into the chair she had recently vacated. “Oh, it’s so nice to be back,” she said.

The London party girl had come home.


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It’s Staycation Time!

My family are right on-trend with our plan to stay home for the summer holidays. As we drove back from France yesterday – which is not as glamorous as it sounds since it’s less than a two-hour drive and the campsite was one kilometre over the border – German radio was full of top tips on how to enjoy holidays at home. Callers mooted things like having breakfast in your pyjamas, having coffee in bed and not worrying about hotel hygiene as reasons why they enjoy staying at home. Having never given hotel hygiene a moment’s thought, I loved the last one. It’s so German.

After two nights’ camping, I can report that I like staying at home because when you turn a tap, water comes out of it. I also like not having to walk through a damp forest to go to the loo in the middle of the night. And I like not meeting strange men coming out of the co-ed ablutions and wondering if I am going to get the toilet they just used. The campsite was budget-friendly though (€20 a night for a caravan that sleeps four, kitchen equipment, linen for one double bed, a barbeque, gas and a tent pitch) and pretty, and at some point in the holidays, when I get over the water/loo thing, we’ll go back.

The two main reasons mooted for people to holiday at home, or in Germany rather than in another country, are finances and the threat of swine flu. However, Thomas Cook’s new offer for Germans to reserve loungers in advance might be enough to get the population onto budget flights to Turkey. According to yesterday’s Independent, for the first time in a generation more Britons are holidaying in the UK this year than abroad (probably to avoid the Germans and their deckchairs). Marketers have leapt onto the Holiday At Home concept, and sales of picnic accessories and barbeques are soaring.

With my kids on holiday from Thursday this week until mid-September, I’m compiling a list of cool things to do at home. Here it is so far:

* Ride bikes

* Learn to cook something new

* Eat lunch at the river

* Eat lunch in the garden

* Keep diaries

* Go to the library

* Go to the pool

* Hire DVDs from the library or borrow from friends and have movie nights

* Cut up old magazines and make a collage

* Have friends for a sleep-over

* Go for a walk in the forest

* Read in the hammock

* Learn to ride the unicycle

* Bake cakes and invite friends round for a tea-party

* Collect and press leaves

* Go roller-blading

* Camping in the garden

* Pour Mummy a stiff gin and tonic and take it to her in the hammock

Any ideas warmly welcomed.


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This is How Old I Am

My parents bought our first television when I was seven. There was one channel, alternating daily between English and Afrikaans for two hours a day.

I owned and wore leg warmers in a non-ironic way.

I peroxided my fringe.

Ultimate romance used to be The Blue Lagoon:

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I had a passionate relationship with Duran Duran.

I wrote letters to boys on writing-paper decorated with sunsets and palm trees.

The first album I bought was Madness. Up till then, I danced to my parents’ Abba and Fleetwood Mac records.

I taped the Top 40 with David “Reach for the Stars” Gresham every week on my cassette recorder.

When I was 11, I wanted to be Olivia Newton-John. Major entertainment was going to the roller-rink.

When I went shopping with my friends, we would share a plate of chips. Drinks were individual. Mine was a double-thick Horlicks milkshake.

The first dancing-party I went to I wore Deely-Boppers.

I remember the advent of drinking yogurt.

My first boyfriend wore brown jerseys and drove a 50cc motorbike.

I thought it was sexist that girls watched boys playing rugby, but no-one came to watch the girls play hockey.

I remember a time when black and white people could be jailed for sleeping together, and when black people were not allowed to buy property in the suburb where I lived.

I watched PW Botha’s Rubicon speech on TV in 1985 and Mandela’s release in 1990, and remember the brutal years in between.

I wrote all my undergraduate essays longhand. For reference, I used books and articles, which I found in a place called the library.

I wrote my first essay on computer at the age of 22.

I wore a meringue for my wedding-dress and we were the first to leave the party.

I went on honeymoon to Zimbabwe, when it was so peaceful and harmonious that I wanted to move there.

In 1995, I wrote an article for a magazine on the strange phenomenon known as the “World Wide Web” or the “Information Superhighway”.

I first used email at the age of 27.

With thanks to the lovely Ms Waffle for the inspiration. How old are you?


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Catching a Feeling

Eve has asked her readers to write about their childhood. I thought I would give it a try, because I can’t resist a challenge that is as well-written as this:

If you read here regularly, I wonder if you’d indulge me by thinking about your own childhoods, going back to the flow of days during which nothing much happened, but when the passing of time nurtured and fed you. You’ll know which days I mean by finding strings of days, days on end, whose memory causes a wave of nostalgia to overcome you. Days that now fill you with longing, or a pang of loss, deep joy, or deep gratitude. Sometimes you may think of them and feel great sorrow over something you’ve lost. Maybe it was days you spent with your grandparents, or days you spent at home doing nothing; a day with your brother or sister, a family vacation. Think back to the hours or days when life felt like an afternoon in a hammock, or time on a quilt under a tree with your very best friend.

Think about it, or feel your way back to it, and write it out for yourself. I don’t mean you have to write about it here, as a comment, or even on your own blog; but I do want you to write about it. Get it down somehow when your level of feeling or emotion (affect) rises up and squeezes you in the middle of your chest, right around your heart, and you begin to feel a little weepy or giddy. Right . . . there. That’s the part we want. Catch it like a firefly in a jar, and get very close to that feeling, and then write about it. Write it all out, the memories surrounding it: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what it smelled, tasted, and sounded like there; how long did it last?

The Angel in the Garden

When my father left in a storm of self-justification and golf clubs, my grandmother moved into the cottage at the bottom of our garden. It was like having an angel of our own living there. My brother and I would wake in the morning and race our beaten path to her front door, where she would open up, catch us in her arms and breathe, “Hello my darlings!” as if she hadn’t seen us for a month. While my mother was dealing with her own pain and sorrow, and gradually finding her way back to herself, my grandmother gathered us into a gentle place of wonder that offered us refuge from our pain. She had a naivete that spoke to my child’s heart, and taught us how to be silent and listen to the self within, how to shape clouds, how to appreciate an egg sandwich, to believe in fairies. Under her guidance, I developed an interest in other realms and soon our garden became, for me, a magical fairyland that was bustling with activity and solace from the pain of my parent’s separation.

This fairyland was closely tied with the plant life in the garden, starting with the enormous camphor tree that towered over us like a gentle giant. I climbed into his arms, and found comfort there, staring at the leaf patterns and imagining myself on a ship sailing across oceans, or in a palace, or in village of busy elves. I lost time there as I watched ants trace paths across the tree’s rippled bark, or listened to the doves high above, or felt the wind sough mournfully in the branches. The tree reflected my mood: he was sad if I was sad, content if I was so, but his depth of feeling was so great that after a while I could bear his compassion no longer and had to seek more light-hearted magic elsewhere.

Ivy covered the camphor tree’s earthbound roots – the perfect place for fairies to cavort. I imagined them climbing the roots and chasing each other under the green pointed umbrellas of ivy leaves. The Japanese anenomes planted nearby were special since they flowered around my mother’s birthday, and their ivory petals and fluffy yellow centres brought to mind elegant fairy princesses, wafting through my fairyland in white gowns with golden crowns. They were beautiful, and slightly removed, rather like my mother, and I couldn’t spend too much time with them without the sadness edging in.

Following the path of the anenomes, I would arrive at a bed of flowers planted by my mother that curved out into the garden like a headland or peninsula. This buttress was seldom shadowed by the tree, so it was a sunny place for both children and fairies. Roses encouraged the arrival of pink and white fairies, bold and laughing. They were enticed by the dripping tap that stood in the flower-bed, and would recline underneath the tiny waterfall and catch drips directly into their mouths. The tap also attracted an old fat frog, who croaked grumpily as dusk fell. Here in this sunny bed, I created fairy gardens, small flat patches of earth, surrounded by stone walls and decorated with flower furniture. I knew that when the moon rose and I was in bed, the fairies would be sleeping on an azalea or camellia petal and thanking me for their comfort.

Following the bed, I came up against a wooden fence, behind which lived our mad and muttering neighbour and her barking dog. If I came too close to the fence, the dog would unleash its volley of angry remarks and I would have to retreat to underneath the lemon tree for safety. It was fragrant and citrussy there, but the ground beneath was littered with rotting lemons which were revolting if I stood on them with bare feet.

Behind the lemon tree was a green wire fence covered with jasmine, and behind that a lowered area where our maid washed and hung the washing to dry. I would climb the fence, sit on the hot and crumbling stairs and watch in a dream as the washing swirled on the windy drier. The maid lived there too, in a room that smelled of soap, sweat and putu – the porridge that she liked to eat and sometimes shared with me, if I was lucky. There weren’t fairies here – it was somehow too jagged a place – but her bed was on bricks in case of the tokoloshe. There was mystery in the bamboo fence below her khaya that separated our house from those neighbours. I could walk between the tall bamboo and the fence, and be transported to a world where plants were huge and people tiny.

Following this fence, I would come upon a green patch of lawn where our jungle gym had once stood, before it grew rickety and dangerous and had to be taken away. There was my grandmother’s cottage, with the door always open. She would be reading, or painting, or gently napping, but was always welcoming to her small visitors and would find us a piece of hazelnut chocolate from her secret stash. In front of the cottage stood a bank of strelitzias, flowers which my mother dismissed as ugly and African, but which were fascinatingly bird-like. I could crawl under the bushes and hide there, enjoying the feeling of separate nearness to my family. Usually the corgi, Muffin, would snuffle me out or my little brother would crash in, demanding that I play a game with him.

Sometimes my grandmother would get a blanket and we would lie on the sunny grass, looking up at the clouds. She would show us how to shape clouds, and we would get lost in the mystery of the sky. I think both my brother and I learnt early, and from her, to take responsibility for the shape of our lives. We were taught not to feel buffetted by fate, but that our thoughts could shape our lives and that every event, no matter how sad or sick inside it made us feel, happened for a reason. Then our mother would bring out a tray of a tea and biscuits, I would put the tea cosy on my head to make everyone laugh and my brother would run off to hit a tennis ball against the wall, all life’s lessons forgotten.


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Litlove’s Parenting Meme

We have just handed over our three children to some wonderful friends for a Saturday night sleepover, and I am soon to don my Berlin party dress and head to another friend’s birthday party, from which we do not have to return till dawn should we so choose. Thusly childfree, it seems like the perfect moment to attempt Litlove’s Parenting Meme.

(And, since there has been a little, just a very very little, bit of daytime drinking, I cannot be held responsible for some of the things I may or may not say below.)

Litlove’s Parenting Meme:

How do you view your role as a parent? What are you there to do?

To love and protect. To guide and assist. To equip and prepare. To model behaviours and be consistent.

In your social circle, are mothers expected to work or are they encouraged to stay home with the child?

I know very, very few women who do not work in some way or another, but I also know very, very few women who have returned to work full-time. The short school day in Germany and the lack of adequate after-school care means that most women only do part-time or freelance work. The few I do know who work a full 40-hour week have live-in help, who collect the children from school, provide meals if necessary and play the role of parent until Mama or Papa comes home. However, the older children are, and the more independent they are able to be, the longer hours most mothers work.

How do you feel about your children’s education? What’s good about it, and what would you like to see done differently?

I am thrilled with the German kindergarten system with its emphasis on childhood, play and learning by doing. I feel it is a privilege in this highly pressurised world that my children have been allowed this gentle, fun and completely non-academic start. We are two years into the primary school system and I am satisfied thus far, though still horrified that our state requires my child to start high school in Grade Five. The school appears to cater to the lowest common denominator, which is probably the case in all state education systems and I can accept it. However, I am unhappy with the idea of my kids staying in German-only education for the rest of their schooling, so we are starting to scout around for bilingual schooling options. They exist, but at a price.

How do you share the childcare with your partner (if it is shared)? Do you tend towards different activities or different approaches to parenting?

I have been opinionated about how I want my children raised, and have been lucky in that my husband shares my views. He accepted potentially divisive things like sleep-sharing, attachment parenting, long-term breast-feeding without a murmur, and says today that our offspring are better off for it. He is a totally hands-on parent and has been from the start. While he could have chosen career paths that meant he would only see his kids at the weekend, he has always avoided what he calls “the rat-race”, and made choices that give him time with them. This is the reason we do not live in London, Johannesburg or New York. While I am still the primary care-giver, we are aiming in the long run towards a model where I work more and he cares more.

What are the most important virtues to instill in a child?

It sounds cliched, but I do think nothing beats a healthy dose of self-esteem.

What’s the relationship like between mothers at the park and the school gate? Would someone you didn’t know help you out in a stressful moment?

While I am not a fan of baby groups and forced mother-child group activities (in fact, I run screaming), the mothers whom I have met via kindergarten and school have been my life-savers. I am not everyone’s best mate, and I think some find me slightly odd, but I have some very dear friends who have kept me sane, make me laugh and love my kids. If I’m at a playground with my children, I have no trouble chatting with other Mamas if I’m in the mood, but sometimes I just want to zone out and look at the clouds.

What do you fear most for your children?

I try hard not to live in fear, but I suppose I fear something terrible happening to them. I also fear that we are making an inhospitable planet for them to live on.

How do you discipline your child and what are the errors you would put most effort into correcting?

I am one of those boring Mamas who cares about manners, and I probably overdo the repetition on that score. I don’t like violence and that is punished with time-outs on the stairs (a bad, bad thing that makes people cry). I am intolerant of whining and one of my oft-repeated phrases is “Say that to me in your pleasant voice.” Like Litlove, I find that aptly-used praise is more beneficial than lots of negative talk.

Do you think the life of a child has changed much since you were young?

Oddly enough, we are managing to replicate our South African childhood, where we spent a lot of time outdoors, walked to and from places independently of our parents and were expected to be social beings who could converse with adults and children alike here in Germany. Having said that, childhood has become more technological and we are constantly monitoring and assessing how well we are handling that. (For anyone who’s interested, Lia of the Yum Yum Cafe has been writing a fabulous series of posts on children and technology.) My kids also have a greater awareness of the world, and have travelled far more, than I ever had or did as a child.

What is the best compliment your children could pay you for your parenting skills?

My kids are good at frequent, fulsome compliments, so clearly I model praising really well. If they said I helped them to be happy and be their authentic selves, I would rest on my laurels.

Feel free to play too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a party dress to don …


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A Response to Susie

The lovely Susie tagged me to respond to her post Is Preschool killing children?, where she discusses the fact that in the USA preschool (which is what we in Germany call kindergarten and in the UK is nursery school) is becoming ever more academic. In her words,

I avoid this topic like the plague. Kids need to play, explore, and build their imaginations, and preschools that put an emphasis on reading, math and handwriting steal those opportunities from kids. My statement usually incites anger and probably fear, in parents who’ve already justified the decision that their child needs to build elementary skills while in preschool, and have already spent a few happy months in a preschool that is doing just that. Plus, they are already financially and emotionally invested in the school and its teachers, and even though the child is only three, the family thinks its too late to turn back now. And besides, they believe, I am wrong.

We are extremely lucky in Germany that childhood is protected by late school-entry. Our second daughter will start school this year at six and ten months. By the time she is seven, she will be able to do only the most basic of reading. But I can safely predict that by the time she is eight, she will be a sophisticated reader in two languages, completely on a par with any US or UK eight-year-old. I’ve seen it happen. I strongly believe that early learning does not create academic advantage. By the time these six- and seven-year-olds reach school they are dying to learn, practically hyperventilating with the excitement of it all, and they catch up fast.

Having said that, kindergartens in Germany are under pressure from parents to be more than places where little Franka and Finn go to do finger-painting, jump around to music and hang out with their pals. I have been at PTA meetings where their teachers are harangued because the children are not being “challenged enough”. Our kindergarten has introduced optional English, after the exercise of parental pressure. I would not be surprised if, in the next few years, kindergartens will start to be compelled to introduce basic writing and numeracy skills. If that happened, I would be sad.

I have loved having the privilege of raising my kids in a society where childhood is still protected and nurtured. My kids are comparatively innocent: they have never been to MacDonalds, they don’t know that Bratz exist, they haven’t watched High School Musical and, while they like clothes, they don’t wear any horrible scary approximations of adult attire. It’s such a relief to live in society that facilitates these parenting decisions, and helps me to keep them innocent for as long as possible. My kids like to ride bikes, swim, play complicated games of their own making, to craft and to dance. I love the richness of their play, and I would hate academic pressure and the social pressure that comes with that to intrude.

Why is it happening, though, even in Germany? Why are parents putting pressure on kindergarten to challenge their kids? I think it’s the increasingly middle-class-ization of society (speaking as a paid-up member): kids need academic skills to survive junior school, so that they can get into Gymnasium (the academic stream), hence into university and from there into good jobs. And every middle-class parent has the unspoken anxiety that if their child doesn’t start learning to read and write at four, then there’s no chance of her getting a good job at 24. Which is of course, rubbish.

So to respond to Susie, I can’t say that kindergarten is killing childhood, but I see the potential for it happening here. I remain remain intensely grateful it has not happened yet and that German society is still wise enough to protect and cherish childhood.

For more on the US perspective, see the also-lovely Yogamum’s response to Susie’s question.


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Let Them Have Time

A friend visited me from England this summer with her three children. Since there were eight of us and our car fits seven at a push, we were forced to spend all week just hanging out with our kids at the various places of joy and thrillification that The Burg has to offer for the under-thirteens. We did the pool, the mini-golf, the walks along the river, the ferry trip, the skate-park, the multiple playground visits and the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local Chinese restaurant. We also held some in-house events: the High Tea with face-painting, the Abba discos and a lot of Tearing Round The Garden While Screaming at the Top of Your Voice (a favourite with the neighbours). Anyway, after a week of observation, she noted that Germans actually play with their children. “In England,” she said, “people take their children to the playground, but then they spend the entire time on their mobile phones or chatting to the other parents. They ignore their kids.”

Another friend visited, this time from South Africa, and she observed with astonishment how much time German men devote to their children (German mamas do too, but she was particularly taken with the hands-on papas). Here, weekends are designated as family time and parents take their children for bikes rides, go swimming with them or head down to the river to fly a kite or knock a football about. Most of the South African men I know and love spend their weekends watching TV or indulging their own sporting interests, with nary a thought for what their kids would like them to do (and here I am speaking as a child who grew up spending alternative weekends at the edge of a golf course or watching the distant speck of my father casting a fly into a river). Here, all the fathers (and mothers) I know give their kids their time. And, best of all, they enjoy it.

With those two comments in mind, it was interesting to read this excellent article in this week’s Observer. The writer attributes the fact that Britain has the unhappiest children in the Western world (from a Unicef report) not to failure of government or the gap between rich and poor, but to failure of their parents to provide them with a basic need: their time.

I am very suspicious of “busyness”, to which people of my generation love to subscribe. Sure if you’re a fulltime working mother or father of three children, then you’re busy. Sure if you’re a single parent, then you’re busy. Sure if you’ve got multiple looming deadlines, three small kids and a messy house, then you’re busy. Are you busy if you go to the gym more than three times a week? Are you busy if you have frequent coffee mornings? Are you busy if you’re on Facebook or Twittering rather than actually working on that laptop?

I’m not saying we all have to be perfect parents, and neither am I saying that a little recreational Web use is a bad thing, but I am saying to those parents who sit in the playground glued to their mobiles that you ignore your children at your peril. I am saying to parents who chase their children out of the kitchen so that they “can get on with things” (and I am guilty here), you will regret it one day when you try to get your teenagers to help you cook. I am saying to parents who won’t let a little person “help” with bed-making, the chances are in ten years’ time you’ll be begging him to pull up his duvet and he just won’t. I am saying to parents who text during family mealtimes that you won’t have a leg to stand on when your teenagers start doing the same. I am saying to fathers who work all week long that if you don’t put the time in with your children now, while they are young and unable to craft a sentence on the outcome of today’s football match, they won’t be interested in talking to you once you decide you’re ready to talk to them.

Small children can be bothersome. They won’t leave you alone. They want you to play Lego with them when you’d really rather check your blog stats. They want you to have illogical conversations with them about the existence of fairies when you’d rather talk to a girlfriend on the phone. They want to tell you in Three Different Ways how wonderful school was today when you want to zone out with a cup of coffee. They can be repetitive. They can be a little dull. But apart from ensuring that they get regular food and sleep, the most important need we can fulfil is to show them that we enjoy spending our precious time with them. That’s how they are going to grow up as well-adjusted, confident adults who believe they have something valuable to share with the world – themselves.


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Lost in Translation

My darling two-and-a-bit-year-old son has started at a little German playgroup four mornings a week. It is a Waldkindergarten, which means the children spend as much time outdoors as possible, whatever the weather. Most days he goes togged up in his rain-gear since it is, naturellement, raining. They do have a room where they can retire to play if the weather is completely foul, but the kindergarten guarantees a minimum of half an hour spent outside every day, come rain, snow, hail or monsoon. When the weather is good, they are out all morning long.

All this exposure to fresh air has had the wonderful benefit of Ollie’s sleeping like a log all afternoon. He often falls asleep on the way home in the pram, and if not, then during his lunch or immediately after. He is one tired baby.

Another benefit is that he starting to speak German. In English, he is already a verbal guy (future girlfriends will be happy about this), who talks about his feelings (“I luf you, Mummy”) and expresses his needs (“I need milk. I NEED it!”), so it’s been fascinating to witness his German arrive. In five weeks he has gone from single words (ja, nein, Auto, Polizei) to sentences.

Today, after I had changed his nappy, he stood up on his changing mat, tenderly stroked my cheeks, looked deep into my eyes and declared, “Du bist meine Papa.”

Given the way he feels about his dad, this is the highest of compliments. I am honoured.


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Asking for Help

I grew up with the twisted notion that being a grown-up meant not asking for help. To me, being an adult signalled independence and the ability to cope with whatever life threw at you. I don’t know where this came from, because my mother always seemed to have loads of friends who fluttered around her helpfully when crises arose, and nobody ever said me, “You’re going to have to go it alone”. But somehow I acquired the idea that you’re on your own and that’s the way it is.

After my recent dose of the blues, a few people said a few things to me that made me think. One friend said, “When you get depressed, you disappear into your house and you don’t tell anyone. We think you don’t want to see us.” Another friend said, “It makes people feel loved when you ask them for help.” My husband said, “How can I tell you’re feeling depressed if you don’t tell me?”

I’m starting to realise that asking for help is part of being a grown-up. Admitting that things are hideous and you feel terrible and you want some comfort is actually quite a mature thing to do. On that note, dear bloggers, here is me asking for help. The problem is: housework. I don’t want you to come round and do my housework for me, but I need some advice.

Apparently, French women enjoy doing housework. Are they mad? I am crap at housework, and have mixed feelings about that. Why I am not a deliciously bustling French woman, keeping my home spotless and my man firmly under control? Part of me takes a stupid pride in the fact that I don’t have the housework gene and thus far have not tried to acquire it, while part of me is faintly ashamed that we don’t have a perfect home. My lovely husband appears to suffer from none of these kinds of self-doubt, so maybe I should take a leaf from his book.

When we made the decision years ago that I would stay home and look after our kids when they were little, I had no idea how many hours of housework that would entail. I’ve always had a cleaner once a week, so am lucky that I don’t have to do the really hideous tasks, but three children do make a lot of cooking/laundry/dish-washing/planning/preparation/tidying. My motto has always been “people before objects” and that is the haphazard way my kids are being brought up. I’d rather spend time with them than polish the silver, or organise the toys into logical groups, or swab the floor (it was done two days ago – that’s enough, surely?). But I do try to aim for order of a sort.

In South Africa, having a housekeeper who turns up for work on a daily basis, or even lives in, is the norm. This means that the horrible tasks are delegated to someone else, which is fine in terms of job creation in a land with 40% unemployment, but has meant three things for me:

1) I have no idea how to do housework well. Anything I have learnt I have done so by trial and error. I am unlike the French women in that I have no idea what is the “right way”, if such a thing exists. And the same goes for my husband.

2) I don’t know how to teach my children to participate in housework, because no-one ever taught me. And unless I go back to South Africa, or somewhere else where low-paid houseworkers/nannies relieve parents of their duties, I am going to have to teach them how to help. I don’t want to turn them into little household slaves but I also don’t want them to become brats, so I need them to learn some skills in order to become useful adults one day. I would also like my son to grow up as housework-savvy as his sisters so that he can be a good partner in the future, and not a man-child in his home. (See Rachel Johnson’s article on the very same topic.)

3) I am used to a clean house, that is kept so by someone else, so my standards and my ability don’t match. That gap is the place where I beat myself up, usually in my mother-in-law’s voice or in that of one of my exceedingly clean neighbours. An hour or so of that kind of internal criticism is enough to bring on a bout of depression.

So for those of you who grew up in countries where people looked after their own homes, and where children were expected to help, here are my questions:

1) At what age were you expected to start doing household chores? What were considered age-appropriate chores?

2) Were you ever paid for doing chores? Did you receive rewards in any way, or was it expected?

3) How did your parents regulate your chores? For example, if you didn’t do them, was your pocket-money docked?

4) Were the chores in your home sexist? Or did boys and girls do the same work?

Any ideas or comments are welome.

(Feeling very grown-up now. May have to go and put on some lipstick.)