Wednesday 9 July 2014

Why Do We Feed Our Kids Crap?

How to wear a healthy diet
If you have spent the last 30 years living the life of an agoraphobic hermit with an allergy to newspaper ink and a deep mistrust of the internet you might, just might, have missed the news that the UK is in the middle of an obesity crisis that is now affecting our children.

Oddly enough this news doesn’t seem to have had much effect on how we view kids and food. I found a terrific example of this on a website that listed ways in which you could entice your child to eat more vegetables. It had all sorts of odd ball ideas but the one that really caught my eye was their suggestion for enticing your child to eat broccoli; dip it into sugar sprinkles first!

I kid you not! Apparently the author is convinced that most children will come away from this experience thinking, “umm broccoli is nice, shame it had so much sugar on it, I’ll try it on its own next time”, and not, “Sugar! I LOVE sugar!... Shame it had that green shit stuck to it!”

A classic example of children and culinary inertia are the kids menus at most of these so called “Family Friendly” restaurants. I’m sure the chefs in these places are still wearing flares because little seems to have changed since the 70’s. Pretty much the entire menu revolves around the theory that if you coat something in breadcrumbs or batter and then deep fry it, kids will eat it. As a fop to the governments 5-a-day campaign - and to add a bit of colour to a plate that would otherwise be various shades of brown - they now scatter a handful of peas over it and, just to ensure that your child can barely walk afterwards, they finish it all off with a desert that is roughly the size of the kid eating it.

Worse still – in my opinion at least – is the eagerness with which some parents get their children hooked on soft drinks. I’ve seen kids that have barely started weaning sucking ‘juice’ out of a bottle. And you know what’s most odd about this? The fact that the majority of us don’t think there’s anything really wrong with this!

Our children are going to grow up in a world where they will be constantly subjected to temptation, constantly encouraged to take on far more calories than they really need. Yet they are often raised with the idea that in order to quench their thirst they have to consume sugar.

The poor beggars don’t have a hope in hell! Every time they feel thirsty they’re going to reach for a sugar drink, because that’s what they associate thirst with. So instead of satisfying this base need with the zero calorie liquid their body actually craves, they’re loading up with hundreds of excess, empty, calories.

I’d say I was shocked at how sanguine people are about sugar if it wasn’t for the manner in which the “sugar” debate has taken place. It’s astonishing just how aggressive an industry this is; every time a scientist has dared to suggest that sugar might not actually be that good for you, the big sugar companies have hit back with everything from sugar sponsored pseudo-science, to out and out character assassination. In short, there is nothing sweet about the sugar industry.

To prove the point I will make you a bet; following the recent spate of media articles on the dangers of sugar there will, within the next 3 months, be a barrage of counter arguments run in almost every national newspaper, questioning the veracity of the earlier claims – without offering any solid scientific argument against them - and suggesting serious character flaws in the scientists making those earlier claims.

This will then be followed by one of those articles that comes out every few months anyway, in which a 98 year old climbs mount Everest whilst carrying a Sherpa, kills a tiger with his bare hands and then goes on to win Mastermind. When asked, he will then put it all down to his diet of refined sugar, whiskey and Havana cigars.

I for one don’t really care about the debate itself. I think it’s quite clear that sugar, especially sugary drinks, are best taken in moderation, so Marty is being brought up with the notion that if you are thirsty you drink good old fashioned water and if you think you’re going to get sweets two days on the trot, think again.

I’m working on the theory that there are enormous corporations out there willing to spend billions to tempt Marty and his mates into drinking lots of sweet, fizzy, drinks and heaps of fat laden food. It doesn’t really bother me that they don’t give a flying fuck about the health of my boy - I don’t give a great deal for them either - but I’m certainly not going to help them in their quest to boost their profits at the expense of my sons health.

Sadly, I still seem to be in a bit of a minority on all of this. I guess part of the reason is that parenting habits change very slowly; what worked for your parents and for you will work for your children. My mother was raised during WWII when rationing was all the rage. As a result she, and her mother, looked upon sugar rich and fatty food as a treat for her kids. The next generation maintains that approach but because those foods are so much cheaper and more readily available the ‘treat’ becomes commonplace.

In fact the word ‘treat’ seems to have undergone a transformation. I recall a treat being something that you had once a month or once a week, cake with Sunday lunch for example. These days ‘treats’ seem to be things you dole out on the hour, every hour.

I guess another factor in all of this is that whilst most parents would be a bit worried if their children were overweight, they would be absolutely mortified if their child was deemed malnourished or underweight. As a result most of us are going to opt for a bit too much, rather than a bit too little.

This isn’t helped by the fact that ‘normal’ is now far heavier than it used to be. If you are comparing your child to his friends you will no doubt be comforted by the fact that he’s about the same weight as all his mates. Sadly, there’s a very high chance that the entire group is heavier than they should be. Yes, he or she is ‘normal’ but that doesn’t mean they are a healthy weight. An easy way to test this is to look at them when you’re getting them ready for bed. Can you see their ribs? If the answer is yes, then they are probably a good weight. If the answer is no then your child is probably overweight and, sadly, if they start off life overweight the odds are that they will struggle with their waistline for the rest of their lives.

Another factor is just general ignorance and complacency. Many parents are themselves overweight and just don’t view it as a problem. Many more parents are just unaware of some of the issues. A perfect example of this is our attitude to ‘fruit juice’ particularly those juices aimed directly at children.

If you listen to the advertising you could be forgiven for thinking that these fruit juices are great things, after all they are chocked full of vitamins and they contain real fruit, often with no added sugar! What can possibly be wrong? Well, sadly, the answer is ‘quite a lot’.

The biggest issue is that these vitamins are floating in a sea of sugar. Yes, it’s natural fructose but it’s still sugar and there is an enormous amount of it. To drink one of these drinks for the vitamins is like drinking Malt Whiskey for the pure mountain spring water it’s allegedly made from.

The second point is that if you want to consume fruit, eat one! Drinking a fruit isn’t that good for you for two reasons, firstly when you smash a fruit up and extract the juice you’re really just making flavoured sugar water. Secondly, whilst there’s no more sugar in the juice than there is in the fruit – assuming you didn’t buy one of those drinks where they do actually add yet more sugar – you are going to drink far more than just one fruit.

For example, in a typical glass of freshly squeezed orange juice there are about four oranges. Yet, whilst you could quite easily drink two glasses of juice, it’s highly unlikely that you could eat eight oranges in a single sitting. In other words, by drinking the fruit you are taking on board 4 times the amount of sugar than you would if you just sat down and ate it. You will also still be hungry and will have missed out on a lot of fibre.

But aren’t we all supposed to be eating 5 fruit and vegetables a day? Yes, we are but the key word is “eat”. Drinking eight oranges does not mean you’ve just whipped your 5-a-day target because the high sugar content is doing you more harm than the vitamins are doing you good. As a result most fruit juices only count as one portion in the 5-a-day regime, regardless of how much you drink.

The manufacturers are all perfectly aware of this of course but it doesn’t stop them trying to persuade you that their products are good for your children, even when they know that’s almost certainly not the case. Have a look at the labelling on kiddies fruit juice next time you buy some. Many will contain a phrase that is something along the lines of “Forms part of your 5-a-day” and have a logo that looks a bit like the 5-a-day logo but isn’t quite right. This is because they aren’t allowed to use the real logo and wording because they contain far too much sugar.

Another con that far too many of us fall for are these ‘energy drinks’. If I take a walk around my local football pitch after the youth teams have been playing, the ground is littered with the tops of these energy drinks. Here we have a field full of litter louts, running around like crazy and all leaving the pitch slightly fatter than when they went on because they have just consumed the best part of 500 calories – assuming they had a bottle at half time and one at the end of the match. And why did they drink this nonsense? Because they and their parents have been told that in order to achieve their sporting best they need to consume a shed load of sugar and salt. Which would be fair enough if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s complete and utter bollocks!

The only people who get any genuine benefit from these drinks are those few elite athletes who really are pushing their bodies to the limit. For the other 99.99% of us it’s like pouring nitro-glycerine into a lawnmower – you might start off believing you now own a super mower but all you’ll end up with is a scorched lawn with a myriad of 2-stroke engine parts embedded in it.

So, in a rather large nutshell, that’s why Marty doesn’t drink juice or soft drinks. We’re not fanatical about it, after all sugar and fat are fine in moderation, but I think it’s important that he grows up with the idea that water is the best way of quenching thirst. I also hope he grows up with a very sceptical view of the food and drink industry, an industry that seems to have mislaid its moral compass... always assuming it had one in the first place.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

The art of Toilet Training

Toilet training - SIT!
Babies and toddlers are things of wonder and delight but hidden within the unremitting joy lies a biological imperative that cannot be denied; what goes in, must come out. 

Sadly, regardless of how besotted with your offspring that you may be, what comes out is never cute, never cuddly and, whilst it might cause your face to form all sorts of odd expressions, a wistful smile is unlikely to be amongst them.

Early questions tend to be “Oh my God! Is it supposed to be that colour?” Followed by multiple variations on the theme “You don’t seriously expect me to deal with that do you?” All in all, I think it’s safe to say that most parents are fairly anxious for their little one to master the art of the toilet as soon as possible.

Of course, there are other reasons behind this desire; disposable nappies are pretty expensive at the best of times and cause untold damage to the environment, whilst the traditional towelling nappies leave your washing machine running at maximum and the entire house smelling of stuff you’d much rather it didn’t smell of. 

There are alternatives. If you can afford them they do disposable nappies that don’t have a half life akin to Plutonium and, if you are really hard-core, you can go for a pot of moss and quick reactions!

Apparently this was the option taken by a friend-of-a-friend. By all accounts, it relies on an almost zealous regard for the environment, a good watch and a very keen eye on your child’s facial expressions. I have great admiration for this approach but I strongly suspect I’d have needed waders and a nose clip before entering the family home if we’d ever attempted it.

Of course what this method really relies on is toilet timing, whereby you get your child into a routine and take them to the loo just before they need to go – with luck. This approach used to be very popular when nappies needed to be washed by hand but went into decline upon the arrival of disposable nappies – why would that be I wonder? As a result of this relatively recent change you get a huge variation in advice these days; some say you should get your child using a potty almost from the word go, others say that you should let them lead the way and avoid putting them under any undue pressure to ‘perform’.

Part of the reason why the advice differs so much is because they are often addressing two different phenomena. Toilet timing is just getting your child sat on a potty at the right time of the day and really just needs attentive parents, a settled routine, a good watch and a lot of luck. However, toilet training relies on your child recognising when the 'urge' is upon them so they know when to go to the toilet themselves. You could start 'timing' from an early age, if the desire takes you, but genuine toilet training requires your child to develop sufficiently to be able to recognise when a 'movement' is about to happen and it's pretty pointless starting this before the age of two simply because most children don't have the prerequisite neural development in place till then.

In the end we opted for quiet encouragement, whilst remaining as relaxed and sanguine about it as we could, mainly because putting our child under pressure seemed a bit pointless but also because I have never, ever, met an able bodied adult who failed to learn how to go to the loo - so I couldn’t see much point in making a huge issue out of it. 

Alas, the UK tabloids see things differently and have been beating the toilet training drum lately because some children are turning up to school, aged 4, and still not toilet trained. I grant you that this seems to be taking 'sanguine' a little too far but I still believe that you have to let the child take the lead on this and that being 'pushy' is only going to back fire farther down the line.

As it was Marty seemed more than happy to maintain the status quo, ominously so. We started trying to persuade him on the joys of sitting on a toilet at about the age of about eighteen months. We even bought him his own little loo, complete with a flush button that sang dubious faecal and urinary related songs along the lines of “We’re all going to the loo tomorrow, loo tomorrow, loo tomorrow....” Sadly he wasn’t impressed.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Marty ‘enjoyed’ pooing in his pants, but I got the impression that there was a certain element of satisfaction, after all he didn’t have to stop playing; he could just pause, do the business and get right back to his toys.

Whilst dealing with the aftermath was less than amusing there was actually a lot of fun to be had just watching him ‘go through the motions’ - so to speak. He’d stop what he was doing, take on a misty eyed expression as he looked off into the middle distance, slowly turn red in the face and then, suddenly, out of the blue, he became an absolute dead ringer for Martin Clunes! I should have taken a video of it!

Anyway, amusement aside, by the time he reached two I must confess that I was starting to get a little worried. Potty training appeared to revolve around the adage “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink”; try as we might Marty just wasn’t the least bit interested in sitting on the loo to do his business. Six months later and nothing had changed, then one day the conversation turned to Nursery.

One of his friends had started nursery already and Marty had been invited to a party held there. Boy was he impressed! Not only was the place filled with little boys and girls but they served up cake on demand and it was crammed to the rafters with toys the likes of which he had barely dreamed of. Would he shut up about this place? He would not.

Of course, for the parents, the approach of nursery is a real worry when your child is stubbornly refusing to engage in toilet training. Fortunately, nursery was also the solution. One day, with no expectation of success, I told Marty that they wouldn’t let him into nursery if he couldn’t go to the toilet ‘like a big boy’. At the time this news seemed to barely register but about an hour later he asked to go to the toilet for a wee and by the next day he was perched on the loo doing a number two!

And that was that! He’s been pretty much perfect ever since! Yes, there have been occasions when we’ve had to isolate a corner of the house and wheel out the pressure hose but they have been very few and far between.

Of course a little boy cannot just sit down and have a wee for any length of time. Within a week I had my own quiet moment disturbed by a little voice behind me whispering “Oooh daddy! That’s a clever wee!” and since then he has insisted on standing up to the toilet to do his business. Sadly, he's not satisfied with this and we have been anxiously attempting to convince him that his dream of the 'standing-poo' is just that, an unattainable dream.

Within a few short weeks he was so confident in his new found ability that he started giving little kids a hard time every time we saw one; “Daddy, I wee in the toilet!” He proclaimed, pointing in the direction of the smaller child, “But babies, babies wee everywhere!” To which I could but nod sagely in agreement.

One thing I have learnt during this process is how wholly unaware women are to the art form that is urination! To females the wee seems to be a mundane bodily function, whereas for us males it is an ever evolving art. How high, how far and how long are competitions that boys engage in until well into their dotage.

A typical example of this is the “The Butchers Shop” in Johannesburg. Ask a woman and she’ll just tell you that they do the best steaks this side of Pluto, and right they are. However, if you ask a bloke, whilst they might mention in passing that the food is pretty darn good, what they will really focus on are the gents urinals; they fill them with crushed ice and leave it to their male patrons to produce whatever work of urinary art they are capable of. Marvellous stuff!

Tuesday 11 March 2014

The Wonderful Two's

The invisible man
There are a number of childhood misnomers and I'm glad to report that “The terrible two’s” is one of them. Yes, Marty has had his moments; he has been known to collapse gracefully to the floor in a fit of inconsolable tears, he has been known to scream. He can be a bit of a bossy little bugger when the feeling takes him and it has to be said that he can barely look at an envelope these days without wanting to push it.

I had rather hoped to follow all these idiosyncrasies as they occurred but I was struck down with  2 slipped discs last March and they rather took the fun out of sitting down to do anything other than immediately standing back up again. So now that I am approaching full fitness again I thought I’d do a summary of the last year, a year that was far from terrible.

Of course I’d heard of the terrible two’s - most parents of older children can’t wait to tell you all about them and do so with a rather worrying degree of relish. In my mind’s eye I’d built up a picture of a more diminutive version of the teen years; we'd awake one morning to discover our bundle of joy had turned into a mumbling rebel who hated us and insisted on wearing his Thomas-the-Tank-Engine hat back to front and his nappy half way down his arse. Fortunately this was not the case.

In truth this last year has been lovely. Ok, Marty is considerably more likely to break down in tears than he was a year ago but, on the other hand, in between the bawling he’s much more likely to have his parents in tears of laughter.

One of the most fascinating facts that I learnt about a child becoming two was that they finally attain an intellect that exceeds that of the family dog! In truth the word “fact” might be open to question here. Yes I read it and yes the author claimed knowledge on the subject but it’s also very, very, obvious that said author had never, ever, met our dog. I don’t wish to do her down but we have a female Boxer and I swear we have moss growing in the garden that could run intellectual rings around her. I suspect Marty became officially smarter than our dog when he learnt to fart.

That said, during the ‘two’s’ the intelligence of the child grows at an astonishing rate. Barely a day goes by without Marty exhibiting something new, whether it be a new word or a new physical skill. Alongside this, and probably the most impressive change, is that he has started to develop empathy and altruism.

I suspect this is one of the hardest things as a parent to grasp and I have my wife and Dr Chris Green’s book “Toddler Taming” to thank for what little insight I have gathered.

The mistake that is very easy to make is believing that your two year old is just a mini version of you, and the fact that it’s now possible to have a conversation with your child, albeit not a very coherent one, only adds to this erroneous belief. You hear parents berating their child for snatching something off another kid, or for refusing to share and they act as if the kid ought to be aware of the social transgression. In reality you might as well rebuke them for failing to understand quantum mechanics.

A two year old is only just getting to grips with a sense of self, let alone with how that self interacts with others and one of the joys of the two years is watching that change take place. Marty now recognises when people are happy or sad, he’ll share his dinner with me, although usually just after he’s taken a bite out of one end and slobbered all over the other, and whilst he’s still not entirely comfortable with the idea of sharing, he is at least willing to occasionally give it a go.

On the other side of the coin he still firmly believes that the world revolves around him. There’s nothing you can do as a parent to change this belief, it’s just a developmental stage and he or she will eventually work through it – this can often take 60-70 years. The other thing you have to get your head around as a parent is that this “the world revolves around me” attitude isn’t a flight of fancy or a sign of a selfish, spoilt child. It is a genuine belief; it is only during the two’s that a child starts to come to terms with the idea that they are not everything; that mummy and daddy are not actually apart of them, that they have finite boundaries and that they cannot control everything in the world around them. As adults we take our sense of self and identify so much for granted that it’s hard to imagine that we actually had to learn these things.

Marty also knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like. Sadly this is usually not what his mum and dad like and don’t like. To navigate this shoal of potential friction requires negotiation skills, the ability to know when to make a stand and when not to, and the ability to quickly distract.

The later is surprisingly easy as young kids are astonishingly gullible. Marty can be just about to go off on one and I’ll suddenly shout “Look! Train!” Instantly the bawling stops and he’s looking around eagerly for the train Just in case he picks up on the fact that we're 5 miles away from the nearest railway line I quickly follow up with, “Oh Marty, did you miss it?”

“Yes!” He announces with barely a hint of suspicion.

“Oh, what a shame, it was a steam train just like Spencer...” And off we go, the argument forgotten, the amateur dramatics over for another day.

The only down side to this use of the fictitious train is that we all now shout out “Train!!” the moment we see one, which wouldn’t be a problem except that it happens to me when Marty is nowhere in sight, which seems to worry my work colleagues.

Of course all this negotiation, distraction and deciding when to make an issue of something has to come from the parents, and most importantly both parents have to approach it in pretty much an identical fashion if it’s going to work. This was quite easy for us as Leanne decided what she was going to do and then told me what I was going to do. 

To be honest, she so patently knew what she was talking about that I didn't have a problem with playing the accompanying fiddle, and it must be said that it seems to have paid dividends in that Marty has quickly come to learn that bawling and tantrums get him nowhere and ignoring his parents counting “One... Two... Three” is never a good idea... although that still doesn't stop him occasionally giving it another try... just to be sure.

I guess the other thing to try to remember in all of this is not to take it personally. Marty is not acting-up because he wants to wind me up, he’s barely capable of even understanding that concept, he’s doing it to prove or disprove this growing idea that he might not be everything. Can you imagine how distressing that must be to a little kid? To have spent all your life so far with the utter conviction that there is only you in the world and that everything you see, hear, smell and touch are merely different facets of yourself. Then suddenly you start to suspect that this might all be wrong and that you might actually just be a tiny, fragile, powerless being set in a world that is almost totally outside of your control. No wonder they break down in tears all the time!

That said, I do still have to remind myself that Marty isn’t an adult , that he isn’t an evil, calculating mastermind, twisting me about his little finger just for the sheer fun of it but that he is in fact just being two.

So on the whole we seem to have managed to avoid most of the tantrums...but if I ever need reminding that an emotional explosion is just a heartbeat away all I need do is change his routine, just a little bit. I have learnt the hard way that two year olds love routine and, far more importantly, will fight tooth and nail if they even suspect that there’s the merest possibility that it might in any way be disrupted.

Bedtime is the most obvious routine and following the now established ‘rules’ of bedtime results in a happy, relaxed, process that see’s Marty fast asleep within minutes. However, change one single aspect of that bedtime routine and the house is going to sound like a cross between an explosion in a fireworks factory and the collapse of the Hoover Dam – his mother once added an extra verse into ‘Bar-Bar Black Sheep’ and you’d have thought the sky had fallen in.

I guess if you live a busy and frenetic life delivering this calm routine might be a bit of an issue, however we are now blissfully dull so it’s rarely a problem... and it does have its up sides – Marty must be greeted in the morning by his mum, if I try all hell breaks loose! Sadly, this means I have to have the lie in’s. Isn’t life terrible!

So that’s why the two’s are not so terrible, but what has made it so wonderful?

Well the fact that you can now actually have a conversation with him is a real joy. Ok, the conversation is a bit limited – mainly to trains, food, dinosaurs and dragons but that doesn’t limit the joy. It’s the pat little phrases and off the cuff remarks that really make you smile.
We were in ASDA when he had a ‘moment’. 

“Marty! Look at all the fruit!” I said in a feeble attempt to distract him. With tears running down his face he looked up at me and said, “I can’t see the fruit! I’m too busy crying!”

Currently his most popular phrase is “Daddy I need the toilet! Help please!” Then, if I’m still sat in my seat a tenth of a second later, he cries “Quick! Quick, daddy! Before the wee comes!”

Many of the conversations are just surreal. We were quietly eating lunch one day.

“I’m not a chip.” Marty casually announced.

“Are you not?” I replied, wondering if he’d somehow managed to break into the drinks cabinet.

“Nooo.” He stopped and stared off into the middle distance, obviously giving it some thought.... “I’m a fish-finger!”

I could go on all day about his language skills - and one day I probably will - but the other activity that really stands out is his love of hiding, or ‘oydin’ as he prefers to call it.

The moment I walk into the house he stops whatever he's doing, clasps his hands over his eyes and announces loudly, “Can’t find meeeee!”

Does he truly believes that the simple act of putting his hands over his eyes renders him invisible? I’ve no idea... but he certainly acts as if he does.

Since he’s obviously so good at hiding he usually feels the need to help out a bit. “Daddy! I’m oydin in the tent!... Can’t find meeee!”

Maybe it’s just me but I do find it all a genuine joy to come home to.