what i learned between my first kids and my last

Often the lessons of parenting young children come too late. You do the best you can with the first kid, ushering him through the early stages of childhood, by instinct and expert advice, with varying degrees of success. It is a thrilling time, but it is also an exhausting one, when perspective is elusive. And then, somewhere in the middle of it, you have another baby. You can’t quite apply to the new child, though, what you’ve learned from raising the older one, mainly because you aren’t sure at that point what it is you’ve learned or whether you’ve learned anything at all.

That’s my story, at least. I made mistakes with my first son that I didn’t really correct with my second. With 26 months between them, I hadn’t yet emerged far enough from the morass of “small children” to see the wreckage clearly. By “mistakes” I don’t mean that I parented them “wrongly” in any objective sense. I am measuring myself only by the practical standard of the kind of children I was intending to raise: children who are confident, respectful, polite, well-adjusted and independent.

Read here (at Brain, Child Magazine) about the five things I learned to this end by the time my second set of kids came along.


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i’m not maxed out

Katrina Alcorn was pushed to the edge. In her compelling memoir, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, she tells the story of how the attempt to balance the twin engines of motherhood and career prompted a mental breakdown. The point of the book is to use one woman’s personal narrative to show that many women with young families are suffering because of the current state of the American workplace. This is true. But, from my perspective, Maxed Out is also about the importance of recognizing limitations: both the structural ones that might change, and the emotional and biological ones that won’t.

Unlike Alcorn, I’m not maxed out. You can read my thoughts on why this is so and the work/life dilemma in general here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

This post is part of the Brilliant Book Club. Check out these interesting takes on the book at the links below:


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my daughter doesn’t look like me

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is resemblance. As parents, we are endlessly fascinated by what our children look like and how much they look like us. This doesn’t make us vain. It only makes us human. My essay at Brain, Child this week is a reflection on some of the feelings I have about the fact that my daughter is blonde-haired and blue-eyed. You can read it here.


she definitely doesn’t get her hair color from me


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i have twins as my last children

This week at Brain, Child, Rebecca Hughes Parker and I are offering our ‘different perspectives’ on where twins fall in the pecking order. I have twins as my third and fourth children; Rebecca has them as her first and second. I find it very hard to separate my feelings about twins in general from my feelings about where they come in the hierarchy. Is it better to have to have two same-aged babies first or is it better to have them last? Of course there is no answer to this question: there are gains and losses each way. Read what we have to say about it here and, if you have any experience with twins or an opinion on the topic, please leave a comment!


twins as three and four definitely make for more difficult photo staging!


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a mother-son sleepover

I never co-slept with my kids when they were little, but now  I have ‘sleepovers’ with my eight year old son. See how I got from there to here in my post at Brain, Child Magazine.


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hedgehogs and foxes: what the ancient greeks can tell us about our children’s extracurricular activities

“My children have no wish to live in Sparta, and I have no desire to change that.” I love this opening line by KJ Dell’Antonia, in a piece entitled “What Happened to Recreational Sports?”, because 1) I tend to agree with it and 2) I always get a little giddy when I see clever references to antiquity in my daily parenting reading. It’s like two worlds colliding for me in the best possible way.

What Dell’Antonia is talking about is her family’s ethos of playing sports for fun as opposed to the more rigorous and competitive Laconian regime Lisa Catherine Harper outlines in a companion post called “The Crazy, Intense Schedule of Competitive Youth Soccer? Bring It On.” What Dell’Antonia is lamenting is the fact that team sports today have become the province of “those willing to sacrifice much on a Spartan altar” with little room for those of us whose kids and mentality are more, shall we say, Athenian. The analogy got me thinking.

The image both writers invoke with the word “Spartan” is of the austere, physically demanding and discipline-heavy training program (agoge) the ancient Spartans used to raise their sons into ur-warriors. This program was a collective endeavor and it was narrowly-construed: the goal was to make soldiers of the highest caliber. Sparta was a hugely successful fighting nation as a result, but such success, it could be argued, came at considerable cost. The Spartans lived lives free of cultural recreations - of drama, of poetry, of philosophy - of all of the things, in other words, that were the hallmark of Athenian civilization at the same time. While Athens was busy producing some of history’s greatest artists and wordsmiths, the Spartans were being, well, laconic. And pretty brutal to boot.

The difference between Sparta and Athens in this respect is legendary. And it does capture something of the difference in raising children these days between the single-minded pursuit of one sport or activity versus the more rounded, and more relaxed, participation in many. In fact, this is precisely the dichotomy Hilary Levey Friedman refers to as the “specialist” versus “generalist” divide in her book Playing to Win, which (fast-forward a couple of millennia) is about the competitive youth culture of twenty-first century America.

“A good number of parents I met strive to make their children ‘well-rounded’,” Levey Friedman explains. “A smaller group of parents I met want their children to be high achievers in just one area.” Both sets value the importance of winning, they just go about internalizing that value in their kids in distinct ways. The same is true of Athens and Sparta, we should note, which were both inherently competitive societies, despite their opposite characters. Sparta was a military machine, where victory on the battlefield was sought with laser-like focus. Athens was ripe with festivals, games and court cases, all of which were combative: even the city’s renowned performances of tragedies and comedies was a competitive affair. Spartans wanted to win at one thing; Athenians wanted to win at many things.

Like their classical forebears, modern American parents have embraced the importance of competition and winning in the creation of successful individuals. But, unlike the ancients whose lives were determined, for the most part, by the borders in which they were born, parents now have the choice between raising a specialist and raising a generalist. And the children have choices too, which can lead to the mismatch of “citizenship” Harper touches upon in her essay. While an Athenian mother would never have the opportunity to submit her kid to the harsher Spartan mode of education, Harper says that the decision to go Laconian with soccer was her daughter’s, not her own: she and her husband would be happy camping out on the Acropolis. In the end, however, it is they who have to shoulder a large part of the burden their eleven-year-old’s “crazy” schedule entails.

Because the specialist track is a bit crazy for children and parents. It requires, Levey Friedman observes, “specialization at an early age, professional coaching, high levels of raw talent, and substantial family resources.” Like the agoge, it is not for the faint of heart. And yet, for the sake of our analogy, it is interesting to note that Spartan kids were removed from their homes at seven years old and given up to the state to be trained at public expense. The “intense” schedule they underwent wasn’t to the detriment of their parents’ time or pocketbooks: it was a community onus. It wasn’t the moms who were ferrying the children between shield-bearing practice and spear-throwing class, as it were, or forking out the money for said equipment.

What the Spartan moms did, rather, was wave goodbye to their children when they were just boys and then wave them off to war when they became men, uttering this simple warning cry: “with your shield or on it.” Come back carrying your shield in victory or come back on top of it in death. If you’ve dropped it in cowardice, don’t come back at all. The attitude here is essentially to win at all costs and that’s not terribly surprising in light of the undiluted nature of the polity’s war effort. Which is exactly my concern with the Spartan/specialist path: the higher the investment, the higher the stakes. How high is too high for elementary-school-aged kids? How high is too high for their parents, who have lives of their own and other children to take into consideration?

Ultimately, the answer to these questions is down to the personalities and resources of the families involved. Cliche as it is, both paths have their benefits. Sparta won the Peloponnesian War after all, with her superior skill in that particular arena. Athens, you might say, won the war of legacy with her unrivalled contribution to the Western canon across a whole range of subjects. “The fox knows many things,” the Greek poet Archilochus tells us, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Today’s parents are not alone in choosing between these two approaches for their children: people have been doing it since time immemorial.


Please check out the other Brilliant Book Club posts on Playing to Win at the links below:


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confessions of a baby name snob

My sister and I name other people’s babies for sport. Do we know you? We’ve named your baby. Do we know you well? We’ve probably named him better than you have. It’s something we do often, a ritual bonding activity in between Skype sessions and Words With Friends. As soon as we find out there’s a bun in the oven, the speculation begins. The lists are rolled out and refined. The months go by and they are calibrated with reference to new information gleaned from social media. Then we sit back and wait for the grand announcement: to see if you’ve gotten it right after all.

Our particular area of expertise is the names of subsequent children, because 1) we like a hook on which to hang our predictions and 2) there is a special kind of tragedy in a sibling set gone awry. We’ve had some impressive successes on this front, if I do say so myself. Like the time we spun our magic on an acquaintance’s third child, a boy on the way after George and Louise. It had to be a royal, didn’t it? I was convinced Henry, she was certain William and, voilà, the baby arrived as William Henry. That was a good day.

There have also been some crushing disappointments, such as the second girl of a friend of a friend. First baby: Scarlett Adina. The next baby, what would she be? My books said Celia, perhaps, Harper or even Marlowe. The mom dropped a hint that Piper was in the running and we both jumped on that possibility like a springy mattress. Alas the baby came…Bea Catherine. Which is sweet, but not what we expected. “Let’s have a moment of silence,” my sister messaged me on Facebook almost instantly, “for the baby name that should have been.”

What makes the name of a friend’s baby “right” for me is not that I would have chosen it myself. That’s just silly and crass and I don’t really want all the babies in the world to be called Oliver, Leo, Phoebe or Jasper, as perfect as those names might be. I don’t need to love your baby’s name in the sense that it is my favorite name ever; I need to love it in the sense that I believe it. That it suits you, that it represents the best compromise available for you and your partner’s idiosyncratic tastes, that is of the same style and originality as your other children’s names.

Most importantly, I need to believe that you’ve actually said it out loud with your last name (I’m talking about your parents, David Davies). Not to mention that you’ve said it aloud with the names of your existing kids. My sister once saved somebody from siblings called Sonny and Claire, I kid you not. I once talked a good friend out of two boys called Alex and Zeno with the analogy: ”here is my son John and his little brother Charlemagne.”

It fills me with a warm gooeyness to have people in my life whose children’s names I applaud. But then there are the other names. The ones that cause my heart to wilt a little when I open the email. What do you say in these situations or do you say anything at all? Silence isn’t an option for me - I’m too outspoken. Lying isn’t either. Not only does it feel disrespectful to the onomastic gods, but it goes against my personal convictions. I was raised on truth, straight-as-a-picket-fence truth. My mother is famed the world over for telling it like it is.

Pop quiz: which of the following sentences escaped her lips in the immediate aftermath of the birth of my children?

A. (Of Oliver) Well, that’s an interesting name. You mean, like Oliver Twist?

B. (Of Leo) You haven’t actually registered that name yet, though, have you?

C. (Of Phoebe Isla and Jasper Dylan) Don’t worry, you can always use their middle names instead!

The correct answer is D) all of the above. Honesty has its merits, to be sure, but when it comes to non-family members and the syllables they will be hollering across the playground for years to come, I can appreciate the desire for a little more tact. The good news is that with names, as with any feature of a new baby, there are always things to say that are true. Even if they are not terribly complimentary and even if they miss the point. So, for instance, you can try:

1. I’ve never heard that name before! So unique! (= That’s bloody weird.)

2. What a great complement to your first kid’s name! (= I would never have chosen either of those names in a million years, but at least you’re consistent.)

3. Such a thoughtful choice! (= I don’t like it, but I understand your reasons.)

4. They will certainly have separate identities! (= Did you let your husband pick one on his own? You should not have done that.)

It’s a funny feeling when someone close to you chooses a name for their baby that you just can’t get behind. You will inevitably go through a phase of wondering: did I ever really know you at all? But the truth of the matter is that we don’t pick our friends on the basis of a common reverence for monikers that are “vintage chic” any more than we do our spouses. And yet, now that I think about it, maybe we should.

A version of this piece appears at nameberry.


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i want my son to control his temper

I am very excited to be doing something a little different this week at Brain, Child! The wonderful Christie Tate, of Outlaw Mama fame, has joined me for a point/counterpoint on how to handle a child’s temper tantrum. She’s got a four year old and I’ve got an almost six year old and both of these kids have shown their ‘spirited’ colors from day one. Christie and I agree that we want them to embrace their emotions, but we disagree about what to do when those emotions give way to blow-your-top fits. For me, this becomes a behavioral issue and I view it as my responsibility to teach my children that their (re)actions have consequences. For Christie, supporting her children unambiguously  in their feelings - even the messy ones - is the trump card. There is so much grey area here, I admit. And one of the perennially interesting themes we both touch upon is how our own upbringing can affect our parenting choices.

Read the post here. We would love to hear your thoughts on this tricky question!


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a child-less party with a child-free friend

The friendships between mothers and other mothers are powerful. The friendships between mothers and non-mothers can be too. This week at Brain, Child I am considering the difference between these two types of relationship, as well as the difference in this respect between being child-less and being child-free. You can read the post here.

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playing to play (and not to get into college)

Hilary Levey Friedman, the author of this month’s Brilliant Book Club pick Playing to Win, has a favorite gate. It is the one that gave her access to Harvard Yard and all such a yard entails. I walked through a similar gate in New Haven, Connecticut, but, unlike Levey Friedman, who says she wasn’t preened for an elite education, I was a carefully sculpted product of my mother’s ingenuity. I was raised with an emphasis on being ‘well-rounded,’ ‘a complete package,’ partly for its own sake but partly because this is how you got into an Ivy League university in 1995. When I was applying for college, my mother knew that academic achievement alone wasn’t enough to gain me entrance into the archway of my choice.

Like some of the kids Levey Friedman chronicles in her fascinating sociological study of America’s competitive youth culture - the subset she calls the ‘generalists’ - I participated in many after-school activities. Most of which I didn’t enjoy. I played the saxophone for a while, though I am essentially tone deaf. I was in Model Congress, where I wrote a Bill advocating for the conversion of abandoned missile silos into cryonic storage tanks (I’m not kidding). I know I did some community service or other because that was a box that needed to be ticked, but I can’t now recall, for the life of me, what it consisted of. My passion was for running, which I was good at (even if not university-level good) and it was this, once I was in high school, that came to take up the majority of my free time.

All of these activities, the loved and the merely tolerated, were well-documented on my college applications. Those sheafs of paper (they were still paper in my day) that shoot unadulterated panic into the hearts of teenagers and parents alike. I remember the process of filling them out, painstakingly, on my mother’s ‘Brother’ typewriter, the woodpecker-like tsk-ing of the correction tape working its magic on my myriad mistakes. In addition to the transcript of my grades and the laundry list of my extra-curriculars, there were the dreaded essays, the portrait pieces, which I typed out over and over again until they passed muster.

One of my essays was about being an anglophile. It was cute because I used British spelling: replacing the harsh American ‘z’ with the gentler hiss of an ‘s’ in words like ‘characterise’; partnering ‘o’ with the strangely superfluous ‘u’ in words like ‘harbour.’ I had spent the summer after my sophomore year of high school at Cambridge University - in a ‘Summer Discovery’ program(me) - and I knew I wanted to go back to this country of rain and crumpets and chronic apologies. What I didn’t know is that not only would I return for graduate school, first in London and then in Oxford, but I would ultimately settle and raise my own kids here.

My time at Oxford was illuminating in many ways, one of which was the exposure it gave me to the clockwork of another educational system. Let me tell you: there are serious differences between the way the Americans do it and the way the Brits do. I graduated from Yale with a degree in Classics, which was my ‘major,’ but also with the vaguer prestige of a ‘liberal arts’ experience. At Oxford, by contrast, undergraduates ‘read’ only one subject throughout their three-year stay. It is the classic dichotomy between depth and breadth, the hedgehog and the fox.

This call for early specialization is in part responsible for the very different nature of the admissions process in the UK and in the US. At Oxford, admissions is not centralized. There is a standard form (UCAS), the simplicity of which might bulge the eyes of an American parent. It includes some past exam grades, but for the most important exams (the A-levels) there appear only predicted grades, because these tests have yet to be taken. If you get called to interview, on the basis of this form, two or three of the tutors in the subject that you have applied to study, at the college-within-the-college you have applied to study it, will decide whether you get offered a place there. The only opportunity you have to mention any extra-curricular activity is in a single personal statement of roughly 650 words, where the guideline is to show ‘what makes you suitable’ for the course you are applying for.

My husband was a law tutor at Oxford for several years and he ran the undergraduate admissions at his college. The job of the admissions tutor, he says, is to assess intellectual ability and aptitude in regard to the particular subject of study. Unlike how Levey Friedman describes the kind of students Harvard is looking for, ‘ambitious individuals who are not afraid to take risks’ across a whole range of endeavors, what he was looking for was something much more pointed: the kid he wanted to be discussing the constitution with in an individualized tutorial at 9am on a Monday morning. This person, he says, very well might not be the student who was playing rugby or singing in the choir over the weekend. It is more likely to be the one staying in, diligently preparing his or her essay and poring over the law reports.

At Oxford, it is not that the interviewer doesn’t consider the candidate as the sum total of his or her experience. It is that the parts of that experience are not weighted separately, like melons at the marketplace, in quite the same way as they are in the US. As Levey Friedman makes the point: ‘That…colleges and universities consider admissions categories other than academic merit is…uniquely American.’

Top-tier education in Britain is about precisely that: education, narrowly construed. It is about mastery of a subject. Accordingly, versatility and a competitive edge are not the axes on which the admissions decision turns, as Levey Friedman characterizes the US system. The goal is not to admit a jack-of-all-trades. Nor is it to admit the future valedictorian. There is none. While somebody has to come top of the class at Harvard, this isn’t the case at Oxford. Any number of students can get a first class degree. You don’t need to edge anybody out to be the best.

It’s just as well I live in Glasgow and not New York, where I grew up. We are one of the least scheduled families I know. My children do a lot of sports, but mainly in the backyard. The older one takes violin lessons, but these run during school hours. Their day is long enough as it is and, at eight and six years old, I don’t feel the need to lengthen it, for the sake of their career prospects or to stave off my own guilt.

I can’t tell if I under-schedule as a reaction to my own childhood or simply because it is my instinct and I feel safe following it in the knowledge that my kids won’t suffer as a result. They don’t ‘need’ a check-list of activities to get into a good university here and they certainly don’t need to be accruing such ‘credentials’ in primary school. Sure, people where I live might take their children to a couple of extra-curricular classes during the week. But nobody speaks of these things in the college-admissions-driven way Levey Friedman systematically outlines in Playing to Win.

When my kids come home at 4pm, they do their homework and then they play. Not to win, just to play. If they have a swimming lesson on the calendar one day, it isn’t so they get into Oxford in the future. It’s so they don’t drown.


See the other thought-provoking posts Playing to Win has inspired at the links below:


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