Stop tantrums dead in their tracks!

This epic 'Baby Hulk' is by Carlos Sastre Antoranz

This epic ‘Baby Hulk’ is by Carlos Sastre Antoranz

Want your child to stop screaming for what they want? Simple, just give them it! Want them to stop complaining about being somewhere they don’t like? Simple, just take them where they want to go. No one wants to sit through some speech or other when they could be at the park or the cinema anyway, it’s a win win, and the best part is you can use your kid as an excuse. It’s exhausting constantly fighting over issues with your kids, not to mention stressful. Just take the strain off, lower your blood pressure, put your feet up and give in. Conflict isn’t for families anyway, surely it’s better just to keep everyone happy.

What’s the alternative anyway? Say no to even the most reasonable request just so that your kids know who the ‘boss’ is? and boss of what? (we could add) Families aren’t businesses with a product or service to sell, they don’t have to worry about beating last years performance/revenue. Why would a family need a boss? On top of that, two-parent/carer families would have to have two bosses and that can’t go well as there’s no guarantee they’ll always agree.

step-brothersI should point out that the unfortunate side-effect of the first option is a very high set of expectations, but it seems more appealing than the potential side effects of option two including a lack of drive and individual motivation in the absence of being told what to do and the increased risk of members resigning from ‘Family inc.’ when they tire of towing the party line. I mean, kids brought up via method one might be spoiled beyond belief but at least they’ll never want to leave right? Like they won’t want to leave ever, it’s great, you can fix up the attic/basement and make them a little home of their own.

Happily, we all typically pick a spot somewhere in the middle of these two extremes and with any luck our kids won’t run away from home, turn into mindless drones, or end up lodging with us through our retirement. That said, we still have this gruelling problem of tantrums: how do we deal with this unreasonable, high pitched audio visual attack? Do we just ‘pick our battles’ and give in occasionally? How do we decide which time is best to give in? and how far do we give in when we do?

The short answer is that it’ll be different for every kid and every parent. The long answer is that there is another way, I’ve seen a lot of meltdowns in my line of work and one of the most effective ways of dealing with tantrums is not to let them happen in the first place. There are parents among us who have developed the uncanny ability to foresee tantrums and take the wind out their sails before they even get started. I have to admit I’m not always one of these kinds of parents, my two have both had their share of public meltdowns, hell some of you reading this may even have had the pleasure of experiencing one. I’ve met a number of these hyper-aware parents but here’s just one example.

professor-xThere’s a dad that comes into the shop fairly regularly with his son, the boy must be about 7 or 8 years old now but they’ve been coming in for a few years and in that time I have never, and I mean never, seen the boy have a tantrum. One of the key things I’ve noticed about the two of them is a mutual respect and a willingness on the dad’s part to be clear, explanatory and reasonable with his son. He’s clear about why they’ll be going into the toy shop (I can hear him at the door), he listens to his son and responds positively to reasoned arguments for things to buy. I should point out that by ‘positive response’ I don’t mean he instantaneously rewards good arguments with a toy, but he does acknowledge a good point well made. Probably the key thing that I’ve noticed about their interactions is that the boy understands that a shopping trip is not all about acquiring stuff for himself, sometimes it’s not even going to lead to any purchases. In short, his expectations are set pretty low and he seems genuinely pleased with even the smallest occasional purchase.

A seven or eight year old is a far cry from a toddler (or worse still a three-year-old) but I can even see this working (in a diminished sense) with younger kids. The key issue on top of the responsiveness and reasonableness will be figuring out the time of day to expect their reasoning to be at it’s highest (i.e. not at nap time/snack time/after exertion/any time their mood is generally off kilter), for a lot of young kids the window of reasonability is small though, so to be perfectly honest your best bet may be a set of ear plugs (and some to pass round to other shoppers).

Have you found an effective way of avoiding these experiences of high conflict? Do you think they’re just an unavoidable aspect of parenthood? Have you been through this and reached the other side? What’s it like over there? Is there anything you would have done differently, looking back? As always, answers and comments are welcome below and I’m always up for a blether about toys, life and people over of twitter (link to the right). Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing your views, all the best, John

3 Good Reasons to Lie to your Kid

wpid-imag0611_1.jpgIs there ever an excuse to lie to your kids? Of course there is! However when it comes to fairy stories and ideas about magic Richard Dawkins has said on a number of occasions that fantasy might (and I emphasise he says might) lead to supernaturalism. Lets just leave to one side whether ‘supernaturalism’ really is something to be feared, and instead concentrate on Dawkins’ assumption that we somehow brainwash our children and remove their capacity for scepticism by exposing them to fairy stories. Whilst I see where he’s coming from, I just don’t see his argument holding water. Dawkins has been quoted as saying: “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?”

I’m actually inclined to think that fantasy and scepticism are far from the apparently opposing perspectives that Dawkins paints them out to be. In fact I think more exposure to fantasy can allow children to gain a greater understanding of the difference between fairy tales and things that are real. Logan loves superheroes but he knows they’re not real, he likes the idea that there might be fairies but I can see the doubt in there somewhere too. Without these props to exercise my scepticism as a child I’m not sure what kind of world-view I would have right now, but I’m pretty certain I’d be more caught up in dogma in some form or other.

There are many great reasons to lie to your kids in some form or other but here are just three that I think actually do them some good in the long run:

1. To provide a hint of the fantastical in their world. The fantastical builds up imagination, it bolsters creativity and allows children to develop the skills required for thinking outside the box. This all seems pretty positive to me. Angelina Jolie certainly seems to belong to the same camp on this score.

wpid-imag0612_burst001_1.jpg2. To keep their innocence alive. This is probably the weakest of the arguments I’m putting forward here but I’ll still hold on to it. For example, when asked where babies come from we of course tell our kids the basics (with ‘seeds’ and ‘eggs’ galore) but often we include ‘when two people love each other very much’. We want our children to think that everyone they play with comes from love (I’m sorry for being a little mushy here but it feels necessary). You aim your children at a fantasy but lay in hope that it becomes reality.

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that a portion (I’ve no idea what quantities) of the children that my kids play with resulted from more complicated emotions than love but I don’t want to complicate my kids’ friendships with them by letting them in on an issue that is extremely complex, and may be difficult for them to understand (and easy for them to misinterpret) at the moment. Sadly this amounts to an argument for ‘ignorance is bliss’ but I think that, to an extent, children are one of the only groups on the planet who can really take advantage of ignorance and they should enjoy it whilst they have the chance. We can expose them to the more varied and colourful aspects of reality as they become more mature and can better understand the subtleties of human emotion and behaviour.

3. To make them feel comfortable about testing authority. This last reason for lying is by far the best. When I was a child my dad used to tell me blatant nonsense with a straight face and even re-assert his point if I called him on it. He knew exactly what he was doing. It may have been aggrieving, to say the least, but it pushed me to come up with better and more persuasive arguments to prove his obvious nonsense wrong. I do the same thing to my kids, I challenge them, I’ll push nonsense as far as I can to the point where they feel comfortable calling me on every detail of the nonsense with which they’re being presented. Far from dulling a capacity to ask questions and challenge the ideas put forward to them, I’d say that this particular kind of lying can sharpen your child’s wits and make them more than happy to call someone out (anyone out) when they fail to persuade them with an argument (one would hope this would work for advertising too).

Am I wrong, is it ‘always’ wrong to lie? Is fantasy dangerous or is it to be cherished? Do more adults need to open themselves up to fantasy? Can there be ways of honing an assertive scepticism in children without lying? As always I’m really glad you stopped by here, and I welcome any comments you feel like sharing below. Please feel free to have a nosey around at my other posts and follow me on twitter if you’d like to have a blether about toys, life and people, Cheers, John

 

 

Skully and the story fire

wpid-imag0603_burst002_1.jpgIf you’re looking for a good way to get inside your kids minds then you’d be hard pushed to find something as good as story-telling. Just sit them down and tell them a story (it honestly doesn’t have to be great) then once your turn is over pass the story-telling duties on to your child. It’s amazing to hear some of the things they come out with, whilst listening to just one story develop you can see the beginnings of a witty sense of humor whilst at the same time getting an idea of what their worst fears are/might be rooted in.

I don’t do this every night with the boys or anything but it’s good to throw it in on a night where everyone’s kind of been doing their own thing (TV/games/solitary play/housework). You just put a half hour to an hour to one side and use storytelling as a means of touching base and feeling connected and listened to.

wpid-imag0605_burst006_1.jpgThere’s of course the issue of siblings interrupting with their own ideas of what should happen with each others’ stories and this is where I bring in props. Typically we use the ‘story fire’, this is a simple little battery powered fire that Logan got in a Playmobil  caveman set. The great thing about this one is that the fire starts to dim on a timer so you can limit how long each turn takes to save siblings getting bored, plus it puts a fire under your butt to get something good out quick. (You could of course use a large egg timer or something similar to provide the same effect as the ‘story fire’)

Another prop we use is ‘Skully’ (no connection to the X Files), the difference with Skully is that he can talk, so the boys can experiment with voices and make him into a narrator-type-character or simply use him as a participant in their story-telling. Skully has developed into a character who likes to talk about ‘spooky stuff’ (which gives me a wee insight into what makes my boys scared) and he also likes to add comic elements to a story.

I’ll admit that I contributed to this persona but it’s really fun to see the boys experimenting with humor, and especially fun watching them attempt to emulate some of the darker humor that Skully sometimes demonstrates when he’s helping me tell the story.

Have any of you experimented with story telling as a means of getting kids talking and expressing their thoughts/fears/sense of humor? I’ve found the story fire and Skully to be great ways of letting my kids feel heard and giving us all a chance to be creative and have some fun together. Have you come across any other ways to help kids feel heard? As always I welcome any comments you have and don’t forget you can follow either by filling in your e-mail address in the box on the right or by popping over to twitter and following me there, thanks for reading, Cheers, John

A Storm a Brewing!

wpid-imag0049_burst010_1.jpgOutside right now there is literally a storm brewing but I thought I’d talk about how absolutely nuts the emotions of a toddler/pre-schooler can be. As a parent I’ve already gone through this stage once and I’m also currently smack-dab in the middle of it with my youngest. The thing that really amazes me is how striking some of the emotional developments can be that happen at this time in a child’s life.

Is this intensity of emotion simply a hormonal thing or is there something more to it? On top of this is it really such a bad thing when you also get sways into the extremes of more positive emotions? For example, mid-play they hurt themselves in a way that would have an adult swearing quite colourfully but because they’re being happy-go-lucky at this exact moment they bravely brush it off and just get on with things.

There’s a depth of emotion there and a broadening of their emotional range that you don’t see in any other group of people other than teenagers (and perhaps artists).

Pretend play with a pre-schooler can be an immersive and surprising experience, watching them demonstrate at one moment a gentleness of character and at the next a boldness of spirit that allows them to challenge their fears/ an authority figure in order to get the right thing done. Children at this age can have a fairly unremarkable vocabulary but they make up for this in droves with dynamic, evolving personalities and an unmatchable range of emotions.

Thaaars a storm a brewin’ in that thar little person!

What are your experiences of a pre-schooler’s emotional character? Is there anything that’s just surprised you as you watched it unfold? I remember playing knights and castles with Logan years ago and popping in some elements into the game that subtly showed discrimination in action when an Ork toy was unfairly treated by ‘brave’ knights. After a tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of thought a giant pre-schooler joined the game and smashed the knights away to keep the Ork safe from harm. Ever since then ‘Ork’ has been a gentle giant, protecting castles (and occasionally boys with nightmares) from harm. The emotional understanding of a pre-schooler should never be underestimated, they pick up on an awful lot!

As always thanks for reading and feel free to share pre-schooler surprise stories below in the comments. I’ve recently started work on a book about childhood, toys and how play shapes the adults we become so I welcome any anecdotes etc. that I could pass on in the book (though if you’d rather they weren’t in the book let me know and I’ll be sure to avoid referencing them). All the best, John

To Play is Human (My 100th Post!)

wpid-imag0460_1.jpgNo one likes to be pigeon-holed but it’s an undeniable fact of life. There is no escaping the differences to be found in human beings, these differences can differentiate individuals in a variety of ways relative to the culture in which they belong. If you are a different gender (including any variety covered by ‘queer studies‘) or a different race from those who hold power in your culture, this could mark you out as ‘different’ regardless of population density. You can also be marked out as ‘different’ on an individual level based on these kinds of characteristics.

buzz and jessie toys by bullyland from Fun Junction Toy Shop Crieff PerthshireSometimes we embrace these ‘differences’, especially when we find others who share this feature in common and, more importantly, share our perspective on what it means to have this feature. Often, when this happens we don’t feel so different any more. These features are what philosopher Ian Hacking calls ‘human kinds’ and according to Hacking it is by being responsive to these kinds, by rejecting some and embracing others, and by providing input into how these ‘kinds’ are defined, that we develop and augment the original cultural understanding of said ‘kind’.

The way in which a culture understands a ‘kind’, for the most part, can be changed by the actions and attitudes of those who identify (or are identified) as belonging to a kind. That said there is one human kind that seems to be recognised in almost every culture on earth. Individuals belonging to it are treated in very different ways to those who don’t belong and there is no escaping it, you have no choice about whether you belong to it and you have no choice about when society deems you unfit to be associated with that kind any longer.

That kind is ‘child’ and there is so much that we adults do and say which defines the kind (and often a little too little that we take from children themselves that contributes to it): things can be ‘childish’ or ‘infantile’, but they can also be ‘naive’ or ‘innocent’. If there is anything truly universal about human culture it might just be the belief in the existence of ‘children’. Of course there is a great variance in the way different cultures think children should be treated but there is little doubt that cultures accept that we have a very distinct sub-group of human beings living among us.

wpid-imag0003.jpgThere may even be some simple correlations in the way a ‘child’ is defined by different cultures. Primary among these will obviously be age, but another important and undeniable feature of ‘childhood’ is the way that children learn: they learn by seeing, then by replicating behaviours and actions and further to this they learn by experimenting with these behaviours and the ideas they’ve picked up. It might not be the case that every culture has a set name for this but in English-speaking cultures we call these behaviours ‘play’.

One of the trickiest things for any philosopher who looks at the nature of human existence is the difficulty of providing generalities, absolutes, and/or ‘universalisable’ ideas. In the face of sometimes overwhelming anthropological evidence it has become clear that for many ‘intuitive’ ideas about ‘human nature’ there is often a counterexample where some culture out there in the world, enjoys an existence which is contrary to what ‘common sense’ would expect. There are cultures without numbers, cultures in which criminals are ignored as if ‘dead’, and countless cultures with a far less solid marking between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ than we are familiar with.

Click here to see loads of animals playing football

In response to this, if there is anything that we might have a chance of seeing as universal I doubt it will be a grasp of basic numbers or even some kind of over-ruling ethical principle.  I would be willing to take a fairly large wager that one of the most universal traits that define human existence is the fact that we have all, at some point in our lives, played. As a species we share play (in fact some other species can also be said to play in the way we do), in my opinion play is as close to a universal human behaviour as you could get. I’d also be inclined to say that most adults still play without even noticing it.

Play and childhood are features I’d bet you can find in any human culture (and in many other animals too), is it any wonder that a philosopher with an interest in the meaning of human existence would find so much to talk about in the world of toys?

The Philosopher in the Toy Shop

owl cuddly toy toy shop crieff fun junction perth perthshireOK I’ve not mentioned this for a while but I just happen to be a philosopher who sells toys for a living (BAHons, MLitt, MPhil and Toymeister, OK I made that last one up). On a day to day basis you would think these two things have little in common but I like to think, as I approach my 100th post (this is number 99!), that I’ve managed to show that this isn’t the case. One of the key things that makes me feel comfortable about my cross-disciplinary position is that philosophers (good philosophers anyway) never stop asking questions, it’s built into us, it’s why we picked a subject made of questions and it’s the attitude to the world that our training has enforced in us. In short we like to ask ‘why?’ a whole freaking bunch, does that remind you of any other demographic group perhaps?

427276_10152018994445401_531008992_nChildren enquire as a reflex, it’s like it’s coded into their brains that their primary function at that point is to find out and experience all that they can. Children are like a heap of mini Aristotles, Platos, and Socrati (that’s probably not the right plural of Socrates but I like it and I’m sticking with it). They question things, they’re even brave enough to ask us why they’re not supposed to ask questions (at those really awkward moments like ‘why is that man doing that?’ shouted within earshot in the middle of a crowded street). We hit our teens and everything gets very internally analytical, we all resemble Descarte’s meditator, knowing only what we think, feeling less inclined to understand the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of others.

To an extent that’s probably a good thing, at that stage in life it is important to know and understand yourself but what happens when we leave your teens behind? Can we go back to the fun enquiring-minds attitude again? I obviously did but perhaps its harder for others. Depending on what you choose to do with your life, your training may require a degree of accepting what your instructor tells you ‘just because’. I’ve always been lousy at retaining that kind of information. Even at school I only really learned when I was the one asking the question; I don’t do well with force-fed information.

There’s a growing population of adults who enjoy mind-altering objects and literature: from Rubik’s cubes to science fiction, from strategy games to game of thrones. A growing portion of the population are taking a chance to think about the world in a different way and toys can be, and are, a big part of that. Obviously some adults take this interest in toys a little far and turn a little (sometimes a lot) creepier but overall I think we’re doing well from it.

pulp fiction winnie the pooh

Gansta Pooh (Pulp Pooh just sounds…wrong)

So what happens to kids toys as a result? Sadly the potential income generated from the disposable income that is ‘pocket money’ has lead companies that traditionally appealed to teens to start venturing into a younger demographic. In this climate it’s going to be hard to tell a kid who’s a few years shy of thirteen that they’re better off playing with toys instead of play-acting being a teenager. Remember the go-to of any child will be ‘why?’ and if they don’t get a good answer they’re going to investigate this new world and absorb all they can about this new culture, that’s so different from that of childhood, and so alien to the world their parents belong to. At that age it’s not rebellion it’s a thirst for knowledge and a yearning for new experience.

That’s why I like to look at toys philosophically, I like to think about whether any manufacturers are managing to step up to the plate and offer kids a chance to enjoy that feeling of wonder and interest without having to leave their childhood behind. It’s an ongoing quest, a fierce battle ground, where toy companies battle against ‘teen-centred’ product for a person’s very childhood. It’s a fascinating thing to watch and it’s hard not to feel the need to step in with your own voice raised to the heavens crying for the continuation of childhood and the holding back of the floodgates of adolescence (at least for a few years). Why wouldn’t a philosopher enjoy working in the midst of this?

As my 100th post looms on the horizon I’d love to know what people have been thinking about this blog and I’m open to suggestions on how to make it better. If you have any questions about toys or ideas about topics I haven’t touched on yet please pop them in the comments section below or pop over to twitter and tweet me here.

Now a public service announcement: If you know any philosophers or have been effected by philosophy in any way there are departments around the world who are there to help. Philosophy can effect you at any stage in life, symptoms include a tendency to ask questions about questions, a need to see every side of a problem and an emotionally detached approach to arguments. If you think you may have been effected by philosophy please contact your nearest philosophy department immediately.

Getting outside with science: can it build momentum of interest?

stick insect science education biology entomolgyFun Junction currently has a bug infestation…but, you know, the good kind: ‘Insect Lore’ recently sent us two lovely new stick insects. This builds on our population of Fun Junction pets which, up till now, consisted solely of some aqua dragons. We have Barbara and Fetch (get it ‘Fetch the stick insect’, you can thank one of our facebook likers for that wee pun).

We had Barbara and Fetch along at our stall at Perth’s garden and outdoors show last weekend and it gave us a chance to show off all the fun sciency stuff kids can do outdoors without even realising they’re doing any sciency stuff (does that make sense as a sentence? It sounded right in my head). Getting kids into science and helping them to feel comfortable about asking questions about the world around them is vital, both for parents and educators, but there’s a tricky issue when it comes to maintaining interest.

really gross scienceThere’s a rising realisation at the moment that a lot of girls are not engaging with science after a certain age. When we try to understand why this is happening, we have to consider the host of social stages that girls are going through (not to say that boys don’t experience their own, just as affective, stages). These social changes are thinning the numbers slowly and surely all the way through primary school, high school and on into adult life. Surely anything that increases interest at a young age is likely to provide that smidgen more momentum to help girls stay interested as they mature.

There are of course a host of other issues to tackle, possibly most pressing being the cultural idea that maths and science are for boys. However, I could easily get bogged down in discussing this so just for this post I just want to look at ways of building a level of interest with some real momentum, in the hopes that the children that experience it start to think of themselves as scientists from a very early age.

pop up Port-a-Bug bug enclosure catcher biology science toy children resourceThis is where outdoor engagement with wildlife can be helpful. Children can monitor the quantity of wildlife and the behaviour of that wildlife throughout the year, developing an emotional investment in what can only be regarded as scientific research (albeit on a fairly small scale). This can be as simple as setting yoghurt tub traps under a hedge and noting what you find. When you add some educational aides to the mix it makes it even easier to get kids interested; this can range from bug catchers that let them see the mini-beasts they encounter up-close and personal, all the way to insect habitats in your home or classroom which allow children to observe insect behaviour throughout the day.

In terms of the kinds of toys Insect Lore has put together they offer loads of educational aides which are functional whilst managing to remain entertaining and different. Every one of their products draws children in to find out more about the living world around them and on top of this the sets have a bright cheerful feel that can sometimes be so sadly absent from educational toys (especially science-related toys). The simplest way to tell you about what they provide is with a quick run-down (I’ll throw in some mentions for some other companies along the way too):

Insect lore Creature Peeper biology entomology children toy resource classroomNavir Bug Viewer biology entomolgy children toy resourceJars and magnification: There’s something really startling about seeing what an insect (any insect) really looks like. Give a child a magnifying glass and an insect and you’re basically sending them into an alien encounter. The physicality and behaviour of insects is so different to our own that children (and most adults too to be honest) can’t help but be enthralled by what they see (just look at Rose-Lynn Fisher’s ‘Bee’ to see what I mean). At Fun Junction we stock a heap of magnifying bug jars (by Insect Lore and Navir, among others) that vary in size and functionality from mini jars that can fit in a pocket, to large display jars with multiple-angle magnifying viewing windows). Insects just won’t look the same to a child again.

insect lore Living_Twig indian stick insect biology entomology children toy resource classroominsect lore Live_Butterfly_Garden biology entomology children toy resource classroomStick insects and butterflies: This next collection pushes things to a different stage of commitment. With bug jars you’re typically responsible for an insect for at the most a few minutes. However, with a butterfly or stick insect pack you’re watching insects develop from an egg to a full-blown adult. This process can take a few weeks (as is the case for butterflies) or it can mean as much as a couple of years of care and attention (a stick-insect’s life-span). Along with the extra responsibility there comes the advantage of being able to show children the entire life cycle of a creature in real time. For those who think the end of a stick insect’s life-cycle might be a bit difficult for a child to take the release of a net-full of butterflies may be a much more attractive option (I know my eldest wouldn’t cope too well with the death of a pet at this stage, he’s only 5 just now).

navir_Optic_Wonder biology entomology children toy resource classroomOther resources: Insect Lore also makes a range of other resources that can help children to understand insects and insect behaviour. This includes life-cycle figures, butterfly feeders, bug’s-eye-view goggles and many other things to use for display and play which allow children to feel connected with studying insects.

These are just a few products that can help develop a momentum of interest in science in children (I’ve set up the images so that clicking on them takes you to the product page where you can find out more). There are heaps more science toys that we stock at Fun Junction and I’ll definitely talk about science toys again in future. Are there any ways that educators or parents have found of sparking that kind of interest? I’ve already mentioned yoghurt tub traps (you dig a hole, put in a fairly large plastic yoghurt tub which makes it harder for insects to climb back out, and then you come back the next day to see what insects have fallen into the trap), but are there any other home-made methods you know of to help kids get in touch with the natural world around them? As always I love to hear from you and if you fancy catching up with me on twitter you can get me here. Thanks for reading, all the best, John