Faith, art and kids: how does one open up the other?

Recently, a young lad of 13 came to our church alone.

My husband recognised and remembered him as the same boy who’d come with his Dad, three years ago. They’d attended services for maybe two or three weeks – then not again. Until now.

At the time, the boy’s Dad said, “I’m not really interested, but he’s been asking to come”. Quite astoundingly, this young boy has claimed the identity of ‘Christian’ even though he has not been brought up in a Christian home, and has had very little Christian influence in his life other than the Christian group who led half-termly assemblies in his primary school. (If you do this job, be encouraged – it has an impact!)

I find it fascinating when parents who don’t hold a religious faith tell me how interested their children are in God. Kids can ask deep questions, that’s for sure, and if there is a God behind human design, then it’s unsurprising that children would have a deep-rooted longing to connect with something greater than themselves – a longing which doesn’t come from what their parents or teachers have taught them, or from the ‘religious’ experiences they’ve had, but from within their very beings.

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‘I know all the birds of the hills…’ by Elisabeth Rutt

And what of children, like mine, who are being taught about God’s existence, and who are having regular ‘religious experiences’ through church, children’s groups and Christian camps?

These children have deep questions too. Yes, they may frame them within the context of God’s existence – at least until they are of an age to question this – but that’s not to say that doubt and uncertainty can’t exist too.

So our question, as adults helping to raise spiritually-healthy children, is – how do we encourage these questions? How do we initiate debate? How do I permeate the deep recesses of my 9 year old son’s soul, when he only really wanted to tell me about the Newcastle-Man United game?

The closed approach of “That was your question – this is the answer” is not always appropriate. Of course sometimes there is an answer we can give – and I’m not dismissing this – but when our children have deep struggles and questions, I think that the simple black-and-white answer can often trivialise their experience, and devalue their thinking.

This is where creativity comes in: lots of questions, lots of responses, lots of deep thinking and forming of opinions. An understanding that one question may have many answers.

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‘Grenfell 2017’ by Matthew Askey

So when I heard about ‘Where is God in our 21st-century world?’, the new release from Instant Apostle, I was fascinated.

Let me back-track a little and inform you, if you didn’t already know, that Christian publishers don’t usually do Books Like This.

For example, we’re used to the 15-chapter teaching guide on a particular area of discipleship, written by someone with more experience than us. We’re used to someone telling us (or encouraging us) how to think.

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‘God’ by Trevor Attwood

Sorry – that sounds a bit cynical, doesn’t it? As if Christian writers are trying to brainwash their readers – and I don’t mean that at all.

But, generally, when I read a Christian book, I’m out to learn what the author has discovered through experiences, training or qualifications that differ to my own. It doesn’t mean I will agree with every word, but these books offer fodder for my mind, new interpretations of Scripture that I hadn’t come across, different opinions which strengthen my own.

“Where is God”, however, breaks this stereotype. It is, essentially, a coffee-table art book – hardback, with gorgeous pictures throughout, and empathetic commentary by Ann Clifford, who I interviewed for this blog on Monday.

And here’s another difference: Christian books, on the whole, tend to be written by Christians – right?

The art in this book has been produced by a variety of people from a variety of faiths and none.

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‘In the detail’ by Kate Green

Each of the 60 pieces of art was shortlisted for the Chaiya Art Awards, and is as diverse and beautiful as you would hope it might be, given the brief of “Where is God in our 21st-century World?”

Now this isn’t specifically a children’s book, but as any age group can enjoy and gain from art, I was keen to see what my children made of this. I viewed it as a PDF on my phone, but even without the ‘glamour’ of an open book with its glossy photos, my children were interested.

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‘Left Out’ by Maxwell Rushton

“What does it mean? Why is he wrapped in a bin bag? Who’s that? What’s happening?” were the initial questions, which I tended to follow with some more questions of my own. My children ended up providing their own ‘answers’ and interpretations.

We were able to bring our Christian beliefs into the discussion, but not in a forceful, dogmatic way – more a kind of, “The artist might be saying this… Jesus said this too” or “Do you remember when Jesus did…?” or “There’s a verse in the Bible that says something similar”.

I love the way that this book brings the question of God’s existence into regular situations that we and our children encounter. I already mentioned here about the picture of homelessness. Another I was struck by was a modern take on the Virgin and Child – except, in this version, both of them are wearing life jackets, linking to the Syrian crisis, still fresh in our minds, and the fact that Jesus and his family were also refugees.

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‘The Exiles’ by Louise Davis

Of course there’s plenty of more abstract pieces that my kids (and I, for that matter) looked at and, with screwed-up faces, asked, “What’s THAT??!!” – but that’s okay. Not all art will speak to all of us.

In fact, author Ann Clifford gives us this very caveat. “Perhaps [a particular piece] doesn’t look like art to you and it evokes nothing. That’s okay. Turn the page.”

Ann’s commentary is wonderfully incisive and articulate. She doesn’t comment on each piece, but offers short pieces throughout the book on themes expressed in the artwork.

‘Where is God in the 21st Century?’ is out now (you can buy it here) – but if you’re local to me, let me know as we can benefit from a bulk order discount.

Affiliate links are used in this email. If you click through and make a purchase, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to yourself. Thanks for your support.

Dear World, My ‘adopted’ children are also my ‘own’ children. Please don’t differentiate.

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It’s National Adoption Week, which seemed like a good opportunity for a rant.

As you know, I tend to blog positively and (I hope) humorously about adoption, and its impact on our family. It’s not all roses, of course, and I’m honest about the struggles of raising four children, two of whom have early life trauma, but generally our life is good and we have much to be thankful for.

Please read the following, then, in the context of what you’ve just read. Our life is good. What I’m about to say is just a niggle, really, and it shouldn’t get to me – but, then again, it’s such a common faux pas, and one so easily fixed, that I’m surprised more people don’t realise the impact of what they’re saying.

The niggle is this: people I meet are usually very interested in our adoption story. “What made you want to adopt?” “Did you always want to adopt?” and so on. Very good questions. In fact, any question is a good question. I like questions. They encourage honesty and transparency, both of which I’m a huge fan of.

But then, on hearing that we have two older, birth children (take note, this is the correct phrase), I’m met with a response such as, “Oh, so you have two of your own as well – that’s lovely!”

Excuse me?

Of my own?

Does anyone realise how patronising that sounds? Not to mention how unsettling for my boys as they grow older and start to understand the full whack of what’s being suggested.

Are you really saying that, in some way, my adopted children are not as good, not as entitled, not as deserving of us as our birth children are?

Are you really saying that my adopted children aren’t really mine?

Are you really saying that there is some difference between how we would treat the four of them?

Are you possibly suggesting that our adopted children don’t really fit into our family? That once they hit 18, they’ll be fending for themselves?

Sure, I went through a lot to get my two birth children. There was the initial, er, act. And then nine months of the usual fatigue, nausea, increasing discomfort, pre-eclampsia, blah, blah, blah.

And then a few more days of the same because which Rycroft has ever turned up anywhere on time?

And then the labour. Urgh.

And then the feeding, the sleepless nights, the reflux, the weaning, the tummy that refuses to bounce back. OK, maybe this last one is more the fault of insane amounts of chocolate consumption rather than the kiddoes, but you get the picture.

These kids are my own kids, for sure. No one would doubt it. Legally, they are ours too – I can show you their birth certificates which bear my name.

But then again, I went through a lot to get my two adopted children also.

There were more than three years of discussing, praying, talking to adopters, attending events and meetings. And then a few frenzied nights of form filling, capturing every tiny detail of our lives in a seemingly infinite line of boxes: personal details, job information, financial situation, home safety audit, NSPCC safeguarding checks. You name it, we filled the form.

And then there were two months of intensive social worker meetings – a bit like free therapy (we rather enjoyed this, I won’t lie). We shared the story of our own family upbringings, how the two of us met and married, the relationship we have with our birth children, our working history, our views and values on disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, expectations of our children, and a whole range of other things.

By the end of this stage, our social worker knew more about us than our closest friends.

Oh, and four days of an adoption preparation course. Basically four days designed to put you off adopting.

Then the panel, maybe just 15 minutes or so, but a dozen faces, each one prompting us to defend why we really could parent two more children.

And then there was the waiting, the scrolling through child profiles, more waiting, the adoption event where I first caught a glimpse of their sweet faces, more waiting, the phone calls, the ‘what-ifs’, more waiting, the meetings, the plans, the starting-to-get-real moments, the decorating, more waiting, more forms, more meetings, more desperation to meet our own children.

And then they moved in and we had regular visits from the social worker, health visitor and independent reviewing officer. Things Which Had To Be Done. Forms Which Had To Be Filled.

Because, by heck, they don’t leave you to flounder with an adopted child like they do with a birth child.

And – finally – nearly a year later, the court visit, the words, the photos, the celebration, the joyous knowledge – and the bit of paper which legally proves – that these are our children. OUR OWN CHILDREN.

Calling them our ‘own’ children does not diminish the place of their birth family. It does not wish away a story which, however sad, is a key part of who they are. We still have indirect contact with birth relatives, and will continue to do so, maybe one day turning that into direct contact, if our boys are keen.

No. Calling them ‘our own children’ gives them the total security of knowing they are totally loved, totally wanted, totally right in our family. They are not outsiders, they belong – and everything we have is theirs. There is nothing we give our birth children – in time, love, sacrifice or money – that we do not also give our adopted children.

I’d argue that the journey towards our adopted children becoming our children was longer, busier and more intense than that which we made when we embarked upon birth children. Wouldn’t you agree?

In that case, can we all be a little more careful in the language we use?

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Where can our children find God in the 21st century? (Interview with author Ann Clifford)

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed that I’m taking part in a blog tour this week for a stunning art book, “Where is God in our 21st century world?”, recently published by Instant Apostle.

Artists entering the Chaiya Art Awards 2018 were asked to respond to this question, and the results are showcased in this beautiful coffee-table book. All faiths and none are represented, and insightful commentary is provided throughout the book by author Ann Clifford.

I’ve really enjoyed looking through this book (full review coming on Friday!), and was delighted to have the chance to catch up with Ann Clifford to find out more about the book, and especially how we can use it as parents seeking to widen our children’s faith experience.

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Welcome, Ann! Congratulations on such a beautiful, thought-provoking book. I found your words a perfect complement to the images. Tell us a bit about your background and how this book came about.

Katrina Moss (founder, Chaiya Art Awards) and I have been friends for 35 years. We have had many adventures together: the one about the ugly sisters; the Cannes Film Festival; the feature film to name a few.  

My passion to encourage Christians to be involved in the arts began many years ago. For ten years I ran an initiative which brought artists from many disciplines together. My own discipline at the time was writing plays, acting and theatre directing.  

When Kat came to me with the idea of Chaiya I wanted to do everything in my power to support her. The idea for the book evolved and of course having just had my first book published (Time to Live: The Beginners Guide to Saying Goodbye), I was wonderfully placed to help make it happen and am grateful to Instant Apostle for creating and publishing it so beautifully.

I am so proud of Kat for the vision of this initiative and feel privileged to outwork it with her.  There will be another competition and art exhibition in 2020.

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Ann and Katrina at the exhibition launch

I imagine it’s hard for you to choose a favourite piece of art from the book – but was there one section which was particularly enjoyable to look at and/or write?

My heart is so full of gratitude to the artists that are featured.  Their passion is for all to see. The spiritual content of the work is undeniable and it is thrilling. I think Suffering and Death struck a deep chord as it resonated with what I had just written and it contains one of my favourite (amongst many favourite) pictures, The Suspense of Living on the Edge by Ashar.

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‘The suspense of living on the edge’ by ashar

Ann, you’re a mother and a grandmother, and you’ve worked as a special needs teacher. In your experience with children, how do you think art can open up their understanding of the world?

Low self-worth is the killer in our children. When reading and writing are a struggle, the arts can redeem so much in them and bring success.

I directed The Wizard of Oz in a primary school with Year 6s.  As my heart is for special needs I used unexpected children in the main roles. One child found reading so difficult but he had stage presence so I cast him in a main part. Learning the role took him hours his father told me, but he was absolutely determined to do it.  He was brilliant.

I taught visual art for a year to a class. The mess was unimaginable but it was a joy. A parent came to me at the end of term and said his daughter had been captivated by my Picasso classes.

When she told him he went upstairs to his loft and brought down a dusty book on Picasso he and her mother (who had sadly died) had bought together. Father and daughter then sat together enjoying chatting about all the pictures of the painter’s work and of course talked about her mum as well.  He left and I cried.

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Detail from ‘Pathways’ by Karen Weatherbee

When I heard about this book, I was hoping that Mister (9) would be ‘old enough’ to access it.

In reality, when I first looked at it, I happened to have my Meerkat (4) and Missy (7) climbing all over me! I was amazed that they were not only engaged by the images, but had some very thoughtful comments and questions about them.

I shouldn’t have been surprised really, should I?

Art is like music.  It reaches places that other things cannot.  

When my daughter was about eight I took her to what is now the Tate Britain.  She had her sketch book and pencil in case. I thought I would start with David Hockney as his pictures are accessible.  The Splash, the figure in the shower.

She sat on the floor and drew them. We moved onto Degas and the Little Dancer but it didn’t do much for her.  

The powerful and huge Jacob wrestling with the Angel by Epstein was instantly riveting, again she dropped to the floor and drew. This is how the visit went.  

We walked past some paintings by Joan Miro and she stopped and laughed. I don’t think I’ve laughed at a painting much. I looked again and saw the fun.

If we ask children what they see I guarantee it will open our eyes.  That is the beauty of visual art. Images are part of their lives now as never before. This is why I feel it so incredibly important to allow space for faith-filled visual art to be created and exhibited.

Children are so wonderfully open and without boundaries and their world has much to give us.  There isn’t anything on the market like this book. It is a great opportunity to talk about many important things together.

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‘Left out’ by Maxwell Rushton

One image which my children found particularly provocative was Maxwell Rushton’s ‘Left Out’, in which a homeless person sitting at the side of the path is wrapped in a bin bag.

They related to this scene as, sadly, walking past a homeless person is a fairly regular event for them (and of course I get the innocent and loudly-voiced “WHY’S THAT MAN SITTING BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, MUMMY?” when we’re clearly within earshot of the man in question).

We were able to chat through the idea of value and rubbish, precious and worthless, wondering what makes us special or important in the first place.

What I loved about the artworks in the exhibition is that some were immediate, authentic and emotional, so we could relate to them easily.  Some were more challenging but so worth exploring.

Some of us can find art scary. We wonder what we are ‘supposed’ to think or feel. To start with we need to be ourselves and trust ourselves. It is okay to feel what we feel.

Different people will see different things. Sounds to me like your children had a fab conversation with you that will make both you and them think.  

I remember my son still in primary school noticing homeless people and having conversations with him about it. One day I found him emptying his moneybox into a plastic bag. When I asked him why, he said it was to give to the homeless man sitting on the main road of our village.

Everything in me wanted to say ‘don’t give him everything’. I shut my mouth and went with him as he gave it away.  Who says children can’t teach us things?

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‘Scarred’ by Rachel Ho

In an earlier section of the book you write:

“Many artists desire to contribute into a hurting world. They do not necessarily bring actual food. They may have little money to give, but they can bring beauty… We human beings cannot survive on ashes – the ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ of our consumer society: horror, abuse, degradation, isolation, sickness, objectification. Or social media with its poisoned ashes of language that defame and destroy the chosen offender. The murmuration of electronic clutter, while essential, overtakes and dulls. We need food that empowers, food that causes us to lift our eyes beyond the material, beyond the constant soundscape; we need beauty.”

Children, similarly, cannot contribute ‘actual food’ to a hurting world. They have few monetary resources, and their lack of independence limits what they can contribute in terms of voluntary work. But in many ways they too bring the beauty you write about. What’s your experience of this?

My grandson Judah is now twenty months old.  I have watched the untrammelled joy he brings into my husband’s life.  

My husband is the General Director of the Evangelical Alliance and there is always so much going on. Positive, wonderful things, but his head gets full and tired.

Little Judah is such a happy giving child that his very presence and gorgeous smile banishes everything except the present moment.  

We have a large painting by Dinah Roe-Kendall of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple which Judah loves. The painting is not only beautiful, it also worships God twenty four hours per day whether someone looks at it or not. I love having it in my home: the power of a faith-filled painting.

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‘God’ by Trevor Attwood

Our children are more influenced by more sources than ever before – not only friends and teachers, but books, TV, the unlimited ‘voices’ screaming at them from YouTube, and – eventually – social media. Where can they find God in all of this?

Firstly I think put as much of God in them as you can from the moment you first hold them.  Pray over them, cover them with prayer daily.

What you put into them, and their acceptance of God, will become their plumb line of choice in the future even if they could never articulate it. Many children have no deep plumb line, indeed many adults as well, but that’s another story.

The early years are crucial – give them the time you can. When most of us have to work it is difficult and demanding as the last thing you want to do is give even more.

Ask God to expand you, grow you.  Give, give and give again. Love, love and love again. No-one will see most of what you do, except that God will see everything and He is no person’s debtor.

I thought when the children went to secondary school that’s when we would be having deep discussions, but they start much younger!

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‘I keep God handy in my little box’ by Mike Fryer

That’s great advice – thank you! Finally, what is your hope for those who read this book?

I have three hopes:

  1. That artists will be encouraged in their making to express spirituality and be emboldened and encouraged to do so.  
  2. That faith is given space in the visual arts as we search for meaning, relevance and hope.
  3. That all sorts of people would look at the work and grow a fresh delight in and understanding of the importance and relevance of art in our culture.

I would like to leave a quote from the end of the book as part of my answer.

“This is about allowing ourselves the freedom to search for and
expect ‘magic’ again. It is about walking into a hidden place and
experiencing the feel of a fur coat on our face. As our eyes adjust,
the light of a lamp reveals glinting snow. We walk through the
wardrobe, our feet crunch, and before us lie stone animals, mysteries,
things to explore. Excitement mounts.

The artists featured in this book stepped through a wardrobe, they
discovered the snow, heard its crunch underfoot. They invite you
to join them.

Spring is coming.”

Look out for my review coming this Friday!

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Party, party, and then – you guessed it – another party! (What I’m Into – September 2018)

Books

Along with my Book Club, this month I read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. I really enjoyed it, bearing some similarities to Eleanor Oliphant, which I read in June.

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The title character, like Eleanor, has had a less-than-ideal upbringing, in a dysfunctional family, and now struggles to cope with aspects of everyday life that the rest of us take for granted. Lucy doesn’t necessarily notice or verbalise these struggles, but they become implicit through Strout’s deeply incisive writing, which I enjoyed very much.

The book however, is not mainly about Lucy’s struggles (as an adopter, I tend to read everything through an ‘early life trauma’ lens even when the author hasn’t necessarily intended that!), but more about her relationship with her mother, who comes to visit for a prolonged period when Lucy finds herself in hospital. The pair haven’t spoken in years, and now Lucy is married with two daughters. The ensuing conversation sheds light on Lucy’s upbringing, the characters of the two women, and on what might be going on elsewhere in Lucy’s adult life.

I found it a fascinating read, if slightly frustrating in its ambiguity. I like a little bit of uncertainty (“it could have been this…”, “maybe she felt like this…”) but I also like to know what the actual story is, as I never trust my instincts to have got it right! But maybe that’s the point.

Anyway, it was not a long read, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of story.

Food

There has been A LOT of party food (read: cake) kicking around Casa Desert this month. ALL four of my kids had the audacity to be born in September, and I know that every time this month rolls round, God is laughing at His amazing joke of putting all four of these September-born kids into the life of a Mum who is liable to get a little too party-obsessed.

Yeah, funny. Thanks God.

Actually, the joke is working. I’m chilling out about the kids’ parties. They’re not as much of a mission as they used to be. These days I’m tending to just book a bouncy castle, open a packet of cheesy balls, and let everyone create their own fun. Imagination never hurt anyone, right?

And, to bring this back to the subheading, I don’t really do much with the food. It mainly comes from packets. This year we made some (pretty nice, if I say so myself) chocolate cupcakes from Twist (quite possibly the most helpful, foolproof and scrumptious baking book ever) – but only really for something to do with the twins, who can’t get enough kitchen time at the moment.

Then there were the Birthday Cakes. Listen, I’m hardly Bake-Off material, but I like to try, OK? A mermaid one for Missy (now 7):

Spiderman for Monkey and Meerkat (now 4 – geez, where did that go?):

And a football one for Mister (9! He’s 9! Double figures next year! Someone remind me when I’m supposed to get the hang of parenting?):

Music

George Ezra.

That’s about it really. He sits neatly in the very small overlap section of our family’s Venn diagram when it comes to musical preference. The catchy melodies and simple, repetitive words appeal to our kids, who can remember all of them (even the 4 year olds). The Orbison-esque voice and use of brass give it a vintage sound that Desert Dad and I appreciate. Perfect!

And – for those of you who are fans of George Ezra AND a cappella (as well as those of you who are not) – you absolutely have to watch this:

I love that this isn’t even a gig…they’re just warming up!

My articles

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This month’s piece for More than Writers explored one of my (many) misadventures with DIY this summer, and its application point for writing and editing.

Home for Good published my piece on What the Church needs to know about Invisible Needs. I feel a bit arrogant saying it’s an essential read for all those in church leadership – but I’m going to put myself out there, uncomfortable though it is, for the sake of all the many traumatised children who attend our churches each week and struggle in ways many of us never notice.

My Aussie friends Mike and Helen started an awesome company called XCeptional, which helps people with autism get into employment. They run training, provide software testing for clients, and work with companies who want to become more inclusive.

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I love what they do, and often wish I could support more but I’m sooooo far away – so when Mike asked me to write them a blog, I snapped him up! Take a look at ‘One Mistake Start-ups are Making – and Three Ways to put it Right’.

Here on the blog, I shared the second and third of my trilogy, reflecting on the Living Out Identity conference I attended back in June. If you’re interested in the church’s response to sexuality, give them a read. They discuss whether celibacy can equal fulfilment, and how a church can be Biblically inclusive.

if only 1 in 4 girls are happy - what are we doing wrong_

I shared five questions that adoptive parents should ask prospective schools when looking round, and asked what we’re doing wrong as parents, when only 1 in 4 girls aged 7-21 call themselves ‘happy’.

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I also went giveaway-crazy, reviewing both The Father’s Kiss and A Really Incredible Feast. And there’ll be more giveaways to come in October – stay tuned.

Articles elsewhere

Do you ever read something and get the feeling the writer has reached inside your brain, pulled together all of your incoherent thoughts and expressed them more eloquently and articulately than you would ever have done?

I love it when this happens! When my friend Laura shared this article on Facebook, I have to say I was blown away. You try reading When Kids won’t bow to your Idols and see if you don’t feel mightily challenged and entertained all at once.

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  • Parties! Three of them, to be precise. Missy had Unicorns and Mermaids, the twins had Spiderman (very loosely adhered to, I might add), and Mister had the easiest one of all: Football! (Think: kids, muddy food, a ball and some food, and that’s pretty much it.)
  • Sleep! Actually, not much of it. Pray for me in October!
  • Books! Some progress! Still nothing to report to you, but hopefully very very soon… Suffice to say, there’s been enough progress that I’m feeling pretty excited!
  • Christmas Anthology! Out soon! I have a reflection in it! If you’re on my mailing list, look out for a special subscribers-only offer in your inbox very soon. And if you’re not on the list, join now! It’s fun – I promise.

Five questions to ask a prospective school (when your child is adopted or fostered)

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Blink, and three years will pass in an instant.

I mean, while you know and I know that it’s only actually been three minutes since our gorgeous 14-month-old boys moved into our family, the calendar (damn that thing – is it even a trustworthy article?) suggests it’s actually been nearly three years.

Besides wanting to know whether the Google calendar app is capable of speeding up time, I guess I also need to be thinking about applying for some school places.

How did this happen?

One minute our boys are commando-crawling across the floor – and the next, they’re taking their lives into their hands at every opportunity, causing my heart to skip a beat every time they’re about to jump from something waaaaayyy too high.

One minute they’re babbling and cooing – the next, they’re articulately and precisely telling me Every.Single.Detail of something-or-other, the relevance of which I can’t quite work out.

Fortunately, the school we chose for our eldest two kids is pastorally brilliant, highly experienced with looked-after children, and goes above-and-beyond to meet the needs of the individuals within its care. The only hesitation in putting it as first choice for our boys will be due to impossible laundry piles or lengthy afternoons making slime (you know how it is with kids and slime. You don’t? Oh, err…forget I said anything) – and not because we’re unsure about the place.

I appreciate, though, that the situation isn’t always this easy.

Perhaps it’s your first child who’s preparing to go to school – or perhaps you have older children, but sense that the school they attend will not be the best choice for your adopted or fostered child.

In that case, here are five questions which will start a helpful discussion with any prospective schools. They are not exhaustive, nor might you feel it necessary to ask every single one – but they are a start.

(And, if you want to know, they’re inspired by an article I wrote a few years ago: Five questions to ask a Prospective School.)

1. Who is your designated lead for looked-after children?

a) It’s Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms So-and-So… (The best answer.)

b) Er…we haven’t quite sorted that one out yet. (Don’t write off the school just yet – they may be open to hearing more about it from you.)

c) Designated what? (Leave. Immediately.)

A new piece of legislation from the government this year requires all maintained schools to have a designated person who keeps an eye on the looked-after children (LAC) within their care (this includes children who are adopted and are no longer under Local Authority care).

The likelihood is that this responsibility will fall to someone who is already employed by the school in a pastoral capacity. This, in my opinion, is the ideal. It isn’t really appropriate for a class teacher to have this role, as they’re massively overstretched as it is, and need to be allowed to focus on the children in their class. An exception to this might be if the teacher in question was a member of the senior leadership team, who was given enough time away from their own class to effectively carry out this role.

A note here about academies. They are not maintained schools, and therefore are not obliged to follow government directives such as this one. However, any academy worth its weight is likely to want to implement a similar policy. Our school is an academy, and they’ve never played the “We’re not maintained” card to evade responsibility when it comes to raising the aspirations of all their children.

So, if you’re looking around an academy, make sure they’ve at least thought this one through!

2. How is your Pupil Premium money spent?

a) We put it towards extra staff in classrooms/use it for intervention groups/spend it on training specific to the needs of vulnerable children. (Great answer. No prizes for guessing what our school spend it on.)

b) We spend it on snazzy computers and equipment which will give your child more ways to engage within school. (Hmmm…resources could be a good spend, but you need to probe a little further.)

c) We give it straight back to the parents so that they can buy the correct uniform for their children. (Uh-oh.)

Newsflash: all LAC receive Pupil Premium (PP) – this essentially means that the school receives an extra wadge of cash each year to help qualifying children to overcome their disadvantages and have an excellent education.

Second newsflash: schools are not required to give this money to you, or to spend it directly on your child!

I’ve actually read some threads in online adoption forums which suggest that this is the case!

But if you were managing the budget of a small-medium company, and you received additional funding – would you spend it on things which would only last a year? Or things which would last a few years? Or on people who would have a greater long-term impact?

I realise that, as parents, a little extra cash towards uniform and equipment would be welcome, but hear me on this one: it will not improve your child’s education. UK parents all receive child benefit – and some of us receive tax credits and/or adoption allowance – which is supposed to go towards these items, so please allow your school to spend its PP on things which will have the greatest educational impact on your child.

I’m grateful that our school uses its PP, amongst other things, to pay a full-time pastoral member of staff, to ensure that each class has a teaching assistant (in addition to 1:1 support for kids with SEN), and that regular small group interventions take place for children who are struggling academically.

They also make sure they’re up-to-date with training, especially on issues of safeguarding, pastoral care, and attachment.

I know that these things will have a big impact on my boys – and other children like them in the school – and am delighted that they’re already in place.

One thing to be aware of, though: while schools are entitled to use PP money as they think best, they’re also required to produce data to prove that they’re raising the attainment of the kids who attract this funding. AND, what’s even better, is that they’re required to make this information available on their websites.

So even before you look round those schools, make sure you’ve found this information online! It’ll arm you with lots of useful info for when you visit.

3) Have your staff done any training on attachment and/or trauma?

a) Yes, we sent our deputy head and pastoral lead on some training a year ago. (Brilliant!)

b) Yes we did but I can’t remember when it was – four, five years ago? (Not necessarily a terrible school – remember just how much training teachers need in all sorts of different things – but definitely time for a booster!)

c) What’s attachment? (Invite them round when your adopted child is having a half-hour paddy, hitting and biting you because his favourite book doesn’t have enough pages. Then they’ll know.)

With all of these questions, I want to issue a word of caution: no school is perfect.

There is so much for teachers to do, so much for school leaders to do, so much for governors to do, that it is literally impossible to focus on all of the things, all of the time.

Please don’t write off a school just because their attachment training is out of date (or they haven’t done any). They haven’t been lazy, or uncaring – they’ve likely been getting training in other areas. The key thing is their attitude once you mention it. Do they seem keen? Are they taking you seriously?

This leads me nicely onto the next question…

4. What are the areas you’re trying to develop right now?

a) We’re looking at our behaviour policy, raising the profile of Science within school, and tightening up our SEN interventions. (I want this school!)

b) Er… we’re trying to raise the attainment of all our pupils. (GET ME SOME DETAILS! I’M ABOUT TO ENTRUST MY MOST PRECIOUS POSESSSION TO YOU!)

c) None. We’re doing pretty well. (Not when Ofsted turn up, you won’t be.)

Ofsted like to see that schools know where their weaknesses are, and are taking steps to improve them. You should be interested in this too.

You want to know that the school your child might attend has a great attitude to learning – and that’s not just pupil learning, but staff learning. If they’re not actively trying to improve specific areas (and able to tell you them at the drop of a hat), then what exactly are they doing?

Remember: the perfect school doesn’t exist! Instead, look for one which is ‘on the up’.

5. How do you deal with behaviour in the classroom?

a) We use a system of natural consequences, helping children to relate their action with its consequences, and utilise restorative practice techniques to encourage children to think through their actions. (WOW. Literally. Does a school like this actually exist??)

b) We use a traffic lights system of red, yellow and green to reward behaviour and help children to see when their behaviour is less than acceptable. (There are many benefits to this approach, but the visual/shaming nature of it won’t always be suitable for looked-after children who already carry around a heck of a lot of guilt.)

c) We stand the child in the corner of the classroom with a Dunce hat. (Obviously not. Soooo obviously not – but cut me a bit of slack here, OK? It’s number 5 and I’m running out of steam.)

Again, a school doesn’t need to be perfect, but what you’re after here is some kind of guarantee that they work with their children on improving behaviour. All children – but looked-after children especially – will get much more out of an approach which helps them to self-regulate their behaviour and make better decisions in the future.

***

These questions aren’t an exam! Please don’t disregard schools which don’t score highly on each question. All good schools are in a process of improving – you’re simply trying to find out which ones will be flexible to the needs of your child (and are aware that your child will have needs specific to his/her looked-after background).

Good luck as you look!

If you enjoyed this, you may like:

And for weekly doses of all things parenting/family/adoption/faith/chocolate, I’d love you to join the Desertmum community! I’ll even send you Ten Survival Tips for Newly Adoptive Parents as a thank-you.

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Identity and the Church – Can a church be inclusive without compromise?

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Image credit: Pixabay

It’s no secret that one of the big debates in the Church today is how to pastorally respond to those of varying sexual orientations.

Churches the world over range from a permissive, arms-open approach to a more closed, even angry, approach. And any talk of trying to ‘strike a balance’ is futile, as there are as many opinions on this subject as there are Christians, with everyone holding a different idea of what that ‘balance’ would entail.

So – and I’m convinced of this – we need to find different solutions to working and worshiping together peacefully and lovingly. Solutions which embrace the diversity of opinion found within the Church and use it to strengthen our mission, not divide it.

It’s why I loved reading Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation earlier this year. And it’s why I was thrilled to attend Living Out’s Identity conference in London this June.

I’ve already blogged a few thoughts reflecting on this conference, firstly how culture shapes our identity (without us even realising), and secondly how affected I was by the testimony of four celibate, gay Christians. Do have a read if you haven’t already.

This is the third and final reflection, and it concerns our approach as churches.

Kathy Keller spoke wonderfully in the afternoon on the more practical issue of how we make our churches welcoming and inclusive, while holding to traditional Bible teaching about sex being for (heterosexual) marriage.

This will jar for those who don’t read the Bible this way, but one thing I found particularly strong was Kathy’s assertion that actually homosexual ‘sin’ is a lot less common/frequent than heterosexual ‘sin’ – purely by nature of there being more heterosexual than homosexual people in the world. Of course this is obvious really, isn’t it? Only I’d never thought of it this way.

In other words, where do our churches stand on teaching about sex within marriage generally? How do we address those who are living together outside marriage, those who have had affairs, those who are in the process of a divorce, those who are considering remarriage?

There are no easy answers, of course, to any of this – but the point is: sexual sin needs to be addressed as a whole. Singling out any one group of individuals is not helpful, and it certainly isn’t Biblical.

Living Out had produced a church inclusivity audit for the day, which I found incredibly helpful, not to mention challenging. If we really ask these questions of ourselves and our churches, where do we stand? I know we fall down in a number of areas.

For example:

“Church family members instinctively share meals, homes, holidays, festivals, money, children with others from different backgrounds and life situations to them.”

I’m not so sure that our church, diverse and welcoming as it is, really models this kind of sharing with those of different backgrounds. The thinking here is that if a church develops this kind of culture then it will make life easier for a person who has chosen, for whatever reason, to live a celibate lifestyle, as they will automatically feel included, and experience life-giving relationships within their church family.

Another example:

“All in your church know that we all experience sexual brokenness and all are being encouraged to confess their own sexual sins.”

I just don’t think that we talk about sex very much or very well! Are we encouraged to think about past sexual behaviour, and whether it was God-honouring? We might be in committed marital relationships, but have we ever asked God to forgive us for what we did before that, or for mixed motives even now?

Again, this general focus on sexual sin (rather than homosexual sin) is helpful, I think, as it sets high and challenging expectations for all of us.

You can download the full audit here and I really recommend taking a look – there are some stonking statements on there. In addition, there’s a great video of Ed Shaw (a same-sex attracted church leader) explaining at the conference how he went through this audit with his church leadership team.

There were some great books recommended during the conference which I wanted to mention here, as well as some of my own favourites:

Walking with Gay Friends – I found this incredibly helpful a few years ago in helping me think through this issue. The author is a Christian and a lesbian.

Space at the Table: Conversations between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son – this is on my to-read list, and looks amazing! Check out the trailer video here: it might make you cry!

The Gospel comes with a House Key – Rosaria Butterfield’s story of converting to Christianity as a gay, feminist academic is one I want to read – this is a follow-on book, where she describes the kind of radical hospitality Christians are called to give.

Mere Sexuality: rediscovering the Christian vision of sexuality

The plausibility problem – written by Ed Shaw, featured in the church audit video.

Gay girl, good God – I spotted this on Twitter, and it looks fascinating – the story of Jackie Hill Perry’s coming to faith.

Undivided – Vicky Beeching’s story, from a different perspective, has also been on my to-read list since it was released, and I know many of you have already read it.

Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation – as mentioned. Read my review here!

Happy reading!

A note on my affiliate links: this post contains them! You know the drill: click through, make a purchase, and I earn a small amount of commission.

However, I realise that many of you will Google the book titles, just to check whether there’s a cheaper price. I get it – I do that too. I always try to put the cheapest price I can find right here in the blog post, but that’s not always possible (prices change all the time, I’m UK based so some things will be cheaper/dearer in other countries, and I have an aversion to Amazon…). So by all means, go check the cheaper price – but if you find that it’s the same as what I’ve recommended, do come back here and click on my links pretty please. It’s how I keep the blog free! Thank you 🙂

 

 

How do I connect with my 8 year old son?

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A year ago, my son moved from Year 2 to Year 3.

I thought this was simply a matter of moving up a year, like Year 1 to 2. Apparently not. There’s been a noticeable change in my son’s attitude – and my friends say the same about their sons too. These 8-year-olds are displaying more sulkiness, stroppiness, rudeness and even aggression.

Mister’s teacher taught his class in Year 1. Although she’s enjoyed having them both years (and done a great job both times), she’s reported increased confidence and cheekiness. In short, they’re more likely to tell her when she’s made a mistake!

This change in attitude has given us a new challenge as parents. How do we establish boundaries? Should my son have his say in what he is and isn’t allowed? What discipline measures are effective?

But there’s another aspect to this. Just as I’m seeking ways to connect with my son, our interests are starting to diverge. His main two hobbies are football and video games – neither of which I have any interest in. (OK, save for the World Cup. That was pretty awesome. But otherwise.)

The fact that my son is not turning into me doesn’t come as a surprise – but I’m absolutely determined not to lose the relationship we’ve spent nearly nine years building.

For Mister’s first two years we did everything together. We went to groups, did baby yoga and massage, swam together, and made new friends. We hosted playdates, and went to play at others’ homes. We even hill-walked together on one occasion, just me and him.

Even with the addition of his sister, and later his brothers, I don’t think there’s anyone he’s spent more time with than me, nor I him, over the course of his life.

We have too much history, Mister and I. We were best buds from day one, and he taught me how to be a Mum. So – what do I do?

How do we connect with our sons when they start to drift away from being Mummy’s boys? How do we keep communication open so that boundaries can be discussed, negotiated and established? How do we stay close so that when adolescence hits, they still have a secure base to turn to?

I’ll admit I don’t have many answers. Please fire away in the comments, as I’d love to get some wisdom here! But here are a few things I’ve noticed in the last few months.

Shared rhythms

I’m grateful that, way back before we got to this stage, our family established daily shared rhythms. For example, we always eat our evening meal together at the table, and we always read the kids a bedtime story.

It might not seem like much, but these two simple acts ensure that, every day, I’m connecting meaningfully and positively with my son at least once or twice. Of course, we usually connect more than that, but for those days where we’re just not speaking the same language, at least we still have meals and story time.

Dad is important – but he still needs Mum

Mister has definitely made the switch from wanting me around to wanting his Dad around. He shares more interests with his Dad, and connects more easily.

For those of you who are single Mums to young sons, I encourage you to find some great male role models now so that, as your boy grows, he will have some people to relate to and let off steam with, when he can’t do that so easily with you.

But don’t delegate everything to Dad/other male role models! Even when he’s reluctant, I still make regular effort to converse with/hug/connect with my son. He won’t do it in front of his friends, but when we’re at home, he often asks to hold my hand, cuddle or kiss. Boys still need – and love – their Mums. Hooray for that!

Notice his positives

Yes, my son can be angsty and aggressive, shouty and rude. But, on the whole, he is a kind, thoughtful boy, who’s a great big brother and makes us proud every day.

If I’m not careful, I become the kind of nagging mum who no one wants to confide in. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t find ways of gently encouraging our boys to put their laundry in the basket or give us more than five minutes’ notice when they have homework due, but we can do this with grace and love, always remembering that our role is to teach our children these skills – they don’t just absorb them.

And the advice to ‘pick your battles’ is wise here too. I’ve learnt not to worry so much about the state of my son’s bedroom, for example, although I did intervene the other day when there was literally no floor to walk on. But, you know, other than that 😉

Don’t tease

Our family likes a bit of banter.

OK, we like a lot of banter. And we’re pretty sarcastic. We frequently have to check with each other whether we actually meant something for real, or were just using sarcasm.

But any banter at the expense of my son’s feelings is not good. Usually he enjoys being included in this way, and gives as good as he gets, but on occasion I’ve felt that we overstepped the mark in joking about something he’s passionate about.

It’s easy to make fun of how much Mister loves geeky football videos or Roblux – but the reality is that he’s trying to work out who he is (and who he’s not). If my wisecracks are purely about trying to score points from those listening, if it’s all about making me sound like I’m witty and quick and cool, at the expense of my son’s feelings, then this needs to be stopped. I’m effectively saying ‘Your identity is wrong’ or even ‘My needs override yours’ and that is really hurtful.

So I’m learning to raise up and encourage my son – particularly in front of others.

Try and show an interest

Even if it kills me (and it hasn’t yet), if I have a few spare minutes when the other kids aren’t making demands I’ll sit with my son while he plays Minecraft or watches football, and ask questions and try and learn about his hobbies.

This is kind of obvious good advice, I guess, and yet it’s so hard to actually put into practice when football is SO BORING and video games are SO NONSENSICAL.

But have you ever been on a walking tour led by someone passionate about what they’re showing you round? I think we all catch someone’s excitement when their eyes light up and they explain a new idea to us enthusiastically.

It’s like this with my son. If I listen carefully to what he’s saying, I’ll catch his excitement. Football, video games, or whatever he’s into that week, won’t be the boring stuff it used to be. It will be exciting, because my son is excited about it, and he is making me excited about it!

Learning from our kids is actually really great, because they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our love and nurture – and now look at them! Teaching us all kinds of things we’d never have known otherwise!

Parenting Mister is a little harder this year than it was last year – but it’s us who need to adapt, not him. He is simply doing the hard work of growing up. We are here to love, support and guide him as he discovers the person he was made to be.

Do you have, or have you had, an 8 year old boy? Does any of this resonate? What’s your advice?

And, for those of you with girls, do you face challenges similar to these, or different, or is it much easier?! (Please tell me it is!)

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

You may also be interested in:

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