say what you see

School science lessons are, generally, something I’ve forgotten. However, one simple activity I remember well. It was a lesson starter: we were given a sheet of paper, on which were drawn a handful of cartoon pictures, each one with a statement underneath. We then had to discuss whether the statement was something which we could emphatically say was true, with only the picture to go on – or whether it was merely an assumption.

Most of the pictures were straightforward, and I don’t remember them in any detail. But, unsurprisingly, the one which was trickier to work out is the one I remember clearly. A child was standing on a pond which had frozen over. There was a sign visible, which read: “Danger: thin ice” or similar. The statement was “The child is being very silly.” Well, of course he was. Our group was in total agreement. However, when we came to discuss our answers as a class, the teacher asked “How do you know he’s being silly? He might be going to rescue someone who’s drowning.”

Of course the point was made very clearly. Science is about testing things to see if they’re true. A good scientist must train themselves not to make assumptions with no evidence.

I’m not a scientist, but I do have trouble with assumptions. You see, I’m very judgemental. I’m not proud of it – in fact I hate the way my mind jumps to judgements about a person or a situation – but there we go. I’m a judge. There’s no better job I could be doing right now to refine and hone this part of my character, because whenever I see a parent with a small child, I’m liable to make assumptions. And, when I do, I’m instantly convicted. God is helping transform me into someone who lets Him do the judging, not me.

It’s so easy to do: I see a parent, pushing their child in a pushchair, and a mundane feature such as what the child is eating, what the parent is doing, or how the two are interacting, can lead me to come to all manner of unfair conclusions. Actually, I need to remember that the vast majority of parents are doing the very best for their children, and I should instead look to praise, build up, smile and encourage those I meet. Perhaps you identify with some of my struggles?

If you do, then can I encourage you that the next time you see a small child out in the snow with no hat or gloves, you stop inwardly berating the irresponsible mother, and just smile sweetly instead.

Because that irresponsible mother is me. And that child is Lois – who, for love nor money, will not keep a hat or gloves on for more than a second!

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Un-gloved and un-hatted Lois, enjoying herself in the snow!

Dancing round the lounge (a pedagogical justification)

A picture of a young boy enthusiastically playing air guitar with a toy broom!

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As any parent of two or more kids will know, it can be pretty difficult to find an activity that all your children can enjoy together.

Last year, with toddler Mister and baby Missy, one of the activities which we all enjoyed was dancing. Mister has always loved moving to music and Missy would go all giggly being swung around in my arms as I threw some shapes to Blur, Ben Folds Five, The Proclaimers…whatever we could lay our snotty little hands on.

Over the last few months, Missy has started to spontaneously bounce around whenever music comes on; she doesn’t need to be told. I like to think that this is partly due to the crazed antics of her mother in her first few months!

With my music educator’s hat on, any sort of movement to music is an excellent tool for learning. It was something we were encouraged to do in the classroom, although you can imagine I never had a huge amount of success with the age bracket entrusted to me. (11-18…just the age when you want to make an idiot of yourself in front of your peers.)

For those of you who, like me, enjoy a bit of dancing every now and again, I thought I’d encourage you with some thoughts on its benefits. For those of you who wouldn’t be seen dead choreographing to the music your toddler requests, maybe this will make you think again!

Moving to music has no rules, no set outcomes, no predicted end result. Healthy participation in these sorts of activities encourages creative problem-solving – the antithesis of a spoon-fed education.

Your child is coping with a ‘problem’ (“Music with no choreography…what shall we do?”) and learning how to come up with the ‘solution’ (“I could jump around, then throw my hands in the air, then spin round, then nod my head…”). Of course none of this is being articulated verbally but it’s happening none the less.

Moving to music helps us to gain an intrinsic sense of rhythm. When our whole bodies are involved in ‘feeling’ the pulse, we develop an instinctive knowledge of beats, bars and time signatures. From a young child’s perspective, this gives them a great head-start for learning an instrument later on.

When we move to music we are experiencing that music in a deeper way than by just listening to it. We notice far more about the music’s rhythm, changes in texture, bass line, counter melodies, and so on, because we’re looking for clues that will help us know what to dance. For young children especially, with limited communication skills, dancing is a great way to express what a particular piece of music means to them.

Dancing in an unstructured way in a supportive environment develops confidence and boosts self-esteem. It encourages us to let go of ourselves – and gives us the freedom to try new things and make mistakes. What important life-skills for a young child to start learning!

Add to this the fact that dancing is a great form of exercise, doesn’t necessitate leaving the house and has the potential to entertain several different-aged children at once…and you get a pretty strong argument for dancing round the lounge!

Read more of my musings on parenting, education, family life and faith by clicking here! I promise, promise, PROMISE not to spam you!

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parenthood and meeting together

The third in my (very slow) series of being a disciple as a parent (see the first and second posts) deals with ‘meeting together’. In the 1970s, this was called ‘fellowship’ – but I’m told by Al not to use that word if I want this blog to remain credible. And if it’s him telling me that – him who listens to Elkie Brooks and knows more sports statistics from the 1980s than now – then I’d better listen.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25

So…what is ‘meeting together’? Church once a week? Well, yes, partly. It’s good for us and our kids to grow up within a church family, getting into that pattern of meeting together regularly as a bunch of believers. And actually the kids’ groups in most churches model a really good form of meeting together. Even Joel, at just 3, is in a small group where there is opportunity to chat stuff through. But that doesn’t usually happen at ‘grown-up’ church!

So, much as church is important, of immense value is the small accountability group model: somewhere safe, with good relationships, where you can be honest with others. This could mean simply finding another Christian to pray with on a regular basis, and some of my friends do this. What a great way to grow your faith as a young parent!

One of the downsides to online ‘meeting together’, e.g. Facebook or Twitter, is that you tend to see only people’s highlights. Before long, you start to believe that everyone else frequents luxury spas on a weekly basis, has genius children who look great in every photo, and an incredibly romantic husband who brings home thoughtful gifts each night of the week. When you are in real relationship with others, you see everything: the highlights, the lowlights, the in-between-lights. I believe this is one of the reasons why we need to take seriously those verses in Hebrews.

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We’re not usually this serious…I asked them to put their heads down just in case they didn’t like this blog post and wanted anonymity!

I am incredibly fortunate here to belong to a daytime cell group for mums.* Every Monday afternoon, a group of mums gather together in our study for an hour to worship, read the Bible, chat about it, and pray together. For someone who rarely goes to the toilet without interruption from a Small Person, this is a Big Thing. Our children, meanwhile, are being superbly entertained in the lounge by some wonderful creche volunteers…

Honestly, these guys are unsung heroes. I try to tell them how much their work is appreciated, but I don’t think they believe me. While they’re building towers, bopping to nursery rhymes, sorting out snacks, reasoning with toddlers, rocking babies and being jumped on (often simultaneously), lives are being changed in the next room.

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The state of the lounge after the kids have had a go…

Does that sound overdramatic? Maybe. Sure, it’s a gradual thing, but when I look back over the last 12 months and see where God has taken me, I know I owe a huge amount to this group. My faith could easily have become stagnant during this phase of early motherhood. Instead, the input of others, their challenge, their making me think – God is using these things to draw me, and many others, closer to Him. And it’s something as simple as playing Duplo with my kids for an hour that enables this life-change – this growing of my mustard-seed faith – to happen. It’s not just knowing God is there somewhere in the background, it’s seeing Him do amazing things during these otherwise desert years. Exciting!

If you’re a young parent, how do you continue ‘meeting together’ with other Christians? If you can’t think of anything – have you ever thought about starting something? Meeting up with a Christian friend regularly? Or even getting together the mums in your church to start something?

*We actually call them ‘Belfrey groups’, just so you know, but for the purposes of this blog I’ll refer to them as cells, as that’s a more familiar term.

parenthood and prayer 2

A few friends wisely commented that my previous post on prayer was pretty scant on the ‘how?’. This post seeks to address that issue.

I am no expert. But I am desperate to continue being a disciple of Christ, despite the pressures of having small children. John Ortberg suggests we should be ‘training’ rather than ‘trying’. This makes a lot of sense. Have you ever tried to lose weight? Tried to go for a run? You may have had some success, but ultimately when we try to do something, the focus is on a point which we haven’t yet reached (a goal weight or a running time), and therefore we’re bound to feel like we’ve failed.

When we’re in training, however, the focus is still on where we would like to be, but there is an understanding that we can’t fast forward to that point immediately. We realise we can’t lose three stone overnight, but we know that if we train ourselves into different eating habits, more exercise, etc, then that overall goal is more than possible.

So I’m applying this principle to my prayer life. I am not discouraged when I have a busy day and pray little. But I’m in training for a more disciplined life of prayer. Here are a couple of practical things which help me.

Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

As I ‘train’ to live a life of prayer-on-the-go, I figure I will start with the times when I am pushing the buggy. As a prompt, I have attached this band to my buggy handle:

Pray without ceasing.

It reminds me to pray (if not conversing with Joel or anyone I might be walking with). Great. A reminder. But what do I pray for? Baby-brain kicks in, and if I wasn’t in training then I’d have nowhere to start. But I am – so my decision is that my buggy prayers will focus first on whoever is in the buggy. Next, I will pray for wherever we’re going, whatever we’re doing, and the people we’re likely to meet. Once I’ve done that, we may be at our destination – if not, then my praying brain has usually been warmed up sufficiently to remember other prayer needs.

Prayer prompts

I am a visual learner…images help me to concentrate. So I made a prayer board. As Al says: “Bored of prayer? Then try the board of prayer!” (He was very pleased with himself for that one.)

I’ve been wanting to make a prayer board for ages…finally, the planet of Spare Time has aligned itself with the planet of “Eventually-got-a-noticeboard-on-Freecycle”, whilst the moons of “Got-round-to-printing-off-some-photos” and “Collected a few prayer letters” have collided…and it’s done. It displays photos of family, friends and godchildren we are praying for. There are pictures, logos and prayer points for the organisations we support. There is space to add new prayer requests.

In the interests of confidentiality, I can’t show you the rest of the board. Sorry – you’ll just have to imagine! One day, someone can teach me how to pixellate…

It’s a helpful place to keep prayer letters where they’ll actually be seen, read, and hopefully prayed through. It stimulates my weary mind when I know there is stuff to be praying for, but can’t remember exactly what. Effectively, it makes better use of my (limited) prayer time, as I can launch straight in, rather than spend three minutes trying to remember what I’m meant to be praying for, then get interrupted by a waking child or an incident involving wee. It’s also totally fab for encouraging Joel to pray! He loves looking at the pictures of his friends and family, and praying (or asking me to pray) for them.

God made you…YOU!

My friend Hannah reckons a lot of it comes down to recognising what type of people or pray-ers God has made us. If you’re an activist (me), then perhaps doing something, and then using that as a prayer stimulus, is the way to go. Her example was: buy a box of chocolates, then pray about who to give them to. If you’re a prophetic pray-er, then you could commit to praying prophetically for a specific person. As Hannah says, “If we work within our gifts to start with then perhaps it will open paths for different types of prayer”.

This is just the type of discussion I hoped my blog would start! So – over to you – what are your practical ideas for prayer?

P.S. One more day to enter this giveaway!

parenthood and prayer

This is the first in what I hope will become a sort of mini-series of thoughts on…how the heck do I continue any sort of discipleship while I have small children in tow???

We’re kicking off with prayer – kicked off, in turn, by a fantastic sermon Al preached last night on the subject. Before you accuse me of bias, let me tell you that I am my husband’s biggest sermon critic and certainly don’t massage his ego without good reason, so if I’m relenting and telling you he preached well – I mean it. If you’re keen to listen, you can find it here (under 11/11/12 Al Rycroft) or here if you fancy the slightly longer version he preached at the next service.

I really don’t pray enough. Of course that is the world’s greatest understatement. There are many reasons why I don’t, but the top three which come to mind are:

* I like to feel in control. Prayer is the ultimate exercise in loss of self-control. My life is no longer being controlled the way I would like, but guided by the One who knows me better than I know myself.

* I am a task-oriented person. Prayer cannot be ticked off a ‘to-do’ list, usually has no immediate tangible results, and doesn’t result in a tidier house. I need to remember that it is a million times more important than things which seem more urgent and pressing.

* I am an activist. Prayer seeks the divine hand of God to impact situations in an infinitely more powerful way than our own intervention would ever do. Still, it is tempting to come up with solutions myself, to look for the ‘logical’ answer to a situation, and to set my own deadlines so that I’m not left waiting till the last moment for the answer.

I’m not keen to stay where I am, to merely shrug my shoulders and go “Oh well, that’s me, I’m just hopeless at prayer”. But is early parenthood really the right stage of life in which to try training myself into better prayer habits? Two recent thoughts make me say a resounding, if slightly nervous, “yes”.

1) Do less, pray more. This has been running through my head for several weeks. God is challenging me to see my weekly commitments as prayer-commitments too, whether they be family, church or finance-related. He’s not saying “Do this in a few years, when life’s calmed down a bit” – He’s saying do it NOW, before I squeeze Him out of those things I expect Him to automatically ‘bless’.

2) Recently I’ve been reading Jackie Pullinger’s Chasing the Dragon and, although I could go on all day about what a fantastic read this is, the story which held the most challenge for me was when she took a fellow Christian on a prayer walk through Hong Kong for a day. He was sceptical – but she prayed as she walked, on the buses, in the drug dens…just on that one day several people came to faith! Is this a way of life I could train myself to develop? Paul talks about ‘praying without ceasing’…for a young parent, with little time to stop and pray for hours at a time, this could be a godsend!

I have so far to go – and am grateful for God’s grace which allows me to fall, and even to never pray at all. But what incredible things might we see happening in York, in the North, in the UK, and all over the world, if we allowed ourselves to be changed through committed, passionate and sacrificial prayer? Am I opting out, just because I have young kids? As if! They’re part of it!

desert mum revisited

I properly started this blog around four months ago. Recently I’ve been thinking about what it was intended to be about, and whether it’s still doing that (or if I want it to). My conclusion is that I do want it to do what I set out for it to do – but maybe I need to revisit the concept of ‘desert mum’ in order to get things straight for everyone.*

I named this blog because I was struck by how arid one’s spiritual life can become during the first stressful few years of motherhood. It’s an experience shared by many of my Christian friends as we seek to be disciples of Christ through the haze of nappies, sleepless nights and toddler tantrums. Church services are often spent entertaining our offspring, being on creche duty, or simply being too tired to focus. Evening cell groups become near impossible to attend: children won’t settle well enough to leave the house, or spouse works too many evenings to make it viable, or you’re just too tired (spot the trend?). Personal quiet times are a huge challenge because…well, you try working the words ‘quiet’ and ‘time’ into a small child’s schedule.

And I don’t wish to be exclusive: things are problematic for Christian Dads too. Often they are the ones chasing offspring round the church on a Sunday morning, giving mums a break. They struggle to get to evening groups, perhaps out of guilt that they’re having an evening ‘off’. As to quiet times: I can only imagine what it’s like to work a full-time paid job, then return home to be flung into job no.2, with little personal space.

So how do we continue discipleship during this time? How do we ensure that we become even more distinctive and Christ-like through our parenting experiences? Because this is my issue. I can see how my life, since becoming a mum, might have turned out differently. The problem would never have been a loss of faith – but more that my faith wouldn’t have gone anywhereAs if stored in a bottle, my faith would have been intact, but there would have been no growth. And, as we’re all called to be disciples of Christ, we cannot afford to have a few years ‘off’ while we rear children.

Several things are helping me through, which I hope to share here over the next few months. But I’ve also blogged on ‘regular’ aspects of parenting – of creativity, of failing, of celebration, of hum-drum-ness. This is all part of ‘desertmum’. God is in the practical and the everyday, the down-to-earth and the ugly. Through blogging about these things, I get to share some of the fullness of life with Him. These more ‘frivolous’ blog posts are not asides to the story. They are the story. My prayer is that you will be encouraged and provoked by this blog, and – ultimately – that you will join me as we journey through the desert together.

Therefore…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. 

(Philippians 2:12-13)

* You may have noticed that I’ve changed the tag-line on the blog header to something which I feel better sums up the purpose of this blog. Feedback very welcome!

toy storage

Not the most glamorous title, I know, but it’s something I’ve been chatting to friends about recently, and it seems we all struggle. One friend reckons toy storage should be taught in antenatal classes, it’s so tricky. I have to agree. (At this point, apologies if you don’t have kids. You will find this post immensely dull. Don’t even try. I hereby give you permission to stop reading now and go and have fun instead.)

How to store toys in a practical, space-saving and easily accessible way, without having them take over your house (life), is something which occupies my brain far more than it should. I’m not sure I’ve cracked it, but I have learned a few helpful things along the way, and I offer them now as nothing more than somewhere to start. Each family’s lifestyle and home-layout will be unique, so I’m not claiming the following tips to be generically useful to all, but maybe there’ll be one or two nuggets in there…

This is ‘tidy’ at the end of a Thursday. (Note, the definition of ‘tidy’ gets progressively more creative as the week goes on.)

Never attempt to sort through toys when your kids are around. It just doesn’t work – I’ve tried it. Always chasing a democratic household, I offer Joel a choice as to which toys will go upstairs, and which will stay downstairs. The former pile is non-existent, while the latter grows. Toys he hasn’t played with in months – or ever – suddenly become his new favourite thing. Sometimes a dictatorship is the only way to go.

Be honest about the toys your kids are actually playing with. Not the ones you’d like them to play with (because they were expensive/look nice/came from the cute toy shop on Gillygate/all three).

Make the most of ‘wasted’ space (e.g. under beds/cots, tops of wardrobes…) to store less-played-with toys. A good investment for us was some under-bed storage boxes on castors. They’re easy to get out, so the toys are still very accessible, but it frees lounge space for the ones that are played with regularly.

Charity shop unplayed-with toys. Unless you’re saving them for a next child. Even then, be selective. Does your next baby need 16 different teethers?

Group like toys together. Again, an investment in some sturdy plastic boxes, or storage baskets, will pay dividends. We have boxes and baskets for musical instruments, cars, Duplo, animals, to name a few.

Drawstring bags!!! I’m excited by these. Can you tell?! We have so many toys which consist of multiple small-ish parts – an indoor croquet set, Mr Potato Head and his various facial features, jigsaw puzzles and so on. We need a way of keeping the pieces together (as much as is reasonable to expect, in a household containing under 3s) – but boxes are bulky and take up too much space in a toy box. Bags need some way of closing, so things don’t fall out, but also need to be easily opened by your kids. Drawstring bags are the solution! I’ve made loads of these for toy storage, and they work brilliantly. Instructions to follow in a future blog post…watch this space!

Remember: toys migrate. They just do. No point scolding your kids about it – toys are just constantly on the move from one room to another, and so far I’ve found I can do absolutely nothing about it. My solution? Have a box in each room into which toys can be thrown when attempting to tidy up.

Travel bag. We have a plethora of small toys which get lost at the bottom of toy boxes: party bag gifts, free toys from cbeebies magazine, etc. Our kids LOVE these tiny things, but often can’t find them in a (relatively) huge toy box. A seemingly unrelated problem is that whenever we’re going on a long-ish journey, or to a place where we know there won’t be toys, we scramble round the house, desperately trying to find suitable small toys to take with us (whilst simultaneously changing nappies, finding lost gloves, Google-Mapping the route etc.). My solution is, when I find these toys, to pop them in a bag which we keep in the hall. The tiny toys don’t get lost – and we have a ready-made bag we can grab quickly on the way out the door when we need to. Two problems solved.

Our travel bag. Yes, that really is a Smarties tube in the top left hand corner. Don’t ask.

Dump and run. At the end of the day, we all need a ‘dump and run’ toy box – something into which all the miscellaneous items can be thrown. A box, if you like, with no agenda. This is our main toy box in our lounge. It has a lid and, although I rarely slim down the contents enough for the lid to fit, the idea was always that it would help to make the space a bit more ‘adult’ for the evenings. The thought’s there, anyway.

The ‘box of no agenda’…
…with the lid that barely gets used.

Finally – flexibility. Kids change – learn to adapt. Every few months I find myself needing to re-assess things. Younger-age toys must be put away, space needs to be found for new things my children are getting into. Don’t get comfortable.

Those are my tips – what are yours?