Birds, Bees, and Especially Swedes

Karlek Boken

The Love Book, Karlek Boken

(Last week, I started a new series of guest posts for the lovely people at KIDSEN, the Scandinavian Children’s Shop in Kensal Rise. Hope you enjoy the first of my Notes from the Kidsen Sofa #1)

Sexing, willydrops, baby-shopping, front-botty-kissy-wissy-sausages, special huggles and ‘it’  are just some of the euphemisms my six-year-old has used to broach the subject of Mr Wibbly Hides His Helmet with me.

I’ve already been through the whole sex education thing once with my eldest daughter, and I can’t believe I have been so disorganised in my child bearing that I have to do the whole thing again, nine years after the first time. The thing is, I can’t remember what I said before, but I know I had to undo a lot of damage done by the cartoon sex education documentary my eldest was shown at school when she was nine. Regaled with horror tales involving petri dishes and super-sperm and told that she would suffer unfathomable pain every month of her life between the ages of 12-50, my daughter came home from school in tears, furious that she was a girl. As she says now, “We were taught about the practicalities of sex, not the pleasure, so it all seemed terrifying and rather violent”.

It seems that sex education is rarely handled well in school, and in the UK, we are still not culturally prepared to be anything other than mortified by our children’s natural developmental curiosity about sex and the questions, oh Cringe-Factor-Ten, THE QUESTIONS that begin at a very early age.

I was chatting about this with the Wise Swedes of NW6, Corina and Ylva from KIDSEN, who promptly pulled out a Swedish classic from behind the counter. It’s called Karlek Boken or ‘The Love Book’ by Pernilla Stalfelt, and they have both used it to openly educate their kids about sex from the age of about six or seven as is common in Sweden. The book is a tour de force illustrations-wise and it was a joy to behold a drawing of a proper, hairy lady muff although there is a worrying depiction of a squirrel and hedgehog around page 19. The best thing EVER was to discover that the Swedish word for ‘willy’ is ‘snopp’ which is now top of my list of affectionate names for the male dangly-sausage (from this alone, you can see why my kids have had issues with my teaching thus far).

What struck me, as I flicked through the pages of Karlek Boken with Ylva translating for me, was how much the book focussed on love rather than the British approach which is centered on the biology and mechanics of sex. There is laughter, love and humour on every page of The Love Book as opposed to, for example, the hideous scientific labeling I had to do of a diagram of a penis and vagina as part of my sex education back in the 18th Century. Oh, I meant, the 1970’s.

Picture the scene. Nine year old me at laminated desk with tongue gripped through teeth. Vas deferens. Arrow. Ruler. Sharpen pencil. Uterus. Arrow. Ruler. Rub out incorrect label. Sharpen pencil. And so it went on. HIDEOUS. And then, the diagram was marked by my clearly affronted teacher (who did not spend four years getting their B.Ed to end up correcting penis drawings) with a cursory red tick. As if they would ever be liberated enough to change it if you got your clitoris and labia labels mixed up! (Maybe this is why so many British men still don’t know where they are?)

It seems to me that the Swedish approach is as much about sensuality as sex. There is a certain cultural appreciation of raw, human experience. It is about the fire of the sauna and the cool water of the natural lake, the wilderness both within and without. The body is a joy, an extension of the soul rather than a shameful source of embarrassing holes that signify WE ALL DO IT! Yes, birds and bees, and especially Swedes.

Clearly, the Swedish are getting something right when it comes to sex education. The country enjoys one of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy, with around 7 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2002 compared with the UK which has one of the highest incidences in Europe (26.4 teenage births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2006). All over Europe, the statistics bear out the fact that it is silence and taboo that makes babies, not sperm and eggs. Although we have sex education in the UK, there is still little teaching about empowerment, the cyclical nature of the female body, the ebb and flow of desire, sex as a loving, sensual act whether it is for the creation of babies or an expression of intimacy between consulting adults, whatever their gender. And yes, there is no reason why teaching about sex should be the job of schools. It makes sense for there to be more of a cooperative approach between parents and teachers, and we really do need to get over ourselves. Some parents aren’t even aware that it is ‘sex education’ time at school and are blindsided and by their children’s natural questions when they come home the day of THE FILM. You cannot change a culture overnight and Britain, of course, is a melting pot of ideas and social taboos, but the statistics prove it; open dialogue works. Yes, it means you will have to say, ‘snopp’ without giggling. Yes, it means you will have to admit that actually, you do it too. If all else fails, just take your kids to a farm during mating season then stop by Kidsen on the way home and ask for a loan of the Karlek Boken.

Have you come across any good books to support teaching your children about sex? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

Nature’s Peep-Show: Notes on camping

Camping I’m back from a camping sojourn in the sodden British countryside and I have to reveal a shocking truth; everything in nature is about sex.

Stuck in my urban flat, I don’t notice these things; my  ‘outside’ world mainly concerns fighting or buying stuff.  In the countryside, it’s all different.

I am almost embarrassed to witness greedy stamens of Queens Anne’s Lace forcing themselves upwards to the bees. The frisky sheep, the bucking horses, the pelvis-shaped sycamore wings fainting to the floor like damsels in a ‘take-me-now’ twizzle toward the fertile earth. Stags, deer, cadavers on the road, the fenced-in versus the wild. Flowers open shamelessly towards the sun and coyly close in the night air. Our campfire greedily sucks up the air and all of our wood. The earth, voluptuous in her mounds and curves, defies the copsing and mowers that try to tame her. She just keeps on saying it; “Love me, love me just the way I am. You cannot contain me!”

Everything in the countryside wants to shag or be shagged!

And the kids, my God the kids are free, combusting and instantly feral!  No need for chastening sex education videos or tightlipped lessons about ‘nocturnal emissions’ and ‘The Curse’ here. No, my six-year-old girl, just get a load of those rampant poppies in the upper field!

Camping in the dank grey, our tent is a seed pod of dreams. Our sleep is odd, incorporating the raw sounds from outside, a canvas sheet between us and the pelting rain which batters us out of our slumber saying, “Submit! You are so much less than all of this.”

Elemental, feet blackened with dirt and damp in our bones, we head home to the Big Smoke where I run a bath so hot I burn. I wonder if camping is not so much  about being at one with nature, but about proving we can still build a home that keeps her out. We try to humanize the wild with our Bell tents and trangias, but looking out from the comfort of our canvas porches, we are just voyeurs at a demented peep show, catching a glimpse of who we really are.

5 Things to Do This Half Term That Cost Under £1

I’m really looking forward to half term week with my 6 year-old Biscuit-thief, and I’m determined not to watch Cbeebies even once, however much I miss it.

This is my top five list of things we’ll be doing that cost under £1! Yes! These activities cost less than a sausage and yet, are somehow priceless.

1. Do a mind control experiment

I seriously LOVE this experiment and can still remember doing it when I was 7. IT CHANGED MY LIFE and is the best possible way to teach children the power of positive thinking. Literally, mind blowing.

You will need:

  • A packet of cress seeds
  • Some kitchen towel
  • Three trays/old ice cream containers or similar
  • Three labels/stickers
  • Some thoughts
  • Some words

Pad the bottom of each container with kitchen towel then, with a measuring jug, pour equal amounts of water into each tray – just enough to dampen the towel, not soak it. Then, sprinkle roughly the same amount of cress seeds on top of the dampend kitchen towel in each tray.

Make three labels; one that says something nice like “love”, one that says something horrible like “hate” and leave the third blank. Put one label on each tray. Place the trays side-by-side so that they get equal amounts of light and heat.

Now, here’s the important bit: over the next week, encourage your Biscuit-thief to say or think really lovely things towards the LOVE tray. They can say and think equally mean things about the HATE tray and have to ignore the third tray. Every day, they need to pour equal amounts of water into each tray to keep the seeds moist whilst thinking and saying lovely or mean things to the relevant seeds.

You and they will FREAK OUT when, by the end of half term, the LOVE tray of seeds has grown faster with thicker stems than the seeds in the poor little HATE tray. It’s a bizarre, brilliant life lesson courtesy of cress. And watch the penny drop as your sproglets realize the damage they are doing when they call you a smelly fart head.

 2. Colour code the week

On Monday morning, decide with your sproglet what the colour theme of each day will be for example, Monday = Red, Tuesday = Yellow etc. Whatever you do that day, from the clothes you both wear to the food you all eat, there must be an emphasis on that colour.  They can count how many red cars, how many people they see wearing red jumpers etc on that day. The screams when they see a purple car on purple day… you have no idea. Not only will you realize that very few of us can really get away with that pastel orange Top Shop are trying to sell us, it’s also brilliant when the kids get to Friday and realize they have to eat lots of greens. Crafty eh?

3. Play Boredom Bingo

Boredom Bingo

Play Boredom Bingo this half term!

My 6 year-old is never happier than when she has a clipboard and pen in her hand. Maybe she’s going to be a polling officer or telly-offy type person when she grows up. I worry about her love of bureaucracy, it’s as if I’ve taught her NOTHING. Anyway, she makes lists in connection with whatever we’re doing. For example, on a trip to our local corner shop, the Biscuit-thief will make a list of ‘expected sightings’ to tick off like:

  • A woman crying
  • Some dog poo
  • Someone hugging a hoodie
  • An abandoned mattress
  • A really cocky urban fox

Apart from the fact that we REALLY MUST MOVE house, an average trip is transformed from boring milk run to fascinating detective trail. If she spots all five things, she has to shout, “BOREDOM BINGO” at the top of her lungs and wins a kiss from mummy. I really must copyright Boredom Bingo.

4. Make a sculpture from your tears

This is genius because you can turn your nervous breakdown into a science experiment:

You need:

  • A jam jar with a lid
  • Some string
  • A spoon
  • Some water
  • Some salt
  • Some tears

Make a small hole in the lid of the jam jar and put a piece of thickish string through it, tying a knot at the top so it can’t fall through the lid. Fill the jar with warmish water and add a few table spoons of salt. Mix with a spoon and let the salt dissolve. Every time you or your sproglets cry over half term, catch a few of the tears in the jam jar to add to the salt mix. Place the lid with the string onto the jam jar and behold as over the week, the salt clusters around the string to form a gorgeous, crystalline gem. The size of the crystal will depend on how many tears have been shed. BRILLIANT.

5. Celebrate the Jubilee 1977 style

OK, hands up, I’m not a big Jubilee fan. In my book, any women who has been sitting on the throne for 60 years probably needs medical attention and a good dose of Syrup-of- Figs. It’s constitutional constipation! So, I’m bringing an element of 1977 into my house by allowing the Biscuit-thief to cut up a t-shirt and write her favourite rude word on it (‘fou-fou’) so she can wear it for the whole Jubilee day. Also, to avoid the crowds that will be gathering along the river Thames to watch the floating pageant thingy, I will re-enact this at home with some toy plastic boats in the bath tub whilst simultaneously encouraging my daughter to throw all her piggy bank savings out the window.

Ok those are mine, have you got any additions that cost less than a sausage? Whatever you do, enjoy yourselves. Happy half term everyone!

Top 5 Things I Love About Kids

It is with great joy that I have joined Kate Takes 5’s listography  with this post on what I love most about young children.  I could make a top 5 list just out of the things they say, always so true that it hurts ~ such as my youngest’s conviction that M&S stands for ‘Marks and ‘Spensive’ and that the F-word is ‘fou fou.’

The little biscuit thieves certainly take the DULL out of being and aDULLt don’t they? Here it is, my Top 5 things I love about kids:

 1. Hysteria

I love that children’s natural, ‘neutral’ setting would register somewhere between hysteria and OCD in an adult. If I screamed and nearly wet myself every time I saw a puppy or spent two hours readjusting my socks so that the seam didn’t ANNOY ME MUMMY, people would worry, right? Kids go up to 11, and I like that they make me seem calm by comparison.

2. Their dress sense

Leaving my daughters to dress themselves has been one of the great joys of motherhood. My youngest specializes in an ‘all seasons in one go’ look consisting of one leg warmer, a ballet skirt, a woolly jumper two sizes too small (that I’m pretty sure I gave to Oxfam) an empty toilet roll tube on each wrist and a necklace made of tampons.

3. Their slapstick humour 

I love that kids think the body is funny; I adore their raw, bawdy, bottom-worshipping hilarity. Children find being housed in this human form hysterical as  they haven’t grown to resent the restriction of it yet or torment themselves that their body should look like someone else’s. Kids seem amazed that they have a body  at all, and they LOVE the noises it makes.  If you want to make a child laugh, keep it body based and just punch yourself in the face with your own hand. You’ll see what I mean.

4. That they have no sense of occasion

How lovely to be a child and exist in happy bubble land with no sense of occasion.  I will never forget how my two-year-old blew loud raspberries while I read a eulogy for my father at his funeral. My daughter’s mouth farts echoed around the crematorium like swear words at a nunnery and it was brilliant. Her making everyone laugh was more testimony to my dad’s legacy than any of the words I had written.

5. Artwork

I agree with Kate that kid’s artwork is one of the greatest gifts of parenting. And, it’s a gift that JUST KEEPS GIVING, and giving, and giving. My girl is really into sculpture and made this ‘snow scene’ out of salt and her own freakishly sticky spit.

Sara Bran Sculpture

Salt & Spit by Mia Bran

Her portrait of me below really captures my.. essence?

Sara Bran by Mia Bran aged 6

My mum by Mia Bran aged 6

And finally, she has been dabbling in multi media with this performance based installation piece entitled Do Not OPen This Box There’s a Girl In It:

Sara Bran box

How to give mummy a heart attack

Kid’s are brilliant. I rest my case.

An Ode to Nits

In the interest of contributing great poetry to the world here is (drum roll…) my Ode to Nits.


A nit

nits, oh nits

you itchy little shits

the pain that you cause

is disproportionate to your size

like wisdom teeth and paper cuts

and dust  in your eyes.

(and the Krankies)

if I cannot undo you

maybe I’ll just sue you

for time spent crying in the bath

while you lay eggs and laugh


Are We There Yet? When Your Kids Finish School

Graduation DayMy eldest daughter, The Songbird,  finishes school this week, by which I mean she will have completed her ‘formal education’ to age 16.

From now on, it’s up to her whether she continues with her schooling or leaves. Today, she has her last ever PE lesson after which she intends to ignite a lycra/airtex bonfire and may well stick a rounders ball up her teacher’s unmentionables while tomorrow, Songbird will joyously attend her Last Ever Maths Lesson. My eldest daughter and maths have never really got on. It’s been a volatile 12 year relationship that began innocently with ‘sums’ and ended up in quadratic equations via lots of tantrums, tears and shouting. Other than her brief affair with algebra in Year 9, all 2,000 hours of Songbird’s maths education have been hell for all parties concerned. I do think it’s rather a shame that she has got through 12 years of education without ever learning to appreciate how magical numbers can be, but then they don’t teach sacred geometry or harmonic resonance at school. No, I should have taught her that. In fact, if you go the mainstream school route, all magical thinking remains the sole domain of you as a parent it would seem.

As my eldest crawls across the finishing line of ‘formal’ school, I have this awful feeling that there’s a lot more I ‘should’ have done along the way. We’ve kind of tolerated each other, me and school, eyeing each other suspiciously. It’s been an act of silent acquiescence like when you know you have to plant a kiss on a smelly uncle who you don’t really trust. I have danced with my daughter’s educational establishments as if they are an enemy I know I ought to keep close. I am one of those annoying liberal parents who doesn’t believe in homework or government targets, and as for  SAT’s, they can kiss my organically grown ass. Along the way, I often thought about home schooling, but my own brief childhood experience of it has always been a barrier (that’s a whole other blog post!). I also know that I am too selfish to home educate, and if I’m honest, not that brave.

I think perhaps I have an innate distrust of all institutions; school, churches, banks ~ they all make my skin crawl ever-so-slightly. Other than in bras, I just don’t do well with structure. In spite of my ability to sit on the fence of my own ideals, my daughter has carved out her own educational experience, and  has come through the whole thing relatively unscathed. When a school has not delivered what is right for her individually, we’ve moved on to the next one. Three years into her all-girls secondary, The Songbird had had enough, so she found out about another school that better suited her music needs and got herself into it. I’ve always taken her side when it comes to school stuff, confident that I understand my girl better than any teacher ever will, and I’ve always believed it’s about finding a place that suits her rather than trying to squeeze her into someone else’s idea of what constitutes an educated human being. State education in London is pretty much a mess as our schools are at the mercy of ever-changing government whims.  You really do have to hold firm so that your kids don’t become test guinea pigs in someone’s crazy experiment.

There have been terrible low points over the past ten years. There were lots of days when The Songbird begged me not to send her into school and she would clamp around my waist like a limpet and I would have to un-peel her from me with Medea-like coldness. There was a school trip to China that went terribly wrong and Songbird ended-up isolated, quarantined in Beijing for two weeks during the Swine Flu panic.  Then there was the letter she brought home aged 13, that suggested she go to her GP  to get the Pill  so she could organize not to have her period during a school camping trip (I kid you not). In Year 3, there was the boy who kept stabbing her leg with a compass and the school were so afraid of how the perpetrator’s  father might react if confronted that they never addressed the issue.

“He stabs you with a compass because he likes you,” she was told by way of a bizarre lesson in How Men Are.

“Er, NO! He’s a sociopath. When boys like you, they give you half their packed lunch, even the Penguin biscuit,” I countered wisely. Thank God she has me.

And that’s the thing about school, as well has providing all the magical thinking, there will be lots of “lessons” you then have to undo as a parent. If my experience is anything to go by, maths and nutrition are still taught appallingly, and girls are still not educated properly to respect their bodies, their cycles and their power. Plus, most music departments have simply not stood in enough muddy fields to really appreciate bass.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been spectacular school high points too, like meeting really special teachers whose dedication to their role and to my child was heart-warming. There was my daughter’s portrayal of Nancy in Oliver, where her rendition of “As Long as  ‘e Needs Me” was such an awe-inspiring cross between Babs Windsor and Barbara Streisand that she practically raised the asbestos-tiled roof. And there have been the countless times I have welled-up because Songbird has come home from school and done something I have no idea how to do and I have just thought, “Wow! She is so much better a version of a human-being than me”. I feel enormous gratitude to the incredible adults who have made it so.

One minute The Songbird was donning her first acrylic mix sweatshirt, and the next, well…she graduates this week. I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of this bit of my slapdash, let’s-hope-we-get-lucky parenting era. The thing that really gets me is that Songbird is not much younger than I was when I left home and I can already feel the aching chasm of her leaving not just school, but me. Ouch.

6 Vintage Children’s Books That Formed My Views on Motherhood

One of the things I love most about being a mother is rediscovering books from my childhood and enjoying them all over again with my daughters.

My childhood books were my dream catchers ~ my world view was woven from their threads. As we didn’t have a TV until I was in my teens, these vintage classics provided me with an entire cultural landscape. I still find the lithography and print styles of the 60’s and 70’s as evocative as perfume and the illustrations in these books are so familiar I could crawl inside them just as I did as a child. I realize that when I received stories as a kid, it was in an immersive way that I have since forgotten.

Make Way for Ducklings 2

Introducing my first feminist icon... MRS MALLARD

I love the poignancy of touching a crease made on a page forty years ago by the four-year-old me and the sense of continuity that comes when my daughter traces her tiny fingers over my name, the ‘S’ handwritten backwards in my childish scrawl, on the inside cover.

I adore my Kindle, but I know that the tactile world of books is leaving us and it makes me sad.

When I decided to compile a list of the vintage favourites my daughters and I have enjoyed, I noticed that every book featured a mother of some kind.

So while my own mother was reading Fear of Flying and the Female Eunuch, I was getting down with some of the greatest feminists of the era, many of whom had beaks. Here they are along with the notes I would have made to myself if only I had known how to spell at the time.

Make Way for Ducklings1. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)

Synopsis: One reviewer at the time of publication in the 1940’s commented on the pre-feminist tone of this story of Mr and Mrs Mallard who search all over Boston for the perfect place to raise their family of eight ducklings; Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack.

Favourite quote: ‘”Don’t you worry,” said Mrs. Mallard, “I know all about bringing up children.” And she did.’

Notes to self:

  • Mrs Mallard is in complete control in spite of having eight children, and was probably my first feminist icon.
  • It’s mothers who teach their kids everything important and husbands are a bit rubbish.
  • Give your children rhyming names for ease of communication. Think Jenny, Lenny, Lily, Billy, Gilly etc.
  • Don’t mess with ducks.

Blueberries for Sal2. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

Synopsis: Set in Scott Island, Maine, the characters Little Sal and her mother pick blueberries to store for the winter months. There is a parallel story of a mother bear and her cub who eat as many blueberries as they can to fatten up before hibernating. Sal and her mum and the little bear and her mum get all mixed up on Blueberry Hill.

Favourite quote: “Ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk!”

Blueberries for Sal illustration

Mrs Blueberry: Fearless in the face of furry adversity!

Notes to self:

  • Mothers are supposed to know how to make jam.
  • Mothers are fearless even in the face of wild bears.
  • Your own mother could be easily mistaken for a bear.

the giving tree3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)

Synopsis: The metaphorical tale of a tree (aka mother) and a little boy. The tree gives and gives and gives to the snivelling, ungrateful (my interpretation) little boy throughout his life until she (the Giving Tree) is just a tired old stump. This tour de force of martyrdom versus self-centredness is actually one of the most moving children’s stories ever written. If The Giving Tree doesn’t make you weep at the end, YOU HAVE NO SOUL.

Favourite quote: “And the tree was happy…but not really.”

Notes to self:

  • Kids, they’ll suck you dry.
  • And if the kids don’t get you, age will.

story of ferdinand4. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf  (1977)

Synopsis: Ferdinand the Bull likes to sit under a tree and smell the flowers instead of fighting like all the other bulls. His mum worries about him, but lets him be who he wants to be. Ferdinand caused controversy when first published as he was considered to be a pacifist symbol.

Favourite quote: “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was just a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

Notes to self:

  • Mothers, even if they’re a cow, know their kids better than anyone.
  • Don’t mess with bulls.
  • Or bees.

little runner of the longhouse

5. Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker (1962)

Synopsis: It’s New Year and The Basket Woman has come to collect gifts from all the families in the Long House. Little Runner wants to go and play with the big kids but his mum thinks he’s too little. Instead, he pretends to kidnap his Little Brother to try to trick his mum into giving him maple sugar.

Favourite quote: “It was cold in the longhouse…”

Notes to self:

  • Mummies always have a secret stash of sweets.
  • Mummies are weirdly telepathic and TOTALLY know if you’re fibbing.

Are you my mother6. Are you My Mother? by P. D. Eastman (1960)

Synopsis: Frankly terrifying plot where a baby chick hatches while his mother is out searching for food. The baby chick leaves the nest in search of mum and ends up asking all kinds of creatures and inanimate objects if they are his mother including a scary dog and a giant digger that snorts at him.

Favourite quote: Mother: “Do you know who I am?” (The baby chick does indeed)

Notes to self:

  • Your mother will quite possibly abandon you in favour of searching for worms and the journey to find her will be perilous and strewn with large vehicles.
  • Mothers are human and can make heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, awful mistakes.
  • Mothers can be many things: scary, kind, neglectful, loving, forgetful; but we all had one once, even if they didn’t stick around.
Are you my mother

It's all about the headscarf for me...

So there you have it ~ my six vintage motherhood classics. I’d love to hear about yours.