Friday, 30 May 2014

Health, happiness and a remarkable teenager

For three weeks over the past month, I've been tussling with a cold/'flu bug.

Boy, did I let everyone around me know about it.  Whenever I'd an opportunity to have a little grumble or let out a dejected sniff, I used it. I even had a bit of a whinge online too (apologies to all loyal readers who were subjected to this). You could say that I'm not a particularly good invalid. If he gets round to reading this post, Mr Average will probably choke on his coffee and tell me that's the understatement of the year.

Fast forward to this week when I'm almost back to my - ahem - sprightly self.  I started to reintroduce the 30-minute lunchtime outing that I optimistically refer to as a run.  It was, as anticipated, rather painful after a three-week lapse but I enjoyed it in a masochistic type of way.  More than that, I felt grateful. Grateful to be outdoors, grateful that my energy levels were returning, grateful to be alive.

There are often times when I don't particularly want to drag myself outside to exercise.  But, once I'm puffing my way up that hill, there's a regular occurrence that always gives me a much-needed wake-up call.  While I'm out running, it's not infrequent for me to catch sight of others who no longer have the opportunity to run any more.  They may be elderly, or walking with the support of a stick.  They often give me, the red-faced panting one, a smile of encouragement. And it's then that it hits me how fortunate I am to be able-bodied and physically capable of enjoying sport and exercise.

Over the past few weeks, I think that many more people have had similar wake-up calls.  The news agenda has been awash with the remarkable story of the inspiring young man, Stephen Sutton.  

Even through my own fug of self-pity and Kleenex, I did not fail to notice the uplifting public response to this amazing youngster.  £4 million has now been raised for The Teenage Cancer Trust via Stephen's JustGiving page. His uplifting statement "I don't see the point in measuring life in terms of time any more. I'd rather measure life in terms of making a difference," has been shared and reported on worldwide.

As I write this, a two-day vigil to Stephen is underway, including a social media 'thunderclap' - a message posted simultaneously on Facebook and Twitter (#ThumbsUpForStephen).  His mum has asked people at 11am on Friday, 30th May to take a moment to give a thumbs up for Stephen:

"This could be via the thunderclap or you could give the thumbs up to a stranger, have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, think a positive thought, clap, cheer, or even perform a random act of kindness.

"Do something that makes you and others happy in Stephen's memory."

It's 11am on Friday, 30th May. I'm writing this blog post and raising my cup of tea to a teenager who has inspired a nation - and given many of us a much-needed sense of perspective.

I hope that Stephen's legacy is long-lasting and that we continue to be inspired to make the best use of our minds, our bodies and the opportunities that life presents us with.  We owe it to Stephen, we owe it to others and we owe it to ourselves.

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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Decisions, decisions: But how best to make them?

Big life decisions. We've all had to make them, whether they're to do with relationships, careers or lifestyle.

I'm not a particularly calm or swift decision-maker.  I really wish that I was.  It's an agonising process isn't it? Swaying back and forth between different scenarios, desperately trying to come down on the right side. The words 'quandary' and 'dilemma' spring to mind.  If I was more of an optimist, I would use the words 'choice' and 'opportunity' instead.  Because, in all fairness, big life decisions are usually about choices and opportunities even if the process of making them feels more like a quandary or a dilemma.

In the next few months, it's likely that I'll have to make a fairly important decision.  I'm not pushed for time (yet), however I've already started some of the processes that I'll need to go through to help me make it.

Pros and cons:  Yes, that old chestnut.  But, in all honesty, whenever a friend comes to me in this sort of situation, it's exactly the starting point I would suggest.  Take a clean page. Put a line down the middle. Write those pros and cons down.  Scrutinise the results in black and white.  If you're lucky the answer might be staring you in the face.  If not, the process of putting your thoughts down on paper will hopefully have nudged you a little further along the decision-making way.

Consult others:  Particularly those whom your decision might  affect. (Hint: Toddlers are not the most insightful of confidantes).  Has someone you know gone through a similar decision-making process? It might be useful to talk to them. Trusted, clear-thinking friends can also be immensely helpful.  Take their thoughts and ideas on board. But be prepared to take responsibility for the decision you eventually make - whether you follow their advice or not.  (My sister once apologised to me for advising me to take a job that didn't work out.  I was genuinely astonished. My decision. My fault. And valuable lessons were learned along the way.)  

Defining moments: Sometimes - and particularly if you're a procrastinator like me - it takes a trigger to make you realise where your head and heart lie.  A friend recently confided that it wasn't until her boss started making  plans for her at work that she knew she was ready for a change. Brilliant parenting blogger, Amy Ramson, confesses in a very honest post how she and her husband made their decision to have a third child. Her defining moment? An unplanned third pregnancy which ended in miscarriage made her feel that nature was telling her 'no' to a third child. The thought made her so miserable that she's turned it into a 'yes'. Happily, she's now pregnant again and expecting a new arrival soon.

Relax: This is rich coming from me as I am one of the least chilled-out people I know.  However, Amy Ramson has another piece of advice within her post that makes a lot of sense. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not to overthink the big decisions.  There's an ancient Buddhist saying:  "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."  Perhaps when the mind is relaxed, answers will present themselves more easily too?  I like to go running to switch off when I'm stressed out, others might enjoy yoga or walking. Regardless of how you do it, a relaxed mind is surely a strong foundation for moving forward.

And on that happy note, I need to decide whether to flick the kettle on or pour myself a glass of red. Think I can just about handle that one...

How do you make big life decisions? Please share your strategies by leaving a comment below.

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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

How non-dieters shape up for summer

I've had the same conversation with several friends since the Easter holidays and May bank holiday weekend.

It goes like this.

"Did you have a good time?"

"Brilliant thanks but I've really overdone it.  Ate too much and dropped my usual exercise regime. I really need to get back into it before summer."

I'd like to add that I'm in exactly the same boat.  And, to a certain extent, I think that's what holidays are about.  It's time to relax (or to be a different kind of busy), time to try different kinds of foods and certainly not time to obsess about whether you've missed a spin class or exceeded your normal daily calorie allowance.

Nonetheless, no-one likes the feeling of sluggishness and too-tight clothes that accompany a little weight gain. I don't really do diets and I tend not to weigh myself as I can generally tell by the fit of my jeans how I'm doing.

How to tackle those few excess pounds without investing in a new wardrobe then? I try to follow some common-sense, easy-to-integrate lifestyle ideas, many of which I've learned from my mum. She's one of the few people I know who seems to achieve self-discipline without self-denial. And because she should probably have a frugal blog of her own, none of it involves signing up for a weight management club or gym membership (although by all means go for it if it works for you and you can afford it).

In no particular order, and bearing in mind that I have zero nutritional or fitness qualifications (!), here we go....

1. A little less - Note the emphasis on little. If you cut down your intake drastically, you'll be miserable and permanently hungry.  I'm talking about half a slice of toast instead of a whole one, no cream on your pudding and less Parmesan on your bowl of pasta.  Little changes over time = noticeable results.

2. A little more - Again, I'm talking minor changes.  This time I mean exercise. I know that some people cringe just at the thought of it, so I'm not dictating full-blown workouts here.  Baby steps people! Replace one of the daily school runs with a walk, stride round the block for ten minutes at lunchtime or force yourself to do twenty sit-ups each morning.  Whatever is manageable and sustainable for you.

3. Shift the balance - Think about your plate proportions.  Is it do-able to adjust the balance slightly so that there's more veg and less chicken smothered in sauce?

4. Treat swap - I'm guessing that most of you know about this one. Apparently we crave textures as much as flavours.  When I'm cutting back, I'll have a really nice low fat yogurt or sorbet instead of ice cream. It works for me because I genuinely enjoy them.  Why not experiment a little and see if you can find some acceptable treat substitutes?

5. No bans - While I'm suggesting treat swaps above, I try to never completely ban anything.  Perhaps it's a sign of my contrary personality but I simply end up craving it.  Everything in moderation. Bans are banned in my average kitchen.

6. Mint - Bit of a strange one this but it genuinely helps me out.  I often get to the end of my meal craving something sweet or feeling I'm owe something extra.  In reality I don't need it.  So, I make a deal with myself: I'll have a cup of peppermint tea and if I'm still hungry half an hour later, then I'll have something more.  I rarely ever need the extra.  I think this works because the mint tea is the psychological equivalent of brushing my teeth.  Also, I was full up in the first place.  (Don't like peppermint tea? Try a mint tic tac instead.)

7. Focus - We're all wired differently but for some people having a target event to work towards can really help them to focus on healthier choices.  Summer weddings and beach holidays instantly spring to mind.  For my own part, I have a gala dinner to attend next month. I am excited and terrified in equal measure; I'm delighted to be attending the event but terrified as the only suitable dress in my wardrobe is completely unforgiving...

Guess I better start practising what I preach then?!

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Shared on Works-For-Me-Wednesday (WFMW).

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

How to crack children's chores - part 2

In my last post, I wrote about the challenges of getting children to tackle household chores - and why it's something I feel we have to at least try to crack here at Average Towers.

This time round, I promise to get down to the nitty gritty of our new(ish) system and how it is (sort of) working for us. Before I do so though, here's one of my all-too-familiar disclaimers: I genuinely don't want to put our system across as a one-size-fits-all solution.  What works for us may not necessarily work for you. There are many, many variables that will affect how your own family chooses to treat chores: The ages of your children, their skills/personalities and your own priorities in terms of what you feel you most need help with round the house. 

Some of what we're doing might not feel right for your family. The chores I list might seem like "givens" in your household. Others might feel far too tough.  And that is absolutely fine.  I may not have spelled it out before but this blog is not here to foster comparison or competition. That way lies madness. I like to hope that it's more of an online equivalent of a chat with friends over a cup of coffee.

So, without further ado, here's what we're up to...

Our children's chores system has two parts to it: The everyday tasks and the weekend specials.

The daily chores consist of jobs that may well be expected of children younger than 10 and eight (the ages of my two) but which, rather embarrassingly, we'd let slip.  I also used the opportunity to sneak in a couple of school/learning related items like homework/reading and musical instrument practice. Maybe these shouldn't be classed as 'chores', however constantly reminding my two about these things was becoming part of my daily nag repertoire.  Now it's there in black and white instead. 

An unexpected bonus of this list is that my ageing brain no longer needs to remind each child about several different things every day. Instead I enjoy a far easier refrain: "Have you checked the chart?" Result.  

Each of my children has a copy of this list in their bedrooms. Another copy is pinned in a prominent place in the kitchen, where we tend to congregate.  

The second part of our system is our weekend chores lucky dip (renamed the unlucky dip within around two minutes by my youngest).

Based on the chore roulette game described in the wonderful We Are THAT Family blog, our lucky dip consists of six tasks, three of which must be tackled by each child.  They already have a *least favourite* (empty bins and recycling, since you asked) and we've had to invoke two additional side-rules:

1. If you don't do it properly, you do it again.

2. If you complain, you get an extra task. (Call it a bonus. Hah!)

So how are the early weeks of the new regime going? To be brutally honest, any initial enthusiasm from the younger members of the family wore off after about, say, five seconds.  I've discovered many sticky bowls post-dishwasher cycle due to questionable stacking techniques and I've had to call the little 'uns up on countless other attempted shortcuts.

"Why bother?" I hear you say. Well, here's the thing.  Now that we've entered week five, the complaints are becoming more subdued.  There is a growing realisation - dare I say acceptance - that this system is here to stay.  If we stay with it, so will they.

In the short-term I anticipate many more sticky bowls and sullen faces.

In the long-term I'll be glad I didn't give up.  Won't I?! 

How does your family tackle chores - and how do you combat resistance? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Thursday, 1 May 2014

How to crack children's chores - part 1

I should probably confess right now.  The title of today's blog post is a little misleading.

That's to say - er - I'm not quite sure our average little family has cracked children's chores.  But, before you click back onto your Facebook news feed, I'd like to reassure you that we are trying.  And - whisper it - we are having limited success...

A series of recent events prompted me to take a long hard look at what my children were doing to help out round the house and what they could be doing.

A while back, in my blog post on lists, I confessed that our children's morning checklist of simple tasks was waaaayyyyy out of date.  To compound my guilt, I then came across this little grid of age-appropriate chores for children that had been doing the rounds on social media.  It would seem that my reaction was not an isolated incident.  Mothers throughout the land took to internet forums with blushing emoticons, confessing that their children didn't do half the tasks that were 'expected' of a child that age.

Back in Average Towers, my two little 'uns were both turning another year older.  And, given half the chance, they were also going to become another year lazier.  Time had marched along so quickly that, although I didn't feel all the items on that chart were exactly right for us, I had come to the uncomfortable conclusion that my kids were actually doing less than they were a couple of years ago.

So whose fault was that? It'd be really easy to blame them but, quite frankly, Mr Average and myself had to take the lion's share of the responsibility.  And why? Because the hardest part of getting children to do chores is not drawing up an attractive chart, discussing the tasks with them and demonstrating how to do it first time round.

The hardest part of getting children to do chores is to make them stick with it.  Day in and day out.  But I don't want to become a nag I hear you say!  Me neither. But what I want even less is for my child to be the one on the school trip who has no clue how to look after her own possessions.  Or for my 19-year-old to be the one in his flat-share whose untidiness grates on everyone's nerves.  

Sounds melodramatic? One thing most parents agree on is how fast the years slip away.  Starting to give children responsibility at an early stage saves them from a complete reality shock further down the line. Perhaps when someone - who loves them far less than you do - tells them exactly what they think of their organisational skills and hygiene standards...

What's more, if everyone is an active member of the household, then everyone should take responsibility for keeping that household in order.  Yes, there are some jobs that you simply can't ask a seven-year-old to tackle. But there are many, many more that you can.

I don't want this blog post to become unbearably long.  For this reason, I'm going to write it in two parts. Next time, I'll get down to the nitty gritty of what we're doing here at Average Towers and how it's working for us. 

Join me if you can?

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