Advent Calendar

Yep, I'm an atheist but, as previously documented here, I love Christmas (or should that be 'christmas'?) and love to celebrate my friends and family and create family traditions. I really want my kids to use this time of year to think about others, and to give freely of themselves, so to that end I created and advent calendar. It's a work-in-progress I started last year and I'll continue refining it, but it's based around a different activity or discussion point for each day. Last year I put the little slips, along with treats (stickers, chocolates, sweets, temporary tattoos, etc) in red envelopes and hung them on a tinsel-y string with cute mini red pegs. I did  copies for a few friends with similar age kids. The effect was somewhat amateur hour but cheerful, and the kids seemed to like it. This year, considering we are in the process of buying and selling our house, and with the various family weddings and illnesses I didn't get to create calendars for friends, I just sent them the updated 'activities' file but I made one for us, out of the little screw-together containers you can get at craft and sewing shops as storage for beads, findings, whatever.

I just used ribbon to hide the goodies and we are taking them from the bottom, so the top container is an extra specially decorated number 25. I like the simplicity, the fact that I can re-do with different ribbon next year to match my mood (or decor, if I was that organised) and also the fact that as we go through the days we get to see the proportion of days gone vs still to come. I think it helps little kids understand how far away Christmas is, considering their kooky sense of how quickly/slowly time passes.

The note book with the elephant on it is for me to record some of the things that come up in discussion - sometimes the little note asks things like what each person in the family's favourite tree decoration is and I'd love to watch how that changes (or doesn't!) over the next few years.

Today we didn't get to paint wrapping paper, but I'm not going to get worked up about it - I did manage to skip work to attend Asher's preschool Christmas Concert, drop a signed contract for the sale of our apartment off to the solicitor, do some housework, take Asher to swimming lessons AND do two sudoku...

UPDATED 20th December
I just saw this blog and really like the activities she includes! Really nice for younger kids. I might even plagiarize a little next year ;-)


Put your money where your mouth is!

...and support the arts. In my letter to Gladys I mentioned my sister's beloved. The lovely and very talented Bridget looks after my kids wonderfully but her real work is in the arts. She has a great project but needs to get funding. Here is her pitch.

She's crowdfunding her first serious short film and I'm proud that we were the first to donate! Add your voice (well, your $$ actually) to a great Australian film project. Ya never know, one day Bridget might be the next Baz Lurhmann/Fred Schepsi/George Miller/Phillip Noyce and you will be able to boast that you donated to her first project.
Support Australian film!
Support women in film!
Contribute to the arts!
Help crowdfund this project!


Email to my local MP

Dear Ms. Berejiklian,

I saw you this morning as you were walking into your electorate office at about 7am. I was the tired looking woman, heading to an office job, after a busy weekend wrangling little kids and a husband. We exchanged a quick smile but it was another microsecond before my un-caffeinated brain put two and two together and I recognised you. It's probably a good thing though, because I would have stopped you in the street, and I'm sure you don't enjoy being accosted by voters before breakfast.

I wanted to tell you that my wonderful father, at 71, had proposed to his girlfriend on the weekend. They plan to marry in April - this will be his third marriage, after two divorces. Needless to say they don't plan to have children, they may not be married in a church, but they do want to have social and legal recognition of their union. Unfortunately my sister, in her twenties, with no history of failed marriages, is denied the right to marry her beloved. I wanted to ask you if you think this is fair.

A quick internet search tells me you have not come out (pardon the pun) as a supporter of gay marriage and I understand that it is something that is decided at a Commonwealth rather than State level but perhaps you could add your voice to that of your leader, Mr. O'Farrell and, even if you personally don't support gay marriage, call for a conscience vote on the issue within the coalition. I also ask you to follow the lead of others in your party and survey your electorate - Hockey, Gambaro and Turnbull have all done this and they have all found that well over 70% of their electorates support marriage equality. I realise that I have mentioned Federal politicians, not State, but as you well know, we live in a representative democracy and you are employed to represent all of us who live in your electorate, and this (along with climate change!) is a significant concern for many of us.

Warm regards,

Keda Chhabra


Indigenous voices in literature and the arts

I just read this column in the SMH (http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/answers-dont-roll-easily-off-the-tongue-20110923-1kos3.html) and I thought that it might be interesting to discuss. As part of my undergrad bachelor of science degree I have a major in "Aboriginal studies" (probably now called "Indigenous Australian studies") and I remember doing a subject where we spent our time talking about appropriation and authenticity in Aboriginal art. We were mostly talking about visual arts, but it's the same kind of situation with writing and, to my mind, a similar conversation can be had about pop culture and mass media representation. Read the article and ask yourself these questions: 
  • Is it ever OK for someone to speak 'for' Indigenous Australians?
  • In your art making would you ever use traditional Aboriginal motifs?
  • In your writing would you ever try to get inside the head of an Indigenous Australian? What about a (let's say) recent migrant? Is it different if the migrant is from a place you have some connection to?
  •  What about speaking for people/getting in the head of people with a different gender identity or sexuality? Why is it more OK (in my mind) for me to write as a man than, for instance, my lovely brother Michael to write as a woman? 
I think this whole vexed question is wildly interesting because I look at my own reactions and can only see wild inconsistencies. I would never presume to speak for Indigenous Australians in pretty much any context (except to remind people that 'they' are not any more a homogeneous unit than 'us') and I freak out a bit when I hear of other people doing it. And yet I support Michael going to Q&A/Insight/whatever as part of their 'Aboriginal' audience - he is, however loosely, a very peripheral part of an Aboriginal community. So no, it's generally not OK for anyone to speak unbidden for others, but I guess it is sometimes OK.

I can't imagine a situation where I would include traditional Aboriginal motifs in any art-making that I do, however, worry that blanket statements are generally a bad idea when we talk about art. No one can argue that child porn is a good thing, but to prohibit any images of naked children would decimate my photo albums, eliminate huge quantities of religious art (naked baby Jesus anyone?) as well as harass artists like Bill Henson and there is no reason to suppose it would stop child pornography. How do we find the right balance? How can we support the rights of people to speak for themselves without prohibition?
Historical fiction is plentiful - why is it uncontroversial for, for instance, Kate Grenville to write from the perspective of a fictional white male from history but not OK for her to speak for fictional historical Indigenous Australians? I really like her answer in the article: "we had stolen enough from them already, we shouldn't also steal their stories" and I agree wholeheartedly. But how do we move on from that point to creating a shared Australian history and identity? I read recently (on the SMH I think - I can't find a reference though) that stories by Patricia Wrightson like The Nargun and the Stars that I loved as a child are now thought by some to be cultural appropriation. I don't want to claim Dreamtime stories as my own, but I want to acknowledge that they are part of this country, that the history of Aboriginal Australia is part of my history.

It's easier for me to speak (and think) about the similar issues that feminism has brought up. Easier because I'm a woman, and I know I can't speak for all women, but I can speak for me. I find men that speak 'for' woman pretty painful, but I'm sometimes not sure if it's just in situations where I don't agree with what they are saying. I find Alexander McCall-Smith speaking in an African woman's voice grating, and I'm not sure whether it is because it is a man speaking as a woman, or because it's a white European speaking with the voice of a black African.
How do *you* put your thoughts around these issues into practice in *your* writing or art-making? Do you avoid the problem by avoiding reference to Indigenous Australians? I confess that that's what I tend to do, because the alternative is so damn difficult. Unfortunately that isn't the way to create an Australia as a place for Indigenous people, those with colonial heritage and also more recent migrants. Let's start a conversation about the way forward...


What is an Educational Philosophy?

I've been thinking even more than usual about education for little kids this month and, freakishly, I feel like I've come to a small conclusion about my own 'educational philosophy' (for want of a better term).

This all came about because Asher had a trial day at John Colet School. I really like the school and think that with it's emphasis on manners (and the reason behind them), structure and intellectual rigour it would be a really good fit for Asher. I have always said that it's not just about a school being 'good' but about it being a good fit for a particular kid, and I think that John Colet will be right for Asher. So, we talked to the headmaster and he suggested we think about starting Asher in Kindergarten this year. He is old enough, just, to have started Kindergarten at the beginning of the year, but at the end of last year we knew he absolutely wasn't ready for school. Now, after almost six months at KU Preschool his social skills have improved markedly and there are kids he knows from preschool who are his friends, who he wants to invite to his birthday party. So he went along for a trial day and it went OK for Asher, but we met a marked lack of enthusiasm from the teacher. She actually seems like a good teacher but she does have a bias. She's one of the people who believe, in her words that 'children, especially boys, who start school young will always be at a disadvantage' compared to the other children. Since teacher perceptions influence educational outcomes (and probably how much students enjoy school!) I really don't want Asher to have a teacher (for 3 years) who firmly believes that he will always be behind because of his age. I know Asher, I know how incredibly quickly he picks things up, I know that he has a long attention span and can sit still and focus for reasonably long periods for a child of his age-group and what I want for him is a teacher who believes in him.

Since we've ruled out that option we have to looks at 'what now' and my two next favourite options are a) send him to John Colet School to start Kindergarten next year or send him to the local public school for Kindergarten half-way through this year. My next steps will be to talk to the local public school about a mid-year intake and to put Asher on the wait list for John Colet. The other possibility is, of course, is to send him to the local public school Kindergarten starting next year. If we do that I'm worried he'll be bored. Not all of the time of course, but considering he reads pretty well and his level of numeracy is quite astounding, he has a decent grasp of science that pretty much leaves handwriting and the arts to focus on. And this brings me to my revelation.

I think I really like John Colet because they seem to teach to a subject, theme or text, and use that to teach a variety of things at a variety of levels. Conversely, at the local public school they use a text, theme or topic to teach skills set out in the curriculum.

At John Colet they study something, and use that study to develop skills. For instance, John Colet teaches Shakespeare, even to the youngest children. This will help them learn vocabulary and reading, public speaking and drama, storytelling and probably a bunch of other things. This means that kids who are already proficient in one area can be encouraged by what they can do and directed to work on what they find difficult. This seems to me to be a really good strategy for teaching to a bunch of levels - got gifted kids in a class? No problem, Shakespeare is tough enough for serious scholarship. Got kids with intellectual/physical/social difficulties? No problem, there's something in the work for everyone.

The public school model is fine when all the kids are at a pretty similar level, but when you have kids with quite disparate needs this model seems to be less robust, and more difficult to ensure all kids are getting their learning needs met.

So there you go, it's not massive or complicated, just a small difference in framework which seems to have the power to change the way a classroom works. It also has pretty clear implications for where I would like MY kid to go to school.


Five Books That Changed Me

I read Leslie Cannold's recent blog post about books that 'changed her' and thought it was a great meme, so here are my picks. These are not necessarily my favourite books, just some books that were important in shaping the way I think or defined a point in my life.

James Thurber: The 13 Clocks
"The cold duke was six foot four and forty-six and even colder than he thought he was" makes me think that Thurber is the grand-master of the perfectly turned phrase. This book is a favourite of my fathers and a favourite of mine. The book is aimed at children but is so lovely to read out loud that it appeals to adults as well. It is a simple fable about the power of love, but the language is so wonderful that it literally makes me tingle.

Salman Rushdie: Midnight's Children
This book smacked me upside the head with its layered complexity. It also made me crave samosas. It's another beautifully written book and taught me a lot about magical realism as a genre. I read it when I was at Uni, and really trying to understand post-modernism and relativism and I think in this book Rushdie crystallizes some of these ideas into novel form. Having visited India after reading the book I feel that immersing yourself in this novel is good practice for dealing with immersing yourself in India.

Marilyn French: The Women's Room 
This blew my mind at the time I read it (toward the end of high school) and inducted me into the world of the card carrying feminist.

Peter Carey: Bliss
I read this while I was still at school and Carey is a very grow-up author. This story introduced me to a whole level of adult uncertainty and gave me the idea that the adult world is just as messy and difficult as the world of adolescents.

William Gibson: Neuromancer
Introduced me to 'cyberpunk' and Gibson's special form of page-turning prose. It's a dense, cool book and I love it. In some ways it defined my entry into the world of being a professional Internet person.

And number six, the non-fiction book that has changed the way I think the most:
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: Half the Sky
This book has completely changed the way that I look at the idea of 'helping those less fortunate' in developing countries. None of the stats or stories were a big surprise to me, having studied similar stuff at uni, but the presentation of the material made me look at aid on a micro rather than macro level. Think of that hippy story about the hundred starfish....

Now, write your own list, like my friend JM has, and leave a link to your blog in the comments (No blog? Then comment with your whole list!).


Load sharing - Paid work, parenting and the 'Mommy Track'

I came home from work today, at about 6:15pm to find all the lights on, mess everywhere and no one home. Normally at that time of day there are kids eating, a father in the kitchen cooking and cleaning and a mother racing around bribing kids to eat another mouthful while tidying up toys and putting a load of laundry on. It was obvious that the house had been abandoned in haste and my mind jumped straight to the worst conclusions. Horrible images of ambulances and glaring hospital lights were immediately running through my head. Of course, it was fine, Sanjay had just dropped the baby-sitter at the train station and no one had tidied up the toys during the day.

But when I’m at work during the day who is responsible for the cleaning and tidying that I do when I’m at home? At our house both adults have reasonably flexible work arrangements, and both contribute to the running of the house and the care of the children. I’ve started working three days a week, sensible hours, for a government department and Sanjay does wine sales for a small company. He works from home (they have no office) and there is heaps of flexibility for him, because it’s all about the sales results. So far this is working really well.

So what happens with the kids now that I’ve started a day job? Asher is in preschool three days per week, 9am til 3pm but because I couldn't get Kiz into any local childcare on such short notice we have a babysitter. She is a family friend who doesn’t have regular work at the moment. She knows the kids and she knows our routines and our arrangement has been working brilliantly so far. She arrives around 10am (I leave the house at 7am but Sanj is around) and hangs around playing with Kiz, doing her own work when he’s asleep and until it's time to pick up Asher then she hangs out with the two of them until we get home. We haven’t noticed any behavioural changes in the kids, and they both seem to really love the babysitter and get a lot out of their time with her. As I think I said before, it's a really good arrangement.

Since I’ve started at this job I’ve again raised the possibility of me being the primary income earner. Despite taking time off during these early years of my children’s lives I would like to remove myself from the ‘mommy track’ and get back into what? A career track? A daddy track? Why is it so hard to have meaningful work with adequate remuneration and some level of flexibility? I want to be able to deal with the dramas that inevitably crop up with young children and aging parents and I want to be able to spend time with my kids but that doesn’t mean I don’t have valuable skills. In my personal experience mothers who are coming back into the workforce and mothers who work part time concentrate more fully on the work they are doing and waste less time while at work. Mothers get very used to being efficient and might be more reluctant to ‘waste time’ changing jobs if they have the option of staying put. Is it up to mothers (and fathers!) to ‘sell’ these advantages to employers? Is it up to savvy employers to work this out? Will we continue to see amazingly innovative small businesses started by parents who want greater flexibility in their work arrangements?

I don't know where I was going with this post anymore - I've been writing it over several days, with work, kids and the usual chaos. Which is kindof an pertinent to the subject of the post, really...


Yes, I did choose to vaccinate my kids actually...

I know I rarely blog at the moment, but this has been boiling away for weeks now. I've always been pro-vaccinating, but it's an issue that keeps rearing it's ugly head for me. A few weeks ago when I was putting Kiz on the waitlist for childcare and the woman told me I'd need to verify that he'd been vaccinated. That's fine, it's what they need to do to protect us all, but when I said that he was fully vaccinated she almost looked surprised. The next week I took him in for his 18 month 'well baby check' at the Early Childhood Health Centre and when the nurse looked at his records she said that she was very pleased to see him fully vaccinated. Again, there was some level of surprise there.

Here comes the ranty part: I'm guessing that parents who refuse to vaccinate have never watched their tiny baby struggling to breathe, drowning in their own thick secretions despite hourly suctioning, from a disease that is routinely vaccinated against. I'm willing to bet good money that those non-vaccinating parents have never watched their baby go blue and limp as he stops breathing, only being rubbed back to life by hospital staff. I'm pretty sure they haven't had to press the red emergency call button or scream to the nurses' desk for help.

I've been there, done that and I'm thankful every day that I got to bring my tiny baby home with me, and that he's growing up into a funny, determined, clever, loving toddler. Pertussis, or Whooping Cough, makes older kids and adults sick. It makes us cough and cough (another name for the illness is 'The Hundred Day Cough' and it's no exaggeration) but after that generally healthy adults get well. Unfortunately it's not quite so simple for babies and small children. Babies die of this illness.

Wakefield's harmful hoax on the link between autism and vaccines was disproven about 10 years ago, and one well designed study after another continues confirms that there is no link but parents are still refusing to vaccinate their kids.

I'm quietly confident that the majority of parents who don't vaccinate their kids don't know anyone who has died or been left crippled by polio either but yet they feel that the potential harm to their child from the vaccine is higher than the risk to their child of contracting one of the diseases we vaccinate against. These people (and I know one or two) are sensible. The people I know are well educated and responsible parents, they buy cars based on their safety ratings, they do a full reference check before they let anyone babysit their kids (I read somewhere that it's middle class, university educated, parents where vaccination rates are dropping, I'll try to find a reference) but they clearly don't have a basic grasp of statistics. I am having difficulty finding the numbers on side effects and adverse reactions, however vaccines are many times safer than the diseases they prevent.

And really, this is the key point. It really is safer to vaccinate your kids than not. We all love our kids and want the best for them. We don't think twice about popping them in the car and driving somewhere, many of us have or visit backyard pools/ponds, almost all of us drink hot beverages and do at least some cooking but statistically all of these are far more likely to injure or kill our kids than giving them their shots.

I'm not going to get into herd immunity here (check out this animation for a good explanation), but every parent who exercises their choice to not vaccinate makes it more dangerous for those who can't be immunised for some medical reason and for the people whose response to the vaccination does not give them total immunity. If we can learn anything from the lessons in places like Haiti, with it's cholera epidemic, we are really only one natural disaster, one sick person, away from an epidemic. So yes, I know that vaccines aren't perfect, but I want to give my kids the best possible chance to stay healthy throughout their lives, so I choose to vaccinate my kids.

Kiran, 5.5 weeks old


Belated first day of preschool roundup

Asher's first day went really well - we couldn't have asked for more - but since Monday I've been overwhelmed with heat, cranky kids, a proposal for some paid work, a lovely wedding of a dear friend and more heat, so I haven't had time to update. Now we are sitting quietly inside, Asher is eating toast and watching some really random kids show, Kiz is in bed (Me: Kizzie, do you want some more toast or do you want to go to bed? Kiz: Bed! ...and the poor tired hot kid toddles toward his bedroom) and I'm meant to be working on a proposal.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, we love the place and feel like we should have sent him there earlier. We like the teachers and we like the focused vibe of the place and more importantly, Asher already seems happier there than at his previous childcare.

We all went together to drop Asher at preschool for the first time. We hung around for about half an hour, bumping into two people we know and chatting with Asher's teacher and when we left he seemed pretty happy. He was digging a hole to see how deep the sandpit was, and what was on the bottom. When I arrived to pick him up he was happily playing a board game with a teacher and a few other kids. They all seemed to be quietly concentrating. He was pleased to see me, but not overly so. Unfortunately the next few days were tough. I think the stress of the change had got to him somewhat and I dealt with sub-tantrum wailing of the pathetically unreasonable variety on-and-off for two days.

I'm looking forward to seeing what next week, when he'll be there for three days, brings...


Preparation for Preschool

Tomorrow my 4.5 year old has his first ever day of preschool. He's been in childcare for a while but this is different. He will take his own lunch, he needs to be more responsible for his own belongings and, most importantly,  there is a very different focus. At childcare the focus is on keeping the children safe and more-or-less occupied whereas preschool is unashamedly a place for learning skills for school. This is what he's looking forward to at preschool. He happily tells people that they have 'two group times' (group time at childcare was as close as they got to 'lesson time') but of course he is still anxious about the change. I'm anxious about the change too - school hours, school holidays, having to pack lunch and turn up punctually for drop-offs and pick-ups all add to the difficulty. If I didn't think this was a very important move I certainly wouldn't have bothered.

It's been a tough few months for us. While my Asher is finally getting more social and outgoing, he is also becoming harder to deal with, wilder and harder to settle. I think this is because he needs more balance in his daily activities. At the moment he climbs trees, rides his scooter and plays cricket with his dad and plays happily either by himself or with friends but what is lacking for him is more formal instruction. For some kids this might not matter as much at this age but for my son it does. Asher is a bright kid and he thirsts for knowledge, so I feel that this will be a great move for him but the settling in period could be tough for all of us. I'll try and let you know how it goes tomorrow.