How Much Should You Entertain Your Children?

Picnic in the sun

Picnic in the sun

It’s the weekend. The sun is shining and it’s warm outside for the first time this year. The children are in shorts. Hubbie and I are not at fighting strength and the desire to spring clean house and garden are being decimated by an overwhelming need to curl up and read a book (me) or get back to stripping the engine in the garage (hubbie).

Saturday saw a whirlwind of sorting from hubbie, in response to a plea from me that the lounge had disappeared under weeks of accumulated detrius. I do cleaning, he does sorting, that’s our skill set and division of labour. I was still feeling sick and disorientated from the tablets and the kids were slightly flummoxed by having a whole weekend without children’s parties to go to.

Grandpa came round to put the world to rights and help tinker with the engine. The children were told to shush, go play and mostly they did. But promises were made that today would involve more games and attention. Then Grandad called late to say he’d pop in for coffee in the morning. So Sunday started with a frenzy of cleaning (as he comes less often I make more effort to maintain the illusion that his son married a clean and tidy person. My stepdad knows this is a lie – my mum won’t even come round anymore because the clutter in our house drives her bonkers.)

By 10am this morning (his anticipated arrival time) we’d cleaned and hoovered and found the house under the filth and clutter. The children assisted by cleaning dust with wet wipes. But still, they reminded us continuously about the request for attention and games. Grandad spent half his time looking at the stripped engine and the rest imparting typos to me that he found in Two-Hundred Steps Home. When he left at 12 o’clock the children had been left to bounce on the trampoline and play in the playhouse. They were quite happy, but still asking for games.

Playing with the hose

Playing with the hose

Hubbie finally managed a game of chess with our daughter while I baked cookies with our son. I then played dominos with them both for twenty minutes. But that was the extent of our attention, as I went off to iron school clothes (and ended up writing this post!) and hubbie mowed the lawn.

They’ve been happily (mostly) playing with the hose and trampoline for the last hour (hurrah for early spring sunshine!), but I still feel a bit concerned.

After all my reading on The Five Love Languages, I suspect that Quality Time is important to both of them. But they do also need to learn to play by themselves. Weekends can’t always be children’s parties and trips to the farm. I at least get time during the week to myself but hubbie needs downtime at the weekend. I used to take them to lots of places when I had them both at home, because they’re easier to manage at the zoo or the park than in the house, but I worry that they had so much fun and mummy time it is why they both cry when being left at school and nursery.

They’re not neglected children, but parental attention can be pretty thin at times. They have each other and are expected to find solace in that. And mostly they used to do that. But more and more, since my daughter started school, they’ve been demanding adult attention at home. Assuming I had the patience to offer it, is it still wise? I don’t remember our parents doing much in the way of entertaining us as kids. We were taught to ride bikes and taken to gym classes, but we also played with our dolls and books and colouring. We sat in the car eating crisps while they went to the pub to play darts, or while they did the supermarket shop.

Parenting these days is all about quality time and enjoying every moment, but what if we’re raising kids that don’t know how to be and play by themselves? What if school becomes harder and harder because being with mummy and daddy is such fun? But what if they need my attention to thrive? It’s a pickle. I’m beginning to understand why people take their kids to ballet and football at the weekend. Wear them out and pay someone else to entertain them. We’re not quite there yet, we enjoy our relaxed weekends too much, but it might happen soon.

In the mean time hubbie is explaining rugby to them both while I cook tea. Somehow it’s only 4pm. Is it bed time yet?

What’s Your Character’s Love Language?

Do you know your characters' love languages?

Do you know your characters’ love languages?

It’s no secret, here on the blog, that I was strongly affected by reading The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, and coming to understand mine and my husband’s particular languages. It has strengthened our relationship and helped us communicate. I’m also now looking at the children and trying to understand how they feel love.

But, being me, I never miss an opportunity to put my life lessons to work on my writing.

Today, at the end of walking the dog – it taking that long for my drugged brain to start working – I turned my mind to the dilemma of my current writer’s block. I’m trying to pen an emotional scene in Class Act, to get my protagonist Rebecca past a difficult experience in her life, without having any direct knowledge of the issue.

I don’t want to belabour the point. Like the postnatal depression in Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (which I do have experience of), the issues in Rebecca’s past are important for the effect they have on her character and relationships, but I don’t want them forming the be all and end all of the novel. I’m writing genre fiction not literary fiction and aiming for a happy ever after, albeit a plausible one that survives challenges.

So I wondered how I could help Rebecca get through the difficulty most quickly, and whether that could be done genuinely with the right man without it all seeming too convenient and unrealistic. It made me ponder what her Love Language might be and I realised that – for her – the love language has to be Words of Affirmation. Therefore Alex, the love interest, needs to talk to her, reassure her, convince her of his sincerity. I’m not sure what his Love Language is yet. I think his might be Quality Time. That’s the thing lacking from his childhood and the thing he yearned for in his failed relationship at the start of the novel.

I feel as empowered in my writing as I did in my marriage by looking at things this way. I have also realised that I know my characters better than I might give myself credit for. I think I’ll use the five love languages again when considering my romantic protagonists. It’s a new, interesting and simple way to ensure coherent, three-dimensional characters, particularly in the Romance genre.

Just goes to show, you can learn from the strangest of sources. As a friend of mine used to say, “Every day’s a school day.”

What’s Your Love Language?

My daughter loves quality time

My daughter loves quality time

I had a revelation at 6am this morning – when I have most of my epiphanies – to do with the book I’m reading: The Five Love Languages. As I mentioned before, the Five Love Languages – as defined by Gary Chapman – are Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch.

Chapman argues that, for a relationship to thrive, we must first identify and then learn to speak our partner’s love language. I’ve always assumed my language is Acts of Service. I do the laundry out of love, I cook and clean and make coffee out of love. It has frustrated me beyond measure that my husband doesn’t understand. Not just that he doesn’t do those things himself, but that he doesn’t recognise them as acts of love from me.

Hubbie’s love language is Physical Touch. Not (just) in the obvious male way – Chapman distinguishes between sexual desire and touch as the primary love language. If you have sexual desire, but can take or leave the hugs, hand-holding and incidental moments of day-to-day physical contact, then chances are you have a different primary language.

My son is either touch or quality time

My son is either touch or quality time

Thinking it through this morning, using the techniques Chapman suggests, I suddenly realised that the Acts of Service may well be learned behaviour from my parents. Chapman recommends thinking back to the time when you and your partner were first dating, to understand the thing about your partner that made you think ‘he’s the one’. Hubbie and I lived apart for the whole of the two years between meeting and getting married. Picking up dirty underpants and cooking rarely figured in our equation. Oh yes, I liked that he cooked, that was a bonus. Who doesn’t love a domesticated man?

But the thing that first snared me, on day one as we chatted online before even meeting, was that he listened. My favourite times in our courtship were the long phone conversations, lying in the dark with just the two of us speaking. No interruptions, no distractions, just voices, sharing, listening. (Well, I assumed he was listening. I did have an ex who confessed years after we broke up that he used to mute the phone and watch TV while I rambled, but at least – even at the tender age of 16 – he realised my need to speak and indulged it.)

All my life I’ve felt that no one really listened to me. As discussed that’s not uncommon. But as I thought it through this morning, I realised that I blossom when I am listened to. I have a good friend who is a listener and I come away from our coffee catch-ups fizzing and smiling and alive (and feeling guilty for being what Chapman calls a ‘Babbling Brook’). Growing up, and even now at least once a month, my family tease me remorselessly for being a chatterbox. I hated it; still do. The endless words were driven inwards, to diaries and inner thoughts (not helping the depression) and now to my blog and my novels. And always I feel guilty for speaking, for hogging the attention, for asking to be heard.

Chapman lists a dialect of Quality Time as ‘Quality Conversation’ which includes quality listening. I was so quick to accuse myself of being a rubbish listener that I missed the point. Being listened to is my primary love language.

Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris

I went to an author lecture by Joanne Harris last night and came home bubbling with excitement and a need to discuss it. Hubbie paused his TV program but I still felt I was interrupting. I realise now that an act of love – to me – would have been for him to turn off the TV and give me his full attention.

And again, earlier in the evening, I was getting angry and frustrated with my son because he kept interrupting me, endlessly, as only a three-year-old can. And it dawned on me that the yelling I often resort to, that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, possibly stems from an insatiable need to be heard.

I know my daughter’s language is quality time and I suspect my son’s is too, (although – like his Dad – physical touch is also super important.) Certainly both children talk as much as me and get just as frustrated if they aren’t attended to. That’s tough on hubbie – being in a house with three chatterboxes all vying for airtime. No wonder he switches off and stops listening; it’s probably a self-defence mechanism. However, if we can become a family that hugs and hears, that loves and listens attentively, we might just cut back on the shouting and increase the joy. It’s worth a go.

I told the doctor yesterday, when talking about my depression, that I didn’t need any more therapy; that words didn’t help and the last psychotherapist I saw made it worse. Turns out I just needed to hear (read) the right words. I can’t recommend the book enough and I will always be grateful to the lovely lady who leant it to me.

Blogging: The Art of Listening

A potentially life-changing book

A potentially life-changing book

I started reading a (for me) life-changing book, yesterday, which I wish I’d read years ago, called The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I haven’t finished reading it, so I won’t write too much about it here, but the basic premise is that we all speak one of five love languages and for us to maintain healthy relationships (be it parenting or marriage) we have to understand the other person’s language and learn to speak it.

The languages are Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch. (If you want to learn more before I finish reading the book, visit

Rather like Valerie Alexander’s Happiness as a Second Language, it teaches hope, as it reassures that we can all learn these unknown languages, whatever our upbringing. I grew up in a house where happiness wasn’t really spoken and, equally, love wasn’t an open dialogue either. I’m slowly learning to speak these foreign tongues, and having phrasebooks is essential.

The part of the book that sparked today’s blog post came during the discussion of the love language Quality Time. The author speaks of each language having different dialects. For example, Words of Affirmation can include ‘verbal compliments’ or ‘encouraging words’ or ‘kind words’. Quality Time is about giving full attention to another person but this can include ‘quality conversation’ or ‘quality activities’.

On p.67 Chapman explains how hard it is for people to listen, particularly when a loved one wants to rant about a problem at work or similar. He says, “[w]e are trained to analyze problems and create solutions. We forget that marriage is a relationship, not a project to be completed or a problem to solve.”

This was particularly relevant for me yesterday as hubbie came home from work frustrated after having had to work on his personal development plan all day. Admitting there were things he wasn’t good as was hard. Instead of listening sympathetically, “with a view to understanding the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and desires,” I tried to fix the issue. And when he wouldn’t accept my brilliant advice I got angry. Crazy.

Chapman has some great (well worn) advice on listening attentively, but it was point five (p68) that grabbed me.

“Refuse to Interrupt. Recent research has indicated that the average individual listens for only seventeen seconds before interrupting and interjecting his own ideas.”

Oh my goodness, yes, guilty as charged. Interrupting is one of my greatest flaws and I hate myself every time I realise I’ve done it. Even when I’m interrupting to agree, to share an anecdote to say ‘me too!’ or to offer words of sympathy, I am still interrupting. I’m even worse with the children, because for the past five years I’ve had to interpret what they’re trying to say. Now, when they’re capable of explaining it themselves, I still do it and it drives them bonkers, especially the youngest one.

My head fills with words and it’s like I can’t actually carry on listening because my need to speak fills my mind and my words are too precious to waste. How arrogant. When the children interrupt me and I stop them, they often cry and say “I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say now”. My response is usually, “if it was important it will come back to you” but I know from experience that isn’t true. For me, words not said or written down are lost forever (especially the blog posts or character scenes I write in my head at 2am and don’t capture because I don’t want to wake everyone up by getting out of bed.)

I’ve been known to lose track of whole conversations with other people because of the nagging sensation that I was about to say something brilliant. Maybe it’s time to let that go and trust that the words, if important enough, will come back eventually.

Thinking about all this at 5am this morning I realised that is why people love blogging so much and why I love reading posts that other people write. You cannot interrupt. I can write all the way to the end of a thought, or read all the way through to the end of someone else’s explanation, discussion or revelation, without interruption. In a world where we are all so eager to speak, blogging teaches us to listen and allows us to be heard. I hit the like button (where there is one, and I hate it when there isn’t) when I get all the way to the end of a blog post, as if to say “I have listened”.

I also realised that, by reading all the way to the end of a post without interrupting, I often don’t have anything to say. There is nothing to fix, no need for shared anecdotes. The writer has often answered their own question or revealed that actually their situation isn’t exactly like that time when I … at all.

So, my mission is to learn to listen, to learn to let my words go so that I can hear the words of others. How can I write stories if I won’t ever listen to them?

And I’m also going to try really really hard not to beat myself up about past failures. My favourite quote so far in Chapman’s book is “I am amazed how many individuals mess up every new day with yesterday. They insist on bringing into today the failures of yesterday and in so doing, they pollute a potentially wonderful day.” (p47) The sun is shining outside, the children are happy and the husband is smiling. Who would want to pollute this day?

Happy listening.