A taste for small pleasures

AmelieOne thing I love about parenting preschoolers is how tactile life is.

Children get a thrill from just ‘doing’ life; from taking out the recycling, mixing muffin batter, turning a tap on full blast. It’s like the opening scene of the French film Amelie, in which Amelie – all quirky and Zooey Deschanel-like – cultivates ‘a taste for small pleasures’ like running her hand through a sack of grain or cracking the top of creme brûlée. My children are the same. While I see a mundane task, they see a big bowl of burnt caramel and custard, just begging to be dipped into with a teaspoon.

Take going to the library. Recently my son, who is currently obsessed with whales (as I type this, he’s echolocating around his bedroom with a sheet over his head), wanted to borrow some books on marine life so we took a trip to the local library.

Even though it’s much easier to do my usual Google thing, there was something enjoyable about the tactile process of borrowing a book – with punching ‘humpback whales’ into the computer, writing down the dewey decimal code on a scrap of paper with a ballpoint tied to a piece of string, looking for the right aisle, then getting down on our hands and knees until we pulled out the books we wanted, the smell of thumbed pages thick in the air. It felt good and rich and satisfying. And it pleased my child to no end.

This pleasure is rare to find as we move into a world that’s largely digital. Perhaps it’s the reason why hobbies like colouring-in books and growing things in glass jars are in fashion right now – because we have this need to stay grounded in a world that’s becoming increasingly virtual; to rub our hands in grain and feel the nubbles and bumps under our fingertips … just like children do.


How do you know you’re done having kids?


But when I see a large family at the park or a friend announces their third pregnancy, I’m confronted by the fact that at this stage of my life, I do have a choice to make – a big one, if you think about the responsibility that comes with bringing another human into the world. Setting aside surprise pregnancies, how do you know you’re making the right choice? What if you stop having kids, but regret it years down the track? Or alternatively what if you fall pregnant, only to find you can’t cope with having another child?

My latest piece on The Motherish is up. Have a read here.


Interview: why I love leading kids camps

doodle-kidsIt’s been a while since I’ve interviewed someone on this blog, so when Crusaders asked me to write something about the many camps they offer, I was all too happy to oblige in the form of a Q&A with someone who would know best.

High school maths teacher and camp director Andrew Mallam has been leading Crusaders’ holiday camps – known as Cru Camps – since he first led a sailing camp in 2002. I had a quick chat to him about why he spends his school holidays sailing/skiing/riding rollercoasters with a team of young leaders and a cabin full of kids.

Soph: How did you start leading holiday camps?

Andrew: A friend from church was directing a sailing camp back in 2002, while I was at uni. He asked me to come and lead and I said yes. I’ve led on over twenty five camps since, including skiing camps, beach camps, study camps and ‘Destination Queensland’, which involves six days touring the theme parks on the Gold Coast. I enjoy them; it’s one of the many reasons I changed careers from working in entertainment, audio and lighting to being a maths teacher with lots of holidays up my sleeve.

Soph: Who attends these camps?

Andrew: All ages – I’ve led on camps with year four kids, all the way up to kids doing their HSC who sign up for study camps. These are Christian holiday camps, but we get kids from all sorts of different backgrounds: some who have no religious background or some who have been to church every week of their lives.

Soph: So what does a typical day on camp look like?

Andrew: At most of the activity-based camps, we get up in the morning, have breakfast and then we’ll have a Christian talk in the morning and hear about something from the Bible – perhaps spend some time in discussion groups talking about what we’ve learnt. Then we get into the activities for the day, be it sailing or abseiling or skiing. Then lunch, more fun activities, afternoon tea, more activities, dinner, more activities … you get the picture.

 Soph: What do the kids get out of it?

Andrew: They have lots of fun, to start with. They often meet new friends. Some kids will come on camp with an existing group of friends and they’ll meet heaps of other kids. Some come on camp by themselves and it’s really nice to see them make some friends. I think the kids who come on their own deal with it different ways. Some kids know they’ll make friends and it won’t be a problem. Then there are other kids who are a little bit more tentative, or their parents will have a quiet word to you beforehand, asking you to look out for their son or daughter.

file9221307532197Soph: So how do you look after those kids?

Andrew: We (the camp leaders) catch up with the kids during the day and at mealtimes; we’ll make sure that there are leaders sitting on the tables with each kid, so we can keep up with them, make sure they’re happy, slotting in well and making friends.

You’ve got to work hard at getting to know a largish group of kids. While the smaller camps have around twenty kids, the larger camps have up to fifty. Some of the HSC study camps are enormous with over one hundred kids. Because it’s such a large group of people in a relatively short amount of time, you’ve got to make sure you get to know people so you can really understand where they’re coming from and look after them well. It’s rare, in my experience, to have a kid come away from a camp without more friends than they started with. One of the good things about camp is that you’re really living in a community for those six days. It’s a unique thing: sharing a period of time with the same group of people.

Soph: Tell me about the Christian teaching that happens on camp.

Andrew: I think it really gets to life’s big questions: why are we here? Who is God? What is our relationship to Him? Is He just there, or is He involved in our lives? The kids can spend a few days actually reading the Bible and asking questions that leaders, who are Christians, are happy to answer. For kids who know that stuff already, it’s great to see them delve deeper and really get to know God more. It can be a really life-changing thing for some of these kids.

 Soph: What if a kid disagrees with what the Bible teaches?

Andrew: We present to them what we see of God in the Bible and we encourage them to think through what the Bible says about Him. Lots of kids who come on camps have strong beliefs other than Christianity and we always respect their beliefs and often will have great discussions with those kids. Everyone is free to say what they think; they are free to disagree and we certainly respect that.

Soph: What are some memorable moments as a leader?

Some of the things that really stick in my mind are when you have those kind of ‘breakthrough’ moments with kids. The kid who is pretty scared of abseiling and you finally see them go over the edge and climb down that wall – those are exciting moments. On a ski camp this year, one girl really wasn’t sure about skiing as she had never been before. She was on the gentlest of slopes but didn’t want to go down; she had her pole stuck in front of her and was essentially walking her poles down the mountain. We spent a long time helping her and seeing her pull her poles out of the snow and actually move under gravity’s force, for just a moment, was exciting. And after that, she actually got into it a bit and started to enjoy something she thought she never might.

Soph: And what do you get out of it as a camp director?

Andrew: Camps are hard work, but they’re great fun to do as well. At the end of the camp you’re absolutely exhausted, but it’s great to get to know a bunch of kids, see them enjoy the week with each other and see them learn more about God. It’s a fantastic feeling, to be part of a week that some kids have been deeply impacted by.

What we gain by spending less

It was an overpriced ballerina tutu that finally tipped us over the edge. Bought on a whim for my two-year-old daughter, that innocent confection of lollipop pink tulle and satin was the last straw; an ill-timed purchase that sent our bloated credit card bill spiraling out of control. Looking at our finances, my husband and I realised if we wanted to continue saving for a house deposit and treat ourselves to luxuries like, ahem, food and electricity, we needed to take action. Fast.

As a work-at-home mum of two preschoolers, that meant cutting down how much I spent on our kids each week. Raising children is an expensive business. Australian middle-income parents spend up to $458 a week per child – fifty percent more than the amount spent in 2009, according to a 2013 report by AMP and the National Centre for Social and Economic Modeling. Although I was determined to spend less on my kids, I was also nervous about the prospect. I expected to feel constrained – guilty even – about denying my children their usual treats.

IMG_4075What I didn’t expect was to feel liberated and closer to my two children. Most parenting articles will tell you budgeting makes good financial sense. What they don’t mention is how much you actually gain from spending less. I used to spend a fair amount of money on kid paraphernalia that ended up as landfill: bargain bin toys that would go missing within a day, plastic ride-on toys now speckled with dirt and cobwebs, a $5.99 organic fig and pistachio muffin that went uneaten. When I cut these items out of my budget, I was forced to rely on the basics to entertain my children. At first, I stuck to our usual outings: playing at the local park, homemade picnics, the good, old-fashioned play date. Then I decided to get adventurous. I caught a train with my daughter to a nearby Chinese food precinct, where we ate pears and watched wizened men practicing Tai chi. During the school holidays, the four of us went for a bushwalk with the aim of making a photo journal of our trip. My iPhone currently has forty-eight blurry photos of bark, but it was worth it.

Not all outings were a hit. Storytime at the library proved disastrous when my son thought shelves were far more useful for climbing once you removed all the books. Then there was the time I spent an entire evening cutting up wrapping paper into little shapes for craft. The activity lasted five minutes and I spent the next week sweeping grimy little stars and hearts off the floor. Mostly, though, we roamed. We turned errands like posting a parcel into an important mission. The kids built a cubby house out of dining chairs and old blankets. I found an unknown plant growing in my backyard (Facebook came to my rescue; it was a Mexican Marigold.)

The main benefit of these outings was not the money we were saving, but how relational they were. Child development experts claim being outdoors is beneficial for children, not just in terms of their physical health, but also for developing imagination and mental wellbeing. My best conversations with my kids have been out in nature. Sometimes we would simply point out all the different things we could hear. Other times, we’d have intense discussions about what it means to have a best friend, or whether chickens on a farm were the same as the chickens we eat for dinner (I sweated over that one).

Without money at my disposal, I was also forced to abandon what I call my ‘bandaid purchases’. I wasn’t able to buy them a sugary treat when they were cranky at the shops, or purchase two of the same book to avoid fights. Now, I completely understand that a finger bun is a small price to pay for one’s sanity, but often I bought things we didn’t need because I just wanted my children to stop inconveniencing me. I didn’t want to have to deal with their public tantrums. I couldn’t be bothered saying, “no, you can’t have a sushi roll; there’s a perfectly good lunch waiting for you at home”, mostly because I hate making sandwiches with a passion.

Saying ‘no’ is the more troublesome route to take, but now and then, it reaps rewards beyond a healthier bank balance. Telling my kids we couldn’t afford the latest blockbuster movie figurine teaches them to be content with what they have. Asking them to wait until we get home for lunch – even when said in a death whisper the checkout – gives them the chance to practice patience. When I glimpse these character traits in my kids, I feel incredibly rich as a parent.

Of course, I don’t get it right all the time. There are times when I lose my cool – days when I’m dissatisfied and frustrated with the constraints of a tight budget. I hope, though, our financial journey means I’ll raise kids who are just that little bit more patient and thankful for what they have. Even if it may not include a pink ballerina tutu.

Article on SPD

childmagsA couple of months ago I wrote a pretty personal piece on the experience of raising my son, who has Sensory Processing Disorder. The article has been recently published in this month’s Child magazine (unfortunately it’s not available online, although you can pick up a copy for free at preschools, libraries, shopping centres, etc.).

If you want to find out more about Sensory Processing Disorder, there’s lots of helpful information here. It’s certainly been a long journey with our son, but I’m so grateful for what I’ve learnt through it all.

Raising children of mixed race

IMG_3874When I was pregnant with my oldest child, I tried to picture what he would look like. Would he inherit my Chinese eyes? My hair? My height, or lack thereof?

After his birth – in that moment I first held him and in all the moments we’ve had since – I discovered my child looks nothing like me or his Caucasian father. He is his own creature, with long limbs, wild hair and teardrop eyes set against the cream of his skin. His younger sister, an amber-eyed pixie, is similarly unique. Neither looks Chinese, and they don’t particularly act Chinese either.

People often assume a child of mixed race is a bilingual cocktail of two cultures. This isn’t always true. While my children are Caucasian, Malaysian Chinese and Indonesian Chinese, they are overwhelmingly Western in their behaviour. They don’t speak Mandarin. They’ve never left Australia. They eat sausages, not pak choy.

As a second-generation migrant brought up in an English-speaking household, I sometimes worry. Will children grow up knowing nothing about their heritage? Panicked, I find myself scrambling for family gems to pass down, like my mother’s rendang recipe or my father’s take on 20th century Chinese history. I feel guilty that I can’t even pronounce my children’s Chinese names.

But I’m also comforted by how kids deal with cultural vagaries. Last week at the park, a boy asked my four-year-old son, “where do you come from?” My son replied without pausing, “I’m me!” Okay, he didn’t understand the question, but there was something beautiful about his response, as if who he is matters more than his genetic heritage.

It made me realise culture is personal. Mixed children express their heritages differently because their cultural experiences vary. Some grow up with a cacophony of extended family. Some take yearly trips ‘back home’. Then there are children like mine, who would sooner propel chopsticks across the kitchen than eat with them. I’m learning that this is okay. There is no right way to express your culture. My children are who they are; they will spend the rest of their lives muddling through two cultures to create their own.

Besides, if I look closely, there are signs all is not lost. Take my son’s habit of removing his shoes before entering a house, or my daughter’s delighted cries of “Ma! Gung Gung!” (cue broad Aussie accent) when she sees my parents. Maybe they’ve inherited more from me than I initially thought.

On cleaning messes

I don’t normally go for the “mums have it tough” type videos, but this one, by blogger Esther Anderson, was too good to resist. To quote the Huffington Post article it appeared in:

Parents know that taking care of little ones and keeping the house clean is a truly Sisyphean endeavor. No matter how long you clean, feed, wash and dry, new messes always appear, and you have to start all over again.

There was a time when this bothered me. I like things neat. Mess is a very visceral thing for me. Piles of clothes, scattered lego and unwashed dishes make my throat constrict and my mind panic.

Now I try to breathe through the mess. Slow down, appreciate the moment with my kids and move on with my day.

Scribbled notes in my book

I’ve just finished reading Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for the first time.

My copy is inherited from my mother, last read when she was a boarding school student in Sydney. Being a migrant who spoke little English, she wrote little notes for herself along the margins in cursive writing, translating difficult sentences into easier ones.


This pleases me. Whenever Heathcliff and Cathy got a bit much with all the brooding and sighing and galavanting through the moors, I’d calm myself by reading my mother’s notes.

What are you reading at the moment?

You aren’t what you eat


“I have a confession to make: I’ve become a food legalist. In my mind there are two lists of food: one labelled ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’. Every day, for most meals, I place different foods in either column. This may not sound unusual in an age of fad diets, but what is odd about my lists is how arbitrary they are. Rather than simply saying, “broccoli good, donuts bad”, I have managed to distil eighteen months worth of celebrity nutritional advice into a fastidious Code of Eating.”

My latest article is about my tumultuous relationship with quinoa. Read the rest here on the fabulous Kiki and Tea.

Baby showers for dads

I recently organised a baby shower for a friend so practical, her ideal present was a month’s supply of wet ones. “Don’t feel you need to make a fuss,” she emailed. “Simple food, a few games, no frills.”

Diligently, I threw myself into research mode, i.e. Pinterest over a glass of wine. I emerged three hours later, drunk on images of women gathered around cake, rubber duck centrepieces and pastel coloured mason jars. Even though I have children of my own and been to many a shower, I was intrigued by how many sites assumed baby showers are only for women. Why aren’t men included in the pre-baby hoopla? Who is giving the dad-to-be a crash course in how to change a sodden nappy half blind at 3am in the morning? Amidst the fun, does the gendered nature of the traditional baby shower reflect what parenting looks like today?

With more mums in various forms of paid employment, the reality is that parenting in 2014 is a team effort. According to recent ABS figures, the number of Australian stay-at-home dads has almost doubled in the past decade to 106,000. Even men with full time jobs can change nappies and rock a baby carrier. After I gave birth to our first child, my husband and I – collectively possessing the parenting experience of a whelk – shared most roles (minus the ones that involved lactating nipples).

So it makes sense that an increasing number of women are choosing to include men in their baby celebrations. When Meg was expecting her first child, she and her husband threw a baby shower for both sexes. “It always seemed bizarre to deliberately set out to create an event that sought to exclude a male partner from all things baby before the child was even born,” says the mother-of-two. “While there is a very long way to go, we are increasingly a society that seeks to embrace shared parenting and shared primary care. A single sex celebration simply reinforces a division between male and female domains.”

For other couples, throwing a mixed sex baby shower is a conscious effort to include men in the lead up to birth. Although Mila Kunis bemoans men who speak of ‘our’ pregnancy, dads-to-be can experience the same mix of emotions as their partners, yet have little in the way of support. Thora, a Sydney based mother of two, chose to include her husband in a “joint celebration” so that he would feel more involved in the pregnancy. “My husband felt one step removed from the pregnancy, almost like it wasn’t real,” she says. “A joint shower was another thing he could be a part of to make it more real.”

But before you chuck out the bunting, throwing a mixed shower doesn’t mean boycotting games or decorations. While some couples opt for a casual barbeque (that’s ‘babyque’ on the invitations if you’re feeling cute), others like to get creative. Meg and her husband threw a literary themed afternoon tea. “The food was inspired by our much loved children’s books: turkish delight from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, carrot cake from There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, pavlova from Possum Magic. We encouraged those guests, who felt that they wanted to give, to bring a book to start our baby’s library,” she says. “One week later, our baby was born and it was such a happy memory, that we’d spent that day with all of the people special to us before we were plunged into the wonderful whirlwind of parenthood.”

As for my practical friend, her party was an eclectic mix of potluck dishes, mocktails, chilled music and yes, both men and women. And true to her personality, there was not a rubber duck or painted mason jar to be seen.

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