Kids and spuds

1 and a half russet potato with sprouts. Slice...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had all three kids over at the flat for the first time on Saturday for a sleepover, including Niamh’s first ever visit.

She spent the first ten minutes running round all the rooms opening every drawer and cupboard she could find. Her favourite room was the kitchen.

Open drawer, open drawer, open drawer – knives and stuff, boring. Close them all. Open cupboard, pots and pans, meh. Open cupboard…

*gasp* “Potatoes!!!”

Close cupboard move on, come back to that one a minute later and…


Exclaimed in the kind of way that a two year old would convey the sentence “Holy shitsnacks! They’re STILL BLOODY THERE!”

Ah, for the days when a simple tuber excited me so.

Kids and computer games

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga
Little Mister's current favourite

I still hear a lot of people whinging about how children play too many computer games, and how they’re bad for them. I have a lot of experience of video entertainment (this doesn’t mean I’m any good – I’ve just played them a lot), and some limited experience in the child-rearing side of things but here are some things I’ve noticed.

Our littlest is around 3½. Despite his age, he’s still not a talker and has some communication issues which are mainly due to problems with his hearing. We got an Xbox at Christmas and he, of course, wanted to play all the time. But he was rubbish. Worse than me rubbish. Which is very rubbish indeed. He’s very active – too active, frankly. Runs circles round us and will chase the dog or cat for hours, bounce on the trampoline, run around outside until he falls over and comes home screaming… you know, a proper kid. As such I’ve no issues with him spending some time glued to the telly if it keeps him quiet and out of our hair for a bit.

There aren’t that many toddler-friendly games for the Xbox, but what we have so far are: De Blob 2, Megamind (scratched to hell and unplayable), Toy Story 3, Lego Indiana Jones and Lego Star Wars. Over time, he watched us playing and we often let him have a spare controller in co-op mode. This usually involved him twiddling the two joysticks randomly and giggling when a Lego character dropped off a cliff in an explosion of coins, releasing a Wilhelm scream. Or Wilhelm Wookie roar. Or whatever.

Hey, he was happy.

Over the last few weeks, though, he’s taken to it big style. He can’t read yet, which means we often have to explain things to him, but if the game has good use of imagery then this can help. Toy Story 3, for example, has “help” bubbles that show you a ghosted image of a character performing an action while the keys you need to press are displayed next to them. The Lego games are similar, although both games suffer from the player often having to be in just the right position for those buttons to work.

What’s amazed me, and prompted me to post this, is how quickly he’s come on since we sat him down with a controller and let him loose by himself. I just sat with him this morning as the played through the train stage at the start of TS3. Aside from one section which I did for him, he completed the whole thing himself. Picking aliens up and throwing them off the train, throwing bouncy balls at moving targets, smashing boxes open, jumping and double-jumping gaps and obstacles. Wow.

Lego Star Wars has captured his imagination more than the Indy game and its simple problems in the early levels are just right for him. After some demonstration from myself, he’s able to work out some of them with no assistance. Swapping to use the correct characters to perform a task is an example. If he sees a C3PO head, he knows he needs the right kind of droid. Sparkly things? Jedi force. Bounty Hunters only? Wander off, find a helmet machine, get a helmet, go back and get through the door.

And so on.

He can now control the characters and camera independently using the two joysticks. His timing for jumps is good. Not brilliant, especially double-jumps where he often can’t hit the jump key quickly enough in succession, but still pretty damn good.

Now, he’s a good kid with his other toys. He loves tool kits and his Toy Story figures – and his sister’s Lego much to her annoyance. But I don’t think we have much else that has improved his logic skills or hand-eye coordination as these computer games.

I actually think his communication has improved slightly as well, as he tries to explain where and how he’s stuck, or tells us what he’s managed to achieve.

Over and above that, he’s learned how to check whose profile is active when he comes to the console and change it to his own. It’s simple image recognition (as I said, he can’t read but he can identify the icons and avatars), but it also shows he’s aware of what “belongs” to him and to others.

So to those who say that kids shouldn’t be let anywhere near computer games? Think again. There’s a time, a place, and a use for them.


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This parenting lark

Naughty step
Naughty step (Image by memespring via Flickr)

I’ve kind of got into the parenting thing quite late on. Not so much in my life, but of those of the kids I’m finding myself scarily “responsible” for.

Quick catch-up for those who didn’t know. By day I’m a secondary school teacher, trying my best to control other people’s kids. By weekend (and holiday), I’m a boyfriend and try my best to control two specific kids owned by my better half.

To be fair, they’re lovely kids. ‘E’ is almost 10 (going on 16…) and her brother ‘A’ is approaching 3. He’s quite a handful compared to big sis, but they get on like oil, water and a box of matches at times.

I’ve got no siblings. The closest I’ve got is my little cousin, the same age as ‘E’ and the two of them get on really well. Little Cuz was over for a sleepover last night which kept the girls quiet. ‘A’ had a cracking day as well, really well behaved – even going as far as to tidy up. Unheard-of territory!

And then today. We went swimming this morning, only his second ever trip to the baths. He was less sure of himself than last time and it took us a while to get him in the water past his ankles, but after a while he was having fun, swinging at swimmers-by with a large polystyrene purple float. As you do. He was great round Asda, as he usually is, then fell asleep in the car on the way home. As he does.

He was also cranky when he got woken up as we arrived home. Nothing unusual in this! However, he pushed “crank” too far when Gill sorted out a butter and jam sandwich for him. He waited with taste buds erupting as she spread the butter. Then the jam.

And then lost it when she started to cut the bread. Screams, arms going. Gill folded it over and handed it to him and he went mental. Pulled it into two bits and threw it at her. Not good behaviour at the best of times, and especially not when his mum’s nursing a pretty awful head cold.

Naughty step time.

I might not be ‘A’s dad but we both share one very common trait. We’re stubborn as all hell.

‘A’ refused to sit on the step. He screamed. He yelled. He bawled. In between he drooled, cried and somehow found time for the occasional sob. I tried to make him sit. Not having it. I told him to sit. Nope. His mum wandered past (around the 15 minute mark…) and told him to sit. He refused.

He screamed in my ear at a pitch that would likely have had dogs for three streets around running in circles. This went on for three or four minutes until he was coughing. I sat and stared at him. He screamed some more. I stood up and turned my back on him.


I turned around and he was stood there sobbing. I pointed to the step. He shook his head. I turned my back.


I turned around and he was legging it upstairs to his room. I collared him and carried him back down. Needless to say, there was more noise.

Time to lead by example. By now he was crying his head off and standing with his arms open, asking for a hug. I sat down and explained to him that if he sat down next to me, he’d get one. I said please. He repeated what I wanted. Then refused to sit down.

We were on around 25 minutes by this time. I had a pretty watch to look at (thanks, Gill!). ‘A’ had nothing.

I sat. He cried. I tried to explain the rules, he screamed. I stood up and turned my back, he sobbed.

Finally, after forty minutes I sat and ‘A’ collapsed on the stair at my feet. As promised, cuddles followed for me and from his mum. He was much more settled after that and had a good afternoon playing quietly while sick mummy slept on the sofa.

One thing my parents always tell me (and everyone else, thanks folks) is that I was a stubborn little sod as a child. Some things don’t change. ‘A’ picked himself the wrong person to try his luck against!

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Kids ‘n stuff

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation

This may end up being a fairly emotional post, but hopefully will help drive home something that means a lot to me.

As most of you know, I recently had a career change and moved into teaching. There were a few reasons for this. Partly due to the recession, partly that as I was a Scottish resident I could do the course for free. A huge part was getting the chance to teach several Vietnamese kids how to use computers when I was here (I’m back overseas!) in 2006.

The other thing is that I really love kids. Not in a Gary Glitter way, not in the slightest. I just think they’re the best thing in the world. I don’t have any of my own yet and that’s my hugest regret in life so far. I’ve enjoyed so many pleasures, seen so many things, soaked up some amazing experiences – and yet the one thing I want more than anything else I haven’t quite got round to yet.

So I guess part of the reason I want to work with children is that I don’t have my own. Yet.

However, I’ve been talking to a lot of teachers from all over and I’ve had mixed reports about men working with kids. In the UK, Canada and Oz there’s a huge demand for male primary school teachers (which is a qualification I’m eying up – I teach secondary at the moment).

The US, however, is very anti male primary teachers. I was talking to an American secondary teacher and he told me that it’s very hard for a man to get a job in the primary sector. Why? Because any man who wants to be around small children in a paedophile, obviously.

This viewpoint sickens me.

I also suffer it. If I’m in a supermarket and I see a small child sat on the back of a trolley, I always want to wave and make silly faces until they smile. If the parents see me doing this and I’m stood there with another woman – girlfriend, friend, whatever – they’re generally nice about it. If I’m by myself then I get a nasty stare and the child is whisked off as if my only thought it to steal it and abuse it.

I reckon we can only blame the tabloids, but this attitude really makes me feel awful. When I was in Burma, a family walked me and another chap from the hostel home when we got lost. Along the way, the mother handed me her child to hold. The baby was maybe 3-4 months old and she was happy to just pass her to a stranger who found her gorgeous.

That wouldn’t happen back home.

The difference? No tabloid madness in Burma. No assumption that people are evil (except the Burmese government). Just a general feeling of good human nature.

What a grin!
How happy does *he* look?

Happily, there are other people who are as trustworthy as I am. In fact pretty much everyone is, let’s be honest. One of them is Michael Brosowski who founded the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation in Hanoi which most of you know I do a bit of work for as and when I can.

Last weekend I had the chance to pop up to Long Bien and play a bit of football with the kids, who were then presented with a trophy for winning the under 14’s league. A great achievement from a rag-tag bunch, many of whom have spent time living on the streets.

The other thing is that even the smallest of them will happily “attach” themselves to a new member of the group and play around. I was in goal for one team of older kids, but I’d made a new friend who was about 10. He mimicked my (awful) skills, and I started showing off doing pull-ups on the crossbar during flurries of play. He couldn’t reach so I helped him up and we just mucked around.

It was great fun, but – again – imagine anyone letting a complete stranger do this with their kids back in the UK. I mean *horror* I actually touched him. Even as a registered teacher in the UK, if you touch a child you can be in trouble. This included hugging upset children in a primary environment – woe betide you if you do so without witnesses. Insane.

That’s not to say that Vietnam doesn’t have its share of scum who will take advantage of children. Blue Dragon has rescued several from brothels both here and in China. Add that to the sweatshop labour that some endure after they’re kidnapped or tricked away from their parents.

I just played catchup on Michael’s blog and there’s some good reading there from the last few weeks. I do urge you to pop over and flick through his posts from early June. Children as young as 11 rescued from sweatshops, three generations of one family finally given ID papers so they can receive education and healthcare, legal aid for some kids who are really off the rails… and more.

His blog’s located at

Children are the single most important resource any country has. They need to be treated well, educated well, brought up well. They’re the future of this planet and whatever happens over the coming decade, centuries and millennia is in their hands.

However, if we don’t take care of them then we’re screwed.

Blue Dragon is just one charity in one country, but it does a hell of a job. I’ve worked with these kids on and off for over four years now and I’d do anything for them.  All I’m doing now is asking you to check out the web page, see what you can afford and drop them a few quid. Dollars. Whatever. They have dozens of projects on the go at once, and all of them will make good use of that cash.

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