Monday, 20 February 2012

Sugar and Spice, and All Things Nice

There is a rhyme in English that goes like this:

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That's what little boys are made of !"
What are little girls made of?
"Sugar and spice and all things nice
That's what little girls are made of!"

However, here in the Netherlands, it's not just the girls full of sugar and all things nice... it's boys too. Or at least that is the impression I get when I look at typical Dutch breakfast and lunch tables or restaurant choices for kids here. 

For some reason I still don't get after more than a decade here, the Dutch give their children sprinkles and chocolate flakes on bread for breakfast or (maybe even and) lunch. Sugar on bread in essence. And not occasionally or as in a once-a-year-treat-because-it's-your-birthday kind of way. Daily. As in every day. 

Sugar, Sugar and a Little More Sugar
(c) Amanda van Mulligen
Restaurants directed at children either serve fried stuff or sweet stuff for kids. Pancake houses are good examples.... many offer pancakes especially for children. This typically means putting lots of sweets on a pancake, usually in the shape of a face, or providing a child with bowls of various sweet varieties containing more sugar than you would want your child to consume in a decade, let alone during the consumption of one pancake. Don't get me wrong, a pancake house every now and then is a great treat and lots of fun. But sometimes it would be nice to have other options.....

Kid's Menu from The Three Tuns Pub in Reading,
When we visit the UK I am always struck that there is such a huge difference and kid's menus are not always unhealthy. Pasta with sauces (including those with hidden vegetables) are often available, or simply the same meals offered to adults but put out in smaller portions for the kids. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to come up with something that isn't fried or isn't sugar to feed to restaurant going children. Does it? Well, that's my take on it and it's been a source of irritation for at least five years now. Ever since I became a mother and adopted the "you're not eating sweets every day" approach to parenting.

Luckily I am not alone. Let me introduce you to It is the initiative of Susan Aretz and Annemieke Dubbeldeman who were also fed up with the limited offerings for their children whilst eating out. They set up a site to put restaurants with healthier options for children on the map. It's all new, work in progress but an exciting development. It's worth taking a look at so that maybe next time you want to eat out with your children you don't end up in a pancake house...

Friday, 17 February 2012

Regrets? I've Had a Few, But None Enough to Matter

The Daily Battle to get to School on Time
Photo: Filip Lundeholm
Some mornings I wake up and can't help feeling like I drew the short end of the straw. Three children to organise by 8.15: coax out of bed, tempt breakfast into, get dressed, brush teeth, get a school lunch box ready and into a school bag and finally get coats, scarves, hats and gloves on to (season dependent of course). In between I have to fit in a breastfeed for the baby, scrape Weetabix from the floor, high chair and dining table, divert a couple of tantrums and/or crying sessions and get myself showered and dressed. It's a miracle but we do usually get my eldest to school on time.

In order to take part in this joy every weekday I gave up my career. Once upon a time I worked full time in Human Resources in an international company. I went off on maternity leave in 2006 and never went back.  Don't get me wrong, I hated working nine to five. I hated the humdrum of office life. I hated the office politics. I hated being an employee number and not a valued person. I hated the rat race. I gave that career up happily.

When I started working for myself as a freelance writer, the knock came hard as the number of children in our household grew and the time to write diminished dramatically. During pregnancies the energy was sapped out of me. My inspiration for writing never made it outside my head. Time was at a premium and writing came last. This career pause was a little harder to take. Especially on those days when the children don't cooperate and the day feels long by 8.15 a.m. The days when every sacrifice feels like a burden. The days when not being able to even go to the toilet alone irks me.

And then something will happen that knocks the regrets about my writing career break on the head. It whacks those niggling feelings of something lost right out of the playing field. A baby's first smile. A toddler getting up and taking his first steps. The first utterance of mama. A bum wiggling dance to the theme of Thomas the Tank Engine. The search for a hug and kiss when a knee is scraped. The uncertainty of the first day of school. A drawing of our family made of stick men and wild hair. Arts and crafts sessions full of unbelievably sticky glue and glitter. Cooking sessions full of finger licking and tummy rubbing. In fact there are so many moments that make me smile as a mother it's hard to feel any regrets about an abandoned career for very long.

My time for my career will come soon enough. When my children are all in school and a little more independent. When my children are all grown up and leading their lives elsewhere. And for those days I can wait. There's no rush.

Regrets? I've had a few, but none enough to matter.

Monday, 13 February 2012

A Cultural Winter Experience

This last weekend saw what could be the last of the ice skating on natural ice for this winter season. After the dashed hopes last week that an Elfsedentocht would take place, the Dutch took to the ice this weekend in their masses. Many had bought new ice skates for the occasion. Some grabbed them from the back of the cupboard. Others jumped on their sledge. Others collected their ice hockey sticks and pucks. Others just gathered on the ice to drink hot chocolate or gluhwein together.

Brand New Ice Skates
(c) The Writing Well
We took to the ice too. Or as least, some of the family did. Whilst I stood on the banks of what was water two weeks ago, my eldest sons and papa took to the ice. I scanned the ice for my family whilst I watched over the baby who was fast asleep in sub-zero temperatures in the double buggy. Whilst my eldest son lasted approximately two minutes upright on his ice skates, my middle son slid around enthusiastically behind him - until they both retired to the sleigh for papa to do the hard work. Watching them put a beaming smile on my face.

Out on the Sledge
(c) The Writing Well
The Dutch are almost as fanatical about ice skating as they are about cycling - another thing I have had to get used to as the Brits are certainly not renowned for their ice skating..... A few years ago it was my first time walking on a frozen lake and I stood amazed at those around me skating, sledging and pushing chairs across the ice. It was something I had never seen before and I loved watching it happening around me.

Ice Skating in the Netherlands - almost as popular as cycling
(c) The Writing Well
This year I knew what to expect. I could already picture the crowds on the canals and streams. But this year, two of my sons were enthusiastically thrown into the mix. Ice skates on, sledge out from the shed and winter woolies on.

Ice Hockey on a Frozen Lake
(c) The Writing Well

It struck me once more that my children will have different experiences because they were born in the Netherlands. Had my husband and I moved back to the UK before the children were born, I cannot imagine rushing out and buying a pair of ice skates for my eldest son so he could have a go at skating on a frozen lake. I don't think we would have a sledge tucked away in the shed as standard transportation (kids are taken to school on sledges as soon as there is any ice to speak of). I'm sure it's done in England, but not by the masses, and not with such fanaticism.

What different experiences do your kids have because they are in the Netherlands, or a different country to the one you grew up in?

Friday, 10 February 2012

Baby Boxes - Gratis!

If you're pregnant in the Netherlands there are freebies to be had - and if you are even a little bit integrated and living like a Dutchie.. then gratis is good! Very good!

You can sign up for baby boxes which contain free samples and small gifts, as well as discount vouchers and information about baby related items and issues. This gives you a chance to sample leading brands before you commit to buying them - particularly handy if you are pregnant with your first baby.

Prenatal and Etos both do baby boxes (one before and one after the birth). Prenatal offers the "blije doos" which you can collect when you are around seven months pregnant, and the "baby doos" when your new arrival is around three months old. To find out more, including what you can find inside the baby boxes, visit

Etos do a Zwanger Box (which can be collected from your nearest Etos shop up to week 34 of your pregnancy) and a Baby Box when your baby is around three months old.

In the boxes you will find dummies, bibs, comforters, formula samples (for 6 months plus as companies may not legally give out free formula samples meant for the first few months of a baby's life), parenting magazines, bottles, creams and nappies. it provides a great little cache of baby items to get you started - and best of all at no cost!

Are these baby boxes offered in other countries too?

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Bilingualism in Kids, Government Clinics and Codswallop

Bilingualism in the Netherlands: A good or bad thing?
A recent article about bringing bilingual children up on Radio Netherlands Worldwide intrigued me. well actually, it maddened me a little. It reported something, in my eyes at least, that seems like nonsense - that a child should be brought up with only one language. This is according to 'scientists' and relayed through 'government clinics'.

First of all, the concept of government clinics baffled me. What the hell is a Dutch government clinic? This turned out to be the consultatiebureau, which sounds a lot less sinister than government clinic.

For parents out there living in the Netherlands, you will already be familiar with the consultatiebureau. It's a kind of local health centre for children aged 0 to 4. The nurses and doctors there check a child's development, administer vaccinations and refer children to specialists when necessary. It's funded by the government, hence the title of government clinic in this article I assume.

Secondly, and more importantly, the idea that it is better to bring your child up speaking and learning one language and not more is rubbish. In my humble opinion that is. My eldest son speaks Dutch as his mother tongue but speaks English too. It has gone through waves over the year which language he prefers to talk in and which excels. Since he started school his Dutch is stronger and his preferred language and we work at English together. My 21 month old understands instructions in both English and Dutch.

The article states that linguists also disagree that children should focus on one language only. Research has proven bilingualism is good for the brain!

The thing that I really don't understand from this article is that the staff at the consultatiebureau I visit here in Zoetermeer has done nothing but encourage, give advice and praise bringing up my children so they can speak both Dutch and English. It gives them an advantage, so they have said. And I agree. In fact, to go a step further, the advice is for me to speak English (and therefore not pass on my mistakes in Dutch to my children) and my husband to speak Dutch to them (and hence not pass on the notorious mistakes the Dutch make with English such as "A teacher learns you things.")

So, is it just certain areas where a second or third language is discouraged? Or are there particular languages which the consulatiebureaus would rather parents didn't pass on to their children? Is the standard of Dutch spoken by bilingual children here in the Netherlands low?

I found some information on which outlines what a consultatiebureau is and does - and one of the tasks is to ensure that children can speak Dutch. If your child is being raised here and living here for the long haul, will go to school here, then of course a child should be able to communicate in the native language. But the idea that the consultatiebureau insists that its better to bring up with just one language (and presumably then just Dutch) seems not to tally with my personal experience.

What is your experience? Have you been encouraged to speak your mother tongue with your children by the consultatiebureau? What do you think about bilingualism: good for children or not?

Incidentally, if you are thinking about raising your children to be bilingual check out tips here.