The Retelling of Tigers and Strawberries

Once upon a time, as all good stories begin, there was a man. The man was running. He ran and ran, his breath coming in fast gasps, his legs aching, his back sweaty. Every few seconds he glanced behind him. Behind him was a tiger.

The tiger was hungry. The tiger wanted to eat the man. So the man ran and ran and the tiger ran and ran. But the tiger was faster. Every time the man glanced behind, the tiger was a little nearer. He knew the tiger was hungry, he knew the tiger wanted to eat him, so he ran as fast as he could.

Suddenly, he stopped. There was nowhere to go.

The man had reached the edge of a cliff. He peered down. The cliff was very steep, down, down, down it fell. At the bottom, the man could see water. The water bubbled and splashed and boiled. The water was full of crocodiles, squirming and rolling. They were hungry.

The man glanced behind and saw the tiger was nearly upon him. He could see great white teeth glinting in the sunlight, a red tongue lolling, evil eyes gleaming with intent. The man had no place to go. He shut his eyes and jumped.

Down, down, down fell the man. Then he stopped.

Half way down the cliff, there was a bush. A bush with thorns. The man’s shirt had caught on the thorns and now he hung there, suspended against the cliff. The man looked up. Above him was the tiger, greedily looking down. The man looked down. Below him were the crocodiles, waiting to devour him. Next to him was the bush. He heard a sound.

There was a mouse, a tiny brown mouse. The mouse was hungry. The mouse was nibbling at the roots of the bush. The mouse’s teeth were sharp and white, they were biting through the roots of the bush and soon the bush would fall from the cliff, taking the man with it.

In his terror, the man looked around. The cliff was sheer, he could not climb up, he could not climb down. When the bush fell, the man would fall too, down to where the crocodiles waited.

Next to the bush, growing on the tiny ledge of the cliff, was a wild strawberry plant. There were a few leaves and one, ripe, red strawberry. The man looked up, the tiger was waiting. The man looked down, the crocodiles were watching. The man looked at the bush, it would fall any second. So he reached out his hand and picked the strawberry and popped it into his mouth.

It was absolutely delicious.


I love this story. It is sometimes so hard to notice the strawberries in life.


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Manipulation of the Financial Markets

Manipulation of Financial Markets


This week, a bank was fined two and a half billion US dollars for manipulating Libor. There was also an English man who had his bail set at five million for spoofing Futures markets. What do these terms mean? What did they actually do that was so bad?

Let’s go to Rabbit Town. They have a big fruit and vegetable market. Jim has a stall where he buys and sells carrots. The market has a big carrot section, there are about fifteen other carrot stalls. Every day, the town publishes the average price for carrots. People use the Town Price when they are doing their deals. For example, the Rabbit Town school buys 20 carrots every day from the farmer and they agree they will pay the farmer whatever the published price is.

The town calculates the Town Price very carefully. They ask all fifteen stall holders what their price is for that day. They then take off the top two (most expensive) and the bottom two (cheapest) and work out the average of all the others. That then becomes the Town Price for that day. People do not have to use it, but it’s a helpful guide.

Now, Jim has two brothers. One brother is a carrot farmer and he sells carrots. The other brother owns a soup factory, so once a month, he buys carrots. Both brothers have contracts with other people and they have agreed to buy and sell carrots at the Town Price. They know that the price that Jim gives in to the town hall, very slightly affects what the Town Price is set at. When they have carrots to buy or sell, they go to see Jim and ask him to slightly move the price on his stall. Not too much, because he doesn’t want to be in the top or bottom, but just enough that it alters the average a tiny bit, moving it to be in their favour. Jim likes to help his brothers, so he agrees. Sometimes he even persuades his friends to change their prices a little too.

If carrots are interest rates, then Libor is the Town Price. It stands for London Interbank Offer Rate. It is the interest rate that banks use when they lend to each other.

Jim was meant to give in the actual price that he thought he could buy and sell carrots at, not a price that would help his brothers. Even though, due to averaging, it doesn’t change the price much, it is still corrupt. The fines given to banks who do this have been huge. Now, as Jim’s false price sometimes went up and sometimes went down, it is unclear how other people were impacted. The big fine does not seem to really correspond to the financial damage that was caused. We’ll discuss this a bit more later.

Let’s take a look at ‘spoofing’ now. What is it? Well, imagine Jim has loads of carrots and he wants to sell them to other stalls. He wants the price to be as high as possible, so he makes up a rumour. The rumour says that a big carrot buyer is about to visit the market and he needs lots of carrots. Jim then sends anonymous notes to all the other stall holders, putting in orders for lots of carrots. All the stall holders quickly put up their prices, ready for when the big buyer comes to town. Jim then quickly cancels the false orders, sells his carrots to them at the higher price and makes a nice profit. This is called spoofing. It is against the law in financial markets.

Let’s look at one other thing that might affect prices. Jim has some special carrots. They are bigger and more orange than all his other carrots. He keeps them on a special shelf and they are not the same price as all the other carrots. That is allowed – he can have a special price for special carrots. What he is NOT allowed to do, is to wait until a customer arrives and then change the price for what he thinks he can get. He cannot look at Mrs Bunny and think, “Ah, nice watch, designer handbag, new shoes, I will charge her fifty quid a carrot for my special carrots.” This might be what your plumber does (“Big house, that’s a £70 call out fee” or “Small house, old lady, that’s a £30 call out fee.”) but banks are increasingly not allowed to. It is called ‘price discrimination.’

Now, we can see that banks are expected to behave differently to other institutions. If a car company does something bad, even something which is negligent and causes people to die, they will probably be given less big fines than the banks. Why? Is this fair? Personally, I think it is right. I think that the fine is not related to the injury caused financially, but the injury that has been caused to the bank’s reputation.

Our society relies on banks. We need them to be completely trustworthy and so the standard set for banks needs to be higher than the standard set for shops or manufacturers or plumbers. The financial stability of a country depends on the banks, so we need stringent rules set in place to keep them honest. They used to have similar rules to other companies but that has changed and they are now much more tightly regulated. If the laws are clearly set in place and applied to all banks equally, I think that is fair. I want to be able to trust my bank. In the same way as I want to be able to trust my legal system.

There are some politicians who like to bash banks, who think that if they impose big fines then they will be elected to a higher office, they will personally look good. Personally, I think this is cheap and they are stupid. Don’t vote for them.

Mummy Secrets

Mummy Secrets

       These have been learned over time and are the result of much experience in the mummy department. I now impart them to all young mother’s in the hope it will enable you to have a slightly easier time.

1.Boys (of all ages) never look in the back of drawers. This is true. They open the drawer about half way, have a quick look and then tell you that what they are seeking is not in there. This can be used to your advantage if, as in my house, they frequently a) misplace their own scissors and b) borrow yours and don’t replace them. Seriously, I have pairs of scissors with death threats written in permanent marker pen on the handles (slightly embarrassing when I took them to use for church sunday school, but I got over it.) It made no difference, they would still use my scissors and not return them. However, if I keep them at the back of the drawer, even the drawer where they have always been kept, then they don’t find them. Things at the back are safe. Worth remembering.

2.When they ask which child you love best, pick one. I spent years trying to explain that I loved them all equally, that I could never choose which one I loved best, etc etc – they just kept asking. So one day I picked one and gave an outrageous reason:”Rebecca, because girls are better than boys,” “James because he’s the nicest,” “Mark, because he’s clever,” They still asked occasionally (and I did try to switch which one I chose) but it put them off for a long time and always ended the conversation pretty fast. Maybe they just needed to be the one that was chosen.

3.When your children argue with their siblings, always be the most unreasonable. I always wanted my children to be friends with each other, not least because one day I wont be here to care for them and I want them to look out for each other. All children argue with their siblings, that cannot be avoided. However, when there was no clear reason for the dispute, I would try to be much more unreasonable than any of them. Comments like, “Right, that is no television ever again” or “I am banning all chocolate” would so outrage my children that they would mutter darkly about me – together – and forget all about whatever they had been arguing about. After an hour or so they would ‘persuade’ me to modify my punishment to a more sensible one.

4.Forcing your child to eat something will not make them less fussy eaters. I am an adult now, all grown up, but I still feel sick when I smell rhubarb or gooseberries cooking and I am sure it is because I was forced to eat them as a child. I did initially try the same parenting technique with my own children (most of us copy our parents to some extent) but I abandoned it when I found peas thrown out of the window and half a piece of steak blocking the toilet. If my children did not like something, they were not forced to eat it. They did have to taste it every so often, in case their tastebuds had changed, but they were happy to do that because they knew they could choose not eat it if they didn’t want to. They are all adults now and they all have a varied diet. One of them was very fussy and I do believe he could taste things that I could not taste as he was even picky over treats like chocolate or vanilla ice cream. He still dislikes a lot of food but he will eat a whole variety of food and if under pressure (like at his girlfriend’s parents house) he can force himself to eat pretty much anything. You do of course need to ensure that they have a balanced diet. However, if your child does not eat vegetables, fruit is just as healthy.

I would like to have a short rant here. I am increasingly concerned by how fat some children are in today’s society. Please have an honest look at your child. If they are over weight, you are not doing them any favours by allowing them to over eat. It is not cute. Sugar is not an essential part of life. It will not kill your child if they tell you they are hungry sometimes – offer them a baked potato or some toast – if they are not hungry enough for that, then they can wait until the next meal. They will not get enough exercise at school – that is your responsibility as a mother, not the teachers. If they are not having enough exercise, drop them off further from the school so they have to walk for a few minutes everyday. Exercise does not need to be expensive or time consuming. Also, occasionally check the ingredients of what your child is eating. If the list is full of stuff you are more likely to find in a chemistry lab than a supermarket, do you really want to feed it to your child?

5.You cannot reason with an angry boy. When girls are angry, the adrenaline stimulates the speech part of their brain and they want to talk. Sometimes for many hours non stop. The opposite happens with a boy. When they are angry, the speech part of their brain shuts down and they are more likely to hit out than discuss. Something to do with testosterone. I don’t understand the biology but I do know that it is true because I have seen it many many times with my sons and my pupils. So, if a boy is angry, do not bother explaining anything until he has calmed down. If he is small, pick him up and put him somewhere safe. If he is big, put yourself somewhere safe (the washroom is a good place. Even an angry boy will not want to risk seeing his mother using the toilet and there is usually a lock on the door.) When he is calm, then you can explain to him why he was wrong, why you behaved as you did, what is an appropriate punishment, etc.

6.You cannot raise a child on your own. We all need help, mothers especially. In an ideal world, a child is raised by two parents and four grandparents and a whole world of friends, teachers, neighbours. Ours is not an ideal world, but whatever your situation, recognise that you have limitations and get help when you need it. Lots has been written about this, about “it takes a whole village to raise a child”, or even films like “About a Boy”. It is true. When you get to the absolute limit of what you can cope with, get help. I am a sometimes praised for how nice my children are and was a successful teacher, but sometimes I couldn’t cope. I recall one evening when I phoned my brother and told him I could not cope with my teenage son. He talked to him for a while (I think they just agreed that women can be very irrational at times! But it didn’t matter, it broke a cycle that I wasn’t coping with.) Don’t let things get beyond what you can cope with, that’s when horrible things happen. If you need help, get help. It is the wise thing to do.

7.When they bring home a crap picture, tell them its crap. If you always praise them they will a) never trust you to be honest and b) always feel the need to do brilliantly. I firmly believe that if you teach your children how to fail well, then they will do well in life. One of my proudest parenting moments was when my daughter lost a race in the school sports event. She was last by a considerable margin and ran the last lap with the hugest grin to huge cheers from the crowd. She was not a sporty child, she knew she was not good at running and that was fine. In other areas she excelled and she knew that my praise was genuine. If I say something is good, they can trust that it is.

8.Treat your children differently. You can treat them equally without having to do exactly the same thing for each child. For example, I can never understand the parents who buy a gift for the other child on a siblings birthday. Letting someone else have a turn at the treat is a good learning point, this is life, they will not always be the one who gets the promotion/job/top mark etc. This is relatively easy if they are different genders – when they complain that one is allowed to go to a party or something you can explain that they are all different but equal and offer to treat them equally – if your son wants a pink tutu, to learn ballet, grow hair long enough for ribbons, etc, that would be fine with you. They will soon see the logic in being treated differently. This is the same when choosing a school, clubs etc – see them as individuals especially if they have different talents.

9.Don’t be fooled when your child tells you that you are either the best or the worst mother in the world. You are not. When they are about five and they tell you that you are the best mummy ever, that is very nice. Write it down and hold on to that memory. It wont be too long before they tell you that “all the other mother’s let their children do/have/go whatever” and they will reliably inform you that you are the worst mother ever. Brace yourself and ride the storm, taking regular peeks at the diary entry when they told you how wonderful you are and remembering that ALL good mothers are told this at some point. You are their mother, not their friend. They don’t have to like you all the time. You have to make decisions for what is best for them, not what they will necessarily want. Be brave, it is not easy. But you are the best mother that they have, so they will have to get over it. I regularly told my children, “I am not like other mothers.”

10.Do go with your gut feeling and monitor how long your child plays computer games or watches television. They can stunt creativity and the ability to communicate and keep track of real life. It wont kill your child to be bored sometimes. Or even (horrors) read a book. Decide what works for you. I found that most games, whilst addictive, also needed a certain amount of time for them to be played satisfactorily. So in our house we had ‘computer weeks’. For one week, they could play computer games for as long as they liked (not including homework times, meal times and bed times, which were rigid unless they were ill.) Then, the next week, there was no computer at all. After a couple of days, they adjusted to the lack of life support and actually managed to enjoy something like cooking or reading or playing in the garden.

11.When your child is a teenager, have difficult discussions in public. This was one of the best things that I discovered. So, if I wanted to discuss with my fifteen year old his bed time, the amount of time spent on homework or any other ‘tricky issue’ I would take him out for lunch or even a to nice coffee shop. Somewhere public. Somewhere that having a meltdown would be embarrassing for him. The social pressure helped him keep a lid on whatever anger he would like to vent and we managed to have a few very sane conversations. It was well worth the price tag.

     It should perhaps be noted, that when I began writing this article I asked my daughter if she could remember any of my parenting strategies. She informed me that:
I regularly told her she was adopted and suggested she could go and find her real parents (she looks EXACTLY like me, so this was never a problem for her.)
If something hurt, I told her it would probably fall off.
I wanted to burn down her primary school.
I made her move traffic cones that were blocking the road when I wanted to drive down it.
I also always told them that even if they did things that were rubbish, I would love them anyway (they liked that one.)

       On reflection, I may have been a slightly rubbish mother. However, all my children have grown up to be happy sane and good company. Maybe being rubbish doesn’t matter too much. God chose you to raise your child, He has confidence that you can do it. I remember reading once, you don’t have to be a perfect mother, you only have to be good enough. There is hope for us all…….

The Mystery of Pensions

The Mystery of Pensions


      Okay, so this week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, announced in his new budget that when you retire, you now have more choices about taking out some money from your pension pot as a lump sum. There was then some discussion on chat shows and daytime TV (the sort of programmes that you deny to friends ever watching) about being able to buy that sports car or luxury boat you have always wanted with money from your pension pot. Hmmmm. This needs some further thought. Here follows a simple guide to pensions.

     First, we need to know that there are two different kinds of pension. The first kind is called “Defined Benefit”. This guarantees that when you retire you will receive a certain percentage of your final salary. For life. So, if you been a teacher your whole working life and retire earning say £30,000, you might receive £15,000 every year for the rest of your life plus a £45,000 lump sum at the beginning. It will be index linked (which means if inflation goes up, so will your pension.) When you die, your spouse will get half of that. If you are lucky enough to have one of these pensions (and most companies do not now offer these, so really only government workers have them) then you are very fortunate. My advice is do not leave your job!

     However, most of us mere mortals will have what is called a “Defined Contribution” pension. (Yes, I know, very similar name. That is because financial people like to muddle us normal people. It makes them look clever. Really, they should be called “final salary pension” and “cross your fingers or pray hard pension.” That would be more accurate.) In this instance, when you retire, all the money you have paid in (plus any interest etc) is used to buy an annuity. An annuity is a financial product – you give in a lump sum, they then pay out an amount every month for the rest of your life. Some are index linked (goes up if inflation goes up), some are not.

     So, if you worked your whole life earning the same as a teacher, paying diligently into a pension fund, I estimate that you will retire with a pension pot worth £245,000. This would buy you an annuity (index linked and half for spouse on death) of £6,400 per year, with no lump sum. Pause for a moment. You have paid about £200 every month into a pension fund. That is a lot of money. You will receive about £6,000 a year to live on. That is not a lot of money. It will not allow for many ice-creams. Or even much bread.

     Now, the amount of money in your pension pot, the amount you have to buy an annuity, might have gone up or down depending on how the pension company has invested it. You need to keep an eye on it from time to time. Do not just trust it will “be enough”.

      The new rules that were announced in the budget apply to defined contribution pensions. These are what this article will be discussing.

     My first point is that if, when you retire, you take out a quarter of your pension as a lump sum, then your pension (what you receive each year for the rest of your life) will be a quarter less. This is not difficult maths! So, before you buy that yacht/ferrari/cruise/conservatory, check that when you are eighty you will still have enough money for food and heating.

     Secondly, do not over estimate how much you will receive. Pension companies are run by people who like numbers. They may wear glasses and polo shirts but they are not necessarily bad nor do they wave magic wands at things. You might work for forty years and pay (what feels like a lot) into a pension pot. You may then be retired for thirty years or more. The amount you have paid in, when spread over those retirement years may be a lot less than you think. You need to check now, before you retire and think about the numbers (brace yourself. This is your income for a long time. Force yourself to check.)You might want some chocolate when you have retired. You might even want electricity or some new clothes.

     Thirdly, when you retire, choose your next pension company – the one who will pay the annuity – carefully. It might be the same company who you have been saving with but it doesn’t have to be. Look at how much you have saved and then ‘shop around’, ask how much different companies will offer you each year that you are retired.

     Finally, think about how pension companies work. As I said before, they are maths people. When they are deciding what annuities to offer they consider things like life expectancy, stock market predictions and interest rates. Interest rates are very important. At the moment, March 2015, interest rates are at an all time low. This means annuities (remember, thats the amount you actually receive to live on) are also at an all time low. However, everyone who knows about these things, expects them to go up again. So, (big point, get ready) people about to retire should consider delaying buying their annuity. Got it? If you can work a couple of extra years or leave your pension in it’s pot for a while and not start the annuity, you might be a lot better off. Your income might be significantly higher for your whole retirement if you can wait until interest rates go up a bit.

     Some of these issues are uncomfortable to think about and if you do not enjoy numbers then they are a bit of an effort. However, think about how much you would like to receive every month when you have retired and then check how much you are likely to receive. Do not wait until it’s too late. Everyone needs chocolate, it’s a basic human right…..

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“I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”

“I don’t have to go to church to be a christian”


     Sometimes, people ask, “Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?” The short answer is clearly, “No.” I am a Christian, I have a relationship with a living God and if I were stranded on a desert island or in a country that did not allow churches, then I would still have that relationship with God. I would still be a Christian. However, the answer is not complete if left there.

     I think we first need to think about why you might ask that question. Imagine a teenaged boy describing his friendship with a girl. What if he said, “She invites me round and I go because she cooks nice food. But I tell her before I go, ‘I will come but we’re not going to talk’, so I don’t have to speak to her when I’m there. She doesn’t seem to mind.”? Frankly, that is appalling! We should not treat other people like that! Now compare that to how you might be treating God. Understand this, God likes you. He wants to have a friendship with you. That involves some effort on both sides.

     Maybe we first need to think about what is a Christian. What makes someone a Christian? “Ah,” you might say, “Well, I believe in God.” Let’s look at that for a minute. I have been reading the book of James in the Bible. I love that book – he is so rude to people! I’m sure you know that Mary gave birth to Jesus (what we celebrate every christmas) but you may not realise that after she had Jesus, she and Joseph then had other children. One of these was James. He grew up with Jesus and yet it is thought that for a while he didn’t believe that Jesus was special. There is even a story about Jesus preaching to people and his family coming to try and stop him because they thought he was crazy! That gives me hope, when I get things wrong I know that so did the people who wrote the Bible but they had a second chance at getting it right. Later, James did come to believe what Jesus was saying and at some point he wrote his book. In that book, he discusses what it means to be a Christian and he talks about people who say they believe in God. First he says, “Well done!”

     Few people would dispute that just as there are good things in the world, so too there are evil influences. In the Bible these are called demons or Satan. Now, when people tell James that they believe in God, he says, “Well done.” He then adds (a little sarcastically perhaps) “So do the demons!” You see, the Bible is very clear that these evil forces believe in God and are terrified of him because they recognise his power. Clearly demons are not Christians, so there must be more to being a Christian than just believing that God is real.

     Think about when your computer freezes. Something has gone wrong, nothing works properly and pressing ‘escape’ or ‘control and delete’ makes no difference. Sometimes, the only option is to shut it down and restart. Well, that is what becoming a Christian is. It is realising that we’ve made a mess of things, something is not working properly and we need to restart. You have a ‘restart’ button, you just need to ask God to press it for you! It really is that easy.

     There is nothing that you can do to make things right with God, you are not big enough, clever enough or good enough. So God did it all. He became a human (in the form of Jesus) and he died and was separated from the God bit of himself, which means that we don’t have to. Jesus rose up from the dead (what we celebrate at Easter time) to show that he is stronger than death, that everything is sorted out for us. We just have to ask God to press that ‘restart’ button to set us right.

     Actually, this can be quite hard to do. We like to be in control, we like to think that what we do makes a difference, that somehow we can become good enough for God. Well, I have to tell you, the Bible is very clear, there is nothing that you can do to be acceptable to God. You are not good enough. So God did it for you. You do have to be prepared to accept that gift though, you do have to want that ‘restart’ button to be pressed. If life is going well for you, that can be a bit scary. We are worried that it means loss of control, that we wont be ourselves anymore. Let me remind you of what I said at the beginning: God likes you. Really, he does! He doesn’t want you to become a different person, just a better version of yourself.

     You don’t have to be a ‘bad’ person to need God. Everyone needs him. I have travelled to lots of different countries, met rich people and poor and I can honestly tell you, people are people wherever you go. I have stayed at the Savoy Hotel and been driven to St James’ Palace in a fleet of silver mercedes to have dinner with Prince Charles (this is due to who I married, nothing to do with me, in case you are mistaken into thinking I am great in any way.) I have also stayed in a mud hut in Zambia with a couple who were HIV positive. I have visited China, Singapore, Dubai, India, Italy, America and most of Europe and there is one thing that I can tell you. People are the same. They might be culturally very different, but deep down, we all want the same things, we all love, we all have fears, we all make a mess of things. We all need God. It is that simple.

     So, what comes next? After we have admitted that actually we might not be perfect and we want to include God in our lives, what do we have to do now? Well, you do not have to do anything (including go to church.) However, if you really have ‘restarted’ (and not just said the words to yourself as a sort of magic chant or insurance policy), if you really do want to include God in how you live, then that will make a difference to how you live.

     A baby is alive after he’s born, but he doesn’t grow into a healthy child and adult unless he eats and exercises. So, just as we need to spend time with people and chat with them to develop a friendship, so too we need to spend time with God. No, this still does not have to involve going to a church! We chat with God by praying (saying things to him, either out loud or thinking them in our heads.) We listen to God by paying attention to our consciences, reading the Bible (where he has given us lots of hints about what he is like) and by listening to other christians. Ah, now we get to the church bit. How can you listen to other Christians, hear their story and share yours, if you never meet any?

     It is a bit like supporting a football team. I can say I support Crystal Palace. I can buy a scarf that’s the right colour, I can check the results in the newspaper, I can even watch a match on television. But it would be hard for that knowledge to touch my emotions. However, if I attend one of their games, if I stand with other supporters and cheer when they score, then just the volume and shared excitement will begin to affect me. I am helped along by other fans’ enthusiasm and I actually feel part of what I say I am involved with. It is hard (and a bit boring) to be a football fan in isolation. It is the same with being a Christian.

     “What constitutes a church?” you might ask. Does it need to be in an Anglican Church building or does the church that meets in my local school count? Well, if we look back at the Bible, a ‘church’ was actually just a group of people who believed the same thing. The first Christians were actually thrown out of their synagogues (the equivalent of our church buildings) and tended to meet secretly in houses. A church is not the building, it is the people. Sometimes buildings can be helpful. I cannot stand in a huge cathedral like St Paul’s without thinking about God, all the architecture has been designed to make me feel like that. However, the building is not essential. Three people meeting in a field to talk about God, to pray and study the Bible together; that is a church.

     Some people might say they don’t need God, they are wrong. I think this is why Jesus talked about it being hard for a rich person to know God. When we are healthy and comfortable it can be hard to acknowledge that we need God, we think we are ‘okay actually’. Some people think they are too bad to know God, they are wrong too. God is able to press the ‘restart’ button for murderers, thieves, adulterers and even that nasty gossip from down the road! The Bible calls all that ‘sin’, but it’s not a word that tends to crop up at the dinner table so I have tried to avoid using it. None of us is good enough, certainly I’m not. That’s another reason for going to a church – it will help you to realise that you are not the only bad person who God likes!

    Have you ever read ‘Screwtape Letters’ by C.S. Lewis? If not, buy a copy. It’s a brilliant book, very funny but with some really poignant truths included. He talks about all the strange and ordinary people who attend church.

    “Ah,” you might say, “But churches are religious. I am a Christian but I don’t believe in religion. Religion just causes trouble, look at all the wars that have been started by religion.” You are half right. Religion does cause trouble. That is why Jesus did not start a new religion, he just pointed people to God. He refused to set down lists of rules, he just gave people principles to live by. When churches start making lots of rules, when they are more concerned with religion than with God, then they are missing the point. Christianity is meant to be about relationship, not rules.

     I am often told that “church is boring.” Yes, sometimes it is. If it always is, then maybe you are going to the wrong church. I would also ask you, when you go to church, what are you expecting to get out of it? If your answer is “nothing” then you are probably right, you probably will get nothing from attending. However, if you dare to go hoping that you might hear God speaking to you, then that is much more likely to happen. Sometimes it is something the speaker says, sometimes it’s something in the reading that week, or a hymn that’s sung, or even what the person giving out the hymn books says, but usually, if we expect God to speak, we hear him. I would also say that just like a growing baby, we grow in faith very slowly. Sometimes it is much later that we remember something that was said in church and it helps us. But if you weren’t there, you wont hear it.

     If church is a collection of people, then try to find a church which has people like you in it. If you are a teenager, try to find where other teenaged Christians meet. If you are a retired person, then try to find somewhere that older Christians meet. If a church caters for all ages that is wonderful but in my experience it is rare.

    Do we have to go to church on Sundays? I guess not. If you attend a school Christian Union or something similar, then that is really just another form of ‘church’. We are advised though that we need one day a week that we keep as a holy day, a day to rest and where thinking about God is part of our routine (I think God knew how bad we would be at including him, so suggested that it should become part of our schedule!) That is hard to do if we attend ‘church’ on a week day.

    What about other religions? To be honest, I don’t know. As I said, christianity is all about that ‘restart’ button, about including God in your life and having a relationship with him. I don’t know if people can find God in other religions. I do have a sneaky suspicion that when I get to Heaven there will be a lot of people there who I wasn’t expecting! Whether or not people have a relationship with God is between them and God.

    What about Hell? Again, this is something that I don’t know much about about. If being with God makes us complete and fulfilled then I guess Hell must be the opposite of that. Sometimes people ask about who goes to Hell and what about people who try but never knew God. I cannot say, that is between them and God. But the Bible is pretty clear that if people decide that they don’t want to include God when they are physically alive, then God will respect that after they have died. That’s what free will and choice is all about, even if it means terrible consequences.

    So, have a think and decide what you believe. If you haven’t ever asked God to press the ‘restart’ button in your life, maybe now is a good time to do so. There aren’t any magic words, God is God, not a genie in a bottle! You might say something like:

   “God, I believe that you are real. I know that I make mistakes and I’m sorry. Please will you forgive all the things that I’ve done wrong. Please be part of my life. I want you to be my God.”

    Then, you should tell someone. We are physical beings and telling someone will help you to believe what you have done and not forget about it. Then go and find some other christians! In England you could look for somewhere that runs an Alpha course (they tend to be churches that welcome new Christians.)

    Do you have to go to church if you are a Christian? Not unless you want to grow……

How to teach your child to read



How to Teach Your Child to Read

by Anne E Thompson

If you want to teach your child to read, as a primary school teacher, I am tempted to say:“Don’t!” There are lots of things, like tying shoe laces, identifying birds in the garden and cracking an egg into a cup, which are easiest taught at home and which you will do so much better than a teacher. When done badly, it is actually possible that you might delay your child’s reading or cause problems that can take years to undo.

However, as a mother, I know that teaching your child can be rewarding and fun and we want to do it. This article therefore aims to give you some helpful hints on the sort of things that you might do at home with your child. It also lists a few of the problems that can arise if done badly.

  Firstly, the most important thing that you can do is read and let your child see you reading. Children are great imitators and if they see both their mother and their father reading, then they will want to. You can read anything: books, newspapers, recipes, instruction manuals. What is important is that your child sees you reading. Young children who never or rarely see their parents read are less likely to want to themselves because it does not seem important. They are at that stage where they think everything you do is wonderful and will want to copy. (Unfortunately, this stage does not last long. By the time they are teenagers they will think everything you do is wrong, so make the most of it!)

You also need to have lots of reading material in your home. This does not have to be expensive, join the library or visit jumble sales and buy some cheap secondhand books. If children see their parents reading and if there are books in the home, it is a natural step for them to pick up a book and turn the pages. It does not matter if they are only looking at the pictures or saying words that are not in the book, the first stage of learning to read is ‘playing’ with a book for pleasure.

  You also need to read to your child. Sit them on your knee and read them a story. They will learn that reading is something pleasurable, that can be done in a relaxed manner and will also start to internalise written language. This can be done at any age (some people even advocate reading to your unborn baby!) It will help your child learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak. Much of reading is to do with prediction (which I will explain in more detail later) and if they have heard, “Once upon a time…” a few times it will help them later when they are decoding for themselves.

Let your child see that you turn the pages one at a time and read the words from left to right, top to bottom. Even before they can read, they will start to copy this behaviour.

If you are a working parent, it can be hard to find time in the day to read with your child. However, it really is important. Try to set aside the same time each day and make it part of the rhythm of the day. It does not matter if it is every day while you eat breakfast or last thing in the evening when they are in bed. Read to them! It is as important as cleaning their teeth!

Do not rush into ‘proper’ reading lessons with your child. There is an age whereby a child is physically too young to learn to read. The human brain is a wonderful organ and it takes about 21 years to be fully developed. Different parts of the brain have different functions and control different things. It develops from back to front and inside to outside. You would not sit your child in the drivers seat of your car and tell him to drive – if nothing else you can see that he is not tall enough to look out the windscreen and his legs are not long enough to reach the pedals. Learning to read also needs physical development, but it is harder to gauge because we cannot see that a child is not ready.
There is a substance called myelin, which I do not fully understand (I am a teacher, not a neurologist!) which is essential for a child to be capable of reading. It somehow enables the eye to carry symbols to the brain and for the brain to then decode them into language.

Now, if a child is ‘forced’ to read before they have developed sufficiently, they will use different parts of the brain to decode symbols (the brain is very clever, if it cannot use one pathway, it will make a different one.) This can then cause problems later and they will have to ‘unlearn’ what they are doing, which is very difficult. For this reason, some countries will not begin to teach reading in schools until a child is aged seven and they can be confident that the brain is sufficiently developed.

  However, some children are ready to read long before then – which is why you are reading this article! My daughter learnt to read when she was aged three. One son learnt when he was four, the other was not ready to learn until he was well over five and had started school. There is no correlation between when they learnt to read and their long term academic success. It is not an indication of intelligence, it is an indication of physical development. So do not get involved in competitive mum talk! You may just as well be proud of your child’s hair colour as the age they learn to read!

  It can be difficult to know when your child is ready to learn to read. I do not have a foolproof method, so will simply share my own experience.

  Firstly, I watched my children. As children develop, they are able to use and control their large limbs first (Swaying an arm to hit a baby mobile) then their smaller limbs (holding something in a fist) then their fine motor skills develop (playing with a thread of cotton and holding it with a finger tip and thumb.) Fine motor skills give an indication of how your child is developing.

    Secondly, I played a game with them to discover if they could recognise a symbol. I wrote lots of random letters on a piece of paper (or could be shapes) and wrote one at the top. Then I said: “This is an ‘a’, can you point at the other ‘a’s on the paper?

If they could consistently match letters/shapes, I would begin trying to teach reading. If they did not seem to be learning, I stopped and tried again in a few months.

  So, what do you actually do to teach your child to read? I think that you need to understand the different components of reading and give your child experience in all of them. Education is constantly changing and the methods of teaching and testing reading ability seem to change from decade to decade. However, you are a parent, not a teacher, so you do not have to worry about current policy, you can just give your child a varied reading experience and discover what works for you. Here are some ideas which I suggest you muddle up and use in any order as often as you can. Just be sure that every activity is fun.

  Reading is very similar to listening. To listen, you hear sounds, your brain sorts the different sounds into words and you derive meaning. When reading, you see symbols (which in English are letters, grouped into words) which the brain then deciphers into meaning. When you listen, you do not hear every word. Much of your understanding comes from the tone and the context and what you feel makes sense. The same is true of reading. When you read you do not look at every letter – you do not even look at every word if reading fluently and quickly. Again, you use the context and what is logical to make sense of what you have read.

  Context is very important. You can even ‘read’ things that make no sense because you will use your understanding of how language works to fill in the gaps. So, if you read:
“Judy loved to blimp. Every morning she went blimping. Whatever the weather, rain or shine, Judy could be found blimping away. When she thought back over her year, Judy realised she must have ……… a thousand times.”
If you are a fluent reader, you will probably decipher the last sentence as “Judy realised she must have blimped a thousand times. This is with you having no idea what the verb ‘to blimp’ means!

You can teach your child to use the context of what is being read by asking them to predict the end of phrases. Ask them to read with you and when you read “Once upon …” let them read “…a time.” Sit so your child can see the words, you read the story but leave some gaps where there are ‘obvious’ words and let your child say them. This is developing their prediction skills and their ability to use the context of what is written. Later, when they are reading on their own, they will also use the pictures as part of the context that helps them decode the text.

  Another part of reading is word recognition. There are words which we hardly need to look at, we know their shapes so well. I would teach word recognition as a separate activity to reading. There is, in my view, a real danger that children will focus too much on individual words and not enough on the meaning of the text. We want our children to become fluent readers, not people with amazing memories who can remember thousands of words.

One good way to teach word recognition is to cut up some cardboard and write some simple words on it. Then play a game of ‘pairs’ or ‘bingo’ with the words. Then, when you are reading to your child, if you come to one of the words that they have learnt you can stop and let them read that word. Reading then becomes a shared activity, with you reading most of the story and them filling in any words they have learnt to recognise and any that are obvious from the context. Gradually, they will read more and more of the text themselves.

  Children need to see lots of words and several different types of text. If they are cooking, help them follow a simple recipe. If you have time, write out a recipe for them, if nothing else they will learn lots of imperative verbs. (Imperative verbs are bossy verbs, like ‘put’, ‘fill’, ‘place’.)

Some people make word cards and place them around their house, so every coffee table, kitchen appliance, door, etc is labelled. I expect that this does help children to recognise words (however, I personally would not want to live in that house, so I never did that with my own children . Plus my children were quite inventive, so would probably have switched the labels around, thus confusing the youngest!)

Magnetic letters on the fridge are a fun way for children to practice making words. Do check them though, one of my children wrote lots of mis-spelt swear words. He thought that as he’d never heard me say them I would not know what they were! It was funny, but slightly embarrassing when visitors came.

  Another part of reading is phonics (the sounds of letters.) A fluent reader rarely uses phonics unless they are introduced to a new word. It slows the flow of reading and is fairly inaccurate. Most people do not say the pure letter sounds, so ‘l’ becomes ‘le’. If you sound out ‘le’ ‘o’ ‘o’ ‘ke’ ‘e’ ‘de’ it is very unlikely you will decipher ‘looked.’ However, it can be useful in giving children a clue about what a word might be.

Again, I always taught phonics as a separate lesson to reading. It is a natural part of a spelling lesson and when children have internalised phonics they will use them very naturally when reading. If they are directed to ‘sound out’ words too often then they start to focus all their attention on individual letters and all meaning of the text is forgotten. It is possible to say all the correct words and not actually derive any meaning from the text. If given some German to read, I can probably say all the words correctly but will not have any idea what the text is about. Unfortunately, some children learn to read like this. They are able to say the sounds of the letters to form words, but the words never seem to touch their brain, to have any real meaning. They have to listen to themselves speaking to understand what the words mean, which obviously slows up their reading and is not what they should be doing.

A good way to teach initial letter sounds is to play “I spy”. You can use either letter names or letter sounds (your child needs to learn both) and they will gradually build up a good knowledge of words that begin with the same sounds. You can always write the letter on a piece of paper, so they also begin to recognise the shape.

I often told “The Magic Pens” story (see under children’s stories at Story link here.) It is best told rather than read and I would tell it to the class whilst writing the relevant words on the white board. The children always, unprompted, would join in with chanting the lists of words, which made a fun way for them to learn phonics. Also, as the initial letter is a different colour, it helps dyslexic readers. It was a great time filler when waiting to go for lunch or assembly and the children always enjoyed it, especially if we included some naughty words like ‘bum’! It can be extended by the teacher returning to the classroom in the morning and making a sentence with the words, such as: “Kit wanted to sit but a nit bit her so she had a fit.” You can do the same activity at home. If you write a sentence with the words, put it on the fridge and your child can return to them throughout the day and read what was written. Obviously, change the letters used each time, so the child begins to build up a good knowledge of letter blends. You can also start with initial sounds, such as ‘br’ or ‘ch’ and change the story accordingly.
{Incidentally, I have only ever told the Magic Pen stories in a classroom. If you try them at home, please let me know if they are still fun and if the child joins in! }

  Your child also needs to read books. Proper, child friendly, story books. It does not matter if they cannot initially read every word, they need the opportunity to explore them and to practice reading. Try to find some simple books that have very repetitive language. Read the story to your child a few times first (Yes, they will remember the words, that is okay, reading uses memory!) If there is a word they cannot read, just tell them. Do not tell them to ‘sound it out’, that takes all the fun out of reading. If they are asking you for help,that is excellent, they are showing that they understand the text has meaning and they want to know what it says.

  Do not ever be tempted to buy the books from the school reading scheme. Your child’s teacher will be using them to both teach and as a diagnostic tool to assess your child’s progress. If your child has read them at home, they will give an unrealistic performance (which the teacher will be aware of) and will also be bored with them and not want to read them again at school. It is hugely unhelpful and will slow their progress. If your child’s teacher wants the child to practice the school books at home, they will be sent home for you to borrow.

  Do not force a child who does not want to read to begin learning. I home-schooled one of my children when we were living abroad and I found reading a real tension point. It really mattered to me that he should read fluently and he decided he did not want to learn. (This is the child who every day picked up his pen by the wrong end and told me he could not remember which way round it went! Some children need more patience and prayers than others….) I did teach him eventually – mainly thanks to finding some simple books about a dragon who had a pet cat that pooped everywhere, which appealed to my son immensely! However, he never enjoyed reading. Even as a teenager, he would pay his younger brother to read to him the books set by his school while he did something ‘more interesting.’ I do not know if his personality means he would never have enjoyed reading or if my daily frustration with his four year old awkward self somehow left a lasting impression. If I could turn back the clock I would tell myself to stop trying, have a rest and start again in six months time.

  On a similar vein, do let older children choose their own books. Another mistake I made was when my daughter, who had read fluently from a very young age, was about eight. I decided that she should be reading books that would extend her and gave her lots of the child classics (The Railway Children, Little Woman, that sort of thing.) She just wanted to read simple tales of magic and princesses! After a while, she stopped reading for pleasure completely. She did, after a year or so, begin again but I had made the mistake of taking the fun out of reading. It has to be fun. If children enjoy reading, they will always read. We might enjoy reading Dickens, but we need a few novels in between time too.

  Your child will learn to read at his/her own pace. Just as some children learn to walk as early as ten months of age and others are well over a year, so some children acquire reading skills very quickly and others learn more slowly. Try not to worry and absolutely do not start comparing with other children! You have been given a very special role in raising your child, let them develop at their own speed, they are not like anyone else. If they seem completely disinterested in reading, stop trying to teach them (but do not stop reading to them) and enjoy other experiences instead. If there is a problem, your child’s teacher will alert you but probably your child is just not quite ready to start learning yet.

  Watching your child learn to read is hugely rewarding and very exciting! I hope that you will both enjoy the experience and it will be special activity that you share.

More articles, stories and poems at:

Anne E. Thompson

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