Tips for larger family living

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There’s been a lot of coverage in the news over the last few weeks about large US families, and it’s fair to say that many people are curious about how they run, hence the popularity of TV programmes such as ’19 kids and counting’. Glossing over the many and various religious and political agendas flying around (I coirish-600uld write at least ten polemical posts on all of that, but I won’t), in this post I’d like to peel back the layers a bit of our own household.

We often have anything up to eight people around at home at any one time, and all this needs a careful hand at the tiller in order to prevent chaos. Here are ten ways larger families streamline life to make more time for the important things, such as hanging out with the kids.

1. Try not to do more laundry in a day that you can wash, dry and put away. This avoids your home looking like a refugee camp.

2. If your house looks like a tip, go around with an empty laundry basket and pick up all the rogue items lying around in the wrong place, and put them in it. Then make one of the kids put it all away. Pay them to do this if necessary.

3. If you find a room hard to tidy up, you either have too much stuff or not enough shelving. Sort out either or both of those to remove mess and related energy drain.

4. Children do not need to attend dozens of expensive clubs in order to mature properly, with parents driving them around like wannabe Uber chauffeurs. To simplify children’s extra-curricular lives, allow everyone a maximum of one after school music activity and one sports activity a week, preferably in similar times and locations, and that’s it. If these can take place at their school at minimal cost, so much the better. If they don’t want to do extra-curricular activities, that’s fine. Let them just play out with their friends after school.

5. Your home is not a restaurant. Allow people to eat three square meals a day, the same food at the same time, then the kitchen is closed. No grazing, no picking, no making of mess. If people are hungry between meals, direct them to the fruit bowl, or if they are teenagers or sporty people, allow them to make toast as long as they clear up afterwards. You will save money and a lot of time cleaning if you are suitably draconian about this. It also becomes easier to manage your children’s weight and nutritional intake properly.

6. Specify quiet hours where people need to keep noise and music down in order for everyone to get enough rest. Ours are 9pm to 7am, for example. Yours will depend on the ages of your children, working hours and so on.

7.  When there are a few things that are getting annoying, such as acts of selfishness or rule breaching, we call a family meeting. Everyone sits around the table, we all get refreshments, and we have an agenda. We discuss the points of annoyance and agree a way forward. We then sign a short agreement confirming what has been said.  It works miracles, frankly.

8. If children repeatedly get in trouble with school for forgetting homework, uniform, PE kit, lunch money and so on, make them responsible for the consequences rather than you. After alerting the school to your cunning plan, supply them with a list of what is required on which day, and stick it up somewhere obvious. Do not run into school with forgotten items for them. Allow them to get into trouble and get detentions if necessary. They will soon work out what they need to remember. If you mention this at a parents’ evening consultation, any teacher will back you up. Teachers love nothing more than children learning to take responsibility for their own stuff, supported by parents.

9. There’s a lot to be said for keeping a Box of Last Resort to hand. You can find out how to create one here.

10. When the going gets tough, the tough go out for a family walk. Many arguments and difficulties are caused by sitting around the house too much. Fresh air followed by a hot chocolate or a cup of tea can solve a lot of problems.


Hiking with the family

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For cheap or free outings during the summer, there’s nothing to beat hiking through the countryside with the kids. So what do you need to think about when planning a trip? Well, first of all you have to plan a route that would be worthy of Goldilocks – not too long, not too short, and with plenty to see and do on the way. Surprisingly, most children can manage an hour’s hiking from the age of about 3, which should involve about 2 miles if it is flat. If you train them up well, then they can easily manage half day hikes from about the age of 7 or 8, and full day hikes by secondary school age, hitting these targets even younger if you take them very regularly. For beginners, planning ambitious peak bagging excursions in the Lake District is probably not the best place to start, so you need to think of something a bit more modest. In such cases, riverside hikes can be particularly good, with birds and canal boats to look at, as can hikes around stately homes and reservoirs with tea and cakes afterwards in the cafe. Tuck away a carrier bag or two and towards the end of August, you can even collect some blackberries while you are out.

One of the secrets to success is making sure kids have the right gear on, especially if the ground is uneven or the weather changeable. Proper hiking boots and breathable, waterproof jackets bought second hand off Ebay are a great start, but it that’s too expensive, try making sure they have decent, well-fitting wellingtons with a supportive insole and couple of pairs of socks on, as well as lots of layers that can be stripped off or added to, depending on the weather. Also take a small first aid kit with blister plasters, insect cream, suncream and high energy Lucozade tablets (a great placebo), and pack a small picnic for en route. The ideal picnic includes lots of liquid, for example watered-down fruit juice, wholemeal bread sandwiches for slow energy release, fruit, muesli bars and biscuits. My grandfather used to tuck away a small toblerone for me to eat when we got to the top of a mountain, which was very motivating, and you might like to think about doing something like this as well. Finally, it can be good to give each child their own little backpack for special treasures – favourite fluffy toy, dolls, penknife, binoculars, torch, camera and so on.  Then onwards and maybe even upwards!

Image: Simon Howden /

Do you want to ride your bicycle?

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Here’s a simple check list for getting your bike up and running now it’s the better weather.

You will need

A pump that actually fits your tyres. This might have a little tube thing that comes out of the end and screws onto both  the wheel and the pump, in which case it’s designed for a Schrader valve. If you need to screw the pump straight onto the wheel, and there’s no removable tube thing,  it’s called a Presta valve. Some pumps will have an adaptor so they can be used for both types of valve. Keep it handy in your hallway or garage.

Some WD40 spray oil in a can, or cycle oil.

Batteries for your lights.

A cycle tool or set of hex keys and spanners to fit your bike.

A bucket of warm water, a cleaning cloth, non stick pan scrub and some Cif.

How to do it

1. Wipe down the main areas of your bike with the Cif to remove any mud. Avoid cleaning the chain. Rinse, and polish dry.

2. Tighten up anything that appears to be rattling, reposition anything that seems to be rubbing on things that it shouldn’t. For example, if your brakes are squeaky, it may be that they have got knocked and just easing them to a central position will solve the problem, adjusting the brake pads carefully so they don’t touch the rim of the wheel when in motion, but are near enough to do so if you decide to brake. If your mud guards are rattling, again, ease them into a central position or tighten up any nuts. If your seat or handlebars don’t feel completely secure, a couple of twists with a spanner should do it.

3. Pump up your tyres so you can only just press your thumb into the top where the tread is once they are fully inflated. Don’t overfill them, otherwise the inner tube will burst. If you underinflate them, you will wear the inner tube out.  Get into the habit of pumping them up at least two to three times a week for optimum performance. Carry a small pump with you when cycling for emergencies.

4. Replace the batteries in your lights so they are ready for use and don’t run out unexpectedly.

5. Give the chain a couple of drops of oil, or a spray or two of WD40. You might also do this for your bicycle lock.

Organising family cycling – top tips

Make sure everyone has a parcel carrier and/or a basket so they can carry their own gear, however young they are. Even our smallest child has a basket on the front of his Postman Pat tricycle for his cagoule and teddy.

Teach children independence by getting them to lock up their bikes safely and securely (so they don’t fall over or get knocked) whenever they park them, and attaching the locks to holders on their bikes when they are riding them. Combination locks can be a little unreliable but are easy for children to use, and can be complemented with an adult D-lock on family trips, when you can lock several bikes together.

Have a box with spare pumps, light, batteries and basic repair kit readily to hand, so you can easily repair things if you are in a hurry. There’s nothing worse than embarking on the school run only to realise someone has a flat tyre, but that another family member has lost the only pump.

Make friends with your local bike repair person so they are more willing to mend a flat tyre for you in a hurry.

Children always need to wear helmets, even on bike paths, as they come off more often and hit their heads, and their skulls are soft. Adults need to wear helmets in traffic, or when doing sports cycling, or if unsteady, but statistically are more likely to break an arm or a leg in other cycling accidents, so strictly speaking have more of a choice in whether a helmet is truly necessary for them, depending on a risk assessment of the cycling conditions. Keep your family cycle helmets on a shelf in a row or hanging from a row of hooks, so they are easily accessible.

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Gaming, the old fashioned way

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Yesterday I posted about how to organise a home-based children’s party for younger kids. Here are some well-loved games that might help entertain everyone. If there are other games your family plays, I’d be very interested to hear about them, so please make a comment.


  • Pass the parcel – wrap a small toy in alternate layers of contrasting colours of tissue paper, sticking a small sweet on the outside of each layer. Play some party music while the children pass the parcel around the circle. Stop the CD from time to time, and invite the child who is holding the parcel when the music stops to take off a layer of paper. The winner is the child who opens the last layer of paper and finds the prize.
  • Pin the tail on the donkey – have a picture of a donkey up on an easel or the wall, with a picture of the tail cut out with Blu-tack on the back for children to attach. Get the children to stand in a line and take turns in being blindfolded, coming forward one at a time to try to get the tail in the correct place. The winner is the child who gets the tail nearest to the correct place, with a lollipop or a plastic medal being a good prize (as it is for all the party games mentioned here).
  • Musical bumps – Play some party music and turn it off from time to time. When the music stops, children have to sit down as quickly as they can. The last one left standing is out and has to sit by the side.  The winner is the last child left.
  • Musical statues – As for Musical bumps but the children have to stand as still as possible when the music stops. Anyone moving or smiling is out. The adults can go around checking and ever so slightly teasing if necessary.
  • Islands – Scatter cushions or pieces of A4 paper around the room. Get the children dancing to some party music, and then when the music stops, they have to sit on one of the islands. Then take one island away and repeat, so the last child to find an island is out. Continue until there is only one child left.
  • Passing balloons – Get into two teams. Give each team a balloon. Get the teams to pass the balloon via their knees along the line and back, rather like the television programme It’s a Knockout in the 1970s. The winning team is the first to get the balloon back to the front. Prizes for the winning team could be small packets of Smarties.
  • Egyptian mummies (the most popular game at our parties) – Get into pairs. Give each pair a (cheap) toilet roll. The challenge is for each pair to wrap one of the members up as a mummy, to best effect. An adult then judges on the basis of completeness of wrapping, and style. The winning pairs get a small prize.
  • Chocolate game – You will need hat, scarf, gloves, knife and fork, and a whole bar of chocolate on a plate. The children sit in a circle and take turns in throwing a dice. When somebody gets a six, he/she has to put on the hat/scarf/gloves and attempt to eat the chocolate with a big knife and fork until the next person throws a six. Continue until all the chocolate has gone.


  • Simon says – The adult at the front gives the children instructions like “Put your hands in their air”, “Hop on one leg”; “Do an impression of a chicken”, “Turn round and round”. If the instruction begins with “Simon says”, then it counts and the children are supposed to do it. If the instruction does not begin with “Simon Says”, and a child carries it out, then he/she is out of the game and has to sit at the side. The winner is the last child left.
  • Sleeping lions – This one is simple. All the children lie motionless on the floor, as if they are sleeping. Any child who moves is immediately out. Towards the end, the adults and any children who are out might try encouraging the sleeping children to move or laugh. The winner is the child who manages to survive the longest.

Image: Tom Clare /

Happier Birthdays

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The children’s birthday party is another area that can cause a great deal of stress to 21st century parents. All too often I have seen echoey church halls filled with the entire class screaming their heads off, with a bouncy castle, entertainer, and disco all thrown in. The parents of the birthday boy or girl are left to try to handle 30 overexcited children whilst trying to duck the inevitable food fight that takes place about half way through. At the end there are expensive party bags and helium balloons, and having spent hundreds of pounds, the hosts can’t wait for everyone to leave.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Children do not need multiple expensive forms of entertainment to have a good time. They do not need church halls, clowns and inflatable equipment. If you have reasonable child handling skills, it is possible to scale the whole thing back without your child becoming a social pariah. More importantly, it’s possible to have children’s birthday parties in a family context so children can play with each other while parents also share a cup of tea and a bun, and get to know each other properly. This offers huge benefits in terms of socialising children and teaching them about being good hosts and guests. But like anything worthwhile, it does take a great deal of forward planning.

Here is a schedule for a home based party. Depending on the size of your home, this should be for 6-12 children and some associated parents who feel like staying as well. It is not necessary to invite every child your son or daughter knows, even if everyone else does. If other parents are tempted to stay for a cup of tea and a natter, then you are not abandoned alone with a tribe of children to care for, so this is to be encouraged. For older children, consider a cinema trip on a Saturday morning to a Kids’ Club, when it only usually costs £1 or thereabouts. Take your own microwave popcorn with you.

Before the party

Send out invitations designed on a computer with the date, time, address, phone number, map, and an indication that parents are welcome to stay, along with a request for guests to RSVP by a certain date.

On the day

Stick a few paper streamers up on the ceiling with white Blu-tack, and decorate the walls using balloons and any Happy Birthday banners you might have. The children could also make a paper chain and that could be pinned up as well. Tape three balloons to your front door so everyone knows which house to go to, and so it all looks festive.


Children arrive, put cards and presents on side table for opening later. Host child greets everyone. Any accompanying parents offered a drink. Party music on hifi and depending on children’s ages, a simple activity laid out in case the children need something to do before the party proper starts (eg decorating party hats).


Play a selection of party games lasting about five minutes each. You’ll get a list of these in a future post, along with instructions.


Have the birthday tea.  Assuming you don’t have a dining table big enough to seat all the children, to minimise mess, sit them on a big picnic rug on the floor (or in the garden) and hand each child a little cardboard picnic box or little paper carrier bag with the following:

  • A drink in a carton or sports-type bottle (the latter is less messy). If funds are tight, you can serve squash in paper cups but expect there to be many spillages, so light coloured squashes are probably best. (Similarly you can use paper plates for food but again more will get dropped).
  • A small packet of crisps or hula hoops
  • A fairy cake (see recipe)
  • A shortbread person (see recipe)
  • A bridge roll filled with grated cheese or cheese spread
  • 2 little sausages

Naturally the children will eat the sweet things first and the adults will try to eat the little sausages. That’s the way parties work. If you include healthy things like cherry tomatoes, grapes and carrot sticks in the party teas, this will pretty much all be rejected, unless it’s a very unusual group of children.


Clear up the food by getting the children to put waste into a big black bin bag. Fold up the blanket. Time for two more calmer games, to slow everyone down before the end.


Home time. Each child gets a paper party bag (this can be home made from glossy children’s magazine pages twirled into a cone, stuck with tape, and given a ribbon handle). Contents should include various bargains from the pound shop, such as coloured pencils and novelty rubbers or sharpeners from a multipack, balloons, bubbles, little toys and a packet of Smarties or similar.

After the party

As part of the socialisation process, it’s very important that any child old enough to sign his or her name sends out little thank you notes for any presents received.

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Healthy after school snacks

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Try these to keep the little’uns away from the biscuit tin.

Bread sticks

Yoghurts, in little pots of natural with a bit of honey. Cut comb honey always has a pleasing novelty value.

Fruit kebabs

Microwave popcorn

Cheese sticks

Toasted crumpet or muffin with olive spread

Ryvita with raisins inside

Carrot sticks or pitta bread fingers with dip made from 6 teaspoons low fat mayo and 1 teaspoon ketchup mixed together.

Image: Paul /

Spiritual housekeeping

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Today I’m writing about how to enhance your wellbeing through looking outwards, with nine tried and tested techniques for relating to your community.

  1. Ask for advice. An example of this might be something as simple as approaching a neighbour who is a keen gardener for information about which plants grow most easily in your particular neighbourhood, or asking a well-groomed colleague about their hairdresser. Asking for such things builds personal links with others.
  2. Find excuses to do small favours. You might offer to keep an eye on a neighbour’s house while they are away, and let them come back to a bottle of milk in the fridge and a loaf of bread in the cupboard. Or donate surplus home grown flowers and vegetables to those around you.  Maybe babysit for someone has been cooped up with young children, so they can get out of the house. Favours do not always have to be reciprocal – they are worth doing even if they only add to the sum total of human kindness.
  3. Try throwing your house open especially if you are a busy working parent, to other people in the same situation from the local area now and then, for a glass of wine  and mutual conversation. Alternatively , organise a group meal out together. This way you can build and reinforce a sense of solidarity and community.
  4. Set up a food group so you can order supplies together and get a wholesale discount, or even share an allotment.
  5. Pot up cuttings from your garden or windowbox, and offer them to anyone who is developing a new flowerbed or  remodelling their own patch. Even a carefully nurtured shoot from a spider plant can be a love offering.
  6. Help maintain the pavements in bad weather by clearing your section, as well as those of any adjacent neighbours too frail to help. In summer, offer to trim back hedges or branches that might be bothering your neighbour.
  7. Give and receive lifts. For practical reasons, it’s often impossible to organise regular shared lifts to work, despite the relentless nagging we experience at the hand of large organisations obsessed by carbon reduction targets, invariably generated by those fortunate enough to be able to pootle up to work on a bicycle without a care in the world. However it is often useful to give and receive lifts to social events, for example, and this can be an easier goal.
  8. Share your cooking. Once you have a decent mealtime system going, it is comparatively easy to cook a little extra and make space at your table for a visitor, who might be a new person to the area, an local student, a recently arrived colleague from your workplace, or a new friend from your children’s school. Home cooking and socialising is often appreciated more than you might realise in these situations.
  9. Share your children. They don’t belong to us, they are just passing through. Help them bring joy to the lives of friends and older relatives, through thoughtful letters and visits, which can be short but regular. If your relatives don’t appreciate your children (and sadly some in our society seem to have lost the knack of interacting with them, and become unduly judgemental instead), then consider finding places where your children are appreciated and enjoyed, and spend some time there as well.

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