The Best Days of Their Lives

The everyday stories of family life, told with love and joy

Category: Language (page 1 of 2)

Hey diddle diddle

Hey diddle diddle

The cushion and the computer,

The song jumped over the number three;

The watch laughed,

To see the bear,

And the bench ran away with the window.

I have no idea how many words Mtoto has in his vocabulary, but there sure are a lot. He’s found another way to test them out in the past few days, using the popular refrain about the cat and the fiddle, converting it into all kinds of silliness. We first heard Mtoto using the poem one evening in his cot. No doubt he’s heard the poem many times from several poetry books that we have. The first few times that he used it himself he stuck to the original words. But as he’s grown in confidence with it, he’s been mixing it up. Sometimes the spoon jumps over the moon. In other versions, all the key words are replaced. Of course, as he tries something out, we praise him and we laugh. And he’s encouraged and he does it again, with some more words.

I love listening to Mtoto using his words.


How Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Safari inspired Mtoto

There’s yet more fun with Mtoto this week as a book he got for Christmas has fired his imagination.

Axel Scheffler is best known for his illustrations of Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo and some of her other stories. Some of his other work is rather fun, especially Flip Flap Safari, which is a book of two halves. Each double spread has a a poem on the left top and another on the left bottom, both relating to the animal drawn on the right. But each page is split, with its name down the side. So, for example you can look at a lion or a flamingo, but if you turn the pages right, you can end up with a Limingo with a Lion’s head and top body and a Flamingo’s legs. Or you might have a Zebra’s head and an Elephant’s legs to make a Zebphant. Got that?

Axel Scheffler's Flip Flap Safari by Nosy Crow

Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Safari by Nosy Crow

Mtoto has taken this wonderful game out of the book and into his imagination. Although he’s not using names for things, he goes around saying things like “Pappa’s head and the sofa’s legs” or “the lampshade’s head and the bin’s bottom”. Each version is followed by a little chuckle. We’ve caught on and are once again affirming his choices as well as coming up with our own versions, helping to stretch his imagination and explore what might be possible.

Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Safari is also available as an app, apparently.

I’ll confess that I didn’t think much of this book when I first saw it. I figured that it was just some company cashing in on Axel Scheffler’s name to make some quick cash. But after the fun Mtoto has been having with it, I’m all in favour!

(Janathon exercise: a mile walk today in the snow to get Mtoto off to sleep. 2015: Red-crested Pochards, Mute Swans, Black-headed Gulls, Mallards, Goosander and a Coot down at Baby Plage.)

Five ways that teaching the alphabet is harder than you think

Mtoto invented a game this week. We call it “J Jar of Jam” from the Sesame Street Alphabet Song:

At some point this week Mtoto started adapting “J Jar of Jam” into “J Jar of Something else”. It doesn’t have to be a word beginning with J.

We were going up our street, me pushing the buggy and Mtoto in it. I heard him saying “J Jar of Motorbike”, then “J Jar of Bike” and “J Jar of Window”. At first I repeated each one, giving him some affirmation, but soon I was doing my own ones and we took it in turns, all the way home and carried on once we were inside. Since then we’ve played several times. I realised pretty soon that I could help Mtoto to widen the things he was looking at and what he was naming, as well as affirming his choices. So he might say “J Jar of T-Shirt” and then I would use my next turns to say “J Jar of Sleeve” and “J Jar of Label” to show him the different details in my T-Shirt. He often repeats the ones that I’ve introduced him to, too.

I don’t know that this is going to have much appeal to anyone else, since it has come from our own viewing of the Sesame Street Alphabet song several months ago (and which we haven’t watched for at least a couple of months), but you might have your own version or think how to adapt it.

It reminds me though, that the world of teaching your child the letters of the alphabet isn’t as straight forward as you think it could be. Here are my 5 favourite ways that I’ve discovered so far that the alphabet is tricky to learn.

1. J Jar of…

As you’ve just learned, we don’t just put jam in jars in our household. Anything goes. Though one of my favourites was Mtoto’s “J Jar of Jar of Figs” when there was a jar of figs on the table in front of him.

2. Y is for Boat

In one of Mtoto’s A-Z books or puzzles, there’s a picture of a boat for the letter Y. Of course, we adults know that “Y is for Yacht” but Mtoto didn’t know that so “Y is for Boat”. We have since told him about yachts and he knows the word now, but it is confusing for all concerned.

3. A is for Alligator, no Apple

L was reading an alphabet to Mtoto recently. “A is for Alligator” she read. “No, Mama,” came the reply, “A is for Apple”. L explained that A is the beginning letter for lots of words, but Mtoto wasn’t having it. “A is for Apple,” he said again and again. If you’re only two, maybe you need some certainty in your life?

4. G is for Ruitar

Mtoto is getting good at naming the sounds of each letter. But he doesn’t always follow through with the following word. A great example is G. He gets the “ger” sound perfectly, but guitar? No, It’s more like “Ruitar” at the moment!

5. Letters are numbers

This might be local to Geneva… One of the first places that Mtoto regularly started recognising numbers was on the front of buses and trams. “Pappa, what number is it?” he would ask. “It’s the 12” I might say, if we were on the tram to Carouge. But if we were going out to Meinier again, it would be the Bus A. And the bus to Hermance is the E and the other bus (other than the E that goes through there) to Vessanaz is the G.

"What number is it Pappa?" "Errr, it's the S"

“What number is it Pappa?” “Errr, it’s the S”

Of course, all of this is fairly light-hearted and we’re not worried about any of these developments. He’s got plenty of time to learn letters and numbers and we’re only ploughing ahead with it now because he has shown such great interest in both.

One of my favourite moments this week was when I was showing him his new Thomas the Tank Engine Brio toy. On the bottom it says “THOMAS” and I read the letters to him several times. Then, suddenly, he exclaimed “look Pappa, it’s got A is for Apple in it!”

So what challenges have you faced teaching the alphabet to your kids? I would love to hear about your experiences!

"This bus, my son, is the A to Gy"

“This bus, my son, is the A to Gy”

(While we’re here, for the 2015 daily blog continued themes paragraph: Janathon exercise was a 2 mile walk to get Mtoto to sleep and I saw a Common Buzzard and lots of Blue Tits while visiting friends in Bellvue, then did a quick bird count at Baby Plage, but that was all.)

I spy

“I spy, with my little eye, something coloured white!”

Mtoto takes a strong interest in everything. What’s going on around him, how things work and what things are, are all of interest. Since he hadn’t learned letters and spelling yet, but does know colours, we have adapted the old children’s game of I Spy.

Traditionally, the person calling out the start chooses something that they can see and calls out what letter it begins with, such as “I spy with with my little eye, something beginning with C”. Then the other players have to guess the object. The first person to guess the object starts off the next round by choosing something that they can see.

In our version, the person calling out the start chooses something they can see and calls out the colour, such as “I spy with my little eye, something coloured red”. The other players get to make one call each, so L might say “rug” and I say “boots”. Then Mtoto can call out something. If what he’s seen has already been called out, he can look for something else that is the same colour and call it. Then we go round the group taking it in turns to call things out until we run out of things to say. Playing like this, we can teach Mtoto new words if we see something that he might not have known. We’re also re-affirming things that he does know and praising him for all the different connections he can make between things and their colours.

Like the original I Spy game it can be played anywhere and with any number of people. We often play while travelling or if we want to keep Mtoto’s attention somewhere, such as at a dining table, when he might otherwise want to drag us off to play before we’ve finished eating – the day L invented it, we were in a long queue in an administrative building in Geneva and needed Mtoto to stay with us. It also helps Mtoto to engage with, and learn about, his surroundings.



Call the midwife!

I’ve just had one of my most enjoyable social hours since becoming a stay-at-home Dad and I may just have discovered how to meet Swiss people. And, it wasn’t even an hour – possibly only about 20 minutes or so.

Partly, I have myself to thank and partly I have a Swiss midwife called Sandrile. For myself, it’s because I’m a fairly social chap – almost always ready to put make myself vulnerable by going into social situations where I don’t know how they’ll turn out.

I had already done it once today. In BM – the magazine of the Bibliotheques Municipales de Geneve – I discovered that today there would a reading hour in the Paquis library for parents with children aged 0 to 2. And it’s in French. So I went along, feeling tired and with a cracking headache. When we got there, we discovered that although the session started at 10, the library wasn’t open until 3. Quite a bit of me wanted to go home at this point. But I stuck around and eventually I saw two women with babies going round the back of the library. I followed them and voila – it turns out that you have to go in the back. We were in. We were a small group, less than 10 parents, carers and staff. The staff read stories in French and explained about registering your child at the library and where to find books in different languages. And, to top off our experience, mtoto was given a pack of 3 books, which are usually given to all children born in Switzerland. The staff made an exception for him. Magnifique! I still had a cracking headache but we had had a good time. We read some great books in French including a lovely one about some animals on a tightrope. We also read a book about Elmer the elephant in the snow. Mtoto made me read it six times before I suggested we try something else.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the library was great practice for the afternoon. After lunch, we went out to the playground, as has recently become our routine. For the first time, we were alone in the Tunnel Slide Playground until a Russian woman and toddler joined us in the sandpit. The boys played together for a few minutes. Or rather, mtoto shared his toys with the Russian toddler who gratefully took mtoto’s and then wouldn’t share his own. As French was his mother’s and my only shared language it was all a bit confusing. Then it began to rain. They left and mtoto and I played football until I decided that rain had stopped play and I got him down so I could walk him into his nap.

I had a sense that something was about to happen and that I needed to be open. But I didn’t know what. So I prayed to be prepared for whatever came my way. I thought it was the Russian woman so I looked out for her again. And then I passed a group of around 8 women with babies, led by one older woman. The second time that I passed them, I heard a noise. I carried on. I heard the noise again. I stopped. Be open I reminded myself. Then I realised that the older woman was calling to me. Her name is Sandrile and she’s a midwife. She and 2 other midwives run a weekly free session for mothers, and why not, for fathers too, she said. They go for a walk every Tuesday in the same park, starting at 2pm. I could join them if I liked. It would have been easy to say no, so I said yes.

I had a lovely chat with Sandrile and then I got into step with a couple of mothers. I got to speak and hear some French and then one mother said “please speak English, it’s good for our babies to hear it”. This is how I can meet Swiss people – I can offer to speak English! I hadn’t realised that English might be a useful commodity.

Again, I didn’t change numbers with anyone. I think that all the other babies are around 18 months or so younger than mtoto, so they wouldn’t be much good for playing together. One of the positive aspects is that it seems to be a local group, which means opportunities to meet local Swiss people and good reason to keep practising my French, though I’m also prepared to speak English to help the Swiss babies!

One of the three midwives leads the group every Tuesday at 2pm from the Rue de Montchoisy gate. I’m sure I’ll be going back!

Naming names and the Swiss flag phenomenon

Mtoto has progressed from stating things when asked questions to making his own observations. For example, yesterday we were on the 14 tram going up Rue de Servette. “We are going up hill” he stated without prompting. And we were going up hill – on Rue de Servette we are usually going up (towards Balexert) or down (towards Cornavin).

A moment later and mtoto pointed out of the tram window and said “Switzerland flag”. I looked out and sure enough, on about the seventh floor there was a Switzerland flag. This is an easy spot though – there are Swiss flags everywhere. If I saw this many England flags about in London I would probably be feeling a bit queasy as I tend to associate it with right-wing views. But I don’t so much about the Swiss and their association with the flag so I tend not to be bothered.

So unconcerned are we about the Swiss flag that we’ve even been swimming in it. Yes, there’s a Swiss flag swimming pool in Geneva. And bizarrely enough, it is floating on the river, close to the lake. When it was announced on 1 April, many people thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke. But it turned out to be real.

When we were there last Sunday, having paid our 2 Francs (approximately £1.40) per adult to get in, it was fairly quiet at around 12:30pm. But the crowd was slowly building by the time we left at 2pm.

While I was swimming in the pool a photographer came in and started lining up some shots. He was from a Zurich regional newspaper he said and he asked all four of us in the pool if we were happy to be in his pictures. He was tasked with taking some pictures of life in Geneva. The final one he was happy with had a girl diving in from the side and me swimming in the background – possibly my first Swiss media appearance since we arrived.

The floating Swiss pool

Recognising numbers

Today, mtoto and I were on our way to Carouge market. It’s on Saturdays and Wednesdays.

We took a slightly circuitous route, which took us through the peaceful town hall garden and there we spotted two works of art by the Swiss sculptor Yvan Larsen. One was Tetras – Lyre 1964 (a pigeon to you and me) and the other was Manchots (penguins). We came through the Marie and out by the Eglise Sainte-Croix and as we passed some bicycle parking and a sign signifying a max speed of 20 km/h for cars mtoto remarked “there’s a zero papa” and “there’s a two papa”.

This was the first time that I had heard him remark unprompted that he could recognize some numbers in written form. A few weeks ago we saw a couple of snails and he pointed out that there were two of them. So these numbers are beginning to make an impression. Until now I had assumed that his ability to count up to around 20 was simply him using his memory to record a sequence of words, just as he sings the alphabet more or less in tune with the Sesame Street alphabet song. I’ll be paying more attention now to his use of numbers.


Conversation stoppers and starters

Last night, we were at a barbecue. It was a nice laid back affair with some good friends who are our neighbours. There were some people who we didn’t know and a few who we did.

The conversation was convivial and mostly fairly light. It was lovely to get to know some new people. I do wonder sometimes if people might not want to engage with us once they know that we’re moving away – after all they’re not likely to get to know us any better. Although it turns out that I can be wrong about that. I had two remarkable conversations last night.

The conversation stopper

A Quaker friend of mine warned me recently that being a full-time stay-at-home parent can be a conversation stopper. I experienced this for the first time at the barbecue.

Man: What do you do?

Me: I’m a homemaker.

Man: You build homes?

Me: No, I’m a stay-at-home Dad.

Man: Oh. [He is silent for a moment, then turns to someone else and asks them what they do.]

It was strangely satisfying though. I found myself thinking that if he couldn’t think of anything to say then perhaps we wouldn’t get on anyway and it was better to leave it there.

I also found that although I like the phrase “homemaker” it did roll off the tongue slightly awkwardly. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not used to saying it or because it is a bit odd. But I don’t like some of the alternatives like “house husband” and “stay-at-home-Dad” and everyone with kids is a full-time parent, no matter what other work they do.

But I don’t have a better alternative yet, so homemaker I am.

The conversation starter

There was a woman at the barbecue who hadn’t meant to be there. She was visiting another neighbour and before she knew it the children had hopped over the gardens to get some food. We didn’t know each other. But chatting to her, I learned that she lives around the corner from us and she and her family are in the process of moving to Geneva. And hers was the second local family I’ve heard about moving with us this weekend! It’s as if there’s a measurable migration between south-east London and south-west Switzerland.

Not only did we have lots to talk about Geneva (the woe of finding a suitable place) we got chatting about all sorts of other things too (our children, coincidences). And by the end of our conversation I don’t think either of us had found out what the other “does”. Which only went to show that it isn’t the be all and end all of conversations.

So tell me, what phrase would you use to describe my situation? Are there any other parenting conversation stoppers?


Mtoto gets his priorities right

We were watching the lions but mtoto was unimpressed. “Mountains” he cried, meaning he wanted to watch the fountains in the old penguin enclosure. “Water from hole in the ground”, he said excitedly to our friend.


We had a similar experience on Sunday. Traveling in a boat on the Thames, mtoto was more interested in the pipe discharging water from the boat than the fabulous views of the riverside. Well, he is a mtoto after all!

Ask me a stupid question

Is mummy at work today?

A noticeboard with the word 'tough' writ large, above a picture of a turd.

Tough? Not for me it isn’t.

We were in John Lewis in Oxford Street, London, yesterday. We went in about three times during the morning while I was deciding what to buy. Several times staff there addressed mtoto as well as me, which I thought was rather lovely.

I didn’t think anything more of it until I read Aaron Gouveia’s ‘8 Stupid Things You Should Stop Saying to Dads’ article in the Huffington Post, repeated from his lovely Daddy Files blog.

Then I recalled that one of the women we met in John Lewis had asked mtoto “Is mummy at work today?” Although not precisely one of the 8 things that give Aaron the hump as a father, it could have fallen into that category.

Except for one small difference. I love it when other people engage with my and mtoto when we’re out and about and nothing they say has been a turn off so far. It’s simply an opportunity to make small talk or open up a larger conversation.

Mamma’s at work

Mtoto agrees with me, I know. I know because he spent most of yesterday morning, both before and after the question was asked, repeating to anyone who would listen: “Mamma’s at work.”

It’s a particularly lovely stage mtoto is going through. He says something. He finds it to be so. He repeats it. A lot. Eventually something else crosses his mind, he formulates a sentence and uses it. He finds it to be so. And so we go on.

The woman from John Lewis seemed to be implying that mamma was having it tough while papa and mtoto were out enjoying themselves. And to a degree she was right anyway. Most often, I’d much rather be hanging out with mtoto than be in the office.

Fighting the same battle

But back to the 8 stupid things you should stop saying to dads. Most of the comments are things that people say who don’t know better, like “what do you do all day?” or “dad must be babysitting today, huh?” I appreciate that I might not be saying this in a few years time, but for now I’m happy to engage with anyone who starts a conversation, no matter how silly. After all, I’m one of the experts who says something just to open up a conversation, no matter how daft it is. All I have to do is rebut the question or statement and turn it around. And this is what Aaron is saying really too. He’s making the case for retiring phrases that don’t do anyone any good and he’s pointing out where there’s gender inequality from the less common way round.

I don’t have it tough

I’m a white middle class male. I don’t generally suffer discrimination because of who I am. It’s not so bad for me to have someone say something daft to me from time-to-time. It just reminds me how lucky I am not to usually suffer discrimination that puts me at a disadvantage.

And this is the rub of it really. Us fathers aren’t really suffering because of people’s attitudes, it just can be irritating for some of the people some of the time.

I don’t suffer because of my race. Or because of my gender. Or because of my sexuality. Or for any one or more of a plethora of ways that people make life horrible for others just because of who they are. And it reminds me that I want to continue to make the world into a better place for everyone, not just for fathers.


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