Book of the month (Jan ’18): The Pout Pout Fish

Blub…
Bluuub….
Bluuuuuuub…

If you were to start a sentence with the words “Deep in the water where the fish hang out…” in a room full of post-2008 parents, you’ll probably hear back an excited chorus of “...lives a glum gloomy swimmer with an ever-present pout“.

The fact that The Pout Pout Fish, by Deborah Diesen, has become a New York Time’s Bestseller, is totally unsurprising. The book tells the deceptively simple story of a gloomy fish and of his adventures with his friends, to whom he tries to explain why he is so gloomy, until… I’ll stop here, I don’t want to spoil the ending, after all, for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

This is a great book for very young children. There is a lot of repetition, and the rhythm rules the story from the very start.

You can read it one, two, ten times, and complement the reading with some fun activities for children:

 – Imagine his friends. The Pout Pout fish has a lot of friends: a clam, an octopus, a jellyfish… what other sea creatures could he be friends with? A starfish? A lobster? A dolphin? A mermaid? A whale? Start from the smallest and move to the biggest, for example. Or, if the kids are a bit older, categorize them by type of marine organism: Plankton, Algae, Marine Invertebrates, Fish, Reptiles, Marine Mammals…

Can you draw them? Fish and sea creatures are fun to draw, even for the most challenged artists out there. In the past, I’ve used the following tutorials for inspiration, and it doesn’t really bother me that my end products don’t quite end up looking the same:

Hellokids.com: How to Draw a Fish for Kids

Letsdrawkids.com: Drawing Ocean Animals

Woojr.com: 12 Ocean Animals to Draw Step by Step

Make an origami ocean backdrop, using a blue cardboard and lots of origami fish, such as:

Easy Peasy and Fun’s Easy Origami Fish (warning for origami purists, it uses googly eyes)

The Origami Resource Center’s beautiful (but more involved!) Small Sea Creatures and Large Sea Creatures

Ocean life. Oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface, and are home to a significant proportion of all life on Eearth. Take a few minutes to explore some of the secrets of marine environments with your charges.

  • What is salt water? Water that has 35g of salt for every kilogram of water.
  • What are the features that allow fish to live in the oceans? Gills for extracting oxygen for water, a swim bladder to rise or sink to different depths, scales for protection, fins for steering…
  • How do marine mammals differ from land-based mammals? Streamlined bodies and fins for swimming, fat, kidneys that excrete salt…

Explore the concept of happiness. The Pout Pout Fish spends a large chunk of the book explaining to his friends why he is unhappy. In today’s world, where happiness has become such a cultural obsession and characters in kids’ books and shows seem to sport huge smiles all the time, it is useful for kids to be exposed to characters who are not happy all the time, or not happy by default.

  • Is the Pout Pout Fish happy? 
  • Is it okay for him not to be happy?
  • What does it mean to be happy? Can you think of a time when you were happy?
  • What happens, and how do we feel, when we are not happy? Can you think of a time when you were not happy?
  • Do the Pout Pout Fish’s friends accept him as he is?
  • What could the Pout Pout Fish do to help his friends better understand him? 

Anything else? The official Pout Pout Fish website features an activity kit to print out, including a memory game, a spot the differences game, and a Pout Pout Fish mask that are fun for younger children.

Note: There are other books in the series, as well, of which we’ve read two or three, though I have to admit we did not enjoy them half as much as the original.

Key English/Spanish vocabulary

Pout Pout fish – el pez Pucheros

clam – la almeja

deep – profundo

fish – el pez

gloomy – triste/ melancólico

to pout – hacer pucheros

squid – el calamar

swimmer – el nadador

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New Year… and New Au Pair Search

Happy New Year! Now that the holidays are over (even in Spain, where we celebrated 3 Kings -that last bit of holiday magic – this weekend), it is time to plan for 2018.

I admit (and it is a bit of a dirty little secret), that I’m a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions. I have been since my teens. Doesn’t mean I always stick to them (where did I read the other day that 86% of New Year’s Resolutions fail?), but the process of thinking through the resolutions is in itself cathartic: it allows me to remember and say goodbye to the year that’s just finished, and gives me reason to look forward to the coming year.

I won’t go into the detail of my resolutions for this year, except perhaps to mention I’ve been out to the park for a morning jog 5 days in a row now – depending on who I ask, I’ve got 13 or 61 days left until I can call it a habit.

I am also actively looking for a new au pair to join our family for the next few months. By actively, I mean I’ve activated all channels to find a new au pair (including old au pairs, friends, Aupairworld, etc.), and have spent a good chunk of the past week interviewing.

Ah, the interview. Although they are becoming more and more common, and have a lot of advantages in terms of agility and ease of scheduling, Skype (or remote) interviews can be tricky, for all parties involved.

You don’t have the advantages of face-to-face interviews, where non-verbal communication plays such an important role. And, despite huge improvements in technology, there is sometimes still a small lag which makes the communication less spontaneous.

A few tips to make aupairing Skype interviews a success:

Tip #1: prep your environment

I aim to do the interviews in a quiet room of the house, with a door. And by “a door”, I do mean “a closed door”. But, sometimes, life gets in the way, like a couple days ago, when my daughter started bellowing “mamá, mamá” and pounding on the door in the middle of the interview. Probably scared the bejesus out of the au pair – I’m not sure we passed that round.

I also recommend looking behind you before the interview – what you see is what the webcam (and your interlocutor) will catch as well. If you’re trying to present yourself as an organized, efficient person, a super cluttered background will not help you.

Tip #2: smile

You’re trying to get as close to an in-person first impression as possible, so smile like you would in real life. Not much more (that could look awkward), but not much less, either, or you’ll look like a robot.

Basically, try to ignore the little red dot of your webcam, and act as you would if you were really standing in front of the other person.

Tip #3: ask the right questions

This goes for both parties: don’t let the interview finish without getting a real feeling as to whether or not this au pair/ host family could be a good fit for you.

I always start with easy questions first, a “tell me a little about yourself” moment, to get a feeling for how easy it is to speak to this person, gauge potential language barriers between us, and really just see how they present themselves to the world.

Next, I make sure we discuss the questions and topics important to both of us, and on my end provide all the relevant information I feel the candidate would need to be able to understand our family and determine whether we might be a fit.

Tip #4: ask the most important question

In my experience, there really is a single most important question for host families to ask: Do you like (spending time with) children?

It sounds obvious, and some of my friends who have never hosted au pairs laugh at me when I tell them about it, but the truth is, there are multiple reasons why one might choose to be an au pair. It might be about the excitement of traveling the world, it might be about involving yourself in a new culture, or a way to leave home for the first time. These are all very valid reasons to become an au pair, but I think they must be combined with an interest in and a desire to spend time with children.

This is, for me, sine qua non for success as an au pair, because au pairing is work, and it does require spending significant amounts of time with children and, most importantly, building a relationship with them. If the candidate has too little experience with children to know how she feels about them, seems unsure about her interest, or does not really know what it means to spend time with children, I can think of ten or twenty alternative roles that might suit her more than au pairing.

Which I guess leads me to wonder… Is there a most important question for au pairs, when interviewing for a position? Or does it vary too much from one au pair to the next?

Tip #5: know when to end it
I aim to keep the interview to 20 minutes, out of respect for each other’s time. I’ve found that is generally enough time for us to get a feel for each other, if we’ve spoken online first and done some prior due diligence.
If the outcome is positive on my end, I like to end the interview on an open note, to make sure I give the au pair time to think through the interview and discuss with her family. This seems important to me, as I don’t want to force a positive response that hasn’t been well thought through on her end. So, I usually suggest we pick up the following day, to give ourselves time for any additional questions that come up, and only then discuss next steps.

 

 

 

¿Quién se acuerda de Parque Jurásico?

Me pregunto si otras personas recuerdan su decimoséptimo año con la misma intensidad que yo. Otros años se entremezclan en mi memoria, algunos reducidos a uno o dos grandes eventos. De este año en concreto, sin embargo, me da la impresión de que recuerdo todo…

Lo inapropiado de leer Un aviador irlandés prevé su muerte, de WB Yeats, tumbada en la playa durante aquel verano interminable después del colegio, cuando mi único trabajo era esperar a que empezase la universidad, y con ella una nueva fase.

Un primer amor, tan fuerte, que era difícil creer que venía con fecha de caducidad.

Los nervios, el miedo, la tremenda sensación de oportunidad durante aquellas primeras semanas en la universidad.

Las au pairs que se quedan con nosotros son adultas, y nos aseguramos de tratarlas así, involucrándolas en las decisiones que les afectan a ellas (así como a nuestros hij@s). Pero, de vez en cuando, una de ellas hace o dice algo que me recuerda lo jóvenes que son. No tienen diecisiete años, pero están relativamente cerca.

Un ejemplo:

Hace un par de años, expresé un cierto entusiasmo (vale, mucho entusiasmo) ante el estreno de Jurassic World. Me di cuenta de repente de que la persona con la que hablaba me miraba como si estuviera loca.

Lo empeoré al explicarle que Parque Jurásico, la original, fue la primera película que vi sola en el cine con amigos. Frunció el ceño, claramente haciendo el cálculo mental.

 

“Pero, pero… yo no había nacido todavía,” murmuró.

Estupendo, justo lo que necesitaba oír. [Fin de esa conversación].

No es difícil empatizar con las au pairs que se quedan con nosotros. La intensidad de sentimiento cuando su pareja viene de visita un fin de semana y se marcha después, la tristeza cuando un amigo o amiga acaba su estancia de au pair y regresa a su casa.

Es una relación peculiar, la de las familias anfitrionas con las au pairs que se quedan con nosotros. Por una parte, están trabajando, cuidando de aquello que más nos importa. Esto es una gran responsabilidad, y hay que tratarla como tal. Pero, también son personas jóvenes, que están descubriendo el mundo (a menudo por primera vez), y necesitan nuestro apoyo para ayudar a que su experiencia sea un éxito.

Me gusta pensar que, de vuelta en su país de origen, el recuerdo de su estancia con nosotros será positivo, y sobre todo basado en el respeto mutuo y la confianza.

 

Does anyone remember Jurassic Park?

I wonder if everyone remembers their 17th year with the same intensity I do. Unlike other years, which merge together or have been reduced, in my mind, to one or two big events, I seem to remember everything about that year.

Some of the memories are strange:

I remember how inappropriate it felt to read An Irish Airman Foresees his Death while lounging on the beach during that long summer after high school, when exams were done and my only job was to wait for life (ie. university) to begin.

I remember a first love so strong, it was hard to believe it came with a precise expiry date.

I remember the excitement, the fear, the sheer sense of possibility of those nerve-wracking first weeks at university.

The au pairs who stay with us are adults, and I make sure to treat them as such, involving them in the decisions that affect their (as well as our children’s) lives. But, once in a while, they will say or do something that will remind me just how young they are. Not 17 anymore, but not much older, either.

A couple of years ago, I expressed a modicum of excitement (ok, maybe a lot of excitement) at the upcoming release of Jurassic World. The young person to whom I was speaking looked at me like I should be on my way to some insane asylum.

I made things that much worse when I clarified that the original Jurassic Park was the first film I watched alone with friends in the cinema. Her forehead actually crinkled for a second as she did the maths.

“But… But… I wasn’t even born yet,” she stammered.

Right, just what one wants to hear as one heads out on a romantic date. NB. I still enjoyed the film. A lot.

But I’m getting sidetracked.

The point is, I can empathize with the au pairs who stay with us. The intensity of their feelings when a boyfriend comes to town for a weekend visit and then leaves again. The sadness when an au pair friend finishes her stay and heads back home.

It’s a peculiar relationship, the one we, as host families, have with the au pairs who stay with us. On the one hand, they work for us, taking care of that which is most important to us. This is a big responsibility, and needs to be treated as such. But, they are also young men and women out exploring the world, often for the first time, who need our encouragement and our support to make the most of their stay.

When they go back to their home country (or find another job in Spain), I want their memory of their stay with us to be one framed by respect and encouragement, where the positives outweigh the negatives.

Call to host families: end of year survey

https://es.surveymonkey.com/r/experienciaconaupairs

As the year draws to an end, I’m running a  short survey (accessible in Spanish) to learn more about other host families’ experiences with au pairs.

How many au pairs have you had? How long do they usually stay? How would you describe the au pairs who have stayed with you?

It’s completely  anonymous, it’ll take you less than five minutes, and you can win a 20€ Amazon gift certificate! Feel free to share with other families, also.

https://es.surveymonkey.com/r/experienciaconaupairs

Thanks in advance for your time, I’ll share back aggregated results in January!

Embracing change

My daughter is one of those children who… how can I put it… does not readily embrace change. Chickpeas on her plate? A new hat? A new au pair ? Her default reaction, from the time she was a little baby, is one of slight mistrust and healthy cynicism.

I’m a parent, so of course I like to think she is a natural critical thinker. Au pairs who have stayed with us might perhaps have thought she was a right little sh#~@.

The good news? She does normally come around, once she is convinced (I won’t go as far as to say she needs empirical evidence, though sometimes it feels like it), and at that point she becomes fiercely loyal.

I know from speaking to other parents that my daughter is far from unique so, for au pairs, it may pay to have a few tools in your tool belt to deal with a young, reticent charge.

The first thing is, do not panic. There are multiple reasons behind this perceived reticence. It might simply be their nature, or the child may have had multiple nannies or au pairs in the past (how he/she felt about them could influence how they feel now).

Some ideas:

  • Let them warm up to you gradually, don’t try to rush it. One option is to do some things with the whole family first, give the child a chance to start seeing you and trusting you as part of the family unit. Go to the park and play all together, go for a picnic… try to create that first positive connection, without forcing the issue.
  • Get down on their level when you greet them, while you’re helping them with their coat, etc. It sounds too simple, but it’s a great way to get a child to relate to you 1:1.
  • When you ask them a question, make sure you listen to their answer.
  • Plan your time together in advance, with ideas of things to do, so the child sees you as someone with whom interesting things happen. Children are naturally curious, so you can use that to your advantage.
  • Do something different. A trip to a museum? To the cinema? A long bus ride together? A shared slice of cake in a coffee shop? Those can all be pretty exciting things for a young child.
  • If all else fails, bribe them (check with the parents first to see whether they are okay with this and to help establish ground rules, eg. is there a o-sugar policy in the house?). A couple small gifts, delivered at strategic moments, could go a long way to cementing the relationship.

Most importantly, if you detect this reticence, reach out to the parents and involve them. Chances are you won’t be surprising them, and together you can figure out a way forward.

The long-awaited holidays…

Chances are you didn’t discuss the holidays during your au pair-host family interview, particularly if it happened sometime in the summer, when swimming safety was top of your mind and winter seemed decades away.

Well, the holidays are here! Or as we like to say in Spain, “todo llega“. The temptation is there to wax poetic about the way my children’s eyes shine on Christmas morning, but we might as well admit that today’s families are complex, and that it takes quite a fair amount of planning to get everything to work out.

For us, it all boils down to a couple hard questions and some easy ones (good news: answering the hard questions helps to answer the easy ones as well)

The first hard question is one where I believe the au pair should (ideally) take the lead, by deciding where he or she wants to spend the holidays and, in particular the days around Christmas (people tend to be much more laid back about New Year’s). Nobody likes to be turned down, so don’t wait until your host family offers to include you in their celebration before mentioning a) your own centennial Christmas celebration back in Uzbekistan, b) your pre-booked tickets to some sunny location, c) your complete aversion to any kind of celebration, d) you get the point. If you know you want to be elsewhere during the holidays, please have this conversation with your host family early. I’m sure they won’t be offended, and everyone can plan accordingly.

Many of our rituals
are about “celebrating
a broader set of traditions
about bringing light to the
dark days of winter…
part of human experience
for millenia” –Art Markman
via Fastcompany

If the au pair does want to stay for the holidays, then I strongly believe it is the host family’s responsibility to make sure they feel included (not just present) in the celebration. This can mean different things, depending, among other factors, on whether or not the au pair and the host family share a religion or particular set of beliefs, but can, in any case, turn into a great opportunity for cultural exchange.

 

Aupairworld has prepared a page of Q&As for the holidays with a lot more tips and suggestions around this, thanks for this!

Note: this is also the time to warn the au pair about the eccentricities of your family members – A great-uncle who likes to ring in the New Year in his boxer shorts? An aunt who insists on bringing the same inedible casserole year after year? A family member who has recently lost a loved one and is feeling particularly fragile?

Easier questions:

  • For au pairs: If there are young children in the house, ask the host family how they like to play it, what level of magic comes into it, and make sure you understand the characters in question. Nikolaus, Zwarte Piet, Santa Claus, the Three Kings… It can be quite a mess, but most families will be delighted to have the au pair join in the fun, as long as he or she respects their tradition.
  • For host families: Be open about working hours. Just because your au pair chooses to stay with you during the holidays, that does not mean you have a free babysitter for your extended family! Be as respectful of the au pair’s working hours and public holidays as you would any other time of year and, if you are having more children over, ask her if she’s okay with babysitting “x kids for y hours”. You might consider a separate arrangement for this time.

Easiest questions, things like, what to eat. In most places, Christmas is a time for overeating, but the concept of what constitutes a delicacy actually varies quite a bit by country. I still cringe when I think back to the escamoles (gigantic ant larvae) I had to eat in Mexico for fear of offending a local, and perhaps the au pairs who have stayed with us feel the same when they think about our traditional roasted baby lamb. Rule of thumb: provide alternatives, set a few things on the table at the same time and, if somebody does not want to try something, don’t make a big deal out of it.

I think success around the holidays boils down to cultural awareness and empathy. For the host family, that means being conscious that, even if your au pair is having a wonderful time with your family, she will likely also miss her own family and feel nostalgic for specific food, songs and traditions. For the au pair, it means being sensitive about the fact that, by letting you join in on their celebration, the host family is letting you in on something quite personal, a part of their identity.

Note: Lego Rudolph & Sleigh image by Bill Ward, from his 2016 Christmas Build Up Set. Brightens my day every time!