‘Your Competent Child’ – Review

I have just finished ‘Your Competent Child’ by Jesper Juul.

This book is very different from most of the parenting books that I read.

I was bemused at the opening salvos, with lines like, “When I say that children are competent, I mean that they are in a position to teach us what we need to learn.” I have never really bought into the idea of children as teachers. As the book went on, however, the ideas started to seem more enticing. In Chapter Two, Juul expanded upon this idea of competence, writing that, “though children can’t express what they need, they know perfectly well when their needs are not being met,” and explaining that children make this clear through their behaviour.

My edition has been rather poorly proof-read, with missing spaces, strange use of capitalisation, and various other minor mistakes throughout. This didn’t concern me particularly, but it was so noticeable, I think I ought to mention it.

I completely agree that, “When children are born, they are fully human – that is, they are social, responsive, and empathetic.” I don’t agree with ideas of ‘training’ or ‘taming’ children. Though children clearly lack a great deal of capabilities and experience, I am warming to the concept of them as fundamentally competent people doing their best to function in a world that is largely outside of their control. Often, my own children’s more surprising behaviour has turned out to be a reaction to something they could not bear. If we begin by assuming competence, then we will be more open to spotting the difficult circumstances our children’s seemingly difficult behaviour is flagging up.

Rather than starting from a scientific base, this book starts from an ethical one. Juul writes of parenting as an integral part of society. How we parent our children is a large part of what makes our world what it is. Parenting is not, to Juul, about creating adults out of children, it is about relating to children as they are. Put like that, it’s hard to ignore the ethical aspect.

Though this book is not written mainly for a readership of adoptive parents, there were some interesting ideas in Chapter Five about children being cared for by substitute parents. In particular, I was taken with Juul’s wording, “the task facing the child – to find his lost self beneath his strategy for survival – is a difficult one.”

In the end, I found the principles had some similarities with NVR. Parents are human, and it is honest to let our children know that we have boundaries and needs of our own. It is surprising how few parenting books acknowledge the importance of adult’s boundaries.

Sometimes I read parenting books that seem to suggest I need to be fulfilling the children’s needs all the time. The reality is that no amount of self-care will make up for a life of subsuming my own needs for the sake of my children. My boundaries matter and I have to protect them if I want to live comfortably with my children.

Juul spends more of the book advising parents on how to discover what they want and need than he does on giving parenting tips. Though this makes it a little hard for me to reproduce his advice, I found it a very comfortable focus. Many parenting techniques feel false and fake. I can’t repeat scripts or assume an emotion that I don’t feel. I find those experiences excruciating, and my children tend to react badly. Expressing my own thoughts and feelings honestly makes a great deal more sense to me. I think that my children appreciate the respect shown by being treated with honesty.

Overall, this is a fascinating book, and I have found it very thought-provoking. I appreciate the gentleness of Juul’s approach. He doesn’t expect parents to be perfect, though he is generally optimistic about human nature. Rather than the traditional everyone makes mistakes, Juul writes, “The majority of us develop so slowly as human beings that we do not cease to become angry or irritated until long after our children have become adults.” His emphasis, then, is on living alongside our children, establishing and maintaining our own boundaries and supporting them to do the same. This is the first parenting book I’ve read that seems to plot a course leading into being a parent to adult children. On the role of parents to adults, Juul notes, “All of us need to have loving and caring witnesses to our lives.”

I am very glad that I have read this book and can imagine the ideas will continue to reverberate in my mind for a long time.


Review of Autism – How to Raise a Happy Autistic Child by Jessie Hewitson

This book is easy to read. The tone is friendly and cheerful.

The author has an autistic child, but he was only seven at the time of writing. Inevitably, her focus is very much on young autistic children. There is a chapter on education (and I was pleased to see a nod to home education in there), but it is – understandably, I suppose – only really about nursery and the very first year of primary school.

There is little thought given to the autonomy of autistic children. To an extent, that fits with the focus on younger children. Encouraging independence is not the primary focus of parenting pre-school children. Even young children, however, do have preferences. I think that the book would have benefited from a chapter on recognising children’s interests and preferences. Personally, I’ve found that it can be harder to recognise preferences in children with communication differences. Some tips on that would probably be very helpful.

I was very pleased to see that the author has made the effort to contact several adults with autism, and she quotes them liberally. This adds a very useful aspect to her book, giving depth to her descriptions of autism.

Personally, I found some of her stories and feelings familiar. It can be bewildering to be an alistic parent trying to support an autistic child. I found the quotes from autistic adults particularly helpful (these are sprinkled throughout the book). I suspect that many autistic adults have had a lot of practice explaining things to alistic people and so become quite skilled at it.

I think if you have a toddler or a primary school child who has recently been diagnosed, you will probably find this book very helpful. It is certainly reassuring.

This book would make a good antidote to anyone who is afraid of what autism means for their child. For anyone who uses Twitter, there are a few good suggestions of people to follow amongst the autistic commenters.

Life story work and Long Division

Before we became adopters, we knew that we were going to be open and honest with our children about their past. It was obviously the right thing to do, and we believed it would help these theoretical children to grow up confident of who they were and where they belonged.

I still think that honesty is right. I no longer think it’s simple.

With very small children, it can be enough to say ‘your birth parents couldn’t look after you’. By the time our children are adults, they deserve to know everything that we know. The tricky part, for me, has been the journey between those two places!

At many points, the boys have completely misunderstood what we’ve been telling them. Middly spent almost a year denying that he was adopted at all. Eldest once told a therapist that adoption meant your parents had bought you from the government. Both of these seemed awful at the time. We were convinced that we were failing the boys miserably.

But, I think it’s worth bearing in mind that Middly also insisted that there were two suns (one for the Earth to rotate around and one to move across the sky); and Eldest used to get guinea pigs and cows confused. Children make mistakes, that’s an important part of learning and there’s no reason why their life story should be the exception.

The boys’ story has some unpleasant parts. We agonised over when to first share some of these details with the boys. We didn’t want to give them stories they weren’t ready for, but nor did we want to lie by ommission.

There are rules of the, which seem sensible, until you try to apply them. Rules like: wait for the children to ask, then answer their questions. The problem is that the boys’ questions were big and vague ‘why couldn’t they look after us?’ The question of how much detail to share remained.

My husband and I carefully planned when to share this difficult information. We sat down with the boys and carefully explained. We asked if they had any questions. They shook their heads.

A few days later, the same question came up again. I shared the same story, only to be met by blank stares. All that agonising, and the boys had completely forgotten what we’d said!

That’s been a bit of a pattern, to be honest. Every single piece of the jigsaw of their lives has to be shared over and over again.

I am not sure what effect the re-telling has on the boys. But, it’s quite reassuring for me. I get to hone my telling, using vocabulary they understand well, pausing at the points they’re most likely to ask further questions, having ready every detail that I’ve needed to check in the past.

Re-telling also takes the pressure off each individual moment. Life story work for us isn’t about one (nor even several) Big Conversations. It’s about lots and lots of conversations, some big, some small, some serious and some tongue-in-cheek; they all build on one another as part of the fabric of our family. If I know that I am going to get another shot at this, what does it matter if one time I didn’t know an answer and had to go and check? What does it matter if the boys lost interest partway through and ran off to get a snack? There’ll be another chance, we’ll pick this back up later.

As they’ve grown, some of these conversations have become more speculative. We talk about the sources for the information we have. We talk about why different people might have told me stories in different ways. Sometimes the boys try to deduce what ‘must have really happened’. Other times we lament together the difficulties of living with uncertainty.

I do wish that I had something simple to tell them. But, in the absence of that, shared uncertainty seems to be the most honest approach.

Ultimately, talking about their past is a lot like everything else that I’m teaching them. Some days it feels like everything I say is going in one ear and out the other. Some days the boys are burning with curiosity and they make astonishingly mature points or ask insightful questions. Some days they treat the whole thing as a joke; other days it’s incredibly serious. Just like talking about relationships, or managing money, or democracy; or any of the thousands of aspects of life that the boys want to get a handle on.

They don’t remember everything I say. I’m not entirely sure that they believe everything that they remember, but, then that’s the same for long-division too.

The important thing is that we’re still talking about it, and they trust me enough to ask. If I can keep the conversation open, I think that’s good enough.

Except for with long-division, that they should really just take my word for that.

Electronics Course – Briefcase Alarm

Briefcase Alarm

Arrival Craft – Match the Component to the Name / Symbol, Resistor Code colour by number


Colour by Number – Google Docs

Introduction – Last week, we made circuits to turn LEDs on and off.

Show a model, to remind everyone.

Another way of thinking of electrical current is like something flowing through a hose.

Show a length of clear pipe with a knotted string in it.

We can pull the string through the pipe and it goes round and round just like an electrical charge.

But what happens if I cut the wire?

Cut through the pipe and string.

There’s no circle of string anymore and I can’t keep pulling it through.

In our first week we made Steady Hand Games.

Show a Steady Hand Game to remind the children, if there’s time, see if anyone wants a turn.

The whole of the game is really one big switch, since a switch is just a way of opening and closing a circuit.

In your Electronics Kit today you have push switches. We’re going to add them to our LED circuits.

Use giant model to show how to add push switches to circuits.

I made the giant model using card and velcro, so we could move giant components around a giant breadboard. The children found it really helpful.

Individual Task: Add a push switch to the LED circuit.

Regroup: These switches are boxed in so it can be hard to see how they work. I’d like you all to have a go with foil and card and see if you can make a push switch of your own and use it to turn your LED on and off.

Individual Task – Make a simple push switch out of card and foil.


Break for drink and snack


Regroup: Sometimes we want our circuits to be a bit cleverer. Rather than needing a person to switch them on and off by hand, we want them to respond to their surroundings.

Street lamps, for example, switch on when it’s dark and off when it’s light.

Does anyone know how they do that?

Street lamps are fitted with LDRs – light dependant resistors – which respond to the amount of light around them.

We’re going to replace the switches in our circuits with LDRs.


Individual Task: Make circuits so that LEDs come on when there is light.


Regroup: With our circuits, the LEDs came on when it was light and went off when it was dark – the opposite way round to how we would want a street light to work.

But, LDRs have a high resistance in the dark and a low resistance in the light, so we need another component to get this function.

We can use a transistor.

Has anyone heard of transistors before?

Transistors have three legs. They are able to function as a clever switch. If a small current flows across the base and emitter, the transistor allows a larger current to flow across the collector and the emitter. This means we can use the transistor as a switch that is turned on by a small current of electricity.

For example, we can use the transistor as a clever switch that will turn on the light when the LDR is in the dark.

Demonstrate on the big model, then show on the little breadboard.

That’s what we’ll be doing together next week.

Electronics Course – LEDs and Resistors

LEDs and Resistors

Arrival Craft – Horra Island Sheets from Horrible Science Book.

Introduction – Did anyone get a chance to look for switches over the past week? Did you find any?

Fantastic. We’re going to have a go at making push switches today. But, we’re going to be using LEDs in our circuits, so before we start working with those, we need to talk about resistors. Does anyone know what resistance means?

Some things are conductors of electricity and some things aren’t, as you already know.

But, it’s not a binary system. There are levels of conductivity. When things conduct electricity, but not very well, we say that they have a lot of resistance.

We’re going to be looking at resistors today.

We can use multimeters to measure how much resistance things have.

Individual Task – Test various materials for resistance, use multimeters.


Regroup: Resistors are important to regulate the flow of electricity.

They work like funnels, allowing only a certain flow through.

Use funnels to show how resistors control the flow of electricity – bigger and smaller funnels could demonstrate tolerance of resistors?

We’re going to be making some more circuits today, but we’re going to be using LEDs. Has anyone used them before?

Light Emitting Diodes don’t like having too much current going through them, so we use resistors to control the flow of electricity.


Individual Task – Make a simple circuit with an LED and a resistor in it.


Then have a go at making your own push switch with card and foil.


Break for drink and snack.


Gather Together: Hopefully everyone has managed to get one LED to light.

Did anyone manage to read the current of their circuits? Did you notice anything about the currents from different parts of the circuit?

Whichever part of the circuit you read the current from, the current was exactly the same.

It can help to think of electricity as a loop all the way around your circuit.

Did anyone notice what happened when you put the resistor after your LED instead of before it?

It worked just as well, it may seem strange at first, but it doesn’t actually matter which way round the LED and the resistor are, either way the resistor regulates the flow of electricity.

I’ve got a new challenge for you now, I would like you to have a go at connecting two LEDs in your circuit.


Individual Task: Connect two LEDs in series and then in parallel.


Finish up: When you connected the two LEDs in series, what happened?

They didn’t light up because there isn’t enough current for two LEDs.

Did anyone manage to get both LEDs to light up?

How did you do it?

You can get two LEDs to light, if you connect them in parallel rather than in series. You split the current into two separate loops.

Did anyone manage to read the current of a circuit with two LEDs in it?

The current increases when you have two LEDs.

Next week we’re going to look at sensors. These are special components that allow appliances to respond to their environment. See if you can find any around your house.

Electronics Course – Switches


Arrival Craft – Aluminium atom models 


Grid colouring sheets.

Introduction: What is electricity? Electricity is a flow of electrical charge, caused by the movement of electrons.

As you saw in your models, atoms are made up of nuclei and electrons. In metals, the electrons on the outermost shell are not very strongly attracted to their nuclei. This means that the electrons can move freely.

We’re going to make a model now to show how the ‘sea of electrons’ allows an electrical charge to flow in a metal.


Individual Task: each child should take a plate and stick half a dozen marshmallow halves to it. They can then sprinkle a handful of Millions sweets onto the plate. When they tip the plate, the Millions will flow, around the marshmallow halves from one end of the plate to the other.

ReGroup: Hopefully that gives you a bit of a picture of how electrons flow in a circuit.

We’re going to make another model altogether now.

Give the children a string long enough to pass all the way around the room, with ten or so beads strung on it.

If we pass this bead along the string, we can see how an electrical charge moves along a wire.

We can think of the electrons as beads moving along a string, If they keep moving round and round, the charge keeps flowing round the circuit and it can drive components that we put in the circuit.

What would happen if I cut the string?

If the string is cut, the beads cannot flow anymore.

In order for your circuits to work, they must be complete. Any break in the circuit will stop it working completely.

We’re going to make our very first simple circuits now. I have a small electronics kit for each of you, I’ll be adding new pieces to it as we progress through the course, but we’re going to start with just a few pieces.

Today we’re going to look at buzzers.

Does anyone know how buzzers make a noise?

Buzzers make a noise by vibrating. We’re going to be using piezo buzzers. These have a piezoceramic disc inside them which vibrates when an electric current passes through it.


Individual Task: Find the components in the kit and find out their names.

Make a circuit that switches on a buzzer when you touch two wires together.

Break for drink and snack.


ReGroup: You’ve made a simple circuit that buzzes when two wires touch. This is the basis for an electronic game.

Show a steady hand game you’ve already made.

I’ve looped one of my wires around the other. When the two wires touch, the buzzer sounds. But, if I can move one wire past the other, without letting them touch, then the buzzer won’t sound.

Would anyone like to have a go with my steady hand game?

Let a child try, briefly.

Individual Task: Make your own steady hand game.


Science Club – Nervous System

Week Six – Nervous System

Arrival Craft: Paper brain model from Scholastic model book.


Introduction: Our brains are the control systems of our bodies. They collect information from all over our bodies and send messages back.

We use special cells to carry these messages around, does anyone know what these cells are called?

They are neuron cells.

The central part of the neuron – a long thin body – is called the axon, and it is covered with myelin sheath, which is a fatty tissue that works as an electrical insulator.

Neurons have two ends: a receiving end with dendrites and a transmitting end called the axon terminal.

There is a cell body with a nucleus in the middle of the dendrites.

Individual task: Make neurons out of pipecleaners PipecleanerNeurons

Gather Together: Does anyone know how our nerves get information back to our brains for processing?

Nerves send messages using electrical signals, these travel up the spinal cord to the brain stem.

Does anyone know where our spinal cord is?

Show on the anatomy model.

Individual task: Give out polystyrene people, so the children can put brains and spinal cords onto their models. Brains

Break for drink and snack – Try to ice brains and spinal cords onto gingerbread cookies!

Regroup: Does anyone know the names of any of the parts of the brain? Look at the brain model together.  Name the parts as you take them out, then ask the children to try and put them back in place.

I haven’t got human brains for us to dissect, I have sheep brains instead. Can anyone guess which part of the brain is much smaller on a sheep? The Cerebellum which is used for learning and co-ordination. Can anyone guess which part of the brain is larger on a sheep? The olfactory bulb, which is used for processing scents.

Individual task: Dissect brains. Children can look at pictures and try to identify regions of the brain.