Why I advocate NO PLASTIC TOYS for children

I first became a mum at 17. Back in those days, I was fiery, idealistic and willing to fight till death for my ideals. When doting grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends bought plastic toys for our kids, I would politely return them and caused a lot of bad feelings.

At 47, I would probably do things differently these days.

However, I still feel the same aversion towards plastic toys from the numerous examples of tortoises and other sea creatures being poisoned to painful deaths by discarded plastic. I am also concerned about the environmental pollution that this plastic industry and its resultant mountain of plastic waste that chokes our planet.

I was concerned about the health aspects, too. Children put toys in their mouths, don’t they? We had a dog that suffered cancerous growth all over his body, because he ate plastic bags.

I also didn’t like the feel of plastics, and toys with flashing lights and electronic sounds were the ultimate nightmare for me.

But enforcing this tough policy has resulted in surprisingly pleasant outcomes. The main one is that my children learned to engage themselves actively, either with pen and paper, make-belief dolls from corn stalks, paper costumes, pet circus and a whole myriad of creative past times that became the hallmark of their materially poor but spiritually rich childhood. They never asked for Disney programmes or any TV programmes or merchandise associated with the ‘in’ movie or iPads. When we saved up and took our young children to Disneyland Paris, my youngest son Jack screamed in terror when Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck approached him. Because in his world, mice and ducks are not made of plastic and neither do they wear shoes.

My children learned to love being outdoors too, because the garden was a whole lot more interesting than sitting in a room devoid of electronic entertainment. They learned to climb trees, build tree houses and burrows, caught insects, drew leaves and grew things. Whatever the season, they would be out in the garden. I attribute their immunity to childhood diseases largely to their outdoors lifestyle, for those were the days before hand sanitisers and needless medication. Fever, coughs, colds and diarrhea were treated with lots of water, rest and fresh air rather than a trip to the doctor or medication.

Having no toys in the house also disciplined us parents. We had to make cars and cookers and dollhouses from discarded cardboard boxes. We had to get up early to take them out for walks. We had to think harder on how to engage them rather than letting them be passively entertained by the television. We had to incorporate them into our lives (shopping, cooking, reading), which brought us the precious closeness that we enjoy to this very day.

But thinking deeper beyond these points, I really do think that children’s playthings should be things that exist ‘naturally’ in real life, like pots and pans and wooden spoons. Why buy plastic tea sets when they can play with real freebies? It doesn’t make sense, right? By compelling our children to engage with their natural world also grounds them to this beautiful planet.

Yesterday, whilst walking with my partner along a breathtaking beach at sunset, I could not help but notice these tiny turquoise medallions in the sand. I could not resist investigating further, and was blown away by the delicacy and complexity that exists in the smallest, humblest organisms that escape the notice of the world at large.

What are those blue buttons? I emailed my father this photograph.

Blue button jellyfish, he replied, though they are really colonies of polyps, known as Chondrophores.

How so very lovely they are, dotting the beach like tiny turquoise orbs, making the sunset walk even more magical. I hope my children will find such enchantment in nature, as they walk the beaches and woodlands and roads of their adulthood, as I have, growing up with a toy-less childhood, which opened my eyes to the bountiful beautiful free things around me.

Blue cornmeal and apple muffins

There’s increasing research to show that gluten causes an inflammatory response in the body, so though there is no one in my family who is gluten-intolerant, I made these gluten-free muffins with organic blue cornmeal.  I lessen the ‘heaviness’, I added chopped apple cubes and cranberries.


2 cups organic blue cornmeal

1/4 cup oil

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 eggs

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 apple, peeled and cubed

1/2 cup cranberries

Handful of sunflower seeds

Heat oven to 400F. Combine all ingredients and stir until evenly mixed. Pour into lined muffin tins. Baked until firm in the middle.

Tastes delicious with Greek yoghurt for a healthy breakfast!

PS. Good to bake more and freeze.


Garlic & Onion Mash with Sun-dried Tomatoes

This is almost a meal in itself, inspired by the Welsh Colcannon. Try it, and you won’t be disappointed!

Boil some potatoes until soft.

In the meantime, sauté sliced onions and garlic cloves (halved) until browned.

When the potatoes are soft, mash with lots of butter and a swirl of cream.

Add in the onions, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes.

Season to taste.

Press into a baking tin and bake until crispy on top.

Your children, your legacy

If you are a parent, bringing your children up is your most important job, because how you bring them up is your legacy. They are a continuation of your love, your values and your way of life.

I was 17 when I first became a mother.  I did not do such a good job, but I am blessed in that I had a man with deep happiness in his soul to co-parent with me. We also had a lovely, close family who cobbled together to make it work in the most beautiful way (I think it is a combination of Welsh, Spanish and Cockney English that fostered this lovely philosophy of kindness rather than cold rigidity). I relaxed my unrealistic ideals about how children should behave, learned that love is the most important thing of all, and that everyday happiness is to be valued.

Almost 30 years later, I see the product of this philosophy.

My second son, Kit, is looking after my doggies for a few weeks, and he parents them up exactly the way that his father and I brought him, his brothers and sisters up. The doggies live in a relaxed household with Kit. He made a house for them in the shed, with rugs and a favourite couch, but the doggies chose to be indoors with him and his girlfriend. Instead of enforcing discipline, he moved them indoors without a second thought, because that was how his father and I brought him and his siblings up – they slept in our bed for the longest time, all happy sweaty bodies piled in together, never mind what we read in books about discipline and boundaries.

Kit takes the doggies everywhere with him. In the past week, they have been to Portland beach in Hampshire and later in the week, camping in Cornwall. He could have sent them to boarding kennels, which would have been simpler for him, as he will be on a camping trip with the boys. But his father and I, we took them everywhere with us too because we could not afford nannies and maids. We enjoyed their company anyway – they were fun kids, always full of life and resilient; they never sick, whiny or tired.

Our children were never perfectly behaved, they were not ideal kids by far, and but they were happy. We did our best to keep ugliness out of their lives, though mainstream thinking was that we must be tough to children to teach them how to cope with the tough ‘real’ world.

We chose a life of happiness and trust instead, accepting that life is imperfect and so long as we have 75% good, we are OK.

They have grown up into strong, nurturing adults. I think it is because their father and I gave them a stable childhood filled with love, and the latitude to be naughty rather than aiming for perfection. That little forgiveness and softness is so important, I find, because it teaches children to be forgiving and soft in adulthood.

Love letter to my Mother-in-Law

I finished my University final exams on 11th June, 1992. I was no more than a child, still an inner void within me to fill, but I was already a mother to four children who went to University with me and grew up together with me.

It would not have been possible without my mother, who was always just a telephone call and a 3-hour car-drive away. My mother was always there to comfort and cosset. She never criticised, she just loved me unconditionally.

My mother-in-law was different from my mother. She was not as tolerant as my own mother. The summer the children and I had to live in her house whilst saving up for a deposit for our first home was a torture for me. I was expected to work, as opposed to being treated like a princess whenever I was at my parents’ house. Whenever I was in my parents’ house, my mother took over everything so that I could have my much-needed rest from my studies and from being a mother to a large brood.

My mother-in-law cured me of my spoilt behaviour, but it was a baptism of fire. I was lazy and incapable, and her son deserved more than the teenager who was dumb enough to fall pregnant on the first date, and who wanted grand things in life rather than knuckling down to being a mother, taking care of the family the proper way. I should have been thankful for the things I had, instead of chasing silly dreams at the expense of the family.

I used to run back to my mother, crying.

She, my mother, would tell me to learn to love my mother-in-law instead of commiserating with me.

“She’s your mother now,” my mum said, though her heart must have been bleeding at my tears.

And yes she was. My mother-in-law was my mother now. She made my maternity dresses. She was up at 3am with my colicky baby. She took the time to sit in the garden with me in her busy day. She tried to understand me.

Slowly, we began to laugh together. What started as an argument between us would end up in laughter. We began to cherish magical moments together, like sitting with a three week old baby in the rain eating soggy cheese sandwiches, because she was adamant that children need lots of fresh air (even in the rain). Slowly, the enmity turned into a deep and abiding love. It wasn’t an easy relationship, but nonetheless it was one that shaped my life.

This summer, I cut flowers from her garden to bring to her in her nursing home. I found this letter, and it brought it back to me, the love I have for my two mothers, two amazing women, whom I owe everything to. They are still my mothers, and I their daughter, though I am 47 with a string of qualifications, impressive work experience, financial independence and five grown-up children. This positive dependency was brought into sharp focus this summer: though my mother-in-law is no longer capable of looking after herself, I still run to her, as I did this summer, when I needed a home.

Homemade red pesto dressing

Having over-indulged over the summer, I decided to go raw for the next few days.  There were lots of greens in my fridge, but I was bored with conventional dressing, so I decided to make red pesto dressing.  It’s strong and goes very well with olives:

You will need:

1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes (I used this for a more intense flavour)

1/2 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup grated parmesan

1/2 cup olive oil

3 cups fresh basil

3 cloves garlic

pinch of salt.

I blended the above to a chunky-smooth consistency.  It will store in a sterilised jar in the fridge for a few days – if it lasts that long 🙂

Growing up without plastic toys

I first became a mother when I was 17, and had 3 other kids by the time I was 25. I was an idealistic young mum, spiky and full of definite ideas about how my children should be brought up. I took my children along to university with me, so they had lots of playmates. We did not have much money, so my children had to make do with the little material things we could afford.

I banned plastic toys. I caused quite a lot of bad feelings when I firmly requested no plastic toys for Christmas and birthdays, and made a point of returning them when those requests were ignored by indulgent grandparents.

I became a mother for the fifth time when I was 33. I was more relaxed, less idealistic. And I thought, “Gosh, I was draconian!”

But I was glad about my no-toys stance.

It forced us to do more with our children, though that was a challenge sometimes after a long day at work or university. But the kids learned a very important lesson: they learned to cope with boredom by finding their own ways to engage themselves, instead of relying on us or electronic gadgets to be their chief entertainers.

They used to build houses that they invited us to visit. They used to make dinner for us with real kitchen utensils and fruits, seeds and nuts, giving those dishes imaginative names such as rabbit poo pie. They used to put on performances that they sold tickets for, setting the whole front room up as a theatre. They used to build a rabbit hole behind the settee that led into a wonderland, with my Princess Kat declaring, “Alice did not fall into the rabbit hole; she stumbled into one”. They were so tiny then, with the eldest being no more than 10 at that time.

When they were teenagers, electronic games became a rage, but they continued on their own sweet way. They became experts at Charades and Pictionary, and then of course, the naughty stage of mixing alcohol. My son Jack started a newspaper delivery business with his best friend Anton and my nephew Matthew. My niece Kate, now in her 20s, made food balls for birds to study their preferences. This summer, my 15 year old decided to rewrite school textbooks in a mind-mapping sort of way. Maybe they are out of sync with youngsters of today, but they are fine growing up without plastic toys, expensive gadgets, designer wear or shopping malls.

Being outdoors also gets children in sync with the world they live in. They learn to navigate and negotiate with trees and animals and gravity, they learn to lose their fear but grow healthy respect for danger, and they get to meet germs and interesting things.

Thus my belief: the best toys for children are nature and their peers. Dr Richard Woolfson, a child psychologist, confirms through research that traditional games also bring families closer. In an increasingly isolated world engendered by virtual reality, it is important to be connected in real life to each other and to consciously work on that connection.

This summer, my youngest child was reading ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and of course, her father and I unwittingly became involved too, as we wracked our old brains to answer her Why mockingbird? And I realised there is another upside to not growing up relying on Professor Google for answers: my children continue to keep me young. I could not shut them out or fob them off or put them away like unwanted toys – they have become engaging human beings with strong views, vivacity, energy and enthusiasm for the world they live in. But maybe, just maybe, that after 30 years of parenting, it is time to buy an iPad for the 15 year old so that I can shut my eyes on long journeys.

(Photograph: my children, my nephew and my niece playing their own sweet game one fine day in the Alps)

Packing for Life’s Journey

One thing you learn if you are a mother with many small children living in an expensive city like London: you always carry food and drinks in your bag even if it is for a short trip out. Last summer, though my youngest child is already 15 and we have sufficient money in the bank for the odd cup of tea and the odd packet of sandwiches, I still could not stop myself carrying food and drinks in my very uncool big handbag.

At church yesterday, it was a young Filipino priest who gave the homily. He said that in his culture, food for travelling is a big deal. And he asks, what do we carry in our hearts for the journey of life: all the good things like love, compassion, mercy, wisdom, hope…..or heaviness such as bitterness, anger, regret?

It struck a chord deep in me.

Many years ago, whilst I was teaching yoga in NYC, I had a young lady in my class. Her body was tight, tense. She never looked like she was enjoying my class. I largely ignored her, believing that people come to yoga to find their quiet space.

One day, she came to me after class and said “Thank you” for something I said during class. We were doing inversions, and I trotted out the usual yoga teacher dialogue: “Look at the world differently and let go of the rocks in your heart so that you are light enough to stand on your hands. Lose your fear and all the heavy stuff.”

Her story came tumbling out. She was abused as a child, and for 20 years, she had carried hatred for that person in her heart and it stopped her moving on. Inside the grown woman was a child stunted by hatred.

So she decided to try to let go, and fill her life with light things. I like the visualisation of starting today with an empty bag, and going through the day filling the bag up with goodness. The good stuff for life’s journey – big smile 🙂