Saturday, June 27, 2009

She's only two. She does not understand. Wrong!

Funny sort of morning yesterday. At the end of what appeared to be a fairly calm toddlers session, a childminder came up to me to say "Did you know you have a very naughty girl here?"

It turned out that this little girl has been pinching cheeks, slapping faces and pulling hair, etc. Usually these incidents get reported to us fairly quickly so I was surprised that it had not come to our notice till then.

And then, apparently, in a matter of ten seconds after this report, this little girl had traumatized another three kids.

The mother?

I had always thought this mother rather strange. Sometimes she sticks around for nearly 20-30 minutes after our closing*. All of us here are volunteers. We have other business and family to take care of. We rather like being able to clean up after a session and head home.

Soon I had two or three mothers telling me how the little girl had misbehaved. Well, we expect two-year-olds to go through a certain phase, don't we? But what came across to me was that this mother did not have a clue about controlling her daughter.

At least two mothers had spoken to her about her daughter's behaviour. Her standard reply was, "She's only two. She does not understand."

I have noticed too that this Mum would push daughter in her little ride-around all around the hall when the daughter should be doing the peddling (oops! I meant 'pedalling', of course) herself. Sometimes Mum puts her into one of the babies' bouncing net thingeys. It's not right. Daughter throws her biscuit away at snack time, only to grab a biscuit from another child, or picks scraps up from the floor.

So having gathered evidence from three other people I approached the mother. Before I could say anything more than "I'd like to talk to you" she said, "Wait, I'll get someone to talk to you."

A few minutes later she got one of the grandmothers who "saw what happened" recounting how another mum (described as having blonde hair) had grabbed her daughter's arm because both daughters were fighting over a doll.

Then I heard the phrase, "They were ganging up on her." Grandmother and her own daughter (another mother at the group) joined in support. Then another mother chipped in to say, "No, that's not right."

Amidst these accusations and counter-accusations I noticed an interesting pattern. The anthropologist in me said, "Hang on a minute. There appears to be this group of white mums and carers against a group of non-white mums and carers. What's happening?"**

Mother (let's call her "G") was then in a flood of tears. "Some children play hard, some children play soft. But there is no need to grab her like that." I was puzzled as she repeated this statement at least twice later on. What does "playing hard" mean?

So far, no one has owned up to grabbing the little girl (let's call her "M"). One Mum (the one with blonde hair) described how she had touched her on the arm with a finger to say "you must not do that".

Another (carer, J) said she might have touched her, but definitely not grab her arm roughly as demonstrated by Mother G. J is a very experienced childminder and would not touch a child unnecessarily. She felt it was necessary to do so only because M was digging her nails into another child and stepped in before that other child was hurt.

When everyone had calmed down I spoke to G and told her in no uncertain terms that I did not agree with her that M does not understand. Disregarding whether the other mums were right or wrong, she needed to do something to control her child.

I said, "For example, speak to her at her eye level," and demonstrated by squatting down to M who was strapped into her push-chair. And what did M do? She started hitting me.

Then she snatched the brochures from my hand. The mother raised her voice (in their own language). M took absolutely no notice and pretended to read my brochures with a very defiant look on her face.

I said to G to avoid saying "no" and "don't" all the time. It's very discouraging. (See earlier post.) Tell her to do the thing you want, not say "don't do" the thing you don't want.

I turned back to M and said in a very firm voice, "At the count of five, you have to give me back these brochures. OK? 1-2-3-4-5, I want the brochures back." Mum translated.

I counted to five and she handed the brochures back to me. I praised her. M looked pleased.

"OK. You did that so well, we'll do it again. Here, take my brochures. Now this time at the count of three, 1-2-3, you must give me back the brochures." Mum translated.

"One, two, three," and straightaway she gave me my brochures back. I praised her for listening well. She looked happy. She had achieved something and was praised.

Mum looked rather surprised. She told me that in her home, being an only child, M does pretty much what she likes.

"That's no good. If you are planning another baby, what's going to happen when you have a baby and she still won't listen to you?"

As it turned out, mother G is expecting a baby.

"All the more you have to get her to do what you say. Or she'd start hitting the baby."

I went on to say briefly what she could do, like giving her a choice of two: "green dress or blue dress", "wash her hands or sit down", rather than open-ended questions like "what do you want to do?"

Mum G realized that M is not too young to understand after all. Even when I spoke in a different language she could clearly respond, what more if mum was speaking in their own language?

The other mothers had expressed surprise at Mum G's attitude that a two-year-old cannot understand. They did not seem angry with the child as such but thought G's parenting skills were pathetic.

Some things we do so naturally we do not realize that other parents have to learn this. Sometimes there is a cultural element in that children are treated like gods and goddesses, as in some Chinese cultures. Then when they turn six (for example), they are suddenly treated as little adults, given responsibilities, etc.

In some families grandparents who help in childminding counsel that "they'd be OK when a new baby arrives".

Let's just say in the six years or so that I have helped in this toddlers group, we have seen how older siblings start biting other children in the group when mum has a new baby.

I now have a plan on how to help this mum. But would she be willing to accept this help from others?

It's up to her. I hope and pray that next Friday would turn out alright.

*The reason mother G sometimes sticks around well after 'closing' is probably because she could not get M to agree to go home.

**It is not unusual, as I learned as a minority person, that when we felt that we are being 'singled out' or 'picked on' our first reaction is "it's because of our ethnicity" whether or not this was really the case. In this instance, I think the divide was more along parenting styles, and the ethnic divide was incidental.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Me: laziest housewife I know (Part 2)

Son's school sports day today. We had the best weather and son was amazingly positive today.

Two mothers came up to congratulate me on his achievement in gaining the Chief Scout's Silver Award (mentioned by the Headmaster in the school bulletin last week).

Somehow we got round to talking about my making him tidy up from a very young age. This is really the 'luxury' of a stay-at-home mother. (One mum expressed how because she always had an au pair, her son never had a chance to do this.)

I had the choice of tidying up for him and get it over and done with in two minutes, or making my son learn how to do it, even if it took 20 minutes. I opted for the latter.

When life got a bit messy I used to say, "Let's see if you could put five toys back in the box."

He would then count five toys into the box. "OK, I think we need to put another seven in."

Sometimes it was nine, ten, or whatever number of toys. Sometimes it was five green colour toys (eg five green blocks), or six black cars, or something like that. So 'putting away' was in fact a lesson in counting and distinguishing colours, shapes, etc.

We started doing this from the time he was a toddler. Now that he is a bit older he has to tidy his own room. It's often in a bit of a mess, but there are times when we have to -- together -- sort the stacks of books and magazines on the floor, etc. He still needs help, of course, in reaching the higher shelves and strength is pushing books aside, etc. But the principle is that he understands what being 'tidy' means.

'Tidy' does not mean 'spotless' in our house.

By the age of two he could read and understand numbers. Walking to the supermarket took a very long time as we would pick a colour of car (eg red) and when we found one that is parked, he would go and read the numbers and letters on the number plate.

I used to think -- when I was single -- how annoying it was that people took their children to do the shopping. Children tend to misbehave there, don't they? Shopping is 'grown up work'. Why involve the children?

Then I learned that shopping is a great opportunity for children to learn, "Up a bit. To the left," for example, when looking for a particular item. Sometimes they are looking for a picture. Sometimes they are looking for a letter or word they could decipher. Either way, it reinforces the idea that the ability to read is useful.

Then there are the big aisle numbers on display. "We are at aisle 6 and the butter we need is at aisle 11, in which direction should we walk?" Not only does the child need to recognize numbers, he has to understand sequence -- ascending and descending orders.

Then we have "Mum needs six apples. You have two in your hands, how many more do we need?" So you see, our shopping trips could take some time.

All too soon I found him working out in his head the total cost of what I was buying, and the change I should be getting back from the cashier.

Does it matter if my house is untidy and my meals may be late??

Topic at dinner tonight, while trying to cut a rather large muffin: the difference between a sector and a segment, and he went on to tell us that a tangent at the point it touches the circle is always 90 degrees to the radius.

Me: laziest housewife I know (Part 1)

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kinsella Murder: Boys need male role models

The relevant link from the Telegraph:

Ben Kinsella murder: why gang members choose loyalty to each other over family

Allow me to highlight a few extracts. The emphases are mine:

''Members are usually from dysfunctional families and broken homes,'' he says. They are failures at school who end up playing truant at an early age and joining groups. From around 11 they join gangs and these become alternative families. But they are ruled by brutal discipline that spills over into extreme violence.''

''The majority, like Michael Alleyne, come from wildly fractured families - often they are the offspring of single mothers - for whom the gang becomes a surrogate family,'' believes Peter Andrews, author of ''Britain's Gang Culture.'' Often membership, he explains, grants status. ''But it's more than that. It offers an extended family with all the fierce, loyal protection that exists within blood families - something few of these young people know anything about.

''There are rules, and strict hierarchies,'' he says moodily as he toys with a can of Sprite in a cafe near the shabby estate where he still lives with his mother. ''We ain't feral and we're bright,'' he snaps. ''I'm respected on my road [community]. Even the Boyden [police] respect me.''

Nicco was sucked into the gang culture at 10. ''I was bullied, the gangs looked after me, my old lady wasn't gonna. At first you run messages, then you get promoted. That means you hide the knives and guns. Kids ain't searched much.'' Most ''generals'' and their ''lieutenants'' enforce discipline with a mixture of ''code of conduct'' loyalty and brutality.

These are government policies that ignore this 'street gang culture':

(1) Young girls and women having babies indiscriminately. They are left to care for these babies with very few resources. The fortunate few have an extended 'real' family. But many would learn, soon enough, that more babies = more benefits and the downward spiral begins. See previous post here. Children need families. Let's try to ensure that they are first born into one.

(2)If this government is indeed keen to reduce child poverty, they might do well to start by persuading young people to avoid having babies indiscriminately. But who would have the guts to say this?

(3) Boys at 10 and 11 are at their most vulnerable. Yet the school system transfer them into secondary schools at his age. Let me explain.

Boys at 10 and 11 are at their most vulnerable in terms of their physical, social and mental development. Their voices have not even broken. They are smaller physically than many girls their own age who have started on puberty. They are more likely to be bullied when they become bottom of the pile at a secondary school.

My work in the PTA which brings me into contact with boys of all ages show that boys aged 9 to 11 are in their 'silly boy stage'. The 12+ and 13+ take on leadership roles in school. They are top of the pile. Their voices break. They begin to behave like young men, wearing size 8 shoes.

They transfer to senior school at 13+. They become the bottom of the pile again. But they have already developed so much confidence they are able to fend for themselves, think for themselves, decide for themselves. In fact transfer to senior school is like a 'rite of passage', at a point where they are ready for it.

When our folk in the Ministry of Education make boys (and girls) transfer to secondary schools at 10/11 (apparently to align teaching to the SATs tests), have they considered the impact of this transfer on vulnerable young boys?

(4)What's the point of SATs tests in any case when the results do not actually get you into a better school situation? This nation has dumbed down because there is an inordinate fear of elitism and cleverness and academic success. If parents and children believe that doing well in SATS would get them into a good secondary school, their attitude would be different.

For now, we have the worst of both worlds: SATs results not making a difference to children's lives in terms of their secondary school placement, as well as teachers priming them to do SATs and only SATs well, thus narrowing their scope of learning.

Why bother to aspire when it is a postcode lottery any way? Calling a school an 'academy' by itself is not going to make the school better.

(5)Boys thrive on discipline and structure, being 'promoted'. It may not look that way when they are younger, but boys need a strong male role model or two (not necessarily the father) to tell them what to do, how to do, when to do. Maybe this is wired into their genes. Think of the rites of initiation in some tribal societies. The being separated from female community, one's mother and sisters, being taken into the male community, the strict rules that follow prior to initiation, and the sense of responsibility that comes after the event.

Where father does not play a major role in a boy's life, mother's brother does. He becomes the 'sponsor'. We will do well to find surrogate 'fathers' to these young boys. In a uniformed activity not unlike the Scouts?

(6)Teach boys discipline from a young age. To be fair, most mothers, single or otherwise try to do so. But how do you discipline a boy who is bigger than you? Usually at this point, the father (usually physically bigger than mum) steps in. For families with no fathers, who would discipline the boys?

This is not to say that girls do not need discipline. When I researched adolescent girls in Singapore, their unexpected plea was: "Mums and Dads, it's OK to give us a curfew. That way we have an excuse to go home." It is when mums and dads allow too much freedom that these young adults flounder. Who would have thought that?

(7)Going back to single mums, do note that it is well nigh impossible to come up with research that would affirm that single motherhood is not welcome by the mothers themselves. This is because motherhood touches on 'affective' dimensions. No matter how much you try to design a questionnaire survey, say, that removes all interfering variables, it will be very difficult for you to find mums who'd say, "I regret having this child [so early] [with this partner] [before I finished my education], etc. etc.

The nature of parenthood (and more so motherhood) is such that no matter how tough the going gets, the mother's love for the child and the joys she derives from the child would supersede these difficulties, disappointments and struggles they face.

(8)At our last consultation with our son's teacher, we were shown his tray of work. On top was the current comprehension topic: "Mum's New Boyfriend". It appears that the school curriculum requires schools to teach children about the different types of families. Mum has a new boyfriend? Nothing unusual there.

Father's Day is coming up. While my son makes Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, Christmas Day, Easter cards, etc for us, there has never been a Father's Day card.

I think it's because the school has to be sensitive to those boys who do not have a father.

Update: Interesting to read Prince William's contribution to this concern here. It suggests that the discipline and structure of the military, where young people learn and EARN respect, and where there are clear grounds for promotion, could make a difference to them. Bring back the draft?? Or national service in a different guise?

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Migrants lost in Translation

I was not at all surprised to read this article: Councils spend £50m a year translating documents no-one reads

Just look a this:

"Haringey translated into Albanian, Kurdish and Somali a leaflet for recommending council staff for internal awards. Only 12 people ever viewed the documents."

It reads as though this leaflet is for council staff. If council staff cannot read English, then surely they should not be employed by the council at all. What an utter waste of money!

Whilst people might speak a language, it does not always mean that they are able to read the language just as well.

Also, the councils assume that people have free access to computers and internet. As this is not the case, the headline here is also misleading (let's call a spade a spade).

While I am not terribly fond of Ms Hazel Blears her advice to councils to "think twice before translating documents" makes sense.

This is a version of my letter sent to Times (the newspaper) and published on 13th September 2007:

Voiceless migrants

"Sir, As a social anthropologist I have been shocked to learn how little English some elderly migrants can understand even after some 30 years in the UK (“You live here. You learn English. OK?”, Sept 11). Many no longer live with their families and cannot get on trains or buses on their own because they cannot read bus numbers, information on destinations and even signboards that might give them a clue as to where and how to get on and off. As such, many are reduced to being virtual prisoners in their own homes.

With no English, this generation cannot even go to the doctor, dentist or optometrist without an interpreter, often leaving symptoms undiagnosed till it’s far too late. They also have little chance of communicating with their grandchildren, who are unlikely to speak their mother tongue beyond the most basic civilities. Most pertinently, migrants cannot participate in the political process via elections and referendums, on issues that might affect them.

My new neighbours (white, blond, driving large vans) are not getting their bins emptied because they do not seem able to follow instructions on what to place in each bin (I have tried to explain). When I worked in Amsterdam I learnt Dutch to get on with everyday life, as did the refugees I worked with there. We are not doing new migrants any favours by not insisting that they understand and speak good English. "

There is one recorded online response to this:

"As an ex-pat, who has done the same as Dr Lee no less than three times - so far - I can vouch for how enormously difficult it is to learn a foreign language. Some people learn in a matter of months, others only know a few words after 20 years of trying. There is no general rule. Insisting that a foreigner learns English is almost akin to insisting that he or she goes and wins the national lottery. It seems to me that this insistence that foreigners coming to Britain should know English is just a hidden means of reducing immigration. For those who favour this requirement, I would suggest that they try and learn some Arabic; they will then fully appreciate what is being asked.

Terence Hollingworth, Blagnac, France"

Recently a mother with three kids came to my toddler group. I think she's Ethiopia-born. When I asked where she came from, her answer was 'Nederland'. Great! So I tried refreshing my Nederlandse in conversation with her.

She speaks very good Nederlandse, precisely because she would have needed Nederlandse to get her any help within the local government system there.

Her Engels is very good, too, better than her 'sisters' (ie her friends) who had been living here in London.

Any idea why?

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Me: laziest housewife I know (Part 1)

Don't like the term 'housewife'. Married to a man, not a house, so why 'housewife'?

In Singapore the preferred term was 'homemaker' for a while. But all the potential homemakers migrated to the corporations and the home had to be made (maid?) by FDWs (Foreign Domestic Workers).

In 2004 I undertook research on 'stay-at-home mothers' or SAHMs in Singapore (thanks to a grant from the British Academy). The results of this research have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal ... because I am still a SAHM. This term has gained popularity in Singapore (since then? maybe it wasn't anything to do with me, who knows?).

An interesting finding was most of these SAHMs did not do much 'housework'. They stayed at home, but they still had FDWs to cook and clean for them. So while they might do the food shopping (called 'marketing' in the 'wet markets'), SAHMs often only supervised others in homemaking.

The whole objective of being a SAHM was to focus on the growth and development of the children. Spending every waking hour keeping house defeats the purpose.

Which of course is my very excuse for a rather untidy house.

I see myself as the laziest housewife/homemaker/SAHM when I look at the dishwasher, for example.

I fill it in the evening with all the dirty dishes and put it on at the end of the day.

In the morning we take crockery and cutlery (and 'weaponry') out of it, but I do not empty it. When dear Mum-in-law visits she tries to help by emptying it and putting stuff all in the wrong places.

She's a sweetheart and I am not complaining. But we tend to (all three of us) just keep taking things out of the dishwasher throughout the day and voila! at the end of the day, I have but a few items to put back in the cupboard!

Then I fill it up again, set it to run at the end of the day, etc,. etc..

Lazy housewife edict #1: DO NOT empty dishwasher.

Children's toys. I never tidy up after my child.

My excuse: My husband had been trained to do everything around the house (except sew) by my Mother-in-law and I feel I must train my son to do the same.

Tidying up his toys is a first step.

From the time he was able to toddle he had to learn:

What is a toy? What is not a toy?

What is an indoor toy? What is not an indoor toy?

What is an indoor toy that must go in box A? What is an indoor toy that must go in box B?

Teachers might recognize that these are sound instructional principles.

You see, if I remained a management consultant or returned to academia my child wouldn't have had the benefit of learning any of this. His childminder, nursery staffworker, or whoever, would tidy up after him and that's that.

Yet, the whole point of being SAHM is to be there to encourage the branching of motor neurones in a child's yet to be fully-developed brains. In those first three years of life is the parent's only chance of making it as complicated as possible to cope with the myriad bits of knowledge it has to handle and process for the rest of his life. It's like putting in the hardware in a computer so that they could handle the software.

I take my inspiration from founding father of sociology Emile Durkheim. Just as it is elementary for men (and women) to distinguish the 'sacred' from 'profane', the basis of knowledge, in my view, is the ability to tell A from non-A.

And in cognitive anthropology where we learn that Eskimos have many different words (not as many as 150 as often claimed) for different kinds of snow. In contrast, some forest dwellers only think in two colours: bright and dark.

(Meanwhile in the UK, trains are running late again due to the wrong kind of rain, snow, leaves, strikes.)

So classification is a very important and pertinent aspect of learning.

So 'lazy' is this housewife that she used to get her toddler son -- after she had removed the 'weaponry' (ie sharp knives) -- to sort the cutlery: return knives (only blunt, butter, eating knives), forks, teaspoons, dessert spoons, etc to the right places in the drawer.

It gave him something to do, some achievement to feel proud of, and a chance to develop those motor neurone things in the brains.

OK, this post is getting too long. I shall make a few more posts about how lazy housewife designs 'household games' that encourage learning in the very young.

If you are into parenting, you might also be interested in my other blog about my son here.

Me: laziest housewife I know (Part 2)

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

When did you last disinfect your tissue paper?

Since the start of this 'swine flu' scare, there has been an increase in the government-sponsored advertising with the slogan 'Catch it. Bin it. Kill it'.

Well, it has certainly killed much of my hankie business which is usually in full flow this time of year, it being hayfever season. And you know what is even more exasperating? They are using MY tax money to bring you this advertising, effectively ruining my business.

This admonition to 'bin it' suggests that disposable tissue paper is more hygienic than cloth hankies. One school website says explicitly that cloth hankies are to be avoided. But when was the last time you disinfected a piece of tissue paper?

So, being the researcher that I am I took a closer look at my internet search results for 'swine flu and hankie'. Here are some of my conclusions:

(1) The habit of covering one's mouth with a hankie or tissue when one sneezes or coughs is no longer a habit amongst some of the younger people in this country. One writer complained about a mother letting her young child cough and sneeze and letting the outflow of solids and liquids spray all around the train carriage they were sharing, with no sign of guilt or remorse.

Another reported how a hoodie stood next to him at a traffic junction and started emptying the contents of his nasal passages onto the streets, and not always hitting the target.

Yet another suggested that "[s]urely the idea of people covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze is commonsensical, and a mannerly thing we should all learn from an early age".

(2) It is therefore a question of 'catch it' in the first place. The emphasis on paper tissue is misplaced, a sign that this campaign was probably designed by young people who do not know what a handkerchief is.

Compare the current campaign to this World War II poster:

Then, when tissue paper was non-existent, a cloth handkerchief did the job.

(3) Cloth hankies are still doing the job.

My husband is immunocompromised. He only uses hankies.

I suffer from hayfever. I use cloth hankies. Swopped back from tissue paper some years ago.

My son only uses cloth hankies. He loves the ones with his name embroidered in very large letters so no one throws them away ... again. (We suspect that some of his hankies had gone missing because other children did not realize that it was 'lost property' and not a funny kind of stretchy tissue to be put in the bin.)

My son also has one of the best attendance records in class, better than those who use only tissue paper.

(4) Sure, we put our used hankies back in our pockets. Some people say, "Yuck! Keeping all those bacteria in your pocket can't be good." But at least we keep our own bacteria to ourselves.

There is a Chinese saying: disease enters through one's mouth. Conversely, what comes out of us can't kill us. Might kill someone else, but not us. And that is the point: we must use a hankie to cover our mouth when we sneeze in order not to infect other people.

We wash our hankies. We dry them in the sun. We iron them. We are effectively killing any bacteria that might still be lurking.

When did you last disinfect a paper tissue?

Wash tissue paper? Yes, done that many times, by accident. They always end up in bits and stick to your dark colour clothes.

Dry them? They always end up in a hardened glob, does it not, in a bin or wherever?

Iron tissue paper? Never.

(5) Used tissue paper left in open bins which might not be emptied for several days = bacteria to share with all and sundry. Surely this is even more "Yuck".

In summary then, I suspect that the NHS campaign is targetted at people who do not use either tissue paper or cloth hankies in the first place. To suggest that paper is better than cloth is misplaced.

I wonder if my accountant could claim some money back from the revenue people for ruining my business. Or should I bring a case to the advertising complaints/standards folk? Anyone out there with expert advice for me?

Please share this post with your friends.

See also: This swine fever business

Embroidered organic cotton handkerchiefs

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"for family reasons"

OK, this awful MPs' expenses scandal is really quite cathartic.

Today another two female MPs said they are stepping down in order to "spend more time with their families".

These are MPs/Ministers in their late 50s/60s. Their children are not nine years old, like my son.

What I found particularly galling is Patricia Hewitt saying:

"I did initially want to serve another term. But I feel the time is right," said Ms Hewitt.

"The truth is that after 13 years as an MP and ten years in Government, I have not seen enough of my family. They have paid a high price for that."

THE TRUTH IS thenext election (if she's voted back in, no guarantee of that) will take her to past the 15 years in Parliament which qualifies her for a much more generous pension. She would now have to forgo that. O, poor thing!

As for not seeing enough of the family, isn't it a bit late to spend time with family and children who have left home, or are leaving soon?

My husband is also working shorter hours "to spend time with family", but that is only because our son has just turned nine, and is at an age when it would benefit him to do more with Dad while Mum takes a back-seat.

For a social scientist who has researched the plight of graduate women who sacrifice their careers to oversee their very young children growing up, this piffle about spending more time with their families is rather difficult to swallow.

In other words, it is sheer hyprocrisy these MPs/Ministers are displaying. And you know what is the worst part in all this?

They think us voters are so stooopid we cannot see through this.

(And O! Jacqui Smith is also standing down from Cabinet at the next reshuffle. Yay!)

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