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Parenting: The Ghost of Halloween Past.

It’s coming up for one of the best nights of the year: Halloween. Parents everywhere will be busy trying to put together costumes for excited children wanting to turn into ghosts, witches and even walking skeletons. The supermarkets are crammed with pumpkins of all shapes (don’t try to tell me they’re all perfectly round!) and sizes as well as millions of bags of sweets, the nights are drawing in and lots of us are looking forward to the big night and a bit of harmless trick or treating.

Sadly though, for me this year things have changed. And they’ve been changing for the last couple of years, to the point where this year might be our final year of trick or treating and Halloween fun.

The simple fact is my children are getting to an age where they don’t want a family Halloween anymore. My youngest is 13 and while I’m yet to hear his plans, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he’s feeling far too old to be going round our area, dressed up like a zombie and knocking on doors in order to get a bucket load of sweets. My eldest, now 16 and an A-Level student don’t you know, definitely won’t be with us and has already driven us to distraction with her plans and demands for a Halloween dress to customise for a party with her friends. So there’ll be no spending time with the family then!

It took me a little while to get into the whole Halloween thing as a parent. As children, my sister and me weren’t allowed out trick or treating. I’m not entirely sure why – although I do have a sketchy memory of my dad grumbling about it being ‘begging’ – but while friends may have been out ‘terrorising’ the neighbourhood, I was sat indoors dreading the inevitable knocks on the door that may have friends or just one night only spooky visitors that my parents would send packing with not even a sniff of a sweet.

In some small defence of my parents however, I could point to the fact that this was the 70s and 80s where Halloween and trick or treating was not the commercial behemoth that it has since become. In the UK, we left that to the Americans and watched ET go out trick or treating with Elliot and his pals with a mixture of fascination and befuddlement. So perhaps Halloween was just another night in front of the telly for my parents.

Consequently, I carried a bit of this attitude into my own parenting. It was wife that started the ball rolling where Halloween was concerned, taking our two out for a brief wander around the closest parts of the neighbourhood to scare some friendly folk into giving them sweets. I stayed behind, probably making the excuse that dishes needed to be done or something else enormously mundane.

The next year, it became a bigger deal as they were both old enough to stay up a little later. Out they went with mum to find a whole new trick or treating world where some of our community had gone all out to create amazing scenes in gardens and sometimes in entire streets. Again, I stayed at home, but this time only to answer the door to any of our own scary visitors. And that was when the spirit of the whole thing grabbed me. The combination of my own kids’ excitement – and how cute they looked – and that of the visitors to my door had me almost hooked!

From then, it grew and grew. I joined in the trick or treating, cajoling the kids to go and knock on doors and glowing with pride at people’s reactions to how good they looked or their mock fear at these two terrifyingly cute monsters! Year upon year, prompted by my fantastic fun-loving wife, we decorated the house and the garden, leaving ever growing buckets of sweets outside the door for anyone who might call while we were out.

I’d estimate that we’ve spent a small fortune on costumes, sweets and decorations over the years. I’ve even managed to allow myself to be talked into dressing up on a few occasions when we’ve held our own family parties. But, if you’re reading this and you know me, no, I’ve never ever ventured out on to the streets in a Halloween costume. You already knew this without me having to tell you!

It’s fair to say that for me there’s been a complete transformation in terms of my approach to Halloween and I’ve gone from being an out of place Grinch to a somewhat awkward, but enthusiastic(ish) zombie. I’ve taken a huge amount of joy from watching my kids – and my wife – throw themselves into the whole trick or treat thing for years now. Even last year, when my daughter decided that she was too old and it was too cold for such frivolity, we went out with my son and his two friends, trudging around the streets for hours, admiring the amazing decorations and gathering more and more sweets as we went. It was pouring with rain and yet we still had a brilliant time! In fact, the rain meant that we were almost the only ones out on our estate, meaning triple helpings of sweets and chocolate! I don’t think I’ve ever seen those lads happier!

This year promises to be a much quieter affair. And having only just got into the swing of all things Halloween, that makes me feel quite sad. I no longer have the cute, carefree kids that would dress up as a character, fully made up and stride up to door after door to scream “trick or treat!” like their very lives depended on it. A bit of the sense of fun has now gone. I expect that we’ll still go out trick or treating with my son, but it won’t be the same. And by this time next year, maybe it’ll be at a complete end.

So, I’m left feeling a little mournful about the past. It’s getting to that stage of my children’s lives where they’re beginning to leave certain things behind. Halloween now and probably things like our traditional egg hunt at Easter next. I can see why people might be tempted by the thought of just having another child, even if there’s no way that I’d make such a decision!

Obviously, what’s happening in our family is inevitable for every parent and their children. You can’t stop them growing up, after all. I’m glad that I softened my stance on Halloween though, because it means that I have memories that are impossible to forget. Maybe one day I’ll take my grandchildren out trick or treating. But for now, I imagine we’ll just have to make the most of the upcoming one, while we still can!

Autumn Bucket List

A new season means changes in everyone’s lives. Be it easing away from the t-shirts and shorts of summer into longer sleeves and layers or just the fact the the days are getting shorter and we have to adjust to longer, darker evenings, it’s all change as we slide into Autumn.

With that in mind, I thought I’d write an Autumn Bucket List for parents with younger children. There are loads of things that you can do with kids in Autumn, but I thought I’d pick out a few that either my own kids enjoyed when they were younger or those that I have some experience of.

Go and kick some leaves around. The first item on my list is really quite simple and doesn’t take a great deal of time or effort. It’s not one I can really go and do now as my children are probably a bit old to be doing it, but they loved it when they were little. There’s a lot to be said for simple, free fun like this.

When my two were younger we’d often go out on Autumn walks to local parks or beauty spots and the joy they would get from heading out in their wellies and kicking piles of fallen leaves around the place was amazing. It was a joy to watch and if I think about it, I can still hear their giggles and squeals of delight! They used to like making big leaf piles and then jumping in them from above, as well as just picking handfuls up and throwing them up in the air too! And there are two benefits here – it’s free and while they’re jumping around, they’re staying warm! Watch out for hedgehogs in the leaves though. We never encountered any, but you never know.

Speaking of those spikey little creatures, you could attempt to make a hedgehog hotel with the little ‘uns this Autumn. And if not with them, then for them, as keeping an eye out for the hedgehog could well develop into a game all of its own for a short while!

This isn’t one I’ve ever done, but it was regularly on the lists when my children were younger. It seems quite simple. You’ll need an old box, but a sturdy weather-proof one, something like a wooden wine crate or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could make one out of plywood or just adapt something else. I’ve seen them made out of upturned basket and even lumps of thick polystyrene packaging.

Then you’ll need something to make a tunnel – more plywood or maybe an old cut off length of pipe – for the entrance and also a hole in your box so the tunnel has somewhere to lead to! You’ll need to make another, smaller hole for ventilation too.

After the box is finished and a lid put on, you’ll need to fill it with dry leaves or even straw and then place it somewhere hedgehog friendly like underneath soil and leaves. Just make sure that the entrance and the ventilation hole aren’t blocked. And there you go; you have a hedgehog hotel! All you need now is an occupant!

A similar, but larger scale idea, is to go den building with the kids. This is also a lot of fun for adults too and I’d often find that while my kids had lost interest, I was still lugging logs around or trying to make the perfect roof out of foliage and twigs!

Quite a few parks and forests have cottoned on to this as a good way of attracting visitors and often have areas where there are plenty of logs and fallen branches to build with. Failing this, you could just scour an area of the woods for fallen branches and just start building. As long as it’s off any kind of pathway and you’re not harming the environment, you’ll be fine. Don’t resort to pulling branches from actual trees though, but I guarantee that you’ll have an excellent time den building!

Another fun thing to do this Autumn, especially if you have kids is to collect your pumpkins for Halloween. Now, I know that it’s far easier to just buy them in a local supermarket, but a lot of places like parks and farm parks make a bit of an event of it nowadays. So, not only can you wander through a field of pumpkins, carefully eyeing up the perfect specimen to go outside your front door, but you might also get to take a tractor ride, get a lesson in carving your own pumpkins or just draw your face or pattern out for someone who’s a little bit more of an expert to carve for you. If you’re really lucky there might even be a cafe on site for you to relax and take the chill out of your body with coffee and a slice of cake!

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

We did pumpkin picking a couple of times when our kids were younger and just the sight of a huge field of pumpkins left them in awe! The fact that they got to draw their designs on and then help to carve it out made for a fantastic morning. We even managed to get their pumpkins home in one piece too!

Sometimes though, it’s the simple things that make Autumn fun. And what could be better than wrapping up, getting their wellies on and going for a bracing Autumn walk? These are best taken on those lovely crisp, sunny Autumn days and if there’s a park or a forest to explore, then all the better! You can get some exercise and some fresh air and the Autumn light might help you get some brilliant photos as well. And the beauty of this type of pastime is that it can be kept going even as your little ones get older. My two are 16 and 13 now and, although they might grumble a bit, we always have a nice time on our Autumn walks. I think the ice cream van at the end of some of the walks help, but either way, myself and my wife really enjoy getting out on this type of day.

Scarecrow Festivals seem to be a very British thing. So, if you’re reading this outside of the UK you’ll either find them extremely strange or you might be inspired enough to start your own version where you live! It was something I first became aware of around 20 years ago, when I started teaching at a rural school near Halifax. I distinctly remember driving home one evening and repeatedly spotting novelty scarecrows in people’s gardens, in the windows of shops and just in many of the fields that dominated the area. Shortly afterwards I would find out that this was all to do with the Norland Scarecrow Festival, which still continues to this day.

The fun of a scarecrow festival comes in how the scarecrows are actually made and dressed and participants tend to go to great lengths to come up with imaginative ideas year upon year. Over the years I’ve seen lots of Star Wars characters, Darleks, Super Mario, firemen, Minions, Roald Dahl characters…and even just scarecrows!

Often there’s something like a scarecrow trail to follow and this is always something that younger kids love to do, especially if there’s a list to tick off and maybe even a prize of some kind at the end! The bigger the festival, the more there is going on though, and if you’re lucky there might even be a scarecrow building event. Who knows, you could be building your own scarecrow to be included in your local festival before you know it!

So, there you have it – hopefully, a stress free and reasonably cheap Autumn Bucket List. I hope you enjoyed reading and that it gives you plenty of food for thought. Feel free to let me know what you plan to get up to or even if you agree with any of my suggestions!

Parenting: It’s nearly time for results day!

It’s the kind of landmark day that you probably don’t give a passing thought to as a parent for quite some time. Not before your child is at least a decade old, I’d say. Until then, there are far too many landmarks to give thought to, meaning that those that are going to happen just as your kid is on the verge of adulthood (but still very much your little girl or little boy) won’t even occur to you. After all, with everything from emptying the contents of their stomach or bowels all over you to first steps, first words and first days of nursery and school, there’s a lot to think about. Your thinking time is pretty well taken care of for quite a while!

However, at some point, as I’m finding out in the next few days, your child will start to come up against potentially life-changing days and will either achieve things that you would have never thought believable or be forced to cope with the biggest phase of adversity that they’ll have had to face up to so far in their time on the planet.

Thursday is GCSE results day in the UK and my daughter, who at present is staring out at me across the kitchen on the side of not one but two mugs as a very cute, laughing toddler, will be faced with opening the most important envelope of her life so far. On Thursday, she will collect her GCSE results as the biggest phase of her education so far draws to a close, ready for the next one to start about a week later. It’s quite a concerning time for all!

As a parent, I feel quite calm and rational about it all. This is probably because wen I’m off pretending to be a proper adult, I’m a high school teacher. So Thursday won’t be my first rodeo, as they say. I know the drill and have worried about literally hundreds of kids and the contents of their envelopes over the years. So, in a sense everything’s zen for me personally.

However, while the above is very much true, it still promises to be a stressful day. Results day has never mattered this much. And while I’m calm on the surface and not a natural worrier, I’m still obviously feeling concerned and over-protective.

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to worry at all. After all, my daughter is a bright kid who realises the importance of education and qualifications and has the will and determination to do well. She’s worked damned hard too, spending much of the last two years revising in her spare time, making notes, flashcards, doing online tests, battling through hours of homework, listening to podcasts and just generally leaving no stone unturned in her quest for success. The trouble is, it’s not a perfect world. She really deserves a good set of results, but there’s obviously no guarantee of success with exams.

There have already been reports that results will take a hit this year, due to the fact that they were viewed as being inflated during the two non exam years of the pandemic. So, there’s that to contend with straight away, before she even gets the envelope in her hands. And we’ve been contending with it. Such is the reach of social media and 24 hour news these days that kids see almost everything that’s out there. And of course, my daughter has read all of it, meaning that she’s thoroughly stressed out already. I really feel for her. In my day I had no awareness whatsoever about results and grade boundaries and everything else that goes into gaining a GCSE. Having scare stories thrown at you left, right and centre can’t be any fun and there’s very little we can do to protect her from it.

As a parent, I can’t help but hope that she just does really well. I understand that good GCSEs aren’t the be all and end all of things for her and that she got a lot of life to live, with a lot of opportunities to come whatever her results; but I’d still love to see her come home with a great set of results. Whatever her future holds, it’d be great to think that had a firm foot on the first rung on the ladder!

Despite our attempts to make her look into colleges and different types of courses, my daughter was very firm in her intention to carry on at school via 6th form. One of my biggest regrets is doing just that and while our schools are enormously contrasting (hers is good, mine was like a cross between a safari park and a prison), I wish she had at least assessed her options properly. Now – and this has been discussed and will be handled on the day by my wife who is heading to school with her – she has to make the final decision on which A-Levels she’ll be taking. She knows what she wants to do, but this will come down to results, which has meant more stress and more ‘what ifs’! We’ve talked about options though, so there’s at least a Plan A and a Plan B, which is two more plans than I had at that age!

I think the main point in dealing with such a big thing as GCSE results has to be reminding your kid of how loved and valued they are. While I’m desperate for her to do well, obviously in the main for her but let’s not deny that parental pride won’t come into it, this is merely a step to get over. If the results aren’t what she would have really wanted, then it’s still a world full of options and it’s still a house we’re she’s always made fully aware of how loved and supported she is.

Given how quickly things move, I suppose it’ll not be too long before we’re discussing her next steps. At the moment, university seems to be at the forefront of her mind and I’d love her to go, but I’m hopeful that with a bit more maturity, she’ll listen to as many options as possible. She has some interests where she shows a huge amount of talent and I’m quite hopeful that these may be areas that she can explore further in the future. It would be wonderful to think that her work was also something that she loved.

Before then though, we have two more stressful nights to get through. And then the drama will begin in earnest on Thursday morning! I’m hopeful that it won’t actually be too dramatic though. Whatever happens, as parents all we can do is to be as supportive as possible, listen carefully and try to offer useful advice, even if this is a day that we’d happily tucked to the back of our minds with the thought that it was far too far off to really worry about!

Fingers crossed that everything will turn out alright!

As if by magic, I’m the dad of a school leaver…

A few weeks ago now, I passed through another milestone as a father. I didn’t do anything special and there was no great effort on my part. In fact, I did nothing at all. What happened was that my daughter left high school.

Now if you’re sitting reading this as a non-parent or a parent of a much younger child, then you won’t bat an eyelid, as they say. It won’t seem like much and describing it as a milestone may seem strange. If you have younger children, you might acknowledge this landmark moment, but feel safe in the knowledge that for you personally, this is ages away. Well, don’t. Because it isn’t. It happened to me and I almost didn’t see it coming.

My daughter was born at home in our bed. She’s part of the reason that we still have the same bed, as my wife can’t bear to get rid of it. It’s a good solid bed as well though. We’ve always been reluctant to move house for the same reason. But the fact that she was born in our house makes her a particular kind of special too.

If I close my eyes I can still still see her clear as day, in those first few minutes and hours of life. Tiny and while not quite fighting for life, not quite ready for it either. The pregnancy was full term and yet she had to have premature baby clothes as she was so small. Back in those moments nothing seemed at all certain and the idea of her growing up to be the smart, capable cookie that she would be at sixteen would never have crossed my mind.

What I do remember is that very early on in her life I worked out how old I would be at certain landmarks in her life. Thus, I knew that I’d be 50 by the time that my daughter turned 16. So, given that my 50th birthday was earlier this year I should have seen this one coming. But I guess it seemed so very far away when she was so young.

I won’t lie and paint a picture of my daughter as a bundle of joy her whole life. Even though she’s an amazing kid and I’m extremely proud of her, she hasn’t always been so nice. In fact, there have been some pretty awful times along the road to sixteen. But then again, I won’t lie about my opinion on myself as a dad either. I’m better now, but like many I’d say I struggled with things like patience and probably all of the other skills needed to be a dad. For years I just felt like I wasn’t making a very good job of it all. And yet, here we are; the school leaver and her father, with what I’d describe as a lovely relationship.

As a teacher, I’m well aware of how quickly year 11 seems to pass. I tell my students all the time that before they know it the final exams will be upon them and their time at high school will be almost over. So it’s an odd thing that until a couple of weeks before her final exams, I hadn’t really given the actual fact of her leaving school much of a thought. I’d fretted about exams and her revision, kept everything crossed for every exam, attempted to boost her confidence and helped with revision, but the end product of it all (or at least one of them), that she’d leave the cocoon of high school on the verge of adulthood, hadn’t really fully established itself in my head.

And now, weeks later, I’m left still somewhat reeling at it all. There’s no more watching her squeal with delight at simple things, no more being cool dad by letting her walk through streams in her wellies or holding her hand while she walks on the top of ‘high’ walls and no more slinging her up on to my shoulders when we’re off on a walk. My little girl is, in many ways, no more.

Of course, I subscribe to the dad friendly logic that she’ll always be daddy’s little girl. But deep down, now that she’s left high school and is taking those first tentative steps into a much greater independence afforded by the much more adult way of life that further education brings, I know that she’s not that little girl anymore. And it all feels like it happened in a heart beat.

I’m sure these next few years will bring fresh adventures and exciting experiences, as well as the kind of traumas that us parents don’t want to face up to. There’s already a boyfriend and although he seems like a lovely lad, I’m watching like a hawk! Whatever other new experiences we get to go through though, they’ll be different to ones we’ve had before.

So, if you’re a parent reading this I’d say savour every last moment that you get with your kids when they’re little. Before you know it…well, they’re not anymore.

Film Review: ‘Nowhere Special’

I’ll warn you right now that if you are in possession of a heart, this will be a difficult film to watch! If you’re a parent you’ll be in trouble too. And then you find out that it’s based on real events! ‘Nowhere Special’ is easily one of the saddest films that I’ve ever watched, but it is nothing short of a masterpiece too and I would implore you to watch it, safe in the knowledge it’s likely to stay with you for a while.

John and Michael live in Belfast. John is a single parent, bringing up son Michael after his wife just upped sticks and walked out on them shortly after Michael was born. We’re never given a real reason as to why. Michael though, is perhaps the cutest kid you’ll see all year and he clearly loves his daddy, which given the set up of the film, makes it all the more difficult to cope with. The love they have for each other is very clear right from the start, but as we’re drip fed more information, it becomes apparent that all is not well. Prepare yourselves for tears and what is very much an unhappy and uncertain outcome!

James Norton plays John, a single father and a window cleaner, who struggles every day to protect his young son Michael from the harsh realities that the both of them are faced with. As the film moves on we are slowly allowed into John and Michael’s world as the truth about John’s future becomes clear. It’s obvious from fairly early on that something is wrong, but we’re left guessing as to what exactly that is. Whatever it is, Michael is at the heart of John’s thinking in the matter simply because he isn’t going to be able to be there to protect Michael’s future.

‘Nowhere Special’ is a beautifully crafted film. We focus on the love between a father and son while becoming ever more conscious of the distance that will be cruelly put between them. Because of this, as an audience we almost can’t fail to be affected and wholly invested in the characters. It could be argued that you’ll want to protect Michael just as much as his father does, but ultimately it’s something that none of us will be able to successfully achieve, such is the sadness and inevitability of the situation.

The film deals with a truly horrible and emotive subject matter with a particularly light touch, so that while ‘Nowhere Special’ is a tear jerker, there are never the in-you-face moments designed to elicit tears. The camera may linger on a facial expression or the dialogue may hint at what is going to happen to both John and Michael, but there’s never any outlandish attempt to shock or sadden the viewer. The actual identity of John’s problem is never fully revealed and Michael’s fate is drip fed to us by a series of scenes where he, John and a social worker spend time with unfamiliar characters, who it turns out, are all strangers to John and his son.

I’d thoroughly recommend watching ‘Nowhere Special’ but with the proviso that you prepare yourself for the sadness that ensues. A heart-breaking story, but a simply brilliant film. I’d give ‘Nowhere Special’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Parenthood: the dread of living with a teen!

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Once upon a time it was Hello Kitty and Barbie. Now? Make up…just make up. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a teenager.

At the end of June another chapter of my parenting journey came to a close. The baby years have gone and the toddler times flew by. Then we tackled life at primary school and all of the hurdles that would bring. Next, double figures happened and the end of the primary years, which was all too quickly followed by the challenges of high school. And now, it seems we’re to be in possession of one of those teenagers.

In the most stereotypical kind of truth, my daughter has been a teenager for years. Or at least she’s acted like one. And I know that not all teenagers are the same…but for the sake of a good read let’s stick to the stereotypes. I’ll write this with a caveat though. For all of her faults, my daughter is a sweet, caring and loveable kid. I’m very proud of what she is and what she’s becoming and, despite the fact that we clash and no doubt find each other equally irritating, I adore her. That said, if what’s gone in the previous 12 years is any kind of guide, then these teenage years promise to be interesting to say the least.

As the teenage years begin I guess I have to face up to the fact that my little girl – for that’s what she always will be –  is going to turn into a woman. This is a tough reality for me, as I’m sure it will be for the majority of fathers. But it’s a reality that begins with those dreaded teen years. As many girls of her age will, she’s already moving on with her interests. She’s never been particularly interested in boys, viewing them as some kind of necessary irritant. However, just a few weeks ago I was present when she declared that a boy was ‘fit’ and a little bit of my heart broke, never to be repaired. The words were enough, but the delighted smile that spread across her face was the killer. The boy in question happened to be Zac Effron, so at least I can comfort myself with the fact that they’re very unlikely to meet and thus she can’t begin to explore what ‘fitness’ means and leads to.* Big sigh of relief. But it confirmed to me that my little girl is, in many ways, well and truly gone. And I feel sure that this side of things will go rapidly downhill now that the age of thirteen has been reached.

She confided in my wife that in Year 7 she’d had a boyfriend, but this had only lasted for a day! So there’s good and bad in that – bad = boy, while good = her boredom at him following her around like a lap dog. However, her choice of ‘boyfriend’ had been appalling – a ridiculous name, seemingly always in trouble at school etc. The kind of choice that was never going to impress her school teacher father, hence confiding in her mother!

I fear that this is the kind of choice that she’ll continue to make though. As teenhood – have I just invented a phrase – approaches she seems to label any boy who does any actual work or shows any sign of intelligence as a ‘geek’ and therefore untouchable, which for now is fine, but in the long term I’d rather she was going for the hard-working geeks than the ridiculous, half-witted bad boys that she seems to be attracted to. For now though, she seems a little behind the times in terms of her interest in boys. I teach kids of the same age and lots of them appear far more advanced than my own darling daughter, – goodness me I hope so – especially the girls. You only have to be on a corridor with them and you’re sure to overhear something that you really didn’t want to hear and that means you can never look them in the eye again. I sincerely hope that my nearly teen daughter isn’t thinking along the same lines for quite some time to come!

One thing that she is definitely advanced with is make-up. This is one that is very much against our wishes as well. I say ‘our’ wishes, but I suspect that my wife is ever so slightly in cahoots with my daughter on this one. I’ve been there when one of them has unintentionally mentioned some make-up that my daughter was going to get or had been promised, so the rules have definitely been relaxed without me knowing anything about it! My daughter also went through what can only be described as an out of character phase where she was regularly making her bed, hoovering her room, putting washing away etc, in order to gain pocket money. Now despite the incentive of money, she’s never been particularly interested in this before. But then, all of a sudden she’d be pointing out that her bed was made, or leaving the hoover outside her room to indicate that she’d been busy ridding her carpet of small animal carcasses or whatever disease had festered there in the years since the last time she’d hoovered. (And if you think this is unkind there’s an open invite to pop round and have a look at her room – enter at your peril).

It turned out that what she was doing was earning just enough money to go out and buy the odd bit of make-up in order to supplement the small amount that she already had. And as a result of this she’d also decided that she could walk all over the rules – a much more regular occurrence for her – and come down plastered in make up for no apparent reason. We’ve managed to curtail this to a point, by repeating the message that she looks so much better without it, and image being so important to a girl of her age, she’s listened to an extent. Still though, if we’re going out she tends to disappear for much of the afternoon, before emerging early evening looking like she’s wearing some kind of tribal mask. I expect this very much to continue as she moves through her teen years and the mask to get more and more colourful!

For as long as my daughter has been able to express an opinion she has done so, forcefully. Now, as she enters her teen years, I fear that her level of perceived expertise is going to see her opinions go into a potentially dangerous overdrive. Don’t get me wrong, on important issues like race, sexuality etc she has formed good, liberal, accepting opinions. She’s against no one (well apart from the aforementioned geeks and me) which is not only good, but a lot less time consuming than if she was forming dangerous opinions. In fact, she’s more likely, if we have an opinion against anyone or anything, to defend them, however unreasonable. As a staunch Newcastle fan I’ve found it quite disheartening and disturbing when she’s routinely defended Sunderland fans. Maybe she’s just incredibly chilled out – she’s really not – or maybe she’s just wrong.

As she enters her teenage years though, the one thing she has strong opinions on seems to be style. Now given her formative years, this is quite the surprise – many’s the time she’s come downstairs in a variety of colours and styles that simply didn’t match – reds, yellows, pinks, spots, stripes, you name it. But now my daughter has developed some kind of style. She likes nice clothes and is constantly telling us how she’s ‘planning an outfit’. I suppose that this is to be expected, especially when she’s not paying for said outfits! But the worrying thing seems to be that she has installed herself as some kind of fashion expert. And this is where her opinions come in.

Recently she’s decided that she must have her bedroom decorated. Grey and pinks, dahling, don’t you know. And such is her sure and certain belief in her status as some kind of style guru that she literally won’t listen to anyone else’s opinion. The fact that she currently resides in a room that look like squatters must have invaded years ago doesn’t seem to occur to her at all. She simply cannot keep it tidy. And I won’t embarrass her here by detailing the levels of untidiness, but suffice to say, you need to take your own ideas and multiply them by around a million to even get close.

We recently went on a shopping trip – a speculative one where we were more looking for ideas than actually buying anything. We found countless grey items, probably in even more than fifty shades, and yet she rejected them time after time. And this is understandable for a short while, but when it becomes clear that this is just because she is adamant that she knows better than you do on every subject ever, it gets a little frustrating. And again, I can only see this getting worse as the teen years advance. I imagine we’re leaving behind the years of buying her clothes from George at Asda that’s for sure, which will leave me as the only one in our house still wearing stuff from that particular designer!

Which brings me nicely onto clothes. As a self identified style guru my teen daughter has also decided that it’s perfectly within her remit to be openly critical of what her family are wearing. In fact, she seems to be making it her business to pass judgement on the style decisions of almost anyone and everyone, family or not. The ‘wrong’ t-shirt will instantly – and loudly – be deemed ’embarrassing’, while she herself is wearing something like a crop top with a coat over it…on the hottest day of the year. But it gets worse. She sees no problem, no lack of simple manners even, in declaring an item of clothing ‘ugly’. And why? Well, because teen wisdom seems to dictate that she must know so much better than anyone else.

Worse than the loudly proclaimed opinions is the choices that she wants to now be making. As a toddler and even as a primary school kid, we could get away with sticking to a budget and to an extent dressing her head to toe in clothes from a supermarket. But then she began to grow out of this. And we tried to accommodate it, but it’s quite a balance trying to buy your kid the ‘right’ clothes while also attempting not to bring up a spoilt brat. So now we’re told (and she really does tell as opposed to asking), ‘I need a Tommy Hilfiger top’ or ‘We have to get me a pair of Adidas leggings’. And this becomes a problem for me, personally. I was brought up in a household where the things that I wanted were often out of reach of my parents’ pockets, so to speak. So I became used to not getting most of what I wanted and I quickly realised that there wasn’t much point in asking, but also that it was a bit unfair on my parents to ask anyway.

As such, my daughter’s demands cut no ice with me. I want her to have the types of things that I didn’t have, but I also want her to appreciate them. And her teenage way of demanding stuff can be quite difficult to live with. So again, it’s going to feel like an eternity seeing her through these next 6 or 7 years!

I hope that seeing my daughter through her teenage years will be a largely enjoyable and ultimately rewarding experience. I know that there will undoubtedly be trials and tribulations along the way. But I hope that she begins to see that we’re not the enemy and that she simply doesn’t have all of the answers. That way harmony lies. Let’s wait and see!

 

  • Just in case your reading this, Zac Effron, should you ever turn up on my doorstep, asking for my daughter, you’ll be given very short shrift indeed. Take your fame, your Hollywood riches and even your impressive pecs, and nick off.

 

Some Thoughts on Father’s Day

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Because nothing quite says Happy Father’s Day like fruit does!

As the father of two young children I look forward to Father’s Day every year. I’m lucky; I have two great kids – lively, thoughtful, caring and loving. Granted, they’re not always like this and like many parents, I assume, I spend several hours a week quietly calling them names under my breath and wishing they’d leave me alone! This isn’t being unkind, just honest. Sometimes, my lively, thoughtful, caring, loving kids are complete pricks. And despite loving them with all of my heart, I can’t deny it. But they never let me down come Father’s Day.

Now I suspect that we can attribute a lot of the credit for a succession of successful Father’s Days to my wife. She loves to plan. She explores ideas, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of the perfect gift. And she has a way of making the kids think that this particular idea was there’s all along and that this gift choice was the kind of thing they meant when they told her that they thought I needed more socks. Don’t get me wrong, I know for a fact that the kids themselves – my daughter can be particularly thoughtful – have come up with some great gift ideas, but they still often need the wife’s guiding hand. And that of my Amazon Wishlist! However, the gift is just a part of why I love this particular day.

Both of my children are capable of terrible behaviour. Both struggle to control their emotions and tears are commonplace in our house. I suppose, for their age, in some ways they’re just a little bit immature, like their dad. It can be frustrating, but I’d rather this than a pair of emotional vacuums, holding everything in. They’re typical kids and I feel sure that as they grow they’ll learn to supress their reactions while retaining that emotion and knowing how to deal with it. And this is part of the reason why I enjoy Father’s Day so much. My kids both seem to make a conscious effort to behave. It’s usually payed back ten-fold on the following day, but on that particular Sunday, they suddenly learn to breath and reign their emotions in somewhat. As a result, Father’s Day seems peaceful. An island of calm waiting to be battered by a storm of emotion for most of the rest of the year. There have been exceptions, when one child has decided that they couldn’t possibly not speak up or cause a commotion, but largely speaking Father’s Day is fun.

Another reason to enjoy Father’s Day in our house is because my kids still haven’t lost their enthusiasm for it. Myself, I switched to just giving or sending a card decades ago. Me and my old man get along, but he sees no great need to be showered with gifts – or affection for that matter – and I see no great need to keep buying him stuff he won’t really appreciate now that I’m an adult. I sat through years of Christmas, birthday and Father’s Day present giving with much the same reaction – ‘Aye, that’s nice. Thank you.’ *Puts present on the floor by the side of his armchair – he’ll make it disappear later*. Eventually there seemed little point in the gift side of things. If I was doing it seeking some kind of love or affection, it wasn’t forthcoming and if I thought my present was going to change my dad’s life, then that idea was quickly shot down by his reaction.

My own children, on the other hand, excel at showing their enthusiasm for Father’s Day. The routine is always the same. We’ll decide when they’re going to give their gifts and then they’ll go out to retrieve them. The gifts are always ‘hidden’, adding to the excitement (they’re in the hallway, I’m just not allowed to leave the room). They will then re-enter the room, with their gifts still ‘hidden’ behind their backs. And here’s where the absolute joy of this day kicks in for me. They can’t contain their excitement. Both faces are plastered with wide grins. They can’t stand still, even though they’re lining up as though they’re about to be inspected. And they both have a present held, and usually only partially hidden, behind their back – there are probably others, hidden in plain sight this time, in a gift bag on the floor. Every year I pretend that I can’t see any of them.

They take turns in giving the first gift. Each year they start with something small, usually of their choice; something they’ve generally bought to make up the numbers a little bit. This is where Disney dad takes over, although it’s never a difficult role to adopt. By now I’m genuinely thrilled at what’s going on. My kids are practically quivering with excitement, almost unable to contain themselves and I am the focus of their attention. Brilliant!

After each gift or card I get hugs. If they’ve added kisses to a card – and they always do – I indulge myself, forcing them to give me every last kiss that they’d drawn on their greeting. If the kiss is in any way more of a glance I’ll not count it, just to get more. We squeeze each other tightly and even with my general fear of hugs I could stay like this all day. Even though I absolutely love a present, this is the best part of Father’s Day and the main reason why I love it. We may argue and fall out throughout the year, but for this 10 minute period we have all the love in the world for each other.

On the subject of gifts, over the years I’ve had some memorable ones. I still have a bar of chocolate that’s wrapped in personalised packaging, telling me that I’m the best dad in the world. I think this makes it official. I can’t bring myself to eat it, because of course it’s much more than just a bar of chocolate. I’ve also had brilliant books and CDs – yes, some of us still live in the past – as well as the obligatory pack of socks, because everybody needs socks.

The most memorable gifts though have both come from my son. My daughter has given fantastic gifts too, but the ones that will always stick in my mind just happen to have come from my son. He’s always been a thoughtful boy. Since he could read properly he has taken the time to scrutinise greetings cards so that he finds just the right message for the recipient. And he’s always given lots of thought to his presents. Both gifts, although very well meaning, undoubtedly fall into the category of ‘quirky’. The first one that springs to mind was a banana. Not a bunch mind, just a single banana. I got other gifts too, but the one that he was most excited about was the banana. He was about 5 at the time. He knew that this was a fruit that I liked, so it was definitely appropriate. However, his reasoning was slightly more complex than this. Apparently, he’d told my wife that he had to buy daddy a banana ‘to make sure he’s healthy’. Given my heart problems of last year, it may be accurate to wonder if he’s actually some kind of wizard. Maybe he had watched his dad snaffling one too many chocolates or bags of crisps and thought, ‘this bloke’s out of control, here’s me being force fed fruit my whole life and my dad seems to be working far too hard cultivating a belly that he’s going to really regret in a few years time.’ Whatever the thought process, it was a gift that made me smile and one that I’ll remember forever.

The other most memorable gift though was a bible. No really. As ever, Louise checked and checked that this was really the present that he wanted to buy, in the hope that he’d change his mind, but no; he was adamant. The reason he wanted to buy me a bible? ‘Because that way God will keep daddy safe’. He was only about 6 at the time and of course that’s not an age when you question God, but either way it was incredibly sweet. So although it was a gift with a limited shelf life, when you consider the old maxim about it being the thought that counts, it was lovely.

I didn’t realise that bibles could cost quite a bit and apparently with this in mind, my wife and son trawled around the local charity shops so that they could buy a cheaper one and still have money left to spend on me elsewhere. Maybe I was being upgraded to a whole bunch of bananas, I can’t remember. In the end they settled on a hardback children’s bible with shortened versions of all the stories and some pictures to boot. So you can probably imagine my confusion when I opened it up!

As a matter of course we would then spend time reading it together, at Dylan’s request. We’d lie on our bed, cuddled up and read after his shower at nights, with me rationing the amount of stories, so that we’d get more times reading together! This really was the Father’s Day gift that kept on giving. And an even bigger bonus was that sometimes Dylan would fall asleep on me as we read and so we’d then just lie there for a while longer, warm and cosy with me content to just cuddle him in and listen to his breathing.  So in the end, perhaps it really was a blessing that he bought me such a leftfield gift!

 

 

 

Is it me, or are kids just weird?

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Another weird drawing. That’s me on the left. Read on to find out what I’m doing.

Behold below a conversation that I overheard a few years ago between my then 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

Daughter: I’ve got loads of boyfriends.

Son: Have you?

Daughter: Yeah. I had more, but I broke up with some.

Son: Oh. So who do you go out with?

Daughter: I mainly go out with Ryan.

Son: Ryan? Oh. Do you kiss him? Do you kiss him up the bum?

Now ask yourself the question in the headline for this blog. I dare you to answer no.

If you’re a parent this is the kind of nonsense you’ll have heard a thousand times before from your kids. In fact, the chances are that you’ve heard a lot worse or a lot stranger. If you’re a parent who also works with kids then this type of thing is probably an hourly occurrence. There’s a reason for that and there’s no escaping it. Kids are weird.

Just over twelve years ago, as I looked down on my newly born daughter lying on our bed – she was born at home – there were many things I imagined. This beautiful, scrawny little thing was coming with me on a myriad of adventures. We’d be best pals, laughing and joking, I’d be there for her dark moments and I’d share in her many triumphs. That much was sure. She’d be a straight ‘A’ student – because back then no-one had had the 0-9 grading brainwave – she’d be imaginative, friendly, bright, good-humoured, sensible. She definitely wouldn’t be weird. And yet, nine years on she’d be discussing her loads of boyfriends with her brother, who in turn it seemed had become some kind of pervert after only six years on the planet. And why? Because kids are weird, that’s why.

Think about it. Every parent will have marvelled at their kids talking to themselves or holding conversations with something imaginary, or even tangible, like dolls or cuddly toys. And they’ll have done this for ages as well. Cute right? No. Weird is the word you’re looking for. Face it, half of that conversation isn’t actually happening is it?

And then there’s the drawings. As a parent you’ll have received hundreds of well-meaning gifts in the form of drawings or paintings from your children. All handed over with a certain level of expectancy, and of course you manage that expectancy by reacting in a ridiculously positive way. This drawing or painting is literally the best thing you’ve ever seen and it’s so much better than the last amazing one they presented you with all of twenty minutes ago.

But in reality, these drawings are almost always bizarre. In our house – and I’m sure in many others – they seem to regularly feature penises. My son especially seemed adept at drawing me as an actual cock. A family picture where mummy is recognizably small and dark-haired, his sister, slightly smaller, lighter hair, but again quite human and Dylan himself, probably holding mummy’s hand as the smallest of the family. And then daddy, drawn as an enormous phallus with two feet attached to the bottom of him that inevitably look like balls.

To add to this artistic madness he once also did a family drawing where everyone was present and again, recognizably human, while I was not only todger-like, but I was also having a poo. He even triumphantly announced, ‘…and look, Daddy’s having a poo!’ And there can be no other explanation for this type of behaviour than the fact that kids are weird.

We capture this weirdness too. Keep it for posterity. Preserve it on cameras, USB sticks and clouds, thinking that we’ll go back to it and remember how cute our kids once were. Well, look beyond the cute and I guarantee you’ll find that they’re all just weird, freakish and beyond our comprehension.

Recently we were transferring some videos from a phone to a laptop in order to clear storage space. We found ourselves watching them again, as you do in a kind of ‘aaw, do you remember this’ kind of fashion. And we sort of did go ‘aaw’ and we sort of did remember those times too. But we also found ourselves wondering what on Earth we had brought into the world!

Two of these videos stand out. The first was filmed furtively over the top of a bedroom door after my wife had asked my daughter to brush her hair, ready for school. She was about 6 at the time; my daughter, not my wife. Of course, despite several enquiries as to the progress of the brushing, she wasn’t brushing her hair at all, hence the filming. But what was she doing? Well, she was perched on her window sill, singing a song to herself about having a party in her tummy, of course. I can still hear her now, out of tune as always, repeating the inventive line, ‘Party, party in my tummy’ in a kind of weak American(ish) accent. Weird.

The second video will always be cute. When my son is a strapping hulk of a man with children of his own, I’ll still be able picture him in this video. I’ll hear him too. For all but the last seconds of the film he’s as cute as a button, singing along with a talking teddy bear, who when you told it your child’s name, was able to put it in a song. He sings along happily, with the odd coy look at the camera or a giggle until, as the song ends, inexplicably, he makes the noise ‘Booooooooow’ (rhyming with ‘no’) before acting as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened and trying to grab the camera from his mum and demanding, ‘Lemme see!’ But, for the love of God, what was that noise? We’d never heard it before and have never heard it since and despite being immeasurably cute and endearing it can’t be denied that it is simply plain weird. What enters a kid’s head that informs them, just make a noise now?

My son especially, has provided lots of strange moments throughout his childhood. He went through quite a long phase of cutting up wiggly strips of paper and tucking them in the back of his trousers so that he had a tail. This was a phase long enough for it to be suggested that this might be some kind of obsession; almost like he thought of himself as some kind of animal. He was probably only two or three at the time, but the fact was, he seemed to do this on a daily basis and for an unreasonably long time. And there was no trotting around to accompany his tail, like a tiny horse. He would just make sure he had a tail and get on with the business of the day, like making weird noises in videos and asking his sister inappropriate questions.

Further standout memories of the weird in our house also include my son once asking me, ‘Will you leave mum?’ with no context at all as we sat eating our tea. Had he picked up a hint of marital trouble, despite there not being any? I wasn’t sure, but for a while I was staggered. I had no idea where it had come from, but boy, was it weird.

And in every household there’ll be a child who deems it appropriate to dress up as a super hero or a Disney Princess for a trip to the supermarket or insists on having some sort of strange order for eating food or refuses to eat without their favourite knife and fork. As a kid, I even had a cousin who went through a years long phase of adding food colouring to his meals. So you’d go to his house to find him eating blue eggs, green chips and maybe purple baked beans. And while I understand that it’s just kids being kids, it’s also undeniably because they are all very, very strange little humans.

As I work in a school, I’m subjected to lots and lots of examples of kids being weird. I should have enough anecdotes to write a book, but unfortunately either never wrote stuff down or wrote it down but never in the same place. However, from memory, geography seems to be a great source of weirdness in kids. Again, I understand that it’s just knowledge and that these are things that we simply pick up as we go along, but sometimes the strange way of looking at simple geography that kids have, can be absolutely staggering.

In the past I’ve taught Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ to thousands of children. And great fun it was too; putting on the voices, walking around like a big bear to mimic Lennie and trying to act like a flirtatious young woman while pretending to be Curley’s wife. There have been times when I’ve expected a delegation from BAFTA to burst through the door and yet here I am, writing a blog about strange kids, my acting still criminally ignored. In order to teach it though you have to give a class some idea on the background to the story – so The Great Depression, The Wall St. Crash, dustbowls, California, that kind of thing. And it’s here that the weirdness of kids has shone through time and again.

It would appear that there are many, many children out there without the slightest clue as to where America actually is. So before the history stuff I’ve often found myself drawing a whiteboard sized map in order to show where the USA actually is. Now if that wasn’t bad enough, once you’ve got some sort of approximation of where it actually is, you’ve sometimes then also got to go to the lengths of pointing out the East coast and the West coast, in order to show them New York, for Wall Street and then California, where, if you don’t already know, the story takes place.

Now, I’m sorry, as a teacher I totally understand that there are all manner of different abilities out there in children. Believe me, I know that work has to be differentiated in order to make it accessible to all. I also get it when kids are strong in one subject, but maybe not others. But, for the love of God, how can you not know where America is? Firstly, it’s enormous. Secondly, it will have had some significant level of influence on your life, culture, beliefs, the TV you watch, the music you listen to, at some point in your lifetime. And thirdly, why have you never seen a map of the world? I’d predict it was because you spent too long doing drawings of dads that looked like penises, that’s why! Surely this lack of basic knowledge says something about just how weird kids can get?

A few other instances of this general knowledge weirdness immediately spring to mind. The first one coincidentally links to Of Mice and Men, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand the dark depths of the mind that it came from. For context, if you don’t know me, I’m from the North East of England. Happily, I’m from the world’s greatest city, Newcastle, and as such I speak with the accent of those from the city. We’re known as Geordies and we have a Geordie accent; it’s quite distinct and reasonably well-known. Or so I thought.

A few years back a colleague came to tell me a story about what a kid – the weirdo – had asked them in class.  Apparently the child had flummoxed my colleague by asking the name of ‘that Californian teacher’. That Californian teacher was me. Where I’m from isn’t even on the same continent, let alone country. I couldn’t sound less Californian if I tried. Even the weather is incomparable. And yet, said child had identified me as such. There is no link. There is no explanation, other than the fact that kids are weird and on this occasion, almost too weird for words.

Over the years this weird geography curse has struck again and again. Notable examples have been when a kid asked ‘Sir, where’s Bradford?’ Answer, it’s literally less than 10 miles away – and also when I got asked where Australia was. On this occasion I patiently pointed out that it was thousands of miles away on the other side of the world; I think I also drew a very basic map on the board thinking that it would help. It didn’t help though because the child still looked puzzled. Finally, she revealed the source of her bewilderment, crying, ‘Eh? But I thought it was in France!’ In France. Not near or bordering – which, by the way, would have been equally strange – but actually in France. It’s rare that I’m lost for words, but this occasion left me unable to answer!

While a lot of these weird anecdotes have been prompted by the behaviour of toddlers, my final few pieces of weird evidence have come from the mouths of kids old enough to know better. Both anonymous, but both very recent. Firstly there was the food advice given by a child to someone who was considering a radical dietary change – they were thinking of cutting out dairy, including milk. To my utter exasperation the following question rattled around my head and indeed the room for what seemed like forever, while I tried to figure out just where it could have come from.

‘Could you try chicken milk?’

Seriously, let that sink in. But while it is sinking in digest the next piece of child weirdness that I have to offer. Just this week I had a class writing an analysis of a poem. We’d taken a couple of lessons to study it and the class were interested and eager throughout. They had enjoyed the poem and after a brief chat about the kind of language features they’d need to be analysing in order to answer the question, I set them off writing. The silence was tangible. The ‘sound’ of a class just working, thinking about their response to a piece of literature. Wonderful. And then a hand went up and when I asked how I could help, they uttered the following question?

‘Sir, what’s empathy? Is it when you put yourself in somebody else?’

No. No, that in fact, is something very, very different.

As a final footnote, even today a child of 16 has asked me if I’m Scottish. This despite someone prior to the question asking me if I was from Newcastle (which if you don’t know is firmly in England). He repeated his question several times after being told that ‘no’ I was from England. And then as if this wasn’t bad enough the discussion moved on to all things Scottish, including the revelation that kilts were somewhat classed as national dress and, much to the amusement of the boys, were a bit like a big skirt. But this wasn’t the height. No. Not even close. A boy then asked this incredible question.

“Do they play them massive trumpets?” As a stunned silence engulfed the room the penny slowly dropped with me. I thought I knew what he meant by “massive trumpets”.

Bagpipes. He meant bagpipes.

Kids are weird. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

 

What do you do when Santa Claus no longer exists?

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Santa was made redundant for being too wooden, leaving his mate, Santa, feeling all deflated.

So Christmas has been and gone, over for another year and ‘all that fuss for just a day’ as my mother used to – and probably still does – say. If you’re like us that would mean months spent planning, reviewing, buying, wrapping and then placing ‘just so’ around the front room, or if you’re very traditional, underneath the tree. The Christmas one that is, not the silver birch in the back garden. Christmas is stressful enough for all without turning it into some kind of treasure hunt. But it’s been a few weeks now and so we’ve all had ample time to recover, right? Well that depends on how you do Christmas, I suppose.

In our house this Christmas has been fairly monumental. I say fairly because there’s no telling whether next year will be just the same or in fact completely different. So already I’m thinking about next Christmas and as a result I don’t feel like I’ve adequately recovered from the one that’s just gone. The problem? The question of Santa.

We’ve brought our kids up to very much believe in Santa which has meant an enormous amount of lies and subterfuge. But, as they say in Hot Fuzz it’s all been for ‘the greater good’. Santa’s been a magical presence in all our lives, because of course, Santa is magical. As disturbingly perverse as a white-haired, well upholstered old man sporting a great big white beard and wearing a red velvet suit might be, we’ve all grown up to be touched by him, in the right way. And if you haven’t, then this probably isn’t the article for you. And if you’ve grown up with Santa and he’s touched you in the wrong way, well this isn’t going to help either.

Think about it. He lives at the North Pole. He’s in charge of a veritable army of elves. He’s quite the snappy dresser. He only works one night a year. He organises an enormous fleet of Coke trucks. He delivers presents to children all over the world, having watched them all year, placed them on a list and then assessed whether or not they’re worthy of his gifts. He flies around the world on a sleigh that is pulled by flying reindeer. One of his reindeer may or may not have ‘a very shiny nose’ which is also red. He gains entry to your house via the chimney, whether you’ve got one or not. And depending on where you’re from on the planet he has different names including Kris Kringle, Kerstman, Joulupukki, Black Peter and Babbo Natale. Now if that’s not a magical man, then I don’t know what is.

And now, we’re faced with the question of whether or not he’s actually real. I know. Ridiculous right? But in all seriousness, this is something that will hang over our family – and countless others all over the world – for the next year. My kids have reached the ages where they’re going to be exposed to the ugly truth. A truth so ugly that I find it difficult to speak it here. Suffice to say that they’ll come to their own conclusion about Santa.

My children are now 12 and 9. By the time Santa’s sleigh is being MOT’d in readiness for the next night of Christmas madness they will be 13 and 10. In short, it’s likely that either one or both will simply not believe any longer. The signs are already there. My daughter, the eldest actually found out ‘the truth’ a couple of years ago, but with a lot of guidance from us has retained at least some element of belief. She was angry at the time, threatening to tell her brother and declaring that she couldn’t believe we’d lied to her for all those years! That viewpoint was quickly talked out of her – it’s amazing how a cocksure side to someone can disappear when you threaten the existence of their Christmas presents!

I’m sure she’s in possession of the facts though as she’s now in Year 8 of high school, but it’s safe to say that there’s still a little bit of her that clearly believes, or at least doesn’t want to stop believing. This year she wrote a Santa list and she’s never explicitly told me that she doesn’t believe, which is all this dad really needs to know to convince himself of her continued innocence. But deep down, with my rarely seen sensible head on, I know she knows. I teach kids of her age and they’re simply not as innocent as you’d like them still to be.

My son, on the other hand, still seems to believe. He understands that the Santas in the shops aren’t real, but thanks to Christmas films such as Polar Express and Elf and a certain level of innocence that he’s always had, he still buys the whole Santa thing. But it’s definitely on the wane. This year, he mentioned to my wife that some Year 6 boys at school had been telling people that Santa wasn’t real. And he actually asked whether the Tooth fairy was made up. As a result it’s made me think that Christmas 2018 may have been the last of a certain kind. The last of the magical kind. And it breaks my heart to think of my children not believing any more.

So what do we do if and when Santa no longer exists? I’m kind of stumped. As I say, with my daughter it’s been a strange kind of transition and I can’t honestly say whether she still believes or not. She probably doesn’t, but she’s the pragmatic type who seemed more angry that we’d lied to her than about the loss of a cuddly white-haired old man who she’d never actually met. But I fear it will be a different story with my son, who is much more emotional and clearly more the type to believe totally in a cuddly old gentleman, however. The lead up to next Christmas could well be messy.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I’m adult enough – despite my age – to break the news. Or to deal with the question of Santa’s real identity. I mean, imagine the poor boy’s disappointment when he’s exposed to the shocking truth – no reindeer, no magic chimney, no sleigh and certainly no portly old man bedecked in red. And then the further disappointment of the fact that it has been me and his mam buying everything, hiding everything and wrapping everything, all along. It’s a lot to take in. The truth is about as far from fiction as you could hope for!

Our kids’ Christmas has always been a huge deal. The precision planning means that December has been a nightmare for years and that every Christmas Eve has been frantic and exhausting. Coupled with their belief that if it’s on Santa’s list that they can have it, it can make for a stressful time.

We’re both the product of traditional working class families, so the idea of budgeting for our kids has been high on our list. Every year we set a budget, but every year we try to spoil our children. It’s a tricky balance. For me in particular, although I loved Christmas as a child, it was often a bit of a disappointing time. My parents have often since admitted to the fact that there wasn’t enough money to give me and my sister what we wanted, however modest our lists might have been. And so, for a lot of Christmases I’d be willing Santa to bring me the things I’d put on my list, only to find that it wasn’t there on Christmas morning. Don’t get me wrong, I never let this disappointment show, but it was disappointment all the same and it’s certainly spurred me on in terms of the kind of Christmas I want my own kids to have. Within a budget, of course!

The point with the budget and the balance is that we end up doing a lot of online research – comparing prices, reviewing etc – in order to maximise what our kids get for their ‘money’. And when I say lots I mean months’ worth. Modern day shopping means that, as a parent, you have options. Amazon prices and Black Friday/Cyber Monday are there to be exploited as well as the many and varied sales that seem to crop up every other week. And, mainly due to my wife, we exploit them all!

Then there’s the twin terrors of hiding and wrapping presents, both of which end with you having to retrieve said presents from their hiding place on Christmas Eve! And all in the name of Santa Claus and the magical Christmas he brings! Presents have been bought and stashed in the boot of our cars for ages before being furtively moved into the house under the cover of darkness. Our loft has been crammed with stuff, but for some reason I’ve never been able to keep it all together, leading to many a frantic Christmas Eve spent scrambling about up there trying to track down one or two final elusive gifts for Santa to lay out. And then there’s the downstairs bathroom. For years my children seemed to just think this was a door that led nowhere, mainly due to the fact that it was always full of things being stored for another time and was thus out-of-bounds; from Autumn onwards these things would be Christmas presents. Needless to say, it was a revelation when I cleared the place out earlier this year and they realised that there was an actual toilet in there!

It’s a well-known fact that Santa’s elves wrap presents with precision following their many years of training in order to hone this skill. Now in my wife’s eyes, this has meant that in order to make the whole Santa experience as genuine as possible, our wrapping must be perfect! And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much rules me out. I am not a neat wrapper, meaning I’m solely responsible for the presents that the kids receive knowingly from us, but not Santa!

Wrapping also can’t be done in front of the children or within their earshot. So again, in the name of Santa, for years December evenings have been spent quietly and frantically wrapping after both children have gone to bed and have had enough time to be safely asleep! And always in the same paper so that our kids would never be able to suspect that it was us (the wife’s idea)! And then when it’s wrapped and brought out of its hiding place there’s the job of setting it all out just like Santa would’ve – we all do that, right?

So having written those last few paragraphs I can see that one of the things I’ll definitely do when Santa doesn’t exist is to do less! What has become a matter of routine that has grown and grown with each passing year actually seems like some kind of bizarre obsession when you read it back! But everyone will have their own ways and routines over Christmas and this simply multiplies if you’ve got children of a certain age. Even leaving things out for Santa can become something to think about. Do you just leave the whisky or milk and cookies out in a specific place? Do you have a special plate and cup? Do you leave something for Rudolph? Do you trail crumbs around to look like he ate and left in a hurry? Are you one of the people who leaves fake snow footprints as evidence that Santa’s been? The devil is in the detail and it’s the detail that adds to the magic of Christmas. Admit it, you’ll miss their faces full of wonder when they notice the crumbs or the half-eaten carrot? I know I will.

For all the work, planning, reading, wrapping and hiding that we do as parents, there will always be at least a moment that makes it all worth while. This year, at the sight of a carefully wrapped bike propped up on our settee, my son let out a series of squeals and ‘yeses’, punching the air and stamping repeatedly in unison. Genuine happiness that genuinely touched my heart. Similarly, my 12 year-old-too-cool-for-school daughter reacted with uncharacteristic glee when unwrapping small gifts like make-up and again my heart swelled just a little bit.

It feels fairly certain that next Christmas will be at least a little different in our house. Santa may well become just a decoration – a clockwork man who sits on the hearth and used to dance until my son’s curiosity got the better of him as a toddler. A bauble – of sorts – on the tree or a light up decoration stuck to the window. I’ll miss the strange reality of Santa and the hope he brings, but I hope it doesn’t make anyone sad. I’d like to think that rather than being entirely spoiled, without him Christmas will just be a bit different, but ultimately still Christmas and as the song says, ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ Still exciting, still fun, still a time for excess – in moderation of course – but different.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Now, how many days is it until Christmas?

 

 

Honesty’s the best policy? Maybe not when you’re a dad!

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Mmmmmmmm, great big chunks of onion!

All through our lives we’re told that honesty is the best policy. Your parents are the first to tell you this, followed by any number of well-meaning adults. Teachers, religious leaders, youth workers, police officers, neighbours, aunts, uncles, and pretty much any adult you encounter will tell you the same; it’s best to tell the truth.

However, when you grow up the boundaries start to shift. Take the process of applying for jobs for instance. You might find that honesty actually makes you the dullest possible candidate. So you add the odd interest or experience to your CV or your answers in an interview so that you shine that little bit brighter. In short, you lie. You know the type of thing. You might pick an obscure martial art and claim to practice it, adding that perhaps it might come in handy in your job. Tai Chi or something like that.

In trying to become closer to the girl or boy of your dreams you might find, again, that honesty might not make you that attractive. He or she might not see your full potential as a lover or life partner if you tell them that, actually, the furthest you’ve travelled is Cleethorpes, you haven’t really given any thought to ambitions or that you don’t really have any interests. So you might combine these type of things and spout forth at great length about your dream of taking a gap year and travelling the world. Because, of course being confined to the toilet in your Far East hostel as you gradually make the air funkier and funkier is a truly endearing image and undoubtedly the stuff that dreams, and partners, are made of. If only you had someone to share this passion with…

“Lying to your kids is pretty much what the first chapter of the Dad Manual is devoted to.”

As a dad I’ve found that telling lies is more or less essential. Two words: Santa Claus. A few more: The Tooth Fairy. You see what I mean? Lying to your kids is pretty much what the first chapter of the Dad Manual is devoted to. Then you get to the interesting stuff like Dad Jokes and Dad Magic. I mean, who knew you could produce a coin out of a kid’s ear just by becoming a dad? And did you even realise just how funny you were until you had kids?

Over the years I’ve told many, many lies to my kids. All harmless stuff, but lies all the same. I’ve dated supermodels (believable, I know), I can speak Spanish (hola), I’m a trained street dancer (if you’ve seen me move the only surprise here is that I haven’t claimed to have been Patrick Swayze’s dance coach for Dirty Dancing, because I think it’s plain to see that his character may well have been modelled on me), I can make a block of sugar hover on the top of a cappuccino by using magic (my son was genuinely upset when he found out that this wasn’t magic, just the sugar floating for a while on the froth), I was in the SAS (I’m certainly one mean looking hombre, that’s for sure) and whenever we visited a particular theme park when my kids were younger I would delight in telling them that we were visiting the power station with the massive cooling towers that we had to pass on the way there. This was a lie which they fell for, literally every time.

“I became Gregg Wallace and my daughter faced up to her very own Masterchef final.”

So when my daughter decided that she was going to cook the family tea recently, it became a true test of whether or not honesty really is the best policy. My daughter is 12 and in Year 8 of High School. She’s learning to cook, amongst other things. And we we’re putting her cooking to the test because my wife, in her wisdom, had agreed that we’d eat my daughter’s spaghetti Bolognese for tea. My idea of freezing it and letting the kids have it for teas when we’re at work was rejected so that we could all put it to the taste test. So I became, Gregg Wallace and my daughter faced up to her very own Masterchef final.

Now there wasn’t a lot to this particular spaghetti Bolognese. A supermarket bought Bolognese sauce, some spaghetti, an onion, a handful of mushrooms and some lean beef mince. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turned out quite a lot.

“…I’m quite a picky eater…”

On the day in question I’d been thinking about this Bolognese, sporadically, all day. It was something that genuinely terrified me for several reasons. Firstly, I’m quite a picky eater – I don’t like onions and I’ve never liked beef. I genuinely don’t get the fuss about beef at all. To me, it’s just really bland. Bland and very forgettable. But I’ll tolerate sometimes it so that the beef lovers in the house get to chow down on cow. So the fact that this was a Bolognese made with beef mince immediately troubled me and deep down, I already knew that I wasn’t really going to enjoy this meal. Obviously this worried me, because I knew that my little girl would be desperate to impress. However, I also knew that she’d be bright enough to recognise that it was never going to be a favourite with dad.

I’m also not a fan of too much sauce on pasta (fussy and a little bit juvenile, I know, I probably need to grow up) and having looked at the pile of ingredients on the kitchen table I imagined that I was going to get a mansize dollop of the stuff all over my spaghetti. Protesting simply wouldn’t cut the mustard (applause for the cookery based pun, please) with my wife who thinks I’m just being fussy and juvenile and that I need to grow up.

“…a curry, a Mexican, something with a lot of garlic…”

On the night in question I wandered into the kitchen as my wife was dishing up our tea. Where usually the downstairs of the house will be filled with the wonderful aroma of whatever’s cooking, tonight there was just a strange nothingness. Usually the smell of what’s cooking will be mouth-watering, – a curry, some Mexican, something with a lot of garlic – but tonight no such aroma existed and as a consequence my mouth was unusually dry. This was not a good sign at all. My enthusiasm waned with each passing second and it looked like my dad lying skills would be put firmly to the test here. In fact, I was going to probably have to employ some advanced level Dad lies.

A look at what appeared on my plate only confirmed my fears. Dollop after dollop of a sauce that seemed to have had all the fun sucked out of it by the power of beef. And as I looked closer it just seemed to get worse. Onion. Great big chunks of onion. I knew that this was going to crunch in my mouth and I knew that eating this Bolognese was going to be a bit of a trial. For me, crunch is fine…in a packet of crisps. This is ironic as I imagine a packet of crisps is exactly what I’d go looking for later on, when the kids had gone to bed and I was hungry due to lack of tea! As I continued to stare I felt sure that all the red was draining away from the plate and I was left contemplating a distinctly grey Bolognese. I knew, however, that the more I stared, the more conscious my daughter could be of me not eating. There was nothing for it but to tuck right in!

“This was a forkful and then some.”

Now every fibre of my being, every sinew, wanted to sift out some of the stuff in the sauce. Let’s just nudge that onion to one side and smear some of that mince a little across the plate. I had to show enthusiasm though. I had to lie. So I gripped my fork, said a silent prayer and I dug in. Right in. Inner than in. As I lifted the fork towards my mouth I could immediately see that I’d overdone the enthusiasm. This was a forkful and then some. A forkful that could have probably become a mouthful for at least two of the people sat around the table. But I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t fake a wobbly hand and drop some. I knew that my daughter was watching and that she’d been waiting for this moment, not just all day, but for the last few days. She’d been genuinely excited by making a Bolognese and providing tea for the family, which was lovely. Meanwhile, I had been dreading it! I mean, who is actually the adult here?

As the first part of the food hit my tastebuds, I realised that the adult was definitely not me. That said, I faked a smile, let out a big beaming ‘Mmmmm’ of satisfaction and resolved to chew. Just chew. I’m her dad and if I can’t – in her eyes at least – enjoy her cookery skills, then who can. No really, who can?

After what seemed like an eternity I was still chewing. That enormous first mouthful just wouldn’t go away. My teeth seemed to be bouncing off the mince and the crunch of the onions was worse than I could have ever expected. I just kept ‘Mmmmming’. This seemed like a good course of action.

“How can you get a Spag Bol wrong?”

Finally that first mouthful was gone, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Actually, I could, but it would have been in no way complimentary or encouraging. I realised that I should just Dad lie and move on, but I couldn’t. And this was not the time for blurting out something along the lines of ‘How can you get a Spag Bol wrong?’, ‘Does anyone fancy KFC?’ or anything worse. So in the spirit of keeping my mouth shut – which is a valuable lesson that, I must admit, mainly women have taught me over the years – I stuffed another forkful in and gave myself time to think. More chewing. More bouncing. More onions. Still no flavour though.

Suddenly, just as I was swallowing the latest tasteless morsel, I had a thought. A moment of blinding inspiration. I knew exactly what I was going to say and do. And so I said and did it.

*Turns to the right. Looks daughter in the eye. Taps daughter on the back of the head while she’s trying to eat*, “Not bad that, kid.”

It’s official. I am my dad. I’d just searched high and low through my mind for something inspirational to say to my 12 year-old after she’d made us tea and there it was. A bit of a slap to the back of the head and a “Not bad”. Dad of The Year stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Imagine how great she must have felt hearing this. Imagine the warm glow that would shoot through her. All the trouble she’d gone to must have seemed totally worth it now because Dad told her that her Bolognese was “not bad”. Not good. Not delicious. Not smashing or tasty or even plain old nice. Just “not bad”.

“I could have critiqued her, told her that the beef was greasy and chewy…”

However, as the title of the article might suggest, I surely hadn’t done the wrong thing here either. In a world where no child is allowed to lose anymore and every kid, ever, is praised for simply turning up, I’d not given my kid a negative. I’d toed the party line. And I hadn’t lied, much. I’d protected her, just as a dad should. I could have critiqued her, told her that the beef was greasy and chewy, the onions not to my liking and that I was waiting patiently, but without hope for the moment that I’d really be able to taste something. But I didn’t. In fact, rather than a pre-prepared lie and an easily uttered “delicious”, I’d given my response some thought. Two almighty forkfuls worth of thought, in fact. And I’d argue that my honest, if uninspired “not bad” was better than your ‘it doesn’t matter how bad it is I’m going to force it down and tell her it’s “delicious”‘. My daughter now has something to aim for, while you’re just getting more of the same ‘delicious’ food next week.

As it turns out, I didn’t finish my tea. My Spaghetti Bolognese – mainly great big crunchy chunks of onion – was later scraped off into the bin. No one really enjoyed it, not even my daughter, the chef. She ended up having a little cry, but she was supported, cuddled, loved and told that it was OK. I didn’t tell her that I was going to the chippy once she’d gone to bed either. If I’d told her the lie that it was amazing or delicious, I still wouldn’t have finished, prompting the bigger lie that it was simply because I was full up. There was no Masterchef style critique, no stinging remarks about flavour combinations or presentation. Just advice. Keep trying, don’t worry, that kind of thing. She didn’t even have to do the washing up!

The week after she made chicken kebabs. They really were “not bad”. Certainly better than the Bolognese. I held back on the happy slapping though; there’s only so much enthusiasm a bloke can muster after a day at work. There were no tears and less lies though. Our plates were cleaner too, which in itself was a glowing tribute, and an avoidance of the lie that our tea was ‘delicious’. So we all learnt something. My daughter learnt that value of being honest. and me? Well, I learnt that honesty really isn’t always the best policy when you’re a parent.