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.

 

 

Fatherhood: falling into the traps I swore I’d avoid.

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A little over 12 years ago I became a father. This was something that left me very excited indeed. It was the pinnacle of any achievements I might have had (although I’ll be honest, it didn’t have a great deal of competition). I enjoyed it so much that I did it again a few years after. Again, it felt incredible. It was no less joyful second time round and as expected, fatherhood has given me memories that I’ll take to the grave.

So why do I feel so disappointed in myself as a dad?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking for sympathy here and I’m certainly not claiming that I’m a terrible dad. This is not, in any way, a cry for help. We don’t need to increase the hugs. In truth, I’d bet that there are countless dads (and mams/mums/moms) who feel exactly the same as me. Deep down, I know that I’m doing a decent job. I’m there for my children, I try to always set them the best examples and, along with my wife, I’m determined that we create memories for them that they’ll cherish and take into adulthood. I’d like to think I’m preparing them pretty well for the real world.

But the truth is that I find fatherhood a genuinely frustrating job. It seems like the harder I work at it the more frustrated I get. I was going to be a natural. A fantastic father. The don of the dads. The toppermost of the popermost. You get the picture. (If you don’t, tough. I’ve ran out of alliteration). However, despite the best of intentions, it’s rare that I ever really actually feel like this.

‘Me and my kids would inevitably connect – I’d worship them and vice versa’

I love kids. Always did. Funny little people with boundless energy and a unique take on things. It’s a cliché, but a lot of the time I felt like me and kids were singing from the same hymn sheet, intellectually. And so, when I had my own, although I knew it was going to be hard, I felt pretty much over-qualified for the role. Me and my kids would inevitably connect – I’d worship them and vice versa. We’d have fun, we’d learn together, we’d laugh, we’d snuggle up and feel safe and loved and we’d explore the world together. And we’ve done all of these things. But I still feel – and it’s probably every day – that I’m getting it all terribly wrong.

There are a number of things about fatherhood that I think I’m bad at. For a start, I wanted to be patience personified as a dad. I understood that kids would test my patience like perhaps nothing else, but I felt prepared for that. In 2006, when I first became a dad, I’d been working with kids for 5 years. Older kids and other people’s kids, but kids all the same. So I thought I’d probably had my patience tested to its limits. Believe me, if you can listen to a thirty teenagers reading Shakespeare and not explode, you imagine you’ve got patience in spades! So what is it about my own kids that makes me so impatient? If I ask them to do a job – say helping me pick the leaves up off the garden – it’s only a matter of seconds before I hear myself snapping, ‘Oh, I’ll do it myself!’ It’s ridiculous! Rational me realises that they’ll drop some leaves before they get to the garden bin, but grumpy dad just cannot help himself. And what does any of it matter? They’re 12 & 9, of course they’re going to make mistakes. In fact, face it; they’ll be bloody awful at absolutely loads of things. I’m decidedly middle-aged and God knows I lack talent in a myriad of areas. So why can’t I accept it in the two miniature humans that I helped to produce?

So promise number one to my kids – this member of the Middle Age Fanclub will work on his patience. Drop the leaves, it’s fine. Mind you, pick the things up afterwards though. All of them. And quickly!

‘…it really feels like I’m not enjoying what should be the most precious moments with my two most precious little people.’

Perhaps the best thing about having kids is the sheer enjoyment of many of the things that you’ll do with them. And yet, I fear I don’t enjoy my kids anywhere near enough. I have moments of dancing around the kitchen with one of them or snuggling up and watching bad telly with them where I’m fun, loving dad and I’m simply enjoying spending time with them. I’ve baked cakes with them, taken them to the woods to build dens, taken them walking in streams, dressed up for their fancy dress themed birthday parties amongst other things. But I fear that those moments have been few and far between and that when my children look back on their childhood they’ll come to the heart-breaking realisation that it just wasn’t that good when it involved dad. Middle age has made me an adult who tries to think far too sensibly and it really feels like I’m not enjoying what should be the most precious moments with my two precious little people. Meanwhile, their mother (my lovely wife) finds it effortlessly easy to act like a ten-year-old with them – signing, dancing, tickling, play-fighting, gaming…you name it and Fun Mum will have been doing it with them!

I coach my son at football and so quite regularly take him to the field where we’ll work on his finishing (and there you have it – read that sentence back and it can’t be long before you’re asking where the fun is; we’ll work on his finishing indeed). All too often during these sessions I find myself frustrated. I called out ‘Right’ and he went left, his 108th shot of the morning trickled into my arms or he went to control the ball and it slid easily under his foot. Afterwards and even as I’m writing this I’m beating myself up – what does it matter? He’s 9! He’s regularly there for an hour, he must be wiped out. He’s doing all of the running while I play in goal, a largely static position, especially if you’re a fully grown adult and your opponent is 9 years old. He, however, NEVER complains!

Promise number two? Much, much more of fun dad. If you’re shot was a bit weak, well at least it was on target. High five, little man! Now let’s go and have a water fight!

Now you wouldn’t know it if you don’t know me very well, but I love a chat. So when I became a dad one of the things I found myself really looking forward to was my kids learning to talk and being able to have a chat. Like I say, funny little people with a unique take on things – our chats would be long and funny and positively enriching. And both of my children have given me immeasurable joy with some of the chats we had when they were toddlers. Seemingly endless questions about how things worked or what something meant that I was able to give them answers that made them happy, or even better, tell them Dad lies and watch as they completely believed what they were told. Again though, reality bites.

‘Why was she reluctant to talk?’

When my daughter first started primary school I looked forward to picking her up and finding out about her day. She, on the other hand, had other ideas. My daughter has rarely given me chapter and verse about her day, meaning our chats have often been over within a minute. At first this worried me. Why was she reluctant to talk? Was she being bullied? Was she profoundly unhappy with the whole concept of school? So, I read bits and pieces in books. Apparently this was perfectly normal – their day is their property and they’re not always too fond of sharing that with others. She was tired too – including Before and After School Club she’d often been there for over 8 hours; she didn’t want to talk, she wanted to watch CBeebies and have something nice to eat. So gradually, I reigned in my expectations and learnt that any response about her day was better than nothing and that we were chatting after all. We could snuggle up and watch telly together and what did it matter that we hadn’t chatted about phonics or throwing beanbags around in PE? Needless to say though, I looked forward to her getting older and less tired and being able to tell me more.

But here’s the rub. She’s got older and the chats are still often fruitless. Initially, she’d tell me more, but as soon as we got through the door of the house she wanted to leave all things school behind. Home meant food, home meant more television and eventually home meant going up to her room to stare at a screen. We’re repeating the process with my son, who although far more chatty is never engrossed enough in conversation to tear himself a way from a screen for too long. To paraphrase Cliff Richard and at the same time confirm my status as very definitely middle aged, ‘It’s not funny, how we don’t talk anymore.’

My third promise has to be then, to listen to them when they do talk. It’s far too easy to tell my kids, ‘I’m busy’ and to complain that ‘We can’t all just be chained to our phones and X-Boxes all day, you know’, so I need to push things aside and make that time for them, regardless of whether I’m ready or not. It won’t be long before we enter moody teenager faze and then they won’t want to talk at all to uncool dad. So now, whether it’s the latest video posted on ‘Like‘ by my daughter or what my son’s killed on Roblox Jail Break, I’ll do my best to listen intently and pull my interested face. Just like being in meetings at work.

‘I’m immensely proud of my two mini humans’

Another area for improvement in my dad skills (dadding?) is probably with something that we all do. My parents certainly did. However, I need to stop comparing my kids unfavourably to other people’s children. I don’t see enough of other people’s kids to have any kind of comprehensive knowledge, so why do I insist on asking mine things like, ‘Why can’t you be (insert particular quality here) like__________________?’ It’s ludicrous. Don’t get me wrong; I’m immensely proud of my two mini humans. They’re both bright, loving, funny little things so why am I bothered that someone else’s child seems to be – on occasion – brighter, lovelier or funnier. After all, is it not my job to nurture all of these positive qualities in them? My daughter must have spent her entire time while in primary school with me and her mum comparing her to her best friend, with us thinking that some of the qualities said best friend had would magically rub off on our darling daughter. I’m now learning that I can be satisfied with my kids, just the way they are. We can work together on making them fully functioning human beings and if that means ignoring some of the negatives, taking a deep breath or walking away for a bit in order to not blow my stack at them, then that’s what I’ll do.

Next promise – leave them be. My children are amazing and probably no more angelic or irritating than most, so from now on (as much as I possibly can) I’ll cherish what’s there in front of me, not give them the impression that they’d be better off being someone else.

The last fatherhood trap that I’ve definitely and shamefully fallen into is in the response I give when I’m questioned on something. It doesn’t really matter what the question is as long as I’ve already issued the order. The question, Why do I have to turn my tablet off/undo the laces on my trainers/eat my mash before my sausages/put my school bag in that particular place/play on the trampoline/not sit in that chair/not sing/not eat my cereal like that, will always, always be met with the same answer. Altogether now, Because I said so! And it’s the response that usually accompanies the ‘No’ to lots of other questions too!

This response used to infuriate me when I was a kid. Often there seemed no good reason for not letting me do stuff and looking back there really was no good reason. I mean, what harm could I come to by venturing into that cottage made entirely out of sweets that we stumbled across in the forest? Yet my dad especially would always tell me it was No,  and because I said so. I hear myself saying it now and often can’t fathom why I’m saying it. I even consciously try to stop myself saying and before I know it, whoops there it is! I guess it’s part control and part trying to keep the kids safe. But I’m sure, with my rational dad head on, my kids can be too well controlled and too protected. Because, surely if I said so, I can just as easily unsay so. Common sense says that if I can unsay the odd because I said so my kids will have at least a little more fun, as well as perhaps enjoying being around their dad some more. And anyway, we haven’t even found a cottage made of sweets in our woods.

So the final promise has to be that I’ll think before I speak. They can eat their sausage before their mash, they can keep their tablet on for a little while longer. They probably can’t go and explore the cottage made out of sweets in the woods, if we find it, and there’s no way in the world, that they can take their trainers off without untying the laces either. No crimes against trainers can be allowed in our house.

And there we have it. Whether it’s a hyper-critical look at my dad skills or whether I really am Victorian dad, changes will be made. My son is nine. We share interests – the scene is set for lots more years of dad and son fun, provided I can relax a little more and enjoy what he brings to the world. My daughter is 12; she has precious few years of her childhood left and I’m going to do my absolute damnedest to help her relax her way through them and enjoy things. And why should she be able to relax? Because I said so!

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