The eternal struggle between parent and child about getting dressed…
– I can’t get dressed
– I can’t choose what to wear!
– No it’s not! Trousers? T-shirt? SOCKS?? It’s difficult!
(Yeah? Try being an adult, or filling in a tax form, kid) Just choose something. Anything!
– But all my clothes are rubbish!
No they’re not. What about [the beloved summer dress]?
– I hate it
It was your favourite last week
– It’s not my favourite now
We’re going out to the countryside, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like you’re promenading in town and hoping to snag a husband…
– Life is HAAAAAAAARD, Daddy! Life is SOOOO. HAAAAARD.
(It’ll get much worse, child) It’s just clothes for heaven’s sake, get some perspective!
– ALL RIGHT! [changes subject and tone] My tooth is wobbly
Get your clothes on and I’ll have a look
– I really want my tooth to fall out
– Yes. Georgia’s lost about 20 teeth already
(Well, bully-woo for bloody Georgia…)
Georgia has, has she?
– Yes. I really want to meet the tooth fairy
Do you indeed.
– Yes. I think she’s going to invite me to her birthday party
Georgia? (To be fair, it’ll be social event of the season, because Georgia’s mum does not skimp on quality child entertainment or food, but she can be quite selective. To be invited shows that you have great favour at the court of Georgia. She’s a snotty little cow)
– Not Georgia, Daddy! The tooth fairy!
The tooth fairy is going to invite you to her birthday party?
– Yes! She’s my friend!
You’ve never met her!
– EXACTLY! That’s why she’s my friend!
– How much will she give me for a tooth?
Well, in my day, the going rate was about 10p per tooth. So, with inflation, that’s probably about £1
– I think my teeth are worth more than that
– Yes. I reckon about TWO HUNDRED POUNDS!
Get dressed, Alice. Put your glasses on.
– Oh, I don’t need my glasses anymore. My eyes are fixed.
Really? Wow. OK, how many fingers am I holding up?
– I don’t know.
I rest my case… Hang on, you can’t count to four, or can’t you be bothered?
– [ignoring me] I don’t need trousers either.
Yes you do, Al, I can see all of your knickers.
– ALL RIGHT THEN! *stomp* *stomp* *stomp*
And put some shoes on.
– [from upstairs] I DON’T WANT TO!!
Alice, do the following, please: Glasses, t-shirt, trousers, socks and shoes
– [coming downstairs] I only want to put them on just before going out. How about one sock and one shoe now…
…on the same foot?
– No, different feet. A sock on one, and a shoe on the other
Riiiiiight. How about just socks now, and then shoes when we’re actually going out, which will be in about 10 minutes.
– [doubtful] Well, that’s not as good… but I suppose so
Trust me kid, it works
– Look, I’ve made a lightsaber out of giant pipecleaners
– Have a look… Why are you laughing, Daddy?
(It looks like a giant, veined, fluffy dildo)
It’s very… good. It’s not very firm, is it?
– I want to be a Jedi Doctor Princess when I grow up, who can play bass guitar. NOW STOP WRITING STUFF ON PAPER AND LET’S KILL SOME STORMTROOPERS!!
Well, we’re nearly at the end of the summer holidays. How are you doing? Bearing up? Counting the hours? Or are you treasuring every minute, and programming every day with exciting things to occupy your little lovelies? (No, you’re not. Don’t lie.)
Anyway, at the beginning of the summer hols, the homework from Alice’s school was a “Summer Holiday Bucket List!”. It was an annoyingly cheerful (and slightly patronising) list of things to do, you know the sort of thing: “Go kite-flying!”, “Read a book under a tree!”, “Look at nature!”, “Feed the ducks in the local park!”, “Go camping and toast marshmallows over a fire!”. It’s slightly cloying. Of course, Alice has treated it as though it is a list of mandatory instructions. It has been exhausting and I now want to cry.
But really, this just begs the question: What are the things that parents have to do every summer?
Here, therefore, is a list for you to tick off. HAVE YOU DONE THEM ALL??:
1. Have an argument with The HR Cow about how much time off you can get over the summer hols. You insist that family time is important. They suggest that regular employment is also important.
2. Go to the park for the first of many visits over the next six weeks. Do you go to:
a) Park In Posh Part of Town?
b) Generic Park In Not-So-Posh-Part-Of-Town Full of Bigger Kids Who Shove Smaller Kids Off Swings?
Posh Park is full of students huffing nitrous oxide cannisters, smoking big stinky spliffs, and drinking from cans. Generic Park is full of families having a good time, and most of the kids are pretty well behaved apart from a few loose cannnons. You find both arenas threatening. Congratulations! You seem to have Anxiety on top of everything else!
3. Go to the carwash. Kids love the carwash. Child gets terrified by the big rolling brushes. Kids don’t love carwashes. Who knew?
(Here’s a rare top-parenting tip from me: If you go to an automated car wash, and your child is nervous, enhance the experience by playing something dramatic and orchestral when the rollers descend. My personal favourite is Duel of the Fates by John Williams, from the soundtrack to Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. See? I TOLD you that film would be good for something…)
It’s worth knowing that a car wash by hand often gets better results and a cleaner car.4.
4. Fly a kite. Spend three hours detangling kite string both before AND after flying the kite.
5. Go to visit the Gra ndparents, ostensibly for some quality time with the oldies, but really to beg for some financial help “to help with the house repairs”.
6. Send your kid over to someone’s house for a playdate, and pray things don’t get out of hand this time. Because if it does, you know you will be summoned to extract your kid earlier than you would like, thus ruining your afternoon off. Bollocks.
7. Make vague promises to your wife about some DIY you’ve been meaning to do for years as a token gesture.
8. Go to a really underwhelming theme park that costs ££BUMRAPE.
9. Go shopping in the supermarket. You enjoy losing your kid in public and standing in the centre of a packed supermarket calling out your child’s name, don’t you?
10. Go shopping to your favourite shops. Kids love dingy record shops, guitar shops where the guitars are not to be touched by tiny hands, vintage leather shops, and small fusty bookshops, yeah? No.
11. Go shopping in the centre of the nearest city. Spend too much money. Kid demands latest faddy gadgets. Marvel at your ability to cave in to repeated demands:
“No… no… I said no… no… you’ll only lose it… no… what did I say earlier?… no… NO… yes to ice cream, NO to the thingy…no… nooo… how many times?… no… I don’t care if Georgia has one… no… no… no… you might get one for Christmas… no… what’s wrong with the [insert last year’s fad] you’ve already got?… no… no… it’s too expensive and they’re badly made and I read a news report article that said it had spikes and was toxic… no…no… yes I can see it’s in that shop, no you’re not having it… no… can you afford it out of your own pocket money? Then you can’t have it… no… NO!… no no no no NO NO NO NO NO ALL FUCKING RIGHT, HERE’S THE SODDING THING, OK??”
12. Go to the beach. Kid loves it and spend the next few weeks eulogising about their wonderful memories from sandcastle building, running free, paddling, making friends, kicking balls, etc. You spend the next few weeks finding sand in your bum, and spend money on some shite buckets, crap spades, and horrible chips.
13. Play Monopoly with the child. Be the banker. Have a massive row with them when they catch you embezzling funds from the bank. Tell them it’s an important lesson to learn that all bankers are crooks – yeah, well done.
14. Faddy gadget drops out of collective youth favour two weeks after purchasing. Your child – after being teased by chums for not keeping up with current trends – blames you for not being cool enough.
15. Go swimming. Everyone develops verrucas that last until Christmas.
16. Play mini golf as a family. Child gets bored after 4 holes, but you insist on playing to the very end “to get the money’s worth!”. Game takes 3 hours, nobody cares who wins.
17. Go 10-pin bowling. Insist on having the inflatey-things at the side of the lane. Show your child how to bowl. Child thrashes you to miserable defeat.
18. Read somewhere that the most spectacular meteor shower in this century is on 4th August. Promise to show your child this magical cosmic event. Everyone agrees to go on meteor-mission. 4th August rolls round, you wake the kid at 11pm, kid complains angrily about being woken up. You insist. You drive for over an hour to reach a rural spot where the sky is not orange. Look up at the sky to see roiling clouds. Spend half an hour in a damp field with knackered kid and fed-up spouse complaining about the cold. Like a brutal dictator, you insist that the clouds will clear. Spouse nicks car keys from pocket and holds them to ransom until you agree to go home. Wake up following morning, and see tons of photos from other smug parents who waited in other fields for an extra 15 minutes to get dazzling galactic skyscape with streaks of heavenly light from falling stars, complete with torchlight pics of enchanted smug brats. Other parents v. annoying.
19. Have a “sofa” day.
20. Go birdwatching, or “bored-watching” as your child calls it with added sniggers.
21. Spouse now insistent that you actually do that bloody DIY.
22. Suddenly get the bright idea to “go for a bike ride”. Suddenly realise that the family bikes need repairs, and you should spend a fortune on safety gear. Your kid is wearing so much helmetry and padding that they look like an Imperial Stormtrooper. Bike ride lasts 12 minutes before you get Traffic Fear, and you demand to go home. Suddenly realise that traffic has got way worse since your last on-road bike ride (in *cough* 1995).
23. Go to see latest child-friendly movie that inevitably centres around fart jokes.
24. Have a pizza party. Burn every pizza. Everyone not happy at you about eating blackened discs of carbon.
25. Play frisbee in the park. Child throws frisbee and hits nice old lady walking her dog in the face.
26. Get the paints out. Try to paint a picture, or do some art. Ruin several items of clothing and a carpet. Do tie-dye instead. Ruin more clothing and now the carpet in another room. Go too far, and get your kid into The Grateful Dead. Idiot.
27. Grandparents offer to take offpsring for weekend. Accept with gusto. At the handover, you drop hints about how the house repairs might cost a bit. House now child-free for one night only, and your plan is so on to have all sorts of filthy, kinky, squelchy, noisy sex… but neglect to tell wife. End up watching Poldark. Wife points out that Poldark is hella sexy.
“For fuck’s sake and come on!”, think both husband and wife, but with greatly differing tones of internal voice.
28. Kid home from grandparents, who have happily spent money on another faddy gadget. That’s fine, but you wish grandparents would spend some money on things you want every so often. Like repairs on the h- oh Jesus, I’m suck a fucking grown-up. Fuckit, I want a fidgy thing!!
29. Spouse snaps that you’re doing all these fun things as a procrastination tactic in order to put off doing that sodding DIY.
30. Play frisbee in the park. Child throws frisbee and hits group of ethnic-origin teenagers who were having a picnic. In the heat of apologising, you say something that is misconstrued as being horrifically racist. Gang throws you in bin and calls you a Nazi. Other parents film the confrontation on their mobile phones.
31. Have another “sofa” day, don’t even bother to open the curtains. In fact, stay-in-pyjamas day.
32. Go out to pub for drinks with the other mums on the school run. Everyone gets a bit lairy, a little bit saucy, a little bit rude, and for some stupid reason – probably to up the ante – you mention Goatse. Everyone asks for an explanation and you say “Google it!” (DO NOT GOOGLE IT). Everyone is horrified with you and demand to know how you know about such things.
33. Playdate reciprocation with other child’s mother giving you an extremely scrutinising look after the Goatse/pub conversation/incident. Other child beautifully behaved. Your own child appalling mess of ungracious, barely-sharing bad hosting.
34. Finally do the DIY thing. It takes less than two hours to complete, but during that time you get frustrated, sweaty (and not in a sexy way), you ruin your back, finally snap at the child to “CAN YOU, FOR ONCE, STOP PRATTLING ON AND BLOODY LEAVE ME TO GET ON WITH THIS, OK??”, make a bit of a bodge of it, and hope nobody notices. Buy another faddy gadget to make up with child and to assuage feelings of guilt at your appalling temper.
35. Go pond dipping/rock pooling. Catch a used condom.
36. Insist that child reads a book. Child insists on Playstation. Compromise on having 10 minutes reading time, and 2 hours Playstation time.
37. Go to fusty old mansion. Be enchanted by baroque trappings and oily paintings. Child loudly proclaims it’s rubbish until being enchanted by ice cream and adventure playground in vast, Capability Brown-designed parklands. Wow! Ice Cream Solves All!!
38. Here’s a fun summer holiday thing that will occupy your entire day: Ask your child to tidy their bedroom. The protestations will last hours longer than the task takes to do.
39. Go into town and panic-buy a fuckload of school uniform that you know will be grown out of in six months time. Child decides to occupy time by telling you how bored they are.
40. It’s the first week of September. The kids are going back to school, one academic year older. You go back to work with the ridiculous notion that this is the last family fun-time until Christmas. You insist on one last weekend together, and you cram the hours full of minutes. You get home drained, but having had at least one truly magical day together. You take them on the first school run of the year, feeling as though you have not spent enough time with each other all summer.
Alice is hurtling through life right now. It’s frightening how grown-up she’s becoming. It’s helped by the fact that she’s just had a new haircut. It’s a pixie-cut, and it really suits her. She looks sophisticated and mature for an 8-year-old, and some of the school-run Mums have complimented her on it, using words like “sophisticated” and “mature for an 8-year-old”. Of course, she then undermines her sculpted air of maturity, by talking about The BFG in an excited fashion, and doing that jumping-up-and-down-and-flapping-her-arms thing that she does when she cannot contain herself.
It’s horrific to realise that adulthood for Alice is now just a decade away. Voting, driving, university perhaps, and job. Ugh. It’s too early to think about jobs, isn’t it? Children shouldn’t think about jobs, they should think about having fun!
Of course it’s not to early, you idiot, no wonder everyone thinks you’re stupid. Children start to voice job hopes pretty early, don’t they? Alice certainly did. Of course, small children don’t think about the realities of work, nor do they think about the paths they need to take in order to get towards the job they want. Ambition is so different and much easier when you’re under 10 years old. Anything really is possible when you’re that young. It’s only later, when disappointment and failure kicks in, that you realise how much the odds are stacked against you.
It’s horrid to think that the foundations towards her chosen career will begin before she even realises it. I thought such things would start from the choices kids make that go towards the GCSE exams – say around 14 years old. Except they probably start much sooner than that. Primary school, even. Think about it: An interest in art, or drama, or science, or engineering, or sport can be forged at a very early age. After school clubs can help, the topic of each term plays its part, and the encouragement of inspiring teachers all assist in pointing a child towards their destiny.
Let’s not forget our role as parents, either. Of course, I want things for Alice, and I already hope she’ll develop a love for music or acting, but also I’m more than happy to encourage her to take an interest in science or technology subjects. Let’s face it, the world has a critical shortage of female scientists and engineers.
But it’s wise not to get too carried away. Even with the absolute best of intentions, parents can make things horrific for their children. Back in my late teens I knew someone very well who suffered from having parents. She was a twin. At some primary school parents evening, her parents were told that the other sister was unremarkable. Nice, well-behaved, but probably going to end up in a minor career choice. However, she was really promising, the teacher said. Y’know, she could become a doctor or something.
That was it. Fate sealed, and destiny chosen. If the teacher had said “she could be a barrister!”, she’d be a barrister now. By the time she was 18, the pressure she was under – both from the parents and from herself – was staggering, and she damn nearly broke from it. She succeeded, but I have often wondered if she really wanted to do it all along.
She was not alone. I knew several other people who were kicked, dragged, and prodded into the career choices they’ve ended up in, but they went through the fucking wringer to get there. Not all of them came out of it OK. Some rebelled. Some caved in. One or two were permanently damaged by the experience – all because of the possibility of Job at the end.
I was lucky – Although brought up by a career-minded father, I was pretty much allowed to develop my own interests and follow my passions rather than his vicarious ambition. However, I cannot exactly argue that I am a massively successful example of a human being. I am a Generation X-er, which means that all I’ve ever really wanted to do is chill, rock out, and say fuck it to The Man, whilst being horribly cynical. It might possibly be why, aged 40-and-a-half, I’m working part-time in retail. I suppose you could argue that I am a cautionary tale to my daughter: Slack off your homework, and sit around Playstationing all day and rocking on a guitar all night, and you could end up like me. The guys who were shoved into their career paths by ambitious parents have done somewhat better than I have, if I’m ruefully honest.
Now that I’m a parent, of course I want Alice to succeed. I want her to find interest and delight in any career path, and not end up on the middle-management chain gang, or be in a lowly position that sucks the life out of her, or be an anonymous filing machine, or to be a worker drone in some vast monolithic company. I mean, who wants to be the embodiment of a mid-90s Radiohead lyric?
Still, she has come up with some interesting career choices.
First, she wanted to be a sanitation worker (I suspect because she liked the bin lorry that rattles around our neighbourhood once a week)
Then she talked about being a ballet dancer (not that I want to enforce stereotypes)
Then she wanted to be a princess (not in this universe, unless she could somehow alter the fabric of reality so that she could be born into immense wealth and privilege)
Then she wanted to be a bass player in a band (now that’s more like it!)
Then she wanted to be a “helper” (because she liked interfering with other people’s business in the playground – sorting out fights, breaking up arguments, helping small and lonely tots find friends. It’s rewarding, but it’s poorly paid work)
Then she wanted to be a doctor (I swear she didn’t get this from a chance remark in a parents evening)
Then she wanted to be a superhero (let’s face it, more likely than being a princess)
Then she wanted to be a scientist (A scientist doing what, exactly? “Science!” she said)
Then she wanted to be a detective (finding out who started the fights in the playground, why were people having arguments in the playground… etc)
Then she was into the bass player idea again (Daddy’s little girl!)
And now, she wants to be a writer. Specifically, a writer who lives in a Cornish fishing village, whose husband is a fisherman, and on Fridays they both go fishing together, and she’ll drive a cheap little Mini along the seaside. She’s even made up a song about it. It goes “Look at me, in my cheap li’l Mini / Drivin’ by the seaside-seaside-sea…”
It’s very much a focused goal to have, I suppose.
She’s making a start on it already. She’s always loved inventing stories and characters. One of her earliest was an ongoing saga about a stone called Tua Mizer, and all the adventures that ensued. Yup, it seems stones have adventures. I tried to explain to her back then that, yes, stones did have adventures of sorts, it’s just that such adventures take place over millions of years and stones – if left undisturbed – generally only move a couple of dozen feet over the course of a thousand years. Way to spoil a three-year-old’s fun, Daddy.
She’s continued this, with her invented lands and languages. And from an early age (and with the encouragement of her splendid, slightly hippie, year 1 teacher) she developed a knack for imagery in her poetry.
She just chucks out idea after idea, and then dashes off to the next one, so I suggested she be a bit more disciplined. “I want to be a writer!” she tells me. Writers write, I said. So she got herself a notebook and uses it to jot down her concepts. Some of them are brilliant. There’s one about a house and a cat that is so amazing (says the biased parent), I’m reluctant to write about it here in case you decide to plagiarise it and publish it as your own work.
Now she’s tackling metaphorical language. Recently, she was praised with abundance by her class teacher (young, gentle with the kids, idealistic, plays the guitar) for an inventive poem about our neighbourhood:
The people of our road have always been quite strange
Two of them have lion ancestors, one is always sweet
Just hanging there lazy at the side of the street
The animals of our road have always been quite different
The daylight giants dance with their friends in the windows
The monstrous one lives in my front garden,
It scratches and bashes and scratches and scratches again
And instead of beauty it brings you pain
Blimey, she’s 8. I’m really impressed, but again, I’m totally biased and possibly easily impressed. However, I wasn’t coming up with that sort of thing when I was her age, and nor was anyone else around me as far as I can remember. I don’t normally gush with pride about everything my kid does on my own Facebook page, but I took a scan of the poem and posted it up. One of my chums responded with his own son’s literary works. It was a piece of paper with “The Amazing Fart Police” written on it.
Obviously Alice will have to work hard in order to become a writer, and she is (as I know all too well) facing an uphill struggle and will receive many painful kicks to her confidence, and knock-backs to her motivation. The Cornish fishing village cottage is a long, long way away, and could well ultimately be in an alternate reality, but I am thrilled that she has a passion and a love that could last a lifetime, even if she winds up like most authors, and working in a horrible job, in a mind-sapping role, in order to put bread on the table and keep the bailiffs from the door.
Still, she’s young, and I have no desire to force her into any destiny just yet, and right now I hope I never will. Besides, she is very likely to change her mind. Just the other day, to see if her ambitions had changed, I asked her what she intended to be when she grows up.
I don’t do sport. In fact, I don’t do exercise of any kind, and neither does my wife (unless you count a swift and brisk walk for about twenty minutes each day). Sport hurts. Sport is painful and stupid, and leaves you out of breath, sweaty, and uncomfortable.
It seems this is a very bad attitude to have. Some people might say it makes me a Very Bad Parent.
As you know, children are now no longer the fit, active, energy-filled dynamos of yesteryear. Children are now obese, waddling, wheezing lumps of inactive matter, who aren’t allowed outside to play, and this is turning us into (amongst other things) a nation of agoraphobic, armchair-hogging lardies, staring at pixels, in a state of moral decline.
And Alice is right there amongst them. She’s not fat by any means, but she doesn’t really do exercise. Activities that involve running, jumping, throwing, kicking, or hitting some sort of inflatable ball are not part of our daily routine, and 95% of the time, I don’t give a crap. Then, all of a sudden, I will suddenly develop a sudden conscience, and suddenly and unreasonably wheedle a protesting Alice into doing some sort of physical activity for about 20 mins, and then forget all about it for a month, and we find ourselves slacking back into a torpid state of Playstationing.
And, before you start, it’s not the Playstation’s fault. We’ve never been anything other than a fairly sedentary family. Sarah and I avoid strenuous activity, and sport in general hardly ever appears on our TV screen (apart from the occasional soccer or rugby game, or coverage of the Olympics). Alice has never been much of an active, sporty kid. She’s not one of nature’s runners, or jumpers, or throwers, or catchers. We’ve always known this, we’ve just never done anything about it. I’ve written elsewhere about Alice’s running style. It’s particularly distinctive. More than once I have heard the phrase “The Alice Run”, to describe her unique sprint; staff at her old nursery coined it, and then independently I’ve heard it chuckled about by some of the other mums in (what I hope to be) an affectionate tone. It’s a sort of fast, determined walk: hunched shoulders, elbows tight to the side, arms pumping furiously, legs never fully extending, teeth gritted, a lot of physical action with very little speed.
One memorable Sports Day at Alice’s school, our girl took part in the sprint race. Off went the whistle, and her peers powered ahead, with Alice trotting some distance behind. The mums all cheered her on with great bonhomie and a little, but not unkind, sarcasm; and Alice – being about 6 at the time – mistakenly thought she had won the race, especially when she got the standard medal for “taking part”.
This year, for work reasons, I was unable to support Alice at Sports Day, and Sarah attended for the first time. Halfway through the afternoon, my phone pinged with a message. It was, apparently, a photo of Alice doing the long jump. What it showed was Alice, shoulders hunched in a most determined fashion, taking a step. It basically looks like she’s walking. Oh dear. She’s never going to leap a lava-filled chasm at this rate.
It’s not hard to see where Alice gets her running from. Sarah is also not a natural sprinter, and runs as though she’s on a narrow ledge going as fast as she dares, with arms raised for balance. It’s rather like the awkward running one does along the side of a swimming pool while dressed in a bikini. I think it’s rather cute.
And me? Well, I can’t run more than 30 yards before wheezing and sweating to a halt. In my primary school years, I was the slowest in the class. The weird gangly girl with badly-coordinated limbs, who spat when she talked, and bottle-bottom glasses could outstrip me by miles. Then, aged 11, early-onset puberty (combined with taking up rugby in yet another attempt to fit in with my classmates) suddenly took hold and I suddenly developed a turn of speed hitherto unknown to me, and was quite surprising to all who had grown up with me. My classchums who had always enjoyed thrashing me into last place were not impressed, and made peevish, jealous comments. This golden age of athleticism saw me compete in 100m and 200m dashes at a county level for a brief while (plus long-jump, discus, relay, and shot-putt which made me a county champion and record holder for, oooh, about 12 seconds in 1989), and lasted until I was about 14, until early-onset cigarettes and total lack of interest in any form of continuous or dedicated training relegated me to a fast burst at the start, and a gasping, painful lumbering over the finishing line in 5th place by the time I was 18.
The last time I did any form of athletics was in 2008. We had just got married, and Sarah was pregnant all of a sudden. We visited my Mothra-in-Law in her village, and the village was alive with activity. On the village green, instead of the usual wicker structure for burning Christians in, there was a “Village Olympics” that tied in with the events in Beijing at the time. We attended, and I was bullied into taking part in the 50m dash (ironically by a lady in a mobility scooter wielding a clipboard). I was unfit, only recently a non-smoker, and wearing biker boots.
I also took part in the ‘welly discus’. I joined the queue, picked up the wellington boot, decided to use my old discus technique of spinning before release. I stepped up, gripped the boot, spun round on the spot, lost balance, got disorientated, flung the boot in totally the wrong direction, and it slammed into the crotch of a nearby teenage boy, who took it on the chin (or more precisely, his cock and balls), and accepted my fulsome apology with considerable grace, especially as he was sort of crying.
Not put off, or beaten up by the locals, I then lined up to take part in the race. Me, two other chaps of my age, who were tall, fit, outdoorsy, and the square-jaws and haw-haws of private school rugger types, and a giggly girl in her twenties who loudly told us several times she was “rubbish at running!!”. I had done no stretches, warm-ups, and was wearing completely the wrong footwear.
The flag went down, I charged off, and instantly realised I was completely unfit and going to die. Of course, the other two chaps were being massively competitive, and pummelled down the green. I got about halfway, when I suddenly felt as though I had been shot in the leg. I crumpled, fell to the ground, and heard a shriek of alarm from Sarah. I got up, felt agonising pain in my right leg, and hobbled on to the finish where I collapsed due to a tendon snapping in my leg, and had Sarah and Mothra-in-Law rush over to attend to me. I still came third though. That girl turned out to be not a liar, and really was rubbish at running.
Henceforth, I have done no athletic things, and Alice does not get much encouragement from us. And we were sort of fine about it, but also aware it could be an issue. And then, at parents evening, Alice’s class teacher gently suggested we do some catching practice with her at the very least.
Fuck this, I thought to myself. But he had a point. Alice can’t catch a falling leaf.
Catching is one of those motor skills we all take for granted. Imagine, for a moment, being completely unable to catch anything: It wouldn’t bother us most of the time, but it’s one of those things that is useful at very specific moments. But it’s more important than that. It’s not just the catching, it’s the hand/eye coordination. Now imagine your life without any hand/eye coordination. Life would be a succession of clumsy incidents at the very least. And Alice can be very clumsy at times.
So we have attempted to get Alice to catch things. It’s not easy for her. She has a very strong sense of self-preservation, which in many ways I’m very glad about. She’s not a risk taker, she hasn’t had many injuries in her young life (unlike some of her peers, who show up to school with bumps, scrapes, scars, and plastercasts on a regular basis), and she’s cautious – but sometimes she’s too cautious. She takes great care about descending particularly tall steps. Anything that requires a jump of more than about 6 inches is worrisome for her. A jump for Alice is a sort of tiny hop in case she falls awkwardly. Catching is yet another one of those moments when she really is far too cautious.
Alice’s method of catching something is to screw up her eyes, hold out her hands all splayed, and flinches into a defensive position, with arms and legs protecting her torso. Even if you throw her a sponge to catch, she reacts instinctively as if you were chucking a bag of wasps at her head.
Her throwing is worse. I hate to use the phrase “she throws like a girl”, or the toxic word, “spaz”, but Alice is utterly crap at throwing things. It’s not uncommon for her to throw something at a 90-degree angle from where she was aiming at. And what’s more, she’d throw it about 14″ before it plops harmlessly onto the floor. Underarm, overarm, it doesn’t matter. So, on some weekends, we take her to the park and throw balls for her to catch. It’s like walking a chatty labrador.
Meanwhile, the lack of sport for children to experience is one of these things we parents like to bemoan. Almost every other day, there’s some news report stating that kids don’t get enough sport facilities or opportunities in school. This, along with rising child obesity statistics, is one of the top hand-wringing worries of modern parenting. Alice’s school has very few gym apparatus, and what apparatus they have, Alice invariably freaks out about using. Their small playground offers little in the way of sport equipment.
They do have after-school clubs, however. I’m both pleased and surprised that Alice invariably signs up for a new sport club every term. I’m pleased for obvious reasons (1. Alice gets to do a sport with other kids that will hopefully develop her skills; and 2. I get an extra hour to myself at home before having to pick her up from school. Winner!). I’m also surprised, because of Alice’s comical running, shite throwing, and inept catching, poor love.
It has to be said that every time Alice shoves the letter inviting her to join a new after-school sports club into my face while I’m on the sofa, I do always say “Are you sure??”, because every single time, she joins a club, can’t keep up, doesn’t get the ball passed to her by the more athletic and co-ordinated kids, and she comes away dejected. This has happened in hockey club, football club, running club, handball club, rounders club, tennis club, and cricket club – although cricket club was eventually stopped because the kids took no notice of the ineffectual teacher trying to get them to behave, and he cancelled the remaining sessions in a spectacular huff. Thanks to him, I don’t get a pleasing hour to myself on Tuesday afternoons any more. Twat.
Alice is a writer and dreamer, not a runner. She’s shaping up to follow in mine and Sarah’s waddly footsteps, and is heading for a life of sofa-flumping and sore feet after 30mins of shopping. This isn’t something to celebrate, and I totally recognise we as a family need to change our crappy lifestyle in one way or another. For Alice it means I hope she’ll be able to run in order to escape zombies, and to catch a ball. Dammit, I’m determined she will be able to catch. And for Sarah and I… well, we’re not getting younger or bendier or healthier or any more breath in our lungs. We’re over 40, and a sedentary lifestyle can lead to bad things. For Alice’s sake, we need to be better parents when it comes to physical activity.
My daughter likes wearing her Iron Man costume to the shops. She wants to wear it when she goes to see the doctor about that rash. She wants to wear it at that big wedding of Cousin Thingy that’s coming up in September. She wants to wear it to every party she’s invited to. She’d wear it to a state funeral if she could get away with it.
See, that’s my daughter in a nutshell. In fact, she is a complete nutshell, and I love it. This morning when I took her to school, she stood in the line with her classmates, and sang. I was about 50 feet away, so I don’t know what she was singing, but I saw her give full loud and rude lungful to some ditty she was making up. Several of her peers were giving her odd looks, but she didn’t care. I don’t think she noticed.
I like that about my little girl. She’s growing up (all of a sudden, she’s 8-years-old??! Since when??) and she’s becoming the sort of person I had hoped she would be. And yes, that means that she sings in the line when she’s waiting to go into school.
Ask any parent what sort of kid they want, and I doubt you’ll find many who will respond with “I want my child to be deeply average; to have mundane opinions; to listen to the same music as everyone else; to wear ordinary clothes that are moderately fashionable; to watch the programmes that seem to be popular with everyone; not to have any weird interests; to fit in with everyone else in terms of behaviour and personality; to not stand out in any way… because the best method in life is to do things as you’re supposed to do in order to grow up and live in an average house, have an average job, and make a clone family of their own”. Nobody says that. Even boring people who strive to be as mainstream as possible don’t say that.
Do parents like that even exist? Oh God, they probably do. They’re the ones who have neat houses in identikit housing developments, and wear modest clothes in neutral colours, and drive very average boxy cars, and read middlebrow newspapers, and have a passing interest in the sort of music and films that other people like, and watch those light-entertainment programmes that are on between 7pm and 9pm most evenings.
Let’s be honest, all parents want their kids to be distinctive and unique. We want our kids to be special, and dazzling, and more so than any other child in their class. We want our children to shine, to stand out, to be remembered, and be interesting. We love our children’s quirks and weird traits because they utterly charm us. I love my daughter’s delightful little idiosyncracies so much this entire frickin’ blog is based around them. And you’re like me: Admit it. Draw up a list of personality traits you want for your kid, and I am willing to bet at least £5 that your list will be more or less the same as mine. Here is my list:
To believe in whatever she wants
To be fearless in her opinion
To be open and honest
To celebrate her individuality
To stand up for herself
To question everything
To not be the same as her peers
To be curious about the world
To listen to whatever music she wants
To dress the way she wants
To have interests and hobbies
To be proud of herself
To accept her body, flaws and all
To cherish her own likes, interests, aesthetics and passions, even if it runs the risk of her contemporaries thinking she’s ‘not cool’
To be happy within her soul
Wow. Now that it’s all written down, I can see that it makes me look like a right bloody hippie. So, what’s your list? And can you send me the £5 in cash, or would you like my bank transfer details?
So far, my daughter is succeeding in being the unique little snowflake loads of easily-intimidated men on the internet will accuse her of being when she’s older. That Iron Man costume was a good present for me to buy her for her 7th birthday, and it’s getting a heck of a lot of use, and it will be greatly mourned when the holes start to appear. She does her thing, she does what she wants to do, and I can’t tell her who to sock it to. She writes poetry, dances to theme tunes, and has many interests; this week, we’ve set up an ant farm for her to monitor (not for school, just for fun). She has spent hours – literally hours – having conversations with insects that are about 5mm long. She asks them about their day and tells them about hers. The ants really couldn’t care less about her day, and carry on with their relentless tasks. And she doesn’t care that they are ignoring her. She’s that kind of kid. Hey, she’s a person who sings in the line before entering school.
Above all, she’s flawed. She’s not perfect. She talks too much, sings too loud, and wears the Iron Man costume at inappropriate moments. She runs too slowly (not so much a run, it’s more of an enthusiastic waddle). Her handwriting is scrawled and scruffy (but mine is worse). She doesn’t ace every test, and her spelling is pretty damn poor. She has wonky eyes – a ‘turn’, they call it. One eye will look at you, and the other stares at her nose, and she will need corrective surgery for it at some point.
But it’s the flaws that make her unique. Maybe it’s the fact her eyes have a squint that need correcting, or maybe it’s because she runs all flappy and slow that she has such a quirky character.
Or maybe it’s our fault, mine and my wife’s? Maybe it’s because I take her birdwatching with me, or that my wife has shown her how to do crochet, or that we allowed her to watch the Star Wars films at an early age, or because I insist on playing her Led Zeppelin over Justin Bieber, or because we read her Harry Potter books from the age of 6, or it’s because we discuss the world news over the dinner table… or maybe it’s because we don’t eat meals at a dinner table and instead have our meals on our laps whilst watching The Simpsons. I know that in some circles that would be supposed to be bad parenting, but that’s how our family rolls.
But your kid is probably the same – unique, funny, creative, quirky, brilliant, flawed-but-perfect, etc. We do not want them to be sheep, to have the same opinion as everyone else, or to be slavish in following the latest trends and fashions. We want them to value true beauty, and to eschew the material trappings of the world. All our kids should be special, sparkly, and unique. Yay for us!
Except it’s a lie. A complete and utter fabrication.
Yes, we want our kids to grow up to be distinctive souls and not superficial in any way, but we also want them to conform, and we do it from the age of 0.
We ask them:
To keep quiet in public
To behave appropriately
To dress properly for the occasion
To eat in a polite way
To not argue when it is inconvenient (or when our child challenges our own fragile egos)
To wait their turn
To think of others
To be modest
To not run around screaming
We insist that they behave, that they show respect for others, and to be mature (expecting a child under the age of 10 to be mature??) when dealing with other adults
To be hygienic
To respect other people’s opinions and wishes
To not sing in public like that
To know when it is appropriate to shine, dazzle, and stand out with their unique snowflake fractalness, and when to keep heads down and blend into the background
And the worst thing? We ask that they do well in school so that when they grow up, they will end up in the same kind of job as millions of other people; either selling stuff, or ensuring that the right bit of paper ends up in the right filing cabinet so that the rest of the world functions… rather like the ants in my daughter’s ant farm.
We don’t really want our children to be too unique, too wild, too crazy-weird. Have you ever met a child that is a true free-spirit? A child who has been consciously and deliberately allowed to live their lives without boundaries? Those children are a flippin’ nightmare; almost invariably undisciplined, spoiled, arrogant, and friendless. And their parents? Punchably smug, hopelessly naive, even more arrogant than their kids, and really – really – annoying. My God, they’re baffling, infuriating people. Almost as dreadful as people who are clones of everyone else. Their thoughts and opinions and lifestyles are so non-conformist (living off-grid! Vegan! Anti-vaccination! Environmentally neutral and quite preachy about it! Politically active, and not necessarily in a mainstream way! No discipline for their kids! ANARCHIST!) that they just can’t help but rub normal, ordinary, decent people up the wrong way. Do I want my child to be that sort of anti-social weirdo anarcho-freak?
OK, now I’m not sounding like a bloody hippie, and more like an intolerant fucking bastard. The type of intolerant fucking bastard that lives in a neat house in an identikit housing development, and wears shirt and trousers in neutral colours, and drives a very average boxy car, and does a middling middle-ranking average-job, reads a middlebrow newspapers, and have a passing interest in the sort of music and films that other people like, and watch those light-entertainment programmes that are on between 7pm and 9pm most evenings.
Man, this Parenting gig is way haaaaard. Why does everything have to be so difficult?
So, really, what we want is our children to be wonky, but only slightly. Truly wonky would be too chaotic, too anarchic. Our children need the rules, need the boundaries, need the manners, need to know the right clothing for the right occasion, need to be appropriate, need the restrictions, and need to make their way in the world and not be too confused or frightened by it.
I just hope that my daughter can look at the world through her wonky and squinty eyes, and see the beauty of a butterfly’s wing, or through the hypocrisy of a politician. I want her to treasure the sunlight in a drop of dew, or have the joy in hearing new music; to frighten conservatives with her opinions, or appreciate the tragi-comic farce of the ant-farm lifestyle we all lead. Above all, I want her to be distinctive and interesting enough for people to notice her, and to remember her. God, isn’t that what we all want for ourselves?
And if she can do it while singing amongst a crowd of people who might think she’s a weirdo for wearing an Iron Man costume to a supermarket, then so much the better.
There are some things all people should experience in a lifetime. I have often wondered what I wish for you, my noble daughter, to experience in your long and interesting life. And if I’m brutally honest with myself, there are some things I wouldn’t want to wish on you at all. Let’s face it, I instinctively want you to have nice things, and to be protected from the nasty things.
But maybe the nice things are not what really builds us. Not all of the things we experience are pleasant. But our lives are made richer by the wide variety of things we encounter. The good gives us pleasure, the bad makes us stronger, wiser, and teaches us what to avoid, and what to endure. You need to have these experiences to know what they feel like. And remember, that if any of the experiences you have in life feel painful or strange or are just too darn confusing, you can always talk to me. I’m here to support you. Always.
So here is a list of the type of experiences both Mummy and I want you to have. Let’s hope you become a wiser, fuller, richer, more deeply depthful person as a result. And yes, depthful is a word.
Lots of love Daddy x
(that’s ‘Daddy’ with a kiss, my name is not Daddy X, but I suppose that would be a cool nickname)
1. Be in a car crash – not a serious car accident, but a minor prang
2. Learn a musical instrument and stick with it. Of course it’s going to be difficult, but work at it and trust me, you will one day make an event brilliant with your musical skills
3. Have an argument
4. Win an argument
5. Learn to argue effectively
6. Hate someone
7. Get totally shitfaced – just do it safely
8. Stay up all night
9. Go on a diet
10. Break the diet
11. Tell someone to fuck off
13. Get punched – Not too hard, and I fervently hope not by someone you love, otherwise I’ll be getting all punchy-punchy as well
14. Get ill – Not too ill, please, and allow yourself time to recover
15. Go to A & E in a city hospital on a Saturday night, preferably accompanying somebody else who has only minor injuries
16. Be badly behaved – Just not with me, OK?
17. Obey rules
18. Break some rules
19. Tell an adult off to the point where they break down
20. Embark on an enterprise or project that has a likelihood to fail
21. Swim in a river or lake – Though please be careful
22. Get properly lost, providing you then find your way back
23. Go on holiday in your native country
24. Do the tourist bus in your local city
25. Be humiliated
26. Recover from being humiliated as quickly as possible
27. Be in charge of something – a project, a job, a creative group, a team – but don’t be an arsehole
28. Have revenge on someone
29. Do nothing for a whole day, and don’t feel guilty about it
30. Be really miserable, but make it brief
31. Fall in love – You’d be amazed how many people have never fallen in love
32. Get dumped and have your heart broken
33. Be honest
34. Have a shit Christmas
35. Go out and look for wildlife
36. Break a bone – restrict it to arms or legs only though. Maybe a rib.
37. Tell your friends some deep personal secrets. Hopefully it will lead to better friends
38. Take a walk in a forest in all seasons
39. Look at a mountain – Fuck, they’re great, aren’t they?
40. Go abroad
41. Get rained on
42. Allow one of your opinions to be changed by an argument
43. Persuade someone else to change their opinion on something fundamental
44. Have a really crap relationship with a complete loser, but make it brief
45. Lose someone close to you, awful though it will be, but learning to cope with grief is an essential lesson. Let’s hope it’s not either Mummy or me, although let’s be honest, I won’t be around for it to bother me all that much
46. Take time off
47. Experience what it’s like to have no money at all, but make it brief
48. Watch a film you previously really liked, but realise and accept that it sucks
49. Have a deep interest or hobby that other people would find baffling
50. Allow yourself to be bored
51. Do something drastic with your hair
52. Have someone insult you to the point where it makes you cry, and never let it happen again
53. Be naked in the open air
54. Be naked with someone else
55. Compromise, but do so without losing your integrity
56. Receive applause
57. Do something that frightens you
58. Go to a religious gathering
59. Get angry
60. Refuse to do something
61. Miss out on one amazing experience that all of your friends take part in
62. Be unemployed, but make it brief
63. Go out at an ungodly hour just to listen to the dawn chorus
64. Allow yourself to be pretentious every so often – Some people make far too much fuss about pretentiousness as though it’s on a par with National Socialism, but these people are idiots: Being pretentious doesn’t hurt anyone
65. Annoy someone
66. Watch music being performed live
67. Enjoy the feeling of coming home
68. Confront a bully
69. Be overwhelmed
70. Leave a good party early
71. Stay at a crap party for longer than you really want to
72. Stand up in front of a crowd of people and talk to them
73. Be willing to apologise
74. Refuse to apologise to someone
75. Tell somebody that they are completely bang out of order
76. Experience loneliness
77. Cry at music
78. Cry at a film
79. Stand your ground
80. Have a massive lie-in and don’t feel guilty about it
81. Perform something in public that you wrote – A song, a play, a poem, a dance routine
82. Do something that is utterly selfish
83. Take responsibility for something that went wrong (or, indeed, went right)
84. Spill something
85. Do a competitive sport
86. Fall out with someone
87. Make a conscious decision to repair a broken friendship
88. Use a washing machine – OK, it’s not the greatest of life’s rich pageant of experiences, but a) I’m glad my daughter lives in an era where washing machines are common and affordable; and b) I’d far rather you experience washing clothes in a machine, than washing clothes by hand
89. Not care about something
90. Make a huge mistake (providing it does not hurt or kill someone)
91. Do something silly
92. Be part of the winning team, either as supporter or player
93. Be part of the losing team, either as supporter or player
94. Stand in a group of at least 200 people all singing together
95. Take part in a political protest
97. Laugh so hard you can hardly breathe
98. Cook a meal for friends
99. Make yourself something that you can use every day
100. Help a stranger for no reason other than the fact that you would want help in their shoes
101. Move out of this house and into your own place
Me, a year ago:
Fuck. It’s Monday, and we need to do the weekly shop. *sigh*
Alice, six months ago:
“AAAOOOOWWWWW!!! Shopping?? But we did shopping last week! I hate shopping! Why do we always have to do it on Mondays??”
Alice, two weeks ago:
“Monday’s my favourite day of the week! You know why? Because SHOPPING!”
I wish I could do a before/after photo of Alice, taken in the doorway of our local Tesco. Even in a photo from January of this year, you would see on her face the resigned expression of a child about to enter into a world of aisles, tin cans, and boredom. Meanwhile, I would be mentally prepared for the longest hour of the week. Sometimes there would be a row. She would frequently be in a bad mood. I don’t blame her. I’m not too enamoured of the weekly shop either.
I’ve always liked taking Alice with me shopping. And, despite her bad mood, I’m grateful for the company. Shopping on my own is a lonely experience. On the occasions where Alice wasn’t whining, complaining, sulking, and grouching, she could be (as she usually is) very good company: Interesting, funny, and conversational. Sometimes, though, it was bloody torture for both of us.
And then, almost suddenly, it all changed.
Like most sudden changes, in hindsight, I realised that over the last few months there were hints of a new development leading up to this Damascene conversion. I would do what I always did on Mondays – pick her up after school, and take her to the supermarket. Same as it ever was. But Alice started to take the opportunity, probably with her head still buzzing from a day’s educational nonsense, to ask me questions. But not little questions, BIG questions. Big, important, lifey questions. Stuff that is, sometimes, too big even for me.
Stuff about the deep meanings of life; about friendship, about love. Questions about how and why boys behave the way they do. Heavy questions about life. Her most challenging question was a real humdinger:
“If bad things happen to you when you’re young, do they affect you later on in life?”
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. Imagine that hitting you just as you’re picking the Andrex off the shelf.
So Monday became ‘Question Day’, the day when Alice can ask all the big and heavy existential questions. Alice loved it. I also enjoyed it; any excuse to have a good and diverting conversation on the grocery run. Sometimes we would have these discussions in the car park, before going into the shop, thus avoiding the heaviest of conversations whilst trying to remember if we needed sweetcorn. Sometimes Alice could get quite emotional about the subject in hand. You know, if you had told me five years ago that a key moment of Daddy-Daughter bonding would happen in a Tesco car park on a pissy-wet Monday afternoon, I would have told you – to your face – that you were both mad, and to get the fuck away from me, because you’re a creepy weirdo who can predict the future.
And then, maybe unrelated, but possibly in the spirit of Daddy/Daughter co-operation, something magical happened. Something that I thought wasn’t possible yet, and certainly not something I had been working towards. I had always hoped it would happen, but I thought it would involve a lot of fighting to get it done, and certainly would need an amount of training.
We were in the fruit aisles, early on in the shop, when I asked Alice what I was to cook this week. Unfortunately, due to my limited cooking skills, and Alice’s rather conservative palate, the answer is always “Curry! Chilli! Bolognese!” with an occasional and hopeful “and Shawarma too?”, which sometimes I will indulge, even though it is a bit of a faff to make the marinade.
Anyway, this time Alice said, “Shall I get the chilli beans?”.
“I know where they are!”
Do you? Er… Are you sure?
Will you be OK to pick them up and bring them back?
I’m not too sure about…
Well… OK. Two cans of chilli beans. Meet you back here.
And off she ran. Alice in running-mode is quite a sight. There’s a lot of arm-thrashing, and frantic movement below the hips, but she’s not one of nature’s runners. It’s a sort of frantic and breathless enhanced walk. She definitely takes after her mother in this regard. A lot of physical action, sure, but it does not transfer into much rapid forward-motion, despite her enthusiasm. I find Alice’s running completely adorable, and while I would love her to be sprinting along with her classmates, I do find her pursed lips, grim determination, and hunched-shoulder trotting unbearably cute (although I do often worry what will happen in a zombie apocalypse, and she would have to run in order to survive).
I waited some minutes for her to come back. About 30 seconds after she left, a sudden worry crept over me. Oh God. I’ve never allowed her to run off in a supermarket before. This is incredibly irresponsible of me! What if she meets a creepy old man? What if another mother decides she is too young to be on her own and calls security on me? What if I’m being assessed and scored by other parents as I do this? What if she gets lost and cannot find me? I thought I should look for her, but what if she comes back along a different route, and miss each other, and search frantically for each other as we are separated by aisles and aisles of branded produce??
My worries were abated a few moments later when she hurtled (at her usual manic trot) around the corner with two cans of chilli beans held aloft in triumph. I practically heard Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire theme in my head.
Wow, Alice, that’s great!
Uh… yeah. Can you get me two cans of chickpeas from the same aisle?
And off she went.
For the next twenty minutes or so she retrieved items that I didn’t know that she knew the locations of. And then, when she came back empty handed from a mission to get muesli, claiming she didn’t know where cereals were, I showed her to look for the signs in each aisle, listing the produce to be found. And off she went again, and came back with a box of muesli.
This is amazing. I was expecting her to start helping me with the shop when she was about ten. She’s beaten my schedule by two years! Shopping is now not only easy, but fun. She is memorising the entire layout of the shop. She knows that we have certain staples every week – bread, milk, fruit, onions, carrots, pulses, meat, fish, soft drinks – and she knows where they are. She knows to ask someone in uniform to help her get stuff down from the high shelves, or to ask an employee for directions when she’s not sure where something is. She’s learned that if I’m not in the aisle she left me in, to walk along the central spine of the shop, looking left and right in each aisle until she spots me. She’s learned to say “excuse me please!” if she is blocked by people and needs to get by, and to say sorry if she bumps into someone.
I also don’t worry about her vanishing from sight, because it is her habit to keep up a stream of chatter to herself as she runs off (for once, I’m glad she’s that sort of weird kid who has stream-of-consciousness conversations with herself), and her return journey is her high-pitched foghorn voice yelling “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaddddddeeeeeeeeeeeee-*pauseforbreath*-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” with a slow Doppler-effect, until she finds me. It’s massively embarrassing, and people do stare at her, but at least I know she’s safe. She’s like those footballs for blind people that let out a stream of bleeps when you throw it into the distance. She is her own tracking device.
And she has made me incredibly proud. Two weeks ago, I got the ultimate compliment from a woman who was wrestling with a trolley and two recalcitrant children, saying, “Can I borrow her when you’re done? I’ve got quite a list here.”
Alice has been rewarded for this in the ultimate way. Not only does she have my loving pride at her initiative, and her willingness to help (not to mention her diligence and efficiency at procuring items), but she also gets extra treats. For the first couple of weeks, I let her off the unpacking when we got home (but reinstated it when I realised that she might start taking this for granted… and when she demanded to assist me unpacking because – and I quote – she “really likes helping!!”), but also because we’ve cut the shopping time by almost half, she can have early Playstation. Normally, there is an embargo on PS4/TV activities before 5pm, but now she gets an early turn on the dazzle-console because… well, fuck it. My girl done me proud. Half an hour’s extra pixellated mayhem won’t kill her.
And the best bit is: I haven’t trained her. She started doing this all by herself. And yesterday, she said she loves helping me with the shopping. She really enjoys it. She now looks forward to it.
Why?, I asked.
“Because it makes me feel like a grown-up!”
So last Tuesday morning, I woke up, put the alarm on snooze mode a total of 3 times, sneaked a look at my wife putting on her bra, got out of bed, had my regular piss and shit (went to the bathroom to do that, obvs), came downstairs, turned on the news, and saw that a deranged, revolting, shit-sucking arsehole had just killed 22 people and injured dozens more at a pop concert attended by thousands of teenagers.
It was in Manchester, which is just up the motorway from us. Not in some country far away. Not in continental Europe, across a sea, affecting people we can’t speak the language of. This was done to teenagers, kids at their first concert, to parents of those children. People who were never involved in an almost imaginary conflict that they had little understanding of. And yet they were deemed to be a target.
It was a shocking, unnecessary, awful, and ultimately pointless act of barbarity; and that’s all the attention I can bear to give to the absolute cunt who carried out the attack.
I grew up in Britain during the 1980s and ’90s. Terrorism was a common fixture on the news, thanks to the IRA and the Loyalist Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Living on mainland Britain, I didn’t really get affected by these actions directly, but it cast a shadow over public life. Occasionally, the bombs would go off somewhere on the mainland, in London or Birmingham, or some other supposedly ‘strategic’ target – the only strategy I could ever see was that it just caused ordinary people unnecessary misery and fear, which, duurrrr, was the point of such action. It was something that I remember from my watching of the news back then, along with miner’s strikes, the tensions and fear of the Cold War, and the two horribly iconic figures of Thatcher and Reagan.
So terrorism is nothing new to me. But it’s new to my daughter. Alice has not really encountered terrorism on British soil in her lifetime. She’s only 8.
An 8-year-old girl was among the first reported victims of last week. What an unspeakable act: To destroy the life of a girl, who could very well be my daughter. I cannot imagine how life has been ripped apart for her parents. I could be that father, kissing his little girl goodbye for the last time, and now embarking on a road of agony that lasts from this act until his death. The mother… oh dear God…
I’ve tried imagining what the impact of losing a child in this way would be like, and I cannot bear it. I just do not have the courage, or the capacity of emotion to think of it. The pain. The rage. The loss.
The knowledge that children of her age were killed has hit Alice very hard. After just two minutes of watching the news in silence, she begged for the channel to be changed, for the news to be switched off.
I refused. I made her watch it. This kind of news is horrible. It is a living nightmare. And it is overwhelming. But to switch it off is a form of denial. I don’t believe in denying the pain of the world, or hiding it away. It is almost wilful ignorance to turn from such horror. It would be easier, less painful, if we didn’t see these things… but the downside is we allow ourselves to pretend these things don’t happen, and in my opinion, that is living a lie.
Just the day before, I had a conversation with one of the other mums. We discussed the upcoming election, and she said that she was voting for the very first time. I tried not to be shocked at this, and I hope I wasn’t too patronising (probably was, though), but when I asked why she hadn’t voted before, she said it was because politics is too complicated, and she didn’t fully understand it.
But it’s easy to understand, I said. All you have to do is watch the news.
“I don’t watch the news, it’s too depressing,” she said. “All the horrible things that go on…”. Well, less than 24 hours later, she had a point.
I can’t ignore the news. I mean, I do sympathise, but I’ve always wanted to be aware of the day’s news. I am a news junkie. I find coming back from a holiday, for example, to find a world-shattering event has taken place to be most disorientating.
I’ve always watched the news. As a child, we watched the news as a family over the dinner table, and often discussed it. I believe that knowing the news events, helps to explain the world and how it works. It’s true that the news sometimes feels like the world’s biggest soap opera, with no beginning or end, and with storylines that suddenly erupt with no context, and sometimes have no resolution. And yet, watching the news unfold can help to explain so many things: Politics, popular culture, science, history, technology, geography, and society, in a way that schooling and study cannot.
And I’m increasingly of the opinion that the reason why people don’t want to understand politics, or think there are too many immigrants, or think that voting for certain people and policies would be a good idea (*cough* mumblemumblemumbldonaldtrumpmumblemumblenigelfaragemumblemumble mumbleBrexitmumblemumblebloodyToriesmumblemumble), or who have a fear of new technology, or want to deny climate change, or have no empathy for people in foreign countries, or who are alarmed by homosexuals getting married, or fail to understand basic scientific concepts, or think the fucking government controls us through air exhaust fumes, is because there are increasing numbers of people who absolutely refuse to watch the news.
I don’t want my daughter to grow up ignorant, even if that means exposing her to the horrors of the modern world. I want her to know that this world has problems. I also want her to know that solutions are possible, but that those solutions are not pie-in-sky, soundbites that will solve everything in an instant. That’s just wish-fulfilment. That leads to people like Donald Trump getting elected, or being mired in the fairy-tale politics of an unobtainable utopia. That’s how politics on the far right or far left prey on the politically ignorant. She needs to know that workable solutions are difficult and long-term.
I also want her to have an opinion that is informed. I know some of this means she will be informed by mine or Sarah’s opinion, but I’m a parent. I can’t protect her from this forever. She needs to know. I have to make her understand somehow.
So I made Alice watch, despite her pleas not to, but not for long. As soon as the news started to repeat itself, we switched over. She was upset, and openly discussed her feelings about it, which was good. She also noticed the news reported that people rushed to the victims’ aid, and she loudly proclaimed that, if she was caught up in a disaster, she would be the sort of person who would do that. This seemed to cheer her up, and it slowly dawned on me that I had never really seriously considered the psychological importance for a child to know that people responded to such events with compassion before. I’ve only ever taken to heart the event, and the chaos that surrounds it.
Over the last few days I’ve found myself explaining terrorism, the politics of fear, and the way the media works to my sweet, innocent, and naїve 8-year-old daughter. It has not been an easy task for either of us, but I hope she understands.
How do you explain these things to a child? Even after a few days of doing so, I’m still none the wiser. And in a horrible way, I feel as though I have brought terrorism into my daughter’s life. I am The Parent of Terrorism now, and I am responsible for making her aware of the ills of human nature.
What’s more, I’ve successfully confused the hell out of her. I’ve over-explained some things, and skimped on others. I have to get it right. She has Muslim friends, for God’s sake. I don’t want her to fear them, or think all Muslims hate westerners.
So when I find myself embroiled in yet another pointless Facebook argument with a 22-year-old prick who thinks the only solution to terrorism is to eliminate all Muslims (and then he has the nerve to deny that he is racist for thinking this), I find myself theorising that this fuckwit and their fuckwit opinion is the net result of a news-free upbringing.
I dunno, I’m probably wrong. Maybe they’re just stupid. Maybe they watch the same amount of news, and just draw their own conclusions that happen to differ with mine. Or maybe I really am a patronising, middle-class twat, who is out of touch with the real world, and is a fucking libtard snowflake scum of the Earth. It’s what they say I am. There is every possibility that they have a point. To be fair, they are not 100% wrong.
But I can’t raise my daughter to be like that. That’s why I make my daughter watch the news, even though it disturbs her. I cannot have her being that sort of ignorant, intolerant fucking moron in years to come. That, to me, is as bad and irresponsible as letting her smoke when she’s 12.
Being a parent has changed my outlook on the news, I won’t lie. The shock of the Manchester bombing was profound, but I felt it most keenly when I realised the victims were young girls. Hey, I know a young girl. She’s my everything. How could this happen to her? How could this happen to anyone like her?
15 years ago, I would have been just as shocked, but the tragedy of the event would not have struck such a raw nerve in me. Becoming a parent changed that. I learned this when, just a few months after Alice was born, I read a newspaper article about the appalling Baby Peter case. The news of the final verdicts of his mother and stepfather came out, and the article went into great detail about the depraved cruelty that poor child suffered. I read the news on a lunch break, and then went back to work. Over 30 minutes then passed before I realised my hands were tightly clenched into fists. I was so angered, in a way I could never be prior to Alice being born. As a child and teenager, I was always privately embarrassed by the outpouring of grief and sympathy for child murder victims that grown-ups would indulge in. Now, as a parent, I recognise why such empathetic grief exists.
One of the positives – if there ever could be such a thing – that has emerged out of the chaos of the Manchester bombing has been the thought and care that the reporting has taken. There has been a notable sea-change. This is the first major news story where, following a devastating catastrophe, a sense of empathy has been in the news reporting, particularly towards children. Because this is a tragedy that has affected young children, there has been a real emphasis on engagement and understanding, and also, awareness that such stories can have a triggering effect.
The BBC’s Newsround, who have for 40 years pioneered the reporting of the news to children, have been exemplary. I’d go so far as to say they have been heroic in their reporting, both in approach, detail, and sensitivity. Fuck Game of Thrones, or the new series of Twin Peaks, or whatever boxset you’re urged to bingewatch; this is possibly the best and most important television-related thing of this year, and I firmly and genuinely believe it needs to be taught in all schools:
And this past week, I have learned to change my attitude to explaining the positives in the news, thanks to one small idea that has been repeated over and over again that, like an idiot, I have never considered before:
Don’t think about the bastard who did it. They don’t deserve our attention. People like that try to make the World worse. They will fail. Instead, think about the helpers. They are what makes this world great.
That is what I’ll tell Alice from now on. And this is what I’ll carry with me from this horrific, senseless attack. It’s a shame I didn’t learn this 30+ years ago.
And then the incredible, courageous, dignified and inspiring response and resilience of the people of Manchester made her realise that recovery is swift, normality will resume, and that the inherent goodness of the decent, civilised, majority of people will always prevail over the unconscionably evil. Alice turned to me at the weekend, after watching the news, “what’s the point of terrorism if people just bounce right back? Terrorists are so stupid”. Exactly, kid.