Cracking the Parenting Code

Cracking the Parenting Code

We got Dylan’s first end of year school report this week. It was very good – enough, in fact, for this to have been a nauseatingly smug post. (It isn’t, I promise.) Yet aside from the positive commentary about my first born, one other thing particularly caught my eye…

Rather than a classic excellent, good, needs improvement type classification, Dylan’s school takes a far more positive stance. So: excellent is exceeding; good/satisfactory is expected; and anything less is emerging, a word so full of layers that it could be a cross-section of the planet Earth.  After all, my cricketing skills are emerging but that doesn’t mean I’m likely to throw mud at someone if they have the temerity to pick up my bat.

It got me thinking about some of the other euphemisms and platitudes we’re surrounded by (and guilty of) as mums, dads, grandparents et al. It’s a kind of parenting code, so below is my attempt at cracking it. Some of the examples may ring a bell, others may just be me…

Ooo, she’s very interested in the world, isn’t she? I’ve run out of positive things to say about your frankly pretty uninteresting newborn but I’ve noticed she does occasionally open her eyes and/or move her head.

He knows what he wants. Your son is an obstinate prick.

He REALLY knows what he wants. Your son is an off-the-scale obstinate prick.

You can tell she’s going to be bright. Why won’t she stop asking me ‘why’?

He finds sharing challenging.  He hits kids who touch his stuff.

That’s a nice big age gap. Which one of them was an accident?

She’s really thinking about something, isn’t she? (about a baby) He’s staring gormlessly into space and/or doing a poo.

No, that little girl is playing with that. (to your own child, loudly) Tell your daughter to give my son a turn before I unleash him. (to parent of other child)

Being an older sister has really brought out her caring side. She once asked her baby brother if he was OK after she threw a ball at him.

Having 2 kids definitely isn’t twice as hard as having 1. (to expectant 2nd time parent) Having 2 kids is at least 3 times as hard as having 1, just as soon as the second little bugger is on the move as well.

He’s very strong. (about baby) I’ve run out of things to say again but he did vaguely close his fist when I jammed my  finger into his palm.

He’s very strong. (about older child) He keeps hurting me and is worryingly close to doing irreparable damage to my testicles; please call him off.

Give the doggie a wave, sweetheart. Don’t touch that flea-ridden beast in case it rips your throat out; just flap your hand at it  from afar so it looks to the owner like we give a shit about their pet.

At least he’s not shy. Your son keeps touching my daughter, get him away from her this instant.

She enjoys her food, doesn’t she? Greedy little bastard.

OK, that’s enough time with the iPad. Bugger. That was peaceful. I should’ve picked a table where other people couldn’t see how bad a parent I am.

I’m sure there are loads more. In fact, I’ll probably discover another one tomorrow. In the meantime, though, I’d love to hear yours. Who knows, maybe we could turn them into one of those handy pocket foreign language guides people take on holiday…

 

Good, bad? No, different.

Good, bad? No, different.

I want to say upfront I think my son Dylan is a legend. His passion, loving nature, curiosity and willingness to be himself makes me incredibly proud. Plus, the other day he gave me a dead leg with his head – something no one else has managed in over 30 years of sport, school and brotherhood. That deserves respect.

But one thing he has sometimes struggled with is empathy, particularly as a toddler. Back then (and even to some extent now), it often didn’t occur to him to step into other people’s shoes, not due to any kind of deliberate malfeasance, just because, well, it wasn’t built into his psyche.

As a result, he was the kind of child who often unintentionally made me (and my wife, Laura) look like a bad parent. Instead of running around other kids, he would run through and/or over them without even noticing. His public meltdowns came with a side order of molten lava. And he never, ever took an instruction without an explanation.

It made for some embarrassing and frustrating moments, along with plenty of ‘looks’ – you know the kind – from fellow parents, passengers and café patrons. That bloke really can’t control his kid, they were thinking. Maybe you should try disciplining him – that advice was spoken out loud by a ‘helpful’ random stranger as if the thought had never crossed my mind. Your child is attacking my daughter – Laura got this from some prissy bitch whose child Dylan has merely crawled past inside a tunnel. And lots more.

Admittedly, I probably was doing something wrong. But those people who sneered, commented or tutted knew nothing about Dylan and what he needed from his mum and dad. I was also just doing what I thought was right for him and me. Pretty much any parent knows how that feels, including my poor mum judging by some of the stories of my own behaviour she has shared!

Fast forward a couple of years and Dylan is blossoming into a lovely little boy. We’re even experiencing the kind of positive school parents’ evenings that used to feel about as likely as me building the next Hadron Collider. We also now have Nathan, nearly 3 and a very different character indeed.

Nath is lucky enough to be hardwired with the empathetic instincts Dylan has, in contrast, had to work to acquire (and kudos to Dylan for doing it). It’s largely a bonus of genetics but it means when I take him to a football class or nursery or pretty much anywhere, he rarely gets involved in any kind of confrontation and tends to say ‘sorry’ straight away if anything goes wrong.  What’s more, I suddenly look like a great parent. I’m not. I’m the same as before. The boys are just very different people – one of myriad reasons I love them both so much. In some ways, it’s highly unfair on Dylan too. Although fast forward 20 years and he will be nobody’s fool. Nath on the other hand may well find himself being dragged around the shops by his partner carrying their bags.

You see, just as this post is not a slight on Dylan, it is also by no means an ode to his little brother. Nath has his fair share of annoying habits and challenging personality traits. The point is they just tend to be less noticeable to the casual observer. So, by and large, I find myself in the uncharted territory of being the dad whose kid is happily getting on with things while others grapple with volcanic tantrums, deal with flagrant insubordination and constantly intervene in sharing battles.

A little while ago, I wrote about my shame at breaking the first rule of parent club by reflexively judging an irate father in a café. Likewise, it’s impossible and unforgivable to label a child good, bad, naughty or anything else based on a fleeting experience with them in a playground or the like.

No kid wants to be in trouble (I think/hope!). It’s just sometimes, they are. When, where and how often comes down to a) timing; and b) the uniquely brilliant characteristics that make them who they are. All children are magic and none of them come with an operating manual. I guess that’s the beauty of it.

A treat for mummy…er…

A treat for mummy…er…

Last Friday, I decided to treat my wife to a bit of time to relax on her own. After all, as most parents know, chilling out free from anyone asking questions like ‘what’s higher than infinity?’, putting themselves in immediate physical danger or generally disrespecting your personal space is rare.

So rather than risk disturbing her precious night’s sleep, I did something far more thoughtful. I kindly got drunk, fell asleep on the last train home and ended up staying at the Days Inn just off the M3. Perfect. Or rather, about as far from perfect as a husband/father gets within the bounds of legality and/or fidelity.

Several apologies, one poor night’s sleep (turns out motorway service station hotels aren’t as indulgent as they sound) and a rude wake-up call from a five-year-old and a two-year-old later, I was back into the fray, nursing a hangover and a healthy dose of guilt while charging around a park, playing what could loosely be termed football, and going on ‘Star Wars missions’ in the woods. I even got to deal with Dylan inadvertently (I hope!) urinating on another child from up a tree.

After that, it was out again (yes, I’m too old for this) for a very enjoyable Saturday night’s eating and drinking with friends. Then up at 6am the next morning, two gut-wrenching Code Browns from Nathan and onto a sweaty soft play for a couple of hours. By Sunday evening I was broken.

To be clear though, I’m not looking for sympathy. Not at all. I’m well aware that: a) I brought nearly all of it on myself; and b) most people reading this will have been through their own version of the same thing. Or are about to.

But my question is why do we do it? Why do we think going out in the way we used to is still a good idea, even if only sporadically? Being hungover with kids is horrific. The equivalent of asking for a blunt needle soaked in chilli oil when you’re giving blood. Why add insult to injury?

Simple. Because no matter how much we love our children, no matter how often we say wanky stuff like ‘being a parent just adds soooo much depth to my life’, and no matter how guilty we feel about wanting to spend some time away from the chaos, it’s hard to resist the odd, fleeting taste of our old life. The one we now fondly recall through rose tinted glasses. Where a coffee meant a conversation not a race. Where the washing basket filled up once a week and without anything having to be soaked in Dettol first. Where the effects of a few beers could be slept off the next morning. And a holiday was, well, actually a holiday.

Try the guest ale. Yes please. Eat a whole chicken then delay the journey home by stopping for some late-night chips. Of course. Have one more for the road. Why not? Check into a motorway hotel at 3am and be forced to ask a middle-aged man named Keith to unlock your door for you. Hmmm, maybe that’s where we should draw the line.

Until next time, of course.

Brilliant…but just for one day

As you know, I freely admit to being a pretty average dad.

But thanks to blogging master DIY daddy and a weekly feature he runs on his excellent website – check it out here – I am today, for one day only,  a brilliant one.

Or maybe I should let you judge that for yourself by reading the answers I gave to his interview questions.

You can read them here

DIY Daddy Blog

Dad in the playground

Dad in the playground

Now I’m an adult (of sorts), I’d assumed the days of worrying about the rules of the playground were behind me. Along with wedgies, communal showers and trying to inhale without coughing.

How naïve I was. Since having children, I find myself back in the same scenario, although admittedly no one has hauled the waistband of my boxer shorts above my shoulders (yet). Worse, the rules have changed. As many parents know, managing people with little regard for their own safety until faced with immediate peril requires significant levels of concentration, premonition and caffeine, as well as the ability to cross a wobbly bridge in milliseconds.

Often it lulls you into a false sense of security too. Like when your older child kindly offers to help the younger one join them in climbing something just a little bit beyond their capabilities. How sweet, you think. What lovely brothers. How nice to see them getting on so well. What hope it gives me for a future where they just do stuff together while I sit down on a bench and actually talk to my wife.

BANG! WAAAH!

Shit, Nathan! Where did Dylan go? Oh, that’s right, he’s legged it up the rest of the climbing frame while little bro has dropped like a stone from 6 feet high. Thank God for modern-day, spongy playground floors.

There’s also my fellow parents to consider. On my Wednesdays off, I’m usually the only dad in the playground, still a surprisingly common experience in most places we visit during the week. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Mums do it better. Most mums I encounter in playgrounds tend to gather in groups chatting with each other while their children play. They exude a kind of calm control that I just can’t achieve. So, when I barrel nosily into the area with scooters flying, bag undone, kids in different directions, etc. I look pretty inept.

Kids are like moths. My attitude in a playground is if you can’t beat them, join them. The trouble is, when other children get wind of a youngster being tipped upside down, spun on a roundabout or chased through a tunnel, they tend to flock over for a piece of the action too. Thus, I spend most of the time lifting various nameless kids on and off equipment or helping bury their feet in fox piss encrusted sand. All while their parent happily chats to their mates.

It can be intimidating. Stepping into this still female-dominated environment (during the week) can make you self-conscious. I’ve even seen women check their watch as I step through the gates, confirming it is indeed still business working hours. The other day, a grandma (or ‘mature mum’ – I didn’t ask, I’m not crazy) actually screamed when I had the temerity to push Nathan above head height on a swing. Yes, he leant forward a bit, but really, a full-blooded scream? I may have a Y chromosome but I have no plans to send my child flying into a wall. I promise.

There are never enough swings. If I was a playground planner (what a job that would be!), I’d dedicate at least 70% of the area to swings. Two just isn’t enough. Every kid wants to go on them and every kid hates waiting. The result is a festival of placation. Both for the parent trying to coax their child off the swing and for the one whose son or daughter is on the sidelines preparing to take matters into their own hands. It’s a situation that’s even given rise to a kind of code.

Parent 1: No, someone is on the swing, so you’ll have to wait your turn (a little more loudly than necessary).

Translation: I may appear to have done it politely and as if I was trying to teach my child about waiting. However, I’ve now made it perfectly clear to you, Parent 2, that my child wants to get on that swing. Start preparing your kid for disembarkation before this shit gets real.

I’m sure there are plenty more but I shan’t bore you with them now. Hopefully some of this sounds familiar. Perhaps most of it doesn’t. All of it is largely my fault. But I guess one thing we can all agree on as parents is this: the days of playground protocol are not as far behind us as we thought.

Grandad died.

Grandad died.

A couple of weeks ago, my father-in-law died unexpectedly. As you can imagine, it’s been a tough time for everyone, especially my wife and her family. One of the very few benefits of having had only one grandparent (who died when I was aged five) is that my own experience of loss is relatively small. Certainly nothing like what Laura is going through now. It’s been a dreadfully impotent feeling. A mixture of being desperately sad for her, sharing her grief and trying to help in whatever small way I can.

Of course, amidst all this are the boys. Both, really, are too young to fully realise what has happened. Dylan, at 5, has some understanding of the fact we won’t see Grandad again and is processing it in his own way. But Nathan, at 2, is to all intents and purposes oblivious. On our first trip to visit Laura’s mum afterwards, I spent several minutes in the car trying to explain that Grandad wouldn’t be there, that he was now somewhere he didn’t feel ill, and that we must instead try to think about all the fun things we did with him. Not especially eloquent but, I hoped, effective.

As we walked through the door, a little voice piped up: “Where’s Grandad?” I’d been wasting my time.

Yet should I really have been surprised? How can you explain death to a toddler? There are loads of books out there and no doubt lots of far cleverer people than me have tried.  But the answer, as far as I can tell, is you can’t. Their lives are just too immediate, too short-term, too gloriously trivial for them to be interrupted by as nebulous and inaccessible concept as dying.

‘Grandad has died’ is simply ‘Grandad’s not here to throw me over his shoulder and shout Ba Ba Boof today, oh well, maybe he’ll be here next time’. ‘Grandad has gone’ translates as ‘Grandad’s somewhere else’. And ‘Gran is upset’ is, well, a brief concern but no doubt she’ll be OK again in a minute.

It’s fortunate and tragic all at once. On the one hand, how lovely to live in such a naïve place that bad news, the worst news, is no more than a passing gust of wind. But at the same time, how terrible that something so important, so fundamental to our life, can be ripped away without you really noticing. How unjust that, beyond photos and stories, Nathan probably won’t remember a warm, generous, doting man who loved him dearly.

As you can imagine, this has been a hard post to write – and I have no real answers to give or conclusions to draw. Maybe it’s all still too current, maybe I’m not smart enough, maybe it’s impossible, probably all three. Death of a loved one is shit. It hurts and it makes people you care about unhappier than you’ve ever seen them. Trying to manage that grief whilst looking after young children who need a brave face from mummy and daddy is immeasurably hard, undeniably sad – and a total tonic.

In fact, if there is one tiny chink of light here it is that perhaps, in a small way, we can all take a lesson from young children. These mini beings who think life is just a thing we all do forever – and simply get on with getting on with it. For whom both everything and nothing is a distraction. Who don’t waste time on stuff they can’t comprehend. And who are, for want of a less clichéd phrase, the way the rest of us live on long after we’re gone.

As Grandad himself said last year: “there’s no bucket list but that doesn’t stop me wanting to live forever.” Even though they might not know it yet, the boys are the ones who are going to help him do it.

An apology: I broke the first rule of Parent Club

An apology: I broke the first rule of Parent Club

The other day I did something I swore I never would. I judged another parent. I hate myself.

Of course, I didn’t voice my verdict aloud (I’m still British after all) but that doesn’t matter. Even in my own head, I still did it. And that puts me in the same reprehensible bracket as all the old people who have shaken their heads at my ‘disgraceful lack of control’ over my children in the park or the parents who have sneered at my Bolognese soaked sons in a restaurant while their daughters sit quietly colouring in or writing a piano concerto or whatever.

The incident occurred during that popular middle-class past-time: taking your children for a Babyccino. Translation: distracting them with milk, powdered chocolate and, if you’re truly lucky, marshmallows (the chewy kind), while you load up on caffeine and sit down for a few precious minutes.

Worse, the target of my judgement was a fellow dad! A man so harried by his two kids and two dogs that he could no longer maintain his composure in Caffe Nero. Several decibels and various expletives later, he was enjoying the stares of the whole establishment, his children were crying and his dogs were barking as if they’d seen a postman lathered in bone marrow.

Now, I’ve never understood why people with young children have dogs. Why choose to add yet another creature(s) to your life that must be taken outside regularly whatever the weather, has no sense of reason and may at any moment shit on your carpet?! But still, poor bloke.

At least that’s what I should have thought.

But I didn’t. Instead I thought something along the lines of: well, that’s a bit much, shouting like that before losing myself in a pious spiral of I would never do such a thing and my children are far more obedient, etc. Shame on me. A) Because I would and they aren’t. And b) because I forgot my allegiance to a fellow comrade.

As the brilliant DIY Daddy recently asked in a post: is there a right way to be a parent? To which, naturally, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Your way.  And that’s the point. All that my stressed-out Nero friend was doing was experiencing his version of the same moment pretty much every parent has, pretty much every week. His only ‘crime’ was that he happened to do it in such a public place.

Anyway, almost as soon as me, my wife and our (ahem) perfectly behaved children waltzed serenely out of the establishment, the guilt began to eat away at me. How could I be so unfair? And while I wouldn’t ever advocate dropping the f-bomb on a pre-schooler, the more I thought about it, the more I empathised with how he was feeling.

So, this, belatedly, is my apology. To the man who had the meltdown and to other mums, dads, grandparents, anyone who has been driven temporarily to distraction by the insanity of this job. I got caught off guard and forgot the first and most important rule of Parent Club. Never judge a fellow member. It won’t happen again.