Thursday, 20 June 2013

An anachronism against Mumsnet!

I've been quiet for a while. That's partly because raising the child and doing the day job have both taken up a vast chunck of my time recently. It's also because I've been thinking through my online presence as a dad in light of the recent clash with the denizens of mumsnet.

For those of you reading this from overseas, mumsnet needs a bit of explaining. From a user perspective its like Reddit for permanently aggrieved matriarchs who feel that just because they've given birth, they're entitled to vent collectively on subjects ranging from foreign policy through to school dinners. People post about everything from their partner's sexual preferences (I think he'd prefer someone who wasn't spending every waking moment gossiping over a digital hedge about his lack of enthusiasm in the bedroom since she's had a kid and started spending 5 hours a day talking about their sex-life in online forums), their children's problems at school (If little Barry isn't being bullied yet, he certainly will be when they realise his mum posts as ParanoidNutcase1990), and what they're having for dinner (you're ordering from a takeaway... your dinner has burnt whilst you've been online!).

As you know, dear reader, I joined mumsnet as a way to have some kind of voice... not for the prissy, slightly cowed metro-dad who gives a damn about what the world thinks, but for the type of dad who's aim in life is his son's happiness... after I started posting on mumsnet I lasted about a month until I got a rather snooty email and a ban (interestingly, mumsnet is a digital security nightmare, it would be possible to bot-spam the place into submission as random email addresses can be used to register with no further checking). So what were my crimes? Well, I managed to upset people... I'm not really that sorry, so I'll tell you what I said, to who, albeit with comical overtones:

Little Mz Breadline
"I'm so poor, my son's father had to buy him a coat!"
"I buy all my kid's coats, what's so bad about that?"
"I'm a single mother {sniff}"
"Yes, but not the Virgin Mary... it's still normal for dad's to buy coats... get over it.
Trying to conceive
"I really want to conceive, but my husband hasn't agreed to do the deed again"
"When you asked, were you (a) fully clothed and staring at the computer? or (b) naked and staring at his crotch? Because if it's (a) then his reasons for refusing are the same ones you give for refusing to perform fellatio during match of the day!"
The Management
"We read your blog."
"That's nice... didn't you do that months ago, before approving me?
"Not really, blog approval is all about metrics, so we'd approve anything that contained enough uses of the word "child" "parent" and "hormones" initially. The thing is, we've had a couple of complaints, and we don't think it's right that you're part of the mumsnet community?
"Any particular reason? Is it my lack of self-pity and sense of entitlement? Or perhaps I haven't clicked enough revenue generating ads?"
"Well... both!"

So there we have it, a parting of the ways. Mumsnet will always be sadly ironic... they've decided that they're going to protest against the bounty packs being given out in hospitals, whilst simultaneously attempting to monopolise the online and spending patterns of thousands of parents who "just want the best for their child". They host content generated by a variety of less than child- or liver-friendly product promotions (at the moment it's Gin!) following a marketing strategy devised by the nice people at EngageSciences who explain exactly how mumsnet work in a clever little flowchart on their website entitled "Social Marketing's Secret Sauce". Mumsnet are not an advocacy group, they're not a parenting club, they're not a social conscience. They're an ingenious way to turn slightly vulnerable mothers into readily profiled fish in a barrel for marketers to exploit, and by targeting bounty, they're not helping mums, they're eliminating the competition.

DAD

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Creating space for kids

I'm sure that plenty of touchy-feely readers have dialled into this expecting me to harp on about kids emotional well-being, so we may as well get the disappointment out of the way early. I grew up in a house where we were briefed on the rules and rights in much the same way that Tom Hanks informed his co-star in Turner and Hooch "this is not your room". Emotional space is a by-product of physical space which is why it was important that Harry Potter got out of the under-stairs cupboard in time for discovering girls and hormones (not to mention his magic wand). As I have also been informed that I can't just sling a hammock under the stairs for my little child (which is a shame, as I'd already gone to the trouble of carpeting the space) I'm busy transforming the house into a child friendly area, complete with his own bedroom. My order of play is safety, then function, then aesthetics. Like most parents I'm working to a budget and many of the things I want to do I think about very carefully.

The next project is the design and installation of a bedroom for the boy. This is going to be quite the undertaking, not least because the people we brought the house from were the type to hide rather than fix their D.I.Y. mistakes.

Here's my game plan for doing the room:

Start from Scratch
The first thing you'll want to do when planning a child's room is to strip everything right back to blank walls. This will give you a clear idea of what you've got to work with. For us this means ripping out some rather crude fitted wardrobes (then replacing a missing floorboard one of them was hiding!). Next the room will be repainted and carpeted. Then I'll be kneeling down and looking at the room from that height as anything I put in place is for the benefit of someone much shorter. This means that any shelves or cupboards up high are going to be out of reach of the child, and his desk and bed need to be scaled in some way. I'm thinking about light, warmth and comfort and the bed is going opposite the window towards the centre of the house (where he'll have good views, but fairly static temperatures). I have tried to place everything round the walls as it leaves an area of carpet free for play and my son's favourite headless chicken impersonation. To avoid a14 year old being marooned in a Buzz Lightyear bed, children's furniture is going to be neutral so that he can exert his own personality with changeable posters, stickers and bedding. I am building him a cabin bed and ladder, because I always wanted one as a kid, and I'm making the assumption that his friends will find it cool too.
Think of the future
I hinted at this above. Your baby will not be a baby forever, and their teenage self may not appreciate living in a room that reflects their infantile love of comedy sheep. Avoid incorporating anything into the fabric of the room that will require a complete gut and refit in future. You may not have the time to do that kind of work and some kids change their preferences very quickly. My preference is for plain painted walls and good quality wooden furniture, with as much made in house as possible.
Know your limits
My dad is capable of building a table out of some old stuff he found in a skip, some spare wood and a couple of hours work. He's got tools for everything and knows how to use them. Importantly, from my perspective, he's giving me a helping hand doing some of the larger jobs round the house. Without these skills (and the extra pair of hands) some of my more ambitious plans would have to be reined in, rather than risk creating something that at best is ugly and at worst is unsafe. Do not try to do anything that is beyond the capabilities of your body (e.g. heavy lifting) or skill-set when there are perfectly reasonable alternatives. You can usually achieve a good balance between your ideas and affordable high street offerings to avoid the 3 year long apprenticeship in joinery you'd follow before successfully crafting your first set of drawers.

There are other projects ongoing. A leaky radiator needs fixing, and a new extension will be built, and then, hopefully, we can have another addition to the family (probably a dog!). That's all for now, feel free to comment on your experiences of DIY for kids below. I'll follow up with a photo-timeline once I've finished.

DAD

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Guest-star

I’ve just written a guest post at kiddycharts. So if you’re missing your blog fix head on over there.

Kiddycharts is run by Helen Neale and I think she might be onto something... when we were kids the dog would sometimes manage to get fed twice buy pulling a hungry face at whoever was late home after she’d licked her bowl clean. Kids are even more devious so having some way to keep score whilst you’re focused on the rest of your life is massively important if you don’t want to be conned by your own kids, just remember to keep the stickers up high.

DAD

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Prerogative

In the eyes of his mother, there are times when the boy is "my child" (most recently when he defecated with such force that it exuded from the sides and back of his nappy, and then tried to eat the new paste-like substance he found in his inflatable toy-pit), and there are other times when my wife insists that he's "her son", normally when he's doing something nondescript like sleeping peacefully. The baby can also have his descriptor altered in a subversive and manipulative manner.

Sometimes it's "my baby needs me" when avoiding a tricky conversation (yes, he might want a little attention, but as we're not American and our kids don't have guns, a yes/no question could be answered before dashing to rescue him from his own imagination. I've also heard "your son has given me a headache", which sounds good in principle, but if my contribution to his DNA really did causing headaches of that magnitude, he'd never have been conceived. Women do this on autopilot, and some get very aggressive with their willingness to use the possessive to apportion blame(ask any witness (divorce lawyer), or perpetrator (a single mother who's discovered feminism thanks to the aforementioned donation of DNA).

Men aren't hard-wired for this form of psychological warfare, and are rarely comfortable with alternately describing a child (or pregnancy) as something that's been imposed on a woman against her will, or that she's uniquely qualified to deal with by dint of her anatomy (interestingly, once the child's born, they can only claim to be uniquely qualified if they're breast feeding, but I wouldn't suggest pointing that out to anyone face to face). I am genuinely in love with my wife, and think the kid's amazing, and that actually makes it more difficult to play the game of prerogative that women want to play. After much more than a year (counting pregnancy and the life of the child) here's the tricks I've learnt that might help redress the balance.

When you feel you're about to be blamed for a particularly horrendous infantile act, pre-empt and take credit with a hearty "that's my boy/girl". The mother will then be left with only a rueful smile as she can't blame you when you're "acknowledging and accounting" for your fault. Similarly, when the baby is doing something nice, pre-empt with something along the lines of "I knew your child would be peaceful/cute/happy" or (and we're moving onto underwater-ninja-pistol level skills here lads) "they look just like you when they're peaceful... it reminds me of when we first started spending time together and I'd watch you sleep." This will earn you mega-points as you are paying an indirect compliment, it also saves you having to listen to a similar comment being made in that whiny tone that flays your masculinity from your bones!

Verbally I've always struggled to find the right balance in situations. Whilst my wife was pregnant she had her toe-nails painted and claimed that it was "the only thing she'd done for herself in ages".

My repost was perfectly logical and funny to everyone in the room except for my wife (I'm sure that "my baby" was sniggering away in utero and I found it hilarious); I said "Well, that was a waste of time, you can't see your toes any more!"

She burst into tears, and in that moment I had an instant of pure zen... it was like being in The Matrix: I'd known for a while that she wanted a girl (I'd also seen the ultrasound images and my family history, and knew that it wasn't likely) so I said "don't be upset, you'll worry our daughter". I'd never referred to him as a girl before or since, so the response was instant smiles, happiness and hugs all round (the end justifies the means). Rather than pour more oil on the fire, I wont tell you how much more post-baby sex you'll get if you start hinting that "next time we'll have a boy/girl [delete as applicable)" {oops}.

So there we have it men, your briefing on how to turn prerogative and gender in your favour. I'm feminist authors everywhere will be outraged that I'd encourage you to be so calculating, but the alternative really is pretty grim, and as an aside to all the women out there who are about to get enraged, read it through again, slowly, and ask yourself "would it help and make me feel better?" before starting to harangue.


DAD

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Salt pillars

Life is full of dilemmas. I don't mean the choice between two evils we get taught about in school, but the binary choices we make that have exclusive outcomes. For example, it's possible to travel to London or Edinburgh for the weekend and both are nice places, but you can't be in two places at the same time.

One of my favourite poems touches on this theme perfectly, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The step into parenthood is like this, it's a road that you can walk down where there's no going back. It's why people who loose their kids to tragedy take on a listless, broken quality, because the ground really has opened up right under them. Most of us will never have to suffer like that, but should still be mindful that there is no going back, after all who wants to become a pillar of salt (occasionally the theology degree comes back to haunt me!). My past of derring-do and colourful adventures becomes the stories that will entertain and inspire Harris.

I've seen snow in a desert, flown a fighter jet, been awarded a medal, won a knife fight (there was one knife, and the other guy had it to start with), saved a couple of lives, and perhaps most importantly, been willing time and time again to travel to far away places with only my somewhat distended baggage allowance (I travelled often enough to perfect a wardrobe that gave me an extra 30kg!) for extended periods of time to face the unknown or, in the case of some former students, the unknowledgeable which in a strange way is far more challenging). Honestly, being a dad is so much better and I wouldn't go back even if I could. After all, as someone who's always tried to live like an action hero, this is my chance to train a sidekick.


DAD

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Words and Lyrics

We have a CD of children’s songs and nursery rhymes. It is musical saccharin, with happy, bouncy tones and in many ways is ideal for playing to a child during a game of musical chairs, as it’s been hacked to death enough by the producers and musicians that its musical quality is hardly dented by repeated stop-starts. I detest what the production company has decided to do to traditional lyrics – the black sheep has become a woolly sheep and the drunken sailor has become the jolly pirate.

Let’s consider What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor as a telling case of the misguided assumptions made by adults that take exception to the traditional lyrics and impose a new-speak devoid of cultural or historical significance for children. Basking in their own lack of lyrical and practical knowledge, they believe that removing the reference to alcohol somehow stops kids thinking about beer. If they’re wrong, as I believe, then they are just wasting their time and lessening the song, but if they’re actually right, and songs are able to influence behaviour then the drunken sailor song is actually quite a strong anti-drinking message. The traditional lyrics document a wide variety of punishments including keel-hauling, a naval punishment whereby a rope is attached at one end to the bound feet of a miscreant, and at the other to his hands, the salient detail being that in the rope then forms a loop running across the deck, down one side of the boat, under the boat (and water) and up the other side. To keel-haul and individual the rest of the crew would pull on this rope so that the bound individual completes a lap of the boat. As a communal punishment, keel hauling is unique in that there is almost no way for the administrators of the punishment to be “nice”, pull too slowly and they drown their mate, pull a little harder and they grate his supine form across the barnacles encrusting the bottom of the boat &nadash; as any rescue diver will tell you, such an injury is almost certain to get infected. All in all I think you'll agree this is hardly an advertisement for drinking!

I have a sneaking suspicion that Baa Baa Black Sheep may be being re-branded because of some vague sense that the word “black” may be in and of itself racist. This is a rather stupid assumption on their part. When filling out passport application forms we are told to“use a black pen”, because pens, like sheep (and indeed the wool they produce) come in a variety of colours including black. Countless government offices, employment agencies and other lovers of easily scanned filled in forms all instruct us to “use a black pen”, they don’t sidle round it by saying “use the darkest pen you can find, nothing too gothic but darker than blue” and I feel we should have the same faculty to describe sheep in song.

The other reason this bugs me of course is that “woolly” sheep sounds like such a weak cop-out when presented with a musical educational opportunity. If we really want to go for it we could mix and match animals and cooking techniques so that kids are still learning something (I’ve composed two examples below):

Recipes with Duck
QuackQuack Cooking Duck
are you nearly done?
Yes Sir, Yes Sir, lunch at half past one.
Breast meat with orange sauce,
A leg in cassoulet,
The other we'll have tonight, in Chinese takeaway!

(this only works if you pronounce cassoulet as a French word (kas-ou-lay)

The Tesco Horsemeat Song
Clip Clop Lonely Horse
Have your friends all gone?
Yes Sir, Yes Sir, round here there are none.
One's gone to Tesco,
he is in a pie,
Yet they tell you all it's beef, keeping prices high!

That's all for now. If anyone knows a production company that wants to put children's songs with teeth and educational value on a CD have them drop me a line

DAD

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

"Normal"

Ask yourself, "what is normal?" Answers to this question span the entire gamut of human experience, because my "normal" is me and your normal is "you". That could of course make us destined for a violent and untimely clash (if your "normal" is Jihad, paedophilia or "peanut and jelly sandwiches" [peanut and jelly sandwiches are something the culinary world wishes it could uninvent, putting it right up there with VX gas].

In a similar vein I have a friend who's a police officer. We spend a couple of hours a week talking and spending time with each other. He says it normalises him, as he spends so much of his waking life dealing with individuals whose tail-spin lives damage those around them in a vortex of aggression, violence and crime. His working life is completely different to mine (next week I'm attending training in Paris with mild mannered boffins whilst he'll be kicking down doors and taking names) and it strikes me that what we see as normal profoundly effects our path through life.

Take something really simple, like home ownership. Before the kid came along I lived mostly out of suitcases in a variety of overseas jobs. Within 8 months (he was early!) I'd returned to the UK, purchased a house and established myself. I see it as normal that kids grow up in a house that belongs to the parents, rather than having some vaguely Freudian landlord looming in the distance. I do this because it's exactly what my parents did, and therefore is normal and "makes sense". The effect will probably be that in 25-30 years when my grandchildren are on the way, my son will see the same thing as "normal". The world our children know as they grow up shapes them fundamentally (which is why religious indoctrination of the young can be so very wrong as the wife-beating nutter in the semtex vest probably thinks he's normal too). I feel that having the security of a family owned house makes an individual slightly less deferential, and slightly more ambitious. With these observations in mind, what can we do to establish a good kind of normal for our kids so that they demand and receive a successful future?

Comparing their present status with their future is a valuable exercise whenever you have a choice to make. Let's consider school meals:
Plated service
All the kids sit in their place, and food is brought to their table. There is either plated service, or part-plated service (i.e. they help themselves to vegetables from tureens in the centre of the table). This isn't just for private schools. The state run primary school I attended served meals in this way, and several of the local government-funded schools still do this. I eat like that when "client facing", and when sitting in the officer's mess.
Buffet Service
The kids line up for their meals, and balance plates, cutlery and bread rolls on a tray. They have some power to choose what goes on their plate, but in exchange do their own leg-work. This accurately reflects the factory floor, most office work and the cuisine offered to enlisted men. Societally this is quite normal.
Trays with slots
If the kid's school has those special trays with moulded slots for the different components of the meal, served by a slightly moustachioed woman of indiscriminate age, then your children are role playing prison every lunch-time. It's time to consider home-schooling, or a shank.

Of course, it is possible to become too obsessed by all this, and speaking as a parent who likes his kid to have variegated friends and slightly inappropriate hobbies (canal swimming and practical jokes anyone?), too far is currently represented by Katie Hopkins who comes across as slightly neurotic and definitely snobbish. I'm not overly bothered with micromanaging my son's life in terms of the friends he has or the homework he does (provided he passes the test). Instead I feel that the biggest dose of "normal" he should absorb is that happiness is a given. Hopefully he'll be as comfortable sleeping in a 5* hotel as under a hedge, and as compelling in the boardroom as in the comedy club, just like his dad.

DAD