Tuesday, 22 May 2012

20 Rules: The Important Stuff I Want My Kids To Know.

On Sunday, when Helen was at work, Lulu, Sorrel, and I were hanging about the house. I was reading in a desultory manner and they were playing one of those elaborate games that kids play that seem to consist more of them explaining the scenario and rules to each other than actual play. Often these games break down when a dispute arises over who's going to be which imaginary character or whether there's a baby in the game or not.

On this occasion, however, they just segued into being silly. Sorrel has a nice line in surreal humour and a gift for the ridiculous bon mot. Lulu's humour is more character based. She does accents and impressions. On this occasion she was Prince Charles trying to sell some plaice to Sorrel's imaginary friend Scravvels (who's a ladybird). You had to be there. We all ended up - well I did - with tears streaming down our faces from laughing so much.

When we'd calmed down there was a brief rare moment of stillness when we were all sat together on the sofa.

"Listen," I said, "I want you to remember this. And I want you to remember what I'm about to say because it's important."

They looked at me with big serious eyes. One pair palest of pale blue, the other golden-green.

"Never forget how to be silly," I said, "It's a rule I want you to try and stick to."

I don't know if they'll remember or, indeed, if they took me seriously at all. But it set me thinking about the rules for living that I'd like them to abide by.

I've been mulling them over but they weren't hard to to write down. So, here they are, in no particular order, 20 rules for living. The sum total of my accumulated wisdom.

1. Be kind

2. Violence is to be abhorred. If you are forced to use it by circumstances beyond your control make sure you win.

3. Boys are NOT more important or better than girls in anything. The boys who don't know this are not worth bothering with.

4. Never forget how to be silly. It doesn't do to take yourself too seriously.

5. You're lovely. Make sure you believe it and understand why. It's a lot easier to like others if you like yourself.

6. Try to remember for later what it was like to be you, now.

7. Always carry a handkerchief and a penknife.

8. Try to see yourself from the point of view of others. If you find you act like an arse make adjustments.

9. Don't be cynical. It's lazy.

10. Like everyone but be careful who you trust.

11. Don't bother hating people. Why expend the energy on them?

12. Don't lie. There's less to remember if you stick to the truth.

13. Don't waste time moaning about stuff you can't affect. Do something about the stuff you can change. There's more of the latter than you think.

14. Forgive. But don't necessarily forget.

15. Be brave. Be loyal. Be fair.

16. Never stop learning.

17. Never stop playing.

18. Treat everyone with respect. Earn it back.

19. Most things are more important than money. Nothing is more important than love.

20. Don't be disappointed by people. You're an arsehole too sometimes.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Bathtimes of Despair

All the books and articles you read about parenthood tell you that you should treasure every moment because it will pass so quickly. Or they describe with glum pleasure the horrors of sleep deprivation and having no social life. Neither of these views is realistic of course. Most people find it to be a generally agreeable experience with interludes of hilarious delight or utter despair.

Me, I'm prone to despair. I have a depressive streak running through me like the writing in a stick of rock. If you snapped me in half - something, on occasions, I might beg you to do - it would read, "kill me quick." I try, however, be a good, funny, attentive and kind Dad but on occasions my alter ego - a character I like to refer to as Flashpoint Charlie emerges, raging. Bedtime is one of the occasions that he appears.

Tired children, at the end of a long day, just need to be fed, bathed and poured into bed. 


Well actually, no. For inexplicable reasons the feeding and bathing seems to revive them to a state so far past awake that you couldn't see awake if you looked at where it used to be through the Hubble space telescope. A state akin to passing a low electric current through a box of bees. It is when they are in this state - when, conversely, I am very tired and grumpy - that they like to hide. 

Let's get something straight: they're shit at hiding. Mostly they hide under the bed covers...or the bed itself and then giggle loudly and uncontrollably. As I write this it all sounds rather sweet and endearing. But it's not. all I want to do is to have calm children who will consent to have their teeth brushed and then settle down to have some stories read to them. What I get is a squirming, uncooperative mess of girl limbs that is incapable of doing what it's told. 

The blue touchpaper is lit for me by hearing them whisper, "Hide!" conspiratorially to each other. Sometimes they try to hide when they are in the bath. Mind you I once overheard them playing hide and seek together whilst in the bath so, for them, anything is possible. 

This is often the point at which Flashpoint Charlie emerges incoherent with exasperation. His hallmark parenting technique is a sort of passive/aggressive rage that teaches the kids nothing except that it's OK to shout and that their Dad's a prat. 

However, on most occasions I try to keep Charlie in check. I do this by a following a series of rituals that I have evolved over several years. 

The first is making them jump. 

By a happy accident our house is constructed in such a way that the bathroom comes off a small landing just at the top of the stairs. This gives it a higher ceiling than all the other upstairs rooms so that the cold water tank can be accommodated. It also means that you can climb the stairs without being seen and then, if you lie down on your stomach on the landing you can wriggle into the bathroom undetected by the person or persons in the bath. This enables you to either spring up like a jack-in-the-box or pretend to have climbed up as though the bath were perched atop a high pinnacle...and to fall down again.

Once in the bathroom we can engage in a game of "Buttons, Butterflies or Bees" in which I adopt the persona of a homely Lancastrian woman who is uncommonly interested in their preferences from the short and bizarre series of choices she offers them. "So, loveys, which do you like best: hay, straw...or fish? Hands, feet...or spam?"

Finally, it's time to get out of the bath. They hate this and will do almost anything to prolong bathtime. Even when the water has gone cold. For months this was a major flashpoint that would end in tantrums and hysterics on their part and shouting on mine. 

Once, with an utterly appalling lack of judgment and at a point of deep despair I said to them, "If you don't get out of the bath right now.....I'll die!" It felt to me as though it would be a blessed relief - at least I'd get to lie down somewhere quiet. To her great credit Lulu retorted, in a tone that was terrifyingly reminiscent of her mother, " Don't be ridiculous. You're not going to die if we don't get out of the bath!" I was forced to concede that it was ridiculous and, thankfully, normal service was restored.

Shortly after that I hit on a discovery. If I could get them to stand up I could simply lift them out of the bath, wrap them in their towels and no fuss would be made. I tried a variety of means to trick them onto their feet until I found one that worked. It required a bit of training and some occasional elaboration but it still serves nearly 18 months after I invented it. 

What I do is this. Whilst they are in the bath I usually sit on the toilet lid and chat to them. When I think they've been in for long enough, I spring to my feet and shout, " I AM SPARTACUS!" Whereupon they spring to their feet and shout, "NO! I'M SPARTACUS!" and I lift them out of the bath. 


Of course what wasn't simple was explaining slavery and the slave revolt to a four year old and a six year old. But that's for another time.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

I've got a bike you can ride it if you like...

Here's the news: two weeks ago Lulu learnt to ride a bike. It's a milestone in any child's life and ranks alongside first words, first steps and learning to read as one of the key achievements of childhood.

It's been a bit of a long haul to be honest. Both Helen and I use bikes to get about all the time. But Lulu, despite showing early promise, has been a reluctant cyclist.

She started well. We got her a balance bike when she was two. It was a wooden two-wheeled affair that looked like a it had been bike-jacked from a midget Victorian gentleman flower-seller. She loved her balance bike and would race off on it lifting both feet off the ground to coast on two wheels down startlingly steep hills.

When she was three we bought her a proper bike. The advice was, given her excellent use of the balance bike, to not bother with stabilisers because she'd not want or need them.

People who say things like this don't have children. Well, they don't have my children anyway. Lulu is susceptible to peer pressure and at the time time of the arrival of her lovely new pink bike she had a best friend who lived a few doors down who did have stabilisers. So she insisted on having them too.

Of course the friend did away with hers about 6 weeks later whilst Lulu found the weird jolting, rocking experience delivered by stabilisers utterly terrifying and became convinced that if she stopped using them she would FALL OFF. Which, clearly, would hurt.

The upshot was that from the age of three to the age of seven she could barely sit on a bike without weeping fearfully, mourning in advance all the skin that she would scrape off when I allowed the bike to VICIOUSLY THROW HER TO THE TARMAC.

We came to the stage where she would set up a lose/lose conversation that went along these lines:
She: (tearfully) Everyone in my class at school can ride a bike except me!
Me: (Really gently) Well why don't you learn? I'll help you.
She: (appalled and angry) NO! I HATE MY BIKE!! BIKES ARE STUPID!!
She: everyone in my class can ride a bike except me....

At which point I would beat myself insensible with a track pump.

Finally Helen took it upon herself to teach her. In a display of patience that convinced me that she must have been self medicating with powerful tranquillisers she cajoled and coaxed our daughter back into the saddle. And eventually, a little at a time she managed to get Lulu to cycle a few yards by herself.

I joined in and we got her to cycle between the two of us steadily increasing the distance.

We made no fuss about it and didn't scold when the session might last only a few minutes.

Then, one day, I suggested that we took the bike to the park. She agreed but insisted that I had to wheel it all the way there. We arrived and she managed a few small trips between Helen and me as before.

"Why don't you try going a bit further," I said. "I'll run alongside you just in case."

So I started off holding onto the back of her seat for a few yards and then I let go. I ran alongside her. "You're doing it," I told her, "You're doing really well."

She rode for 10 seconds. 15 and then 20 seconds. And then after half a minute she put the brakes on, coasted gracefully to a halt, dismounted, let the bike fall to the floor.

"That was really weird," she declared firmly. "I am NOT doing THAT again."

She has not ridden since.