Sunday, 14 January 2018

Second child syndrome

In the past week Toby has eaten pizza, oven chips and cake.  A couple of weeks ago he had custard.  A little time before that he had a jar of baby food despite us never having given Henry anything (until completely weaned) that we had not prepared ourselves from scratch.

My mother-in-law told me often when we were controlling what Henry ate "it's so much harder with the next one, they see what their older sibling is eating and they want it".

Oooo...it pisses me off when she is right.

Toby will now sit in his highchair like some toothless despot screaming at us if we have the temerity to have something on our plate that he does not also have smeared across his tray.  Tonight's source of fury?

Some lettuce.  Lettuce!

So I tore a leaf off and threw it at him.  Perhaps with more force than was strictly necessary but luckily it was only lettuce.  Good job I wasn't eating a baked potato.  Or a pie.  Or the plate.

Once dinner was finished, and we had completed the ritual of letting him mash whatever is in his bowl into a pulp, then spoon whatever we can scrape from between his fingers/down the side of his chair/off the carpet into his mouth because he has now realised he is hungry and cannot actually feed himself, I had some cake.

ROAR!

(which I believe is baby-speak for "excuse me, father, would you be so kind as to share a morsel of that simply delicious looking baked delicacy that you appear to be consuming with some gusto?")

It was some homemade banana and chocolate loaf that had been made by Em.  Henry did not have chocolate until his first birthday.  So I picked out all the visible chunks of chocolate and lobbed a mouthful of cake at him.  Again, perhaps with a little more enthusiasm that many would have deemed necessary but I was enjoying it and had been looking forward to finishing it!

There really is a difference in what becomes acceptable for the second child.  Toby has been exposed to television (we didn't even own one until Henry was two), to some questionable dietary choices (I still feel a bit guilty about the pizza), to hand-me-downs, to Henry (a thoroughly adoring but somewhat exuberant big brother) and to loud music (he now regularly falls asleep in the middle of our bed to whichever awful pop-playlist Em is tidying up to).

I do wonder if we are going to make it until May before we sell our souls completely and stick him in a chocolate fountain.  And whether or not I should just stick some whisky in his beaker and get a good night's sleep.

Friday, 12 January 2018

A Christmas tail

I came to the realisation this year that I think the Christmas tail was now wagging the dog.  I no longer feel in control of Christmas.  Budgeting is a dim and distant memory; not it is an orgy of excess and some 'responsibility-driven' purchasing.

"Oh we must buy for Aunt Fanny because she will get something for us."

No, no, no, NO!!!

This has to stop and I have made it my resolution this year to not be controlled by the feeling that we need to buy for others.

We have a set of friends that we have an annual Christmas tradition of going on one of the steam trains to see Father Christmas.  I would much rather have an agreement with my friends to do no presents, but instead to create a memory, have an experience.

I have begun to talk about this with some of our friends and so far received universal agreement.  Children seem to get overwhelmed by all the presents they receive these days, and the day can become about opening presents rather than the gift itself.  It takes a lot of work as a parent to restrain a child's exuberance and connect them with the fact somebody has taken the time to get them something.

Inevitably, and through nothing but the best of intentions from friends and family, you are left with a pile of gifts that are not wanted.  Appreciated but not wanted.  They might not fit, or might not last, or simply might not be to somebody's taste.  There is no criticism it is just the way of the world.  I do not want any of my friends to feel they have wasted their money, in the same way that I do not want them feeling like they have to make use of whatever it is we have got them or their children.

So next year I am hoping for a slimmed down Christmas.  It is a cliche but one that I think is particularly important to hold on to:

Rather than presents from people, I want their presence in creating memories together.

Henry will have fewer presents, but hopefully will be able to appreciate them more.  I certainly do not want his idea of Christmas to be one that is represented by a sea of presents.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Article for The Green Parent competition

Picture the scene.

A father is carrying a screaming child who he has wrapped up in front of him from one end of the garden of a busy tourist attraction to the car park. It is a distance of no more than two hundred metres. It feels much further to the father.  The child, who you might guess to be around the age of four, is crying out that the father is hurting him, despite it appearing, at least to the casual observer, to be a firm but non-restrictive hold.

Some older passers-by wince, who knows whether it is from empathy or judgement of the father’s inability to control the child. The younger ones wonder whether filming this would get some hits on social media.

"That would never be our child" thinks one father.  "Oh...wait.  This is my child.  I am that parent.  Bugger."

I thought we had some tantrums during the terrible twos and threes and I had begun to parent with a certain air of smugness. Parenting is easy when you just focus on the good stuff and make it fun. I used to make comments like the following regularly:

"Yeah, he's had some tantrums, but nothing too bad."

Smug sod.  I hate past-me.

Henry has, at times, very clearly demonstrated to my wife and I that we are not in control and we are nothing like as good at this parenting thing as we thought we were.  He has put on some real barnstormers for us. On two occasions I have worried that the incident might end in a rotating head and a room decorated in a lovely shade of pea soup. There is a Richter scale for earthquakes, I would like to propose the Sullivan scale for tantrums.

1 – a sulky look
2 – a stamp of the foot; sometimes accompanied by a huffy breath
3 – a flushed face, anything close by likely to be thrown; generally, a vocal rejection of whatever is being asked of the child. If in public, those within earshot are likely to look.
4 – a red face which is directly proportional to how big the ensuing explosion will be; frequently, characterised by the statement “I hate you”; tremors continue to be felt for up to two hours afterwards. If in public, some people are likely to comment, or tut loudly.
5 – it is time to find a bunker and look to the sky for four horsemen as the Apocalypse has arrived and I wish you luck. Hopefully, your will is up to date.

And here is the really difficult part to accept as a parent.  No matter how patient you might be, how good your distractions might be, how much you ignore the bad and how focussed you are on the good – children are little people. Who get tired.  And they cannot be controlled.

You cannot control anyone, you can only control yourself and how you react to others.  You can attempt to create conditions that give the illusion of control, but really all you are hoping and praying for is that the child makes the choice that you want.  And in this period of development, sometimes, he or she just thinks:

"To hell with what you want.  I am an individual!  A small, tired, incredibly vocal individual!  Hear me roar!"

And all that is left for you as a parent is to weather the storm and pick up the sobbing pieces afterwards.  Because once the storm has blown itself out you are left with a very vulnerable, upset little child that does not really understand what just happened and needs reassurance that everything is ok in the world.  This is parenting. I do not believe there is any answer in a pill, gadget or supplement. If anything modern life has blurred our understanding of these difficulties and confused our instincts. Parenting is an ongoing balancing act between the needs and expectations of the both of you. As an adult, I believe, it completely exposes what is at the core of who you are as a person. That core is not immutable but little will change if you are not aware of how it influences your every decision.

I was fortunate to attend a mindfulness course a couple of years ago. It was not about parenting; it was about me. At the time I was going through a particularly dark patch. My son had been born months after my father died and I never really got the chance to grieve. Unfortunately, I did not know how to cope differently and I buried the sorrow. Instead, to the best of my ability at the time, I prioritised my new family unit in its infancy. It was hard, so very hard. I had been close to my dad and now as I was taking my first steps on my fatherhood journey I did not have the man I would have turned to talk about my worries and joys. Mindfulness opened a door for me to greater insight and reflection. It did not make things better there and then, but it did make me stop and take note of how I was feeling, where I was in the moment. Who I was. I realised that as my son was getting taller, my patience was getting shorter. Our relationship was souring but there was only one person I could hold accountable.

I look back on those first few years of parenting and I believe I coped relatively well. For the most part, we are all trying to do the best we can with the resources, both internal and external, that we have available. What has struck me is how easy it is to begin to blame the external world for your internal issues. I had had always had a great relationship with my son but it had begun to sour. He was not as happy as he had been and we were getting caught in cycles of tantrums and sanctions. Until this point I had blamed others for my low mood, for being short-tempered and cutting with my remarks, but I could not blame him. I am a firm believer that children are mostly the products of their experiences, with parents mostly in control of those experiences. This led me to the realisation that I could not blame him for the state of our relationship, only myself.

The most important lesson I took from mindfulness and this time of my life was this:

Parent – know thyself.

A simple proposition but one that is so very difficult in practice yet could not be more important.  Acknowledging we are human is not something we do often enough as parents. I am very lucky to have my wife, close family and friends, some of whom have children of a similar age that we can share stories with, offload and seek advice without fear of judgement.  I dread to think what it would be like without them and I appreciate them every day.


Without these people around me it would be so easy to get caught in a vicious cycle with my sons (a second has recently arrived) where we feed each other's frustration.  I strive to remember that I have the power in our relationship, despite how powerless he is able to make me feel. The trick to parenting, I believe, is to secure their world and put aside, for the moment, everything that may have been triggered in you. The lack of control, the frustration, the guilt and, I will admit it, the anger. Once you can acknowledge that those come from within, you can get back to being what your child needs you to be: the filter through which they come to experience and understand the world. Most importantly you will show them what experiencing those emotions means, and how they can manage them. When it goes wrong (because it will – you’re human!) there is space in my bunker, I’ll pour you a drink.

Friday, 4 November 2016

A tiny announcement...grape sized.

Number 2 is on its way!

The wife and I had our 12 week scan last Friday and thus we can announce to the world the hopeful May arrival.  We were feeling like life had gotten a bit stale since reliably getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night and thought we'd mix it up a bit.

Henry, as expected, has been amazing.  He is delighted at the prospect of being a big brother and has predicted he is going to have a baby sister.  Since finding out he has spoken to and kissed the baby every day.  Heart-meltingly adorable!  He even took a scan photo into school today to show his class.  We could not be prouder of him and we are absolutely sure he will make an awesome big brother.

Which is good, because I have no idea how we are going to cope parenting two children.  One is exhausting!

Monday, 26 September 2016

Homework?!

Phew!  Got in less than a year since my last post!

Which is a real shame on Henry, as it has been an awesome few years but it is very difficult to prioritise this as four-year olds are exhausting.  Really exhausting.  Parenting is considerably harder work than I ever realised it would be.

The big recent change is my awesome boy has started school now.  All grown up!  We are very lucky and he skips happily into his class each morning without a backward glance, but does give his adult (whoever opens the door that morning) a big smile.  He has also come back with positive reports every evening so all in all we are delighted with him.

But here's the rub.

At the end of his first full week in school he has been set homework.  And something in me wants to scream and shout about this being ridiculous and a sign of how our education system has drifted from things that matter!  Four year olds should not be getting homework - they should be getting memories and play and attention, not phonics and writing.  It doesn't happen in [insert name of probably Scandinavian country] and the children there are happier than Charlie after he finds the golden ticket.

But before I do all that shouting I have taken a couple of breaths and attempted to think about this rationally.

He has not actually been asked to do anything that I would not want to be doing anyway.  A bit of practising his letters and some reading with a loose notion of him identifying any letter sounds that he knows.  Nothing too onerous and the kinds of things I'd want to do for him.

(A brief interlude - I am a huge fan of phonics.  All the reading research shows us this the best possible way to help children learn to read, provided it is offered within the context of adults continuing to read to children, develop their vocabulary and a high level of verbal interaction.  If those things are in place you cannot go wrong with phonics.  If they are not, there are probably bigger concerns)

So it got me to thinking about how fortunate Henry is in comparison to other kids.  A relatively stable home, with two parents who both work but are fortunate that one is only part time so he does not need to do breakfast or after school clubs.  A nice house in a nice area.  Plenty of food (perhaps too much for me). People who want to spend time with him and do not believe that much is learnt through computer games or television programmes.  So many children do not have this and I wonder if schools think that they need to compensate for this and do so by instructing parents how to provide an environment that supports their efforts.

Sadly, my visceral reaction to this would suggest that the approach is not necessarily the best one.  I think a number of teachers and schools could learn by adopting the policy of Brandy Young.  Homework has only been shown to support educational progress in a rather limited way, most of which is not supported by the kinds of homework that seem to get set.  Spending time together, sharing books, playing and getting to bed at a good time is all easier in a household that is not stressed from having to comply and feeling judged by your child's class teacher.

Unfortunately, for Henry I am British.  So I have grumbled to anybody who would listen about the pointlessness of the situation and then sat down with him and practised his writing after dinner and read his school book twice.  I don't want to be the parent that gets talked about in the staff room.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Tantrums and tears

Picture the scene.

A father is carrying a screaming child who he has wrapped up in front of him from one end of the gardens to the car park.  The child is crying out that the father is hurting him; it appears to be a firm but non-restrictive hold.

Some passers-by wince.

"That would never be our child" thinks a father.  "Ah...wait.  This is my child.  I am that parent.  Bugger."

I thought we had some tantrums during the terrible twos and I entered Henry's threes with a certain air of smugness.

"Yeah, he's had some tantrums, but nothing too bad."

Smug sod.  I hate past-me.

Henry has very clearly been demonstrating that we are not in control and we are nothing like as good at this parenting thing as we thought we were.  He has demonstrated some real barnstormers in the last two months.  On two occasions I have worried that the incident might end in pea soup.

And here is the really difficult part to accept as a parent.  No matter how patient you might be, how good your distractions might be, how much you ignore and how focussed you are on the good - three year olds get tired.  And they cannot be controlled.

Nobody can be controlled, except yourself.  You can attempt to create conditions that give the illusion of control, but really all you are hoping and praying for is that the child makes the choice you want to.  And in this period of development, sometimes, he or she just thinks:

"To hell with what you want.  I am an individual!  A small, tired, incredibly vocal individual!  Hear my roar!"

And all that is left for you as a parent is to weather the storm and pick up the sobbing pieces afterwards.  Because once the storm has blown itself out you are left with a very vulnerable, upset little boy that doesn't really understand what just happened and needs reassurance that everything is ok in the world.  It would be so easy to get caught in a vicious cycle where each other's frustration feeds and adds to the other's.  The trick to parenting is securing their world and putting aside, for the moment, everything that was triggered in you - the lack of control, the frustration, the guilt and, I will admit it, the anger, and get back to being what your little boy needs you to be.

It is so very difficult, but so very important.  Acknowledging we are human is not something we do often enough as parents.  Emily and I are very lucky to have each other, close family and friends with children of a similar age that we can share stories with, offload and seek advice without fear of judgement.  I dread to think what it would be like without them and I appreciate them every day.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Holiday?!

Oh my!  Of all the activities you could choose to go on with a three year old, I am not sure camping for a holiday is a sensible one.

Holidays are generally considered to be periods of time where responsibility is lessened and those involved are able to relax and enjoy themselves.  Camping with a three year old does not tick these boxes.

My three year old is a particularly loud one, I believe.  He is also quite highly strung (see my previous post - I am not blaming him, I accept responsibility and this is merely an observation).  He is highly social - which makes him rather demanding of attention.

So when mummy and daddy take him and attempt to erect a tent and all the paraphernalia that will make the experience more comfortable and enjoyable it can be a quite considerable test.  Then there are the nights which are filled with very different sensory experiences as we attempt to settle him down.  The mornings, generally, begin earlier than usual (campers are early risers!) and my wife and I are not great at just 'going with it'.  We have friends that are superbly gifted at this and we admire and resent them in almost equal measures!

But, as with many things I am finding in my life, we do it because we think it will be good for Henry.  Campsite culture comes with a sense of freedom and independence, even for young children.  There is a deliberate move away from the technological distractions of modern family life (although I will admit Henry sat in the car playing a game on my wife's phone whilst we erected the tent - the previous camping trip he had walked around with a mallet 'fixing' the ground.  Our mallet has now broken).  We walked, we visited the beach.  We ate dinner on our laps and biscuits in bed.  We drank hot chocolate before bed.  We looked at stars.  I am already beginning to look back at it with more affection than I recall feeling at the time and while holidays remain as expensive as they do outside of term time (for example, see this article) camping is likely to be the forseeable future of holidaying for us. 

So I best get back to eBay to try to find that piece of equipment that does that thing that will make all of this easier.