Dear Dave

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Happy New Year

Dear Dave,

Those sound like some excellent resolutions. To get more sleep, drink less coffee and wear less vomit are, indeed, noble aims. Unfortunately, you have a fifteen-month-old.

Basically, you're stuffed.

Perhaps next year, eh?

As usual, I haven't come up with any resolutions myself. If something's worth doing, it's worth doing whatever the date. Thinking up things specially at New Year doesn't seem like a great idea. If I'm not inspired by a plan, then starting it in the depths of winter during the holiday chaos isn't exactly going to give it a large chance of success. Now is not the time to lose weight or attempt to be less snappy with the kids.

I suppose I did (totally coincidentally) think of something worth doing yesterday anyway. Not so much a New Year resolution as a Christmas Sale resolution. These aren't as common as New Year resolutions, admittedly, but I suspect they might catch on. Maybe not everyone's going to have a seasonal epiphany in the menswear department of Debenhams but, what with the confusion of crowds and deals and Credit Crunch uncertainty, I doubt that I was the only person at the shops who suddenly wondered what they were doing.

I wasn't buying clothes, obviously - that would have made twice in the past twelve months. (After my shopping trip at Easter, I shouldn't need to buy anything other than a few pairs of socks until Fraser is at secondary school.) Nope, I was browsing through the half-price toys that had spilled over from the department next door. There were licensed cuddly toys, simple board games, brightly coloured plastic steering wheels and a remote controlled helicopter.

The helicopter was vaguely tempting but it didn't have a price tag on it. Besides, Marie isn't quite old enough yet and the boys wouldn't be interested in it for more than a few minutes before sloping off to play the Wii. Doubtless those few minutes would contain a fair amount of fun but they'd also contain some arguing, quite a lot of frustrated bickering and a small explosion.

It didn't really seem worth it.

Then it struck me that none of the other items were of interest at all. This was a peculiar thought. Not so very long ago, I'd have rifled through the garish tat, hunting out educational bargains to set bleeping and flashing before my children in an effort to stimulate them. These days I'm pretty sure that extra stimulation is not required - sometimes it feels like I'd be better off shutting them all in a darkened room in order to get them to calm down.

Most of the toys on offer were beneath my kids and the others we have plenty of already. Lewis has enough cuddly toys to start his own carnival stall, Marie got a whole book of simple board games for Christmas and Fraser has long-since moved onto the kind of plastic wheel which you have to put a wireless controller in and then use to steer Mario round a race track.

It turns out that I no longer have small children - I simply have children. It's a change that seems to have taken an age to achieve and yet has still managed to creep up on me. Maybe Mike's right. Maybe I need to start thinking about what I'm going to do once Marie starts school in August.

After nine years of being a housedad 24/7, I will have time on my hands. People may even expect me to go back to my old job. This is nonsense, of course. It's been such a while since I left LBO that I've forgotten where the toilets are, let alone how to write a complex data retrieval program for a Large Banking Organisation that functions smoothly without bringing the world's financial system to its knees. Although this isn't so much of an issue as it would have been a few months ago, someone will still need to take care of the kids after school, in the holidays and when they're sick, and that might as well be me.

I won't have time for a 9 to 5 job. I will have some time, however. I will have a chance to explore new career paths and dabble in fresh possibilities. Perhaps this is an opportunity. Disregarding childcare related expertise, all my skills have atrophied. I'm not tied down by up-to-date qualifications. I could do anything!

As I wandered the upper floor of Debenhams, I started to feel disoriented, overcome by the frightening array of potential options available to me. That said, I may just have been dizzy from walking around the escalators in the same direction for twenty minutes, killing time while waiting for Sarah to finish her shopping and appear for lunch.

Then I had another revelation that cheered me up - I don't need a plan for August at all. I need a plan for the following August. I can keep myself busy for a year. There are untold chores to be done around the house. Decorating, cleaning, tidying, organising - there's plenty to get stuck into. The loft needs cleared out; the garden requires a tactical nuclear strike. If worst comes worst, I can always take some time to buy more clothes. You know, smart ones without vomit that would be suitable for interviews.

It's possible I might even have the occasional day where I relax and don't achieve much besides eating biscuits and playing the Xbox.

Yep, I can certainly 'keep myself busy' for a year once all the children are at school. It's only after Marie begins Primary 2 that I'll feel some pressure to justify my subsistence and contribute financially to the household. I hasten to add that this pressure won't be from Sarah but will mainly be internal guilt fuelled by well-meaning acquaintances asking what I've been doing in my 'spare' time. Nonetheless, it will start to get to me.

I suppose we could always have more children to keep me occupied. I'm maybe reaching the stage where that thought doesn't instantly give me a nervous twitch. The other day, friends came round to visit and show off their young baby and I unexpectedly got a strange desire to give it a cuddle...

Then again, when I was actually holding it, I noticed there was dribble coming out one end and at the other there was a feeling which wasn't quite damp but was definitely warm and humid. The kid started to cry because I wasn't entirely holding it at the angle it preferred and it was already hungry, tired and sitting in pee. I noticed I was referring to it as 'it'.

I quickly returned the adorable little bundle to its mum.

So, yeah, maybe I should look into a new career. I'm not going to be a housedad forever. There's no rush but I definitely need to work on a plan. I need to try and think what I want to do and figure out how to achieve it - who to talk to, what training to do, where to go, what to change and when to do it. And I can create this plan happy in the knowledge that I don't really need to go through with any of it yet.

I guess, when it comes down to it, my Christmas Sale resolution for this year is to work hard on coming up with some proper resolutions for next year. Can't be too hard...

...can it?

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Good luck with the sleep. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The twelve days of housedad Christmas

Dear Dave,

It's that time of year again. Think I may have had too much mulled wine:

On the first day of Christmas,
My children asked from me
A plaster for a sore knee.

On the second day of Christmas,
My children gave to me
Two lovely hugs
And a disease that made me rather queasy.

On the third day of Christmas,
My children caused to me
Three crushed toes,
Two bruised limbs
And a very painful groin injury.

On the fourth day of Christmas,
My children lost for me
Four unpaid bills,
Three left shoes,
Two remote controls
And the remains of my sanity.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
My children made to be
Five muddy marks,
Four sticky floors,
Three stained shirts,
Two soggy socks
And an unexpected puddle of pee.

On the sixth day of Christmas,
My children found for me
Six 'interesting' sticks,
Five dropped coins,
Four elastic bands,
Three stray dogs,
Two mouldy socks
And a slug to keep them all company.

On the seventh day of Christmas,
My children left for me
Seven empty tubes of glitter,
Six sparkly carpets,
Five sparkly cushions,
Four sparkly ceilings,
Three sparkly computers,
Two sparkly socks,
And a sparkly cup of coffee.

On the eighth day of Christmas,
My children went to Gran's
With eight cuddly toys,
Seven warnings to behave,
Six sets of clothes,
Five heavy bags,
Four hours on trains,
Three Mario games,
Two long good-byes
And I got some time without my family.

On the ninth day of Christmas,
I worked around the house:
Nine toys for gluing,
Eight rooms for tidying,
Seven shelves for dusting,
Six taps for gleaming,
Five carpets cleaned,
Four beds changed,
3,427 sparkles hoovered,
Two toilets scrubbed,
And shower sealant all over me.

On the tenth day of Christmas,
I had a long lie down,
Ate lots of crisps
And drank beer while watching TV.

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
I caught up on my sleep,
Ate mince pies,
Watched action films,
And then lay around playing a PS3.

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My kids returned to me
With twelve toy drums drumming,
Eleven gadgets bleeping,
Ten lice a-leaping,
Nine hankies dripping,
Eight tales for telling,
Seven bags of washing,
Six arms a-waving,
Five nettle stings,
Four startled Kurds,
Three new pens,
Two painted mugs,
And their mum
(whom I was very glad to see).

Merry Christmas!

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday, 19 December 2008

Housedad history

Dear Dave,

That's a good question. Have there been any famous housedads?

Well, it's a little known secret that there have been quite a few. Most, however, have tended to hide their family situation from employers and public alike in order to avoid potential discrimination and social stigma. You have to dig quite hard to learn the truth.

Here are the celebrity housedads I've been able to uncover so far:

Pictures of famous housedads - Neil Armstrong, Abe Lincoln, Henry V, Geoff Hurst, one of the three wise men and Genghis Khan.
Oh, and that's not including the fictional ones:

Pictures of fictional housedads - Indiana Jones, Neo and Darth Vader.
So, you see, we're not entirely unique. There really are plenty of other housedads out there.

Erm... Possibly...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Christmas sneeze

Dear Dave,

There are a few phrases I never expected to have to say as a parent. I feel that someone really should have warned me they might come up. They include such things as:

'Why are you wearing your brother's socks on your ears?'

'Don't slide down the stairs naked - you'll give yourself carpet burns on your bottom.'


'Where did you find that poo?'

I've also had plenty of unlikely conversations. Only a minute ago, I said to Lewis, "Stop swinging on the banisters, you'll pull them off the wall. How many times do I have to say it?"

Quick as a flash, he replied, "Yes, but you normally say it to Fraser..."

Ho hum. I'm kind of used to the bizarreness of parenthood now, though. Not much throws me. I have to rely on adults for my surprises. Like last Saturday night, when Mike said, "Turn the heat down or you'll burn off all the alcohol."

That simply can't be a common utterance for ministers of religion.

"I haven't added the alcohol yet," I shouted above the surrounding chatter and cheesy Christmas music. "The recipe says I've got to boil the other ingredients for ten minutes before I add the wine. It's still got a little bit to go."

Mike peered suspiciously into the huge pot I had bubbling away on the hob. "It looks like you've put some wine in."

"That's just the dregs from the last batch."

"Ach, it'll be fine. Pour in the plonk. Some of us are waiting."

"OK, OK," I said, unscrewing the tops of three bottles of cheap red and emptying them into the pot. Then I stirred the resulting concoction with a wooden spoon, spices and slices of fruit whirling around. It all certainly smelled like mulled wine, which was most of the battle. I was reasonably hopeful that it would taste like mulled wine too and I tried not to sneeze in it.

I seem to have had one disease after another the last couple of weeks - cold, cough, stomach bug, you name it. What with the end of a long term approaching, all the kids at school are worn down and there are loads of bugs going about. It was so quiet walking along the road the other morning, I was convinced the bell had already gone and we were late. Turned out that we were on time and everyone else had merely decided to stay home, crank up the heating and hide under a blanket.

Wish I'd thought of that plan.

I've been stumbling around, following the normal routine. The man in the corner shop treated me like I was mad when I bought six packets of throat sweets at once. Maybe he was right. I should probably have given up, hidden under a blanket for a couple of days and let the kids run wild. Instead, I've chain-sucked Lockets and risked menthol poisoning in an effort to make sure they make it to all their usual clubs and activities.

At least the kids haven't succumbed to any of the illnesses yet. Doubtless they're saving them for next week but I should have recovered by then.

When we had our annual Christmas party, I was still feeling grotty. Nonetheless, several helpings of hot, spicy wine did improve matters somewhat. Once the contents of the pot had warmed up, I ladled myself another medicinal dose and then filled Mike's cup as well.

"Cheers," he said and we turned our attention back to the room.

All the children present had vanished upstairs to the lounge where they were being mysteriously quiet. I hoped they were happily playing computer games rather than dismantling the furniture but I didn't dare go find out. Judging by the number of adults packing out the kitchen, no one else was too keen to risk breaking the spell either. Friends and neighbours mingled together. Every so often, someone remarked, "The children are being very good." This was a cue for every parent in the room to glance nervously at the ceiling and then mutter something about 'going and checking in a minute' before shiftily returning to their drinks.

Useless Dad and my sister-in-law, Catriona, had found each other and were introducing their spouses in an excited exchange of business cards. My niece, Lisa, was chatting with Kate and cooing over baby Luke. Trevor was showing off his tattoos and shrapnel scars to Ned. Scary Karen had Rob trapped up a corner and was regaling him with the details of the birth of her children. By the look on his face, she'd got to the part with the spatula on the train.

A dozen other people swirled around. Everyone was mingling nicely.

That or the combination of mulled wine and over-the-counter cold remedies was making my vision blur slightly. It was hard to tell.

"So...?" said Mike.

It was that time again.

"So...?" I echoed, playing stupid as always.

"Thought about where you're headed yet?"

"I've got a few days break coming up. Sarah's taking the kids through to her parents before Christmas. I'll get a chance to do some things round the house, like re-grout the shower and clean the carpets, and then I'm going to have a lie down. Just me, the Xbox and some beers."

Mike didn't look impressed. "That's not what I meant."

"I know."

He shook his head. "It's only another few months now."

"It's nearly a year!" I replied, incredulously.

"It's nearly a year since Marie started nursery," said Mike, not having any of it. "How long does that feel?"

"Like a few months," I sighed.

Mike nodded. "She'll be at school before you can blink. Better be ready." He ladled himself some more mulled wine. "I'm busy enough without coming round here every week to counsel you."

I wasn't entirely sure if he was joking.

"I do think about it," I said and blew my nose. "There really is plenty of time left, though. Once I've had a rest and I'm well again and Christmas is over, I'll maybe have a better idea what I'm going to do."

"And who you're going to be?"

"That's what I meant."

Mike was sceptical. "Are you sure?"

"Uh-huh. You've made the point enough times recently; I've just about grasped it now."

The words came out sounding more irritated than I'd meant.

He was right, of course. I've spent so long as a man in a woman's world, constantly having to explain my existence, that it's come to define me. 'Housedad' isn't merely my job - it's what I am. Looking after the children is my justification for being. There's a chance that I'm going to get to September and feel redundant. I'll lose the place I've made for myself in society and mope around in a haze of self-doubt and imagined social rejection.

"Sorry," I said. "Look, honestly, I'll figure it out but... for now I'm still a housedad. I know there'll be something the other side of that. Something soon. I'm just going to have to make my way barefoot through that darkened room littered with LEGO when I come to it, though. I'm too tired to be prepared."

As if to confirm this, I had a fit of sneezes and sagged against the worktop.

Mike thought for a moment but then took pity on me and decided not to press any further for the time being. The interrogation was over. "You do look like you could do with a rest. Do you want someone to come round and help you with the Xbox and the beer?"

"Forget that," I said. "I'd have to get dressed. I'm planning to loll around in the armchair in my pyjamas... Now, excuse me, I'm going to go rescue Rob before Karen decides it's her turn to show off her scars..."

I squeezed my way through the throng and pulled Rob clear in the nick of time, roping him into handing round mince pies. I set about serving drinks. There was more chatter and laughter and thankfully someone swapped the CD over to Christmas carols. It was all very pleasant.

Eventually, however, I couldn't resist any longer and I had to go and check on the kids. I was hugely pleased to find that four of them were playing on the Wii and the rest were keeping amused with toys I'd scattered about.

There was only one small problem - there were crumbs everywhere. I had to use one of those unexpected parental phrases. "Did it rain crisps in here?" I asked.

Most of the children ignored me but Marie was quick to pipe up. "No," she said, giggling. "Don't be silly. It can't rain crisps. It snows crisps..."

That pretty much answered my question.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday, 12 December 2008

The parable of the sweets and the scooter

Dear Dave,

I eventually managed to get the kids to stop complaining about their stolen chocolate Santa by threatening to feed them canned peas if they didn't keep quiet. Nevertheless, it was only a couple of days before we found ourselves in another discussion of equality and social justice.

I once heard a talk by a guy who thought children have an innate sense of fairness. He reckoned this is obvious because they're always saying, 'It's not fair!' at any given opportunity.

Even at the time, I felt this was a somewhat misguided observation. Now, however, having accumulated over eight years experience as a housedad, I can confirm that it's crazier than giving a hyper-active toddler a drumkit.

'It's not fair!' can usually be translated as, 'I'm not getting as big a cut as I expected!' Occasionally, from the mouth of a more enlightened child, it can mean, 'I'm not getting as big a cut as I expected and my friend/sibling/hamster/cuddly toy isn't either!' It certainly doesn't mean, 'Hang on! This isn't entirely equitable. I think I might have a couple of biscuits more than my share...'

This is only to be expected, though. Even putting self-interest aside, 'fair' isn't a simple concept. It's something pretty hard to determine and something we have to learn.

'From each according to their ability, to each according to their need,' could be the definition of fair, for instance. Many would argue, however, that in general, 'From each according to their ability, to each according to what they've contributed,' is actually 'fairer'. Then again, plenty of situations essentially come down to, 'Let's divide the spoils equally and split the bill.'

More than that, it's possible for individual people to hold all these views at the same time. Sometimes about the same thing. The fairest solution to any given situation isn't necessarily straightforward. This makes instilling a sense of fairness in children more difficult than it first seems.

Lewis is definitely struggling with the concept at the moment.

Last week, the whole school went to see a pantomime. At the end of it, the cast threw sweets into the audience. Lewis didn't manage to get any but Fraser happily showed one off in the playground at the end of the day. As he unwrapped it, though, he admitted that he'd had one earlier.

Lewis immediately demanded Fraser hand over the sweet he was about to eat. Since Fraser had already had one, Lewis felt natural justice demanded Fraser give the other one to his brother. One each was only fair after all.

Well, in some sense... I didn't know what Fraser had had to go through to get the sweets. Fighting his way out of a scrum of screaming, excitable children was a distinct possibility. At the very least, he'd had to do some crawling around in the dark. There'd probably been plenty of luck involved but he deserved some reward for his efforts. Besides that, Marie had been at the pantomime and hadn't managed to grab a sweet either. Lewis had no more claim to Fraser's loot than she did.

Fraser hurriedly piped up that he'd had three sweets initially but given one to the child next to him at the pantomime. This didn't exactly appease Lewis. Nonetheless, it considerably surpassed my expectations of Fraser's generosity and put me firmly on his side. I decided to deflect Lewis from the issue.

"You know that boy who was asking for a go on your scooter ten minutes ago?" I said. (Lewis comes out before Fraser and we loiter in the playground for twenty minutes.)

"Yes," said Lewis.

"Did you give him a shot?"


"Then why should Fraser give you his sweet that he's never going to get back, if you're not prepared to give someone else a quick go on your scooter?"

Lewis hugged his scooter jealously. "He said he has his own scooter at home. And a bike. He could have brought them."

"Uh-huh..." I muttered, shaking my head. Lewis couldn't see the connection and I knew that pressing it further would only lead to us talking round in circles. Luckily, Fraser had had the good sense to pop the sweet in his mouth by then, so the point was moot. We headed home, Lewis grumbling as we went...

I think I've still got plenty of work to do with the whole social justice concept.

Maybe I should start with teaching the kids about providing for the elderly... and parents. Particularly elderly parents. Elderly parents deserve nice nursing homes.

After everything they've had to put up with it, it seems only fair...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday, 10 December 2008

They're getting craftier than me

Dear Dave,

Marie loves to make things. She can spend hours painting, arranging Hama beads, gluing shiny stars to paper or making a necklace by stringing baubles onto a length of elastic. Leave her alone with some art supplies for a few minutes and she'll have them all stuck together and painted pink before you know it.

She's not hugely worried about quality, however - a roughly-oval, orange spludge with a line coming off it is a mouse, for instance. Quantity is really what she's after. She can produce an entire colony of rainbow-coloured rodents in half an hour and then move onto pictures of computer peripherals and their accompanying mats. (Luckily, her computer mice are wireless so it's easy to tell them apart from the other kind - they're the roughly-oval, orange spludges without lines coming off.) At one mouse per sheet, she can race through a stack of blank paper and happily rack up more creative masterpieces in an afternoon than the boys managed in entire years of their preschool life.

There are only so many portraits of mice (furry or otherwise) we need, though. There's also a limit to our requirements for bead designs, glitter pictures and tacky jewellery. Marie hasn't yet questioned what happens to the surplus but I doubt she'd be too thrilled to hear 'they've gone to live on a farm'. It would be nice if she branched out to other things soon. Unfortunately, we've tried some of the 'makes' on TV and in books, and they're totally beyond her. She can't cut stuff out with any degree of accuracy or safety, glue goes everywhere and sticky-tape ends up stuck to her hair, itself and my socks. I have to make the thing, whatever it is, and then she paints the finished product pink. It's all a little pointless.

It's not like we usually have the materials to do most of the ideas anyway.

I remember when I was young, I watched one of the presenters on Blue Peter make a space rocket from an empty washing-up liquid bottle. It looked fantastic and I raced through to the kitchen to see how much Fairy our squeezy bottle had left. Disappointingly, it was almost full. Undeterred, I kept an eye on the bottle and bided my time until I could stick a couple of pieces of card to it, paint it silver and launch it into the galaxy.

Three weeks later, the bottle was still almost full.

In fact, it actually had more washing-up liquid in it than when I'd first checked. That wasn't right... I knew it was the same bottle, though, since the writing was worn off the side in the same places and there were some recognisable bits of gunge still stuck to it. But how...?

I checked with my mum. It turned out she bought washing-up liquid in bulk and topped up her supply from an industrial-sized vat in the shed. She'd been using the same squeezy bottle since 1962.

The flipping thing lasted out my entire childhood and I never got to make my space rocket.

Bah, humbug.

These days the concept wouldn't work because washing-up liquid bottles aren't even cylindrical anymore but that's nothing compared with a make for a toy car I saw on TV last week. It involved four large cotton-reels and a disposable plastic cup. Four cotton-reels! How many homes have that number lying around? Not many, I bet.

The results weren't even worth it. Sticking four cotton-reels, a disposable cup and a small spoiler to a cardboard box doesn't make a very convincing car. It might have been OK in the old days, when cheap plastic toys weren't quite so cheap, but the way things are at the moment, we could probably nip to a charity shop and get something better for not much more than the price of the disposable cup.

We've only had a few successes with homemade toys over the years. When Fraser was crawling, I cut a slot in the bottom of a cardboard box and turned it upside down. He spent quite a bit of time posting little toys in the hole, wondering where they'd gone and then being delighted when he discovered them under the box. He was also very impressed one train journey when he was four - I'd brought a dice with me and I simply drew a Snakes & Ladders board on a piece of paper. (Sarah spiced it up even further by adding mushrooms and stars to give the game a Mario theme and some interesting extra rules.) On other occasions, all three of the children have enjoyed making crowns to wear.

That's been fairly much our limit, though. In general, ideas for homemade stuff I've seen either require expensive materials or look naff. Sometimes both. Marie got a book recently with instructions for a princess jewellery box:
  1. Get a small cardboard box and paint it purple.
  2. Cover the top with glue and stick some shiny jewels in the middle.
  3. Surround the jewels with rice.
In summary, the proposed object would need fake gems, be hideous and make passing pigeons explode if they ate it. I don't think we'll be making that.

So what can I get Marie to make?

Some of the boxed kits of craft items in the shops look tempting. There are all kinds of fluffy animals to create and key rings to design. Sadly, I know the reality would be nothing like the pictures on the box. If you don't believe me, go look at a packet of plasticine and examine the photos of smiling children standing behind 'their' model village, complete with accurately modelled people and mock-Tudor housing. Compare this image with your memories of playing with plasticine as a child. You'll probably notice that your recollections have rather more wonky snakes and considerably fewer hanging flower baskets.

Maybe I should stick to thinking up things to make from stuff we have lying around. Hang on a minute while I take a quick inventory.



Ah... Erm... Well...


OK, I've taken a look, and the readily available junk at my disposal consists of: margarine tubs, dead batteries, carrot peelings, plastic milk bottles, beer cans and some lard.

Now I'm sure MacGyver could produce something pretty spectacular with that lot but it's beyond me.

Never mind. Perhaps I should just leave Marie to it. She insisted on painting a two-foot cardboard tube pink and gold a couple of weeks ago and she's been using it as a telescope ever since. She and Lewis keep piling cushions in the middle of the lounge carpet to make a pirate boat.

Creativity and teamwork at the same time. I'm not certain I could have organised that if I'd tried...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday, 5 December 2008

The parable of the chocolate Santa

Dear Dave,

The nursery organised their usual fund-raising festive raffle last week. Parents were asked to donate groceries for a Christmas hamper and we were then sold tickets at a rate of five for a pound. At the end of the week, the tickets were put in a hat, a single winner was drawn and one lucky family got the entire stash.

The hamper was left on display in the hallway outside the nursery door and, as the week went on, it gradually began to fill with all manner of delights. There were packets of biscuits, bottles of wine, jars of jam, noodles, teabags, canned soup and, bizarrely, three tins of peas. Apart from the peas, it all looked delicious.

Perhaps too delicious...

You see, the nursery is attached to the primary school and school kids frequently walk by on the way to the toilet. At home-time on the Thursday it became clear that one of these children had seen a crafty opportunity - a chocolate Santa poked clear of the other items in the hamper, his head cleanly removed, as if a child had taken a big gulp in passing, silver foil and all.

When told about it, my boys were impressed. Robin Hood had daringly snatched a share of the loot. The whole idea made them fall about laughing.

That's to say, it did... until we won the raffle. At that point, they were suddenly overcome with righteous indignation. They wanted their chocolate Santa, no matter that carrying home the remaining contents of the hamper was still nearly enough to kill me and that our shelves are now overflowing with tasty treats (and canned peas). They wanted the Sheriff of Nottingham called in to deliver retribution and compensation.


I think this may explain rather a lot about the world.

Merry Christmas,


Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Some part of the slate is always blank

Dear Dave,

Don't do it. I know it will be tempting when you see all the trays laid out in a row like that but you just shouldn't do it. It's only going to end in angst and self-doubt. You will question your abilities as a housedad, your genetic heritage and the very future of your children. You may even get a ticking off from a teacher. It's simply not worth it.

When you go along to the parents' evening at school and you're hanging around, waiting for your appointment, resist the urge to take a quick shufti through the jotters of children who are not your own. Sure, some will be full of unintelligible, spidery scribble that will make Sam's back-to-front letters look like the work of a young Da Vinci. These will reassure you that he's doing OK. Unfortunately, those won't be the ones you open as you grab a book at random while checking over your shoulder for passing members of staff and little Amelia's mum.

Nope. You will be horrified as a pop-up version of the Sistine Chapel springs forth in your hands, light shines from the open page and somehow, impossibly, Handel's Messiah blares out, seemingly from the very paper.

This will be distressing, for any number of obvious reasons.

As you carefully put the book back, nonchalantly whistling to yourself under the suspicious gaze of everyone in the entire dining hall full of parents and teachers, you will understand beyond doubt that there are some competitions that Sam will never win...

Of course, you already know this to be true but the full realisation of it is still liable to be shocking. Although competition at parent and toddler is fierce, it's all rather meaningless. In reality, it makes no difference how many teeth a one-year-old has, whether they can say 'tractor' or how many blocks they can stack - barring a real problem, every child present is going to catch up eventually. It's a case of when skills and attributes develop, not if.

By the time the kids are at school, however, the situation has changed. Nature and nurture have really got to work, and talents and weaknesses have begun to emerge. Gradually it becomes a case of if, rather than when.

Not long after Fraser started Primary 1, I went along to a talk given by his teacher about the curriculum for the year. She went to great lengths to point out that there's always wide variation in the abilities of kids starting school. She showed us a couple of pictures of a group of people eating, drawn by different children in the class. One was a scribble. Without being told, there was absolutely no way of knowing what it was supposed to be. The other was like a black felt-tip version of The Last Supper. People sat behind a table, food set out before them. They had expressions, the table was drawn in perspective and it was even possible to tell what was on the plates. I was flabbergasted. I knew then that Fraser was never going to win any art competitions. He can barely manage that level of composition now that he's in Primary 4.

While my mind was still reeling, though, his teacher went on to talk about maths and how all the children had a line taped to their desks with the numbers 1 to 10 marked on it, to help them with their addition. This confused me in an entirely different way. Fraser could already subtract two-digit numbers from each other in his head. The thought that kids around him might need a crib sheet in order to add 3 to 5 was as astonishing to me as his classmate's sketch.

Every child has stuff they're good and bad at.

Lewis could do any thirty-piece jigsaw with ease by the time he started nursery. Marie's been there a year and can barely do twelve-piece jigsaws, but she can say 'please' and 'thank you' better than the boys can already. She can also beat me at Uno. She has much more empathy than the boys as well - when she was under a year, we showed her a picture of a crying baby in a book and she burst into tears herself.

(Admittedly, she's not always so understanding of the plight of others these days. Last week, a friend came round to visit but started sobbing when her dad left. Rather than consoling her, Marie said, "Stop crying so loudly. I can't hear Bob the Builder." Nonetheless, she has much more concern for the people around her than the boys can muster between them.)

There's no point beating yourself up over what your kids can't do. Maybe if I'd spent more time doing artwork with Fraser when he was small, he'd be better able to draw now but, then again, perhaps the distraction would only mean he was worse at maths. I don't know. Some skills, like reading, are vital but others aren't so important. If he's never able to paint, then so be it, as long as he understands that it doesn't really matter and he has the confidence to muddle through his art classes. I'd rather he spent time improving the skills he's good at and enjoys.

When a kid is born, infinite possibilities stretch before them. As they get older, it can be sad to see some of those possibilities begin to fade but it's merely a consequence of the child developing and finding their way. They can't do everything. They shouldn't be expected to.

It's worth remembering, however, that no matter how many avenues are closed, there are still infinite possibilities left. (Infinity is great like that.) Plenty of choices remain to be made and there's still a need for guidance, encouragement and teaching. There's even room for the unexpected:

Fraser took part in an art competition when he was in Primary 1. It was to do with road safety. All the kids were given a picture of a lollipop lady and they had to colour her in. Fraser was relatively neat and used a blinding selection of day-glo shades. It wasn't exactly a masterpiece but his efforts fitted the criteria for the competition very well.

At home-time on the day the winner was announced, the perpetrator of The Last Supper stomped out of the building in a foul mood and scowled at me. Fraser was not far behind, joyously waving the blinding, day-glo reflective jacket he'd won.

So, yeah, don't worry too much at the parents' evening what Sam's classmates can do. Concentrate on finding out what he can do and how you can help. Save your effort for thinking up some intelligent questions about Sam's progress to ask his teacher...

...particularly if she's young and cute and has a tendency to wear low-cut tops. What with that and the occasional outbreaks of Hallelujahs behind you as other parents 'accidentally' rifle through the wrong trays, you'll be pretty distracted when your time slot arrives. It's best to be prepared...

Yours in a woman's world,