Dear Dave

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Essential skills for the modern age

Dear Dave,

Glad to hear you survived the relatives at Christmas and managed to get them to look after the kids long enough for you to have a lie down somewhere quiet. Hopefully Daisy's sleep will have settled down in a few months and the new year will be a lot less grey and foggy than the last one. Your zombie existence is almost over. All being well, next Christmas, neither you nor your young daughter will doze off from exhaustion face-down in the trifle. (And, yes, it was somewhat mean of your in-laws to post the footage of that little incident on YouTube.)

For ourselves, we spent most of the holidays staying with Sarah's parents. It was great to get away and have some help with the children. We did all have to cope with a different house and different ways of doing things but this was probably good for us:

One breakfast-time, I was sitting in the lounge drinking my coffee, when Fraser came through from the kitchen.

"Can I have some more toast, please?" he asked.

"Sure," I replied.


I didn't move. He stared at me, waiting for me move. I stared back at him, waiting for him to go away. He didn't go away. We stared at each other.

Time passed.

"You can make it yourself," I said, to clarify the situation.

He laughed at the ludicrous nature of this suggestion. "How do I do that?"

Our kitchen at home is set up for a 187cm housedad. (That's six foot three in old money.) Stuff that's needed all the time, such as plates and bread, is on high shelves which I can see and reach comfortably. My stash of crisps is stored so far up that even Sarah has to stand on a chair to reach it. The low cupboards that I have to bend to look in are full of fondue sets and unlikely cooking utensils which I hardly ever use. One small problem with the arrangement is that the children have limited access to the equipment necessary to feed themselves unless they're looking to zest a lemon or make their own ice-cream. The beer, meanwhile, is at a handy grab height for me on the way to the lounge and the coffee sits permanently out on the worktop ready for every conceivable emergency.

Nonetheless, I was still somewhat shocked to discover that, despite being eight and half years old, Fraser didn't know how to work a toaster. I realised I might have to give him some training. (After all, he's going to need a wide range of gadget experience by the time he's sixteen in order for me to fulfil my plan of getting him a job at our local electronics store and shamelessly exploiting his staff discount.) I seized the opportunity to let him practice in a kitchen where everything was in reach and that wasn't my responsibility to clean.

"You get some bread out of the bag and put it in the toaster," I said. "Then you press the button down."

He looked nervous. "How far?"

"Until it clicks."

"How does it know when to pop up?" he asked, starting to panic.

"It pops up by itself." I decided not to blow his mind with any extra information about the little dial with numbers on.

"But wh...?"

I tried to sound as calm and nonchalant as I could. "Just go give it a try," I said, waving him away.

"OK," he said and scampered off to the kitchen.

I went through three minutes later. He was staring at the toaster.

"Does it normally take this long?" he asked.


"Maybe it's not working." He peered closely at the toaster which was glowing orange inside and that had the first hint of smoke emerging from the slot. Then a slice of toast popped up and made him leap backwards in surprise.

"It's working," I said.

Of course, Fraser hadn't thought to ask whether anyone else wanted mildly charred bread before operating the toaster only half full. He didn't know from experience that it's always worth completely filling a toaster because the popping sound they make has a strange Pavlovian effect - it's bound to make someone in the vicinity think, 'Hmmm... Actually, I really fancy a slice of toast,' even if they've just had a slice of toast.

"I want a slice of toast," said Marie, cramming the last bite of her previous slice in her mouth.

I sighed and put another couple of rounds of bread in the machine...

The whole episode made me wonder what other skills I should teach Fraser. I started by thinking about the useful skills I learnt while growing up but most of them are now defunct.

For instance, there was a big fuss made that my Physics GCSE course included wiring a plug as part of the curriculum. It was supposed to be an attempt to promote practical skills but the normal reaction was, 'Surely everyone knows how to wire a plug?'

As a teenager, I fiddled with the internal workings of any number of plugs. Gadgets came without plugs attached or I got given my siblings' cast-offs that still had round-pinned plugs rather than square-pinned ones. Barely a month went by without me having to ponder why it's the live wire and not the earth wire that's brown.

Then things changed. I suspect the GCSE Physics results one year must have been really bad and someone somewhere decided that plugs are too advanced a technology to leave in the care of ordinary individuals. Gadgets started coming supplied with moulded plugs.

I haven't had to wire a plug in ten years.

Another skill I learnt at an early age was answering the phone. I used to answer my parents' phone all the time. We lived in a big farmhouse, we only had a couple of phones and my parents got a lot of business calls - there were plenty of instances where I happened to be the only one close enough to hear the ringing. My children are growing up in a house which is less than half the size but has five phones and hardly anyone calls.

The only times I don't hear the phone are when I'm running their bath, I'm hoovering or I'm in the shower. On the rare occasions when someone calls at one of these moments, it takes the kids a couple of rings to notice the phone is ringing and another three to twig that I'm not answering it. At this point they start shouting that the phone's ringing.

Since they tend to stand next to the ringing phone while doing this, rather than moving somewhere closer to my location, the chances of me becoming aware that the phone is ringing are not greatly increased.

Two rings later, the answering machine cuts in. The children listen to the out-going message and then come and find me to tell me that 'the answering machine is talking to itself' in a tone that suggests they think it's gone wrong. I ask them who's calling. They shrug. I send them to listen to the message that's being left. They get downstairs again just in time to hear the person hang up.

I could maybe train them to do this job a little better...

Then again, we have an answering machine, so why bother? It's the same with things like lighting a fire, boiling milk in a pan and preparing for a nuclear attack. These skills don't seem as essential as they once were. Even programming a video recorder is on the way out.

So what is the important knowledge kids should learn these days?

Well, for starters, when we got back from Gran's, I taught Fraser how to put fresh batteries in the Wii remotes.

I slowly and painstakingly showed him how to peel back the non-slip jacket, open up the casing, remove the old batteries, insert the new batteries the right way round and then put everything back together again. This took longer and involved more explanation than you might expect. When he'd emptied the rest, I turned to Lewis and told him in great detail which drawer in the kitchen to put the tired batteries in, ready for them to be recharged. I also told him twice not to put them in the tub at the front of the drawer because that's where the charged batteries are kept.

Lewis ran off on his mission while his brother finished putting in the replacement batteries. Fraser negotiated the trials of slipping the non-slip jacket back on the last remote and beamed at me, highly pleased with himself.

"Well done," I said. "Now you can change the batteries in the Wii remotes yourself. Do you know where the fresh batteries are kept?"

"No," he said, looking blank.

He'd been precisely two feet away from me when I'd told Lewis... twice.

Lewis returned.

"Do you know where the fresh batteries are kept?" I asked him.

"Of course I do," he replied, as if this was obvious information that any fool should intuitively grasp and not something that I'd had to tell him only forty-five seconds previously.

"Great!" I said. "Next time the batteries run out before breakfast, the two of you can work together. Lewis, you can find new batteries and, Fraser, you can put them in the controller. Neither of you will need to get me out of bed. Teamwork!"

We all beamed at each other, highly pleased with ourselves.

Next week I'm going to move on to teaching them to use a tin opener without injury and without covering them, me or the toaster in custard.

Wish me luck.

Yours in a woman's world,



Anonymous said...

Hee. Wii remote battery changing is essential to survival in the modern age. Lately I've been teaching the Kid how to start the coffee maker for me. It will help her out someday, right? In the meantime, it's essential to my survival.

DadsDinner said...

Good job. I may have to purchase a coffee machine just so I can teach the kids to switch it on for me.

What would be really excellent, though, is if they could get their own breakfasts and then Sprog1 could pop along the road to the supermarket and buy me fresh doughnuts to go with the coffee...