Dads – they’re grrrrrrrreat….

Frosties de Kellog's, poderosa energía

Frosties de Kellog’s, poderosa energía (Photo credit: frosklis)

Forget Tiger Mums, make way for Tiger Dads.  Forget Tony “They’re Grrrrrrreat” Tiger of Frosties fame, I’m talking about survival of the fittest; who is the King of the Tigers?

Tiger Mums have been getting a lot of negative press recently and to be honest, I think most of it is justified.  This is probably because Tiger Mums make me feel small part inadequate, small part lazy and most part cross.  We all want the best for our children and we all feel proud and rather over-excited when they are successful at something – we have to stop ourselves shouting out – ‘that’s my little Johnny, yes, over there, the one who is so so so good at bla bla bla”. However, putting my children forward for MENSA at age 2, insisting on distinction in grade 8 piano by the age of 4, expecting them to be national squad players in at least 6 sports by the age of 10 is just not my thing.  Anyway, the genes don’t look good for my children – forget MENSA, I can hardly remember my name these days; I can only just about play Chopsticks despite learning the piano for ten years and as for sport, the only running I do now is a bath at the end of the day.

So what about Dads?  Unlike women who often tend to try and hide their “tiger” tendencies – pretending to be all laid back whilst subjecting their children to hour upon hour of extra coaching on the quiet – their little secret – most men are the absolute opposite.  They are competitive and they don’t care who knows it and they are utterly incapable of hiding it.

I am not suggesting that all women are like this, or all men are like that – that’s far too simplistic .  Of course, there are men out there who are pushing their children to extremes – true Tiger Dads – we’ve all read about them – just as there are lots of women who are competitive for their children without being obsessional. However, just as often little boys behave differently to little girls, the same tendencies are played out in adulthood in relation to their children. Actually most men are not really Tiger Dads, just typical Dads.

Take a kids’ cricket match as an example. Forget the competition between the boys playing – obviously that’s there and anyway a bit of competition is healthy.  No, look at the Dads, listen to the Dads.  It is as if they have regressed in age by about 30 years and our living out their former competitive glories through their sons. Like Father, like Son. There is humour and ribbing and an awful lot of chat (and that applies to both the boys and their fathers!)

So why is it that the Tiger Mums get the negative press whereas the Dads largely slip beneath the radar, their competitiveness laughed at and even expected?  Well, I think it is because the Dads’ competitive nature is so much more palatable to the observer – they are very open about it; they take it seriously but there is still much lighthearted banter amongst themselves.  They behave in some ways like the children they are watching – over-excited and noisily competitive – but it feels very natural and not obsessive in the way Tiger Mums are so often portrayed to be.

This sort of competition is healthy.  One of my largest problems with schools and children’s activities in the UK today is this overbearing nannying of our children so that we protect them from ever losing at anything, from ever being disappointed.  Life is not like that and our kids need to experience the reality of life from early on in a controlled and nurturing environment otherwise they are going to have one large shock when they are grown-up and out there in the real world.

We need to teach our children that you win some, you lose some.  We need to teach them that a degree of competition is healthy and there will be a winner and a loser.  We have to stop giving every child a medal just so that no-one is singled out as being successful.  A confident and balanced child will learn in childhood that they can’t be number 1 at everything, that they will come second, third or whatever and that is just the way it is.  They will be secure enough in their own abilities to be able to shrug off the disappointments but also enjoy their successes.  Success has become a dirty word and it shouldn’t be.  It should be something to be celebrated.

So let these “Tiger Dads” be.  I for one find them very amusing and very unthreatening.  Their competitiveness is not unappealing but rather endearing.  They just want their kids to do well and there is nothing wrong with that, it’s entirely normal.  Of course, there are lots of mothers out there who have got the balance just right too. But true Tiger Mums and true Tiger Dads take note, competition is healthy, obsessional pushing is not.

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Mad Science

Mad scientist

Mad scientist (Photo credit: BWJones)

You know how the saying goes…if you fall off a horse, you’ve got to get straight back on again.  Well, it’s taken me 2 years but I have held another “Mad Science” party for my son’s birthday and I have survived.

Two years ago, this would never have seemed possible.  That party – twelve 7 year old boys in my house (first huge error), one mad scientist and two shell-shocked, utterly horrified parents – ended with me bursting into tears of sheer relief when they all left and only narrowly avoiding an extended stay in The Priory.  The only word I can think to describe that party is apocalyptic – “Lord of the Flies” South-West London style.

It was a seminal moment in my child-rearing – the moment at which we lost total control.  The boys were in charge and it wasn’t pretty. I genuinely think I suffered with a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after that party.  One thing was certain – never ever ever would I hold a child’s birthday party in my house again.  I have kept to that.  The other thing I thought was certain – never ever would I wish to hear the words “mad” and “science” in the same sentence let alone combined with the word “party”. Somehow my resolve weakened on this.

That brings me to today – “Mad Science” party 2.  Not content with twelve 7 year olds, this time I upped the stakes and we had twenty four 7 year olds (all boys), one mad scientist (female) and four potentially shell-shocked, utterly horrified parents (yes, this time, I shared the annual burden of the birthday party).  Before the party, as I contemplated my idiocy in agreeing to endure another two hours of utter hell, I tried to work out what sort of person would choose to endure such a party again at a significant financial cost with absolutely no visible upside.  Clearly, I am a lunatic.

Well I survived and you know what….it wasn’t actually that bad.  Admittedly the memory is already fading at the edges thanks to the indecently large glass of wine that I am currently attacking like some sort of slightly deranged, dehydrated dipsomaniac.  The mad scientist certainly earned her money this afternoon and I am fairly sure she is reconsidering her career choice (she’s just completing her teacher training) after 2 hours with 24 boys, a load of goo, dry ice, bunsen burners, potentially lethal chemicals and a non-launching rocket.  I am also certain that being a mad scientist and spending 2 hours trying to control a roomful of crazed 7 year olds must be one of the most effective forms of contraception on the market.

I know I probably shouldn’t say this but I don’t believe I’m alone – children’s birthday parties are an ordeal, something to be endured, an annual burden.  But they are a necessary rite of passage and I remember (just) the excitement I felt in the build-up to my birthday parties when I was a child. Of course I wouldn’t want to deny my children that excitement and celebration.

Two things bug me though: firstly, children’s parties were simple affairs when I was a child – some games, home-made cake and a party bag full of nothing much.  Nowadays, we are expected to shell-out hundreds of pounds on entertainers or hold our parties in ever more exotic venues, buy in the cake (gone are the days when an 8 inch round with chocolate buttons on it sufficed; no, now kids expect an entire football pitch replete with favourite team and realistic-looking icing turf) and a party bag brimming with the latest must-have toys.

Secondly, “thank you” would go a long way. Not from the kids at the party – they were all very polite; from my own children.  After every party we hold for our children, the conversation goes like this: me: “Did you enjoy your party?”, child: “Yup”, me: “Do you have anything to say?”, child – silence, me: “It would be really nice if you said thank you after all the effort we’ve made”, child “thank you”, me “not now, before would have been good…”

Time to collapse in a post-party heap.  Ticked that box for another year.  Conquered my fear of “Mad Science” parties.  Yes, it has been a good day on the whole.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Don't worry, be happy

Don’t worry, be happy (Photo credit: duncan)

If someone were to ask me what emotion, apart from love, has been a constant since you had children, I would be able to answer very quickly – worry. Of course, all the other emotions have been there to varying degrees at different times – joy, frustration, irritation, happiness – but one thing is always gnawing away – worry.  I’ll freely admit that I am one of life’s worriers – I can worry about things which wouldn’t even occur to most rational people as things you could even worry about. I am, as they say, a master at sweating the small stuff. That said, I am actually quite good in a crisis.  So by all means ask me about the big stuff but don’t ask me about the day-to-day stuff.  I am your classic over-thinker and this of course goes hand-in-hand with worry.  Although at least I can rationalise that if I am worrying over something so trivial, I really don’t have very much to worry about – if that makes sense.

Why am I wittering on about worry, you may well ask?  Well, I was thinking about the differences between child-rearing in the 60s/70s and now and as much as technology, media and scientific advances have opened up a whole new exciting world, they have also contributed to a general heightened sense of anxiety in society especially for parents.  For example, thanks to the internet, I can carry out almost every single daily activity – shopping, banking, bill-paying etc – without moving my backside from its best friend, the desk chair. However, the flip side of this is the information that is available to us at the click of a mouse. Say my child has a perfectly harmless rash, a hint of a sniffle and is a bit off his food – back in the day, our mothers would have assumed it was some non-specific virus, kept us off school for a day or two, fed us chicken soup and that staple, Calpol, and that would have been that – no worries. Nowadays, we google the symptoms (even though we know this is not a sensible course of action) and before we know it our child is suffering from some extremely rare flesh-eating virus that you can only pick up (except of course in our child’s case) from the depths of the South American jungle.  Cue – worry. Our mothers only had Dr Benjamin Spock for advice, we have every Tom, Dick and Harry claiming to be medical experts, diagnosing us and our children with things our parents never knew existed.

Every day the media is bombarding us with stories about this and that potential danger. We trust no-one.  We take no risks.  We are obsessed with “health and safety”.  Of course, awful things happen but awful things happened back in the day too.  It’s just that we are so well-informed now, over-informed some might say, and I’m not convinced this is a good or helpful thing.  To my mind, it is being so well-informed that has led to low level anxiety permeating society and nowhere is this more apparent than parenting.

Do you think our mothers worried endlessly about giving us fish fingers, spaghetti hoops and Angel Delight and what the long-term impact would be on our health.  No, they didn’t because they were none the wiser.  I’m not saying a diet that solely consists of the above is ideal nor am I saying before you all get concerned that this is what I feed my children (not every day, at least) but now everything we do or say is so wrapped up in worry and guilt about the long-term impact that it is easy to lose sight of what is really important – just trying to be a good parent who amongst all this media bombardment is still able to relax and enjoy being a parent.

Parents worry endlessly about whether their child is “normal”.  What is “normal”?  I don’t really know except I suspect that I am far from it – something which has been confirmed to me on many occasions by various members of the medical establishment. Our schools are constantly measuring and comparing our children to such an extent that it is easy to forget to embrace each child’s individuality and to accept that you really can’t be good at everything all of the time. Take me and sewing for example – useless is the only word to describe it and back in the day, I’m fairly sure that that is exactly how my teacher described it (this, of course, would never happen in today’s hypersensitive, politically correct environment) – so, I am needle-challenged or whatever. Does this bother me? Did this bother my mother?  Did she worry that perhaps this was a reflection of underdeveloped fine motor skills?  No, of course not, she was probably just annoyed that I got thrown out of the lessons for good after breaking the sewing machine three times in one lesson, before I had completed my very 80s Laura Ashley gathered skirt (the material for which she had bought). Take ballet for example, one of my younger sisters was a very talented dancer, I have two left feet.  Did my mother add my sewing ineptitude to my ballet ineptitude and decide I had real problems?  No, of course, not – that’s just me.  Nowadays, you could probably google those two things and come up with some condition – cue, worry. Before anyone accuses me of trivialising real issues, I am not doing this at all.  Of course there are many children with very genuine issues and concerns for their parents.  I am talking about non-issues, non-worries that we are so susceptible to now in our hyper-vigilant environment.  All too often these non-worries  are just muddying the waters of clear, rational thought and making it more and more difficult to ascertain what is a real issue and what is over-thinking, over-informing, over-speculating.

Of course our parents worried about lots of things – worry is part of the human condition – but I do think that there is a low level anxiety in society now that wasn’t there before and I worry (there I go again!) that this can only increase as we become more and more media and technology savvy.  What’s the answer?  I’ve no idea and I don’t have time to worry about it unduly – too many other things to worry about.  I’m just saying…

Frankie Says Relax…

música

música (Photo credit: hang the t-shirt)

Having been asked recently by my middle child whether I qualify as “elderly” and having reminded him that I hadn’t even reached middle age yet and that I had every intention of at least paying lip service to that stage of life, I got to thinking about what it is that I actually miss about being young. I have spent so much of the last few months angsting about turning 40 and all that being that age entails that I haven’t really thought about what it is I actually would like back from my late teens and twenties…

Let’s get the obvious out of the way – my face and body. You see I never appreciated what I had in those days – no wrinkles, the fresh face and the ability to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted without gaining a pound. I think Mother Nature has got it all wrong – we should have the body and face of a 40 plus woman in our twenties and then the process should reverse in our forties because then we would really appreciate it and look after it. As it is, we take it all for granted in our twenties – eat entire packets of Cadbury’s chocolate fingers in one sitting (which I can still do by the way), not take our make-up off for days in succession and exercise once a year – and then Mother Nature sticks two fingers up to us in our forties and presents us with what I now see every morning in the mirror and in the deafening silence when I walk past a building site.

Something I really miss about my teens/twenties is the feeling of immortality, invincibility. It was me against the world and I definitely had the upper hand. At that age, we throw caution to the wind, we take risks, we have adventures. Not so in your forties – throwing caution to the wind is having a take-away on a Friday evening, opening that second bottle of wine or perhaps dancing “gangnam style” with a whole load of similarly-aged, equally “reckless” people (well, at least, that’s what happened at my 40th). We are so much better at weighing up the risks in our forties and this can make it very difficult to be spontaneous or take chances. Although I did promise myself on my fortieth birthday, that I would take chances…perhaps this blog is my first steps?

In a funny way, I also miss the emotional highs and lows. Especially in your late teens, life is a rollercoaster (as Ronan Keating sang) and although those lows could be pretty damn low, that emotional lability did make you feel very alive. One minute you are totally and utterly in love, besotted and the next the object of your affections is a complete and utter b******! Through your thirties and beyond, cynicism creeps in and all that up and down becomes very tiring. Perhaps on reflection, this is not something I really miss – it really was very tiring indeed and I guess now I am much more emotionally stable (although I do recognise that this is relative and there are those out there who might not agree with my self-analysis!)

One of the things I miss the most is the music and the dancing. I still love listening to all the music that is in the charts now (god, I sound like I’m 140 rather than 40) and there is nothing more I like than an evening of drinking and dancing with my friends. However, I am acutely aware that I have probably, in my kids’ eyes, become a bit of an embarrassment on the dance floor (parents dancing – hideous!). I also really miss all those great tunes from the 80s and early 90s – there is nothing for me more evocative of my youth than when a huge 80s hit comes on the radio. Those tunes bring the memories flooding back and largely they are wonderful memories. My children may (and do) look on in utter horror when I shriek out “Ride on Time” but you know what, I don’t care!

Anyway, enough looking back and wishing…time for me to put a tape in my Walkman, put on my “Frankie says Relax” t-shirt and pour myself a cinzano and lemonade!

Open to Interpretation…

Parenthood

Parenthood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was thinking earlier about how, as parents, what we say and what we think or mean in reality are often two completely different things.  I was wondering if this is a peculiarly British trait as our natural reserve and detached politeness dictate our responses, often masking what we really think. I suspect it is not just the British. Often, when it comes to our children, there is a whole subtext underlying what we actually say both to them and to parents of other children.  What do I mean?  Well, perhaps it is best illustrated with some examples, each with what might be said first, then what is actually thought or meant:

“Horatio Lancelot – what a fabulously interesting and unusual name to call your son” = “What the bloody hell were you thinking?”

“Gosh, doesn’t he look like his dad?” = “Poor sod, only a mother could love him”

“I’ve been so lucky with her, she’s a great little eater and sleeper” = “she eats nothing except toast with marmite and peanut butter and she has never slept for more than 2 hours at a time”

“He’s just a ball of energy” = “Little tyke”

“It’s so lovely, my kids go everywhere with me” = “I can’t even go to the bloody bathroom on my own”

“I’d love it if little Johnny could come over for a play and tea” = “I’d rather stick rusty pins in my eyes”

“Right that’s it, I warned you, no more TV for a month” = “There I go again with a threat I can’t carry out”

“What do you say?  What’s the magic word?” = “What is so complicated about the words please and thank you that you have still not mastered them at nearly 9”

“My kids are just letting off steam” = “I’ve totally lost control again”

“No, you absolutely cannot play on the Xbox today” = “I’m sure I can be persuaded if you ask me again in half an hour”

“Your son is a really good little footballer” = “My son is way better and he should be in the team, not your son – that coach needs his eyes tested”

“We’re really trying to bring our little one up with two languages – English and Spanish – it’s so useful to be bi-lingual” = “She watches far too much Dora the Explorer”

“I love those days when we stay at home painting or clay modelling – all those wonderful messy activities which it is so important for kids to do, such fun” = “That’s the whole point of nurseries, isn’t it? A place to do all those things which I loathe and which leave my house daubed in paint and looking as though it has been burgled ”

“The kids got on brilliantly and your son was an absolute delight” = “That was the playdate from hell and over my dead body will your little darling be stepping over the threshold of my house ever again”

“We’re really very relaxed parents” = “We follow Gina Ford to the letter, every minute of every day is accounted for”

“Every day is different as a stay-at-home mother” = “Every day is a relentless round of cleaning, washing, ironing, cooking and taxi-driving”

“I feel very valued as a mother” = “What did your last slave die of?”

Tongue-in-cheek -yes,  and deliberately exaggerated – perhaps just a little,  but there is some truth in the gap that often exists between what we say and what we are actually thinking. However, to redress the balance, one thing that we do say which is exactly the same as what we think, is when we say to our children”I love you totally” because we do (perhaps I should just add the caveat “even though you can be rather challenging”!).

The New Rules of Parenting…

Fireplace

Fireplace (Photo credit: John.Karakatsanis)

A good start to 2013 for me – it would appear that for the first time I am ahead of the parenting curve.  This is no mean feat – as a fully paid-up member of the Gina Ford generation, this does not often happen, if at all in my case. To what am I referring? “The new rules of parenting” in “The Times 2” today.

Let me explain.  My eldest son has been displaying some ‘interesting’ new pyromaniacal tendencies.  Up until a few weeks ago, he has shown zilch interest in fire except perhaps a certain disdain for it as he wrestles with his brother dangerously close.  However, recently, it is all about the fire.  He wants to light the fire in our sitting room all the time – first thing in the morning, lunchtime, evening and most irritatingly at about 10pm.  He not only seems to enjoy the whole fire-building process (very much a male preserve, rather like barbecuing) but he tends that fire and nurtures it in a way a mother would her baby.  I have watched this new obsession with some bemusement/amusement and a fair amount of anxiety, aware that it could only too quickly go horribly wrong.

We decided to allow him to follow this new obsession and my husband has very patiently built more fires with his son over this Christmas period than the 16 years I have known him.  So imagine the smugness (there is no other word for it, I’m afraid) that swept over me this morning when I turned to my newspaper and “A five-stage guide to bringing up boys and girls” by child development expert Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. There in black and white, under the section for boys aged 8-10, it says “…Help him to develop practical skills, such as lighting a bonfire (he will do it anyway, so we may as well teach him properly)…” Not only did I feel immediately comforted – my son is perfectly normal for his age and not showing worrying tendencies towards arson – but we, as parents, had responded appropriately – high five!

I have to say that this was about the only area in which we seemed to be succeeding and it would probably be fair to say that I am giving undue attention to one sentence in a long article. In the same section, referring to boys of the same age as my eldest, we are also told not to “go over the top in praising him in an attempt to boost self-esteem: he will feel smothered”. Now, please tell me that I am not the only mother who has days when she finds it very difficult to find anything to praise and I am very rarely in danger of going over the top with my praise.  Some days I am forced to praise him (in desperation) for things which one might normally praise a child of two or three for – eg putting on his shoes (not laces just velcro) or worse still, praising him for most unpraiseworthy things such as getting into the car without smacking or kicking his brother.  This is all part of that balancing out the scolding for bad behaviour (sorry, “boisterous behaviour”) with praise (which all the parenting gurus go on about) and which some days really does result in praise for the most ludicrous things.

As for my other son, he falls into the ages 4-7 boys bracket. In this age bracket we should “encourage his growing sense of humour…Telling a joke is a way that boys can experience some equality with an adult…” For me, one of my most dreaded moments is when one of my children says to me, “Mummy, I’ve got a really good joke to tell you”.  What follows is never a “joke”, as you or I might understand it, but a complete nonsensical string of words which I am expected to laugh at manically once delivered.  Something along the lines of “What did the egg say to the sausage – where’s the baked beans?”  – brilliant, hilarious, hysterical.  Those first jokes are quite excruciating but you do gradually see some comprehension dawning and then the endless round of “knock knock” jokes start.  In fact, currently when one of my boys says to me those dreaded words “Mummy, I’ve got a really good joke to tell you”, I find myself saying “who’s there?” before he’s even started.  Now, however that I know these jokes must be encouraged, I shall do my best to force the laughter and praise (but not over-praise) their attempts at humour.

What about my daughter in all this?  Well, apparently for her age-group, I should be letting her be naughty.  I may have totally misunderstood but I wasn’t aware that I had much say in whether she is naughty or not – she certainly doesn’t ask my permission. I have to agree with Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, though, that “a bit of bad behaviour shows a spark of creativity”.  That’s my excuse anyway!

Parentoholic…?

This image shows a white wine glass (WMF Easy)...

This image shows a white wine glass (WMF Easy) with white wine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I settle down to the weekend newspapers, feet up for the first time this week, glass of wine in hand…the headline on The Times Weekend section catches my eye – “Are you a Parentoholic?”. At this point, I have one of my more “dim” moments – perhaps as I approach 40, a “senior moment” – and I think to myself that this must be an article about some odd medical/clinical condition which means you are addicted to parenting.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my children completely, but I am not some earth mothering, Gina Fording, frankly nauseating example of perfect parenting – far from it!

I open up the paper and it immediately becomes apparent that no, this is not an article about extreme parenting but yet another thinly-veiled attack on middle class, verging on alcoholic, parents, which is the hot issue of the moment for the media.  My eyes settle on one of those cosy little “if you have mainly As…” quizzes which I loved so much when I was about 13 in the likes of “Just 17” or “Mizz” which I would use to determine whether the spotty nerd next door was actually my true love based on my personality type.  However, this quiz was of an altogether much more sinister type – it was a lose/lose quiz which started from the assumption that you were an alcoholic parent and it was just a matter of to what degree.

Look, I’m not trying to make light of what many consider to be a serious issue but I will say one thing.  After a 14 hour day (yes, 14 hour) which starts with one or other child screaming in my ear and ends in much the same vein with a smorgasbord of school runs, cooking, laundry, cleaning, bathing and Peppa Pig viewing thrown in the middle, I do believe it is my prerogative to have a glass of wine at the end of my working day.  For me this glass of wine does not represent a decline into alcoholism but more the fact that I am an adult and this precious two hours at the end of the day are in fact my adult time.

Anyway, I am sure this rant is yet more evidence of my approaching 40 angst, but I am going to go now as my husband has just poured me a lovely, large glass of white Burgundy…