Why the Santa myth is bad for your children’s elf

We live in a time of great freedom, however illusory or temporary that freedom might yet prove.

For instance, I could sit in a circle of peers and announce that I don’t believe in Yahweh, God, Vishnu, Allah or a giant turtle that holds the known world atop its back as it crawls through the cosmos, and most of them would probably accept this declaration with a silent nod or a shrug of the shoulders. Never mind that in certain countries, among certain people and cultures, such a vow would earn me a spell in prison, a steak knife to the stomach or death. Here in the modern, secular west, I can profess belief or its lack in whatsoever I choose and be almost certain of a tolerant reception. But try to tell people that I don’t want to play along with the Santa myth we force upon our kids, and I’m treated like a scar-faced leper with a vest of grenades and a public masturbation problem.

The sprawling Santa conspiracy, global in its reach, in which we entangle our children raises a multitude of uncomfortable questions, and comes at a terrible price: not least of which is the spirit of shattered trust in which it’s perpetuated.

It seems that all other western cultural norms are fluid, except for this one. Never this one. The only things powerful enough to grant you a Santa exemption are deeply-held fundamentalist Christian beliefs or adherence to a non-Christian faith, and even then there’s a chance you’ll be regarded as a destroyer of children’s dreams.

I baulk at the presumptuousness, the unthinkingness of it all. Really, would a Christian parent ever in a month of Sundays approach a Muslim family and knowingly ask them if they’re looking forward to the birthday of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ? A religious person might very well try to preach to or proselytise my children, but I’d be well within my rights to do everything possible to counter their supernaturally-motivated manoeuvrings, from taking expert advice to punching them in the teeth, and I’d enjoy broad moral – if not exactly legal – support. Santa’s commercialist cult, however, has carte blanche, and few would ever support me in a bid to tear it down.

It’s clear that there’s something about this little red-and-white lie that’s seen as integral to and inextricable from a hearty and wholesome childhood. There’s a concomitant notion that somehow the act of debunking Santa holds the potential to obliterate a child’s capacity for innocence and imagination, and quite possibly leave them with the dull, jaded outlook of a middle-aged chartered accountant on the eve of his second divorce. Or else turn them into a fleet of joyless androids each wearing the face of Richard Dawkins. As if in the pre-Santa days of Shakespeare and Dumas the kids of the world were witless dullards, and every visionary, artist and poet worth their salt only emerged post-Pole.

Santa began as a folk-tale that may have morphed out of the legends of a Saint. He was a quite different, certainly less sanguine, figure in his early days, and one that children were more inclined to fear than to keenly anticipate. The Santa we know and love today – the darling of TV adverts, movies and billboards – has only existed in his current form – big-bearded, red-jacketed and jolly – for a comparatively short time (the same is true for his retinue: Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer only arrived in 1939); but yet we are encouraged to believe that something as malleable and arbitrary as the historical idea of Santa should be considered unchallengeable, unchangeable and eternal.

Santa is but one fictional character in a cast of thousands. Why does he get special dispensation when it comes to the laws of reality? I regularly read my eldest son stories about alien encounters, magical beanstalks, sentient robots and talking horses, without ever feeling the need to perpetuate the entertaining fallacies inherent in the source material. No-one would consider it heresy for me to explain to my son that horses can’t really talk; knowing this fact doesn’t in any way limit his imagination or detract from his very real enjoyment of the story. Penguins don’t have jobs, dogs can’t moonlight as policemen, aliens can’t travel through time in a physics-defying police box, there’s no such thing as ghosts, and people can’t turn green and smash buildings when they’re angry. He knows that, or at least these things have been explained to him. He doesn’t care. He still mimics these characters and scenarios, and riffs on them in his own unique, imaginative way when he’s running about the house lost in make-believe or play-acting with his toys.

Strange old ladies don’t stop him in the street to ask if he’s excited about a visit from the talking horse. He doesn’t see a million adverts on TV featuring a talking horse trying to convince him to buy things. He isn’t taken to The Talking Horse’s Grotto every year. In no other sphere of life are children’s fantastical notions so systematically cemented into fact.

Perhaps in the past the Santa fantasy was more innocent and fleeting in nature: a little tale or poem wheeled out every Christmas Eve; a single evening of merry make-believe. These days Santa is everywhere. Literally everywhere; he’s like a God who’s tired of enigma. You can write to him, email him, watch him, read him, visit him, Skype him, tag him. He appears every year at the stroke of November, and doesn’t stop assailing kids with his maniacal mirth-making until the last slice of turkey’s been fed to the dog.

Your motivations may be pure. You may only wish to indulge in a little heart-warming festive fantasy. But you don’t have the luxury of raising your children unplugged from the Matrix. Santa is perpetuated by businesses, not by you.

Money. It’s all about money. Just like everything else.

The power of Santa compels him… to do very little

Here’s a question for you: why does Santa deliver unequal amounts of toys to the children of the world? Why does he deliver more toys to affluent families than he does to poor families? Clearly, on the great sliding scale of political ideology, the red-jacketed sleigh-racer is more tightly aligned to conservative notions of capitalism than he is to communism, or socialism. If your kid goes back to school after the winter break with a new pair of cheap shoes and a toy laser gun, and has to listen to another kid bragging about his £1000 home entertainment system and surprise trip to Disneyland, what is he to infer about his worth in Santa’s eyes? Should he castigate himself for being too naughty, placing the blame for his poor festive haul upon his own tiny shoulders? Or should he just conclude that Santa doesn’t really like him all that much?

Remove Santa from this equation, and you’ve still got a problem with unequal distribution of wealth and resources in society, married to an unslakable thirst for goods and gadgets that’s only heightened and reinforced by our media, but that’s an argument for another time (besides, there are more learned, original and eloquent thinkers out there with better and more important things to say on the topic than little old me).

Consider also this point: Santa is an omniscient being who has mastered time itself, can travel around the globe and back in one evening, and can apparently conjure an endless supply of toys from thin air, much as another bearded magician once did with water, wine, loaves and fish. Santa uses these powers not to alleviate suffering, lift people out of hunger and poverty, cure the sick and the lame or to usher in a new era of world peace, but to drop toy robots down chimneys. What a role model. He’s no better than Sooty. Or Jesus.

You can emphasise the magical, imagination-stretching benefits of a child’s belief in Santa as a rationale for deceiving your children, but when I hear Santa’s name mentioned by parents, more often than not his name is evoked as a correctional tool rather than as an instrument of wonder. Be nice, behave, go to bed, tidy your room, eat your dinner or Santa will cross you off his list, and you won’t get any toys. By weaponising Santa in this way, parents have created a bearded boogeyman to scare or bribe their children into behaving the way they want them to. This may be an instantly effective, no-nonsense behavioural control technique, but then so is smashing them in the face with a cricket bat.

The sad truth is that parents are conditioning their children to be good not for goodness’ sake – as the old snowman song goes – but to be good so they can get a new TV. They’re being encouraged to equate virtue with financial reward. Part of being a happy, successful and fully-socialised human being necessitates a degree of sacrifice, negotiation, humility and deference. These are qualities – and modes of conflict resolution – that shouldn’t need a chuckling demigod, or the dangled carrot of a PlayStation 4, to be fully realised.

My family and I were in a shopping mall last year, and passed by a Santa’s grotto. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something deeply sinister and ritualistic about the line of dead-eyed kids shuffling up to receive their gifts. They were like a cult. Here’s your new church, kids, here’s your new Jesus: roll up, roll up, as we inculcate you into the wholesale religion of consumer greed. Ho ho ho.

We experience rather enough problems with the religions we already have, thank you very much, without adding Santaism to the list. While belief in Santa may be the ‘Temporary Profile Picture’ of quasi-religious micro-faiths, it worries me tremendously that a belief in the supernaturalness of Santa might serve as a gateway drug to harder fictional beings, like Jesus or Moroni.

Imagine the scene in a household where a child who has been raised in a pro-Santa Christian family finally discovers that Santa isn’t real.

CHILD: “Ah, so Santa was all a big lie, was he? That’s hilarious. You had me, you did, you really had me, you got me hook, line and sinker with that one. So, come on, put me out of my misery. Jesus, right? Come on, the cat’s out of the bag. You made him up too, right? Miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead. I knew there was something iffy about that. I’ve got to hand it to you, though, you’ve created a genius fictional character there.”

PARENT: “Em… nope. Nope. That’s all true. Em… Jesus is real.”

CHILD: “…”

(Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Santa – employed properly – could be the antidote to Jesus: the great flicking wrist to bring down the whole house of cards.)

Nothing should be done to inhibit a child’s burgeoning critical faculties, or to corrupt their very sense of the world as an observable, rational and comprehensible place. Don’t get me wrong. I myself used to believe wholeheartedly in Santa Claus. I used to get letters from him, in this very ornate handwriting. I thought, this could only be the work of a magical being, he writes like a bloody pro. This guy’s the real deal. I also used to get plenty of Valentine’s cards. I don’t think I can properly express the horror I felt on the day I was old enough to realise that the letters from Santa and the Valentine’s cards were all in the same handwriting. That was a shock to me. “Well, Santa. I see last year’s presents have come with a few strings attached. I’m not that sort of boy. But maybe throw in a few Easter eggs and we’ll talk.”

The truth was even more horrible. I cross-referenced the Santa letters and the valentine’s cards with the handwriting on my birthday cards. They were from my gran. “Roses are red, I’m your mum’s mummy, I am going to put you, back up in my tummy.” I know she was just trying to boost my fragile little-boy ego, but I really bought in to the whole romantic fantasy. And all that time the unrequited love of my young life was a bloated septuagenarian who smelled of cabbage. I was cat-fished by own gran before it was even a thing.

“See?” people will say. “You believed in Santa, and YOU weren’t traumatised.”

You could put forward exactly the same argument for religion. Come on, you sang songs, you listened to some nice little stories, you went on coach trips. What’s your problem? I’ll tell you what my problem is: consent.

Believe me, I’ve analysed my opposition to Santa endlessly. Was I lied to as a child? Did I have promises broken? Is this what’s driving my dissection: are my trust issues bleeding on to Santa’s coat? I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. I just have a hard time accepting that This is the way things are. This is the way things have always been. I can’t stop questioning. I have to ask why do we do it? When did we first do it? How has this ritual evolved? What did we do before it? What might we do in the future? What do they do in other countries? What are the consequences of us doing this? What are the consequences of us not doing this? How can the answers to either of those last two questions be measured to any degree of satisfaction?

Whose interest does Santa really serve?

I’m conscious that I’m probably coming across as even more of a misery guts and world-class humbug than Scrooge himself. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the ceremony and expectation of Christmas. I love the tree, the twinkling lights, the cosy mugs of cocoa on the cold and bitter nights. I’m probably more excited about my kids opening their presents than they are (especially in the case of my youngest, who doesn’t yet know what the hell Christmas is). My partner and I have chosen presents perfectly suited to their personalities, presents that will help them play and learn and laugh and grow.

Maybe I just don’t want Santa to muscle in on that. But, more than that, I find it almost impossible to lie to my kids. Santa is a secret I’ve had no say in, that I have no need for. You don’t need Santa to make Christmas magical, but you do require his absence to maintain an honest and healthy stance on both society and the universe itself. My silence is being demanded not to preserve the mystery and magic of the festive season, but to stop me from blowing the whistle on the millions of other families who have chosen to deceive their children. Families who want to keep using Santa as a four-month-long carrot-and-stick combo. This only makes me want to blow the whistle all the more; to send my sons into their schools with information bombs strapped to their brains, ready to blast your children in their faces with the bright light of truth.

But I won’t. Because I’m as much a sheep as the rest of you. I took them to Santa’s Grotto last week. Me. Wilfully. Accidentally (I didn’t know the garden centre I was taking them to had a grotto), but of my own volition. And stood like a statue next to them both as pseudo-Santa spewed out his lies. I’m a Christmas quisling. A hypocrite. A man who fears the zeal of his festive partner. A man who has more and more respect for apostates and cult-breakers. If I can’t even wriggle my kids free of Santa’s soft grip, what hope would I have had as a doubting Scientologist?

I always want to be truthful with and to my children. But there are always limits. At some point in the future I’ll find myself having the following conversation:

“Daddy… what happens to grandma and grandpa now that they’re dead? Have they just disappeared? Will I ever see them again?”

“…”

“Daddy?”

“TWO MONTHS UNTIL SANTA COMES, WEE GUY, ARE YOU AS EXCITED AS I AM??!!”

Merry Christmas everybody.

Kids’ Birthday Parties: This is Your Life Now

What can I say about birthday parties for the under-5s?

Well, it’s nice for them to get a chance to let their hair down and hang out with their friends. After all, they spend the majority of their time within the bosoms of their families, and what time they don’t is spent trapped within institutions; institutions that will carry them to their graves.

I’m talking about the parents, of course. Poor bastards: walking about with baby puke patches on their best jumpers, sporting big black panda eyes and stress lines like seismographs on their foreheads, and grinning at each other like frightened chimps as they desperately fight to stave off the twin horrors of sleep and full mental breakdown, all while trying to pretend that somehow it was all worth it.I guess the old saying’s true: a moment on the hips, a lifetime of IKEA trips.

Remember when your social calendar was measured in weekly increments rather than bi-annually? Remember when you used to gaze across the horizon of your life and see nothing but unfettered fun and wine-tinged sunsets? Remember when you used to hit the town in a loudly-laughing posse of posers, and then stay out drinking and dancing till dawn, leaping the next day’s hangovers like they were half-foot-high hurdles? If you hit the town with your posse these days,try to herd you into some dingy old men’s pub with a vaguely nautical name, where even the women have anchor tattoos on their biceps. But you don’t have to worry about any of that, because nobody asks you to go ‘out out’ anymore anyway.

They ask you to kids’ birthday parties instead. This multi-coloured nightmare is your social life now: coffee and cake at the soft play surrounded by a thousand screaming kids. You’ve all got so much to talk about and catch up on, you and your friends, but good luck talking about anything other than your kids. Your brain may cycle through a database of potential topics – politics, entertainment, nutrition, religion – but whatever it is you think you’re going to talk about, you can’t open your mouth without saying something like: ‘Apparently Skye’s in the ninetieth centile for weight’ or ‘What Jason lacks in language skills he certainly makes up for in spatial awareness.’

If you do manage to kick-start a non-parenting related conversation it will inevitably be cut short by one of your children running up to you screaming with a blood-covered face (‘Daddy, I tried to put my head through the wall like a ghost but it hurt me!’), or loudly agitating for a shit.

Mind you, I find that kids are handy to have around in these sorts of situations, especially since I discovered just how bad I am at mingling. There’s nothing like quitting drinking to reveal how socially awkward you are at root. I’m really ferociously bad at shooting the breeze or shooting the shit, or whatever shooting-based analogy you care to use. I’m bloody awful at it. After a few minutes dribbling out the kind of small talk an old tramp at a bus-stop would be ashamed to profer, it’s nice to be able to go:

‘WHAT’S THAT, JACK? YOU WANT ME TO GO DOWN THE CHUTE WITH YOU?’

‘Jamie, I don’t think he said anyth…’

‘I’LL BE RIGHT THERE, SON! Hold my miniature box of Smarties, will you.’

I usually swagger into these parties desperately sucking in my stomach muscles (what exists of them) to retract my bulk in case I encounter old acquaintances who haven’t borne witness to my gradual slide into jelly-bellied oblivion, and who might yet still be fooled into thinking that I play squash every now and again, or occasionally eat lettuce. It’s a fragile illusion, usually broken simply because it’s really hard to hold a fat torso in the shape of a capital ‘C’ for more than twenty minutes without getting stomach cramps.

Towards the end of these soft-play parties the kids are typically ushered into a side-compartment of the main hall to have a spot of grub. Invariably, their eating-space is fenced in and cordoned off like the canteen in a maximum-security prison, an association only lent more substance by the fact that they can get tattoos done after their snacks. Seeing my eldest son standing in his vest later that night looking like an old lifer always makes me regret not having asked the resident face-painter to daub a little blue tear-drop beneath one of his eyes. In preparation for the next party I’m teaching him to say: ‘Hey esse! Do we got a fuckin’ problem here?’

Whether the party is held at a soft-play or in a house it always ends with gifts being handed out to the attendees; wee bags of ‘fuck off’ as I like to call them. What an ingeniously polite way to get rid of people. Treat them as you entreat them to leave and it doesn’t seem so harsh. ‘It’s been a fun two hours, but please take your toy helicopters and little whistles, and get the fuck out of my house.’ Adult parties often drag on without any clear or definite end, so I think we would benefit enormously from introducing some sort of gift bag system:

‘So my Sally’s language skills may not be the best, but, I’ll tell you, her spatial awaren… oh, what’s this?’

‘It’s a bag of marshmallows and vodka miniatures. Now fuck off.’

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READ MORE ABOUT THE NIGHTMARE OF SOFT-PLAYS BY CLICKING HERE

Scotland’s Smacking Ban: a Hit?

‘Smacking’ sounds really nice, doesn’t it? The word, I mean. If you’re hungry for a snack, your lips might smack; if your gran comes to visit she might ask you to pucker up and give her a big old smacker on the kisser. Onomatopeiacally, a smack is rather like a crack, but much less forceful: sharper, cleaner, kinder.

It’s the sort of sound that makes you nostalgic for the good old days, when men were men, women were women, and botties were smacked. By golly we miss those halcyon, smoke-hazed days, before the cultural assassins in the Stalinist SNP tried to rob us of our right to smack: a right that is as sacred to us Scots as is the right to bear arms to the Americans, by God! And we will fight to defend that right!

I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll organise a protest outside of the Scottish parliament: six-thousand angry parents and their six-thousand passive, blank-faced children. We’ll march them up to the front door, whip their trousers down, bend them over our knees and show Nicola Sturgeon that we mean business with the world’s biggest six-hour-long, six-thousand-bum synchronised smacking, the sound of which will fill the air like revolutionary gun-fire! Smack, smack, smack! Read our bums, Nicola! We won’t be turning the other cheek on this one. Well, we will be, as a matter of fact, but only so we can bloody well smack it, too!

…Language is a funny old thing, isn’t it? Time and again we bend and smash and smush and twist our words as though they were putty and paste, making paper machier towers that we let ourselves believe are permanent, solid, unbreakable. We build words around us like ramparts, and take up sniper positions behind them; we try on words like we’re shopping for clothes, seeking out dazzling combinations that accentuate our wealth, power, sex appeal, or contrition – does my guilt look thinner in this sentence? – or else use them to reinvent ourselves entirely; sometimes we use words as shields to protect us from the force of the truth: the truth of who we are and what we do: enemy combatant; extraordinary rendition; my honourable friend; friendly fire; constructive dismissal; it’s not you it’s me; McDonalds Happy Meal.

‘Smacking’ isn’t really smacking, you see: it’s hitting. Why don’t you try saying that instead? ‘Smacking’ is hitting a small, defenceless child, and that’s true regardless of the strength of the hit, or whether the point of impact is a bottie, a thigh, an arm, a face or a chest.

If you’re defending what you perceive as your universal human right to smack a child, then at least be honest about it. Rip the mask from the face of that word to reveal its true identity, and lay bare your own sub-Lecter-ish lust for pain and power. Spell out your intentions both to yourself and to the world at large. Shout it from the rooftops: ‘I demand the right to hit and inflict pain on the fruits of my loin without consequence or interference, whenever I see fit and however spurious the reason.’

In terms of self-delusion there’s very little difference between ‘I don’t beat my children, for goodness sake, I just give them a light corrective smack’ and ‘I’m not an alcoholic, for goodness sake, I wait until at least lunchtime before having my first drink!’

‘Yea, yea, yeah, you ponce!’ you might cry. ‘But I got smacked, and it never did me any harm!’

Ah, that familiar cry, countered so many times by the now-equally familiar cry, ‘Yes it did, because you believe that it’s okay to hit children.’ I’ve noticed that the most ardent supporters of ‘smacking’ are usually those upon whose faces you can see the tragic consequences of a life lived through shortcuts in a permanent present tense: crumbling teeth; unkempt hair; blotched and bloodshot eyes that show the world a map of impulse forever left unchecked.

Probably best to eschew parenting advice from someone who’s lazy and blinkered enough to hit first and ask questions later.

Plus, if smacking is your go-to punishment of choice, how do you punish your child for hitting somebody? By hitting them? What message does that send? Especially since they may be hitting other people precisely because you’ve taught them that hitting is permissible.

‘But how else will children learn right from wrong?’

Take violence from our toolbox, and we’re powerless! It’s true. That’s why we still beat children in schools, and our boss is legally entitled to smash us in the face with a tyre iron. That’s why when the judge is about to pronounce sentence in the courtroom he might say something like: ‘The defendant has been found guilty on all counts of his robbery charges. Now bring him here so I can kick the fuck out of him.’

I can understand the impulse to hit. Of course I can, I’m a human being, and I live in a world that contains Piers Morgan. I can even understand the impulse to hit a child. No creature on earth can inspire such anger, and scream-inducing helplessness and frustration as your own child. But I would never – and could never – do it. I don’t think I could ever look my kids in the eye again, and I’d feel like an irredeemable failure as a father.

In no other sphere of life do we condone hitting as a solution. Even savagely violent, hopelessly recidivistic killers are spared violence as a behaviour modification tool. Looking for another reason not to hit your child? Let reason itself be your reason. Behold the maxim below that’s been floating around cyberspace in meme form for quite some time now:

Now that our eldest son, Jack, is approaching the age of reason, we’ve started using a sticker-based behaviour-modification system, through which good behaviour can be recognised, rewarded and reinforced, and bad behaviour can be circumnavigated. It’s not a perfect system, granted, but it seems to achieve its aims without causing major psychological damage. The other week, Jack was trying to pilfer a biscuit before bedtime; he had a hand inside the bag with a biscuit held between his fingers in a vice-like pincer grip. When I calmly advised that his current course of action would result in the immediate loss of a sticker, he couldn’t have dropped that biscuit any quicker if I’d been an armed New York cop shouting ‘Freeze, dirtbag!’

On a few occasions, thanks to the child’s method of learning and evolving through mimicry, he put on his best faux-cross-face and told me he was going to take a sticker away from ME.

Replay that scene again, mimicry and all, but this time imagine that I’d hit him.

‘Kids will run wild if you don’t show them who’s boss.’

It’s hard to believe that we once allowed teachers to belt our children up and down the schoolyard, making our own flesh-and-blood handy scapegoats for everything wrong in a teacher’s life from sexual frustration to really bad hangovers.

But there are still those who would give a wildly disingenuous defence of smacking, both private and corporal. They’ll tell you that there’s a direct correlation between the ban on corporal punishment, and a decline of discipline, order and respect in today’s society. That somehow if we were to take the next logical step and ban smacking entirely then discipline would cease to exist. Instead of there being negative consequences for misbehaviour, kids would instead be disproportionately rewarded for their breaches: “Ah, I see you’ve thrown a television through the window of the old folks’ home, Timmy. What would you say to a lovely new Playstation 4, slugger?” (PS: If anyone should be beaten for their transgressions, it should be me for splitting an infinitive in the previous sentence)

You want to be disingenuous? I can be disingenuous too. My friends, there’s a direct link between corporal punishment and child beatings, and the advent of both world wars. Violence begets violence, you see.

We can’t live in the past. We have to move forward. Learn from our mistakes. As has become abundantly clear in recent months and years, there are many among us content to hark back to the good old days, which weren’t really all that good anyway. They wish they still lived in a world where they could be thirty-thousand feet in the air in an aeroplane piloted by a shit-faced captain, knocking back whiskeys, maniacally chain-smoking, free to punch their child in the face should they have the temerity to cough, and occasionally stopping to hurl sexually-charged racial abuse at one of the stewardesses: ‘Phwoar, you’re alright for a darkie, sweetheart!’

I don’t think the smacking ban has a realistic chance of being properly policed or enforced, but it might just open up the issue to public scrutiny – as it’s doing right now – and perhaps dissuade parents from adding smacking to their parental repertoire. The ban, however symbolic its application, will at least amplify the message, loud and clear, that we don’t live in that world anymore.

Twelve things I’ve learned being a Dad to two under four (PART 1)

1.) Buggies suck.

You know the old proverb. “Fold or unfold a buggy for a man, and he’ll be able to push the baby for a day. But teach him how to fold or unfold the buggy, and you’ll still have to do it for him every fucking day.”

The operation of most modern buggies is remarkably simple. Click, clunk, push. Press, pull, fold. So why then do I find myself, every single time – and I do mean every  single time – jumping up and down in a car park, my arms flailing like a possessed, pissed semaphorist trying to marshal an airplane, loudly threatening an inanimate hunk of cloth and plastic with death and destruction? I’ve been shown how to operate the infernal contraption time and again, on an almost daily basis, and each time I say, ‘Ah, of course, now I remember. Next time will be easy’. But next time isn’t easy. Next time is another angry wrestling match betwixt man and plastic. It’s like Groundhog Day, but by the end of the movie Phil can’t play the piano and he’s still having eighty doughnuts for breakfast. Why aren’t kids born with wheels?

2.) Never use the ‘Bad Man’ to deter your kids from disobeying, or running off.

He’s a demonic boogey-man routinely conjured by lazy parents to strike an easy jolt of fear into their children, when the same result could easily be achieved through gentler, less traumatising means, namely by employing the twin powers of reason and imagination.

(Starts with a snicker, builds to a convulsing laugh, ends with me in hysterics, hardly able to breathe and slapping my thigh like a coke-fueled cowboy) Yeah, right. Fuck that. The ‘Bad Man’ practically has his own room in our house, en-suite and everything. He gets breakfast in bed, and even gets to leave the toilet seat up after a piss. At first we used him sparingly. ‘Don’t run off round that corner. The bad man might be there.’ Then we started riffing, really having fun fleshing out the character:

‘He’s got an electrified glove that will burn you like toast,’

‘He’s got a time-grenade that’ll blow you back to the prehistoric era and your head will be crunched off by a T-Rex,’

‘He likes to melt children down and make them into candles, and then he farts on the candles, and then he pees them out.’

We started pretend-calling him for the most minor of infractions. ‘Hello, is that the bad man? Yeah, he won’t blow his nose. You’ll what? You’ll skin him alive?’ (lowering phone and whispering to son) ‘I can’t negotiate with this guy, he’s a fucking lunatic, you’d better just do what he says.’

Reason doesn’t work on young children. That’s why you need to get yourself your very own on-call behavioural terrorist. Long live the bad man.

3.) A bacon sandwich tastes so much sweeter after you’ve suffered through 3,000 episodes of Peppa Pig.

Not 3000 new episodes of Peppa Pig. The same episode 3000 times. Each staccato plink of that risible theme song starts to feel like a knife to the spine. I hate that my three-year-old loves it so much. It’s horrible. Not only does it make you feel like you’re watching TV through a spy-hole, but the kids are insolent, disobedient little shits and the father is a marginalised moron who’d be more use to the world inside a BLT. I’ve largely cut meat from my diet and don’t eat pork anymore, but I’d make an exception for Daddy, the snorting imbecile.

Don’t let your kids watch it. If none of that convinces you then never forget that the pigs are clearly walking, talking big balls-and-cocks. Look at them! It’s undeniable. Peppa Pig? Peppa BIG Nutsack more like.

4.) Toilets will never be the same again.

A week or so ago I had to make a hurried journey to the bathroom, with just enough time for a brisk detour to pick up a book. I perched in comfort, readying myself to begin the expulsion not just of my internal waste, but also of the day’s worries and frustrations. I was happy. I was safe. Nothing out there in that noisy, calamitous universe could touch me, at least for the next five minutes.

I was perched on the toilet, enjoying my brief reprieve from life, when from downstairs came the screams of my second-born, Christopher. He’d been placed atop a soft blanket of toys by his mother as she bravely attempted to start cooking dinner. Christopher’s not a kid usually prone to screaming, but when he feels the need he makes sure to broadcast those screams at just the right frequency to pierce steel, skull and concrete. ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ came the cries from my eldest boy, Jack, accompanying his baby brother’s fervent WAH WAH WAHs.

Jack kept wailing as he staggered and trudged up the stairs like a mustard-gassed soldier: ‘DADDY, DADDY, MY EYES!!! MY EYES!!!’

He’d found a bottle of his mother’s perfume and naturally had decided to spray himself directly in the eyes with it, the bold little scientist that he is. ‘MY EYEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!’

That’s what most trips to the toilet are like these days. Remember that old Dad-centric cliché about a bathroom being a man’s last bastion of peace in a chaotic household? It’s full of shit. The bathroom door may as well be spun from spider-silk or constructed by a mime artist. If your kid needs to get through that door, locked or not, and no matter what you’re doing in there, then you’re opening up. They’ll rap and tap and chap and bang until you’re forced to waddle towards it like an all-penguin John Wayne. They’ll then make you stand there by the sink in hellish, bowed-leg silence, like a naughty dog – squidgy poo-parcel half-nipped and glistening – as they take the longest piss in the world. Or even a particularly savage shit, just to rub some salt into the wound.

It’s toilet Top Trumps, and your kid will always win, principally because it reflects rather badly on you as a parent if you force your kid to stand outside in the hall and shit themselves.

THANK YOU FOR READING, YOU ADORABLE BASTARDS.

ANOTHER FOUR NEXT WEEK.

Why it’s time to bid farewell to Santa (or: Why Santa is bad for your kids’ elf)

I could sit in a circle of peers and announce that I don’t believe in Yahweh, God, Vishnu, Allah or a giant turtle that holds the known world atop its back as it crawls through the cosmos, and most of them would probably accept this declaration with a silent nod or a shrug of the shoulders. Never mind that in certain countries, among certain people and cultures, such a vow would earn me a spell in prison, a steak knife to the stomach or death. Here in the modern, secular west, I can profess belief, or its lack, in whatsoever I choose and be almost certain of a tolerant reception. But try to tell people that I don’t want to play along with the Santa myth we force upon our kids, and I’m treated like a scar-faced leper with a vest of grenades and a public masturbation problem.

The sprawling Santa conspiracy, global in its reach, in which we entangle our children raises a multitude of uncomfortable questions, and comes at a terrible price: not least of which is the spirit of shattered trust in which it’s perpetuated.

All other western cultural norms are fluid, it seems, except for this one. Never this one. The only things that will grant you an exemption from Santa are deeply-held fundamentalist Christian beliefs or adherence to a non-Christian faith, and even then you’ll probably still be regarded as a destroyer of children’s dreams.

It’s clear that there’s something about this little red-and-white lie that’s seen as integral to and inextricable from a hearty and wholesome childhood. There’s a concomitant notion that somehow the act of debunking Santa holds the potential to obliterate a child’s capacity for innocence and imagination, and quite possibly leave them with the dull, jaded outlook of a middle-aged chartered accountant on the eve of his second divorce. Or else turn them into a fleet of joyless androids each with the face of Richard Dawkins.

Santa is but one fictional character in a cast of thousands. Why should he get special dispensation when it comes to the laws of reality? I regularly read my son stories about alien encounters, magical beanstalks, sentient robots and talking horses, without ever feeling the need to perpetuate the entertaining fallacies inherent in the source material. No-one would consider it heresy for me to explain to my son that horses can’t really talk; knowing this fact doesn’t in any way limit his imagination or detract from his very real enjoyment of the story. Penguins don’t have jobs, dogs can’t moonlight as policemen, there’s no such thing as ghosts, people can’t turn green and smash buildings when they’re angry. He knows that, or at least these things have been explained to him. He doesn’t care. He still mimics these characters and scenarios, and riffs on them in his own unique, imaginative way when he’s running about the house or play-acting with his toys.

The power of Santa compels him… to do very little

Here’s a question for you: why does Santa deliver unequal amounts of toys to the children of the world? Why does he deliver more toys to affluent families than he does to poor families? Clearly, on the great sliding scale of political ideology, the red-jacketed sleigh-racer is more tightly aligned to conservative notions of capitalism than he is to communism, or socialism. If your kid goes back to school after the winter break with a new pair of cheap shoes and a toy laser gun, and has to listen to another kid bragging about his £1000 home entertainment system and surprise trip to Disneyland, what is he to infer about his worth in Santa’s eyes? Should he castigate himself for being too naughty, placing the blame for his poor festive haul upon his own tiny shoulders? Or should he just conclude that Santa doesn’t really like him all that much?

Remove Santa from this equation, and you’ve still got a problem with unequal distribution of wealth and resources in society, married to an unslakable thirst for goods and gadgets that’s only heightened and reinforced by our media, but that’s an argument for another time (besides, there are more learned, original and eloquent thinkers out there with better and more important things to say on the topic than little old me).

Consider also this point: Santa is an omniscient being who has mastered time itself, can travel around the globe and back in one evening, and can apparently conjure an endless supply of toys from thin air, much as another bearded magician once did with water, wine, loaves and fish. Santa uses these powers not to alleviate suffering, lift people out of hunger and poverty, cure the sick and the lame or to usher in a new era of world peace, but to drop toy robots down chimneys. What a role model. He’s no better than Sooty, or Jesus.

You can emphasise the magical, imagination-stretching benefits of a child’s belief in Santa as a rationale for deceiving your children, but when I hear Santa’s name mentioned by parents, more often than not his name is evoked as a correctional tool rather than as an instrument of wonder. Be nice, behave, go to bed, tidy your room, eat your dinner, or Santa will cross you off his list, and you won’t get any toys. By weaponising Santa in this way, parents have created a bearded boogeyman to scare or bribe their children into behaving the way they want them to. This may be an instantly effective, no-nonsense behavioural control technique, but then so is smashing them in the face with a cricket bat.

The sad truth is that parents are conditioning their children to be good not for goodness’ sake – as the old snowman song goes – but to be good so they can get a new TV. They’re being encouraged to equate virtue with financial reward. Part of being a happy, successful and fully-socialised human being necessitates a degree of sacrifice, negotiation, humility and deference. These are qualities – and modes of conflict resolution – that shouldn’t need a chuckling demigod, or the dangled carrot of a PlayStation 4, to be fully realised.

My family and I were in a shopping mall at the weekend, and passed by a Santa’s grotto. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something deeply sinister and ritualistic about the line of dead-eyed kids shuffling up to receive their gifts. They were like a cult. Ho ho ho. Here’s your new church, kids, here’s your new Jesus: roll up, roll up, as we inculcate you into the wholesale religion of consumer greed.

We experience rather enough problems with the religions we already have, thank you very much, without adding Santaism to the list. While belief in Santa may be the ‘Temporary Profile Picture’ of quasi-religious micro-faiths, it worries me tremendously that a belief in the supernaturalness of Santa might serve as a gateway drug to harder fictional beings, like Jesus or Moroni.

Imagine the scene in a household where a child who has been raised in a pro-Santa Christian family finally discovers that Santa isn’t real.

CHILD: “Ah, so Santa was all a big lie, was he? That’s hilarious. You had me, you did, you really had me, you got me hook, line and sinker with that one. So, come on, put me out of my misery. Jesus, right? Come on, the cat’s out of the bag. You made him up too, right? Miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead. I knew there was something iffy about that. I’ve got to hand it to you, though, you’ve created a genius fictional character there.”

PARENT: “Em… nope. Nope. That’s all true. Em… Jesus is real.”

CHILD: “…”

(Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Santa – employed properly – could be the antidote to Jesus: the great flicking wrist to bring down the whole house of cards.)

Parents and guardians are the people that children listen to and look up to above all others, whose word is gospel for a significant proportion of their young lives. For them to distort a child’s understanding of the laws of time, physics and the universe is an unforgivable crime. Nothing should be done to inhibit a child’s burgeoning critical faculties, or to corrupt their very sense of the world as an observable, rational and comprehensible place.

Don’t get me wrong. I myself used to believe wholeheartedly in Santa Claus. I used to get letters from him, in this very ornate handwriting. I thought, this could only be the work of a magical being, he writes like a bloody pro. This guy’s the real deal. I also used to get plenty of Valentine’s cards. I don’t think I can properly express the horror I felt on the day I was old enough to realise that the letters from Santa and the Valentine’s cards were all in the same handwriting. That was a shock to me. “Well, Santa. I see last year’s presents have come with a few strings attached. I’m not that sort of boy. But maybe throw in a few easter eggs and we’ll talk.”

The truth was even more horrible. I cross-referenced the Santa letters and the valentine’s cards with the handwriting on my birthday cards. They were from my gran. “Roses are red, I’m your mum’s mummy, I am going to put you, back up in my tummy.” I know she was just trying to boost my fragile little-boy ego, but I really bought in to the whole romantic fantasy. And all that time the unrequited love of my young life was a bloated septugenarian who smelled of cabbage. I was cat-fished by own gran before it was even a thing.

I guess what really irks me about this time of year is the fact that Santa is a secret I’ve had no say in. You don’t need Santa to make Christmas magical, but you do require his absence to maintain an honest and healthy stance on both our society and the universe itself. My silence is being demanded, not to preserve the mystery and magic of the festive season, but to stop me from blowing the whistle on the millions of other families who have chosen to deceive their children. Families who want to keep using Santa as a four-month-long carrot-and-stick combo. This only makes me want to blow the whistle all the more; to send my sons into their future schools with information bombs strapped to their brains, ready to blast your children in their faces with the bright light of truth.

I always want to be truthful with my children.

“Daddy… what happens to grandma and grandpa now that they’re dead? Have they just disappeared? Will I ever see them again?”

“…”

“Daddy?”

“TWO MONTHS UNTIL SANTA COMES, WEE GUY, ARE YOU AS EXCITED AS I AM??!!”

I think I do, anyway.

Admit it: you prefer one child over the other

birthy1When my son Jack was born, I was filled with an almost cosmic feeling. I took to the keyboard and rattled off an effusive essay that encapsulated my feelings of fatherly pride and love, factoring in a rejection of God and religion along the way. I saw myself in Jack. He was me, I was him. I understood something of the universe, and my place within it. I poured all of my hopes and dreams into the tiny vessel of his wailing, reddened body. He was my world. He was the world. He was everything.

We were a family.

The problem I now find myself facing, following the birth of my second son, Christopher, is how can I write such a thing twice? How can I feel all of that twice? Look at it this way, through the prism of another variety of human love: if you write a book of poetry for your first wife, what the hell do you give your second wife? Two books of poetry? A Ferrari? A dismembered ear? And given how passionately you articulated your undying love the first time around, how can you convince your second wife that your present feelings are to be believed without cheapening the memory of the just-as-genuine feelings you experienced with your first wife?

It goes without saying that I felt a great rush of relief and happiness when Christopher emerged alive and intact from his maternal cocoon; an explosion of love and affection and an urge to safeguard and protect that was only amplified when I held his fluttering, mewling, helpless little body against my skin for the first time. But I also have this guilty, soul-curdling feeling that, this time around, I didn’t feel as much, or as strongly.

Some of it’s the novelty factor (but imagine that I’ve used a word other than ‘novelty’, which usually conjures up images of an electronic singing fish you’re given for Christmas, laugh at once and then throw in the bin). What I mean is, the whole event and its after-shocks the first time around were unmapped, mysterious and terrifying. Now we know what we’re doing, and we know what to expect. For instance, during the first two weeks of Jack’s existence there wasn’t a single moment where both my partner and I were asleep at the same time. We took it in shifts to sit awake with him, all through the day, all through the night, in a bid to ward off surprise attacks from all manner of unwelcome scenarios. A watched kettle never boils, we reasoned: a watched child never dies.

It’s a gruelling time, as all first-time parents know. Each and every sound Jack made acted upon our nervous systems like a fire alarm. Dangers lurked around every corner, and between each of his miniscule breaths. That fear, which can never fully be exorcised, has now been dampened, and with it, I’m sure, some of the spikes of over-powering relief and devotion that follow in fear’s wake. Christopher can now enjoy a set of new, improved and fully desensitised parents. He could scream like a banshee as a giant mutant hawk splintered in through the living room window, and our response would most likely be some species of Parisian shrug.

I guess some of my more subdued feelings can be attributed to my partner’s style of mothering. She breast-feeds and co-sleeps, meaning that my part in proceedings is necessarily limited. Yes, it’s important that I form a bond with Christopher; it’s important that he knows who I am and comes to recognise me as one of the core people sworn to love and protect him, but nothing is more vital – in these early stages at least – than his bond with his mother. If he’s hungry, she feeds him. If he’s frightened, she soothes him. If he soils himself, she… well, okay, I should probably be doing that, too.

birthy3My partner and I decided that the best use of my time during my absence from work would be to concentrate my attentions on Jack; help out the team by occupying its most vocal and demanding member. Take him places and busy him to soften the blow of his mother’s attention being refocused on his little brother. There’s an element of strategy at play, but it’s certainly not an imposition. Jack, at his present stage of development, is endlessly fascinating: his capacity for joy, jokes and affection grows visibly each day; likewise his intelligence, vocabulary and curiosity, the outer-limits of which are increasing exponentially, like a universe expanding. I love being around him, seeing what he does, seeing how he thinks, watching him laugh, coo, cry and dash about, all the while helping to give his critical and emotional faculties a leg-up. He’s fully-formed and ready made, and I can see the difference I make to his life in real-time.

Of course we’ve also been careful to ensure that Jack spends as much time as possible with his mother, both within the wider family and one-on-one; to remind him that although his little brother requires the lion’s share of his mother’s time, he’s not any less important, loved or valued. It’s important for my partner, too, who dearly misses the closeness of the bond she once shared with Jack. In some sense, the baton’s been passed to me. I’ve been privileged these past few weeks to share the bulk of my time with him, and for a long time now I’ve been the one who’s there with him at bed-and-bath times; the one he crawls next to in bed when he toddles through from his bedroom in the dead of night, wrapping his arms around my neck, burrowing into my chest as his body resigns peacefully to sleep.

birthy2You’re not allowed to prefer one child over the other. But how can you avoid it? At least initially. How can I feel equal affection for a living toddler and a cluster of cells in my partner’s womb? (Should I feel love for my nutsack, being as it is a site of potential future Jamie and Jemima Juniors?) Or even a living toddler and a screaming, half-blind purple baby who does nothing but gurn, yelp and poo? Imagine you had two mates: one you could sit and watch Ghostbusters with, and then take on an imaginary ghost hunt around your house; and one who just sat there saying nothing and shitting himself all day? Be honest with yourself.

Who you gonna call?

It’s a taboo thought. You’re not supposed to express a preference for one child over the other, under any circumstances. Before I was a parent, I’d hear people talk about sibling rivalries and jealousies, and the parental imbalances that fuelled them, and I’d say, ‘That’s horrendous. A parent should love their kids equally, no matter how many they have, or how different they are. I think it goes without saying.’ And now, as I get older, and especially since becoming a parent, I’ve found myself thinking… hmmmmmm. I’m looking at other people’s families, at their brothers and sisters, and aunties and uncles, and mums and dads, and I’m thinking, ‘Actually, I can see why they might prefer the other one…’

What worries me most is what will happen in a year or two when Jack is much more self-reliant, and his little brother is hitting the same bench-marks that he’s hitting now; when Jack begins his long, slow journey to becoming a responsible and free-thinking boy, shedding his adorableness along the way as the air rings out with a chorus of ‘nos’, ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’, all accompanied by the percussive beat of stamping, tantrum-tapping feet? Will I find myself secretly, perhaps even subconsciously, preferring Christopher? How do I stop myself from feeling this stuff, and if I can’t stop myself from feeling it, then how do I counter the effects of these feelings – how they manifest in my behaviour – to ensure that I screw my kids up as little as humanly possible? Because some element of screwing them up is inevitable. Over to Philip Larkin, who can offer us some concise, brutal and eloquent words on the subject:

This Be The Verse

   By Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
                            ~
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
                            ~
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
                            ~

familyAll of this has got me to thinking about my grandparents, who came from broods ten and twelve strong. If we accept the proposition that the continuation of our genes is the only real point of existence – biologically-speaking of course – then it figures that the bigger the family, the more perfect the expression of this point. But how are we to square this in-built desire to sire with our modern Western notion of parenthood? A notion that holds at its core the idea that we should be able and willing to devote not just time but ‘quality time’ to our children; to be able to guide them and closely oversee their development as loved and loving, free-thinking individuals? After all, smaller class sizes are better, right? Or, in the context of the family unit, will having multiple siblings actually help promote intelligence and language skills? Anyway, never mind the question ‘How can you love twelve children equally?’: how can you even remember their bloody names?

I genuinely believe that much of Osama bin Laden’s thirst for chaos, death and domination was a direct result of having to share his parents’ presence and affections with literally scores of siblings. Forget ‘middle-child syndrome’. What the hell would you have to do to get noticed in that family? I wonder if young Osama began his mission for attention in the traditional manner, perhaps by riding his bike up the street shouting, ‘Look, papa, look at me, no hands!’ (Although that’s probably a phrase you’d be more likely to hear from a Saudi kid after they’ve stolen a bike) Look, Papa, look, I’ve got an ear-ring! I’ve got a tattoo! I’m living in a cave, a real-ass cave, Dad, look, look at me, look at my beard, it’s so long, and my minions, I’ve got minions, Dad, thousands of minions!!! Do any of my other brothers have minions, hmmmm? Hmmmm? I’m even on TV. Dad!! Dad!!!?? Dad!!!!!? Won’t you look at me? Can’t you see what… Oh, fuck it. [launches terrorist attack on the US mainland]. NOW YOU’LL NOTICE ME, DAD!

Osama’s Dad: [sighs] Why couldn’t you have just been a painter and decorator like your brother, Barry bin Laden?

birthy4

It seems that I’m so loathe to engage with my feelings on this subject that I’ve taken us down a highway of distraction to 9/11 itself. Sorry about that. Here’s both an update and a coda, though. While I’ve been writing this article, Christopher has been changing and growing. Yes, he still lists his favourite hobbies as pooing and drinking milk, but the more he’s in my life, and the more times I hold him in my arms and see my reflection in the milky black of his tiny feral eyes, the greater the power he exerts over my heart. I was cradling him in my arms a few days ago, and caught sight of us both in the mirror. I know he’s tiny, and helplessly delicate, but something about that moment, about seeing it and feeling it, caused a sharp surge, like a shock of electricity, to zap down my spine. My little boy.

Yesterday, as I lay Christopher down to change his nappy, he looked up at me, little limbs flailing like a penguin who’s really bad at dancing, and his face contorted into a smile. I know he’s too young for real smiles, and this was just a wind-sponsored facsimile. Try telling that to my heart. He made a wee cooing noise too. We’re a bit far from ‘Daddy’ at this stage of his linguistic development, but never-the-less: I heard Daddy anyway.

I think we’re going to be okay.

[But, just to be clear, Jack’s still in the lead so far!]

[PS: Hi, Christopher-of-the-future. Thanks for reading this. This is the reason you’re a heroin addict today. Love you!]

READ MORE ARTICLES ABOUT PARENTING BELOW

Co-sleeping kids: banished from the bed

Being at the birth

Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Parent and child parking spaces: the dos and don’ts of not being a dick

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

The (not-so) hidden horror of your children’s fairy tales

Reflections on school days, bullying and the bad bus

When people take pictures of your kids

When people take pictures of your kids

snapWe went on a family trip to Glasgow last week to visit the Glasgow Transport Museum (now housed within the Riverside Museum at Pointhouse Quay) and the Tall Ship (which is moored behind the museum).

The Transport Museum is great if you love having exactly sixteen seconds to admire each display before being surrounded by a crowd of feral, elbowing families, who envelop you like something out of World War Z. Probably best to avoid the museum unless you happen to be a nostalgic, history-loving giraffe. Especially since a large proportion of the exhibits are displayed on shelves fifty feet in the air (I mean, I know Glasgow has a few issues with car theft, but surely that’s excessive).

car3The Transport Museum has a penny-pressing machine. We can never pass one without taking home a souvenir. You place a pound coin and a penny into the slot, and turn a wheel to press the penny into a flat oval embossed with a little picture, and description, of the place you’re visiting. Yes, they’re tacky little pier-side trinkets, but time’s fast march will transform them into priceless treasures, especially once my partner and I are in the ground being pressed into flat ovals of dust and gloop by the inescapable might of bio-chemistry. Depending on how good a job we do raising our children to be sensitive, sentimental beings, there’s every chance they might try to flog them on Ebay the second we’re dead.

I sat in an old tram with my young son as my partner busied off to the machine. As she stood fishing in her purse for coins, a jolly German giant approached her and asked if he could trouble her for a penny. He was a stout, rotund fella with a perma-smile and a big beard, whose giganticness was more horizontal than vertical. Imagine a Tolkein dwarf who’s red-cheeked and merry after his first four vodkas of the night.

I didn’t know the gent was German at the time, you understand. He wasn’t kitted out in lederhosen and loudly apologising for the war or anything like that. I inferred his nationality later in the timeline of this story, information I could’ve imparted to you in a more natural and fluid manner, but doing so would’ve robbed me of the use of the deliciously alliterative phrase ‘jolly German giant’.

tramsThe jolly German giant took the wheel of the machine straight after my partner had picked up her flattened knickknack. Before placing his money in the slot he spent a full two minutes staring into the mechanism with wide-eyed wonder, spinning the wheel around and around, and acting for all the world like a child who’d been turned into a man by a haunted speak-your-future machine at a Coney Island fairground.

“What the hell is wrong with that guy?” I asked my partner as she joined us on the old tram.

“He’s happy.”

I shook my head. “Fucking lunatic.”

I noticed he had a high-tech camera fastened to a strap around his neck. He lifted it up and snapped a picture of the machine, before peppering the wall-of-high-shelved cars with a barrage of clicks.

maxresdefaultWe walked outside and boarded the tall ship. On the decks there were four little barrels filled with water, each with a tiny brush sticking out of them. As my son seems to have inherited my partner’s mild OCD and love of cleaning, he was more than happy to lift out a brush and start swabbing the decks pirate-style, a task he would’ve doubtless spent the whole day engaged in had we let him. I could feel my partner’s eyes boring into me and sending me a stern, unspoken message: ‘See? That’s how you pick up a brush, you big swine.’

The wee guy looked adorable in his shorts, sandals and jaunty bunnet, as he attacked the grime of the deck with a single-minded zeal. I was felled by his cuteness. “We’ve got to get a picture of this,” I said. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. The jolly German giant appeared at our side, his camera raised like a rifle. Before we knew what was happening he’d snipered off a shot. Click! He gave us a wide, beaming grin. “He looks like a little sailor,” he said, shaking his head at the adorableness of it all before bounding off down the deck. He wasn’t whistling, but he was walking like he should have been.

I stood frozen to the spot, certain that something awful had happened but unable for the moment to articulate it.

“Did he…?”

My partner nodded.

“I mean, should we be bothered by that?” I asked.

“I don’t know…” she said.

“He should’ve asked our permission,” I said, the sound of my son’s swishing adding a staccato rhythm to my thoughts. “Which we wouldn’t have given.”

My partner winced. Then tilted her head back and forth. Then shrugged. “I guess it’s okay. I mean, I don’t think he meant any harm.”

I felt uneasy. At worst, I’d failed to act to protect my son’s safety and interests. At best, I’d allowed my authority as a parent to be usurped by a stranger. My own social conditioning had rendered me static and mute: wanting to preserve the status quo, not wanting to cause a fuss, always aiming to be cordial and polite.  Irritation twitched in my toes, sparking a chain-reaction of nerve-signals that rocketed up my leg and culminated in a controlled explosion of anger in my belly. My chest tightened. A lump formed in my throat. My brain had bees dancing across it. My lip curled into a snarl, and before I could make a rational and considered assessment of the situation and calmly decide my next course of action, I was already striding down the ship in the direction of the departed German.

“I’m going to find that guy,” I called back.

“Oh, Christ, Jamie, not again!”

“Keep the wee guy safe,” I said, suddenly wishing I’d had a pair of shades to hand. It felt somehow very cinematic, despite the fact that I was a red-faced, disgruntled, pot-bellied lanky-pants, and not Arnold Schwarzenegger.

decksWe don’t put pictures of our son on-line. Obviously, there’s a stranger-danger element. Once a photo hits cyberspace, even if it’s only shared with people you know on Facebook, you lose custody of it. Facebook is like a many-tentacled space octopus, its connections and degrees-of-separation almost impossible to chart or quantify. You never really know who’s watching, or why.

And then there’s the old-fashioned argument: that if tens, hundreds or thousands of people have ready access to your memories then those memories cease to feel as special. Better to have complete ownership of, and the exclusive distribution rights to, the unfolding storybook of your children’s lives. Better to have sets of physical photobooks to flick through as a family in the years to come, in the knowledge that only the people closest to you have been privileged enough to see them (‘But wait, Jamie, aren’t you ceaselessly blogging about your son’s life as it unfolds, I mean, isn’t that even more of an intimate thing to share than a set of photographs; don’t you think that makes you a bit of a hypocr…[imaginary opponent struggles against the onset of a chloroform knock-out, as I press the soaked rag to their mouth]’ “Shhhhh, shhhhh. Sleep now, shhhhhhh.”).

Lastly, look at how celebrity impacts on celebrities: the paparazzi, the flash photography, the front-page scoops and four-page spreads. It turns a lot of them into arrogant, conceited assholes. Facebook is doing a good job of donating a big box of celebrity-lite crowns to the masses; it’s like an on-line Hello magazine for the less significant, allowing people to become pseudo-stars in their own social circles, if not society at large. Look how narcissistic we’ve become. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! What challenge? The challenge to post even more pictures of yourself on-line than you did yesterday? Yeah, but SOCIAL ISSUES, SOCIAL AWARENESS, SOCIAL JUSTICE, stop pooing on our parades, you meanie, we’re trying to save the world with these pictures of ourselves… and if we happen to look kind and successful – and smoking hot, incidentally, if we do say so ourselves – while doing it, then all the better!

trumanThere’s no way to know exactly what effect being displayed to the world from the moment of birth will have on our kids. In any case, I’m pretty sure The Truman Show was meant as a cautionary tale. We’re out. When he’s old enough to consent to having his picture disseminated to the world at large, then he can make that decision for himself. Although if some movie producer were to offer us £1m for our son to have a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster, we might have to re-evaluate our stance on the matter.

Back to the boat.

I scoured every inch of it: my nostrils flared out, my swagger in full swing. Up stairs, down stairs, through dark and noisy lower decks, behind this, in front of that, here, there and everywhere.

Just as I was about to give up and resign myself to failure, I spied the jolly German giant sitting upon a bench on the shore, just about to tuck into a sandwich. I crossed the gang-plank and strode towards him, all of the possible scenarios of our imminent meeting playing out in my mind: me calling the police, me punching him, me throwing his expensive camera into the sea, me throwing the German into the sea.

imagesI sat down next to him, and stared ahead, like a spymaster about to pass details of a top-secret mission to his agent.

“I know you’re an amateur photographer, and you didn’t mean any harm, but I’m going to have to ask you to delete the picture you took of my son.”

I turned and looked him in the eyes. His jolly grin was gone. “Of course, of course,” he said, setting down his sandwich and groping for his camera. My anger was gone. I was reasonably certain that the sandwich-gobbling snapper wasn’t a nonce, but at this point it didn’t matter. Still, even with right on my side, it was an immensely awkward conversation. I had to reassure this guy that I didn’t think he was a paedophile while at the same time making it clear that I thought he might just be a paedophile. Schrodinger’s paedophile?

“You understand, we don’t even post pictures of our own son on Facebook.”

“It’s your choice, I’m sorry, I should have asked you first. I did not mean to cause distress. I will of course delete it,” he said, fiddling with the buttons on the camera.

He was cordial, sincere and deferent. All the same…

“I don’t want to sound like an asshole here, but could I watch you do it? Could you show me?”

He showed me. I had sounded like an asshole. Buto nly because I was a Scottish guy using the word ‘asshole’ and not the more colloquially appropriate ‘arsehole’ or even ‘bawbag’.

“Thank you,” I said as I got up and walked off towards the boat again. I patted my pockets. Still no shades.

As I re-boarded the boat, I realised something important: I’d spent so long scouring the decks for the jolly German giant that I had no idea where my partner and young son were.

What a fine job I did of protecting them.

PS: The picture the German took wasn’t very good. It was snapped at a weird diagonal angle. That proves one of two things: 1) he really was a paedophile, or 2) he was just a really shite photographer.

Or both I suppose.

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When your kid goes from angel… to Hell’s Angel

behaveangelImagine the scene. Your kid is on the cusp of becoming a toddler. They spend their days teetering around, swishing behind them a rainbow of babbles, innocence and light. They seem to tip-toe across rooms like a lady at an etiquette school balancing books on her bonce, their little head wobbling gently in the manner of an acquiescent Indian’s, but holding firm and steady, their gaze fixed on some far-off and unseen horizon.

There are, however, no books resting atop that diminutive dome, only a single, solitary halo, round and bright and smooth and solid, a perfect crown for a perfect kid. The halo will stay, of that you’re certain, permanent proof of your supremacy as parents. The concept of sharing? Tick. A sweet, happy and loving disposition? Tick. Absence of tantrums? Tick. You’ve done everything right, in fact you’ve re-written the rule book, and made right look positively, prehistorically left. Hundreds of thousands of years of child-rearing distilled and crystalised into the body of that zen-like little creature you’ve gifted to the world. If you had a mic you’d drop it, walk past a billion-strong crowd of parents with a sneer on your lips and a swagger in your step: “Suck our block-rocking cocks, Doctor Spock! Mum and dad out! ”

I remember the days well. When our little boy was very small, my partner and I would find ourselves in restaurants, or soft-plays, or attending children’s parties, surveying the raft of shrieking, wailing, kicking, screaming, biting, slapping demon spawn around us; we’d observe the scarlet-faced, coarse-voiced frustration of their parents, and we’d each raise a silent furry eyebrow in the other’s direction. Our eyebrows would receive such regular and herculian workouts that it’s a wonder the juts of our brows weren’t rendered cro-magnan with the extra layers of muscle.

Afterwards, in the car or safely back home, we’d dissect the scenes, two Glasgow tenament women gossiping over a fence, arrogance and self-righteousness flooding from our mouths like bile-flavoured milkshakes: “Did you see it when that kid hit that other kid? Oh, I know, and then when he… yeah, and then that little girl, you know the one, the one with the messy big face, when she kicked that boy in the… oh, I know, I know. And when that kid stole that sandwich from the smaller kid and shoved it in his mouth, and the mother just… well, she just sat there… I mean, our kid would never do that, never, and even if he did, well, I mean, we simply wouldn’t stand for it, would we?” No, of course that wouldn’t happen to us. Impossible. I mean, that’s a halo on his head, not a hoopla. It’s fixed. It’s everlasting. We’ve won at parenting, that’s what that halo means.

It’s the age-old tale. Just as you’re busy awarding yourself with a machine-gun volley of self-congratulatory slaps on the back, a funny thing happens…

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Your kid turns into a fucking asshole.

That’s right, people. A beautiful, wonderful, magnificent asshole, sure, but an asshole none-the-less. They push kids. They snatch toys. They hurtle down the aisles of the supermarket whooping and laughing, their ears closed to your hollers of protestation. They lob their dinner at the cat. They lob the cat at their dinner. They start ritually sacrificing goats and glugging the blood like wine.

The transformation doesn’t happen overnight. At least it didn’t for us. I still remember the day when the bubble of our hubris was loudly and decisively popped, in public, during a trip to the safari park. The lion’s share of the day (forgive me) had passed without incident; our darling boy had cooed at the elephants, stood enthralled by the giraffes, and laughed his little ass off at the meerkats. It was a time of great joy, and peace, just like all the rest of our times. Why should this day be any different? In retrospect, it was the most apposite time for the universe to send this particular piano of truth crashing down atop our heads.

My son, as we learned that day – and have never forgotten – is highly skilled at perfectly timing his tantrums and manic episodes to coincide with those moments where we find ourselves trapped and unable to pull free from the orbit of his naughtiness. Like, for example, when we’re crammed into a small boat with twenty-five strangers en route to Chimp Island.

chimp boat

I had been excited. “I wonder what those chimps are going to get up to,” I said to my partner. “The reason these boats have cages around them isn’t simply to protect us from an audacious chimp attack or prevent us from falling overboard. They’re there to protect us from the rocks and sticks the chimps like to hurl at the boats. Not to mention clumps of their own shite. God, I’ll bet they’re going to go absolutely mental, and jump around and throw shite at us. Oh please say that they’ll do all that, please, I can’t wait to see them go crazy!”

Disappointingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they did nothing. They just stood there on the shore, staring mutely at us, bored and weary looks weighing down their ancient hairy faces. My son instantly siezed the opportunity to show his lesser cousins how boisterousness was done, homo sapien-style, claiming centre stage for himself. He writhed and flailed in my arms, shrieking like a banshee in a house-fire, his little limbs pumping like pistons oiled by evil. He occasionally ceased his shrieks to sink his tiny little teeth into the soft flesh of my shoulder. I had to hold him back, and aloft, like he was some psychopathically recalcitrant zombie Scrappy Doo. All eyes on the boat turned to us: the hairless missing links that were infinitely more interesting to behold than the sluggish, half-arsed primates across the water.

Water, I thought. I’ll give him a drink of his water; that’ll distract him. Well, it did, and it didn’t. He started loading it into his mouth like liquid ammunition and spitting it everywhere, raining down globs of watery child saliva upon the shoulders of those poor souls  unfortunate enough to find themselves in our immediate vicinity. Never have so many sorries been uttered in such a short a space of time to so many by so few. I could already hear the judgements and condemnations forming in their minds, as they prepared to engage in the same sorts of conversations that we’d always enjoyed having about other people’s naughty children. It’s funny how you find yourself playing to the gallery during those moments, loudly spelling out the extenuating circumstances behind your child’s behaviour for all to hear. “He’s not normally like this… I SAID HE’S NOT NORMALLY LIKE THIS, CAN YOU HEAR ME AT THE BACK UP THERE?! I’LL SAY IT MORE LOUDLY, I SAID HE’S NOT NORMALLY LIKE THIS!”

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A few weeks ago we attended an American friend’s fourth of July barbecue. Naturally, we dressed Jack in a Captain America costume, complete with superhero shield. I had been very close to ordering my partner and I Uncle Sam hats and Obama masks for the occasion. Thank Christ I didn’t, because when we arrived there was nothing identifiably American about the occasion, save for the host herself. I blame my misconceptions on Rocky IV, which I’ve obviously interpreted as some sort of cultural documentary. I dread to think how we would have dressed our kid had we been invited to a Hindu celebration.

Anyway, our wee guy was five to eight months older than most of the kids at the barbecue, and was long overdue a nap. As a consequence, his ‘well-developed concept of sharing’ was buried deep within a fog of pissiness. He snatched books and toys from the smaller kids, and knocked them over like pins at a bowling arcade. You feel paralysed at times like this. People who have no frame of reference for your kid’s behaviour will naturally assume that you’ve raised an asshole. You want to chide your kid, to show that you’re not a passive parent who tolerates unruly behaviour, but at the same time you feel you have to hold back your sterner inclinations because you also don’t want to come across as the boom-voiced, authoritarian dick you are at home. I just ended up sounding like Hooks from Police Academy, with an apologetic, wobbly whisper escaping from my mouth in the mould of ‘Don’t move… dirtbag,’ followed by a muttered string of, ‘He’s not normally like this-es’ and ‘He’s a wee sweetheart at home-s.’

Don’t misunderstand. Our boy isn’t the devil. He’s still a sweet, bright, caring and loving little person, and thoroughly well-behaved the vast majority of the time, which is one way of saying that the beatings are working. He’s never surly or aggressive or violent, he just occasionally likes to flaunt his moxy, and wear a look on his face that says: ‘There hasn’t been a naughty step built that can hold me, motherfuckers.’

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I guess the occasional bout of bad behaviour is par for the course at certain stages of a child’s development. And sometimes what we class as bad behaviour is a by-product of limits being tested or the flexing some new found muscle of freedom or experience. It’s our job to introduce him to consequences and responsiblity, certainly, and to socialise him, and protect him from the unfiltered excesses of his own ego and the punishments he might face from those outside the family with a less forgiving eye, but it’s also our job to understand what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling, and ask ourselves why he might be behaving in a certain way. We owe him that. Sometimes he’s hungry, sometimes he’s tired, sometimes he lacks the language skills to convey his feelings and communicate his desires, which can lead to frustration. Sometimes, when we make an effort to trace the genesis of a particular action or behaviour, we’ll discover that we, the parents, are the unwitting Kaiser Szozes.

For instance, we’ll chase him around the house telling him we’re going to eat his legs off, and then react with shock and anger when he later runs up to us and sinks his teeth into our leg. Or we’ll make the experience of teeth-brushing more fun by preceding it with a round-the-house, laughter-filled chase, and then lose our shit when he decides it would be funny to replicate the chase in a busy supermarket when we’re lugging heavy baskets of fresh produce. This is one reason we’ll never smack or strike him. What will you then do if your child hits someone? Hit them harder? To teach them about the abuse of power and hypocrisy?

We’re learning that the toddler years, especially as we prepare to enter the infamous ‘terrible twos’, are a period of constant adjustment and correction, of our behaviour as much as his.

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It’s reasonably easy to predict what a baby will do. But as a baby becomes a toddler becomes a child becomes a teenager becomes an adult, the range of possibilities stretched before them – of thought, of action, of mood, of mind, of experience – increases a million-fold, transforming the relationship between cause and effect into a dizzying, ever-multiplying web of connections. They’re exposed to other kids, other family members, other adults in your friend circle, strangers, the TV, a multitude of new sounds and smells and toys and concepts. Life is complex, and complicated, and so’s your kid.

What I’m saying is, should ever see our little boy dashing around a supermarket with a mischevious glint in his eye as we lumber after him like angry dog-catchers, or hear me roaring in pain because my darling son has just sprinted towards me and sunk his teeth into my crotch, please reserve your judgement. I promise to do the same for you. And keep your eyes trained on the empty space above his skull. If you screw up your eyes and strain really hard, you’ll still be able to see the faint outline of a halo. Not quite as bright as it once was. Maybe not as perfectly round. But it’s there.

I promise you it’s still there.

MORE ARTICLES ON PARENTHOOD

Co-sleeping kids: banished from the bed

Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs