26 September, 2011

Playhouse of Horrors

My wife would like to get a playhouse for our kids in the garden. We’ve talked about it a few times and I‘ve always been very negative about the idea without really knowing why. When she pushed for my rationale the justification finally popped out from deep in my subconscious… “Because a vagrant will use it as a toilet”. [Insert your own confused silence. We both did]

I do tend to see all the potential problems with a thing/scenario, rather than focusing on the likely positives. This can be useful at work and in other circumstances where it gives the chance to mitigate probable issues. But it does mean I’ve got more concerns floating about my head each day than anyone reasonably needs. (I spent a whole commute last week considering how I’ll cope when I someday get sent to prison for a crime I didn’t commit.)
However it turned out that my vagabond-dung-angst was actually based on life experience - when I was growing up, a hobo did once sleep in our back garden and extensively fertilized our back doorstep.

But discovering the odd smelly surprise probably never really hurt anyone. Maybe it's even character building. It would obviously be really nice for the kids to have a playhouse. And I refuse to live in fear. It’s like the war on terror*. If we’re scared to go on buying playhouses as normal, then the pooping-drifters win.

Another slightly more likely unlikely scenario, given their huge numbers in our area and recent instances of attacks on humans, is that one morning my little boy opens the playhouse door to find a bewildered fox in there. Still a long-shot though - I just did a google search for "Playhouse Fox Incident" and found no wendyhouse-specific cases to back up my apprehensions.
(And if you ever get a pub quiz question “Who did special effects for the 'Without Incident' episode of 1950s TV show Playhouse 90?”, I can tell you the answer is Jim Fox.)

So we’re going for it. We are going to get a playhouse. And if my irrational worries mean getting up every morning to check it for tramps, angry foxes, and miscellaneous faeces before letting my kids into the garden, then that is what I shall do. For I love my children. And I am free man… (At least until that crime I didn’t commit thing happens.)

Learned Wisdoms
#24: If your mother-in-law ever asks you why there’s such a big lock on your shed door, just say it was the only one you had lying around when you put your shed up. Don’t say “Because I’m psychologically scarred by a childhood incident and believe that, every chance they get, beggars will spread their cack over all my things. More tea?”

#25: Once you’ve got the kids to bed on evenings when your wife is working late, if you spend your spare time writing and working out, you’ll be slightly disconcerted to notice that you’ve already gravitated naturally towards using rec time for hobbies you’ll be able to continue once you’re wrongly imprisoned.

* Yes. This matter is just like 21st century world issues with terrorism

15 September, 2011

Dazing & Confusing School Decisions

Our daughter will start school next year and my wife and I are currently debating the state vs private options for our kids....

My wife got a scholarship to a private school for 6th form and subsequently went on to Oxford University. She’s had great career opportunities as a result. Also I obviously like her personality quite a lot, which has gone some way to conquering my sweeping prejudice that all people who attended private school have a slightly anti-social sense of entitlement and get crippling panic attacks if they find themselves more than two meters from a deck shoe.

I went to a comprehensive in Bradford. And initially felt uncomfortable that going to private school would be yet another way that my kids are different to me…
- I was genetically squashed by my wife in our children’s features and appearance;
- Having been born in London, the kids are Southern. Unlikely to support Huddersfield Town and, worse still, I caught my daughter pronouncing it “grarse” recently;
- I didn’t know what pesto was until I was about 25 – it’s currently my 1yr-old son’s favourite food

… until I realised that (see Learned Wisdoms #21 below) I don’t actually want my children to be the same as me. I want them to be better*. And school choice is probably the biggest life-shaping lever we have for the kids outside our direct relationship and interactions with them.
In theory at least, they should have more career and lifestyle choices if they get a better education.

As is the case in most of London, the schools we’re in catchment for are a real mixed-bag with staggering competition for the decent ones (which is what led us to start thinking about private in the first place). Plus, private schools generally have better sports and extra-curricular facilities/programmes (something that was a significant frustration for me growing up at state school).

On the other hand, from my own experience, I think there’s a lot to be said for a down-to-earth upbringing, having to overcome challenges along the way, and not being surrounded solely by people called Tarquin and Sebastian**. So, despite The Daily Mail trying to convince everyone that going to a comprehensive school in London will mean our kids have to run a gauntlet of stabbings for the chance to achieve impregnation and secure their genetic succession at the age of 13, I’d like them to do at least some of their education through the state route. Which, to avoid new kid stigma and name-calling (especially as we unwisely named them Yagina and Resticle), probably means state primary school then moving to private as they make the switch to secondary.

So that’s the plan at the moment. Just one more thing – how are we going to afford private school fees?  Not 100% clear as yet. We’ve had a look at what current luxuries we’d probably need to cut out and roughly where we’d need to get our salaries to over the next few years. They seem to be attainable-but-significantly-challenging targets… though if my blog posts suddenly dry up you can assume that taking part in medical experiments and selling organs doesn’t leave the necessary time or life-force for writing.

Learned Wisdoms
While we all know that you shouldn’t put undue pressure on your children or have unrealistic expectations of their capabilities, you will occasionally falter. Prepare for disappointment when, during the ear test in your daughter’s first month of life, the result comes back normal after you’ve inexplicably started to expect that the healthcare person is about to recoil and quietly utter “It appears that your child has something approaching… super hearing.”

#22: Even if you go to a church that happens to be associated with an excellent non-pay primary school, be aware that there will still be a lot of competition to hit the selection criteria:
- Having siblings already at the school (which apparently only leaves another 4-5 spaces each year): Unless we attempt some sort of hostile adoption, we’ve got no shot on this one.
- Being regular-attending and active members of the church congregation: We do our bit, but I have never seen such a busy and busting congregation… suspiciously skewed towards young middle-class parents
- Proximity of your address to the school: We don’t live ultra-near. (And I can confirm that bribing crows to fly by more favourable routes is impossible)
Funny piece about trying to get your children into the best local school in this episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (from 04:20)

#23: With many people having funded their children’s private education by re-mortgaging during the housing boom, its decline may have reduced the number of families able to stretch to school fees. So supply & demand notions might mean it’s worth getting your negotiating trousers on for conversations with private schools.
If you’re not a natural negotiator (for example, maybe you once found a massive disgusting hair in a chapatti and, after talking to the restaurant management, agreed the position of getting zero pounds taken off the bill and actually paying more for an additional chapatti to replace the hairy one), then it might be worth getting some tips in advance.

* Though I’d settle for them being happy and living the lives that they want. (I suppose)
** Another sweeping generalisation, which my ex-private-school-going mate Matt picked me up on last night at football (having annoyingly defied my lazy stereotypes already by being much better than me at that)

02 September, 2011

Temper Trap

We’re going on holiday soon. Abroad. I should be happily looking forward to a bit of sun and a relax. Instead I’m slightly stressed thinking about in-flight child-containment strategies.

At home I have no problem with our kids making a big din in the name of fun. And if there’s a tantrum to ignore, I’m your man. (My in-built noise-cancellation technology has evolved to the point where I can totally screen it out.)
But in a confined public space it’s a different story. I’ve never been a massive fan of other people’s crying kids imposing themselves on my ears, and I’ve always felt hugely awkward when mine have gone loud in the restaurant/book shop/Trappist monastery.

There is a lot to be said for avoiding ‘scenes’ and keeping your life easy while they’re little. To minimise our instances of being the most-disliked family in earshot, we made a few guidelines:
Timing is everything. If you’re eating out, get there early so that food arrives before your kids have got really hungry (as opposed to ordering when they’re already hungry and having to endure ravenous screams for the duration of the wait)
Unconsciousness is your friend. If you want to do some shopping straight-forwardly, do it when they’re due a nap and can fall asleep in the pram
- Don’t force it. If the kids are tired or having a bad day, it’ll most-likely be very stressful eating out. (And no-one wants to be the person who snaps and drops the C-bomb in Pizza Express on a Saturday afternoon.)
Do it another time. Or get a babysitter and do it when they’re in bed.
Swiftly analyse your environment. Jason Bourne walks into a diner, “The first thing I'm doing is I'm catching the sight lines and looking for an exit. I can tell that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 220 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside.”

I walk into any cafĂ©/bar/restaurant, “The first thing I’m doing is I’m looking for a quiet place to change a nappy or put on a meltdown-calming puppet show. I can tell that our waitress knows where to get crayons and that the group on the next table won’t see the cute side if our daughter wanders over and verbally-freestyles on their physical appearance. I know the best place to look for a chocolate-based distraction is the newsagents next door”

All that is great for short-term situations where you’ve got the fall-back option of taking the kids outside if they kick-off. Long train or plane journeys are a different matter. It’s all about temper control. And the children have the strongest negotiating position. If anyone’s got any different tips, I’d love to hear them, but so far the only solution we've found is just to drop all the usual rules on use of treats, TV, Rohypnol, etc.
... My holiday hand luggage will contain stickerbooks, a laptop, various Pixar & DreamWorks DVDs and a heady cocktail of crisps, chocolate, Calpol and sweets.

Learned Wisdoms
#19: A good way to overcome your fears is to face them. If you’re often embarrassed by the somewhat anti-social actions of your children in public, wait until your daughter is old enough to walk and to operate basic mechanisms like, say, the lock of a pub’s disabled-toilet-&-baby-change-room. Then leave her free post-nappy-change while you use the loo. Once she’s opened the door, walked out and left you standing, mid-stream, in-front of a table of eight interested elderly folk, you’ll be effectively embarrassment-proof for the rest of your life.

#20: Before you’ve got children, when you see a parent shouting at their screaming kid in public you think “Oh, what a terrible parent. That poor little child, living with such an aggressive bully”.
Once you have children, you see the same scene and think more along the lines of “What horrible thing did that mean little f*cking little kid do to push that poor, poor adult over the edge?”