28 September, 2013

Nothing to fear but fear itself (and parrots)

I once punched a medium-sized pig in the face. Twice. Not because I can’t separate real life from Angry Birds but because, as far as I could tell, it was in the process of biting my daughter’s hand off.

I’ve always been very blasé with the kids if they were afraid of something unlikely… “Daddy, I’m scared of going upstairs on my own in case there’s monsters”; “Daddy, I’m scared of riding in the shopping trolley because it might chop my legs”; “Daddy, I’m scared your investment strategy relies too heavily on the returns of a single class of investment, spreading your money across a range of investments such as shares, property, bonds and cash would reduce your exposure to market risk”. My view is that any inability to overcome fear-of-the-untried could prevent the children from living life to-the-full, so I have always pushed quite hard through any initial resistance to new things. (This has mainly applied to my little boy – my little girl is dauntlessly intrepid, he is “naturally cautious” or “a total wuss-faced fraidy-cat” depending on your parlance.)
However, when my previously-considered-to-be irrational fear of the kids getting their arms stumpified at a petting farm turned out to be a valid concern, I had cause to reflect on this approach…

My pig concern almost-certainly germinated from a) the films Snatch and Hannibal, the two most widely-available showcasings of pigs’ ability to chomp through bone; and b) many examples of the folly that is trusting non-domesticated animals (Siegfried & Roy’s tame white tiger; countless brutal attacks by friendly chimpanzees; that pink bear’s final betrayal at the end of Toy Story 3). But I’ve always laughed it off as a ridiculous concern, “It must be fine mustn’t it? Kids don’t get their fingers bitten off by pigs. Someone would have said. Let’s enjoy some light petting.”
On this particular farm visit, my daughter three at the time, I cautiously placed the pellets on her palm and held her fingers straight with my hand to ensure our porcine patron was just slurping them up from a flat surface. But at some point, as I let go of her hand to reach into the pellet bag, porkface saw it’s chance… chomp… couple of frantic seconds trying fruitlessly to get its jaws open… punch, punch… release… fingers very cut & bloody – but still there… phew.

Similarly, as if to further emphasise the validity of living in a perpetual state of uneasy caution, my generally-gung-ho little girl recently experienced a shocking realisation of her one ‘silly’ fear – the suspicion that, given half-a-chance, any nearby bird will try to peck her eyes out.
On a holiday to visit friends in Kuala Lumpur, we went to KL Bird Park (which claims to be the world's largest walk-in aviary). As she entered, timidly holding my hand, the very first thing she saw was the harrowing scene of a big heron lunging repeatedly at a small boy’s face with its beak. Understandably she spent the rest of the day wanting to be carried with her head pressed into my chest.
Then, in an attempt to perk her up and demonstrate how fun and friendly birds can be, my wife bought a cup of parrot feed and held it out in the hope that a couple would come to perch on her arm… within seconds she was engulfed by a frenzied cloud of bright red birds, screaming as they nipped various bits of her. This was not effective in alleviating our daughter’s distress.

Prior to these incidents, I’d found my little boy’s circumspect approach to life very frustrating. He has made a screaming hot-mess out of many a sledging trip, donkey ride (his love of horses seemingly only from afar) and trip to the toilet (a jittery mis-trust of hand-dryers meaning we currently always return wet-handed). For a long time he would sit down on his bum to descend any steps, no matter how small, rather than take on the miniscule risk of a tumble. And swimming lessons are an on-going challenge as any requirement for him to be on his back with ears in the water leads to howls of aversion.
In every activity we choose to do (or not do) there’s a risk vs. reward equation to consider and my growing fear was that, because my son seems to have a very low appetite for any risk, my hopes of us having some adventurous experiences together as the children get older may be scuppered. (“I know you’re terrified of sledging down that tiny mound by our house, but how would you feel about dog-sled polar bear safari?”) However, after the pig & bird skirmishes, I see that this was probably a selfish viewpoint. He’s little, but he’s not stupid and - hand-dryer mistrust aside - he’s generally only scared by things that hold a real (if remote) chance of harm or discomfort. Who am I to decree to him which activities are fun/interesting enough to warrant the risks they carry? He can watch and decide for himself... as he did surprisingly on holiday, laughing with glee for hours at a time while body-surfing in waves taller than his head*.

I have since found that the most effective approach for introducing new things to my children is to really emphasise the enjoyment that can be had to my little boy, which his natural caution can otherwise cause him to overlook… and to be sure that my little girl is fully aware of any potential dangers, which she would otherwise smash excitedly straight into – after that they’re free to choose for themselves. Mostly.

Since drafting this post ready to publish, my little girl has broken her arm by falling off a 6ft-high set of monkey bars**. On one hand this adds credence to my little boy’s safety-first outlook. On the other, it’s seemingly done nothing to reduce her enthusiasm for climbing/swinging/jumping. Despite having experienced the potential-downside first-hand, she can’t wait to be healed and allowed to play again. If you love Revels, you accept that you’ll sometimes get the raisin one.

* Which was really fun to do with him, but has since made the on-going commotion during swimming lessons even tougher to take

** She had conquered it numerous times before the falling incident. It was very important to her that I clarify this to you.

Learned Wisdoms

#54: If you were to become hazy on the boundary between real life and Angry Birds, a farm visit would be the main thing to avoid. The pigs would probably be fine (especially once you’d put helmets on them), but the chickens and hens you lob at them might be a little traumatised. As would the duck – especially when you berate it mid-arc for not boomeranging properly.

28 August, 2013

Fancy-Dressed for Success

I like a bit of fancy dress. Who doesn’t? My kids love fancy dress. And I love putting my kids in fancy dress. As often as possible. Parties; play-dates; church; etc, etc.

The other week, one of my friends showed me this story.  For the click-shy it involves a picture of a baby crudely dressed up as ex-Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli, during the famous shirt-message incident (pictured).

The media and twitter reaction to it was one of great vengeance and furious anger*, with a lot of comments about child cruelty.

I don’t see how it’s physically cruel. No baby is getting hurt by having a sponge balanced on its head. And no child is going to complain about having chocolate spread smeared anywhere near their mouth.
He must have been significantly more comfortable than her:

… and less at risk of drowning in the North Sea. But the mermaid costume would never generate ‘public outcry’. (In fact, likely-to-cause-mild-chaffing though it is, between typing I’m searching Amazon to get one for my daughter now) 

Anyway, this started me thinking generally about what it is/isn’t ok to dress your kids up as, and specifically about the reaction to the Balotelli incident.

Initially my hypothesis was that any fun fancy dress is ok unless it contravenes the following rules:

RULE # 1: Should not be painful/cruel/demeaning to the child


RULE # 2: Should not highlight an undesirable characteristic or unfairly-stereotyped/bigoted view of the subject
So, let’s test this with some examples…

This is fine. The costume is cool. And despite the fact that we all like to poke a bit of fun at the Gamma Quadrant folks of Sector 4 and their crazy bureaucratic dedication to the rules and bi-laws of Star Command, you wouldn’t call it offensive (except maybe if you’re Zurg or one of Zurg’s relatives). Next...

Under my initial guidelines this isn’t ok. The costume clearly highlights an undesirable physical characteristic of the subject. He is fat. However, experience and common-sense says no-one would have any problem with that costume. Picking on the big, lardy plight of an over-privileged white man in a position of power – even one with the exercise-discouraging plight of unlimited free public transport - would stir anger in no-one**.  Which suggests a reduction of rule two…

RULE # 2: Should not highlight an undesirable characteristic or unfairly-stereotyped/bigoted view of the subject.
… and I think I’m ok with dropping the ‘undesirable (but true) characteristic’ clause. Fat-phase soon-to-die-on-a-toilet Elvis costumes are socially ok. I’m probably even open to an extreme-uggo line of costumes. Like a John Merrick. (That’d be pretty impressive actually. Not sure what you’d make it out of. Paper mache and corned beef?)
Let’s cut to the chase. The problem here was that the baby is white and Mario Balotelli is black. The discomfort is with the idea of a white kid colouring their skin to dress as a black celebrity/character.  So…

Is cross-racial fancy dress completely taboo? And, if it is, how do I explain ‘why’ articulately to my kids if/when they ever want to don one of the plethora of brilliant black person/character fancy-dress options?
Unsure, I did a bit of reading to get a view on the history and the public opinions in this area. Here's the conclusions I drew:

  • Similar to dressing as an other-worldly Buzz Lightyear, there’s obviously no issue with face painting be a specific character of a fictional race, for example..

... clearly, the question is specifically around a white person painting themselves to ‘play’ a black person. 

  • Does that have to be a problem? Even if you've got a really, really good idea for a costume? For example, in this thread I think the rationale for face paint in the Tiger Woods costume has some solid logic (even if the execution was massively clunky), because a Rory McElroy in an ambush of Tigers wouldn’t make a lot of sense.
  • Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, the use of make-up like this echoes of and is heavily associated with more ignorant/racist times when blackface was done by The Black & White Minstrels and other groups to perform stupid, false-stereotype portrayals. i.e…

Using make-up to look like a person of another race is not inherently racist… the problem is that it’s previously mainly been done by f*cking horrible racists
  • Even though that was back in the 1970s, it’s recent enough that many people walking around today will have been negatively impacted by it in their lifetime. So, here comes a third rule…
RULE # 3: Avoid representing something horrible that affected the lifetime or family-memories of people who might see your child
At some point racism will be a thing of the past, but clearly we’re not there yet (as Louis Suarez, Prince Philip and the fans of Zenit StPetersburg all demonstrate) and the general public contains a surprising number of idiots. As an example from this generally-sensible chain on whether it’s ok to fancy-dress as Jimi Hendrix shows, someone is always primed to miss the point…
… and the last thing any similar Jumbo McSpazzatron needs is a chance to misunderstand that ‘minstrel culture' might still be socially ok. (Plus, if any person who doesn’t know you - black or otherwise - sees your child, how are they to know you’re not a lizmachin?)
So, even if you’ve got solid intentions with brown face paint, think twice about it and certainly don’t show it off in public. 
Aside from face paint, the derision that met Prince Harry when the public saw pictures of him dressed as a Nazi also supports Rule 3. However, the Romans did some pretty unspeakable things in their day***, but I’ve seen plenty of Julius Caesar costumes and no-one gets upset, so it seems like there may be a statute of limitations on this rule. 
With the data I have available, I can say for certain that it’s somewhere over 70 years (Nazis: not ok), but under 2000 years (Caesar: ok).

Generally, if the costume is specific and genuinely funny, there’s little chance that any balanced person would find it offensive. If it’s a bit rubbish then, regardless of potential offence, you shouldn't be making your kid wear it. Fancy dress is brilliant - make an effort!
RULE # 4: Make sure it’s a really good costume

So. There you go. Here’s my initial schema for child fancy dress success…
RULE # 1: Should not be painful/cruel/demeaning to the child
RULE # 2: Should not highlight an unfairly-stereotyped/bigoted view of the subject.
RULE # 3: Avoid representing something horrible that affected the lifetime or family-memories of people who might see your child (this rule dissolves somewhere 70-to-2000 years after said event)
RULE # 4: Make sure it’s a really good costume
I’m no expert though (most of my ‘research’ came from wikipedia and mumsnet... and the film Bamboozled), so any other thoughts are very welcome.

Learned Wisdoms
#52: If you initially hypothesise that it’s not ok for a white kid to dress as a black person purely due to black people previously having been victims of repression, you’ll find that this example calls that line of thought into question:

... Jessie is a woman. And a ginger. A walking-fusion of two groups that each historically score high in the Top Trumps of societal repression and castigation. And it’s fine to dress up as her. (However, if there’d ever been a Red & Freckled Minstrels Show, trading on hot-tempered, easily-sunburned stereotypes, maybe we’d all be more reticent to put on an orange wig)
#53: If your white son wants to dress like Mr T and you decide against face-paint, make sure you do a really good & clear job on the mohawk - otherwise the ‘white-version’ of the costume, given all the jewellery and casual sport/combat gear, is a pretty close approximation to Jimmy Saville. Which is a much more significant breakage of Rule #3

* Which made me laugh. Because who gets FURIOUS about some minor news item they happen upon?.. Then the next day I read this and instantly transformed into Malcolm Tucker


** Anyone suggesting that he calls ‘himself’ The “Fat” Controller and so is obviously ok with his gluttony should think twice. There’s no evidence that he made the nickname up - more likely just begrudgingly went along with steam-delivered mockery, vainly hoping it’d go away if he didn’t react. (Probably leading to a cycle of self-loathing and comfort-eating that exacerbates the situation to this day – watch out for the residents of Sodor soon starting to refer to their ‘Morbidly Obese Controller’ who gets cleaned at the same time as the engines with a hose and a broom)


*** Not many people know that the full phrase is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do... but try to avoid the whole ‘killing a hundred-thousand Christians’ thing”


16 January, 2013

Ten-Thousandth Visit Special Edition

My blog passed 10000 visits recently so to celebrate, just like a lazy sit-com writer doing a ‘compilation show’ for their 100th episode, here’s a bunch of my favourite not-that-useful parenting suggestions from the learned wisdoms section of my posts and the @Dadulthood twitter feed (and maybe some stolen from Viz magazine’s Top Tips… see Learned Wisdoms below)

AVOID SIGNIFICANT board game tedium by telling your children from an early age that it’s called ‘Connect 2’

CHILDREN'S ILLUSTRATORS. Need to draw a ladybird or butterfly? Go and look at a photo of one first. Seriously. Just once

TV PEOPLE. Solve childhood obesity by making all cartoons about morbidly obese animals incapable of adventures due to Type 2 diabetes

OUT OF TOILET ROLL?  As you reach behind to pull from it, check that the packet on the cistern is Baby Wipes. Not Flash Bathroom Wipes

IF YOU have multiple tubs of Vaseline, clearly labelling one of them BUMS removes the risk of any icky moments when treating chapped lips. But it can lead to some awkward questions if spotted by visitors.

EMPHASISE the importance of grammar to your children by concocting your own “No, More Tears” shampoo out of lemon juice & vinegar

POTTY DESIGNERS. It's for holding urine. Becoming a super-awesome cowboy hat when upturned is NOT a helpful feature...

A HIGH-SIDED garden trampoline makes an excellent introduction to cage fighting for young siblings

AMAZON. When I've just bought my daughter a pink scooter, it's unlikely I will immediately want to buy another one

AN EARTHWORM makes a handy 'serpent' when helping your daughter create an exotic-dancer Barbie

KEEP YOUR children on their toes by placing brochures for foster homes in the toy section of the Argos catalogue

A STICKLEBRICK makes an excellent 'bed of nails' for a meditating Lego-man

REDUCE THE monotony of the school run by dropping your child at a different school each day

GET AROUND paying for expensive after school clubs by encouraging your children to get daily detentions

LEAVE AN unattended hole-punch near your kids. That way, several of your very important documents can effortlessly become riddled with holes

DON’T BE grumpy when changing a dirty nappy, use it as an amnesty period for getting any stored up trumps out

AN OLD baby bottle makes a splendid measuring cup for spirits. (Remember to rinse before the health visitor comes)

SAVE thousands on university fees and gain a BA in law by getting Mr T to marry your daughter

Learned Wisdoms
If you find yourself 34 years old and still occasionally reading/enjoying Viz reassure yourself that, because you scan the letters and articles but skip past the cartoons, you probably still count as an adult

02 January, 2013

Baby Windsor and the ‘Twit’ of Auburn

The pregnancy announcement last month and, in particular, the news that Kate Middleton-as-was had gone into hospital for morning sickness treatment from “her main doctor and the royal gynaecologist” started me wondering about likely differences between my kids’ childhoods and that of the current-foetus/future-ruler. (It seemed my wife didn’t even have a ‘main’ doctor during the births, never mind the pregnancies… and when she had morning sickness she got off the train to vom, then carried on to work.) So, as and when note-worthy comparisons arise, I’ll cobble a post together.

Before I start, these aren’t “silver-spoon… look what they’ve got, aren’t they lucky?” thoughts. I certainly wouldn’t wish on my children the constant attention and long-range pixelated-boob-shots that the Royals have to put up with. I’m interested in the way different experiences shape people’s view of the world. I care very much about the opinions my children grow-up holding and I think we’ve all got a vested interest in how Baby-Widdleton turns out (even if you think it’s a purely ceremonial position, you’d surely rather avoid any future international embarrassment from, say, another Prince Philipish casual-racist).

[For complete transparency, it’s worth stating now that this Royals vs Suburbanites framework may not actually turn into a series. It might turn out just to be a one-off, purely used on this occasion to provide some structural credibility for a story about the word ‘twat’…]

Windsor child comparison #1: Appreciation of live sport

Prince William likes his sport. You often see him in the good seats at big rugby matches. And he did a great deal for our fruitlessly-uncorrupt 2018 football World Cup bid. So no-doubt he’ll be taking his first-born to his/her first game when they’re old enough. As I did. Though I doubt the experience will have much similarity...

I took my little girl to watch Huddersfield Town FC for the first time a few weeks ago. Away at Charlton Athletic. Everyone knows language can be a bit industrial at football but, for her first visit, she unfortunately experienced a perfect storm of swearing.
At kick-off there was a big argument around us between all the lads stood up behind the goal and all the people sat behind who subsequently couldn’t see. The bloke right next to me was shouting at the top of his voice, spit flying. My little girl looked at me, wide-eyed and exclaimed “Everybody’s swearing!” In the end it got to that point where even I - who believes that there’s some environments, this being one of them, where people shouldn’t be frowned-upon too much for dropping the odd sweary-bomb - had to ask the guy to tone-down his language… then, after half-an-hour, one of our players got sent off and even I was up on my feet effing! (I don’t want my daughter to think foul language should be encouraged, but he clearly got the ball).
All this didn’t concern me too much. Anyone who thinks they can protect their kids from hearing swear words once they’re going to school is dreaming. My daughter knows of “f*ck” and “sh*it”, but she knows they’re bad words and that, as she wisely pointed out to me during the game, “people shouting them look like idiots”. Unfortunately, she then learned a new word… a bloke behind us shouted “linesman, you ginger twat”. My daughter, not knowing what it meant but clearly liking the sound, jumped to her feet, pointed and shouted “ginger twat, ginger twat, ginger twat”. Everyone around us creased-up laughing (including the bloke next to me – credit to him for not asking me to tone-down my daughter’s language). I had to tell her it was a bad word. She was mortified – gasping and covering her mouth with both hands – which happily gave me some confidence that I wouldn’t soon be getting a call from her teacher telling me she’d dished out slurs to a crowded classroom (and so far, so good).
Anyway, the point is, you probably don’t get exposed to that language quite as much in, say, the hospitality seats at rugby union. But, on the other hand, you probably miss out on the occasional moment of highly-concentrated euphoria…

With 90 minutes up and the team 0-1 down, Huddersfield got a penalty right in front of us. (No one complained when everyone stood up at that point.) I picked my daughter up so she could see. She shouted “Kick it in the net”. Our player duly did. The stand erupted and my little girl repeatedly shouted in my ear, “YEEEESSS! I TOLD HIM TO KICK IT IN THE NET!!!” She was pleased as punch and I’m pretty sure she’ll never forget her first match - and the belief that she deserved an assist on the equaliser for her tactically-masterful suggestion.

Upon leaving, I could see the benefits of a Royal lifestyle. I was around the protocol lounge of the Olympic Stadium at the end of the Games Closing Ceremony* and saw Kate & Prince Harry being whisked away to their waiting escorted car. After her first match my little girl had the luxury of riding on my shoulders out of the ground, but then the luxury-lacking experience of waiting on a crowded platform to get on to a palpably overcrowded train.

I think it’s great that the wee Windsor is likely to appreciate sport and witness some great moments around the world. Always being in the expensive, non-partisan seats will probably mean he/she never quite experiences the atmosphere of a consistently unheroic team’s packed stand when, with only 10-men, they equalise in the last minute… but that’s just a cross they’ll have to bear. (Although, unless I somehow end up the kind of man who gets chauffeured away from things in waiting escorted cars, my daughter might also miss the odd last-minute winner in my later years when, as a grumpy old man, I decide I’d rather go 5 minutes early than plod slowly through the crowds.) 
While I like the idea of the future monarch being ‘one of us’ and having sat in the away end at Charlton or Millwall (or, quaintly, stood at Brentford), I don’t believe you miss a huge insight into society by not experiencing this – just occasionally watch the footy on mute with Shameless playing loudly on your laptop in the background.  
From watching sport with me, my daughter will probably grow up with increased patience in slow-moving large crowds, increased tolerance of being in close proximity to badly-articulated angry shouts and reduced fussiness about pie quality. I think these are solid traits… however, they probably aren’t that useful if you’re the queen or the king.

* “Oh fucking were you?”

Learned Wisdoms
#48: If you tell your mother-in-law a story about your daughter having used the word twat and she pauses for a moment then asks you, “What does twat mean anyway?”, I can confirm that - when giving an explanation that offers no escape from use of the word ‘vagina’ - going very red may be uncomfortable but feels totally appropriate

#49: If it becomes clear that your mother-in-law isn’t aware of the meaning of the word twat, in fact having thought it to be “interchangeable with the word twit” and having actually “been using it all over the village”, don’t assume this is amusingly uncommon. When you jovially tell your sister, you might be told “Our mum & dad thought exactly the same, I had to break it to them that it was swearing”

#50: Your wife will never give you a hard time about taking your daughter to the coarsely-languaged environment of a football stadium once she’s indulged their shared love of dance by showing her Billy Elliott, aware that it’s a 15 certificate, but having forgotten just how incredibley sweary it is