Tellin’ Stories

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In which our reluctant hero discovers that there’s more to life than books. But not much more.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

This week is National Storytelling Week. Coincidentally, it is also the first week this year that I’ve started reading a book that doesn’t feature princesses or a monkey that has lost his mum. And what better excuse for the evil natured programme planners at CBeebies Towers to spice things up by wheeling out Tom Hardy (whoever he is) to do “Bedtime Stories” for the second time in a month. Can’t you give us poor dads a break?

21st century almost-grown-ups are apparently reading more than ever. Sadly, for many of us, this is largely noise, cranked up to eleven, from the endless inane soundbites and clickbait that we are bombarded with during our waking hours.

For may parents, the exception to this involuntary rule is the bedtime story. Children’s fiction may not be Shakespeare, but at least it contains coherent chunks that span more than 140 characters.

Story time is often presented as an idyllic parenting ritual, where sleepy-eyed little people hang on mum or dad’s every word before cuddles and the nightly lecture about not getting out of bed until the sun is “up up” on the Gro-clock.

And, to be fair, it usually is. It’s the bouncing on the sofa, emptying the re-stocked toy cupboard, arguing over telly programmes, refusing to go upstairs, splashing in the bath, refusing to brush teeth, suddenly becoming hungry seconds after eventually brushing teeth, jumping in the wrong bed and arguing over who’s turn it is for mum to do the stories beforehand that’s the problem. Every. Single. Night. But that’s not the story’s fault, is it?

We read to our children because it’s important. Important as part of the bedtime routine. Important as it’s usually calm one on one time doing a shared thing, which is nice whether you’ve been out at work all day and missed everything else or not. Important as it fuels the imagination in a way that telly just can’t. Important as it can help increase literacy and learning in the long term, and help shape the next generation of cool kids that hang around in libraries and Waterstones at a certain age.

But what chance have we got of keeping our children interested in reading once they can do it by themselves?

My book is on my tablet which is convenient for commuting. But with the tablet comes distractions. There’s enough games, music, films and telly to provide a lifetime of entertainment and the temptation for me, an adult-ish man, not to read is often overwhelming. Children hardly stand a chance.

Creativity requires time and patience, and often rises from boredom. Proper boredom rarely happens with so many distractions and the constant flitting from one thing to another must have a negative effect on our attention span. (Ooh, look… an aeroplane.) If we can’t concentrate long enough to read a book then we’re unlikely to do so long enough to write one. At this rate we’ll have run out of authors by the 22nd century. Perhaps we just won’t need any by then.

However, all is not lost in the battle to save the humble story.

Making time to read with children is the obvious first step. I’m finding that as our eldest is growing up and able to read some words, she is showing far greater interest in the actual stories and is asking questions about them. Which is great when they’re about things that I know about or can make up, less so if querying holes in the plot or anything Disney related, two concepts that sort of come hand in hand.

Technology, used in the right way, may help too. Love them or loathe them, the gadgets are not going away, so why not give them a big cuddle? The tablet is not just your fifty quid babysitter from Amazon but a seven inch personal tutor too.

While I’m in no hurry to ditch the old fashioned hardbacks at bedtime, there are plenty of alternatives for the bits in between. We have a free app with old stories like The Gingerbread Man on that our eldest likes, and the CBeebies Storytime app is excellent entertainment for a variety of ages. Even Dr Seuss is available for a couple of quid and there’s loads of phonics apps to help develop reading skills too. Sneaking some fun learning into playtime has to be better than another half hour of American children opening Kinder eggs on YouTube, right? I reckon that our two year old will be reading Dostoyevsky by the time he gets to nursery at this rate.

There’s creative things to try too. After we read Alice in Wonderland one bedtime, our daughter discussed using our imaginations, being a central theme of the story. She was adamant that she couldn’t make up her own stories until I suggested that changing bits of her favourite story may be a good way to start. So she had a go. Ok, “The Bear Who Came to Tea” may result in a lawsuit if it ever gets published, but she really enjoyed doing it and there were sparks of proper creativity going on, even at such a young age.

If I can nurture this creativity, I reckon that I can handover blog writing duties by the summer. After all, banging the same old rubbish out each week with a few words and ideas changed is all that I do. In the meantime, there’s always Tom Hardy for her to watch on telly with all of the thirty and fortysomething old girls across the land.
Fin.

Eat Your Words

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In which our reluctant hero spells it out. Or something.

Reading is back in the news. No, not the birth town of cheeky, chubby japesters, Mr Tumble and Ricky Gervais, and (more impressively) the Little Chef. The other one. You know. The one where you join up letters and words and stuff and try to make sense of it. Like you’re trying to do now. Good luck with that.

If social media is any barometer, mums have gotten all hot under the collar about reading for starters, with the news that actor, heartthrob, dad and all round nice guy, Tom Hardy (whoever he is) will be reading the CBeebies Bedtime Story on New Year’s Eve. Blimey.

“Sit down, it’s starting.”
“But Mum! This is a baby programme! I’m nine!”
“Will you be quiet for five minutes? I’m trying to watch!”

With this much excitement brewing over five minutes of action at bedtime, Lord knows what the reaction will be when news finally gets out that Ross Poldark is replacing Gem as guest presenter on the Swashbuckle Christmas Special. ARRR!

Bringing in a Hollywood ringer hardly seems fair to the average dad like me. Our two only get to listen to my weary mumblings at bedtime (on the few occasions where they don’t like Mum best) rather than the elegant diction of a trained thespian. Poor dad.

It’s the same with the gardening. It doesn’t matter how many miles you tot up, plodding up and down with the mower, you feeling that everyone else thinks that it would all have been done that much better by Mr Bloom.

Parking the mower for a moment and wheelbarrowing back up the garden in a desperate attempt to get this post back on track, earlier in the week, I was drawn to this quite bizarre headline. On the BBC website of all places.

POTATO LETTERS RUIN DINNER FOR MUM AND HER COMPLAINT GOES VIRAL.

Brilliant.

My first thought was why on earth would a grown woman think that the introduction of potato letters to a plate of food wouldn’t ruin it?

I’ve watched a couple of Masterchef’s this week, and at no point have I seen Marcus Wareing conclude that the potato foam was OK, but adding a couple of Tesco Crispy Potato Letters would really have brought the consommé to life. Maybe the professional chefs are missing a trick?

Having stopped guessing and read the article (do, it’ll make you feel so much better about your own parenting skills) it turns out that a mum purchased a bag of oven ready potato letters which didn’t contain all of the letters required for her to teach her son, Logan (4), to read his name. So she complained.

“It is misleading, why would you sell them as alpha-bites, really they should just be called ‘certain letter bites’.

“In the end I improvised by using an ‘I’ as an ‘L’ and a ‘C’ as an ‘O’ so spelled ‘icgan’ which obviously isn’t his name.

“He noticed this straight away and I had to explain why. Very disappointed.”

I swear that I’m not making this up. But here’s the best bit.

“If you buy them you expect all the letters to be there, that’s why I emptied them all out. Apparently it does say on the packet that not all of the letters are in there, but again I don’t see the point in that.”

And she still complained. Genius.

So, where do I start with this?

First of all, having tipped the frozen letters out and realised that a few were missing, why not pick another word? There’s half a kilo of letters to pick from and loads of words in the dictionary. It’s hardly the Countdown conundrum.

Had all letters been available and subsequently scoffed, what would mum have done next mealtime? Demand that Tesco stock them individually? (See above for alternative options.)

If her son can’t read anyway, why not wing it and make something up like the rest of us? (“Yes, ‘kpqde’ spells ‘Logan.’ Clever boy!”) Or use the 15-17 minutes that they were cooking to sit down and teach him with letter blocks or good old fashioned pencils and paper?

And what about children with names with recurring letters? What about their feelings? You didn’t think about the children at all, did you Tesco? Thought not.

And did I complain to Heinz when my two year old could only express Pi to 286 decimal places because the tin of Numberetti Spaghetti ran out of number threes? No, I didn’t. Actually, that gives me an idea…

I could go on.

At a push, some credit could maybe go to the mum for trying to use mealtime as learning time and coming up with something to hopefully make the process slightly less torturous. We’ve all been there.

So, click bait or genuine cause for complaint? I think we can probably guess the answer.

Andy Warhol once said “In the future, everyone will be world- famous for 15 minutes” and it looks like this mum just got hers. Which is, coincidentally, about the same time needed to cook some more frozen potato letters.

Fin.

The Witching Hour

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In which our reluctant hero gets ready for bed.

Yesterday evening’s journey home was a typical Thursday commute for me, being mostly spent typing exciting terms such as “parenting” and “children” into Google’s news search in the vain hope of getting a spark of inspiration for today’s post. Having waded through about three hundred headlines about “Brangelina” I eventually stumbled upon something interesting in The Mirror.

“Three quarters of parents no longer give their children a bath before bed and favour quick showers instead, a new study has found.

Busy mums and dads admitted that they preferred screen-time to calm their kids rather than reading them a story and tucking them in for the night.”

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/three-quarters-parents-shun-childrens-8888347

Three quarters? Really?

Now I can completely understand why many parents, us included, allow a bit of telly before bed, but the concept of a complete lack of routine at this time (as is inferred in the full article) seems bizarre.

Although all parents do things differently, establishing routines is vitally important, not least for your own sanity. Bedtime was one of the first after becoming parents. You tweak things of course, especially as the little people get a bit older, but our routine isn’t massively different from when our eldest was six months old, albeit with two children now.

To illustrate the benefits of our efforts, I will describe how bedtime works at our house on a good day.

Tea finished, we head upstairs to run the bath. I fetch and lay out the pyjamas, pick some toys, get them undressed and they jump in. Once the hair-washing bit is done, the children play nicely in the bath for about twenty minutes before I get them out to dry and dress them. Back downstairs, they may ask for a biscuit and half a banana if still peckish, and watch a programme before bed. We aim to get back upstairs for teeth, toilet, stories and lights off at around 7pm. Everyone goes straight to sleep and mum and dad get a well-earned sit down. We, as the righteous quarter of all parents, deserve a medal. Go us.

A proper system, regimentally applied. Sounds good, doesn’t it? For balance, this is how the same routine works on a bad day.

Tea finished, a tantrum starts about not wanting a bath. With a child under each arm, I head upstairs to run the water, fetch and lay out the pyjamas and pick some toys. The next five to ten minutes are spent trying to find the children who, by now, could be anywhere from bouncing on our bed to down at the bottom of the garden. Once retrieved, I spend another five minutes practicing my WWF skills while getting them undressed and into the bath, which may well have gone cold.

Once the hair-washing bit is (eventually) done, the children throw or splash water at each other and at me for about thirty seconds before I lose my rag, get them out and attempt to dry and dress them. The soundtrack to this bit is often crying and wails of “I don’t want you… I like my mummy best!” from the eldest and “mummy back NOW!” from the youngest. It’s so nice to feel loved.

Back downstairs, they may ask for a biscuit and half a banana if still peckish, before we pop the telly on to watch a bedtime programme. An argument starts, usually involving foot stamping and shouts of “I want Team Umizoomi not baby programmes!” from the eldest, and “No. Peppa Pig FIRST!” from the youngest in an infinite loop. Now somewhat fed up, I stick CBeebies on and head to the kitchen to locate wine while thinking, “If only my meeting had overrun by half an hour.”

The telly talks to itself (as CBeebies is on after 6pm it will be the episode of “In the Night Garden” with the Tombliboos making loads of noise – it always is) while the kids tip toys out everywhere, run round in circles, jump off the sofa and scream. The coalition forces of team mum and dad assemble, storm the front room, switch the telly off and drag the children back upstairs for teeth, toilet, stories and lights off at around 6:30pm.

Nobody goes straight to sleep, I pick the toys and cushions back up, and mum and dad get a well-earned sit down spent shouting “GET BACK TO BED…. NOW!” until they eventually drop off.

There is something very odd and unpredictable about that last hour before bed though. Even if the children have been good all day, you can almost see hair starting to grow out of their palms and the red mist descend as the clock strikes six.

It’s not always like this of course, but if you go through a couple of consecutive nights of it you can perhaps see why bath time may be skipped and the tablet fetched out by night three. Which, to me, is a shame. Is a quick shower and an hour of iPad really the antidote? Apparently, three quarters of us parents think so.

Not every night though, surely? Tucking the little people in and story time is one of the nicest parts of the day if everyone is settled and starting to get sleepy. The other three quarters can do it their way, and we’ll do it ours.

Don’t have nightmares. Goodnight.

Finding Your Feet

Feet. Earlier.

In which our reluctant hero faces a near impossible deadline. Probably. 

So, against all odds, my first most excellent (if somewhat lacking in actual words and sentences about being a Dad or parenting) blog post survived. Some of you may even have read and even remembered it. If so, I really suggest that you try to get out just a tiny bit more. Or chuck your phone in the bin. It’s for the best. Trust me.

My resolution for this week was to think about a proper first post. Which, to be fair, I did. Sadly, no resolution was made to write said post despite me apparently mumbling something to my considerably better half about finishing each weekly Friday offering by the Sunday before. Oh, why do spouses only listen at the most inopportune moments?

So, here I am. A man (technically, by definition – I checked) trying to concentrate on doing something important-ish (my blog) without any real clue as to what I am doing, while keeping one eye and half of my brain firmly focused on something else important-ish (Wallander.) Which I suppose is about as near to accidentally stumbling across an analogy about parenting that I’m likely to get, seeing as there’s only about 54 minutes left until Sir Ken solves the murder.

Briefly getting back to the blog…

The concept of parenting is a bizarre one to get your head around. It’s the only permanent job that you’re likely to perform with hours directly in contravention of the European Working Time Directive, provides no pay, and to which no, or practically no, training (aside from those wonderful NCT antenatal classes that you can sign up for – happy Regional Chair?) is given. You need a licence to keep a telly in the house in case you can’t look after it properly. Yet you’re allowed to keep a real life human baby in the corner of your living room, or mounted on the wall, to stare at for hours on end without anyone batting an eyelid. Utter madness.

It should be simple. Should be. But, somehow, it just isn’t.

As if not having the foggiest idea of what you’re doing isn’t bad enough, everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) that you know is positively itching to bamboozle you with advice. Advice. All of it conflicting. Most of it veering unhelpfully towards Chocolate-Teapot Land.

“Yeah, the World Health Organisation stuff about breastfeeding until two is nonsense. Pureed Sugar Puffs with Cup-a-Soup will be fine from five days.”

“Slightly jaundiced? Ignore that stuff about sunlight. We left ours in the fruit bowl with bananas on top of her for a fortnight. Ripened perfectly.”

It’s quite frankly amazing that we survived past being cavemen and caveladies, especially since CBeebies was only broadcast between noon until one until the latter period of the ice-age. The savages.

One of the more useful pieces of advice that I was given was that the best thing that you can do is listen to everyone’s advice and then do your own thing. Sound advice indeed, which I promptly dismissed and went and did my own thing.

In the early days of parenthood, my primary role as a Dad, particularly at night, was to walk around in ever wearily decreasing circles with a permanently screaming baby welded to my shoulder. Just on the off-chance that the three of us would somehow all manage to be asleep at the same time, even if for only half an hour. Fat chance.

The nighttime hours spent not screaming were pretty much exclusively spent not feeding. My wife was determined to breastfeed but our daughter had other ideas. Ideas mainly involving inhumane acts of torture applied to the upper adult torso.

During a particularly sleep deprived and difficult night of a series of many, in a moment of utter madness, I offered some advice of my own. With my exhausted and demoralised wife at near breaking point and, for the first time, considering giving up breastfeeding, this was probably not the time for such foolhardy action. So in I went anyway…

“Don’t ever make a decision in darkness.”

Yeah, I know. I don’t know where it came from either and confess to having forgotten all about it until being reminded while writing this. As my default setting is “don’t ever make a decision” adding two extra words wasn’t so great a leap. It was just a case of picking the right two. “In Greggs” probably wouldn’t have had the same impact.

And, miraculously, more by luck than judgment, everyone got to sleep and everything did indeed seem better in daylight. My wife persevered with feeding past the twelve month mark and I was more than a little surprised to learn that she passes this advice on whenever anyone else is struggling. Blimey. (I’m happy to cash out on my ten bonus Dad Points, albeit three years late by the way.)

And, eventually, it does get easier until, finally, one day… Eureka! You nail something all by yourself. Something so spectacularly impressive that you too feel duty bound to share and annoy your peers with like a modern day Dr Spock. Or Mr Spock. Or something.  

“Yes, little [insert child’s name here] wouldn’t eat a single piece of fruit or veg until we smeared hummus and quinoa on the plate before serving. And now [he’s/she’s/it’s] thinking of going vegan. At six months. So advanced.”

And at this exact point, the one where you move seamlessly over to the dark side, be sure that next mealtime you have a plate with some words and a knife and a fork at the ready. And make sure that the plate is smeared with a couple of delicacies from the Waitrose Essentials range beforehand. Because you’ll soon be sat in your kitchen eating those garlicky, grainy words while watching Sugar Puffs and Cup-a-Soup zoom round in the blender.