Things To Know About Buying A Fish For Your Kids

We decided to get my son a pet for his birthday. My wife despises animals and I have a lot of quite specific criteria. Nothing with a visible bumhole for instance. Or anything that might look at me with a sad, neglected face. Or anything that needs washing or combing. Which doesn’t leave much. But my son loves animals, so we plumped for a fish. We figured it would create a big impression, but at little cost.

I did no research before we purchased the fish. I had no real experience of fish-keeping. The only goldfish I’ve ever owned was won at a funfair, throwing a ping-pong ball into a jam jar. It lived for a few probably quite unhappy weeks in a glorified bucket, before leaning over and floating to the top. I did not want that existence for my son’s fish.

So today we went to the local garden centre which contains a concession selling tropical fish. I took my son along so he could choose for himself. But we were soon advised that we’d have to prepare the aquarium for at least week before we could move the fish in. The water needs to be treated and filtered first. My son’s birthday is on Monday and essentially we’re getting him an empty fish tank.

The man in the shop really liked fish. I felt like if I’d proceeded with anything other than the welfare of the fish as a priority, cost for instance, he would have thought less of me. I figured the same from my son. There was silent judgement from all sides. So when I was told the fish would need a little heater I bought one. Special healthy water powder? Yes please. Nu-rave pink gravel? Go on then. I’d promised my son a little ornament to entertain his new friends in their home. He opted for a pagoda. Because it reminded him of the local Chinese supermarket. Which will obviously make them feel comfortable.

Suddenly this cost-effective gift wasn’t very effective any more. And my regret swelled when I got it home and began to assemble it. The instructions were testing. A bit like that middle bit in the Bake-Off when the contestants are asked to construct a croquembouche with a recipe that just says “put together some bits of something or other and then bake it”. Once I’d finally assembled the filter, the heater and the aquarium light I connected them all to the mains and lobbed them into the water. I feel as if I should have been fatally electrocuted there and then. It may still happen.

And now it’s in the corner of my son’s bedroom. He fell asleep looking at it. But the light is bouncing off the lumo-pink gravel giving the room a weird seedy glow like a brothel. I’m still regretting it and we haven’t bought the fish yet.

Any good?

Yet Another Fine Mess We’ve Got Ourselves Into

I am not what you might call house-proud. I was once fined by my university for the appalling state of my bedroom. But even with my low living standards I find the speed and scale of the mess that my children make overwhelming.

Within seconds of waking in the morning my youngest son will set about his work. Mess is the first thing on his to-do list. Before I’ve even rubbed my eyes and scratched myself he has unleashed the explosive power of the mess on his bedroom. His commitment is admirable, particularly at such an early hour. It is as if he has drawn an imaginary grid on the floor and made sure that every square foot contains a bit of his mess.

Mess grows through the house like a peculiarly fast-spreading fungal infection. In the some areas it pools and establishes itself permanently. There is an end of our kitchen table that I haven’t seen in weeks. It’s swamped under scrap paper and stationery.

Perhaps the most debilitating aspect of my children’s mess is that it is unconquerable. It is relentless. Quite often even as I am tidying away, my sons are acting against me. Removing toys the moment I’ve put them in the cupboard, leading us on an unending hokey-cokey of housework.

Their play room is naturally the messiest place in the house. I have spoken before about how it looks like a scene from Toy Story, if Toy Story was set in a Victorian slum where the inhabitants periodically riot.

We have made several attempts to bring order to the chaos of the room. We bought a job-lot of tote boxes and tried to introduce a filing system, separating little plastic people from little plastic animals and separating them from little plastic dinosaurs. Like a sort of little plastic apartheid.

The theory is that one box can be emptied at a time, its contents played with, before the box is filled up again and put away. But our little Nelson Mandelas have always rejected the segregation and a rainbow nation of toys inevitably appears quickly after. In each square foot obviously.

My sons don’t so much ‘play’ as ‘ransack’. Books in their thousands are strewn urgently across the floor like the boys have broken in to look for a sensitive file or something. It is unfathomable to me that Amazon hasn’t developed some kind of Kindle for picture books. A kid-Kindle would literally change my life.

Like the devil, mess takes on many forms. Book mess. Food mess. Clothes mess. Art mess, which is particularly problematic. Throwing away anything that my sons have created feels insensitive, it flies against everything I stand for as a sappy dad. So we are left with accumulating stacks of paper, some with just the smallest mindless scrawl on them.

And then there is car mess. Put it this way, based on the state of our current car if I’d had one at university they’d have thrown me out.

Any good?

Mastering The Art of Art With Children

I have many ideals when it comes to parenting; a sort of fantasy blueprint for how my two sons and I go about our joint business. One of these involves art-time. In my head the three of us sit around the kitchen table, pencils and crayons lovingly laid out in rainbow order, each of us beavering away at a potential masterwork. And perhaps one day when the pair become globally renowned artists, they’ll show some of the pieces created during this early period as part of a retrospective at the Tate.

The reality is that after about five minutes my sons will have become bored and dashed off to some other room probably to graffiti the walls. They will have left me still labouring away at a biro portrait of Kung Fu Panda, essaying careful pen strokes to make sure I’ve got his eyes just right. Once I’ve finished the boys will return to the table to deface whatever I’ve managed with their crude squiggles.

In the time that the two are at work a surprising amount has been achieved. Invariably the manageable pencils and crayons are ignored in favour of what I consider the Four Horseman of the Art Apocalypse: felt-tip pens, stickers, Play-doh and paint. Weapons of mess destruction.

My youngest son has an unusual approach to using felt-tip pens, preferring a sort of jackhammer method of repeatedly smashing the pen down onto the paper. This has two results, a cluster of colourful bullet-holes and an obliterated tip. If I can persuade him to actually draw something, it’s normally a face. On his socks.

The stickers in our house live a nomadic existence, scattering from the kitchen to the darkest corners of the home. There’s a fungal quality to them, a relentless spread, like Dutch elm disease. I swear that they creep about when we are sleeping, dancing around the door frames and gathering in the cupboards. The bravest ones will attach themselves to your person, and seal themselves on the soles of your feet. And eventually, inevitably, you’ll look down and find Chase from Paw Patrol plastered to your bum-cheek.

I have so many issues with Play-doh that it requires an entire post. The tragedy of a tub of Play-doh is that it is never better than when it is opened. Fresh and clean and moist to begin with, it quickly degenerates. Within seconds, my sons will have sourced an alternative shade of Play-doh and jammed the two together. This will first produce an agreeable marbling effect. But this rapidly subsides into a brown lumpy mass soon to be discarded.

Paint has the most potential for catastrophe: even a gloop of children’s water-based paint has the power to ruin soft furnishings. I once allowed my older son to quench his thirst with a slurp of bright red paint. It was from a tester pot of outdoor wood paint, which led to a panicky call to the NHS emergency line. They advised to keep an eye on him to see if there were any after-effects. Gladly there were none, although he did look like Ronald McDonald for a while.

And when I think again of that retrospective, perhaps it would just be a series of Tracy Emin-style installations: a bin full of decapitated felt-tip pens and a hospital bed with a poisoned toddler in it.

Any good?

The Greatest Gift Of All: A Metal Detector

I can’t give advice on Christmas gifts. I once gave my sister a rape alarm. In mitigation the alarm was attached to a stopwatch, she was well into jogging at the time. The alarm was a secondary feature, but for some reason that was the bit she dwelt on.

I also once got a rubbish present, a metal detector. In fairness to my parents I had asked for a metal detector. I grew up close to a Roman road and it was near here that one of my neighbours excavated a coin that year. Knowing what I know about myself now I was entirely motivated by greed and the tantalising thought of uncovering some treasure. But at the time I persuaded myself it was an interest in local history that had fired me.

As soon as I unwrapped the metal detector I was suspicious. It was smaller than any that I had seen on the television. There were no giant headphones included with it. I assumed that these were essential. It was also assembled with bright orange fittings and big bulbous handles that made it look like a Fisher Price toy, a sort of My First Metal Detector.

Once I whirred it into action a fundamental flaw was revealed. The metal detector could detect metal, but only metal that you could see. I placed a two pence piece under the rug in the sitting room as a test. But the carpet was obviously impenetrable to the detector’s feeble glare. This may have proved an impediment when looking for antique hoards buried under centuries of earth.

In its defence the detector was brilliant at finding doorknobs. If you were ever approaching a door and weren’t exactly sure where the doorknob was, then you’d simply move the detector slowly around the frame of the door until a buzzing sound could be heard – and there, you’ve found the knob and could pass through the door safely.

In desperation I headed to an antiquarian shop in Cambridge which specialized in peddling spurious historical items to the many tourists in the city. I bought some fake Roman coins. I went back to the Roman road and scattered the coins by the pathway. And then “detected” them.

Perversely of all the brilliant presents that my mum and dad bought me over the years, the BMXs and the table football tables, the metal detector is the one that has given me the most sustained pleasure, simply through the amusing memory of how crap it was. It’s the best and worst Christmas present I ever got – put that in your Christmas gift guide.

The metal detector itself was shoved into a cobwebbed crack next to the tumble-dryer, left to fester in an open grave. Maybe one day in the far-off future it will be discovered by inquisitive archaeologists. Perhaps they will ponder what its use was. Definitely not metal-detecting.

Any good?

I Think About Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Way Too Much

There is little more dispiriting feeling as a parent to turn on a television programme for your child and realise that you’ve watched it before. My sons know what they like when it comes to the television we view, the stories we read and the songs we sing. So naturally there is a level of repetition. Which means I have begun to connect with them on a completely different level; reading subtexts into plots that aren’t there or rounding out characters with non-existent philosophical dilemmas.

For instance I have dwelt for a long time now on the issues surrounding the Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine. Is he okay with being called fat? Does he just regard as it friendly joshing, banter originating from the lads working down Tidmouth Sheds. Perhaps he deserves more respect, he is a captain of industry and a knight of the realm after all. I worry that this harsh nickname hurts him more than it appears. It may compel him to eat even more. Maybe the Fat Controller, with tremendous dark irony, has lost control of his calorie-counting.

What was the thinking behind the littlest Billy Goat Gruff crossing the bridge first? How would the biggest Billy Goat Gruff have felt if he had watched on as his tiny brother is gored to death by a starving troll, knowing that he could have saved all the silly bother by fronting up and dealing with the troll beforehand?

What happened earlier in their lives which lead to Soo the Panda being able to speak fluently but Sweep only being able squeak and Sooty as a complete mute? Do Jake and the Neverland Pirates’ parents know they’re out? Who is Norman Price from Fireman Sam’s dad? Is his absence why he’s so naughty? Why do the Highway Rat and all his little animal victims possess human faculties, but his horse is still just a horse? If the majority of the emotions living inside the girl’s head in Inside Out are negative ones how come she isn’t completely embittered and paranoid? What the fuck are Bubble Guppies?

My latest pointless fixation is with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the song in which his bizarrely luminescent nose saves Christmas by being employed as a set of fog lights. I find one line of lyrics particularly troubling:

All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names

It seems that before the night in question that there was systemic bullying in the stables at the North Pole. It slightly sours the magical image of Father Christmas flying across the wintry skies in his sleigh, knowing that he is being propelled by a squad of bigots. While the object of their bigotry sits at home, discriminated against on account of his disability, pondering a formal complaint to the Reindeer Resources department. Even old Santa himself may have been culpable.

But what were these names that the other reindeer were calling him? Given the Rudolph has gone down in history as the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he’s obviously happy with his schnozz being highlighted as unusually red. So what were these names then?

So far I’ve come up with ‘red-nosed prick’.

Happy Christmas everyone x.

Any good?

The Issue of Sharing a Birthday with Jesus

I was born on Christmas Eve. I basically share a birthday with Jesus. As a child I was resentful of Jesus because most people cared more about his birthday than mine. The entire village would gather at the church to celebrate his birthday. Some of them would tell anecdotes about his birth, about how he was born in a stable and got some slightly quirky gifts. No-one wanted to talk about my birth. I was born in a bed in a hospital.

People would sing jolly songs about Jesus and his mum and his mum’s womb. And then local children would fetch tiny effigies of Jesus and his mum and her birthing partners, some of whom were actual cows, and place them carefully together at the front of the church. No-one thought to create a tiny effigy of me.

Afterwards the village would decant to a nearby home where someone would be throwing a party in honour of Jesus’ birthday. Often it would be my own family. On those days, in the heady punchy fug of mulled wine fumes, my mum would make her frantic preparations. She was aware that a neighbourly hoard was about to descend on her and judge her on her interior design choices and her honey-glazed cocktail sausages. Sausages which were glazed because it was Jesus’ birthday.

At the end of these festivities at last Jesus would step aside and the party would sing Happy Birthday to me. There are lots of lovely things that can happen to someone on their birthday, having Happy Birthday sung to them is not one of them. It’s awkward. It raises questions. I’ve never known what expression to wear during it. I’ve never established where to look when there’s no cake to focus on. After Happy Birthday the party would end and everyone would go home. But the celebrations would continue into the next day. Which was Jesus’ birthday.

When people discover now that I was born on Christmas Eve they wince, understanding the tribulations that come with sharing a birthday with a big birthday-hog like Jesus. But the truth is that for all the sense of being sidelined or feeling like the occasional victim of a joint birthday-Christmas present swindle, a Christmas Eve birthday has always been a special day.

I have never been at school on my birthday. I have never been at work on my birthday. I have never had to commute or carry out mundane errands. I have always been surrounded by people who have some kind of affection for me. In the rambunctious days of my late teens and early twenties, Christmas Eve became less about Jesus and more about meeting up with old friends and getting shitfaced.

So if you are a Christmas baby or the parent of a Christmas baby (that doesn’t include you Mary and God/Joseph), then perhaps dwell less on the unfortunate consequences of a festive birthdate and more on the unique potential of it. And at least no-one is going to sing about your mum’s womb.

Any good?

I Think My Sons Are Conspiring Against Me With Sick

Fatherhood is a game of fine margins. Things can escalate quickly. One minute I can be dreaming of my Dad of the Year award and the next I am in my underpants and on my knees, scouring pools of puke off the kitchen floor. Which is what happened last Sunday.

As with most of my parenting catastrophes it all began when my wife went out and left me on my own with the boys. She had decided to run a few errands. After having children the errand takes on a new appealing status, almost like a leisure activity. A trip alone to retrieve a package from the postal depot becomes an opportunity to relax and regroup, sourcing cable connectors from Homebase is now the chance for a carefree saunter among the aisles.

So Mum was in a far-off supermarket when the Major let me know that he would like a snack. And because the Minor is currently performing as a tiny tribute act to his older brother, he asked for a snack as well. So I diligently peeled two satsumas, broke them into segments and served them to the boys in individual bowls.

The Major chowed down but the Minor, a keen fruitarian normally, pushed his helping away. With my paternal intuition I deduced that he was tired and he needed a nap. I warmed him up a bottle of milk and ferried him upstairs to his bedroom. While he was slurping away I pondered what bodily science is at work that allows a child to readily go down for a morning snooze having woken from his nightly slumbers a few hours before, yet another six or seven hours after that will always takes a lot more persuasion.

Perhaps the Minor took exception to my assumption that he would immediately drop off because he began to wriggle off my lap, point downstairs and say “downstairs”. Which meant he wanted to go downstairs.

In our absence the Major had finished his satsuma. Unsated, he had clearly been eyeing up his brother’s portion but waited to make his move until the very moment that we re-appeared. My sons have become very territorial about their possessions, like a couple of young dog-foxes spraying on trees. I believe that the Minor didn’t really want that satsuma. Or care that there was a whole pyramid of them in the kitchen. It seemed that the sight of his brother snaffling what was rightfully his sickened him to his core.

His reaction was a fierce protest of screaming and tears. I tried to reason with him. What I should have been doing was urgently sourcing a better alternative to a satsuma, probably a biscuit. But the wailing became more dramatic and eventually, perhaps inevitably, he was sick.

I am becoming paranoid that my sons are conspiring against me. I deal with a lot of sick. It’s as if they’ve evolved a special additional chamber in their gut, permanently filled with sick which can be triggered whenever I’m sole-parenting. Presumably as a strategy to ensure that their mother doesn’t leave them too often.

So I was covered in the stuff and hence down to my pants. To make matters worse the Major had assumed some blame and was guiltily trying to hook out the half-chewed satsuma with his finger. Regurgitation in it all forms was happening around me, in full cinematic Technicolor. It was a vomnishambles. As I say, things can escalate quickly.

Any good?

Why Some Toys are Harder to Get Rid of than Others

Sophie looked at me with her big black eyes as I took hold of her neck. Her face seemed to say “please, don’t let it end this way”. But my mind was made up. She had been essential to our family but she now had outlived her use. Into the bin bag she went. She probably ended up at the landfill. We didn’t even recycle her or donate her, not with all the bitemarks and historic spittle.

The demise of Sophie the teething giraffe was part of a calculated cull of toys that my wife and I carried out recently. Previously our playroom was grotesquely overstocked. If its inhabitants came magically to life like they do in the Toy Story films then the room would be like a sprawling slum, tote-box tenements rising and tottering from the floor. All the crash and bash of Victoria Station at rush hour, a thousand tiny dinosaurs and Playmobil figurines stampeding to the entrance of the Happyland line, treading on each other and calling each other wankers.

So we decided to carry out an audit of the toys that had become useless to us. Most of which were the unworkable foam bits that come attached to CBeebies magazines. Seriously, they should fix actual litter to the covers and save us all the bother of attempting to play with it.

It occurs to me that this kind of operation will become more difficult in the future, when the toys are bigger and more animate, and our children’s (and my) attachments to them are firmer. When I say this I am mainly thinking about Graham.

Graham came to us from Costco. Graham is a ludicrous outsized teddy bear with a similar stout stature to a rugby prop forward or Lou Carpenter. I am ashamed to say that at first I mocked him. He used to just lie there looking like the lifeless body of Bungle from Rainbow. A big silly giant floundering about among all the normal-sized toys.

In the weeks after his arrival I got to know Graham and discover what Graham was all about. One afternoon the boys were playing in the room and I became overwhelmed with post-lunch fatigue. There was Graham, arms wide waiting to envelop me in warm open embrace. There is no judgement from Graham, just a shoulder to rest my tired head on. Sometimes Graham will take all us all into his cuddle and listen on silently as we read our stories. And if the boys decide to use him as a climbing frame or a urinal then Graham accepts it uncomplainingly.

So much love for Graham
So much love for Graham
But a day will come when we will usher Graham into retirement, when he is replaced by a snooker table or a PlayStation. I cannot face throwing him away but I don’t think I could evict him to the attic either. To live a hermit’s life among the cobwebs and the loft insulation. Besides I might forget he was up there and he’d scare the shit out of me; I might think Lou Carpenter has gone loopy and hidden up there.

I would hope that we can offer Graham a new existence, perhaps with a new deserving owner via a charity shop. I know someone who had to depart with their own gigantic teddy in this way, but their daughter insisted that at least the bear should be driven there in the front passenger of the car with a seatbelt.

That seems fair enough me. In fact I regret not strapping Sophie into the front seat and taking her straight to the landfill.


Any good?

An Idiot Dad’s Guide to Pass The Parcel

I performed my first ‘pass the parcel’ at the Major’s fourth birthday recently. I never knew it could be so difficult.

My memory of the game as a child is mostly negative. That it brought out the worst in its participants. And that it was a format easily corrupted by acquisitive little shits trying the game the system by lingering on the parcel as it made its journey round the group. I was determined that the Major’s party games wouldn’t descend into acrimony and tantrums so took the necessary steps. I may have overthought it.

To ensure that every attendee at least a minor sense of victory we included a small treat within each layer of wrapping and enough layers so that each child got a treat. The result was a hugely bulbous package. We had in effect turned a light-hearted moment of fun into a test of endurance. There were children suffering repetitive strain injury in their tiny hands, having been forced to the lug the monster parcel around again and again. It was a pass the parcel-athon. Some of the kids were passing around sponsorship forms to raise money from their efforts.

As the package dwindled in size so did the interest. Before long the circle was on the brink of breaking up, attention drifting off to the bouncy castle or a nearby sausage roll or a white-painted wall. We avoided tears of disappointment but replaced them with tears of boredom.

We tried to get clever with the music. Instead of a simple portable CD-player we placed a wireless speaker in the centre of the circle in the hope of creating an immersive sonic experience for the competitors. It actually sounded more like a tiny man singing from the next suburb. No wonder eyes were looking towards the emergency exits. One of the kids called me DJ Fire Alarm. When the music stopped it was almost inaudible; often I had to explain that it had stopped to the baffled circle.

The knack of stopping the music in pass the parcel is to do so when then the package is squarely in one pair of hands. If the stop happens while there are four mitts on the parcel then there’s a real risk of controversy about ownership. I envisaged having to build an elaborate system of mirrors in order to time pressing the pause button without anyone noticing but in actuality I stood in plain sight adjacent to the ring. Nobody was looking at me, too enrapt in sausage rolls.

Much to everyone’s relief after a few exhausting hours the game ended. The prize had landed in the hands of a little boy who immediately donated it to the Major. At first I thought fatigue had scrambled his mind. But it seemed that he was simply observing a protocol unknown to me that the birthday boy should take the spoils. In any case it was a charming gesture. It seems that some kids aren’t acquisitive after all. And I had definitely overthought it.

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When We Ditched Peter Rabbit For a Pokémon

I had an idea of what I wanted my children to be like before they were born. Cheeky without being naughty, intelligent but not precocious, individual without being weird. And of course, without a hint of paternal partisanship, both my sons have lived up to my expectations.

But now that the Major is approaching pre-school I’m worried that the vague otherworldliness that endears him to me so much will be a source of suspicion among his peers. That he’ll pitch up at the playground quoting his favourite Beatrix Potter book and eventually find himself alone and friendless in book corner.

I read once that the Prime Minister sits down every week to watch a selection of footage gathered by a team of minions. The footage provides a summary of recent happenings in popular culture like celebrity and sport news. It’s designed to prevent the Prime Minister appearing fusty and alien to the electorate, more connected with normal folk.

I wonder if I should create something similar for the Major. He starts at pre-school in September and he may need to be brought up to speed with the modern world. Minecraft and Zlatan Ibrahimović and mansplaining. Which is sort of what I’d be doing actually.

And that is why Pokémon Go seemed especially appealing. It’s sent the rest of the human race into a rabid, foaming frenzy. Even Theresa May has had to have a full day-long debrief.

The Major has had a troubled history with computer games. They seem to affect his wiring and unleash something very cross inside him. But I figured that Pokémon Go at least required some interaction with world at large and therefore marginally more wholesome.

First of all we were directed towards our local green to collect some Pokéballs, basically cutesy man-traps for catching Pokémon. I was mildly uncomfortable scrabbling around at the base of the war memorial looking for virtual sparrows, an echo of some of the more sinister side-effects of the craze.

We came across other Pokémon-hunters and there was a genuine sense of camaraderie out there. We were kindly directed towards the church hall where apparently there was a bunch of Pokeshits hanging out. And in a peculiar reversal of the traditional ‘don’t talk to strangers’ scenario, a young man leant out of his car window to advise us to head to the petrol station to capture some augmented pigeons. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more part of the community. It’s just a shame that it’s a community made up of eight-year-olds.

But that’s Pokémon Go. It’s weird. It sends people a bit loopy. Parents are naming their children after Pokémon. Avid hunters are being warned off venturing into defunct nuclear disaster zones. And Theresa May has been pictured sniffing around the Cenotaph.

So perhaps the Major isn’t so otherworldly after all.

Any good?