I Cannot Get My Children To Do What I Want Them To Do

 

It’s interesting how my children differ in the ways in which they misbehave. My older son prefers a medley of operatic tantrums and sulks as if he’s suffering early onset adolescence. My youngest is more of a traditionalist, an old school mischief-maker. He’s one jauntily-angled cap away from Just William.

The one thing that unites them in their naughtiness is their disobedience. I’d say that they act like wild animals but I imagine that even the most feral creature can be brought to heel eventually. Except sharks. Or ants maybe. Or seagulls. And I know it makes me sound like a bristling major-general but I find their habitual insubordination a continuing challenge.

I have been presented with two rebellious seagulls who flap about the house, repeatedly squawking ‘NO’. ‘NO’ is a mantra in our home, a way of life. ‘YES’ is so last year. I cannot get my children to do what I want them to do and it has unlocked an anger within me that people who know me wouldn’t recognise.

With each ‘NO’ my rage is brought closer to the boil until it finally escapes in the form of a sharp yap. It’s like my sons have woken a small aggressive dog. But it soon withers away into something more sad and desperate: a grovel. Just repeating their names over and over, each time more pathetic than the last.

The only power I have over them is physical. Physically putting their socks on. Physically getting them out of the bath. I regret that I have not yet found a way to physically make them tidy their toys. At my most frustrated I’ve scooped them up brusquely, scrumming them into submission. And immediately felt guilty afterwards.

This is one of the many reasons I would never smack my children. It doesn’t feel instinctive at all, in spite of being whacked a few times myself as a boy – with the desired effect notably. The law states that it’s alright to hit your children as long as you don’t leave a mark; basically you can’t assault them. But I’d rather not even dabble with that.

Putting them on a naughty step or telling them to go their room seems ineffectual. Try telling an ant to stay on a naughty step. A few friends have tried locking their scamps in their bedroom but this seems a touch medieval. Besides we don’t have locks on the bedroom doors so we’d have to install some form of barricade and siege warfare would break out in the house.

Reward charts bring about a short-term spike in good behaviour but their power soon fades with the novelty. My sons are incorruptible; bribery and blackmail just bounces off them. I’ve delivered long rambling sermons to them which have no impact except to send them to sleep. Which at least stops them misbehaving.

I don’t have any answers. Maybe my children have singled me out as a drip that can be taken advantage of. I’ll ponder that as I spend the night tidying up all their Duplo bricks, grovelling gently to myself.

A Giant Hedgehog, an Albino Squirrel and Dame Judi Dench

 

Outside the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield there is a hedgehog the size of an elephant. It is probably the most impressive over-large thing I’ve seen and I’ve seen the world’s biggest thermometer. The hedgehog isn’t real obviously but it is so splendidly well-rendered that it’s actually difficult to tell. There isn’t a prickle out of place; it’s so realistic you can almost smell the milky bread on its breath.

The hedgehog is probably the main attraction at the Centre so its position in the car park is slightly unfortunate. Every animal which follows it seems slightly insignificant in comparison, even if they are more animate. In fact the hedgehog is visible from the road so it’s possible to sample the best bit of the British Wildlife Centre and keep zooming on by. Essentially the hedgehog is the A22’s answer to the Angel of the North.

There’s nothing exotic about the inhabitants of the Centre, most of them you could probably meet on a particularly ambitious ramble. But there are treats within if you look hard enough, although you might first have to pass through what appears to be a section dedicated to vermin. This is mainly rats, who’ve colonized a grubby transparent drainpipe.

Sometimes the Centre resembles more of a sleep institute; a lot of the animals appear to hibernating out of sight in a bush. Or just lying in. At one point it felt like we were the victims of an audacious scam in which we’d been tricked into walking around pointing at hedgerows. We did see about a second of an albino squirrel which made all the traipsing through empty shrubbery worthwhile.

The Centre offers a solid selection of squirrels, of varying shades. The red squirrel enclosure is plastered with several images of Dame Judi Dench, who appears to have some association with the Centre. We did not see Dame Judi Dench while were there. It may have been that she had snuffled down in the foliage with a lazy weasel.

I should stop focussing on the amount of shiftless animals at the Centre. We saw a massively high-octane stoat. I’d never really given the stoat much consideration before, but this one was quite striking. It looked like a tiny lion with a ferret’s head, with an amazing furry extravagance at the end of its tail. It spent its entire time entertaining us by pelting up and down its chicken wire play tunnel.

We also came across a family of foxes strutting around their pen, smug in Tory-proofness. Nice wholesome foxes, not like the scabby ones near our home that look like they’ve been scraped together from pipe cleaners. We also saw a parade of fat owls, a very still heron that might have been a garden ornament and a troupe of otters wrestling on the bankside.

But still nothing as magnificent as that hedgehog. It’s worth the admission fee alone. Except that technically you don’t need to pay the admission fee to see it.

Where Do You Draw The Line When It Comes To Bums?

 

My sons’ interest in their lower regions and the substances that emanate from there has reached a bewildering pitch recently. Earlier this week my older son got out of the bath and started acting out a skit which might have been titled: ‘In Conversation with my Bum’. It was basically a two-hander, with his bottom performing like a ventriloquist’s dummy with its voice booming out in a preposterous baritone. Mainly the bum discussed with its owner how much they loved their mum.

Obviously I couldn’t help admire the ingenuity of the show, a sort of alternative to alternative comedy. But at the same time didn’t want to be seen to encourage it. So I offered the mildest, most tender rebuke I could and moved on, sniggering silently to myself.

On Saturday I took the boys to a model village in Berkshire. It’s quite an amazing place, a handful of 1930s towns and villages recreated in loving miniature. It’s very wholesome and at the end of the trip my older son wholesomely declared that he was going to build his own model village. Innocently I asked him where. “Up my bum” was the reply.

It appears that my younger son is being drawn in to these shenanigans, watching on in joy as his brother launched into what could only be described as a naked revue, busting some hand-on-hips glam-rock dance moves. At this point it was impossible to resist their delight and we melted into rich fortifying laughter.

I know that the lavatorial humour is normal at this age. In fact it sustains children up through whoopee cushions and stink bombs, continuing to scrawled penises on school textbooks, and culminating in some unfortunate cases in a love for Mrs Brown’s Boys. Even now I can appreciate a well-seasoned knob gag. And in the signing book at my own wedding, someone scribbled the word ‘minge’.

But I also worry that my boys will go to school and be the one that takes it too far. Maybe the bum-ventriloquism will cross a line with some schoolmates and they’ll end up being the child with an empty peg either side of their kit bag. So I did some research online on the kind of boundaries that we should be setting at this stage.

There didn’t seem to be much consensus but I did come across one incident in which a couple were invited to school to be informed that their son was bothering other pupils by sniffing their bums. In fairness to him he had probably had his own bum sniffed frequently in his early years so was simply repeating the trick.

Either way, the fact that the teachers stepped in to intervene makes me think that perhaps I’ll leave the boundary-establishing to them and keep on sniggering.

What Can You Do If Your Child Misses Out On A Primary School Place?

 

The evening before the primary school admissions were announced I posted on Facebook that the process was like the tombola at your village fete. Except that the prize wasn’t a Dundee cake or a box of Matchmakers. It was your child’s future.

Well the next day we discovered that we’d pulled out a losing ticket and I wished I hadn’t been so flippant.

My son was not allocated a place at our first choice school. Or the second. Or the third or the fourth. Admittedly the fourth choice was something of a wild card, given that it was two miles away. My initial reaction was shock. Followed by a biting sense that at the first opportunity to fail my son I had done so. Perhaps I had been blasé, perhaps I hadn’t been duly diligent in helping my wife make the selection.

Our first choice is around 500 yards from our house and is the school which adjoins the pre-school that my son currently attends. We looked back at previous intakes and reckoned he’d have been admitted four out of the five last years. It seemed like a relatively safe bet. And anyway our second choice provided an attractive contingency. I was feeling quite smug.

But we played the odds and lost, knackered by the unfortunate geography of it. The school he was given was undersubscribed, which told us everything we needed to know about it. At first I was incensed by the arbitrariness of the allocation, the sort of ‘tape measure says no’ culture of it. Apparently the distance is measured from the front door of the home to the front gate as the crow flies, although as far as I’m aware no crows actually applied for a place this year.

Of course the process has to be arbitrary. It is not left open to interpretation or nuance and emotional pleas or appeals can be waved away with the swipe of a ruler. In a sense there isn’t anything you can do to change the situation but as nonsensical as it sounds, I would suggest do something. It may be an act of self-delusion but both my wife and I felt comforted by being pro-active.

We rang the council to confirm the next steps and important dates. We made sure we were on all the waiting lists for our original choices. We contacted the offices of those schools, not because we can exert any influence on their decision-making but more in the pursuit of information, a notion of where we stand. I’ve taken odd pleasure in the detective work involved, sniffing around like Columbo.

We sat down and looked at private school options and worked out how many internal organs we’d need to sell to finance it. Kindly grandparents have offered to take up their cudgels in the fight, wherever that fight needed to be fought. We accepted the place at the school he’s been offered, in spite of our misgivings. It is important to do this. It’s very easy with a few rash, angry clicks to reject that place and catapult your child out of the school system entirely, only to have to slink back to the end of the queue later.

Among the other more unviable options that were mooted were to for me to quit my current job, train as a teacher and apply for a vacancy at our preferred school. Or temporarily move the family to live in the caretaker’s hut and put us at the top of the waiting list. Or reduce the distance by bricking up the front door and pretending that the back door has been our front door all along.

Perhaps the flippancy is a coping mechanism.

The Real Horror of Growing Your Own Butterflies

 

To grow your own butterflies sounds like a charming childhood activity. Like rustling up a batch of homemade marshmallows or establishing a pixie colony at the bottom of your garden. We thought that butterfly-cultivation was a chance to gaze in wonder at one of nature’s most remarkable transformations.

The reality is a bit grubbier.

The process begins when five caterpillars arrive in the post. The thought of insects travelling through the Royal Mail system struck me as odd for some reason, although I’m not sure how I thought they’d be delivered. Perhaps on a lettuce leave by a local squirrel.

They actually pitched up in a container that looked like a Waitrose hummus pot, which was within a jiffy bag. It seemed cruel for the caterpillars to be transported in this way, but my guilt was tempered by the fact that we were protecting them in their early weeks from hungry predators like a starling or a shrew or my two-year-old son.

The caterpillars are miniscule when they turn up, no bigger than an eyelash. But they immediately start to grow, increasing in girth at an alarming rate. It happened before our very eyes, like they were enchanted caterpillars. I began to feel uneasy that they would not stop growing and they would begin to pose some actual threat to the family.

The other thing that began to grow was a hefty pyramid of caterpillar shit at the bottom of their pot. I have no idea what the caterpillars were eating to create such a massive output, perhaps residual hummus. But it’s revolting. Eventually the confines of the pot meant that one tragic caterpillar became mired in his and his pal’s own sewage heap and didn’t make it.

It is no surprise that quickly after this accident the four remaining caterpillars, each now about the size of an overly-plucked eyebrow, sought asylum within their chrysalises. The transition from caterpillar to butterfly is a staple of children’s books, it’s a genuinely magical happening. But what actually occurs is grotesque, more like the plot of a schlocky body-horror.

The caterpillar basically blends itself into a chunky broth featuring its own organs. It then congeals itself somehow into butterfly. It probably for the best that this happens behind the dusty curtains of the chrysalis. Unfortunately one caterpillar was perhaps too eager to slip inside his sleeping bag and appeared to have liquefied himself too quickly. The result was a lonely caterpillar head dangling from the top of the pot like a badly-misjudged Christmas bauble. And then there were three.

Once the chrysalises are fully formed it is up to us, the farmers, to transport the circular pad to which they are attached safely into a net in which the butterflies will eventually appear, probably a bit confused. Once installed the chrysalises gradually begin to rise eerily away from the pad, in a position that can only be described as ‘erect’. Then the chrysalises begin to split apart and the shiny metallic bodies of the butterflies show themselves.

Of the butterflies that had made it through to the final three, one got caught up in its own chrysalis and passed out from the energy required to escape. I thought about intervening but David Attenborough has always said don’t get involved in nature. And I’d have probably obliterated its delicate structure with my clumsy fingers anyway.

So two butterflies eventually made their way into the great beyond. Probably delighted to flee their own private hell of the hummus pot. And probably straight into the waiting beak of a hungry starling.

I Think I May Have Run Out Of Parenting Juice

 

Sometimes I think I can pinpoint the moment we decided that we wanted to stick at two children. It was the first Christmas after my second son was born. Both children were upset, it was Christmas after all. We allocated a child each and swooped in for a cuddle. We had made a neat little square of need and nurture. I wondered where a third upset child would fit into this formation. Perhaps they would be a fifth wheel, a tiny gooseberry sobbing into the scraps of wrapping paper. It was a question of basic mathematics: too many tears, not enough hands.

The argument is absurd of course. A family of five is normal and natural. I was one of three and I haven’t grown up feeling like I’ve withered through a lack of attention. But when the first of my pals announced that they were expecting a third it caused such a jolt in me they may as well have said they were expecting a badger. What I especially boggled at was the continuing, relentless requirement for energy this news meant for them.

My youngest has just turned two and I feel like we have we’ve downgraded from what I call “full court press”parenting. The full court press is a tactic in basketball in which teams aggressively badgers the opposition wherever they may be on the court, even if they’re pottering around by their own basket.

Up to this point we have had to maintain a round-the-clock security detail on our son to prevent him from maiming or throttling himself. But now we are relaxed enough to allow him to rampage around the lower floor of our house. Less because his sense of personal peril has diminished in any way and more that he is more robust and able deal with all the scrapes and sofa-tumbles.

Our home is also beginning to go through a process of decluttering. The baby gates have just shuffled off to the loft. The constant rockery of filled nappies won’t appear by the front door. Cots, buggies, cribs will be pensioned off to some future niece or nephew and there will be room again. We might get a cat just so we can swing it.

In the summer our boys will be sent out into the garden in the knowledge that they won’t attempt to swallow-dive through the slit in the trampoline net or sup at the stagnant contents of the paddling pool or shake hands with every prickly bush in the area. In fact the only presentable danger will be each other. With sticks. Perhaps my wife and I will raise a smug cup of lemonade and toast the fact that we’ve steered our sons through their most physically vulnerable years with only the loss of a small triangle of tooth.

And so there is a small sense of quitting while we’re on top. But mainly I cannot summon the oomph required to help rear another baby. It’s just that when I admit this to myself I can’t help pitching my imagination forward to a time when I am gazing at a third child cradled in my arms. And thinking: “I nearly couldn’t bothered with you”. And the pang of guilt that arrives almost gets my man-ovaries twitching again.

An Awfully Pig Adventure: The Peppa Pig Film Preview

 

I went to school with a boy who later went up to Oxford and became a film critic for one of the student rags there. He became notorious for writing reviews of films he hadn’t actually seen. His claim was that his film knowledge was so superior that he could form opinions based simply on who made the film, who was in it and what it was about. Like most right-minded people I find this approach both high-handed and objectionable. And that is why I am trying very very hard to reserve judgement on the upcoming Peppa Pig film.

Or Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience to give it its proper title. The name strikes me as curiously functional, like re-imagining Raiders of the Lost Ark as Indiana Jones and the Search for the Culturally Significant Religious Artefact. In fact the label doesn’t refer to plot of the film. It’s directed at the audience themselves.

Thus it becomes probably the first film in cinematic history to incorporate its own marketing strategy into its title. But at least this way any potentially harrowing scenes involving Peppa’s first encounter with a hot dog stand are avoided.

I speculated as to the content of the film and how the makers would tackle the challenge of making this well-loved television character a cinematic proposition, without losing its essential Pepperiness. But actually, the Peppa Pig film isn’t a film at all, it’s nine new episodes shown back-to-back. So it may just be that Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience is less of an artistic endeavour and more of a profit-making one.

This novel formula at least offers a raft of opportunities: a week’s worth of surround-sound Coronation Street. 3-D weather forecasts. Or A Question of Sport: The Movie.

In fairness you could say that most films are propelled by financial imperative. And the format suits my children, particularly the Minor who would probably struggle to sit through the opening credits. I’ve sat through a few Peppa Pig marathons myself, normally at around 5.22am. It is possible to enter a sort of stasis during this period, and rouse yourself an hour or so later, slightly furred like the inside of an old kettle.

I should add also there are some episodes of Peppa that contain a streak of subversive humour which is genuinely appealing. Who can forget the classic moment when Daddy Pig reads The Wonderful World of Concrete to his kids at bedtime? Uttering the immortal line: “concrete is a construction material composed of sand, water and chemical admixtures”.

The resident cast boast several actual comedians, which has been bolstered for the “film” by the likes of Jo Brand and David Mitchell, perhaps playing a slightly spluttering middle-class badger railing at the rank commerciality of it all.

The most concerning element of the Peppa Pig cinema enterprise is that it’s apparently interactive. I’ve researched this and this involves live action characters (failed actors in intimidatingly large suits) initiating dancing and sing-a-longs. No parental hibernating here. Given that the only famous song associated with Peppa is the theme tune, I can only see this going one way.

Altogether ladies and gentlemen and children…

“Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun Pepppppa Pig dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun Peppppppppa Pig….”

How My Child Is Being Potty-Trained Without a Potty

 

I’ve had a revolutionary thought about potty-training. That it is possible to potty-train your child without a potty.

When I say potty-training I mean in the general sense of easing the transition from nappy to toilet. I don’t mean instructing your child to crouch over an imaginary potty and letting it crap on the floor. To be honest I don’t think it’s radical enough to stop the potty production lines whirring, but anyway. My technique requires a few bits of kit, preferably a toilet on every floor of your home and perhaps most elusively, a willing and capable child.

It is no coincidence that I have only had this revelation with my second son. He has observed the behaviour of his older brother, noting his methods with the keen eye of a UN weapons inspector. This is with a view to learning them and ultimately replicating them. It includes traipsing in after him to the toilet and making mental memoranda of his processes. From time to time I’ve also spotted him looking up at me when I’m about my business in there, which tends to focus the mind on keeping my aim true.

The potty is designed to counter at least three major shortcomings of the toilet in catering for those of smallish stature. First the toilet seat is too wide for a small bum, a child would simply find themselves wedged halfway down the bowl. This issue is resolved with the introduction of a specific child seat installed on the existing fittings. Our one is padded and printed with images of Thomas the Tank Engine and his pals. I feel certain this is exactly the use the Reverend W. Awdry had in mind when he penned his literary legacy.

The second problem is that the toilet is inaccessible; to ascend to its height requires a deal of clambering, which again can lead to a plunge down the bowl. We’ve found a seat that comes with a miniature step-ladder. The Minor loves this, I think because it gives a ceremonial quality to his toilet visits. It may also seed a very early ambition to be a tennis umpire. Or a lifeguard. In fact, perhaps he can oversee his brother in the adjacent bath: no diving, no bombing and no heavy petting.

Finally the potty is light and mobile. I’ll admit this is where the toilet falls down in comparison. Which is why a toilet within perhaps the range of a five seconds’ dash is desirable. But the key advantage of the toilet is the flush, and its capacity to remove waste immediately. The potty demands that its contents are dealt with and then its insides cleansed and disinfected.

Fortunately for us, the Minor has largely snubbed the potty in favour of the toilet. His technique is already pretty polished thanks to the insight gained from watching his brother at work. It has to be said that he does like to wash his hands first as opposed to afterwards for some reason. But it’s a start.

Nappy Talking: The Great Pampers Swindle

 

It was monsoon season in our house recently. Each night for a few weeks the Minor would produce such a robust gush that his nappy would be unable to contain it. And he would wake up in a little wet mess. To his credit he would not be downcast by this accident. In fact it was on these mornings that he was at his most energetic and wriggly. If I was not careful he would squirm from my grasp and roll across various bits of soft furnishings, spreading his wee scent like a musky fox. There are probably parts of my house that are still covered in historical piss. There may even be bits on me I’ve missed with the shower loofah.

It seemed that his nappy could not cope with the volume created by his blockbusting bladder. Which left us with a problem. For a few nights we changed him in a middle of the night – a pit stop to keep him dry – but it was not sustainable because the inevitable kerfuffle stirred him awake. My wife then took the decision to change our nappy provider.

From the first day of parenthood we used Pampers. Pampers was there to catch the very first poo. When I went to buy nappies all I saw was Pampers. Nappies, Pampers. Pampers, nappies. It never really occurred to me that there was any other brand. We walked dreamily into Pampers and Pampers welcomed us presumptuously with open flaps.

I did not challenge Pampers until the time that its nappies began to fail us. At that point we began to flutter our eyelids at alternative nappy manufacturers. We eventually plumped for one from Lidl called Toujours, supplied as part of Lidl’s unswerving commitment to weird-sounding continental brands. On the backside of the nappy are printed the words “made with love”, which presumably refers to the nappy itself as opposed to any future contents. Perhaps in the nappy factories of Europe there are operatives lovingly placing individual piss-crystals in each gusset, a bit like Rowan Atkinson preparing Alan Rickman’s gift-bag in Love Actually.

The reality is that the Toujours nappy feels a little less luxurious than the Pampers nappy. A little less pampering I guess. It has a slightly crinkly feel like the bog roll from a 1980s school. But the ultimate test for a nappy is whether it can handle the storm of pee rained down on it on a nightly basis. In this aspect the Toujours nappy pisses all over the Pampers one, to use a deliberately unfortunate metaphor.

So it’s taken us four years of parenting to work out that Pampers wasn’t the best choice of nappies for our children. The Minor has begun to request that we hold him over the toilet for his evacuations so it may be that our need for nappies is coming to an end. Just when we’d finally worked it all out.

I was not paid by Lidl for this post. I just think that their nappies are better than Pampers.

My Son Keeps Saying He’s Tired And It’s Tiring

 

In case I didn’t know that children are illogical, the Minor has recently developed a habit of waking up in the middle of the night to complain that he is tired. Sometimes he does this in a soft sad wail and sometimes he does it in loud angry rant. The rant would probably be expletive-ridden if he knew what expletives are. Last night at around 3.45am he pointedly said: “excuse me I’m tired” as if I’d gone into his room and woken him up on purpose. Then he added “actually actually actually I’m tired” to stress his point, each ‘actually’ slightly more tired than the first. It’s demented.

The sensitive reaction to this absurd protest is to advise him gently that he is best to go back to sleep. But set it against a backdrop of night after night of interruptions, it comes out more like a livid hiss: “we are all tired, pal”. This would definitely be expletive-ridden except I don’t want him to know what expletives are. We’ve found that it’s best not to engage with him at all. Because every snippet of conversation exchanged with him makes him a little more alert and a little less likely to fall back to sleep.

Traditionally the best way to get him down is stuffing a bottle into his mouth and putting him into milk-induced stasis. But now he has discovered this new streak of contrariness, his reaction on finishing the drink is “I’m thirsty”. My head at this point is full of expletives.

It seems he regards his night-time milk as an aperitif for some other beverage. I have once given him water (the milk was a kind of chaser) and predictably woke up a few hours later with a confused piss-soaked little boy next to me. The Pampers didn’t know what had hit it. The other effect of his midnight feast is that he is less hungry during the day. The fatigue makes him less hungry. He is also tired because he slept badly. He tells us he is tired a lot. The person who coined the phrase ‘vicious circle’ definitely had children.

He repeats that he is tired when we are trying to put him down for the night, it comes out like a chant. He fights off sleep by telling us he’s tired. He bolsters his resistance with increasingly surreal requests like ‘a giraffe’ or ‘a horse to carry him home.’ It’s ironic, avant-garde performance art. It’s at this time that becoming overtired is a live threat. I’ve never really understood the concept of ‘overtired’ given that there is a very obvious solution to the issue (going to sleep) that is always eschewed in favour of a high-octane paddy. I don’t understand the concept of ‘overtired’ but I’ve definitely witnessed ‘overtired’.

There is a lot I don’t understand about the Minor’s various states of ‘tired’.

And I’m tired. Actually actually actually tired.