Tuesday 29 December 2015

Off To School We Go

Off for a trip around Nepal
Marty’s first great ambition in life was to go to nursery. The moment he achieved that goal his next great ambition was to go to school.

Through sheer hard work and determination he achieved the age of four and graduated from nursery in a solemn ceremony that involved a gown and a mortar board. I kid you not.

We then had a bit of a fracas to get him into the village school but that was all sorted and so, one bright sunny morning, the great day arrived and we set off on the walk to school.

I must admit that the first day wasn’t what I was expecting. Not that I had any real expectations but even if I had I doubt that they would have been met. It was just odd really. Firstly, there was the fact that your child was going to school. How did that happen? Where did the time go? 

The second was this huge amorphous mass of people milling around outside the school gate. It was far larger than I’d expected and far less organised and light hearted. Yes, there where small pockets of camaraderie but there was also this definite air of tension and anxiety. It had the feel of a political demonstration where you are filled with the joy of knowing that right is on your side but that righteousness is tempered by the knowledge that a bus load of riot cops are likely to turn up at any minute. I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if someone had suddenly started shouting out “What do we want? SCHOOL! When do we want it? NOW!”

I'd been told by all that the first walk to school would end in tears, or at the very least, sniffles. Not a bit of it! Marty was far too excited to be anything other than all smiles and this infected us to such an extent that we just stood there with inane grins on our faces as he wandered off down the path to the school yard, chatting to anyone who looked like they might listen, his enormous back pack making him look very tiny.

I say an enormous backpack but compared to the older children Marty just looked like he was off to school for a week or two. The older kids looked like they were heading off on a six-month trek around the High Andes. Did we all set off to school lugging the kind of loads a Sherpa would think twice about or is this a new thing?

Anyway, after the excitement of the very first day we settled down to the school routine, which has been surprisingly pleasant.

This has been helped enormously by the fact that Marty is at an age where you can get him to do virtually anything by just turning it into a race. 8am and he’s still not dressed? Just challenge him to see who can get dressed first. Dawdling on the walk to school? Race him to the next lamppost. Doesn’t want to go to bed? Who can be first up the stairs! Who can eat their greens first, who can read a book first, who can put their socks on first. There is nothing that a four year old and a desperate parent cannot turn into a competitive sport; The World Tooth Brushing Championships, The International Pull-Up-A-Sock Day, All-Star Hand Washing.

The only downside of this is that it can be a bit knackering. We either walk to school at a snail’s pace or end up legging it down the street racing from lamppost to lamppost and tree to tree.

Fortunately, there is a time between races, a time when I get to gaze into the world of the four year old as Marty wanders off into a stream of consciousness that is a joy to behold.

“Daddy, what’s the fastest fish in the world?”

“I think it’s the Sail Fish or maybe the Blue Marlin.”


“It isn’t?”

“No.” Marty stops walking to enable a bigger think.” It’s the… the… Handlebar fish!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, the Handlebar fish has a wheel on its tail and a ball on its end and it can whoosh fire to catch crabs. Do you know what else is eats?”

“Not a clue!”

“It eats squid and Octopus.”

“How does it catch them?”

“The Handlebar fish is…it’s…… The Handlebar fish is the sneakiest fish in the world. It sneaks up on Octopus and blasts fire at them out of its mouth when they’re not looking! It’s reeeeally sneaky!”

He can keep this up for ages! Yesterday, he regaled us with the life and times of the “Fire-Missile-Orangutan”, which is apparently the fastest animal in the world, faster than the cheetah on account of the cheetah only having 4 legs, whilst the Fire-Missile-Orangutan has ten legs….and wings! Seriously, it’s like listening to David Attenborough on Acid.

There is another feature of the four year old that makes me glad that we waited for Google and Smart Phones to arrive before we had kids:

“Daddy, what does an Ostrich eat?”

“Give me a minute…Here we go; roots, leaves and seeds, with the occasional insect, lizard, snake or rodent if they’re feeling a bit peckish!”

“Daddy how big is a Blue Whale?”

“Hang on, we haven’t got 4G here….”

“Is it bigger than our car?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s bigger than our car but if you can wait until we get to the top of that hill I’ll tell you exactly how much bigger.”

How on earth did people manage before the arrival of smart phones? Apparently parents used to dread these incessant, off-the-wall questions. These days? Why is the sky blue? How loud is an elephant? What does a Unicorn eat? Bring it on!

Of course there are some conversations that are so surreal that the best of technology is stumped. On about his 3rd day at school he came out with this:

“Daddy, Look!” He points to a larger boy walking ahead of us, “He’s my best friend at school!”
“Oh, right. What’s his name?”
“I Don’t know.”

Another thing that technology can’t change is the fact that Boys will be boys. Yes, with his first term just coming to an end Marty’s collection of “Bump Notes” has reached Volume 7. In my day we used to just count the bruises but these days everyone gets a note and Marty’s notes strongly suggest that he is incapable of walking from one end of a classroom to the other without bouncing off something and that when he does someone is there to record it.

Judging by the notes themselves he tends to lead with his head. I’m thinking about colouring them in and decorating his room with them as a memento.

“Dad, why do I have an IQ of 85?”
“Well son, if you care to look at your bedroom wall you will see that you bumped your IQ down into double digits before you were 7.”

Of course the walk to school is not all roses. Marty is not always laughter and sunlight and the weather is sometimes bloody awful, but the biggest problem with the morning walk to school is that it all takes place in the morning.

As anyone who knows me will confirm, I am not at my best in the morning. It’s not that I wake up in a bad mood, it’s just that my temper tends to be on a hair trigger until about 10am and I struggle to say anything meaningful to anyone until I’ve had at least 3 cups of coffee.

Alas, we live in a country where everything starts at about 9am. You have to get your children to school for about 8:45am and you then have to get yourself to work for 9am. Who ever thought this was a good idea needs a long lie down and a rethink, but there you have it.

The result of this is that I find myself surrounded by people in a hurry and people in a hurry can behave abominably, or at least that’s how they can appear to me when it’s not even 9 o’clock and I am almost completely devoid of caffeine.

One of my biggest bug bears is the anti-social moron in our village who lets his/her dog crap where it likes and feels that picking it up and disposing of it is somehow beneath him/her. I hate this at the best of times but when it occurs on the main footpath into the school I quietly seethe and if it was past 10am and they had a coffee shop on the corner of the path I'd probably rant.

The odds of a hundred odd children managing to walk down said footpath without treading in said dog dirt is not worth calculating and it doesn’t matter if you did calculate it because kids will still tread in it just to show your maths up. Every morning, hundreds of people inconvenienced because of one self-centred twat! It really does my head in!

My other bug bear are the parents who seem to think that parking rules don’t apply to them if they’re in a hurry. There are zig-zag lines all around the school to stop people parking their cars in areas liable to create a danger to the children trying to get into school. It’s quite a simple concept, you park somewhere else, you diminish the danger to others, everyone lives, everyone’s happy.

Virtually everyday someone parks on these lines, their desperation to get 3ft closer to the school gate far greater than the needs or lives of anyone else. Of course this isn’t how they look at it. They are trapped in this 15-minute window; the kids need to get to school, but they need to be in work. It is a truly ludicrous situation.

My wife has actually talked to some of the offenders and they always have a terrific excuse for why they need to park where they know they shouldn’t. Sadly, I’m pretty sure that every year a coroner somewhere in the country declares a child’s death as ‘Caused by a bloody good excuse’.

One of the things I can’t understand is why we don’t have drive-through schools in the UK. The demand is obviously there. I suspect a school could have an OFSTED rating of “Bloody Appalling” and still be packed to the rafters if parents were allowed to drive straight through the school gates and have their children sucked out of the car and automatically fired into their classrooms without them even needing to slow down.

Anyway, car and dog owners aside, the school run is still fun and Marty is very much enjoying school.

To start off with it was quite difficult to get any information out of him.

“How was school today?”

“I don’t know. Give me a clue!”

These days he seems more forthcoming, mainly, I suspect, because he enjoys it so much. And boy are they learning a lot! At four he’s already learning to read and what’s more he actually seems to be getting the hang of it, although it’s not always perfect:

“Daddy, I can spell cat!”

“Go on then.”

“C… A…T,” At this point he waves his hands in front of him a la magician fashion as he ‘blends’ the sounds, “Cat!”

“Well done. Now what can you do?”

“C…R…A…P…" A wave of his hand, "Crab!”

“Er, maybe you shouldn’t go for that one just yet.”

Alas, he’s quite consistent with this spelling of crab but often, especially when he’s starting to get tired, he just decides beforehand what he wants the letters to spell,

“D…O…G” All stops for the magical wave of his hand which indicates the blending of all the individual sounds…”Ambulance?”

I’m fairly sure I was only just getting the hang of painting when I was four, so I’m impressed with his progress on the reading front. That said, it’s still his conversation that most impresses. It’s not that he pronounces everything right, he doesn’t, but he’s not at all shy about trying, in fact he seems to struggle with the very notion of ‘Shy’.

We were reading a book together a few weeks ago where the main character wouldn’t talk because he was shy.

“Why’s that boy not talking?”

“Because he’s shy.”

“What’s shy?”

“When you’re too scared to talk to people.”

“Why wouldn’t you talk to people?”

“Because you’re a little scared.”

“Why would you be a little scared of people?”

“Because you don’t know them.”

“Why would you be scared of people you don’t know?”

“Hang on, we might have 4G here….”

As it was Google didn’t have much to say on the subject but I think it’s safe to say that Marty is not at all shy. I don’t know if it’s just a natural trait or if it’s got something to do with growing up in a village surrounded by family. Whatever it is Marty expects everyone to be fascinated by what he has to say. We went 10-pin bowling yesterday and Marty decided to introduce himself to the youth behind the till.

“Excuse me!”
No answer from the youth.
“Excuse me!!”
Still no answer as youth attempts to look fascinated by his till.
“Excuse me!!!”
The youth finally realises that this little voice is not going to go away any time soon, “Hi?”

Pause for effect.

“I’m four!”

Satisfied that he’s imparted the great news Marty walks away leaving a bemused youth wondering quite what that was all about.

Despite rarely closing his mouth he still mispronounces words all the time. He still says “Flying” instead of “Trying” and he still omits the beginning of an awful lot of words, which it has to be said is lovely and cute. His school class is a mix of reception and year one’s and the distinction is very important to all concerned. Just to ensure we’re all aware of the differences Marty insists on clarifying certain points:

“Daddy. I’m in ception.” I nod in a sage like fashion at his momentous news and let him get on with it, “Ception are mucher, mucher gooder than year ones. And...and ception are mucher skilled than year ones.”

“Are they?”

“Yes, but year ones are better fighters!”

On the bright side, whilst it can occasionally cause confusion, omitting the beginning of words has created far more believable super heroes; in our house the bright green hero is actually known as the Credible Hulk.

In truth the only real language problem we have is the one that seems to effect all four year olds; their love of all things scatological! Poo and wee, in all their myriad forms, seem absolutely fascinating to younger kids. I assume it’s the risqué aspects of it; balancing on the edge of being rude but without any monumental consequences. Apparently I have to ignore it and, once he realises that it doesn’t get any effect, he’ll stop going on about it. Until that day we just have to tolerate phrases like “You’re a pooey bottom”.

I keep telling him that it just makes him sound like a politician at PMQ's but he's not having it.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Now I'm Four

Well now that we have the nonsense of school admissions out of the way we can carry on with the more fun aspects of parenthood.

Marty has now reached the grand old age of four and the only noteworthy fly in the parental ointment is the realisation that the well known adage “The Terrible Two’s” is a load of old bollocks! The first problem is that it rarely starts at two, which is no bad thing but can lead to a short lived false sense of security. The second problem is that it never, ever, ever, finishes at two. A far more apt phrase would be “The terrible Godknowswhen’s”. I grant you that it mightn’t trip off the tongue quite so well but at least we’d all know exactly where we stand.

In truth we’ve gotten away with most of the amateur dramatics and the sudden need to beat your way through the floor of ASDA using nothing more than your fists and a loud wail. I’m not sure why we’ve gotten away with it but I suspect it’s partly because Marty isn’t that keen on the thespian life and partly because we just ignore him every time he does try for an Oscar.

Wailing aside, the move from 3 to 4 is very much a transition; he talks better than he did, counts better, runs faster, argues in a way that can occasionally be described as rational, if you ignore the references to Thunderbirds and Peter Rabbit, and is just like a three year old who’s learnt a bit more. It’s evolution rather than revolution, which makes it pretty unique so far but I suspect is the way it will always be from here on in.

One change that I hadn’t seen coming, but probably should have, is the fact that he’s become a far fussier eater. There was a time when you could put pretty much anything in front of him and he’d eat it but now the look of the food matters. We do try to persuade him that it’s all about the taste but it’s been a forlorn battle. On the bright side this means that Leanne and I get to eat all the mussels, although he’ll make an exception for Moules Mariniere, which is frankly a disappointment as this is one of my favourites.

“It’s too spicy!” Is his usual complaint at meal times. I wouldn’t mind if this was because we were feeding him vindaloo every night but it applies to the nutmeg in lasagne, the Chorizo sausage in Paella, the pepper in cacciatore. The only exception to this rule is ASDA’s ‘meat feast’ pizza, when he’ll drink a glassful of milk with his meal just to ensure that he can cope with the heat and get as much pizza into himself before I beat him to it.

The good side of all this complaining is that he will try his best to explain the problem. All complains and arguments start with the opening line “Actually Daddy...”, which gives me time to settle down for the entertainment. There really are few things more guaranteed to raise a smile than a four year old explaining to you how life really is. Sometimes his reasoning is truly impressive but most of the time he’s lost me within the first few minutes, especially when the ‘tree falls down onto the house’, which is an event that features in most of his arguments and is something that he finds extremely funny... presumably because a tree has never fallen down onto his house.

Another joy of four year olds is listening to them narrate their own games. Marty has become a big fan recently of Thunderbirds, partly because of the new TV series but mainly because he has an old dad who still loves them. The up side of revisiting old TV series’ is that you get to ‘borrow’ the toys off all your older cousins, so Marty will now happily spend the afternoon ‘wooshing’ around the house with various Thunderbirds to hand, all the time explaining the unfolding drama to any who’ll listen: “What’s the sitruation Scott?...Oh No! The pit of peril!... This is a case for internatural rescue. 5...4...3...2...1” At which point he starts singing the theme tune, or at least that’s what I think he’s doing, it’s hard to tell on account of sounding little or nothing like the theme tune to Thunderbirds

My mum keeps telling me off for correcting Marty’s pronunciation. I can see her point in that it is a brief moment in time and it is cute... but I correct him anyway. Fortunately it seems to make not the blindest bit of difference, so my mum and I are both happy. I particularly love ‘Internatural rescue’ and his avoidance of the letter T at the start of words. ‘Prane” instead of “Train”, “Fry” instead of “Try”. That one particularly threw me at the time as we were watching Saturday Kitchen. James Martin was in mid cook when Marty suddenly announced that he was really frying. It took me ages to figure out that he was talking about putting his shoes on.

Another one that threw me completely at the time was “d’skies”. Aficionado’s of Thunderbirds will know of The Hood’s penchant for disguising himself. Alas, I’d forgotten all about this, so when I wore a hat one summer’s day I was utterly flummoxed when Marty asked if I was in d’ skies and spent a few minutes looking upwards before it finally dawned on me what he meant.

One of the hardest joys to explain to others is how you feel when your child uses a word or phrase for the first time. Ok, there are certain words that might not leave you suffused with joy but for the rest it really is wonderful. Just yesterday Leanne was explaining to Marty that he couldn’t have any fruit because it was almost dinner time. He sat back on the kitchen worktop, digested this information, and then sighed “Unbelievable!” 

See! How is that in any way funny? Yet Leanne and I both reacted as if we were watching ‘Live at the Apollo’!

As a result of this uncontrollable mirth Marty has come to the conclusion that he is a natural comedian, and in fairness he’s probably right. “Only joking!” is now one of his more popular phrases, along with its counterpart: “You joking?”

Another favourite of mine is “Give me a clue!”, which is particular funny in that he doesn’t distinguish between him revealing something to me and me revealing something to him.

Me: “Marty, what did you do at nursery today?”
Marty: “Er.... Give me a clue!”

A slightly less humorous development has been his attempts to grasp the concept of death. For us this topic arose when he was trying to figure out how his family are all related. He took great delight in discovering that his Nanny was my Mum but that inevitably lead on to where my dad was and where his mummy’s parents where.

It’s a difficult topic to explain to a four year old. I know many adults who can’t get their heads around the idea of death; its inevitability, its utter permanence and its complete indifference to your sorrow. So trying to explain it to a child is far from straight forward. I guess all parents will have to deal with these questions sooner or later and we all have to find our own answers. However, because it is such a mind blowing concept, the odds are that your child really won’t understand what you’re saying... but they will pick up on your emotions. So if you appear upset and scared of death, your child will be upset and scared by it as well, which isn’t a good thing. Another no-no is explaining it as ‘sleeping’. Not only does this confuse the hell out of your child but it also makes them scared of sleeping.

I’ve been reading “The Lion King” to Marty recently, which also deals with the concept of death in the guise of ‘The circle of life’. Marty seems quite happy with the idea that we’ll always be with him in his heart and will always be looking down on him in one sense or another but he also seems to think I’m going to be grass one day, which I guess is right in a biological sense but has resulted in Marty having a slightly morbid fascination with our lawn.

Questions abound when you live with a four year old and I must admit that I do enjoy trying to answer them. I probably don’t answer them correctly and I’m not sure Marty even follows what I’m saying but at least I give it a go. What has shocked me though is how youngsters can appear to be paying you absolutely no attention whatsoever and then, 3 weeks later, repeat what you said to them verbatim. A classic example of this was my reply to the question of Monsters and Dinosaurs.

We were walking through a wood when Marty suddenly got it into his head that the wood might be filled with Monsters and Dinosaurs. I pointed out to him that monsters didn’t really exist to which he replied that actually they do but they are really good and get energy from laughing and not making you frightened unless they are bad monsters, but they lost. An answer that only made sense to me when I remembered he’d been watching Monsters Inc.

On the question of Dinosaurs I replied that all the Dinosaurs died out a long, long time ago. So long ago that no humans had even been born and that we all looked more like hedgehogs than humans when dinosaurs lived. Ok, so it’s not the best answer but it didn’t really matter because Marty was throwing sticks for the dog and wasn’t even listening.

About a month later and we’re on a camping holiday. We’ve all just had a short walk and are returning to our tent when Leanne happened to mention Dinosaurs.

“Don’t worry mummy,” Marty replied, “All the dinosaurs are dead and we were hedgehogs!” I was shocked that he’d listened to me, Leanne was wondering what the bloody hell he was talking about.

There is of course a downside to this retentive ability; I’ve overheard a few exasperated “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” comments coming from his play room. To be honest I’m amazed that I’ve managed to forgo swearing around him for the past four years and, judging by the amount of times my wife has explained to me what we do if he does start swearing, she has little confidence that I’ll manage to keep it up.

Apparently, we ignore him. No shouting, no telling off and certainly no laughing. If they get a reaction they are more likely to do it again for the simple reason that all children crave attention. Ignore them and there is a fighting chance they’ll never bother saying it again. If he does try it again we apparently have a quiet word after the event about it being a bad thing. God knows if it’ll work but hopefully we won’t have to even try.

Another urge that has increased now he’s four is the competitive streak. When he was three he was pretty competitive, I assume all kids are, but these days he wants to turn everything into some sort of competition. The only real downside to this is that he will not tolerate losing. Oh no! Beat him and he’ll dissolve into tears of anguish and outrage.

I’ve managed to temper this a little bit by introducing the concept of the draw; if he wins, he wins. If I beat him by a country mile, it’s a draw.

To be honest it’s quite a handy thing all ‘round. Want to get him to bed? Seems reluctant to go? Just race him up the stairs, see who’s the first to get into their jim-jams, who can brush their teeth best and who can jump into his bed first. Simples!

Not content with reasonably fair competitions he’s taken to making up his own rules.

Marty: “Daddy, what colour is that car?”
Me: “Red”
Marty, now looking a little crestfallen: “No! You say it isn’t and I’ll say it is!”
Me: “Oh, now I think of it, it looks blue!”
Marty: “Ha Harr! You’re wrong! It’s red! SEE!”

This can seriously keep him amused for most of the day!

To be honest it’s amazing what goes on in children’s heads. Marty currently seems to think that the world’s ills can be cured with sellotape, it’s pretty much his answer to everything. A toy breaks, where’s the sellotape. The car breaks down, just grab the sellotape. Feeling a little poorly? Try Calpol and sellotape.

We were at the National Railway Museum in York a few weeks ago and one of the guides was attempting to explain that the Mallard train could no longer run because the boiler needed a very expensive repair. At this point Marty butted in and patiently - and loudly - explained to everyone that all that was needed was an ample supply of sellotape. You probably had to be looking at the face of the guide to get the full effect but it was very, very, funny.

All these joys involve the entire family but there is one fascination that is just for us boys. I am of course referring to the ancient art of urination. To women, having a wee is a mundane bodily function that can only be made interesting by inviting all your mates to join you in the Ladies. However, for the male of the species, it is a wondrous and ever evolving art form. One of Marty’s recent discoveries is that ‘I can wee on a tree, ‘cos I’m a boy and girls can’t wee on a tree ‘cos they’re girls!’ The downside of this is that Marty can’t go near a tree these days without wanting to pee on it.

“Daddy, I need a wee. I know! I’ll wee on this tree!”
“Marty, the toilets are just over there!”
“But the tree is just here!”

We usually end up dragging a protesting child into the loo but, if we’re not quick enough, we, and the rest of the National Trust visitors, are subjected to his impression of the Manneken Pis; bottom shining in the mid day sun as he contentedly communes with nature.

A slightly more bizarre development has been ‘Clash Wees’. As all parents know, privacy, like time and sleep, are things that vanish over the horizon the moment you opt to have a child. This was brought home to me when, whilst quietly going about my business, I heard a little voice right behind me say “Oooooh Daddy! That’s a clever wee!”

From this moment on Marty insisted on standing to do his business. Alas, the thrill of the standing wee was not enough for him and it is now virtually impossible to go to the loo without Marty accompanying me so that we can stand side by side and ‘clash-wees’.

As a result I’m left in a typical parental dilemma; part of me wants him to grow out of this asap, part of me wants him to never change J

Thursday 9 July 2015

We did it!

Anyone looking for my earlier blogs on our fight to get our son into his village school is going to be disappointed as I've taken them down.

The schools admission and appeals process is often a fight, and a legal one at that. As a result, things get said that aren't necessarily fair and, more importantly, things are not said that, if lawyers weren't lurking in the wings, would have been said. It is a sad reflection on modern life but, if we banned lawyers, I feel we would have far more tea and cake and far fewer strong words in our dealings with other people.

Most importantly thought, we pursued our appeals and all three village children won. As a result of this we've learnt a huge amount about the process and we've made good friends along the way.

I'd like to give a huge thanks to all those people, especially my fellow villagers, who have rallied around the 3 families involved and given us their support and friendship.

If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself embroiled in the school appeals process all I can say is this:

  • Find out who else is affected and group together. As a group you can give each other support and gather and share information. You may also be lucky enough to meet some very nice people. 
  • Don't be afraid of using the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Try to involve your local politician and local counsellor. They might not be able to do much, or even anything, but often it creates a bit of 'noise', and that can often work in your favour.
  • Don't be put off by the appeals process itself. This is your only chance to state your case so it's always worth a try. Yes it is a legal process  but, if ours was anything to go by, the panel itself is made up of lovely, ordinary, people who really will listen to you, which can often be cathartic in itself.
  • Sadly, most appeals fail so don't build up your hopes too high, just do your best - reading out a prepared statement generally works best but leave some pauses in it so you can elaborate 'on-the-fly' if needs be. The worst that can happen is that you walk away knowing that you tried your hardest.
  • Remember, that the biggest impact on your child's education is you. It can be heartbreaking to not get into the school of your choice but 99% of teachers are wonderful people doing a very hard job, often in less than ideal situations. If you support and encourage your child in his or her education and support your school as much as you can, the odds are that your child will do well, regardless of what OFSTED might suggest.

Best of luck

Monday 2 March 2015

Nursery fees

There’s been a lot of debate on this recently, some of it sensible and objective, most of it raging and irrational.

To listen to some people you’d think that nurseries were a new phenomenon, they’re not. Mill owners started them in the early 1800’s because it was a way of encouraging cheap labour (women) to work for them. I went to a nursery in the ‘60’s. Ok, they were far more informal in those days, usually self organised affairs where a group of mums would be given free access to a church hall and they’d all take turns apiece to look after the kids. As I recall, the downside of this arrangement was that, in lieu of a rental fee for the Church hall, we were all expected to attend Sunday school.

Parents have always needed nurseries in some form - if only to prevent them being driven insane by the incessant chatter of three year old's - and children have always needed them in order to develop the social skills that will be essential in a few years time when they start school. All that has really changed is the formality of the nursery and the degree of need of the parents.

In an ideal world women really would have a genuine choice to either work or stay at home and look after the kids. In reality most households now rely on two wages, they might not need two full-time working wages but the vast majority of women – and let’s face it the difficulties here are usually dumped on the women – have to earn a wage and, by definition, this means someone else looking after their children for at least a few hours each week.

The other more recent change is the amount of legislation now surrounding nurseries. These were all brought in for the right reasons but they all seem to be based on the idea that parents aren’t capable of distinguishing between a good and a bad nursery by themselves. So, in theory at least, all nurseries are now wonderful places for your children but, as a direct result of this legislation, are far more expensive.

Anyone who’s paid any attention to the nursery debate will have heard at least one person say “If you can’t afford to bring up your kids don’t have any!” 

In an ideal world we would all be able to sit down with a big bag of popcorn and watch the man who uttered this comment explain to his young, broody, wife how she can’t have a baby because interest rates are set to rise and the car needs new tyres. I could be wrong but I suspect it would be a blood and gore spectacle of epic proportions.

No, for the majority of couples, having a child is not a wholly rational decision driven by a spreadsheet and economic predictions, if it was I suspect London would now be a small village populated entirely by the gentry, all having to cook and clean for themselves because the poor had become extinct. Most of us enter parenthood well aware that we will be broke for at least a few years, in fact most people will go through a period in their lives when things aren’t going so well and a helping hand would be appreciated.

And after all, that’s all we’re talking about; a few years. Why should a couple’s entire life be affected by the fact that they can’t afford to get through the first few years of a child’s life without some help?

Which leads me on to another popular comment in this debate, namely “Why should I pay for other people’s children to go to nursery?”

One of the people who came out with this statement was Stephen Davies, of the Institute for Economic Affairs, which begs the question why is he still in a job as he patently doesn’t understand how tax works. Just for Mr Davies, let’s have a brief look at the concept of tax.

Most of us love the idea of good roads, fires that get put out before the entire town burns down, police that keep ourselves and our property vaguely safe, schools that produce roughly intelligent children, armed forces that give us a fighting chance of still living in our own country tomorrow and a health care system that tries its best to ensure we’re still breathing when the new day dawns.

People from the right of politics usually suggest that government and taxation shouldn’t be involved with these things and that we should all just pay for them directly, usually because they can afford to. They see little wrong with the idea that you should flash your credit card before the fireman turns on the water, primarily because they have every intention of owning one of more of the fire stations involved.

However, most of us wouldn’t be able to afford these basics by ourselves, so we all pay into the tax pot and take out of the pot dependant on need. Some of us contribute far more than we take out, some of us take out far more than we put in. Some people think that’s unfair, some think that it creates a more level playing field and a better and happier society, which ultimately benefits us all.

So when people say “Why should I pay for your child’s nursery place?” I ask why they think that I should pay for their children’s school place when I have no kids at school or why I should pay for their hospital stay when I’m perfectly healthy.

Surely, in any sane world, we would all accept that bringing up a young family is a short but financially taxing period in any couple’s lives and that is makes sense to help them out through these few, short, years? I think this is especially important when we’ve gone out of our way to manufacture a society that pretty much insists that women should work and labels those who stay at home to look after their children as somehow “unemployed” at best and “scroungers” at worst.

The last comment you always hear is “If it’s too expensive don’t work”, which once again appears to be the reflections of a person that doesn’t like to get too involved with thinking and who would probably be at the front of the queue accusing you of being a lazy scrounger if you ever did decide to take them up on the offer.

Yes, for some, work is just a mundane, drudgery, that - pay-cheque aside - has few if any redeeming features and if this is your situation I’d suggest that a five year break – if you can afford it – wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. However, for most of us work brings far more than just money and if you’ve just spent the last ten years fighting your way up the corporate ladder you are probably not entirely happy about the prospect of starting all over again in five years time – which is almost certainly what would happen.

If you want to build your career then the most you are realistically going to get away with is a year off work, followed by a few years of part-time work and then back full time until you croak or retire – whichever comes first. And that is if you have a very understanding and appreciative employer!

So it’s not really a question of being able to afford the nursery today, it’s a question of being forced to pay out more than you earn now in order to have any hope of a decent salary in the future.

It just seems an impossible situation; we complain that women are under-represented in the higher echelons of business and government but them give them the choice of look after your children or build a career - try to juggle the two and you’ll most probably be accused of being both a poor mother and a slacker at work.

The age at which children are going to nursery is a side effect of all this. There are now one and two year olds spending most of their time in the care of others. I’d be shocked if the parents of these children had freely opted for this arrangement because I suspect it’s not that good for either the child or the parents. In reality they probably felt they had little or no choice in the matter and that this arrangement was the best of a poor bunch. Sadly, until government and business open their eyes and realise that they bear much of the responsibility for this situation, little is going to change.

I remember in the ‘80’s that crèches where all the rage. People talked about all businesses having one. Ok, your child might still be being looked after by someone else but you would be able to pop in from time to time during the day and were only ever a short run away if there was an emergency. It sounded ideal... right up to the point that business decided that looking after the needs of their workforce was not their responsibility. I dare say some forward thinking companies do provide crèches but I imagine that they are very much in the minority these days.

On a personal level this debate isn’t too much of a concern. We changed our careers deliberately to give us more flexibility and far more time with our boy. We knew there would be a financial hit involved with this move - although in truth we didn’t realise quite how hard a hit it would turn out to be - but we figured it was worth it – which it has been.

We are also fortunate enough to have my mother living just down the road, so if I can’t cover for my wife, she will usually pop over and feed Marty cake and biscuits until we return. As a result Marty didn’t have to go to nursery until he was three, by which time the government was happy to pay for 15 hours a week, which is generally enough for us.

We also live in a fairly rural area so nursery costs here bear little resemblance to those in London, where they could readily be mistaken for a defence budget.

I find this more than a little odd though. Virtually every person I’ve ever seen working in a nursery is either on, or is very close to, the minimum wage. So where is all this money going to?

Is there a nursery mogul somewhere, sipping pina colada on his 50ft yacht and haggling down the phone in a fiendish attempt to corner the market in Pampers and Calpol?

Wednesday 7 January 2015

The Older Parent

Pretty much every year there will be at least one article in the media involving age and parenthood, whether it’s people being too young to have kids, or being too old to have kids.
What I find most bizarre about these articles is the eagerness with which people offer their opinions on a matter for which the sentence “What the fuck has it got to do with you?” would appear to be tailor-made. Yet offer them they do.

There was an article a few years ago about a rich elderly lady who became pregnant at the grand old age of 60 something. As a result the Radio 5 phone-in was alive with indignation and phrases like “It’s disgusting!” and “It’s against nature!” were being bandied about with venomous delight.

I haven’t got a problem with people having opinions on things like this, I just find it odd that they should. After all what effect will it have on “Mrs Angry from Tunbridge Wells” if a 60 year old has a child?

Are they jealous? I can’t see why they would be. Are they concerned for the child? Again, why? They have a rich parent who has all the time in the world for them and has a reasonably good chance of still being around and compos mentis when they’re ready to fly the nest. Is it an ideal age to have kids? Maybe not... but I think it’s a better age than many seem to think.

As you might have already guessed I was getting on a bit when my son was born, not dramatically so but 48 wasn’t an age I’d have picked if offered the choice. That said, I’m not sure what age I would have picked. 

According to the ‘experts’ we should all be procreating in our 20’s when all our biological bits and bob’s are at their prime. Which would be fine if parenthood was just about biology but realistically that only covers the first 9 months, after the birth it settles back and takes a back seat, only being wheeled out for special occasions such as when relatives gather together to dissect your children – he’s got his father’s eyes, his mother’s smile, his aunt’s elbows etc, or for when your offspring are being particularly exasperating: “Oh my God! He’s sooo like his bloody father!”

No, opting to become a parent just because you’re currently fertile would be like getting a tattoo just because you’re particularly drunk, which of course happens.... but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

The usual arguments against having a child later on in life are a bit limp to be honest. “How will you ever keep up with him?” Is one. To which the answer is “He is 3 ft tall and I’m 50 as opposed to dead!”

Of course he’ll be quicker than me one day, but that’s the natural order of things. I could beat my dad over a mile by the time I was 12 and he was 36. I dare say Marty might be able to make this breakthrough slightly earlier but it’s hardly going to be a drama when he does. And of course this all presupposes that people in their 20’s are fit and healthy and studiously steer clear of Greggs because they wish to beat their eight year old at the egg-and-spoon race the next morning.

Another argument is that the older parent will be dead before their child has flown the nest. If you push it too extremes this is a possibility but sadly none of us know how long we’re going to be here for so it’s hardly worth worrying about. The truth of the matter is that kids cope with the death of a parent much better than they do with their parents divorcing. So, logically at least, we should all be delaying children until we're really sure we're in a solid marriage, even if that does mean you're getting on a bit when they finally arrive. Sadly, I suspect the strength of a marriage isn't much easier to predict than life expectancy - we all know at least someone who we expected to be divorced by the end of the reception and who are still happily married, then others who appeared to be soul-mates but were on the phone to their lawyers before the honeymoon had even finished.

To my mind, fertility aside, most of the requirements for being a decent parent develop with age, although I’m not sure if this isn’t a chicken and egg scenario. For example, most people are far more patient in later life, but is this the effect of age or the effect of having children? I am certainly more patient than I ever was in my 20’s but I’m probably far more patient than I was just 4 years ago, which is hardly a surprise when you discover that impatience calms down small children in much the same way as petrol calms down small fires. No, taking a deep breath, counting to 10 and then screaming “Oh My God! Is that a steam train?” works much, much, better.

But what about other vital parenting commodities, like time? I guess the only thing you can say with any certainly about time is that it seems to vanish the moment the kids arrive. It’s quite shocking really! I used to have loads of it now I can’t find any of it at all! I’m only writing this because Leanne has taken my son out to see Santa and it’s another 5 minutes before the potatoes need to go in the oven - and as you can see from the posting date of this Blog, that didn't really work.

Time really is essential to parenting; Kids demand it, lots of it, and life can turn quite nightmarish if you don’t set aside enough of it. The problem is that you aren’t setting aside time for yourself – which I used to find quite easy - you’re setting it aside for your kids and I suspect people are more likely to do this when they are older. Not because age bestows upon you some sort of saintly benevolence but just because you’re more likely to have done most of the things you wanted to do for yourself and are now more inclined to do things for others, especially if the other in question is small, cute and entertaining.

In short, I think being a parent is easier when you’ve done everything you want to do for yourself and have got bored with the idea of eight hours sleep.