The P Word

muddling my way through parenting; living life to the full

Holidays are here!

I’ve got a severe case of end-of-term-itis. In a good way. The holidays are here. The sun is shining. Spring has sprung. Things are looking up.


Why am I feeling so chipper? Well, I’ve just had a long weekend which included plenty of sunshine, trips to the park and a screening of Rio 2. Just for a bit of life-life balance, we’ve now got a couple of days sans enfants as my wife and I work (and capitalise on the chance for a babysitter-free evening out!) while the kids spend some quality grandparent time with the in-laws.

But I could look at recent events differently. In many ways, much of the past few weeks and months have included the hardest challenges I’ve faced for some time. At times I’ve felt quite low, resulting in tweets like this:

I’ve chosen the tweet above because – however exhausting, challenging and impossible parenting can seem at times - my children also have a great capacity to restore me to myself. All they have to do is give a simple smile, a hug, or demonstrate the ability to lose themselves in fits of hilarity – all of which can quickly draw me back into a more hopeful world, allow me to throw off the other worries and stresses of life, and bring me joy.

Amazing, aren’t they?

Last Friday was a case in point. School pick-up on the last afternoon of term is always a celebratory time, but we’re lucky enough to have two children who adore school (of course helped by spending time with their friends). I’m not expecting it to continue forever, but aged 7 and 4 I’m just revelling in the moment. The most striking sign of this is that it’s almost impossible to get my son to come home at the end of the school day. The classroom door is his gateway to the playground and, given the choice, all he wants to do it race around with his friends until darkness falls (with occasional breaks for food). And not much beats seeing him at his happiest with the friends he loves.

You see, just like my son in the playground, today I’m choosing to seize the day and celebrate life with unbridled optimism. Long may it continue.

Happy holidays!

Breaking the rules

I just gave my kids sweets. In the bath. Shortly before bedtime.
Now I’m not sure how many parental ‘rules’ I broke in that moment of madness, but I’d probably struggle to count them, even with a full complement of fingers and toes.
The summer holiday is, at least in our household, a season when rule-breaking is rife. Feel free to judge (I know you’re not perfect either!) but we’ve let standards slip on TV breakfasts (not to mention lunch and tea), diet, treats, gifts, bedtimes … in fact, most basic parental boundaries have been stretched in the past few weeks.
However, quite frankly, I don’t care. I don’t quite go along with the ‘rules are made to be broken’ school of thought, but surely there’s an element of truth in it.
I’d stake a lot of money that the vast majority of happy, lasting childhood memories are created when the rules are broken. The unexpected treats, the outlandish exceptions, the surprising ‘yes’ in response to the desperate request out of pure hope, not expectation.
Now it has been noted by some that we can be a touch on the strict side. My wife and I expect polite, decent behaviour, and we make no excuses for that. So perhaps by breaking a few rules we’re not moving the bar particularly low.
But regardless of the starting point, the fact that children know they’re getting away with something that wouldn’t usually be permitted can’t fail to give them a bit more joy. It strengthens the bond between rule-breaker (parent) and beneficiary (child): the shared mischievous grin that cements emotional ties; the eyes lit up in amazement that say, ‘Dad, you’re brilliant!’
And the memories. Oh, the memories.
I doubt that my own offspring will recall the bath-time sweeties on an otherwise nondescript August evening. But, deep down, I know it made a difference.
Having said that, it’s impossible to predict the memories that will last the test of time. My mother was mortified when my sister and I reminisced recently about one of our fondest childhood memories: watching the wrestling on Saturday lunchtime (Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, et al) while stuffing our faces with pickled herrings. Not an everyday occurrence, but an occasional weekend treat that obviously struck a chord with two young children about three decades ago. Happy times. Fun times. Together times.
I hope your summer season was full of fun family times, however many rules you managed to break along the way.
Anyway, with growing and changing children the goalposts are moving on a fairly regular basis, so hopefully you’ll get away without causing too much of a confused mess to sort out in the aftermath. And with any luck, I won’t now spend the entire autumn battling over re-defining those stretched and misshapen boundaries.

Father’s Day: we can change the world

I hate melodramatic headlines. The world is full of lazy newspaper sub-editors who never let the truth of a story get in the way of a good headline.

So, you may ask, why have I gone for such a bold title in the run-up to this Sunday’s Father’s Day?

To put it bluntly, because I believe that parenting transforms families for generations. That’s the main reason why I got into this suff in the first place. Good (encouraging, supporting, loving, present, etc.) parenting helps form children who may well go on to become parents themselves, and much of what they do will (at least in part) be a reflection of what they’ve seen and experienced themselves. With any luck, this will be adapted and built on by their kids and their grand-children. And so on. Nearly everything good that I do as a Dad is thanks to the example set by my own parents, as described in this open letter to my Dad written this time last year.

Of course there’s a flip-side too. It’s painfully obvious that bad (neglectful, abusive, absent, etc.) parenting can scar children in such a way that it informs the way they (mis)treat their own children, entering into a lengthy cycle of despair which – if left unchecked – can continue for generations.

Without getting too wrapped up in what makes a good or bad parent (of course no parents are perfect, and I’m sure 99% are fantastic in the eyes of their kids, whatever they may think about themselves), it’s important to recognise the fantastic opportunity that this generation of fathers has to change the world forever. That means you (or your husband/partner).

The tools of a modern father

The tools of a modern father

I’m delighted that I’m living in an era when it’s socially acceptable – even becoming socially expected - for fathers to put their family above everything else.I was listening to a fascinating radio interview with Ben Fogle earlier this week. He was introduced as ‘presenter, adventurer, broadcaster, etc, etc’. His reply? ‘And dad. You forgot the most important bit.’ Then followed a tounge-in-cheek challenge by the presenter about whether his family really was a higher priority than his career. This demonstrated that the default answer has become family first, work second. That’s the expectation.

But for many of us, this is breaking new ground. It’s safe to say that most people who are becoming parents for the first time were born in the 1970s or 80s. To make a massive generalisation, this is probably around the time that the traditional moulds of family life  were being challenged. Without pretending to understand modern social history, it’s undeniable that parenting in the 20th Century changed. It gradually became less a case of Mum looking after the kids and Dad working to provide for them. Father’s Day has changed from an ‘opportunity’ for Dad to spend time with his kids, and more of a continuation of normal life.Think back to the attitudes that many of our parents (those now starting out on the adventure of being grandparents), who were born in the 40s or 50s, were brought up into. How would the way they were parented compare to what our children experience today?Because look where we’ve got to now. More shared responsiblity, more stay at home dads, more blokes stepping up to their role as joint-carer of the little people we love. Dads who are choosing to be fully present in the lives of their children.

So, this Father’s Day, is it time to change the world? Yes. We can do it, one family (and one generation) at a time.

Getting back in the game

Under the cosh. Swimming against the tide. Run ragged. These and many other clichés are over-used in sports journalism (a career I once aspired towards), and as I’ve suggested before many of them also crop up in relation to parenting.

Feeling a bit deflated?

Feeling a bit deflated?

And that’s how I’ve been feeling recently. Perhaps that’s the reason for my all-too-lengthy blog silence. But the clouds are beginning to clear and (quite literally) the sun is starting to shine again.

This week a couple of things which I’ve shared on the blog’s Facebook page have helped me feel like I’m getting back in the game. This post reminded me that I’m not alone, and the motherhood rap made me giggle.

Getting back in the parenting game

Sometimes it all feels like a bit too much. I’ve been grumpy dad, tired dad and various other kinds of dad which I don’t like seeing in the mirror in recent weeks. Mealtimes seem to have become the battleground that I thought we’d seen the back of after (just) surviving the toddler years. But hope springs eternal, as the saying goes. Although I certainly don’t feel completely out of the woods, there are some chinks of light if I look hard enough. A bit of a holiday certainly helped.

Getting back in the blogging game

I think I’ve always been certain that I’d return to this blog at some stage, although the three-month gap might have suggested otherwise. Time has appeared in short supply. Motivation has been lacking. The thoughts about potential posts have been there, but all too often they’ve dispersed without being put into action. With Father’s Day looming, a flurry of traffic to my contribution from last year has also helped re-awaken my interest.

Getting back in the training game

‘Facilitator’ is perhaps the least elegant word in the English language. However, to help people on parenting courses it’s a label which I gladly wear from time to time. And over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to be back involved in a Time Out course for a group of parents of under-5s (if you want, see if there’s one taking place near you). The mums and dads I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the past few Wednesday evenings with have both challenged and inspired me. I am hugely grateful to them, and I can’t wait to do more of the same later this year.

So … if you’re feeling like a bit of a spectator – or maybe sidelined by injury, or just exhausted and need to be substituted by somebody with a bit more energy – I hope that you find some way of getting back in the game before too long.

Dads are getting older – help!

It’s official. As reported in the news recently, the average age of becoming a dad is on the rise. So, dads are getting older – but aren’t we all?

Some might say that the onset fatherhood or motherhood comes with some significant baggage: middle age.

However, I disagree. It’s a bit of a cop-out to base the definition of our personal stage of life on the existence/age of a small human being or two. But if I’m right, when exactly does middle age begin?

Is it when we lose any decent dress sense? Or is it a loss of taste in music? When we lose all sense of adventure? Or could it be when we gladly embrace blandness? Maybe it’s a physical phase, such as the loss of hair or the infamous ‘spread’? Or maybe it’s just the loss of any sense of rhythm when dancing?

Or is middle age when we just totally lose it? The plot. Our sanity. We fall into ‘crisis’.

Middle age: Craving the simple life? Or just cracking up?

Middle age: Craving the simple life? Or just cracking up?

Some would say that in reality I’ve been ‘middle aged’ since about my 9th birthday. But with the passing months and years, some of the classic hallmarks are beginning to crop up in my character and attitudes with alarming regularity and accuracy. Oh dear.

As parents, the cross that some of us have to bear is that being Mum or Dad can serve to accelerate the onset of middle age. Our responsibilities grow and our wrinkles appear … or maybe just deepen!

I recently carried out a little survey on the blog’s Facebook page about when people think middle age begins. The results were interesting (the top-rated age bracket was 45-49, soon followed by ‘never’!), but the comments I received (including from an inspirational group of other dad bloggers) were even more revealing. Some took a statistical approach and identified the mid-point of life (the most accurate response was 37.675, for the record), but others defined it as a state of mind – some stage in the future when we start to think like people who think they’re middle aged.

More interestingly, I don’t think anybody voted for an age bracket that they’re actually already in. So perhaps middle age will only ever be a box that others may put us in, but it will never be a label that we’ll be happy to slap on ourselves. (Perhaps some of my stereotypical suggestions above may explain why!)

However we may choose to define it, there are some obvious (often clichéd)  hallmarks about middle age which we cannot dispute. Even though I hope that, personally speaking, true middle age is a few years away, I may already be heading down that slippery slope. But will I ever get to the bottom? I hope not.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy that sports car …

The echo is too loud

I went to have a haircut on Saturday, and I didn’t like it. The haircut itself was ok (well, at least my wife thinks so) but there’s something else that comes with the territory at a barber’s shop: the mirror. The dreaded mirror.

mirrorI can gladly get through most of life without having to look in the mirror too often. I usually get ready for work in the semi-darkness before the rest of the family stirs, so I manage to avoid the reflection in the full-length mirror attached to the front of my bedroom wardrobe. I’m not trying to confess some deep-seated insecurity here, but there’s something about mirrors which makes me a little uneasy. So having to effectively stare at myself while there’s a haircut going on up top for 10-15 minutes is akin to mild torture.

And then there’s my kids. As a parent, I don’t need any mirrors around to regularly catch an all-too-familiar reflection of myself. Even though it’s not always a bad thing, it’s inescapable. My children echo everything about me.

I’m sure some of it is because of biologically inherited characteristics, but I’m no genetics expert and as the years pass I see more and more of myself in how they speak, behave, spend their time, etc, etc …


It’s not just the vocabulary they use, it’s the tone of voice. My kids are an almost perfect echo of what I say and how I talk. Perhaps that’s something I should celebrate, because it demonstrates that I really enjoy talking with my children. They entertain, inspire and educate me in conversations every day. They also learn to copy me. Which is fine … most of the time.

I generally succeed in avoiding to swear within earshot, but that’s not the whole story. As well as the laughter and my poor quality impressions, they also pick up on the despairing tone, the frustration, even the anger. The echo that comes back at me is not always pleasant listening.


The latest trick that my children have learned is to copy some of my odd little mannerisms. The two current favourites are the glasses-off-tired-eyes-rub and the downward-face-wipe, which I know are both signs of weariness. Does this mean that I’m not at my alert best when with the kids, or just that time with them it totally exhausting? Probably a bit of both.

Either way, I need to watch how I act and react in their presence. One of my biggest weaknesses is road rage. I have no patience with careless/ungrateful/inconsiderate drivers. I regularly fail to hide this even with my kids in the car. Whatever my children are learning from seeing me like that, it’s not good.


This is the big one, and the scariest. Although other family members, friends and teachers all play their part in forming my children’s systems of values and beliefs, I know that it’s predominately down to us as parents. My attitude towards other people (see the road rage reference above!), my religions beliefs, my care (or lack of) for the planet, my use of time, my use of money, my positive/negative outlook on life.

It’s all already there. Every day, everything that I say/do/think is gradually seeping in to my children’s lives as they spend time with me, watch me, learn from me, listen to me, and mirror me.

Sometimes, it fills me with parental pride. At other times, the echo is too loud.

Coming next: I’m drafting a post about becoming middle-aged. But I want to know when you think that phase of life begins. If you had to put an age on it, when would it be? Please take part in my Facebook poll here. Thanks!

How was your Christmas presence?

The play on words between ‘presents’ and ‘presence’ is often too tempting for many vicars to avoid when planning their Christmas Day sermons.

With no apologies, I’m going to plagiarise that cliché (if such a thing is possible) and apply it to parenting for a brief post-festive pause for thought.

Christmas presentsHowever much we may plan ahead for Christmas, it’s probably fair to say that most of the time spent thinking and doing in preparation for Christmas is centred around trying to buy presents for our family and friends.

Once the presents are bought and the plans of where you need/want to be on particular days are sorted, the planning of how you’re going to actually spend your time is likely to be well down the pecking order.

But what makes the biggest difference to our kids?

Sure, the people we’re with for Christmas will matter, and what they unwrap on The Big Day will hopefully bring a little happiness.

But if we want to make a lasting difference for them then we’ll focus on creating memories. We’ll play games that end in side-splitting laughter, we’ll have the time of our lives racing around the park (and probably get drenched on the way home!), we’ll read endless bedtime stories until the story-teller’s voice or eyelids give up, or we’ll sit and talk about the latest animated blockbuster that we’ve just enjoyed together. Or maybe – as I’ve recently seen posted by a friend on Facebook – we’ll fall asleep cuddled up together on the sofa.

I’ve talked in a previous post about allowing our kids to take the lead in setting the agenda and how/when we play together. Perhaps there is no greater opportunity than the Christmas holidays to allow your kids to set the tone and take a new approach to how you spend your time together.

Please don’t read this post as a guilt trip if you’re feeling like you’ve not been very ‘present’ in creating memories with your kids during the past few days (heck, if an afternoon snooze to sleep off a lunchtime tipple is criminal then I’d be incarcerated every Christmas!). But with whatever holiday time you’ve got left this festive period, it’s never too late to do some more fun/silly/crazy/memorable things that will enrich your child’s life and enhance your relationship with them.

You may even feel prompted to make a New Year’s resolution to give your kids more ‘presence’ in 2013. But if you do, please make sure it’s one you at least try to keep!

Are we nearly there yet?

The phrase in the title of this post is one that sends shivers down the spines of most parents, especially when uttered by your offspring just a short while into a long journey. That sense of dread and foreboding can sink even the most buoyant of hearts.

Some of you may even have heard that phrase uttered by your children on journeys this weekend when travelling to visit friends or family for Christmas. For our kids, these words are often nothing more than an over-flowing of excited expectation about what awaits them at the end of the journey. Or just plain boredom!

Advent calendarAt this time of year, that sense of expectation is probably at an annual high as your kids wait for all that’s in store on 25 December (as heightened by this mysterious and unnecessary 25th door on my daughter’s advent calendar!)

However, that’s not really what this post is all about.

We can all learn ways to deal with those back-seat-of-the-car protestations, but perhaps that phrase has a much deeper meaning when it flies through the head of many parents.

So often we long for the end of the current ‘phase’ of parenting. We strain our eyes to see the distant horizon, or limp along towards the oasis in the desert when we crave for things start to get easier. Have you ever found yourself looking forward to the months or years around he corner (‘We must nearly be there by now!’), and forgetting to completely engage with the challenges and joys of whatever you and your kids are going through in the present?

I’ve heard all the wisdom of more experienced parents with their jaded views of the different phases of their kids’ lives : ‘It never gets easier’, ‘You never stop worrying’, or even ‘The only thing that changes is they get more expensive’. I’m not going to argue with those who have the battle scars to prove it, but is that really what it’s all about? Do I have to settle for that disheartening view of my children’s development, while I develop as a parent? No, gladly.

Several friends have recently set out on the parenting journey for the first time, and I’ve been trying to recall what those first few phases are like. The main thing that springs to mind is the constant re-adjustment as the routine changes, or as you try new ways of dealing with the seismic changes in your child’s eating/sleeping/playing habits (which can appear to be almost daily). I regularly found myself thinking ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ when totally desperate to get enough rest in order to function the following day!

But (as the voices of experience suggest) do we ever actually get ‘there’? Is there a time in the future when I can look forward to serenity and peace in my life and parenting?

Maybe not, but I can choose to relish each phase of parenting to the maximum. I can choose to enjoy the delight in my kids’ eyes as they explore, learn and experience new things. I can choose to endure the tough times because that perseverance of getting through together (with my wife and children) will strengthen the bonds between us and be the foundation of the better times that lie ahead.

Even though the end of your difficult ‘phase’ may sometimes feel a long way off, don’t just sit there and wait for the journey to end. We all know that’s a sure-fire way of making the subsequent period of time seem to last forever!

So, whichever part of the journey you’re on, and however arduous it may feel at the moment, hang in there! And have a Happy Christmas.

Lessons from America

A few weeks ago we returned from a family-defining holiday in California. Prompted by a good friend’s wedding, we took full advantage and spent 10 days travelling around this beautiful, incredible state which is full of extremes. The only sadness is that finances won’t allow us to repeat such a trip on a regular basis.

However, I need to start with an apology. My attitude towards Americans has not always been entirely positive. I have despaired at their seemingly incessant, overly-exuberant enthusiasm.

But I will not let my pre-judgemental attitude (based mainly on American TV, to be fair) take control again.

Stars and stripesHere are a few examples of how my preconceptions about Americans were challenged and my eyes were opened to the positive reality of that great nation:

You’re too damn happy …

Wrong. I wish I was more like that. When celebrating another passing year at Disneyland, several complete strangers wished me a happy birthday. It was undeniably genuine on every occasion. I thanked every one of them.

You annihilate the English language …

Wrong(ish). I even managed to find the use of ‘center’ and ‘theater’ quite endearing. After all, you can’t argue with the logic.

You’re all show and no substance …

Wrong. The welcoming, warm attitude we encountered was totally genuine and a refreshing change to the stiflingly reserved cynicism which has become a key characteristic of the UK. The apologetically fake British laugh which covers a whole range of insecurities was replaced by a hearty expression of joy. America knows how to laugh properly.

You can’t design a proper road junction (sorry, ‘intersection’) …

Wrong. Despite your obsession with the car, the road system creates an atmosphere of giving way to others. Cars actually stop for pedestrians. Drivers (mostly) look out for other people and think its ok to take a bit of time to travel somewhere, instead of just getting from A to B in the shortest possible time.

Before you think you’re reading the wrong blog, let me address what America & those wonderful people we call Americans taught/reminded me about parenting:

  • To throw off my reservations and inhibitions.
  • To embrace the privilege of parenting to the full.
  • To be a positive role model, who takes a positive attitude in all situations.
  • To encourage my kids and celebrate their achievements (of all kinds) at every opportunity.
So, hopefully without sounding too much like an ambassador for the Californian Tourist Board, I heartily recommend America and its gloriously positive people. You might even learn a lot too.

Parenting influences: trauma

Earlier today I heard a colleague discussing impending parenthood with a pregnant workmate. His point was basically that, however much you plan, nothing can ever really prepare you for what’s about to happen. It was all said  in a very well-meaning way, and whether that’s what she wanted to hear or not, you can’t argue with his honesty.

Because we can never really be prepared, whatever ante-natal classes we attend or whatever tomes of advice books we read. When we become Mum or Dad, all that we’re actually doing is signing up for loving a little person, who we hope, will become a big person who’s ready for all that will face him/her in future life. We certainly don’t sign up for an easy, trouble-free future with decades of serene, chilled-out family life ahead of us. Mostly, that just means being busy/tired/manic/shattered, but sadly sometimes things can become a lot more troubling.

This post (the first in a mini-series of some key ‘influences’ on how we parent) is going to tackle those really difficult, stop-you-in-your-tracks moments, and most notably the consequences (or emotional fall-out) that can impact us for years to come.

I’ve held off writing this for at least a few months because of parents I know who are going through really testing times at the moment. But I’ve realised that there will probably rarely be a time when some parent I know isn’t facing a massive challenge. That’s probably the same with you. I guess that for the vast majority of us there is a friend or family member who is currently going through a truly traumatic period as a parent. So, hoping that this isn’t too painful to read for anybody with raw emotions from a recent/current parenting trauma, here we go …

I’m not trying to get sympathy by sharing my own sob-story, but I’ve known pain too. I know that trauma has consequences. Even though it’s before my long-term memory kicked in, my family suffered bereavement when my twin sister died of cancer aged just 3 years. As a parent myself, our child #1 had major surgery on his skull aged 19 months (gladly he is now a very happy and healthy boy). Memories of both those episodes still cause tears and sadness today.

But in my recent musings about these periods of pain, I’ve been struck by a series of attitudes, feelings and emotions that can cause more long-term pain and damage if we let them take hold. These are some examples of dangerously misguided ideas that, if allowed to take root, can have a massively negative influence on how we parent, as well as what we think of ourselves, our children and other parents:

1. ‘I’m due a bit of good luck now’

If only. Admittedly this does happen sometimes, as some families can enjoy a good run without much anguish following a significantly difficult episode. After all, life is full of different seasons of varying lengths which encompass all shades of light and dark. But as with most parenting-related things, there are no guarantees.

If we somehow persuade ourselves that we ‘deserve’ some good luck, I think that it can lull us into a dangerous sense of false security. Because what happens the next time? Will we fall into an even deeper pit because ‘this wasn’t meant to happen again’? We can easily feel robbed if we assume that we’ve had our ‘bad time’ and trauma should be a thing of the past.

After my family’s trauma when my sister died, did we receive some kind of pain-free guarantee for the rest of our lives? No. Have we enjoyed genuine happiness as a family? Of course. I’m not trying to be pessimistic, just realistic.

2. Guilt for losing perspective

‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, as the saying goes. Well yes, sometimes it does. And I guess as a parent going through trauma can give us a determination to be more family-focused, and take a ‘healthier’ outlook to parenting in the future. However, if only that were that were the case all the time in all situations.

Despite repeatedly hearing the advice to ‘pick your battles’, I know that all too often I get dragged into the most menial of debates/arguments with the kids. In the aftermath of such incidents, I can be hit by a real sense of guilt for forgetting what’s important. So what if child #2 didn’t eat that last piece of pasta for lunch? I’ve got a wife, house, job and two inspirational little people in my life.

3. Other parents should ‘get a grip’

Another manifestation of similar feelings to those I’ve just mentioned is a tendency to judge other parents. We’ve all done it, as I’ve admitted before. You see a parent on the High Street telling his/her offspring off for something that appears really petty. Or maybe you just hear another parent incessantly whinging about a worry or situation that you think isn’t even worth a moment’s thought.

Perhaps your response is to either look on them with demeaning pity, or despair at their lack of parenting skills. Even worse, we can translate our own parenting challenges onto their lives and judge them because we think they don’t know how bad things can really be.

Whatever emotions or experiences may lead us to think that way, let’s give them a chance. Can we get a complete understanding of what could be a really challenging family situation at a moment’s glance? No. Let’s try not judge others, especially when we don’t even know half the story.

So, if you have known pain as a parent and ever thought any of these things in the following months/years, give yourself (and others) a break.

Try to leave those painful, destructive attitudes behind you and embrace all that the adventure of parenting has in store, whatever that may be.

There may be some bad times ahead, but I’m sure there will be a lot of good in there too.

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