What do you do when your child is unhappy?

Seeing as I actually have a little time ‘spare’ this morning, I thought that rather than read the paper (last Sunday’s) I would post about a blog called Mums Make Lists*. It’s one that I’ve even started following on Twitter, if that gives you any measure of how worth a read it is. In particular, this post cropped up at an interesting time a couple of months ago, a few weeks before J-Ba-Bomb was starting nursery and a time of great stress as he was acting out how fed up he was to be around me all day at home.There are a lot of threads in the post that pulled at me.

Long Face

Firstly, it highlighted the importance of just accepting that people are sad sometimes without trying to squash the upset down or deny it is even happening. This is a lesson that it took me a long time as an adult to realise, and I’m still often in something of a state of denial when I’m upset; there’s a part of me that feels that being emotional is going to destroy me. That is not a sensation I want J-Boy to experience, so I try to talk to him about his feelings, my feelings, the feelings of others. He is very articulate for his age about his emotions. This might be because he’s seen me in a tearful heap on the kitchen floor more than once, but there you are. One time a year or more ago, he told me that he was feeling sad but he would ‘be happy later’; I was in my mid-thirties and seeing a counsellor before I realised that, that emotions are inconstant by their very nature and I wouldn’t feel the way I felt for ever.Secondly, the article makes the point that emotions aren’t something to be fixed or resolved; once again, their protean nature makes that jelly-tree-nailing exercise an impossible task. But they do need to be acknowledged and the best way to help the little humans cope with these feelings is to bathe them in uncritical love. If they are feeling sad, listen to them without interrupting and that will already help them to feel better. Just as it would help us to feel better in the same situation – do you see my subtle point?

Thirdly, I strongly identified with the snapping, barking, shouting-up-the-stairs model of parenting that sometimes feels like the only way I interact with J-Dilla. This isn’t true: there are many different modes in our time together during the day. But it is easy to get carried away in what you’re trying to achieve (laundry, cooking, getting him in his coat and wellies so we aren’t late again, hearing the name of an ace tune on the radio) and stop listening to your little communicator, so I try and make sure that we have some quiet time in the day (or noisy time, if you wants to play loudly with his Dad) so that he can tell me what is going on in his delightful coconut. And it is always worth hearing, even if a lot of his chat these days is about Andy Day and his Jurassic travels. If you stop listening, eventually he will stop telling, and that would clamp the lid on another can of worms.

J-Spurt was a bit clingy when he started back to nursery after his first half-term break; he has a few friends there and seems to be getting on well with his daily activities, but he wanted me to stay because he ‘liked me’. However, that was normal enough for the first time back from hols, and a couple of days later he was happily seeing me off out the door again.

I feel as though I’ve slightly petered out, so I will bid you adieu for now, but in short, given the choice between an emotional little mammal that wobbles up and down on an axis of changing emotions or an unchanging manikin, my prevaricating nature would boil off in an instant. No child of mine is going to be shy of expressing their emotions: not unless they really haven’t been paying attention.

So, it’s on with my patented ‘listening ears’ and back to the rodeo.

Ciao for niao!

*I normally feel a little allergic about the m-word and the condescending marketing shorthand it represents, but I try and deal with this by remembering how undervalued mums generally are and why I should probably not get too stressed about it.** There’s nothing worse than men moaning about how underappreciated they are when they expect medals for what women have been doing, with no credit at all, since the Forever.
**Also, not a big fan of bandying the phrase ‘butt-hurt’ around, but that’s another soapbox.
Advertisements

Looking Out for Number 2

 This post has been a wee while in the pipeline for a couple of reasons. Firstly, our second child, a girl (or so the three white lines on the scan say), has been in the pipeline for the last nine months. Secondly, my attempts to clear the mental space to get it written have been frustrated by the bindweed of trying to earn some money, keep J-Zilla in one piece, actually have conversations with my wife, and other life stuff that always knocks my plans to write a little further down the ladder. But, seeing as the due date is on Monday, I don’t want to be hanging around outside the delivery room as Babli is crowning trying to type out the last few hundred words before I meet the delightful little badger. Once we’ve met face-to-face (or face-to-hairy-chest, initially), a new line of magic will have sprouted and my current perspective will be lost forever.

J-Dawg arrived very early, a day after 36 weeks following a week in hospital, so this is virgin territory for me and Dr L. (I’ve been hammering this pun for weeks and I still haven’t got tired of it.) First time around, we’d only just started sorting out the practicalities, and only had a dim inkling of what half the practicalities were: we hadn’t even had our antenatal tour of the hospital. The story is a little different now. The case for the maternity ward has been packed for about a fortnight. The bedside cot is bought. The Moses basket is assembled. The baby clothes are out of the cellar and washed and sorted and waiting for fat little arms and legs and fatter spools of drool. We’ve even managed to get someone in to deep clean the kitchen and much of the house to try and welcome the baby into as clean and unstressed environment as we can manage. But we still have very little idea about how things will move when they start to move; Dr L has never had contractions, not even Braxton-Hicks. How her body is going to react is a mystery. All we do now is wait and enjoy the relative peace and order and try (in my case) to cram in as much paying work and sleep as I can – which is not an easy balance to strike.

Before J-Burger was born, I set up a gmail account and sent him a few emails during his in utero months about how I was feeling and what bizarre thoughts had struck me – and some stuff about the London Olympics, which were really exciting. I’ve set up another account for Number 2, but only sent a couple; though I might try and fit another one in before we meet. This is probably the kind of shoddy, inattentive behaviour she should look forward to receiving from me in the coming years; my basic impression of the experience of the second child is that, unless something goes very wrong with their health, they are pretty much left to get on with things for themselves as their older sibling continues to break new ground and create new worries. But I think I’ve probably been reluctant to email much as I can’t help but associate the excitement of waiting for J-Bro to arrive with the crashing panic and awful feelings that rushed in after he arrived.

Imagining what Babli might look like, how differently she might combine the genetic threads she has inherited, whether she will have my nose or Dr L’s hair or some new rogue elements, is a fascinating and absorbing hobby. We fully expect that she will be a terrible sleeper to balance out the good fortune we’ve enjoyed with her brother, but hope that, in return, she will be a better eater and tuck into the boob in a way J-Babber never quite managed. We know that she is a girl and we know that she is a chunk; the consultant told Dr L that she was obviously “good at growing large babies”. We know that she has moved around in the womb very differently to her brother; where he wriggled and kicked, she pushes and stretches. We also know that she is more respectful of due dates, which will hopefully translate into a more patient child. (I suspect that is more dependent on how patient her parents might be.) While driving with Dr L and J-Bub a couple of days ago, the brand new iso-fix car seat in the back of the newer, bigger car we bought to accommodate the expanding clan, I had a faint, tingling sensation of a fourth family member: a sensation like a cold sore before it appears, or a phantom limb with pins and needles, only in reverse, my brain receiving raw information about an appendage from the future rather than an absent arm. That was encouraging. Soon, I will only know that feeling and the time as a threesome will start to fade.

 J-Bags himself seems to be dealing with the idea of a baby sister OK. The first few months after he found out in September saw him refusing to get out of bed saying his tummy hurt because he had a baby in it. He has been wrapping Lavvi (his bedtime lion and daily companion) in blankets and feeding him as his own baby. He’s corralled and harangued an invisible knot of “my brothers and sisters” on the way through the park to nursery. We’ve finally got round to buying a couple of books on having younger siblings, which has upped the ante a little. But there’s still the worry that they won’t get on, that some of the hugs from big brother might be a little too squeezy, some of his delight emitted through gritted teeth.

Ambivalent lumps loom up too about the fact that I have a daughter on the way. Worries that I have about launching J-Boy off into the big, bad, sagging, greedy, cruel, canophagous world seem tiny when I think about what lies ahead of a young girl these days. And I don’t mean any of that threatening-to-break-the-legs-of-prom-dates protective posturing; I mean helping her to work out how to be an adult female in the murky soup of rape culture and eating disorders and structural violence against a group of people purely because of their chromosomes while remaining focused on what she wants to achieve in life and offer her a safe home when she needs it. I’m even worried about using the wipes properly when changing nappies. But then, I do love to worry. And I also expect J-Blob to take on his responsibilities and bash at the patriarchal machine while he’s at it: making the world safer for women is a job for non-women too.

I’m tempted at times to think that Babli represents a fresh page in my parenting book, a chance to get right the things I feel I’ve done wrong by J-Boy these last three years. Realistically, I know that the same traps await me the second time around; I know this because I laid them myself. So I put faith in things working themselves out as they always do and as they were always meant to. She and I will grow together as humans with all the sprains, rips and spurts this temporal plane has to offer. The family will wobble on with its new fourth pair of legs. And there will be pictures: maaannny pictures. You have been warned.

Trying to rise up from the low-road of parenting 

Some pretentious soul-searching going on here: please accept my apologies in advance, if you decide to read on. I’m an oversharer: a thinker and a talker and a blogger when I should follow the more fruitful examples laid on by my family and get on with things.

This article from Psychology Today popped up in my Facebook timeline recently and it set all manner of cranial gears a-smouldering and teeth a-gnashing. It’s concerned with the damage that angry or impatient words can do to children: which we are all concerned about, aren’t we? 

  
That’s a troubling enough topic for any parent. When our J-Dilla was en route three-plus years ago, it was surprising how much talk there was about how parenting was a damage limitation exercise. It was practically all in jokey tones, but there was still a lot of chat about it,  underpinned broadly by a gloomy Larkinesque philosophy about the terrible consequences of some parental choices and (worse) those choices that carers made without realising. The author of this article, Peg Streep, seems to have endured a terrible experience growing up with her mother; the hurt and anger rears up in flames from her words. Who could blame her?

But aside from it being a subject fraught with fears and guilt, something about the article really troubled me. Streep shared the idea from a recent book on child psychology and parenting that those looking after children can choose between taking the high-road or the low-road of parenting. The high-road is being the grown-up, being rational and taking a step back to take stock of the situation, keeping a cool head and focussing on what the child needs from you; the low-road is allowing the reactive side of the brain to take charge, unchallenged, and snap at the child or lash out verbally. Quite rightly, the effects of anger are discussed as being narcissistic, toxic, causing irreparable damage to the kid’s sense of self and values, continuing the chain of unhappiness and anger to the next generation. But then, Streep identified parents that fail to lift their game from the low road as ‘unloving’. Big ouch.

Now, this might might confirm the impression that I’m all about the narcissism, but I got quite reactive and angry about this idea. A nerve was definitely touched by the thought I was damaging J-Bird with any cross words I dropped on him from my 43-year-old height, but I felt that was a judgment too far, to say quite explicitly that because I sometimes fail to keep my cool with J it means I do not love him. 

I’ve blogged before in an earlier incarnation about my emotional difficulties as a parent and as a human being. In the year or so since I posted it, in many ways things have got tougher as J-Chop has tried to work out his boundaries and pushed at all the buttons his sticky fingers can find. This is what happens with exploratory toddlers, with two-year-old terrors, with cheeky threenagers: they need to learn about the world through experience and it’s my role to guide him, not throw up more obstacles. I know it isn’t meant to be easy, the ‘hardest thing’ parents have ever done: I understand that. But the idea that because I fail to stick to the high road I simply do not love him, that opens a door to a very black box indeed.

When J was tiny, I fretted exhaustedly that I didn’t feel much of a bond with the wordless, unsmiling little creature; I felt that he would stare through me at three in the morning while I stared back, completely lost. Narcissistically, I took to Facebook to try and release some of the pressure in my head and many parents got back to me publicly and privately to say it had been similar for them, that the bonds took time to form. But it still worries me today that the reason I find it so hard to dissipate my irritation with him is that I don’t love him properly; surely, if I loved him fully, all the bad feeling would simply be washed away.

It should be difficult to set aside these unhelpful feelings of annoyance, to push the adrenalin out of my system with a firm injection of dopamine and other more caring, mammalian hormones, but the Psychology Today article also refers to the hard-wired nature of how we interpret danger, and anxiety and depression can be seen as the inappropriate overlay of these ancient responses to physical danger onto our daily domesticated lives. In the instant I feel a shout exploding inside of me like an atomic mushroom cloud I am shouting at myself, joining in a hateful chorus shouting about how I’m doing everything wrong AGAIN. It’s very powerful stuff and so instant that I often feel completely unequipped to divert or control or dismantle it. I’ve so thoroughly absorbed the idea that I’m a failure, that I’m incompetent, that I’m weak and bad, that I don’t need any convincing about how toxic and dangerous name-calling can be for any mind, young or old. As with Streep, this is exactly what I do not want to do – create an unhappy kid in the image of my own dark fears. Love can conquer all, light disinfecting the squalid corners of our murky innards when we can allow it in, but why aren’t I always convinced that I can feel it? 

All these fears aside, what can I practically do to improve this situation? I’ve started to make sure that I do at least ten minutes of mindfulness each day again in an effort to keep my cool in general, which definitely helps. This was recommended by all manner of medical professionals that I’ve spoken to about this and my other anxieties, especially since my blood pressure has begun to climb: a dead Dad arguably being worse than an angry Dad. There are subtler measures too. This blogpost explains how the author decided to think about her children as babies and that helped her to keep her head when all the little ones were losing theirs. And I had a similar experience myself over the Xmas holidays.

  
After weeks of J-Boy getting increasingly frustrated with his life with Daddy, I decided that I had to give myself a good talking to, as it felt like battles between us were opening up on all fronts, every small thing was becoming a power struggle. That was a powerful sign that I had lost sight of what our relationship should be, that I strayed far from the high path and into the valley of squabbly darkness. As with the post above, it was the case of changing one word; however, being a narcissist, it was about changing my self-image, not the image of my child. Not directly, at least.

Instead of thinking of myself as a bad father, as an angry father, as an ‘unloving’ father, which I had been for weeks, I decided to think of myself as a loving father. It was that simple, changing the label, but it did some good. Almost immediately, I felt I wasn’t worried about the tiny disobediences that had been piling on my mind, burrowing into my grey matter, but just loved him and indulged him when what he doing was OK and talked calmly to him when it wasn’t. I couldn’t quite believe it. It felt amazing and he was calmer too after a day or two, especially once he had nursery to give him something new to think about.

There is still a lot of work to go and I’m still riven with doubt about whether I’m the human for the job. I have had some very dark thoughts about where I could go from here, but they are not a realistic option. The prize for overcoming the fear and anger is immense and I want to make sure that if I don’t quite manage to win it for him myself that I’m around to make sure my son is better equipped to get there.

Am I being over-the-top and theatrical here? Running on with the ideas a bit much into William Blake territory? Is everyone shaking their heads with opprobrium at my parenting abilities, sucking their teeth and thinking to themselves there should be child licences? Or just sighing that I should calm down and carry on? 

Whichever way, wish me surefootedness on the high road ahead.

My son, the absorbent couch potato chip off the old block

Bit of a poorly J-Boy this morning, so we’re sat watching CBeebies together.

J took a while to take any interest in TV. Until he was almost two, the only things that would interest him were the bright colours moving about during football matches and Strictly. But when it hit, it hit hard: it seems he’d be happy to watch TV all day every day. If I’m honest, I don’t think the apple has fallen too far from the tree there: I can feel strangely lonely if I’m on my own in the house without the TV or radio, as though I’ve been separated from the herd.

  

The guilt around kids and TV is enormous, of course. Using Peter Rabbit and the Clangers as babysitters is a decision charged with fears about neglect and a child’s imagination withering on the sofa as they passively absorb whatever passes before their glassy eyes. The advantages are obvious, though: as well as keeping him in one place (ish) while I do infant-unfriendly stuff like cooking, it definitely helped with his language development. The unfortunate side effect of this seems to be he speaks with a curious Southern accent – I’ve no idea why he says ‘foive’, for example. At the same time, the guilt is pinned on something queasily tricky to define, the spectre of stunted development. If he watches too much TV, he becomes bored and frustrated, but he can’t admit it; he just wants to stuff more televisual treats in his brain hole. Balance has to be imposed from without, but that requires organisation from me, which can be a problem.

Some of the programmes are truly awful, not much more than the moving colours he watched as a baby; others are quite a lot of fun and genuinely educational. His favourite programmes have morphed as his interests have broadened – from In The Night Garden through Thomas The Tank Engine and Bing to Go-Jetters. He has a gratifying knack of undoing the puns and baby-speak used in the titles: Teletubbies becomes Teletummies. I was particularly pleased when he became obsessed with the new version of Danger Mouse, which was stylish and clever with neat comic timing and the same healthy anarchic streak that ran through the original. I loved that cartoon so much I used to design toys based on it: heavy nerd vibrations.

  
Now J-Mouse has started nursery, I can do the less child-friendly jobs while he’s out and (in theory) can then focus more of my loving parental energies on him in the afternoon. Eventually, I’ll implement a strict timetable for specific programmes at specific times and become the inspiring, creativity-promoting Dad I dreamed of being. But while he’s poorly, the box is back on.

Hanging out with Nana: dinosaurs and dementia

Part of our greatly extended Christmas this year has included a visit from my 81-year-old Mam for a few days. 

Until last month, she had been living in Ireland since 2004, when she moved back over to re-connect with the beloved County Clare that she left with her new husband and baby me in 1972. After five years of young family life in East Cheshire, pining for the West of Ireland while she pushed first me and then my little sister around in a buggy in the shadow of the Peak District, she’d spent the next 27 years in the happy compromise of Anglesey in north Wales. My Dad had died in 1997, only a few months after their silver wedding anniversary, and the grief damaged my Mam mentally and spiritually; while her body and physical energy continued to push her onwards through life, mentally and philosophically she had lost interest.

Independent living out in Clare gradually became a worry for us as Mam’s memory and judgment became more of a concern, until we made the decision she should come back to the UK. She is based with my younger brother and his family in Wales with the plan that she comes and takes extended breaks with us in Leeds, somewhere she is able to go to Mass every day, which is very important to her.

 The first get together 
This also means that she becomes a more tangible presence in the life of J-Bone (and her other grandchildren) and he has the opportunity to build a real relationship with her. As someone who only has memories of one grandparent, this feels a very valuable connection. There is also the idea that spending time with curious little humans keeps older people interested in life and can also teach infants about other rhythms of life: slower, less stressed rhythms that aren’t focused on getting their coat on them or brushing their teeth. As J-Majesty has spent a lot of time staying at his Ma and Pa’s (his other grandparents) throughout his little life, he has developed a completely independent relationship with them that should help him fashion stronger social bonds with people outside his immediate clan. That’s the plan, anyway; being able to go out every now and then is only a happy by-product, you understand.

  
Part of my parenting adventure has included realising how similar my fathering patterns resemble how Mam was with us: working in the kitchen with the radio on while we played or watched TV in the front room; squalling into low-level irritation on a quite frequent basis at various domestic challenges; and tickling with fingers of iron. Without wanting to lie down on your leather couch and invite you to stroke your luxuriant white beard, dear reader, there was a narrative too that I was someone who had talents and brains but wasn’t using them as God intended, a script I feel I have continued writing for myself throughout my adult life and to which I don’t want J-Bomb to subscribe. She was a child of the newly-minted Irish Republic in the 30s and 40s, who spent pocket money on butterscotch and Gangster movies, danced all night long but didn’t drink, did all her schooling in Irish before they changed the way it was written and cut her off from a language she loved, and started a singing career that still continued into her 80s. Her idea of the responsibilities of parenting differ from mine. But the unconscious patterns and semi-conscious beliefs are often strikingly similar.

  
Unfortunately, one of the effects of the early dementia she has to manage now is that she becomes fixated on the idea that she is a burden and that people don’t want her around. Her insistent refrain that ‘You won’t have to put up with me much longer’, usually delivered with something sardonic midway between a chuckle and a snort, by turns amused, irritated or saddened us. It felt saddest when it tarnished her relationship with J, becoming slightly toxic and narcisstic in that every time J became upset about being told to switch off CBeebies or come home from nursery, she would interpret his unhappiness as dislike of her. Thankfully, J is too young to be swayed by these ideas and can make up his own mind about Nana, even if that swings between missing her when she’s gone but also wanting her out of his normal bedroom. He wears the complications of human interaction on his sleeve like Cub Scout badges where adults have learnt to try and hide them. But there are cuddles and there is play.

  
My hope is that he will continue to probe her out of her demential shell, winkle some twinkle out of her while she is still about, and help keep her with us, mentally and physically, for a while yet. The arrangement also feels like a connection to times of larger families where the fears and excitements of domestic life ran over the borders that have grown up around the nuclear family over the last century. Unlike Call-Me-Dave, I don’t subscribe to the agenda that families are a universal and highly cost-effective  solution to all of society’s ills – funny how easy many people with plenty of ready cash find it to overlook the enormous role that paper played in smoothing the path for them – but when it works it can bolster the sense of self and the ability to cope enormously. Mothers-in-law can be irritating as all Hell, but they and other relations add a bit more biodiversity sauce to the cultural gene pool as well as relaxing the tensions of intergenerational struggle over brushing teeth, getting wellies on and managing biscuit consumption.

  
J-Blip and I drove Mam back to meet my brother and his son in Manchester so they could take her back to the Lleyn Peninsula for another while; we also took the chance to meet up with more friends and their new babies and foster some sense of a broader, more communal family life, the inverted Sartrian sense that life is about being with other people. It’s a little sad this morning that she isn’t rattling around, worrying about getting to Mass, buying newspapers, arguing with J about what TV to watch, and rooting forgetfully in the cupboard for chocolate biscuits. The last couple of days in particular were lovely as she told me what a great job I was doing and how like my lovely Dad I was. 

  

In the past, we dreaded her visits a little, visits that drew tears with occasional barbs about Dr L’s choice to work or other lifestyle business, but it feels a bit less of an issue these days and more part of her condition. I feel like my brighter, happier Mam is being allowed to shine through the cracks even now and then, even as the future is more uncertain – in a chillingly certain kind of way.

Safe to say, we’re looking forward to having her back her soon.

Threenager tamed by nursery shocker!

Back after another break. It was a challenging month or two just gone and I was feeling a little too low about how I was performing as a parent to write anything  about family life. Towards the back of the festive season, I had a successful chat with myself and the great wheel of emotions has turned again. But enough about that, there is news to report.

J-Dawg is now a nursery school kid!

  
It has been a long time coming and part of the reason Young J had been such a handful in recent weeks was that he’d become thoroughly bored of our mid-terrace, man-and-boy existence and was ready to stretch his hand over the horizon like a Moses before a sea of Lego. I was pinning my hopes on the idea that crossing the threshold into the foothills of formal education would supply enough thrills to satisfy and stabilise his fidgety thoughts. It seemed too neat a plan to work out, but so far, so that much calmer.

A taster session in December meant I had an idea what his day might be like, although it felt a little dispiriting, to be honest. It felt like a group of human beings, albeit titchy ones, trying to hang out in the same space without stepping on each other’s toes. Not the tumbling mass of kidhood that I was probably expecting. It felt a little drab, a little like something to be seen out but not enjoyed. Perhaps I’m laying the pattern of my own experience on top of his lifestuff, but I was a little worried he’d be lonesome and glum. There are a couple of kids there that he knows already, and the teacher seems great, but all the kids seemed so wary of each other that afternoon…

However, since J started a five-mornings-a-week routine a couple of days ago, he seems to be enjoying himself. He tells us absolutely nothing about what goes on every morning, but drops his head and weeps when I come to collect him three hours later. That’s got to be a good sign, hasn’t it?

 Studying hard 
And the big thing is he seems so much more focussed, more like the helpful and relatively cheerful, playful J-Patch that I dimly remember. He even eats! Sits down (mostly) and finishes his meals. Everything about him seems a bit more calm and structured: it’s as though he’s mainlined Mozart. I’m setting aside the urge to assume his previous life at home all day with me lacked enough structure, the essential brain roughage to keep him regular: I did my best. But even though he protests at being woken up in the dark, the structure seems to agree with him.  He’s thanked me with a hug for making his tea and dinner every day since.

While I haven’t been tempted to do the cute picture of his first day (no uniform yet, thank all that’s holy; he wore his Gruffalo Xmas jumper), I was genuinely excited to pick him up after his first morning  and see how he was. He’d judged his dropping-off almost perfectly: gave Dr L and me a cuddle and said ‘I’ll miss you two’, then cheerily waved ‘Bye!’. On collection, it was all tears and reluctant wellies. And he was delighted when I said he’d be going back the next morning.

Let’s see how he feels in a couple of weeks. If he tells us anything.

Feeding our boy into the biometric machine

This feels a thing; is this a thing? It seems like something significant.

J-Bone is about to flee our nation’s borders, or at least he should be in the New Year when I take him along to Ireland. And this means he needs to get his little biometrics on. It’s time he became a citizen, one of those jet-setting people with passports that you read about in glamorous pamphlets.

  
It seems such a grown up thing to do. When I was a kid, we all travelled on my Dad’s big blue passport, although the only travelling we did was on the ferry to Ireland to see Nana. I didn’t get my face on a document like that until I was almost 17, after the summer trips to Ireland had stopped and we were taking our first family trip to the Continent. It was an Irish passport, as I’d felt the greater pull on the green and saffron in my blood than any allegiance to Her Britannic Majesty. It felt like a step into adulthood and a small claim for my own identity, printed in black and white with a ghoulishly white photo of Yours Truly snapped at a booth in Woolworths in Bangor.

Perhaps as a result of my experience, it feels quite odd to be registering J-Bird as an independent traveller. It feels a little as though he has been pulled out from under my protective, familial wing, and far too soon. I feel a little as though I’m giving him up to the powers-that-be, handing him over to some barcoded Behemoth – but that might be the result of watching too many conspiracy movies in the 1990s. It also seems a bit too suave, a three-year-old with a passport. It’s as though he should be sipping cocktails in a safari suit or chucking the keys to his Little Tike Cozy Coupe in the ball pool.

I’ve been told a few times that as he has a different surname to both me and his mother (because of this) I will need to bring his birth certificate when we travel as proof that I’m his parent and not abducting him. I can see why that’s necessary, but a mind as disorganised as mind does not need more things to remember on trips abroad.

There was lots of wriggling about as J-Bone’s photo was taken, but thankfully he doesn’t need to be too well-behaved for his headshot this time around. He’s very excited about going on an aeroplane to see his Nana. He probably won’t be so keen after he’s been kicking around Ringway for an hour or two, mind. 

Rest assured, dear reader: I will be looking into travel tips for under-fives.

How I tried to avoid ruining my kid with praise

OK. I’ve written a couple of loosener posts now; it’s time to let you take a glimpse at the ridiculous nonsense that I allow to roll around my cranium on a regular basis.

I’m generally pretty sceptical about ideas that bubble up in the form of self-help books. I’m not 100 percent sure why this, but something in my brain chemistry is drawn to the musty, dusty oak-panelled doors marked ‘More Questions’ and ‘It’s Complicated’ rather than the big flashy tent with the words ‘It’s Exactly Like This!’ blazing atop it.

However, when it comes to being a Dad, there is another lurkier corner of my brain, the corner where most of my ideas about parenting skulk about, where answers are like platinum dust. In that part of my mind, I just can’t get enough answers; groping about at 3am with a screaming baby, I drink up the certainty of others with the biggest straw in the diner.

Occasionally, an answer comes along that has a nice, reassuring academic halo and enough disturbing questions in its trail to tick a few more of my buttons. It was a while ago that I followed a link to an article (perhaps this one?) with a title to get the guilt gland pumping, something like ‘How you can destroy your kid’s life by saying nice things but kind of in the wrong way’. That’s the kind of title that really lights up the synapses for a parent like me who is convinced much of the time that there is something that they are doing very badly wrong but they are too thick or lazy to be able to work out what it is. The details were interesting and also had enough of a familiar ring with my own experience that I could still make it all about me and not J-Rannosaurus Rex.


In short, the idea is that praising a kid for a personal quality (cleverness, goodness, kindness), rather than congratulating them on achievements or on working hard, creates an issue further down the line. (This may be yesterday’s falafel to you, fair reader, but the theory set up camp in my head for some time, long after I forgot where I saw the article.) The ‘clever’ kid is given the idea that they are clever but not the idea how it works, which creates pressure to maintain the image and to avoid failure at all costs; the ‘hard-working’ kid has a self-image of someone who sees failure as an opportunity to triumph, because they are someone who works at a problem until they succeed, because that is how their parents described them to them. You can probably guess which one is thought better-equipped to deal with the challenges strewn ahead of them. At this point, J-Dilla was only a few weeks old.

Dr L and I had already developed a bit of a twitch each time someone asked us whether he was a ‘good’ baby; we were pretty sure his moral compass was still in the shop. The whole subtext that ‘bad’ babies needed to be brought to the parental heel, especially over things like being asleep, brought us out in all manner of involuntary tuts and mutters. So, now things had been ratcheted up, and every morsel of praise that slipped our lips needed to be vetted. That was the plan, at least, but it’s surprising how easy it was to rain down thoughtless compliments on his little head, and that was when he didn’t understand what we were saying. Now that he’s old enough to understand us and old enough to tell us what he thinks, I’m more worried about shouting at him then forgetting to tell him how hard he’s worked at looking after smaller children at playgroup rather than just saying he’s kind.

It might all sound like an over-reaction, that it’s daft to worry about praising a kid irresponsibly, and there are certainly matters that feel more pressing these days. But at the same time, I can’t help feeling drawn to consider why it is that kids can react differently to similar setbacks, and L and I are big believers in the power of words and speech. Even a subtle difference can have an incalculable influence, especially over so many years and on some a malleable young mind. There was a description in the article of a kid who was considered very clever and capable that would either pick something up quickly and easily or drop it for good, reasoning that it was something they were useless at. I felt as though someone had pulled the feelings out of my head and printed them on the page; apart from driving and basic juggling, I don’t feel as though I’ve ever learned a skill or capability and now spend all my time on activities in which I feel strong and able, avoiding failure and believing that I can’t learn anything new. Fatherhood has been a big challenge to that strategy, as there’s so much to learn and nowhere to run from your own children.

So, we plug away, as we plug away at so many things, and try and remember to show J-Bone how he does work at making things happen. It’s easy to dwell on the mistakes that we make, that he makes, but as long as we keep adding some constructive praise to his drip feed the ‘hard work’ should pay off.

 

‘It’s the Eye of the Tiger’

Not much time for a post this morning as I’m getting things ready for a trip to J-Wipe’s grandparents before I go and see my Mam over in Ireland. So I’ll keep things brief.

I’m not sure whether Stallone will still be casting Rocky movies in twenty years or so, but J-Champ actually has orange eyes of the tiger.

 

Kia-ora Eyes
 
He doesn’t have much of a jab yet, but he’d be great at the cuddling bit when they get knackered.

Am I creating a narcissistic little twerp?

According to Grace Dent, I should be perfectly emotionally balanced.

I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, neatly ticking my manhood box in 1990 at the very moment the world switched from shoulder-pads and red braces to greasy grunge hair and Union Jack dresses. (At least, I think that’s what happened.)

The way Grace sees it, in an article for The Independent, fatherhood works best as a kind of psychological homeopathy: dilute obvious signs of love and affection until they seem effectively absent and they are at their most powerful. Demonstrate your parental love too vocally and it will swell their tiny heads; you will create attention-hungry little monsters, setting them on a lifelong course of selfies for cancer awareness and tweets about their dinner and nationally published opinion columns.

 

Getting the cuddles in early
 
She might be right; I can’t pretend to be a parenting expert, and the proof of our pudding won’t be tasted for many, many years yet. But it seems a bit counter-intuitive, eh?

One of the abiding sense-memories of my Dad is the feel of his slightly-stubbly cheek on my lips when I kissed him good night every night. When he came to have a chat with a troubled Scruffy Kid in bed at night time, he would call me “me old cabbage patch”, and when I was old enough to sprout my own cabbages I thought of how treasured such a nonsensical nickname would make my kid feel. I almost wanted to have  a kid just so someone could feel the way I’d felt in that moment. How needy does that sound? I don’t know, but it feels lovely when I think of the connection I felt with my old Dad in those moments.

 

Three generations of cuddles
 
In addition to his own series of weird (though never quite as opaquely surreal) nicknames J-Bone has been subjected to a humiliating torrent of hugs and kisses and sweet talk. He has picked up these peculiar habits himself and will regularly announce ‘tuddle!’, throwing out his arms or crooking one around our necks. He tells us that he loves us, that he loves other people, that X or Y is his best friend. You could argue that he is wearing the emotional weight from off these words, that he is simply learning to go through the motions. But what motions! I mourn the day that he doesn’t want to hug me any more, but then, if he becomes as needy as Grace fears, that day will never come.

I was never left in any doubt that my Dad loved me. It was not a flawless relationship, but his love was everywhere. He didn’t need to put his feelings for me into words: he put them into actions. Grace would hopefully approve. At the same time, would it really have done me any harm if he opened up all the communication channels? I’m hungry for affection from near-strangers on social media as it is, so he couldn’t have fudged me up any further with a couple of carefully-placed words.

Dad’s love made manifest in the early 80s via a Dusty Bin costume

And if every one of our generation is smothering their lovelings with public demonstrations of affection, won’t J-Patch be ideally equipped for a future of flying jet-tweets and smell-o-instagrams? A little bit of emotional literacy can stretch a long way. 

He brought home some heavy-duty life bacon one lunchtime a year or so ago when he told me that he was feeling sad but he ‘will be happy later’. I was over a third of a century old and seeing a counsellor before I realised that emotions change by their very nature, and that even when things feel very bleak, those things will change. You can argue it’s a stretch to suggest he’s developed the world-weary wisdom of a late-late-adolescent man child in his thirties, but I reckon he’s pushing a nice set of buttons there. Perhaps he’s picked up the idea from seeing his Dad cry sometimes, then cheer up and give him a cuddle. He isn’t a persistently sweet kid, but he will offer people toys to cheer them up when they are visibly sad, children and adults alike, even if he spends much of his time at playgroup fighting over whose toys they are. That all seems evenly keeled to me; he seems to be sorting out some useful emotional equipment for himself. I might have done some actual parenting. (Because yes, it’s still all about me, Daddy!)

I’m really not sure whether I might be creating a narcissist twerp or not, but if I do, the family resemblance would be uncanny.