How many people do you buy for at Christmas?

Found this picture over at 'Buried in Bricks'

Found this picture over at ‘Buried in Bricks

I can safely guess that most people probably buy for their kids and for their other halves but other than that there seems to be a lot of variation between people. Some buy for friends and their kids but miss out cousins and other extended family, whilst others seem to keep it all in the family spreading their spends sometimes very far.

I recently found myself on a netmums message board (sorry that’s probably some kind of mumsnet blogger sin I just committed) after a google search and was quite surprised at how much people’s gift buying varied.

It wasn’t just the cost (as you can imagine there was a lot of variation there as well), to be honest the thing that struck me the most was the differences in how people look at gift buying.

Most seemed to say that Christmas is a time for being with family and friends and enjoying their company but that’s where the unified voice ended. There were people spending a bucket load on their kids and then not really buying for anyone but one or two close friends and immediate family, then there were people who were very reserved with spending on their kids and themselves but who seemed to buy gifts for extended family and a host of friends.

In our house we buy for family we see a lot: grannies and grampas, great grannies and our siblings (and their partners and kids), we buy some bits and pieces for friends we’ll be meeting near Christmas, and obviously we buy for the boys, and my wife and I buy gifts for each other.

As something a bit different I thought I’d pop a survey in this post (it’s up top) as I thought it’d be interesting to see what different people do when it comes to Christmas shopping. What do you think, should people keep their spending close to home or should they spread their gifts far and wide? As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

The solution to annoying blind bags? More blind bags?

LEGO-Guess-How-ManyBlind bags are a little ridiculous, I’ve discussed this before and just yesterday ‘oglemylego’ decided to share that post over on reddit (among other places). As a result my blog has had another moment of fame (my last bit of reddit fame was for my post on kraggling). This little flash of fame is probably my biggest yet, apparently there are literally thousands of you reading today, which is just brilliant, thank you.

Now back to blind bags, I had expected the thread over on reddit to contain a lot of defence of blind bags, given that the Lego community over there are adults who are likely to notice the cost a little less than a child scraping pocket money change together after getting a little over-zealous in the sweet shop. However, it would seem that even adult Lego collectors, on the whole, don’t like throwing their money around blindly either.

So what’s the solution? Could we get away with a small viewing window which retains mystery but makes it easier to figure out what you’re getting (a great suggestion from ‘tobiariah’)? or is there another option.

Given that Lego is clearly wanting to keep the blind bag earning potential I doubt we’ll get them to change the dynamic all that much, so how about a compromise: Lego bit bags. A bit bag would contain a piece, or a few pieces that you just wouldn’t get in any regular set. It could contain things like an unusual door, some space-themed wheels, a superhero head, a collection of cool accessories, etc. etc.

Overall this could satisfy Lego’s apparent need to create a blind product, whilst keeping the cost down to an actual manageable level for a kid with pocket-money to spend. Also it would be more in keeping with Lego’s ‘master-builder’ ethos that it’s been promoting through the Lego movie.

Alternatively, legend tells that many many years ago, in toy shops throughout the land, Lego was sold in individual piece form. Our modern supermarkets would baulk at the idea of loose Lego lying around their stores but independents and toys specialists could happily display big collection cases. Seems a much fairer way to appeal to pocket-money trade than asking kids (and adults) to blindly hand over their cash.

As always I welcome any thoughts you guys might have on this in the comments section below and if you fancy keeping up with me over on twitter I’ll be very happy to see you over there. Thanks for reading (and welcome to my blog to all the redditors), Cheers, John

The eternal problem of getting gifts wrong

sb10069978x-001Christmas is coming. There’s no use pretending it isn’t, and I apologise if you think I’ve just used a dirty word, but parents everywhere are already being given hints by their kids as to what they might be asking Santa for.

These little tips at this early stage can be a blessing and a curse in equal measure. On one hand you can listen to these tips, take them seriously, get ahead of the buying frenzy and be sure that Santa will be set to provide. However, on the other hand there’s the problem of timing: Is it too soon? Will they change their mind? Will something better come along between now and Christmas?

I’ve been experiencing this struggle, with growing trepidation, for about four or five years now (the first couple don’t count, they’re too young to really have a preference). In that time we’ve (fingers crossed) yet to make a mistake, though we have had a couple of close calls. The key thing for us was to make sure that the Santa letter was written before any purchases were made, that way we can hold the children to their list. That may sound a bit mean but Logan especially is becoming quite familiar with the finality of his list.

But what do parents do when their child, for one reason or another, finds it particularly hard to deal with that kind of finality? I’m genuinely intrigued by this, of all the parenting juggling acts that seem necessary for parents this is, by far, one of the most potentially stressful. How do you ensure you get exactly the right thing for Christmas day whilst preserving the magic for your child?

Also how do buying habits differ for parents of children with developmental delays, I may be wrong but given the delay in development I imagine there is a longer period in which you risk being caught out. In cases like this even greater tact and creativity must surely be in order. There is one woman I know of who is in her twenties and still believes, and I have nothing but admiration for her entire family (especially her siblings) for their ability to keep the magic alive for her through such a long stretch.

I’d love to hear any special tricks or techniques any parents/carers may have come up with to figure out the right gift, buy it before they’re sold out, and ensure that their child doesn’t take a huge u-turn on their chosen gift come Christmas day. Any and all comments are very welcome (and feel free to pop over to twitter to talk about it too). Thanks, as always, for reading, Cheers, John

Everything’s more exciting when you whisper

treasure-chest‘Shhh keep really quiet and come and see this!’ Even if you’re just getting your kids to head through and eat their tea, somehow it just gets so much more interesting when you treat it like a big secret.

You can’t do this too often or it loses its magic. You also have to make sure that the ‘secret’ is actually something special or your kids are just going to think you’re nuts (‘shh look, I found a chair!!!’). However, this little trick is a handy thing to keep in your back pocket for times when your kids just aren’t doing what you ask. For example, if you get creative with what dinner looks like then you can sneak them to the dinner table and show them the crazy culinary creation.

Whatever you choose to do you get to take them on an adventure. Everything gets more interesting and it’s never a bad thing to look like a guide in the eyes of your children. A lot of the time as a parent your position of authority takes a ‘bossy’ or even ‘disciplinary’ tone. There are times when this is unavoidable and even necessary but being a guide offers parents a chance to retain authority whilst removing feelings of conflict.

Playing at being a ‘guide’ can offer a welcome break from having to be ‘the boss’, whilst at the same time managing to stay in charge. You definitely shouldn’t over-use it but every now and then it’s nice to not be the bad guy when getting your kids to eat their tea, head to bed, or even do their homework.

Have you ever used something similar to this to get your kids on-board with something that ordinarily causes conflict? How well does it work for you? Do you have other tricks that allow you to stay in control without having to be ‘the boss’? As always, I welcome any comments/suggestions, feel free to comment below and you can catch me over on twitter any time by following this link. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Teach your child to pick up the pieces

LEgo-city-collapseHuman beings fail, this is a fact, and to be honest of all the times in your life that failure happens it perhaps happens most frequently as a child. We call this trial and error, we see it as an important step in acquiring any new skill, but what about the skill of accepting failure, digesting those negative emotions, and starting all over again?

kragle legoRecently I received a comment on my post on kraggling Lego (kraggling = gluing it together), the commenter  pointed out that kraggling may be defensible if it avoids the devastation a child can feel at seeing a play set demolished. Basically their argument was that kraggling can prevent heartache. I get where they are coming from but this comment brought some ideas to the fore that made me realise what it is that I truly love about Lego: it allows for utter, unadulterated, and truly epic, failure or loss. You can spend hours working on a Lego set only to see it crumple in seconds. Sometimes the devastation is wreaked by a sibling and sometimes it comes as the result of a catastrophic accident as you try to place that last piece on and push just a little too hard.

The key thing for a child to realise is that no matter how much blame is thrown around (either at themselves or at a friend/sibling) no amount of words will put that model back together. If they’re lucky the model was made following instructions then all they have to do is follow the steps again and their model will be restored, but if it’s a full on self-made master-builder-style creation then it may be gone forever. What better primer to grief can you expose your child to?

89292-will-ferrell-elf-NO-gif-MQ21Loss is hard, it’s something that can tear a human being apart, we like to think that there is nothing quite like the grief of losing a loved one but perhaps the small losses we experience as children when our creations are destroyed or ruined (for whatever reason) provide us with the early beginnings of the coping mechanisms we use to deal with losses that come in a much larger and more deeply emotional scale.

Another issue that broken Lego sets expose children to is the fact that blame and even punishment can sometimes be entirely futile. When something has been destroyed, no amount of talking, recrimination, or punishment will bring it back. Of course we feel vengeful when something important to us is lost due to the actions of another, it’s a normal, healthy, human reaction to this kind of event. However, it’s important that we develop the ability to distinguish between recrimination and reparation.

Sometimes, as with theft, we can simply receive something of equal value back but with destruction like this the only option is recrimination, there just isn’t a suitable reparation. This is still the case even when a child breaks their own Lego creation (accidentally or otherwise). Life does not have ‘rewind’ or ‘undo’ buttons (much as we’d love it to) and our kids need to be exposed to this, it’s a harsh lesson that can be less harsh if learned early. In the comfort of a loving home (or other learning environment) a child can experience the reality of the impermanence and transience of the human condition with the assurance of strong emotional backup from their parents/carers.

One of the saddest things about this learning stage is that it isn’t recognised by a lot of people as anywhere near as important as it is. When your child first breaks a Lego set (or other toy) right then and there they start to develop coping mechanisms which will shape the way they deal with loss throughout their life. If you want this to be a positive learning experience (since there’s nothing else positive going to come out of a broken toy) then you need to be ready for this and help steer them towards healthier reactions to loss.

This brilliant little guy comes from Andrew Bell's 'The Creatures in My Head'

This brilliant little guy comes from Andrew Bell’sThe Creatures in My Head

My dad used to have a wee catchphrase that annoyed the hell out of me as a kid: “Dinnae sit in a puddle and greet, (translation: don’t sit in a puddle and cry); all you’ll get is a wet bum.” In short, when life knocks us back, we need to get up and deal with it as best we can. Perhaps this isn’t the perspective you yourself take on how we should deal with setbacks and losses but, the thing is, unless you involve yourself in your child’s experiences of these events (and this means exposing them to situations where they’ll encounter this kind of event) you can’t influence the coping mechanism they’re going to develop as a result.

What do you think? Is childhood the wrong stage to expose kids to permanent loss and the transient nature of human experience? Should we shield kids from this kind of experience until they’re more mature, or do these experiences themselves help us to develop towards maturity? As always I welcome any opinions readers may have, feel free to share in the comments section below or strike up a conversation with me over on twitter, All the best, John

Is it really better to shop local?

pocket money stocking fillersWho wants to shop local nowadays? I work for an independent retailer and we get fairly bombarded with e-mails etc. from local groups promoting independent retail. They’ll often ask us to be part of this or that initiative to encourage people to shop local. There are some brilliant ideas out there including loads of ways to make shopping a fun and personal experience for customers in a unique way. Often we’re asked to participate in a way that only an independent store really can. However, what stores do once we have customers in the door is really what will encourage more local shoppers.

amazon-frownThe real issue for local shops is that they’re fighting a battle on two fronts. On one side you have the reduced prices and convenience of the supermarkets and on the other you’ve got web stores. Although the big supermarkets can cause problems for an independent retailer, the really tricky thing for a lot of retailers is competing with web stores: a web site can get extremely specific in it’s range and expertise or extremely broad (e.g. Amazon). The specific sites can give you access to customer service and expertise that can equal (and in some cases surpass) their high street counterparts. When you consider, on top of this, the range of the ever-present behemoth that is Amazon, you can see how the internet can be a formidable opponent to a ‘good-old-fashioned’ bricks-and-mortar store. So what’s a retailer to do?

I think there’s a market for playing on the idea that there’s something traditional/ quaint about independent stores but it can also be quite limiting (not to mention the fact that visiting ‘ye olde…shop’ can get a bit repetitive if everyone’s doing it) and it has the potential to hinder the creativity of the retailer , and that’s the key skill at the disposal of smaller shops: creativity. Most of the staff that you’ll meet in an independent shop do a lot more than their name-badge might suggest. To be honest, even when we’re just staff we have to have something entrepreneurial about us and also have a slightly artistic eye so that we can create an experience for the customer. Sure, we can play up the ‘old-fashioned’ idea, there’s nothing wrong with that, and if we really put our backs into it we can make it feel authentic instead of a simple contrivance or gimmick, but there are more options than just making people feel like they’ve stepped into yesteryear.

MBL BL RabbitKaren (the owner of Fun Junction) often explains that she likes the shop to feel like you’ve just entered a party. Given the mixture of toys that we have out on display in the shop I tend to agree with her that ‘party’ is a good way to describe the atmosphere. When it comes to younger children coming into the shop I like to think we’ve put together something similar to a mini playgroup as well, where children can feel comfortable playing with open toys on the play table (display toys getting a bit beaten up is par for the course for us).

brio railwy uk fun junction toy shop scotland perth crieff perthshire

Wooden railway train that can actually take passengers, you can get one here.

Overall kids will enjoy coming into any toy shop to look at toys regardless of what a retailer does, so we could have just left it at that. However, if all children saw when they walked into the shop were boxed up products that they recognise from TV adverts they’d get pretty bored pretty quickly. That’s why we try and stock unusual toys and games, and when we get the chance we open up some of these for kids to try (a lot of the time they’ve probably not seen/played with toys like these before).

We want to show off our range of toys and celebrate them, we’ve taken time and energy going through product ranges and picking things because they look fun (we are ‘Fun Junction’ after all) not because they’re TV advertised or linked to the next movie franchise. That said we’re the first to admit that just because a toy is well-known/ popular that doesn’t mean that it won’t be high quality. I’ve personally never subscribed to the idea that rarity/obscurity and quality are synonymous; sometimes something is popular because it’s good, popularity isn’t always just made of hype and hot air (check out my recent post about branded toys to see what I mean).

gordon and durward crieffAnother important aspect of a shop is the theatre of the experience. If that theatrical experience consists of a step back in time then fantastic, especially if it’s done well (this sweet shop from Crieff is a prime example of that). However, there are loads of ways to make someone’s shopping experience fun (and, if a retailer is really good, special too). We’re trying out some new ideas this year at Fun Junction. We started with a mermaid day in our Perth shop (she brought along her friend Jolly Jim the Pirate too). She’s since visited our Crieff shop as well, you can visit this post to find out more about that. We’ve had a ‘Brio Train Day‘ too and there’s lots more in the works (watch this space).

Is there anything that really draws you to return to any of your local shops? Do you think there’s still a place for independent shops alongside the world of web-stores and giant supermarkets? As always I love to hear what you have to say either in the comments below or over on twitter. Thank you for reading, all the best, John

Is it good to be bad?

by Zotto1987

Image by Zotto1987

Do you miss something if you always play the ‘hero’? My eldest son is obsessed with superheroes, so much so that it’s basically the only thing he’ll play at the moment. The down side of this is I often have to be a bad guy and a fairly inept one at that, I’m constantly having to back-track on my bad guy antics as I’m informed that the bad guy ‘can’t run that fast’ or that ‘they aren’t that clever’, or ‘that strong’.

Thwarted at every step by a superhero with the power to change the very fabric of reality, my bad guy is doomed to failure, but should he be? Am I missing the opportunity to teach my son some hard lessons in a safe environment? Sometimes the bad guys win, sometimes being ‘bad’ is a matter of interpretation, sometimes the ‘hero’ is simply the one who gets to tell the story. History favours the winners after all.

There are some big life-lessons there, possibly more controversial than the birds and the bees, death, and the difference between real and imaginary all put together. These are realities that even most adults have trouble with. We tell ourselves that karma will catch up with bad people, or that they’ll be judged by a deity but often we’re looking at their behaviour through a lens.

karma-quote-funnyIt’s easy to see good and bad as black and white but I’m not sure it’s either useful, or helpful, for us to think about the world in that way. To be fair a lot of us recognise the grey area between good and bad but even that has its limits, to really get to grips with the way motivation works we have to understand that few people choose to do something that they themselves truly consider to be bad.

Some people get annoyed with police presence, with surveillance cameras, parking attendants and with other features of an organised society. When you hear someone put the police down or say that they ‘hate’ police officers it can be hard to understand, in some ways it’s easy to assume that they have something to hide or that they have villainous motivations. However, these features of society all include a human element behind them and you can see why someone might be mistrustful of this degree of power being offered to a select group of human beings. Sometimes, with as little as the press of a button, a person’s liberty can be compromised and it seems fair to worry about the type of person standing with their finger on that button.

Supermanredson

You can get it over on play.com

DC comics released a fantastic spin on the Superman storyline called ‘Red Son’ in which Superman’s ship lands in soviet Russia rather than in the good ol’ US of A. Instead of a Kansas farm he grows up on a soviet ‘Kolkhoz’ (collective farm) and joins the communist party to become an upholder of communist ideals (whilst being the antithesis of them at the same time). He helps Russia to take over the world, creating a working (if hyper organised and fairly corrupt) communist world society. The last bastion of freedom (yep, you guessed it, the USA) is headed by president Lex Luthor.

Now Lex Luthor’s mistrust of Superman looks well founded, his efforts to take down the man of steel are understandable, reasonable even. No one man (or woman I should add) should have that much power and Lex Luthor knows it. In essence Lex Luthor becomes the good guy simply thanks to a change in our perspective.

Should I use pretend play as a way of demonstrating not just the ‘greyness’ of morality but also the relative nature of how we judge goodness? Perhaps I’m over-philosophising my parenting again but I can’t help but feel that it’s important for my sons to grow up aware of the fact that people’s motivations for action can differ significantly from their own.

Sometimes it may be very difficult to understand why some people do the things they do and we don’t live in a world where those with darker motivations wander around telling people that they are ‘baddies’, ‘villains’ or ‘evil’. They think they’re doing the right thing, or at the very least they don’t think that what they’re doing is ‘that bad’. If my sons learn anything from me I want it to be that good people can do bad things, bad people sometimes do good things and that often neither type know which one they are.

I’ve a feeling that my ‘baddie’ persona is about to get very interesting. As always thanks for reading and feel free to chat with me over on twitter. Are there any pearls of wisdom that you really hope your children can pick up from you? Do you think the black/white perspective on morality is something that should be maintained through childhood? Are kids unable to recognise the subtlety? Let me know what you think in the comments bellow or (if you can fit your comment into 140 characters or less)¬†pop on over to twitter and get the conversation going, Cheers, John