Children and power

superman and the flash duke it outWhy is it so important to be the ‘fastest’, the ‘strongest’, etc. etc.? It’s a question I’m asking myself more and more now that my two are hitting that wonderful ‘isn’t it fun to hit my brother’ stage. I understand that competitiveness is to be encouraged but sometimes it seems genuinely nonsensical. I’ve had squabbles over who can fly the highest (basically bound by the laws of imagination; i.e. infinite) and other utter insanity that I just can’t get my head around. So again (and again) I find myself asking myself, why is it so important to them?

Ordinarily I can get myself into my kids’ shoes fairly easily, despite the fact that so much of their play makes no ‘real-world’ sense, there’s normally some internal logic to it. However, this imaginary one-upmanship looks like nothing more than an exercise in futility to me.

At the start of Toy Story, Andy has the toys duke it out in this kind of competition but the key thing is that his imaginings stop after about two rounds (basically because there’s only one child playing):

“I brought my attack dog with the built-in force field.
Well, I brought my dinosaur who eats force-field dogs.”

The story is alarmingly, brain-achingly, different with two children in the mix. Thankfully I’ve had a dry spell of this for the past few weeks but there isn’t a doubt in my mind that the spectre of the debate over ‘strongest’/ ‘fastest’/’furthest’/’most immune to damage’ etc. etc. returns.

It will no doubt start along the lines of “well I’m lava proof!…well I’m as hot as the sun!…”well I’m sun-proof!…” and it will degenerate (along with my sanity) from there.

Is it just me that get’s utterly sick to the back teeth of this or are there others out there with a similar dread for what I call the pretend-power arms-race? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below. As always thanks 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

When parents stop being heroes

The IncrediblesNow don’t freak out, I’m not sitting judging every customer who comes into the shop but I do notice trends in the kinds of things people buy and I can’t help but notice a slow change in the kinds of toys children are asking for. A common theme that still comes up when children are choosing toys is that a lot of them like get toys to do with a parent’s job. The strange thing I’ve noticed (and the topic of this post) is that this trend is waning, from an earlier and earlier age children are less inclined towards the traditional hero-worship of their parents’ jobs.

BamBamFirst off the job thing has probably been done since little Ug junior got a club just like his daddy’s and went through a stone-aged world trying to bop unsuspecting pre-historic creatures on the head. Nowadays there are more subtleties, I’d imagine, in the kind of jobs parents do. For years the definitions and responsibilities of different jobs have been changing, there are new technology-based jobs that never existed before and a growing industry of information processing and content creation which make it harder for parents working in these fields to explain their job to their child. When this happens you either find that the child ends up mimicking a simplified idea of what their parent(s) do for a living or they give up on the whole thing and get into superheroes and other non-ordinary characters (like Barbie and characters from cartoon shows).

This is before you even get into how exciting or boring the parent’s overall job is. I work in a toy shop, exciting right? Well yes, sometimes, the toys are exciting but I’m not sure how exciting they find the shop work so when my kids get tired of playing shops they’ve got a mummy that works in a swimming pool, a grampa who’s a farmer and another grampa who’s a ‘fixer’ (my dad ran a handy-man company then went into fixing up properties). Out of all of these my kids are pretty much sorted for emulating jobs but when families that have more unusual/difficult to explain jobs come into the shop I have to admit you see a lot more super heroes and other fantasy jobs getting looked at.

I can’t help but wonder what this feels like for these parents. These parents probably emulated jobs as kids but now their own jobs are so hard to define that their children just give up on the early-years hero-worship of their parents’ profession and plunge right into the avengers, frozen, spider-man, batman, disney prinesses etc. etc.

the thinkerI had a small taster of how difficult job explanation can be when I was doing research for my MPhil. Back then Logan was only four and he just didn’t get what I was writing about. He often got upset when daddy had to go to the library to write for the day or when I had to head through and teach in Edinburgh. Far from something he wanted to emulate, for the most part I think he kind of resented my work. There were of course times when he would sit at his toy laptop and do his ‘writing’, he clearly wanted to understand what I was spending my time doing, he’d often choose to do his ‘writing’ when I was working at home. I loved it when he did this,  but at the same time his interest would wander and fairly quickly he’d be back to being a zoo-keeper, an animal doctor or a palaeontologist. The thing was, even if he managed to understand the nature of my work, at the end of the day it just wasn’t very exciting.

Perhaps that’s the tricky point so many parents are having to deal with, underneath all the difficult explanation lies a job that is quite simply boring (at least in the eyes of the average pre-schooler). With this in mind perhaps it’s better leaving a hint of mystery around what they do for a living, at least the mystery itself can make the job seem a little more exciting.

Do you have an unusual job, or just one that’s hard to explain to your kids? How have you gone about describing it to them, do they try to emulate it? Feel free to share in the comments area below, chat to me over on twitter or if you’re feeling particularly nice you can subscribe to get e-mailed my new blog posts as and when they come out (box off to the right). As always thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Everything you know will change!

the knock crieff den wooden structures forestIt gets pretty repetitive hearing people tell you that having children makes you look at the world around you in a different way, to be honest this is so well recognised that it’s hardly worth saying. However, one thing you don’t expect is for your children to change the way you look at the town you live in. For those of you who don’t know, I live in a medium sized town in Perthshire, in Scotland, called Crieff.

Having kids has made this whole familiar town change before my eyes. It’s not so much seeing the town through the eyes of a child, I’ve lived here since I was seven years old (with a break of about four years when I left for Uni) so I’ve already seen it through the eyes of a child and an adolescent. I don’t think any teenager is able to find redeeming qualities in the place they grew up, to be honest when I was that age I never wanted to see the place again. I think the main difference in the way I look at Crieff now is that things that I’ve grown accustomed to are surprisingly exciting to my kids, whilst things that I find unusual and different sometimes have no effect on them. And then there’s little things that surprise and entertain us all.

Not all that long ago I started using the hashtag #awesomecrieff on Twitter to highlight things that I was doing with the kids or things that just stood out as highlights of Crieff. Trust me the teenaged John would have been shocked and appalled that I could ever find anything ‘awesome’ about this little town. Nonetheless, the more time I spend looking for positive things about this little place the easier it’s becoming for me to find them.

Mole's house Lady Mary's walk Crieff PerthshireThe first thing that comes to mind is the creativity and slight rebelliousness of the people that live here. I’ve posted about ‘Mole’s House’ before (a tree which has been customised and decorated to provide a perfect home for ‘Mole’ down in Crieff’s Lady Mary’s Walk). However, this is by no means the full extent of creativity to be found, I’ve lost count of the amount of small dens that we’ve found in various wooded areas around the town, but by far the most impressive so far is one that Hazel and the boys found up the Knock (the name given to the big hill upon which a large portion of Crieff is built). Apparently there was room for the three of them to sit in the den’s provided seating fairly comfortably (you can find a picture at the start of this post). There’s no way of knowing who creates these little houses but this one really stands out, so far they win the prize of Crieff’s best den (I’m not sure what the prize is but whatever it is they win it).

wpid-imag0578_1.jpgThere’s plenty of ‘official’ creativity to come across too, we’ve had June McEwen’s Highland Cow installation (now replaced by a Highland Calf) which the boys liked to pretend was going to charge after us when we passed it on our way home from the shops (was always a good way to hurry them home anyway). The cow is only June’s most recent addition, she also provided the driving force behind the ‘Crieff Arts Festival’ which was on last week, and a number of years ago she also painted some bustling barflies on the boarded up windows of an old pub at the far end of the high street, the boys were intrigued by these strange characters but probably (thankfully) didn’t get what they were all up to. We have a whole host of local artists in Crieff but along with June one of our art institutions has to be Pedro, who is an artist/photographer/caricaturist who often turns up at local events and draws caricatures of kids and adults (we’ve even seen him up at Crieff Hydro a couple of times).

wpid-imag0615.jpgIt’s probably part of being a parent that you start looking for things that will entertain your children, some of the things scattered around our little town might not have stood out to the boys if Hazel and I didn’t spot them first and the same goes the other way. Maybe the transformation in the way I look at things now comes from not just looking at what the world has to offer me (as I think we all do as children, to an extent) but what it has to offer my children. This occurs through almost everything I do but it’s perhaps most unusual and most noticeable when this ‘parent’s eye’ is aimed at the domestic, the familiar and the everyday of the town where I grew up.

Have you had any familiar places change before your eyes since becoming a parent? Is there anything you miss from before you developed ‘parent eyes’? (e.g. seeing a fancy restaurant and not immediately imagining restless children and temper tantrums, or looking into a lovely open fireplace, watching the flames dance and the logs glow and not thinking ‘Oh my God! Hazard! Where’s the fire-guard? Dow we even need a fire on?’) As always comments are more than welcome and I love to catch up with anyone who reads my blog over on twitter. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Stop tantrums dead in their tracks!

This epic 'Baby Hulk' is by Carlos Sastre Antoranz

This epic ‘Baby Hulk’ is by Carlos Sastre Antoranz

Want your child to stop screaming for what they want? Simple, just give them it! Want them to stop complaining about being somewhere they don’t like? Simple, just take them where they want to go. No one wants to sit through some speech or other when they could be at the park or the cinema anyway, it’s a win win, and the best part is you can use your kid as an excuse. It’s exhausting constantly fighting over issues with your kids, not to mention stressful. Just take the strain off, lower your blood pressure, put your feet up and give in. Conflict isn’t for families anyway, surely it’s better just to keep everyone happy.

What’s the alternative anyway? Say no to even the most reasonable request just so that your kids know who the ‘boss’ is? and boss of what? (we could add) Families aren’t businesses with a product or service to sell, they don’t have to worry about beating last years performance/revenue. Why would a family need a boss? On top of that, two-parent/carer families would have to have two bosses and that can’t go well as there’s no guarantee they’ll always agree.

step-brothersI should point out that the unfortunate side-effect of the first option is a very high set of expectations, but it seems more appealing than the potential side effects of option two including a lack of drive and individual motivation in the absence of being told what to do and the increased risk of members resigning from ‘Family inc.’ when they tire of towing the party line. I mean, kids brought up via method one might be spoiled beyond belief but at least they’ll never want to leave right? Like they won’t want to leave ever, it’s great, you can fix up the attic/basement and make them a little home of their own.

Happily, we all typically pick a spot somewhere in the middle of these two extremes and with any luck our kids won’t run away from home, turn into mindless drones, or end up lodging with us through our retirement. That said, we still have this gruelling problem of tantrums: how do we deal with this unreasonable, high pitched audio visual attack? Do we just ‘pick our battles’ and give in occasionally? How do we decide which time is best to give in? and how far do we give in when we do?

The short answer is that it’ll be different for every kid and every parent. The long answer is that there is another way, I’ve seen a lot of meltdowns in my line of work and one of the most effective ways of dealing with tantrums is not to let them happen in the first place. There are parents among us who have developed the uncanny ability to foresee tantrums and take the wind out their sails before they even get started. I have to admit I’m not always one of these kinds of parents, my two have both had their share of public meltdowns, hell some of you reading this may even have had the pleasure of experiencing one. I’ve met a number of these hyper-aware parents but here’s just one example.

professor-xThere’s a dad that comes into the shop fairly regularly with his son, the boy must be about 7 or 8 years old now but they’ve been coming in for a few years and in that time I have never, and I mean never, seen the boy have a tantrum. One of the key things I’ve noticed about the two of them is a mutual respect and a willingness on the dad’s part to be clear, explanatory and reasonable with his son. He’s clear about why they’ll be going into the toy shop (I can hear him at the door), he listens to his son and responds positively to reasoned arguments for things to buy. I should point out that by ‘positive response’ I don’t mean he instantaneously rewards good arguments with a toy, but he does acknowledge a good point well made. Probably the key thing that I’ve noticed about their interactions is that the boy understands that a shopping trip is not all about acquiring stuff for himself, sometimes it’s not even going to lead to any purchases. In short, his expectations are set pretty low and he seems genuinely pleased with even the smallest occasional purchase.

A seven or eight year old is a far cry from a toddler (or worse still a three-year-old) but I can even see this working (in a diminished sense) with younger kids. The key issue on top of the responsiveness and reasonableness will be figuring out the time of day to expect their reasoning to be at it’s highest (i.e. not at nap time/snack time/after exertion/any time their mood is generally off kilter), for a lot of young kids the window of reasonability is small though, so to be perfectly honest your best bet may be a set of ear plugs (and some to pass round to other shoppers).

Have you found an effective way of avoiding these experiences of high conflict? Do you think they’re just an unavoidable aspect of parenthood? Have you been through this and reached the other side? What’s it like over there? Is there anything you would have done differently, looking back? As always, answers and comments are welcome below and I’m always up for a blether about toys, life and people over on twitter. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing your views, all the best, John

3 Good Reasons to Lie to your Kid

wpid-imag0611_1.jpgIs there ever an excuse to lie to your kids? Of course there is! However when it comes to fairy stories and ideas about magic Richard Dawkins has said on a number of occasions that fantasy might (and I emphasise he says might) lead to supernaturalism. Lets just leave to one side whether ‘supernaturalism’ really is something to be feared, and instead concentrate on Dawkins’ assumption that we somehow brainwash our children and remove their capacity for scepticism by exposing them to fairy stories. Whilst I see where he’s coming from, I just don’t see his argument holding water. Dawkins has been quoted as saying: “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?”

I’m actually inclined to think that fantasy and scepticism are far from the apparently opposing perspectives that Dawkins paints them out to be. In fact I think more exposure to fantasy can allow children to gain a greater understanding of the difference between fairy tales and things that are real. Logan loves superheroes but he knows they’re not real, he likes the idea that there might be fairies but I can see the doubt in there somewhere too. Without these props to exercise my scepticism as a child I’m not sure what kind of world-view I would have right now, but I’m pretty certain I’d be more caught up in dogma in some form or other.

There are many great reasons to lie to your kids in some form or other but here are just three that I think actually do them some good in the long run:

1. To provide a hint of the fantastical in their world. The fantastical builds up imagination, it bolsters creativity and allows children to develop the skills required for thinking outside the box. This all seems pretty positive to me. Angelina Jolie certainly seems to belong to the same camp on this score.

wpid-imag0612_burst001_1.jpg2. To keep their innocence alive. This is probably the weakest of the arguments I’m putting forward here but I’ll still hold on to it. For example, when asked where babies come from we of course tell our kids the basics (with ‘seeds’ and ‘eggs’ galore) but often we include ‘when two people love each other very much’. We want our children to think that everyone they play with comes from love (I’m sorry for being a little mushy here but it feels necessary). You aim your children at a fantasy but lay in hope that it becomes reality.

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that a portion (I’ve no idea what quantities) of the children that my kids play with resulted from more complicated emotions than love but I don’t want to complicate my kids’ friendships with them by letting them in on an issue that is extremely complex, and may be difficult for them to understand (and easy for them to misinterpret) at the moment. Sadly this amounts to an argument for ‘ignorance is bliss’ but I think that, to an extent, children are one of the only groups on the planet who can really take advantage of ignorance and they should enjoy it whilst they have the chance. We can expose them to the more varied and colourful aspects of reality as they become more mature and can better understand the subtleties of human emotion and behaviour.

3. To make them feel comfortable about testing authority. This last reason for lying is by far the best. When I was a child my dad used to tell me blatant nonsense with a straight face and even re-assert his point if I called him on it. He knew exactly what he was doing. It may have been aggrieving, to say the least, but it pushed me to come up with better and more persuasive arguments to prove his obvious nonsense wrong. I do the same thing to my kids, I challenge them, I’ll push nonsense as far as I can to the point where they feel comfortable calling me on every detail of the nonsense with which they’re being presented. Far from dulling a capacity to ask questions and challenge the ideas put forward to them, I’d say that this particular kind of lying can sharpen your child’s wits and make them more than happy to call someone out (anyone out) when they fail to persuade them with an argument (one would hope this would work for advertising too).

Am I wrong, is it ‘always’ wrong to lie? Is fantasy dangerous or is it to be cherished? Do more adults need to open themselves up to fantasy? Can there be ways of honing an assertive scepticism in children without lying? As always I’m really glad you stopped by here, and I welcome any comments you feel like sharing below. Please feel free to have a nosey around at my other posts and follow me on twitter if you’d like to have a blether about toys, life and people, Cheers, John

Skully and the story fire

wpid-imag0603_burst002_1.jpgIf you’re looking for a good way to get inside your kids minds then you’d be hard pushed to find something as good as story-telling. Just sit them down and tell them a story (it honestly doesn’t have to be great) then once your turn is over pass the story-telling duties on to your child. It’s amazing to hear some of the things they come out with, whilst listening to just one story develop you can see the beginnings of a witty sense of humor whilst at the same time get an idea of what their worst fears are/might be rooted in.

I don’t do this every night with the boys or anything but it’s good to throw it in on a night where everyone’s kind of been doing their own thing (TV/games/solitary play/housework). You just put a half hour to an hour to one side and use storytelling as a means of touching base and feeling connected and listened to.

wpid-imag0605_burst006_1.jpgThere’s of course the issue of siblings interrupting with their own ideas of what should happen with each others’ stories and this is where I bring in props. Typically we use the ‘story fire’, this is a simple little battery powered fire that Logan got in a Playmobil  caveman set. The great thing about this one is that the fire starts to dim on a timer so you can limit how long each turn takes to save siblings getting bored, plus it puts a fire under your butt to get something good out quick. (You could of course use a large egg timer or something similar to provide the same effect as the ‘story fire’)

Another prop we use is ‘Skully’ (no connection to the X Files), the difference with Skully is that he can talk, so the boys can experiment with voices and make him into a narrator-type-character or simply use him as a participant in their story-telling. Skully has developed into a character who likes to talk about ‘spooky stuff’ (which gives me a wee insight into what makes my boys scared) and he also likes to add comic elements to a story.

I’ll admit that I contributed to this persona but it’s really fun to see the boys experimenting with humour, and especially fun watching them attempt to emulate some of the darker humour that Skully sometimes demonstrates when he’s helping me tell the story.

Have any of you experimented with story telling as a means of getting kids talking and expressing their thoughts/fears/sense of humour? I’ve found the story fire and Skully to be great ways of letting my kids feel heard and giving us all a chance to be creative and have some fun together. Have you come across any other ways to help kids feel heard? As always I welcome any comments you have and don’t forget you can keep up with this blog (or just chat about toys) by popping over to twitter and following me there, thanks for reading, Cheers, John