Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Important things are boring

"I only want beautiful things. Not scary or important things. Important things are boring."

As a philosophy of life, it is worthy of Oscar Wilde, even if it is only Little C's defence of the fact that she responds to almost every advert on Nickelodeon Junior by saying "I want that." The horrible, insidious way in which advertising targets children as young as three is depressing, but Little C's response is surely further evidence that she is a genius.

Every parent, they say, thinks their child is a genius. Actually, they are wrong. I have never seriously thought any such thing. I'm sure every parent is at some point amazed at aspects of their child's development, seeing them grasp something fundamental or exceed expectations mentally or physically. But I have never been one of those parents who views every such occasion as evidence of his child's obvious brilliance.

Still, independent feedback on your child's development is fascinating, so it was with some excitement that we collected Little C's first report from the nursery she attends four afternoons a week. Excitement, but also surprise - I didn't know they got school reports at three, I joked - then I read it and realised that was exactly what we had been given. Except it was a bit more hardcore than the reports I'd got at secondary school.

The report is actually called an 'Early Years Foundations Stage transfer summary' and it is laid out like a job description, assessing Little C against a series of expected competencies. Under headings such as personal, emotional and social development, she is assessed on her ability to get dressed, interact with others, take turns and express her needs and feelings 'appropriately'. For the record, she comes out very well, though apparently the target around communicating freely in a group discussion is one she is still 'working towards'.

For crying out loud, she is three! Has she joined the rat race already? Does she need a course of media training? Are we going to be admonishing her at five because her public speaking skills are still not quite up to scratch?

And while it's sooner than I thought, it seems this is only the beginning. I have heard horror stories of competitive parents at the school gates, mums and dads who do their kids' homework, snipe at others' SATS results and demand ever more homework so their kids get 'every chance' to 'succeed'. Their definition of success doesn't seem to include having a happy, rounded, funny or spirited child. No, the modern parent wants their kid to grow up and become Prime Minister, at very least. We have entered an era in which the whole world is a league table and being a 'responsible' parent means wanting your kid to be top. Coaching has replaced parenting.

I don't blame Little C's nursery, which is a lovely, caring and happy place, for working to national requirements. I blame the arsed up, target-obsessed, crazily competitive modern world we have somehow managed to create over the last 30 years. Thatcher built the league table, New Labour provided the points system. We seem to be determined to take the personality and fun out of everything, to boil everything in life - whether it's a job interview, a holiday, a house sale or a three year old's daily activities in a nursery - down to a series of pre-ordained standards which must be met. 'Success' is defined by these standards alone and success is all that matters. It's like the whole world has turned into a Citizen's fucking Charter.

How do we protect Little C from this madness? We can only do so by telling her just to try her best, be herself, be kind to others and have fun. We will try to explain that the adult world is increasingly insane. We will make it clear that we don't want her to be the Prime Minister, or even the new Oscar Wilde, unless that's what she wants to be. And if she only wants beautiful things in her life, not scary or important ones, then who are to argue?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Red team, yellow cards and blue air

"Daddy, why don't you like the Blues?"
"Well...they've got too much money."
"Why don't you like them because they've got too much money?"
"It means they can get all the best players."
"Why don't you like them if they've got the best players?"

H'mm. This is much tougher than a post-match interview with Guy Mowbray. 'Too much money' could define much of what I don't like about modern football. But a lecture on the essentially anti-competitive nature of the Premier League is perhaps too complex for a three-year old.

The league kicked off again this weekend and despite my aversion to certain elements of post-1992 football, there is still little to beat the beautiful game. And for all the bitter reverse snobbery from fans in lower leagues who talk about their football being somehow more authentic, it is the Premier League - yes, powered by Skyperbole, inflated salaries, ludicrously pampered egos and leech-like agents - that is at the heart of the excitement. The World Cup is an occasional treat, but it's the weekly football calendar that we really love.

I use the Royal 'we' to a degree there - Little C's mum resents its tanks on our (still non existent) lawn - but actually, Little C is something of a fan. Ok, she won't usually sit through 90 minutes of me swearing, but she does take an interest along the lines of "I want Reds to win, like Daddy."

Much of her interest is colour-related. During the World Cup, she insisted on having a Brazil shirt as "yellow and green are my favourite colours". And yesterday, she was interested in yellow cards.

"Well, if a player cheats, the referee shows him a yellow card and writes his name in his little book. And if he cheats again, the referee shows him a red card. That means he's not allowed to play any more and has to go home."
"But what if he lives very far away?"
"Well...he shouldn't cheat, should he?"
"Daddy, that Blue cheated and the referee didn't show him a yellow card!"
Welcome to my world, Little C...we will talk about referees when you are old enough to understand those words that keep escaping when the football is on.

Watching football with Daddy is not always a relaxed experience. Well it is if you're watching the millionaires of Manchester City and their line-up of defensive midfielders playing for a draw at last season's over-achievers, Tottenham. But involve Liverpool and the air can contain a certain tension, with the risk of it turning blue ever-present. Little C was only 18 months when she sat through her first rollercoaster footie match, as Liverpool knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League, beating them 4-2 at Anfield with two late goals. The second of these was scored right at the death by Ryan Babel and it saw me charging down our hallway in celebration. As I turned to complete my lap of honour, I found a hysterical Little C hot on my tail. She ran round and round in circles like a puppy, laughing her little head off. An hour after the game, she was still throwing herself jubilantly at walls. Her Mum had given up all attempts to get her into bed. Actually, she looked ready to give up altogether at the idea there were now two of us.

Aside from the colours and tensions which seem to have made her an armchair fan (like I am, sadly, these days), Little C also likes to play the game. The rules are simple - we both have to wear our football shirts, we make a net out of a blanket hung over a chair and then we "have lots of fun" - which basically seems to mean we chase the ball round the living room very fast and try to kick it in the net. Perhaps the ego-maniacs we spend too much time watching could learn something from us.

So, my predictions for the season? Liverpool to be better than last year, but probably still not as good as they ought to be. One of the overspending Blue teams to win the Premier League - anyone but Manchester United overtaking our haul of titles. And Little C to continue to put the tiresome pundits to shame with logical questions which make me wonder why we all bother so much about it.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Are you sitting comfortably?

"Why are the ugly sisters mean to Cinderella?"
"Oh, I think maybe they're jealous because she is prettier than them."
"But I'm pretty and no-one is mean to me."

Ah, the innocence of childhood...I am torn between thinking it is lovely that no-one is mean to Little C and feeling sad that at some point, someone will be. It is also inevitable, I suppose, that if you continually tell a child how pretty they are, they will accept it just as they accept that trees are green. There is no hint of vanity here, just as there isn't when she says "Let me look in the mirror so I can see how sweet I look." Or maybe there is, but it doesn't matter in the slightest at her age - such pride in her own loveliness will soon be ground down by the harsh rules of how we live. Let her enjoy being the most gorgeous thing in the world for the time being.

Little C so rejected the concept of people being nasty as a result of jealousy that Cinderella now sits at the bottom of her very large pile of books. It may well make a recovery in years to come, but as things stand, it could turn into a pumpkin for all she cared. And this is not just because she finds the subject matter hard to believe - she is happy to read The Gruffalo ad infinitum or to accept that the three pigs built houses to live in. Gritty social realism is not essential to her. No, there was something about the concept of the ugly sisters' cruelty that made her uncomfortable...maybe I am naive and she has already encountered unkindness for its own sake or maybe she just finds the whole idea beyond the pale.

On occasion, she actually asks me to remonstrate with characters in books. "Tell the snake off," she insisted during The Gruffalo recently. It's nice to speculate that she still likes to believe that reason will always win the day and make people behave better - though such a perception is nullified by those occasions when reason is the one thing she won't listen to.

If Little C has such a thing as a favourite writer, it would have to be Julia Donaldson, author of the afore-mentioned Gruffalo books and other fabulous stories such as Room on the Broom, Stick Man and Monkey Puzzle, which Little C currently considers the most hilarious story in the history of time.

It tells the story of a monkey which has lost its Mum and enlists the help of a frankly useless butterfly to find her. Having already suggested snakes, parrots, spiders, frogs and others might be the missing parent, the butterfly finally brought our house down when it took the frustrated monkey to an elephant for the second time. The book's explanation that the hapless butterfly's children bear no resemblance to it cut little ice - the butterfly is firmly denounced as an "ejit" (if she's picking up my putdowns, I will have to watch my language). The following day, we are walking down the street when she starts giggling. "I'm still thinking about that butterfly," she explains.

It is fascinating to see Little C so engrossed in fiction, especially books. She reflects later on what we have read and usually manages to fit in a few 'why' questions - like why Goldilocks runs away - I mean, what would you do if you woke up to find three furious bears looming over you? I can also recall discussing the various personalities of Peppa Pig's family in Carluccio's in Richmond, much to the amusement of other lunchers.

The things we value in ourselves we love to see in our children. I love the fact that Little C has an imagination and a sense of humour. Few traits matter as much as those two - not in terms of 'going far' whatever that means - just in terms of having the capacity to enjoy yourself. At the moment, she has that in spades and it's fabulous.