Friday, February 25, 2011

The parent and child phrasebook

So-called experts in childcare love to talk about communication.

Watch Supernanny and she's always on about getting down on the floor - as if she knows how my knees feel after five hours' sleep and a school run - to get eye-level with some sprog and have a meaningful chat that will ensure a perfect relationship.

But that assumes she can understand the replies. Just as Britain and America are separated by a common language, so are adults and children. What is the little gremlin burbling on about?

Well, six bored people on the internet, you are in luck. I'm here to translate for you.

Social interaction

Child says: "I'm bored."

Translation: "Buy me stuff. Make it like Christmas. Take me to a play centre and a toy shop and a sweetshop and spend all your money on me. Throw me up into the air and catch me until I'm bruised and crying. Give me every second of your time and the last, miniscule grain of your sanity."

The parent's correct response: "Go and play."
Or you could pretend to be dead.

Fine dining

Child says: "I'm hungry."

Translation: "I know there are biscuits, sweeties and possibly cake somewhere in the house. You've hidden them so you can eat them when I'm asleep. I know this because of that time I burst into the room late at night, crying and covered in wee. If I nag you often enough, you will give me the precious, wonderful sugar. If you don't, that's okay. I'll just ask you again 14 seconds from now."

Response: "I will boil some broccoli for you."
(This should be followed by an evil cackle. Stroke your goatee, if you have one.)

Cultural pursuits

Child says: "I want to watch cartoons."

Translation: "I want to watch mind-numbing children's television for the entire day, until the entire household has a perfect recollection of every word of every episode of Peppa Pig and Daddy has a headache that would floor a horse. Then I want to watch some more."

Response: "The TV is broken."
(When your child is old enough to spot a lie, you may need to back this up by putting a golf club through the screen. It's a small price to pay.)

The natural world

Child says: "Today I saw a leaf and it was brown but sometimes yellow do you know any more vegetables everyone at nursery likes vegetables but some don't and I like them except sometimes when I don't but I did a jigsaw and there was a piece missing and it was under the chair and I saw a leaf!"

Translation: "Hello, Daddy."

Response: "Kill meeeee."
(Muttered under your breath, to avoid unnecessary mental trauma for your offspring.)

Health and wellbeing

Child says: "I need a wee."

Translation: "I've been needing a wee for the last hour but was too caught up with some ludicrous game so didn't bother to go. Now I'm so desperate to urinate that I'm holding it in with my hands and getting spasms in my bladder area. I would run to the toilet but I have to take very small steps so I don't wee everywhere. Please save me from myself."


So, good luck, parents. One day your children will be old enough to leave home, and your shattered lives will improve. No, you won't understand them then, either.

Just remember to change the locks.

Friday, February 18, 2011

When snappy happy turns to snap sad

In this digital, gadget-obsessed age, we're never far from a camera.

When I started out as a journalist, it was all about rolls of film, photo labs filled with strange metallic smells and a lengthy wait to find out if your thumb was in front of the lens. Any thought of making moving images meant you needed three people and a stuffed rabbit on a stick.

Now, however, everybody's more well-equipped than professional photographers and cameramen used to be, with the ability to capture images and share them with millions - all within seconds and using a device that fits in your palm.

That should be heaven for parents, who have long been the most snap-happy creatures on Earth. I have many memories of standing, trying to hold a sickening parody of a grin, in front of some landmark I'd never heard of while a parent called, "Hold it! Just one more!" No, I'm not going to post the results.

Here in this fabulous future, we have the ability to shoot dozens, hundreds, thousands of pictures of our children now at no cost per image, and we can even film them and put them on the TV. But of course it's not as simple as that. First we have to persuade the little devils to stand still.

Oh, it's easy at first. Early on, they can't run away:

Big sister Rose holds newborn Max. Note how we got her to sit still by cleverly weighing her down with a baby.

Pretty quickly, however, they develop an uncanny ability to dash off at exactly the moment the shutter - or digital equivalent - clicks.

This is Rose. I think.

To my knowledge, this ability is limited to children. They have an uncanny sense for the exact instant that a camera is about to click, whatever the settings on that camera. Many's the time I've let out a howl of horror and pain as a perfect, angelic photograph suddenly turns into a twisted parody of a human form because the child has seen something much more interesting across the room.

SQUIRREL! That sort of thing.

(Come to think of it, this ability is shared by one adult, and one adult only: the Princess Royal. Yes, Her Majesty's eldest child may look kind of severe but Princess Anne's kept the childlike quality of turning away from a camera just as a poor, tired photographer tries to grab the picture he knows his editor will love. She's legendary for it and she's the only royal who does it. It makes covering royal visits pretty funny - but only for reporters.)

The magic eye and its eerie powers

There are ways to control a child long enough to take a photograph.

There are threats. I won't post the product of this idea but of course it's rarely pretty. There tend to be tears - and often snot - sooner or later.

There are bribes:

This is cheating, and not recommended unless you want their smiles to suffer.

There's distraction by television:

This is also cheating. It also involves Zingzillas and is therefore evil.

And there is waiting until they are asleep:

When, frankly, you have better things to do.

Sadly, like everything in parenting, there are no easy solutions. More accurately, there are some easy solutions but they're not a good idea. If you nail their shoes to the floor you'll only end up with a photograph of a grumpy child, some holes in the floor and a ticking off from the wife.

The end result, like so many things, is to turn into your own parents.

"Oh, stand still! This is supposed to be fun! Why can't you look like you're having fun? Smile! I said SMILE!"


Friday, February 11, 2011

Children's television: rotting the brains of adults for 60 years

We all have happy memories of sitting down, Splicer and Pola Cola in hand, to enjoy the television of our childhoods.

All I have to do is list the names: Mr Ben, Bagpuss, the Clangers, Trumpton and the Magic Roundabout, and already - if you're about the same age as I am - you're grinning like a loon. Remember when you felt safe and warm, and didn't have a mortgage? Yes, it's a nice feeling.

So it's an easy step to assume that now, as parents, we're building similar memories in our children. That's why it's a little difficult to accept that children's TV is now a bizarre, mind-boggling mess. I hate it all, and here's why.

Where are my Christmas cards, you smug sod?

A rose-tinted spectacle

In these days of wall-to-wall television, piped directly into our eyeballs by wealthy Australians, the choice for children is bewildering.

Rich, colourful, cleverly-designed programming is everywhere, all the time, and if you want to see some, just punch Daddy in the crotch three or four times and he'll switch it on.

Or you can grab the TV remote yourself, and press random buttons until something loud and annoying needs to be corrected. It all works.

To complicate matters, we live in a nanny state where - thanks to the internet becoming a rabid, mutated version of Points of View - television companies aren't allowed to make a profit from children unless they're educating them at the same time. Huge amounts of money and time are invested in studying how beneficial or damaging it is for a toddler to hear "Eh oh!" a couple of hundred times a day.

Then experts write reports that parents don't bother to read because the damn kettle's on and it's either tea now or whisky later.

Character assassination

Let's start with an easy target: the Zingzillas.

Here they are:

From left: Sarah Jane from Mighty Mites, the simple one, er, the blue one and the idiot in a hat. Not shown: various groupies and drug dealers.

The story is that the Zingzillas are musical apes who live on an island with various other creepy post-apocalyptic mutations.

Every day they welcome guest musicians - who have included Dame Evelyn Glennie and James Galway - and present a "Big Zing" show which is always "the best Big Zing ever". Always. Every time.

I understand the need to encourage children to be active, and the healthy benefits of a musical education, but I cannot accept this is the best way to go about it.

Apparently, somebody's taken a nuclear test site and dropped a bunch of brain-damaged hippies on it, so they can watch them become more and more physically twisted and detached from reality, performing each day in a sad, deserted auditorium. That's just cruel.

Also, I've seen every episode in rotation, over and over, and would now like to detonate another nuclear device on Zingzillas Island, please.

More magical than a roundabout

But there's worse than that around. At least the Zingzillas mostly speak in words. This lot don't even bother:

Clockwise from top left: the pink one, the purple rabbit, the one with ears that would get you very bullied at school and the other one.

Hi-hi! Yes, it's the inexplicable alien creatures my son is obsessed with. It's Waybuloo.

This lot are downright weird. As far as I can tell, they're some sort of animal kingdom yoga teachers who do magic with the aid of some very cheap-looking wind chimes. Occasionally, they kidnap children and force them to carry out strange tasks for them, such as searching a plastic garden for poorly-hidden items.

Sooner or later, the main characters will float around, all the time talking in pidgin English that the children have been brainwashed to understand.

I realise that I'm ranting now, but I seriously doubt the weirdoes of Waybuloo are a valuable part of society. Do they have jobs? Certainly not. Do they pay tax? Highly unlikely. Is their teaching programme accredited by the Yoga Association? That's unclear.

Yeah, I've seen a lot of Waybuloo, too. Let's move on.

What's the story with this lot?

Arguably, animated characters might get away with being strange and alien, but what's the excuse when you're a real, live person?

Did you really go to RADA for this? You poor fools.

This is Balamory, the Scottish seaside town with colour-coded houses and a population which likes to sing and dance around the streets before the pubs are even closed.

There's PC Plum, the UK's least-effective police officer. It's lucky he never has any crime to deal with, because every time he encounters a problem he seeks help from the children in the local nursery.

There's Edie McCreadie, probably the most easily-distracted driver in Scotland. How she keeps her licence when she's too busy singing to look at the road ahead is a mystery.

There's Spencer, some sort of dropout who wanders the streets looking for things to paint. Perhaps it's some government scheme.

There's Josie Jump, who needs to change her medication.

And there's my favourite, Archie. With his English accent and unnecessary kilt, he spends his days making pointless things out of eggboxes and talking to people in a very slow but terribly nice way. He is possibly the most true-to-life example of a Scottish laird on television today.

Children love Balamory but, as far as I can tell, its main benefit is to teach them to be accepting of the mentally ill.

Just be quiet and eat your string soup

Those are just three examples of the bizarre tosh that we serve our children and call entertainment.

There is, of course, one important similarity: its purpose. Oh, much may be made of the opportunities for children's learning and development, but we know the truth: TV is a distraction to keep parents sane. As I've said before, we all start out with good intentions but, sooner or later, a child's tantrum will send us reaching for the remote.

But does it really have to be such utter nonsense? Can't we get back to sensible tales of sleepy stuffed cats, pointy-nosed aliens and magical costume shops?

My own childhood favourite remains Jamie and the Magic Torch:

Ah, what memories. Jamie's torch would open the magical helter skelter to Cuckoo Land, where his dog could talk and Officer Gotcha ate his own truncheon.

TV production companies these days need to stop making nonsensical programmes get back to traditional, wholesome stuff like that.