Aspie Daddy Hiatus

I have some news about the future of this blog. After lengthy consideration, the conclusions to which I will share below, I have made the decision to place Aspie Daddy into hibernation.

First, I would like to thank all the people who have read my blog over the years, and those who have commented. Your kind words and thoughts, your advice and perspectives, have given me immeasurable support over what has been a very trying time in my personal life. That total strangers could come to care about me and my family through my writing is proof that, despite some bad apples, most people are fundamentally good, decent human beings who approach the world with compassion and sensitivity.

When I started writing this blog, it was to convey the realities of family life when you’re on the Autism Spectrum. I wanted an outlet for my thoughts on parenting, a record of the weird and wonderful that you’re often too busy to place in your memory, and a safe space where I could express the difficulties I faced as a parent with an ASD. Mostly, I wanted to help people in a similar situation, and I thought that writing openly and honestly was the best way to humanise and de-stigmatise people such as myself.

Looking back over this blog in recent weeks, I realised that alongside the usual vignettes of family life and rants about everyday annoyances, I had documented something else – something hidden between the lines that I only made explicit in my final few posts. I will never regret my honesty in writing these things, but honesty can make you vulnerable at a time when you need to be strong.

This blog is no longer a safe space. It is no longer a place I can discuss my thoughts about family life, parenting, and having an Autism Spectrum Disorder in an open and honest manner, without fear of repercussion and reprisal. Therefore, until such a time as it is once again safe to do so, I will not be writing any more posts on Aspie Daddy.

Thank you for your understanding.

Gillan

The true meaning of Easter

Somewhere along the way, people have forgotten the true meaning of Easter. Despite all the people complaining online, it’s not about chocolate eggs and family get-togethers, lying in the sun or walking along the beach. Nor is it about going to church to sing, take communion and pray. It is literally about sacrifice – sacrifice to save others. And there is no greater message we need at this time.

Whether or not you believe that Jesus was the son of God, the entire basis of the Christian festival is that an innocent man allowed himself to be executed in a pretty nasty way in order to save people he had never met. For all the bad things done in the name of religion, and all the bile flung at it these days by secular society, it’s pretty hard to argue that the message of Jesus is anything other than good.

He said that, when struck, we should turn the other cheek; we should judge not, lest we be judged; we should do unto others as we’d have them do unto us; and we should love our neighbours as ourselves. How is this anything other than an instruction to be a nice, decent, compassionate and caring member of society? Going to the cross was the ultimate expression of that regard, giving up his life and his blood to help others.

While not a Christian myself, I was raised as one and I still try to follow the Golden Rule of treating others how I’d wish to be treated myself. It forms the hard nugget at the centre of my core values, beliefs and attitudes. It’s the reason I believe that, whatever the rights and wrongs of immigration, people in leaky boats ought to be rescued; that any military force that can describe civilians as ‘collateral damage’ has lost the moral high ground; and that if not seeing our families is what it takes to save lives during this coronavirus crisis, it’s what we have to do.

It’s also the reason I gave blood on Good Friday.

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I’m not a normal blood donor, however – I’m a platelet donor. Platelets, or thrombocytes, are little yellow discs carried in your blood that join together to create clots, vital in the healthy functioning of your circulatory system to stop cuts from bleeding externally and blood vessels from leaking internally, and to heighten your immune response. Essentially, people with leukaemia or lymphoma, those with transplanted organs, those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer or suffering kidney dysfunction, those who have suffered burns and those who lose massive amounts of blood from trauma, need transfusions of platelets or else they’ll die.

Unlike whole blood, which lasts about a month in a refrigerator, or red cells, which can be frozen for ten years and defrosted when needed, platelets only last seven days. That’s why you need a continual chain of platelet donors donating every day, or else the supply runs out and people die.

Unfortunately, not everyone can donate platelets because in order to do so you need:

  1. A high platelet count.
  2. A vein capable of delivering and receiving blood under pressure.
  3. A tolerance for the anticoagulant.
  4. Two spare hours every 2-4 weeks.

There are 12,000 of us in the UK, or one for every 100 blood donors, meaning that at times like this, we’re especially in demand. On the plus side, one donation can save three adults or up to twelve children. On the down side, it isn’t the most comfortable of procedures.

The process, called apheresis, starts with around five minutes extracting your blood into a centrifuge which separates out the platelets, then you go into a cycle of thirty seconds draw (where it extracts more platelet-rich blood) and thirty seconds return (where it pumps platelet-free blood back into you). Along the way, if you’re up to it, it also extracts plasma, the liquid component of blood, so you end up with a bunch of bags filled with what looks like melted butter. It takes somewhere between sixty and ninety minutes to complete the procedure, before it spends a final five minutes pumping the blood that’s left in the machine back into your arm.

The discomfort isn’t the size of the needle – though the needle is fairly big, and a month ago they missed my vein and stuck it straight into a nerve, which hurt like hell – but various other factors. The anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing makes your lips and tongue tingle, which can be unpleasant, and after forty-five minutes you can get pretty restless and claustrophobic knowing you’re stuck there for another forty-five watching your blood flow back and forth. Also, the first few returns before the machine has warmed up, the blood coming back into you is cold, which is a weird sensation. And if you’re squeamish, there’s really nowhere to hide – you have three tubes coming out of your arm (one drawing, one returning, and one with the anticoagulant).

But saving lives was never so easy. An hour and a half watching Netflix on your tablet, with nurses bringing you coffee and chocolate biscuits? It’s hardly stretcher bearers in No Man’s Land at the Somme, is it? Yet in four years, with a bit of time off because of hospital stuff, I’ve saved 75 adults or 300 children – enough to populate an entire primary school.

That is the true spirit of Easter – sacrificing your time, your comfort, even your blood, to save people you have never met nor likely ever will. It’s sending out positivity into the world, knowing it will do good. And it’s something we can all achieve simply by staying at home.

That’s why I cannot condone or understand people going off to visit their families today of all days.

The grossest of the gross

Something happened last night that almost made me vomit. Something utterly disgusting. Something that means I will never look at my dog the same way again.

The kids had finished playing in the garden, so I sent them inside, telling them to get their mother to shower the dirt off their legs and feet before bedtime. I then gathered up all the toys they’d left scattered about the lawn and went in.

The smell hit me immediately. My two-year-old is doing wonderfully well at her potty training, but she holds onto her poop for days, so when it comes it’s like an elephant has been passing through.

From five feet away, I could see the mound of yuck marinating in a yellow soup. She’d clearly done it before heading up to the shower.

Hurrying upstairs, I congratulated my daughter for using the potty, but told her she must tell us when she’s pooped so we can wipe her bottom. I then left my wife to shower them off as I headed back down to empty the potty.

Astute readers will already have guessed the next part. I stared down into a potty that now contained only urine, and immediately shouted, ‘Ozzy!’

The dog darted under the dining table and stared out at me with a guilty expression on his canine face – but he still had the audacity to lick his lips.

Eurgh! Eurgh!

‘Get outside! Get outside!’

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to cuddle him again!

The upsetting truth about superpowers

Like most people, I’ve always thought it would be cool to have superpowers. For the socially awkward, the autistic, or both, the ability to turn invisible would be a massive boon, and I can think of plenty of situations where shrinking to the size of an ant or growing to the size of a redwood tree would come in handy. Super speed, super strength, X-ray vision – who wouldn’t want those capabilities?

But unlike most people, I’ve put a little too much thought into the subject – enough to realise the little facts that make most superpowers totally impossible. Want to ruin your enjoyment of comic books and Marvel movies? Read on.

Invisibility – Susan Storm, Little Miss Incredible

Unless it’s a special suit, or the ability to bend light around you, most versions of invisibility in fiction involve the subject allowing light to pass through them. This makes perfect sense – our vision, after all, is based on light photons bouncing off objects and into our eyes, so if light doesn’t bounce off an object, you can’t see it (though you might be able to detect refraction, a la the Predator).

Unfortunately, the way our vision works has a terrible implication for the would-be invisible person. We see by detecting light photons hitting our retina at the back of our eye, so if we were invisible, and light passed through us, we’d be completely blind. So much for sneaking into the girls’ locker room!

Another downside is digestion. While we were invisible, the food we eat would not be. Nor would our urine. Or our poop. We’d be a walking diagram of our digestive system. Yuck.

And since our clothes wouldn’t be invisible either, we’d have to go everywhere naked. That might be okay for midsummer, but in the winter? When it’s raining? On gravel? Have you seen how dirty the soles of your feet get from just a few minutes walking around your garden?

So. Blind, naked, cold and gross. Not so desirable anymore, is it?

Super small and supersize – Ant-Man, the Wasp

The principles of growing really, really big or shrinking really, really small are exactly the same – you stretch or compress the empty space within and/or between our atoms. And there’s a lot of empty space to play with – if you imagine an atom is the size of the Earth, the nucleus is about the size of a football stadium. That means you could go incredibly small or incredibly big.

Trouble is, whether an ant or a skyscraper, you’ll still have the same mass, because nothing is being added and nothing is taken away. And as every good schoolboy knows, pressure equals force over area. It’s the reason a 90lb model in stiletto heels damages gym floors, but the 400lb wrestler in sneakers doesn’t.

So, if it takes around 100psi for a nail gun to drive a piece of metal into wood, imagine what would happen to a 200lb man shrunk to the size of an ant – you’d embed yourself into the floor. If you jumped in a swimming pool, even accounting for buoyancy, you’d plummet to the bottom, smash through the tiles and dig into the ground underneath. And then drown.

What about the other extreme? If you’ve ever walked in a strong wind, and felt the way it blows you about, imagine being fifty or a hundred times taller, with an exponentially larger surface area, but weighing the same. Your body would be your own sail, which might make it impossible to walk in anything other than a dead calm.

Your voice and hearing would change too. Given that vocalizations are related to the length of your larynx and your perception of sound to the size of your eadrum, if you shrank to the size of an ant, your voice would be higher than a choir boy with tight underwear, and everything you heard would be really deep and booming; whereas if you became Trump Tower, your voice would be a rumble of thunder and everything you heard would be a high-pitched mosquito whine.

When you really stop to think about it, anything other than the size you are now is a non-starter.

Super Speed – the Flash, Quicksilver

Who hasn’t wanted to whizz to the shops, grab all your groceries, and rush back home in the time it takes the kettle to boil? To dodge the rain, read a book cover-to-cover the minute before the book report is due, and catch that fly that’s been bugging you for days? Super speed could be the answer to all your problems.

Except that it creates more than it solves. When the plane accelerates down the runway and presses you back in your seat? That’s G-force. Too high a G-force, and your body starts to break. Star Trek has magical ‘inertial dampers’ to prevent the crew of the Enterprise being a red spot on the back wall every time they manoeuvre, but a person with super speed doesn’t have that. Going from a standing start to a thousand miles a second would squish your brain against the back of your skull – if, that is, your skull hadn’t already snapped off your neck.

Another problem is heat. Travelling at super speed causes super friction with the air. Worse would be the heat generated by the compression wave you create in front of you, like a spacecraft entering the atmosphere. Super speed? You’d burn to a crisp.

Also, just because you’re super fast doesn’t mean you’re super strong or super fit. Who the hell wants to run all the way to the shop and carry their own shopping home? In any case, get used to that trip, because you’ll have to eat non-stop to make up all the calories you burn.

But worst of all is the speed of perception. You couldn’t have super speed without the ability to perceive things at such speeds, and our awareness of time is directly related to our perceptions. Imagine how bored you’d get if every second felt like an hour, every hour like a day, every day a month. Imagine how hard it would be to watch a movie, listen to a song, have a conversation. After a couple of years, you’d be in a straitjacket.

Super Strength – Mr Incredible, the Hulk

Super strength is an awesome idea. Pick up a car. Swing a tank around by its gun. Unscrew every jar in the fridge. Seems like it’d be a real asset to have.

But, as Newton showed us with his Third Law of Motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Punch someone hard enough to put them through a wall, you’ll probably throw yourself through the wall behind you – that is, if you don’t punch a hole clean through their chest, because if you apply that much force to a human body, I don’t fancy your chances of keeping red goo off your hands. So supposing you’re fighting a supervillain who can take such punishment and you punch them up into the sky? You’re likely to drive yourself down into the ground.

To balance these forces, you’d also need to be super heavy, or you’d be throwing yourself all over the place. So forget ever climbing the stairs again, or sitting in a comfortable chair, or lying in a bed that isn’t triple reinforced.

Then you have the same problem as being super small – exerting a massive force over a small area. If you tried to pick up a car or a tank – supposing it doesn’t bend, break and crush – several tons of pressure would be concentrated in an area the size of your hands; they’d puncture right through. And even if you could carry it, with your normal-sized feet it’d push you down into the ground again. To be useful, super strength would also require super size, which is a different kettle of fish altogether.

But the worst part of having super strength is that you’d break everything – everything designed for humans, at least. Even with my very modest human strength, dozens of times I’ve exerted more force than the capabilities of the material to withstand. Imagine being ten or even a hundred times stronger than the strongest human – you’d break practically everything you touched.

X-Ray Vision – Superman

This one’s pretty easy to dispel. X-rays are ionizing radiation, meaning they can penetrate cell walls and damage DNA. Every time you open your eyes, you’re giving people cancer, including yourself. Not the most heroic of superpowers, is it?

Flight – Superman

Which leaves flight. If you forget about gravity, thrust, drag and lift, flight is the most plausible superpower. If you forget about gravity, thrust, drag and lift.

I’d be great at parties, wouldn’t I?

The weirdest coronavirus conspiracy: it’s 5G

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have no patience with conspiracy theories. I don’t believe 9/11 was an inside job, that the flu jab is harmful, that amber necklaces have health benefits, or MMR causes Autism. I understand why people believe conspiracy theories, but I think that at times like this, coronavirus conspiracies are especially dangerous.

Even when they’re batshit crazy.

The latest coronavirus conspiracy is so ridiculous, I can’t imagine why anyone would take it seriously, but they are, particularly when celebrities like Amanda Holden and Woody Harrelson are actively promoting it. For more than a year, conspiracists have been theorizing that 5G – the fifth generation of wireless data technology, promising download speeds at least ten times that of 4G – will release fatal amounts of radiofrequency radiation that will destroy DNA, cause cancer and premature ageing, and effectively cull most of the planet’s human population, in the same way that the 1918 Spanish flu was apparently caused by the invention of radio (!).

Yes, 5G is a doomsday weapon wielded by the New World Order so they can take over. So far, so normal.

Unfortunately, the roll out of 5G and the outbreak of coronavirus have somewhat coincided. Conspiracists claim that the first city in the world to be blanketed in 5G was – yes, you’ve guessed it – Wuhan. Proof positive that China, and Huawei, are deliberately killing people. And the multiple denials by practically every media outlet and reputable scientist in the world simply confirm it – methinks thou doth protest too much.

They’re currently torn on whether 5G is causing it by lowering our immune systems, or is somehow directly transmitting the virus into us (because that’s how biology works!), but they’re in no doubt that 5G and Covid-19 are one and the same.

The weirdest version of the conspiracy I’ve come across is that vaccines contain metal; microwaves make metal things blow up; thus 5G is going to make all the vaccinated people go BOOM!

Yikes.

This fringe belief wouldn’t be a problem on its own, if not for the fact that in the UK in recent days, people have set on fire three 5G masts and abused and assaulted phone company workers. This is when those ‘harmless’ conspiracy theories have stark real world consequences. It won’t be long before someone does something stupid, thinking they’re being heroic and saving us from our evil overlords.

So what’s the truth? Yes, 5G does emit radiation. However, like FM radios, power lines and Wi-Fi, it’s low-frequency, non-ionizing radiation, which means it doesn’t have the power to break chemical bonds, penetrate cell walls or even have any known effect on biological matter. Higher frequency radiation – that above ultraviolet – is called ionizing radiation, and like X-rays and gamma rays, it can damage DNA and cause cancer. Ultimately, the power and frequency of 5G is less than light – you’re getting more radiation standing outside in the sun. Or sitting under a lightbulb. Or lighting your birthday candles.

To paraphrase GK Chesterton, it’s okay to keep an open mind, just don’t open it so far that your brain falls out.

So wash your hands, keep your distsnce, and stop getting your news from Facebook!

Finding certainty in uncertain times

Go onto social media. Pick up a newspaper. Ring a friend. Switch on the news. What are you guaranteed to encounter?

Speculation.

Often quite rampant speculation. In the internet age, we are all epidemiologists and experts in public health; we are all fortune tellers and soothsayers.

How long will these restrictions be in place? Two weeks, six months, eighteen months, forever. We’re flattening the curve; we’re protecting the vulnerable; we’re shielding the NHS; we’re acquiring herd immunity; we’re buying time to find a vaccine.

What further restrictions will be imposed? We won’t be allowed outside at all; the army will be on the streets; there’ll be rationing; we’ll have to eat cats and dogs.

Why has Italy been hit so badly? It has an elderly population; they were already in the middle of a flu epidemic; they have a high proportion of smokers; they’re a tactile culture; they didn’t obey lockdown; they live in multi-generational households; they closed the schools before the workplaces, exposing the vulnerable to the superspreaders.

How many will die in my country? 6000; 20,000; half-a-million; everyone. The death rate is much higher than we’re being told; much lower than we think; 10%; 0.4%. The statistics are different because of how they’re recorded; how many tests have been done; whether they died of coronavirus or with coronavirus. We’re two weeks behind Spain; three weeks behind Italy; ahead of the curve; better.

When will it end? When everyone has acquired herd immunity; when there’s a vaccine; when there’s a proven treatment; when it mutates to become more or less deadly; when we’re all dead from it.

And what will life look like afterwards? It’ll go straight back to normal; it’ll be entirely different; people will care more; people will hate more; we’ll be poorer; richer; safer; more vulnerable.

Speculation, speculation, speculation.

I understand why people are searching for answers – humans hate uncertainty. Uncertainty is dangerous. It’s terrifying. We don’t know how to protect ourselves from the unknown, so we feel vulnerable. People right now are living in a state of continual fear, and they’d rather live with an uncomfortable truth – a deadly but known danger – than endure the unknown.

Trouble is, in a situation like this, there are no answers. We don’t know how long it’s going to last; we don’t know how it’s going to end; we don’t know how many will die or what the world will look like afterwards. Ahead of us and around us is a vast, empty unknown. We’re walking on the edge of an abyss, liable to fall at any moment. How can you not feel anxious at such a time?

If it’s any help, as an autistic guy who spends his life living under the shadow of the unknown, you have to take comfort in the things that are known, and those things you can predict.

Like the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. The sun has risen every day for the past 4.5 billion years; it will continue to rise long after we’re gone. The rhythm of the planets is eternal.

There will be two high tides tomorrow, and two low. The Earth and moon are locked in an endless ballet, and whatever happens with mankind, that will not change. It is immutable.

There will be life in one form or another for countless years to come. Every living thing on the planet has an unbroken chain of lineage extending back 3.5 billion years. Through billions of generations, every single one of your ancestors managed to reach sexual maturity, find a partner and reproduce before they died. Life today is the culmination of billions of survivors. There will be billions more generations to come.

We can’t say anything with such certainty when it comes to coronavirus. We don’t know when it’ll end or how, how bad it’ll be and who’ll survive to come out the other side. But we can say, with absolute certainty, that we will survive, and it won’t last forever.

How do I know this isn’t the end? Because modern humans have been around for 200,000 years. We’ve only had a germ theory of medicine for 150 of those years. We’ve only had antibiotics and antiviral drugs for 80. Yet we’ve survived Russian flu, Spanish flu, Asian flu, the Black Death, smallpox, leprosy, cholera, malaria, polio, meningitis, measles, HIV/AIDS, yellow fever, rabies, tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria, and syphilis.

I was born in the 1970s. Most of the people reading this will, like me, have lived through the Troubles, the Cold War, the Iranian Embassy Siege, the Falklands, the Poll Tax Riots, shell suits, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, Waco, Diana, Dunblane, Columbine, Y2K, 9/11, the War on Terror, 7/7, SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, the Credit Crunch, 2012 hysteria, the Paris Terror Attacks, the knife-crime epidemic and Brexit. We’ve taken all that life has thrown at us, and we can take plenty more.

If you want certainty, there it is. We’re going to survive. We’re going to get through this. It’s the one thing I have no doubt about.

The importance of language

I’m a writer. I believe that language creates the world. That’s why, at times like this, it’s so important to watch our language.

‘We’re stuck at home for the next few weeks’ creates an entirely different mental space than ‘We’re at home for the next few weeks.’

‘I can’t cope’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereas ‘I’m finding this hard but will get through it’ gives you strength.

‘I hate my wife and kids’ generates resentment in your chest, while ‘Finding my family difficult at a difficult time is perfectly normal’ keeps your relationships healthy.

And saying, ‘It’s not a problem, I’m enjoying this downtime,’ is better than screaming, ‘Holy shit, it’s the end of the world and we’re all going to die!’

Changing the language you use is a quick and easy way to change your mood and your attitude. Our body tends to believe what we tell it. Smile and it makes you feel good. Stand up straight and lift your chin, it makes you feel confident even when you’re not. Force yourself to breathe slowly and deeply when you’re panicking, it calms your body down because if you’re not hyperventilating, there’s nothing to panic about, is there?

The opposite is also true. Hunch your shoulders and huddle up, you feel edgy, as though you need protection from the world. Frown and you feel bad. Laze about and you lose all motivation to do anything that helps you.

So start telling yourself the reality in which you want to live.

What applies in your own home applies to the world outside. Be careful what you read. Be careful what you listen to. You can’t have a healthy mental space when you fill it with negative words.

A brief survey of headlines is enough to make you die of fear. ‘Killer disease’ is far more terrifying than ‘Covid-19’; ‘chaos’, ‘panic’, ‘tragedy’, ‘death toll’ are much worse than ‘hope’, ‘solidarity’, ‘positivity’, ‘recovery’.

So in this time of crisis, do what I tell my children when they’re moaning and whining: use your words.

And forgive yourself the occasional weakness, outburst, rant or cry – you’re only humsn, after all.

Day Five of Home-Schooling: teachers, you are busted!

I saw a lovely thing on Facebook last night from a school up in Surrey. It told its parents that what we’re doing right now isn’t home-schooling. Home-schooling is a choice where you considered things, planned for it, and were ready – this is more like distance-learning. But in reality, it’s trying to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, but are not trained teachers, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the garden, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about, because these are exceptional circumstances.

And it said that it’s impossible to facilitate distance-learning with a primary-aged child and work from home at the same time, so if you’re doing that, stop. Your primary focus is your job and your survival. You’re not a superhero. They’re not expecting miracles.

I thought it was great. Very insightful and reassuring.

Then I got an email from the headteacher of my school down here in Dorset sharing some of her thoughts. She said that home-schooling is a choice, whereas this is more a necessity. She said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the dirt, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about. And she said that if you’re working from home and juggling home learning at the same time, STOP – you’re not superheroes. Your focus should be your job and survival.

Sound familiar?

Looking on Facebook, it appears that many headteachers up and down the country have had the exact same thoughts as each other at exactly the same time. How weird!

You know when every kid in the class copies from the same book and they put it in their own words so they don’t get accused of plagiarism? Teachers, you are busted!

Now, I don’t mind that they’re all copying from the same source. It’s a good message and it deserves to be spread far and wide. But don’t pretend as though it’s something that just occurred to you. And perhaps next time, don’t use many of the exact same words!

My kids have broken the Naughty Step!

A while back, I wrote a three-part guide to disciplining your children. In the first part, Understanding your toddler, I explained a child’s understanding of the world. In the second, The Fundamentals, I explained the theories underpinning different forms of discipline. And in the third, The Naughty Step; or, How smug am I?, I explained why I’m the king of infant behaviour modification.

Actually, not quite. I wrote the first two thinking I was doing really well at this parenting thing and I could share these techniques with other people. And then life happened, and the nice, obedient little girl I was looking after turned into a massive arsehole that I was incapable of controlling, and I didn’t really feel like finishing a series that would make me a fraud.

The Naughty Step has remained my principal means of disciplining my kids, however, and I stand by it’s utility, even if at times it doesn’t feel like it’s working.

The theory is pretty simple – the best form of discipline is a combination of love withdrawal (punishment) and induction (guilt), and the Naughty Step fulfils both criteria. You first get down on their level, get their attention, and warn them that if a particular behaviour continues, you’ll put them on the Naughty Step. If they then do the behaviour, for example hitting their sister, you put them on the Naughty Step and say, ‘I am putting you on the Naughty Step for X-number of minutes [equal to their age] because you hit your sister.’ Then you turn around and walk away.

You ignore all the crying, shouting and screaming. Every time they get off the Naughty Step, you put them back on it without a word or eye-contact, and restart the timer. This is very difficult at first – when I started it with my eldest, I had to put her back more than sixty times. After a few days, she no longer got off that step.

After the allotted time has elapsed, you get back down to their level and repeat the reason they’re there: ‘I put you on the Naughty Step because you hit your sister. We don’t hit people. Okay?’

Then you get them to say sorry, hug and kiss, draw a line under the incident and move on. No lingering nastiness, no lasting discomfort – crime, punishment, atonement, forgiveness, restoration, all in the space of a few minutes. It’s a remarkably effective tool and just the threat of the Naughty Step is normally enough to prevent behaviour escalating to inappropriate levels.

At least, it was an effective tool, until today, when my children broke it.

‘You really need to go and tidy your playroom,’ I said.

‘No.’

‘Girls, I’ve asked you three times already to tidy your playroom.’

‘No.’

‘Right. If you don’t tidy your playroom, you’ll both go on the Naughty Step.’

With lots of sighs and moody hand gestures, they turned and left the room.

After a few minutes I thought it was suspiciously quiet, so I went to see what they were doing and found them both sitting on the Naughty Step.

‘Why aren’t you tidying your room?’ I asked.

‘We’ve decided we’d rather sit on the Naughty Step,’ said my four-year-old.

‘Oh,’ I replied. ‘Well, go and tidy your room.’

‘No, we’ll just stay on the Naughty Step.’

‘Go and tidy your room or I’ll, I’ll -‘

‘You’ll put us on the Naughty Step?’

Bugger, I thought, they’ve outsmarted me!

What do you do when your kids aren’t afraid of the Naughty Step anymore!?

Being British: Captain Mainwaring and Coronavirus

Can there ever be such a thing as a national character? Is it really possible to distill the attitudes, behaviours and beliefs of millions of people across multiple generations into a generalised concept of a society? Is it fair to represent Britain as a bulldog, France as a cock (erel), and Germany as an accountant?

Of course not. And yet at the same time, the stories we tell ourselves about our national character provide an important insight into the values we aspire to and the ideals we wish to hold. As spurious as they often are, these ideas form the mental landscape that shapes our view of the world, and never are they more important than at a time of national and international crisis.

That’s why, once again, the British are talking about the war.

‘Our grandparents were asked to go to war,’ say all the memes. ‘We’re being asked to sit on the sofa.’

I have a European friend who is bewildered by how much the British talk about the war. For a country that has existed for hundreds of years and once ruled over a quarter of the world, it does seem odd that we choose to celebrate an event when we had our backs to the wall, lost an empire, and had to give up our place at the table to the bigger boys, rather than hark back to the glory days when we were still on top.

What this overlooks is that our celebration of the ‘Blitz spirit’ has nothing to do with war, or fighting prowess, or military might – it’s about standing firm in the face of adversity. The British national character, the character we’re so proud of, is our tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s Drake leading a rag-tag fleet against the Spanish Armada. It’s Nelson sailing at the numerically superior French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. It’s Wellington standing firm against the Imperial Guard at Waterloo. It’s 100 soldiers facing off against 4000 Zulus at Rorke’s Drift, and it’s Britain standing alone against a Nazi Germany that had conquered the whole of Europe.

Of course, this is just one view of these events, and they were more complicated and multifaceted than presented here, but that doesn’t matter – what matters is that this is how we choose to remember them. We’re an island nation perched on the edge of Europe, part of but separate from it – stubborn, independent, outnumbered yet punching above our weight.

It’s no surprise that one of our favourite quotes is from Henry V on the eve of Agincourt (as Shakespeare writes it): ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’ If we could pick someone who exemplified Britishness, it would be our wartime leader, Winston Churchill. We will fight them on the beaches, never was so much owed by so many to so few, this is their finest hour.

British culture is practically a cult of the underdog, of keeping our heads when all about us are losing theirs, and persevering come what may. Our unofficial motto is ‘Keep calm and carry on,’ and unless you understand that, you’ll never understand either Brexit or our response to coronavirus. 

Of course, if I’m being honest, I think the best representation of Britishness isn’t Churchill but Captain Mainwaring, a ridiculously pompous, arrogant character from the sitcom Dad’s Army (1968-1977). Now before you accuse me of maligning my country, allow me to explain.

For those who have never seen the endless reruns, Dad’s Army is about a platoon of British Home Guard during WWII, formed from men too old, too infirm, or too malingering to fight in the regular forces. Set in the fictional South Coast village of Walmington-on-Sea, these have-a-go heroes work their jobs by day and stand ready to defend against invasion at night with homemade weapons and makeshift tactics. It’s the very embodiment of the British underdog spirit and has reflected, shaped and reinforced much of how we see ourselves today, even the theme tune: ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, if you think old England’s done?’ This is despite the fact that the characters are mostly buffoons.

Easily my favourite, the man who truly represents the spirit of Britain, is the platoon’s leader, Captain Mainwaring. Snobbish, xenophobic, with delusions of grandeur and an inflated sense of his own importance, it would be easy to write him off, particularly as much of the humour is laughing at him, at how ridiculous he is, at how he undermines his own best interests. He is, indeed, every negative thing you can say about the British, if you’re on the outside, looking in.

But beneath all the bluster and pretension, the awkwardness and arrogance, is a man genuinely devoted to his country, trying his best to do his duty, who does the right thing when it matters and is by far the bravest, most decisive character in the show. While Corporal Jones is running around in a flap crying, ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic!’ and pessimistic Scottish undertaker Fraser is sitting in a corner moaning, ‘We’re doomed, doomed,’ Mainwaring is the man who steps up and takes control and saves the day. In the 1971 movie, thinking they are being invaded, he barricades the road and prepares to face German tanks with a single shotgun. Later, he confronts a downed Luftwaffe pilot with nothing but guts, risking his own life to rescue a roomful of hostages. While his faults might be laughable, he’s redeemed by his loyality, bravery, dedication and tenacity.

That is Britain. We’re arrogant, xenophobic, stubborn, pompous and slightly ridiculous. When everyone else is going left, we go right through sheer bloodymindedness. You can laugh at us all you want, but don’t ever underestimate us. We’re the underdogs, and that’s the way we like it, and when our backs are to the wall, you’d better not rule us out, because that’s when we Brits triumph.

In fact, I see a lot of Captain Mainwaring in Boris Johnson. People call him dithering, indecisive, slow to act – a buffoon promoted beyond his ability. But cometh the man, cometh the hour. He understands our national character better than anyone. He tells us we don’t need to panic, though many of us will die. He tells us the way ahead is hard, but we can take it. The allusions to the war are because we know that when facing doom and gloom, the British are more than capable of weathering the storm.

From the outside, our response to coronavirus might appear fatalistic, irresponsible, laid-back even. The fact is, we won’t know the effects of our different approaches until way after the outbreak has ended and all the numbers have been crunched. We could try something different, I suppose. We could panic or quarantine; we could do what other countries have done and lock everything down; we could give in to despair and terror.

It just wouldn’t be very British.

Now wash your hands, you stupid boy!

(And just as I was about to publish this post, I see Richard Littlejohn has written a Dad’s Army parody about the coronavirus!)