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.

More life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old self-taught guitar-player who never learned to read music, I’ve spent the past two months attempting to master the cello. Hard? Damn straight. But nothing worth doing is ever easy.

At first, I thought my age would count against me – Yo-Yo Ma started at 4, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist du jour, is only 20 – but I quickly realised that studying an instrument isn’t about simply learning the notes: it’s about utilising important life skills that have far wider applications than music (Life lessons from learning cello). I might not have the flexibility, patience or single-mindedness of a child, but I like to think my adult insight makes up for this deficit.

So here are more life lessons from learning cello.

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

The first few days, I mastered the C-Major scale across the four strings, and it sounded pretty good. Up, down, up, down, what could be simpler? I learned the notes and finger positions and figured I’d be a virtuoso in no time. If I know where the notes are already, I thought, I’ll be able to play proper music, without having to waste time on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

As they say, pride comes before a fall.

After six days, I looked up the sheet music for Schindler’s List – one of the pieces of music that inspired me to take up cello – and worked out where all the notes were (not being able to read music, after all). I figured it’s a slow piece, so there shouldn’t be much of an issue. After all, I was playing Nirvana a week after first picking up the guitar. How hard could it be?

Hard. It sounded like a leaky arsehole. Eurgh!

There’s playing notes and then there’s playing music, and the two things are worlds apart, especially when it comes to the cello. On the piano, you can make a perfect note every time with a single action – whether you’re five or fifty-five, press a key and you’ll get the same sound. On the cello, multiple things have to happen to make a note – the fingers of your left hand have to be in the exact position, not a millimetre out of place, and you have to be applying the right pressure; in your right hand, your bow has to be held properly, and it needs to be pressing on the strings correctly, with the correct force, moving smoothly and perfectly straight at the right speed. And for music, you need to adjust the force for expression, accelerate or decelerate. Without vibrato (where you rock the fingers of your left hand), everything sounds horribly thin and unappealing.

While you might be able to go up and down a scale and make it sound okay, and you can play the notes to Schindler’s List after six days, to make it sound good takes years. This realisation was a massive blow to my confidence, and I was of a mind to quit outright. But you have to be resilient if you want to achieve anything good – which brings me to my second life lesson.

2. Take it one step at a time.

A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath your own feet. All you have to do is take one step.

That’s all such a journey is – a succession of individual steps. Don’t think about all the months and years it’s going to take you. Don’t think of all the steps you’re going to have to take. The only thing you should think about, and the only thing over which you have control, is the very next step. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually you’ll get there.

That’s how we achieve any difficult, incremental goal whose attainment is way off in the future, and it’s a vitally important skill to have when learning an instrument – one step at a time. It helps you remain patient; encourages you to take it slow and master the basics; prevents you from racing on ahead and becoming disheartened; and limits much of the frustration and despair that you will inevitably feel.

And remember: you can’t take the second step until you’ve taken the first. So after those rapid first six days, I picked myself up and went back to the very beginning: the cello position; holding the bow; bowing an open string; moving from one string to an adjacent one; skipping over a string; first finger; third and fourth finger; and learning to read the notes on the bass clef. You need a solid foundation on which to build, and if you don’t get the basics right, it’s all just wasted effort.

So when the other day, after two months of nursery rhymes, I learned to play the cello part from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it sounded amazing, a just reward for my perseverance. Of course, it’s one of the easiest classical pieces to play, but who cares? I’m proud of myself. And that is so important in a world where you’re surrounded by people better than you.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

(Props to Jordan B. Peterson for this one). This, I think, is probably the most important lesson any of us can learn, whether it’s as a musician, a partner, a parent, or, really, anything. There will always be someone better than you. And I’m not just talking about listening to Stepjan Hauser and despairing that you’ll never be as good as him – I’m talking about all the crap that social media throws at us on a daily basis about our abilities, our relationships, our worth in regard to other people.

Part of the reason I raced ahead to Schindler’s List in six days was from watching videos on YouTube showing how far ordinary people had come in just one week with the instrument. I felt like I was in competition, and I compared everything I was doing with them. And it’s strange, when you start learning the cello, how many people suddenly appear out of the woodwork to say, ‘My cousin’s a professional cellist,’ or ‘My nephew’s just been accepted into music college,’ and I just felt so bloody inferior to them all, so darned useless.

But really, it’s not about competing with anybody else, because I’m not anybody else – I’m me. And each day I sit down to play my cello, I get a little bit better; it feels a mite more natural; and I’ve taken another step towards that distant goal.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Of course, taking it slowly, mastering the basics, and judging yourself only against yourself, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of the bigger picture. Yes, right now I’m playing Algy the Bear, but ultimately I want to be playing River Flows In You, and it’s not wrong to keep that distant dream in the back of your mind to give you both a goal to work towards and the motivation to get there. Just make sure it helps you, and doesn’t hinder you.

To help me on the way, I’ve started taking lessons. Originally I’d intended to teach myself, but after following five separate teachers on YouTube, all of whom were excellent, I found they were actually confusing me more than helping as they all said slightly different things. When you’ve learned five different bow holds, you start to second guess everything you do, so I decided I’d need one single tutor who could correct all the mistakes I’m making.

In terms of ultimate goals, she asked me how far I wanted to go with the cello, and I realised I hadn’t really given it much thought. I played her River Flows In You on my iPod and told her I wanted to play things like that. ‘So, professional then,’ she said, and it threw me through a loop. When I started to play the guitar, it was to play rock songs; I knew I probably wouldn’t ever be as good as Kirk Hammett from Metallica or Slash from Guns N’ Roses, but I’d definitely be able to master Nirvana, Oasis and Weezer (yes, this enables you to date when I started playing the guitar). But when I took up the cello, it was to play classical music – I mean, that’s what it’s designed for, right? You don’t take up cello because you want to play RnB. Doesn’t everyone reach the stage that they’re playing classical music? Does that mean they’re all professionals?

She’s teaching two other ‘mature’ students, one of whom has reached Grade 4 in eighteen months, the other Grade 8 in two years – whatever the hell that means. They want to play in orchestras. I only ever thought about playing in the spare room – I was learning the cello for its own sake, but I guess the essence of music is performance, so it’s something to consider, provided it doesn’t interfere with lessons 1-3 above.

5. Have fun!

And, all of the above notwithstanding, have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing, even if it’s just Baa Baa Black Sheep. After doing an hour of scales, I like to reward myself by working out a rock song and then making as much noise as I can. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is virtually identical to Green Day’s Basket Case, while U2’s With or Without You is pretty easy. Pantera’s Walk is less so. Lamb of God’s Redneck is a non-starter.

So these are five more life lessons from learning cello:

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

2. Take it one step at a time.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

5. Have fun!

Life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old casual guitar player who can’t read music, I’ve embarked on a journey to learn the cello – an instrument that doesn’t spoon-feed you anything the way a guitar or piano does, and that requires time, patience and practice to play a single note. I’ve had my cello three days now, so how am I doing?

It’s going really well, actually. When you get it right and the instrument rewards you, there’s an immense feeling of satisfaction because you know you’ve earned it. And unexpectedly, I’m discovering that a lot of what I’m learning on the cello has a wider application – that the lessons of how to play are also lessons on how to live – so I thought I’d share them here.

Day One: Confront your fears

I had a girlfriend once who played the violin, and she never tuned it. ‘These sorts of instruments are too hard to tune,’ she said. ‘You have to take them to a specialist to get it done properly.’

So before getting my cello, I built up a massive complex about tuning. Since it’s a rental and came with luthier setup, I figured I’d leave it exactly how it came and be done with it.

When I got it out of the bag, and after adjusting the height until it felt comfortable, I tentatively plucked the strings. To my ear, and having no frame of reference, it sounded fine.

Being a guitar player, and thus well-versed in left-hand fingering, I ignored the bow for the moment and decided to practice some scales by simply plucking the strings (pizzicato). Since cellos have no frets, I knew the first step was to put tape on the fingerboard to mark first position, so I watched various YouTube videos explaining how to do this. They were all clear on one thing: you had to make sure the cello was in tune. Checking it against some tones I found online, I realised my cello was about one whole step down and all four strings needed tuning.

Bugger. With swelling anxiety, I read that, if you want to be a cellist, you have to be able to tune your own instrument. I knew if I left it, it’d grow into such an issue I’d never get over it, so I bit the bullet and watched a bunch of videos on how to tune a cello. With a healthy amount of trepidation and the certainty that I was going to mess up the very thing I’d been waiting for all week, I turned the first peg.

Wow. With 30-40lbs of tension in each string, the instrument makes one hell of a frightening cracking noise when you adjust the peg. And that peg is held in place by friction only, so you have to push it into the hole as you turn it, or else the moment you let go, it spins the other way and undoes all your hard work.

But you know what I discovered? It’s surprisingly easy, and once you’ve done it, your cello sounds so much better. There is no reason whatsoever to be afraid of tuning.

I spent the rest of the day plucking up and down the C-Major scale across all four strings, feeling rather pleased with myself. I’d conquered my fears and found them baseless, and was already being rewarded by my instrument.

So the big lesson of the day: confront your fears. You might just find that there was nothing to fear all along.

Day Two: Act with confidence

Since I was already building up anxiety about the bow, I took the lesson of Day One and dove right in. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d already read that in the first couple of weeks it’ll sound awful, but I wasn’t prepared for just how awful it sounded. The A-string is close enough to the violin (see my feelings on violins) that you can experience the screechy, scratchy drowning cat sound without even trying, especially if you’re fingering with your left hand at the same time. The lower strings sound better, but far from perfect. Like I said, the cello doesn’t spoon-feed you anything – instead of simply pressing a key, you have to do several tricky things at the same time to get a decent note.

Since practice makes perfect, I spent most of the day practising, but it wasn’t very good. I was nervous, which meant I was very tentative with the bow and I was trying to play quietly so I didn’t inflict the wretchedness on the rest of the family (and the neighbours).

Just when I was ready to give up for the day, I thought I’d throw caution to the wind and give it a bit of welly and – boom! – the sound improved massively. It was like flicking a switch to turn night into day. I realised that if you play nervously, afraid of the sounds you’ll make, you make bad sounds, whereas if you play with confidence, even if you’re unpracticed, you make good sounds.

That’s a great lesson for life – if you go into something worried that you’re going to fail, you will, but if you trust yourself and do it with confidence, even if it’s something new, you can achieve far more than you ever thought you could. The best at climbing trees are those with no fear of falling, after all.

Day Three: find what works for you

After two days playing the cello, yesterday evening my left wrist and right hand ached. I’ve watched more than a dozen videos and read about twenty articles on that ever-important bow-hold, and they all seem to say something slightly different. No matter which one I use, it cramps up my hand after a couple of minutes, and various parts of my body start to punish me.

Stepping back a moment, I found I was way too stiff. By trying to do everything right, and contorting my body into uncomfortable positions to fit someone else’s idea of ‘the correct way’, I was not only making myself sore, I wasn’t making a very good sound. You don’t grip the bow tightly, locking your fingers into place – you need a light, relaxed touch. And you don’t sit rigidly in the ‘correct’ posture – you need to be loose and gentle. Not all bodies are built the same, just as no people are built the same, so find what feels natural and right for you, and relax into it. You need to let go of your tension and flow, not only because it stops you getting sore, but because it makes everything sound better.

I spent today practising the C-Major scale with the bow up and down the four strings, and I’m feeling nowhere near as stiff, and not only that, it’s sounding great.

So, from three days of practice, I have these rules for life:

  1. Confront your fears
  2. Act with confidence
  3. Find what works for you

Who knows what I’ll discover tomorrow?

UFOs over Highcliffe

Calling all airheads and aviation fanatics: can you help me identify something I saw in the sky?

I took my kids to the beach this morning, at Highcliffe on the UK’s South Coast. The sun was bright, the sky was clear, and we took off our shoes and socks and made sandcastles on the first truly glorious day of spring.

Their grandmother is flying to Spain today, and with the airport nearby in Hurn, we eagerly looked to the sky at the sound of every engine, waiting for a plane to appear from behind the trees that line the top of the cliff. Sometimes a Cessna would appear, someone on a flying lesson or out for pleasure; sometimes a helicopter on a sightseeing tour. Much higher up, passenger jets from Gatwick or Heathrow left contrails across the sky.

But once when we looked up, I spotted something I couldn’t identify in the sky. It made no noise and seemed to be at very high altitude, though without clouds it’s impossible to tell. It was silver, roughly cigar-shaped with the front and rear tapering to points. I noticed it because it was reflecting the sun, twinkling bright and dull and bright again as though catching and losing the sun, making it look as though it was rolling along the length of its axis. There were no wings that I could see, no tail, no lights, no contrail. It was travelling in a straight line, out into the Channel, with no deviation, and seemed to be getting higher (and smaller) as it went.

‘There are two,’ said my three-year-old, to whom I’d pointed it out.

And she was right. Following the silver object was a second, identical in appearance and motion, reflecting the sun like a mirror. It was almost like seeing two daytime stars, though not so bright that you couldn’t see they had mass and form.

We watched them for two or three minutes until they flew too close to the sun and we lost them. During that time, they were clearly either under power or the influence of gravity – not balloons as it was a smooth, continuous movement, and they didn’t alter course or change their positions relative to one another.

My daughter says they were spaceships, but that’s because she’s three. At first I thought they might be satellites in low earth orbit, particularly given the way they reflected the sun, but I’m not sure a satellite would be so easily observable during the day, or so slow moving. And I’m certainly not ready to credit them to little green men!

My best guess is that we saw a pair of helicopters flying high enough that I could neither see nor hear their rotors, even though I’ve never seen helicopters look like that before. Presumably they took off from Bournemouth and were still climbing to altitude when we saw them, en route to France. Until somebody in the know tells me different, that’s what I think we saw.

All I can say for sure is that they were objects, they were flying, and I’m unable to identify them, making them, by definition, Unidentified Flying Objects. But if they were aliens, I can’t imagine that after conquering interstellar travel there’d be much to interest them in rural Dorset, except, perhaps a cream tea that’s out of this world! (Shoot me now…)

[Click here for UFOs over Highcliffe update]

But how did her baby get into her tummy?

Ah. We have reached a developmental threshold. I thought we’d hit it before Christmas when my daughter said, ‘You know I was in mummy’s tummy? Well how did I get out?’ but that was only the mechanics of birth (and she didn’t believe me that mummy pushed her out her noo-noo). No, this question – the creation of life and the sexual dimension it implies – is altogether trickier, deeper, and represents a significant step outside of ‘that’s the way things are’ to ‘why are things that way?’ Yikes.

I must admit, I fudged the answer. I was alone with her in the car at the time, and I figured something like this ought to be discussed with her mother first so we can decide the best time, best way, and all that. To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with the concept of procreation for a few more years at least, so I wasn’t ready, and a garbled response about eggs and seeds probably isn’t the best way to introduce a three-year-old to the mysteries of the adult world.

My mind racing, I considered implying that birds and bees had something to do with it; storks, cabbage patches, magic; even the age-old ‘when a mummy and daddy love each other very much…’; but given that bees are dying, storks are terrifying, and one of her friends has two mummies, it’s no longer that simple.

I turned it on its head and asked her how she thought they got in there.

‘I think mummy swallows them,’ she said, and we left it at that.

Phew! Dodged a bullet.

I was taught about sex at the age of four or five – penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs. While I’m not sure about the appropriate lower age, there is definitely an age where you should already be clued in – I remember everybody making fun of a ten-year-old at my school because he thought he came out of his mother’s butt. Sucked to be that guy – pooped into the world.

There’s a danger to leaving it too late, too. When I was on a bus travelling through Alabama twenty years ago, I remember seeing a massive billboard that said: ‘Talk to your children about SEX, or SOMEONE ELSE WILL!’ You definitely don’t want them learning from porn and thinking, like today’s eleven-year-olds, that that’s how people actually do it. And, of course, the consequences of a lack of sex education have been devastatingly explored in fiction, from Stephen King’s Carrie to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Message received and understood.

But there’s a way to do it, and I know that showing embarrassment or squeamishness can send out the wrong message and lead to problems later down the line. I met a girl at university who said, ‘I’m bisexual, but I’m terrified of penises, so I’ve only ever been with girls and I don’t think I’ll ever have sex with a man, so behaviourally I’m a lesbian.’ (My response to this statement was, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Gillan, what’s your name?’). I don’t want that kind of confusion for my girls.

And I certainly don’t want them to think sex or masturbation or specific body parts are ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ or ‘shameful’ either. I want them to be body confident, with a healthy sexuality free from the hang-ups that I, an awkward, sexually-inexperienced autistic bloke might pass on to them.

So I started researching this topic online (very carefully – I don’t want to be on a watch list!), and I discovered I’m a lot more old-fashioned and out-of-touch than I realised.

Today’s Parent, for example, suggests teaching a child of 0 to 2 the words penis, vagina, vulva, clitoris, bum and nipple, meaning I missed that window. It also suggest explaining to them when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies – gently and in the privacy of their bedrooms, apparently – which I must confess I thought was a conversation for much, much, much later on.

For the 2 to 5 age range – where we’re at now – it suggests opening up about consent, explaining it’s not appropriate for others to ask to see or touch their genitals, and not to keep secrets about this, which is definitely good advice but, God, how do you have that conversation without implying the world’s full of sexual predators? Also, now’s the time to mention sperm and egg, perhaps leaving the gory details for when they’re older.

All of this seems alien to me. Far too young, I keep thinking, let them be children a little longer before you strip them of their innocence. But other sites, like Family Education, all seem to agree on this basic framework – the proper names for genitals and where and when it’s appropriate to touch yourself somewhere between 0 and 3, the egg and sperm speech and stranger danger around 3 to 5, and the more explicit details about 6 to 8.

I’ve been living under the erroneous belief that I could sit them down in about five years, have a one-off Q&A session, then avoid the issue until their first date when they’re sixteen, with a couple of ‘women’s issues’ interventions along the way. Instead, you need to mention sex throughout their upbringing, stressing issues of consent and context, in order to create a sexually healthy adult.

I guess I agreed to all this when I became a father, and next time she asks I’ll be better prepared. Sometimes, I think it would be better if a stork delivered us fully-formed to our parents. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about stretch marks and post-partum incontinence!

How to get a baby to sleep

When people ask me how I am these days, I tend to answer the same way. I point at my fourteen-month-old and say, ‘For the past two months, this one has been staying up till at least midnight every night, often till two or three in the morning, and I have no idea how to get her to sleep. All she does is scream and scream. I’ve not had a single night off in over a year and I’m physically and emotionally wrecked.’

I figured that response was fine, since it was true. However, since I can hear like a bat, I’ve started noticing people talking about me in other rooms – family and friends and whatnot – saying how I’m always moaning, I’m never happy, I’m always going on about how tired I am, etc., etc. Yes, I have become ‘that guy’. Sucks to be me.

But it’s a real problem nonetheless. She’s too young to be disciplined, threatened, bribed or reasoned with; too old to cry herself to sleep because she can stand up – and special as she is, stand-sleeping is beyond her.

Since I’m clearly not allowed to be honest, and my family, friends and whatnot don’t have the insight to realise my moaning is a cry for help, I thought I would offer the pearls of my wisdom to other parents who find themselves in a similar position: stuck with a screaming child that won’t sleep, and clinging to the end of their rope by a single breaking fingernail.

Here are the tactics and the techniques I’ve tried, considered and/or been recommended to get my daughter to sleep. Use them wisely and with a pinch of salt.

1. Don’t let her nap during the day.

Upsides: It makes her tired.

Downsides: By ‘tired’ I mean ‘cranky’. You get no down time during the day, and now she’s too irritable to sleep.

Overall verdict: Counterintuitively, kids need to be less tired to sleep, so a baby who has regular naps and is well rested goes to bed easier than one who is exhausted. The more you know.

2. Move her bedtime back a couple of hours.

Upsides: You defer the problem till later.

Downsides: You defer the problem till later.

Overall verdict: You still have to face the horrors of bedtime, only now your kid is even more tired and irritable

3. Let her stay up till she goes to sleep naturally.

Upsides: You don’t have to do anything.

Downsides: Where the hell is my evening?

Overall verdict: Who’s the parent here anyway?

4. Give her a bath.

Upsides: It’s fun!

Downsides: It’s too much fun. She’s more awake when she gets out than when she got in.

Overall verdict: A great way to kill an hour. Not a great way to get her to sleep.

5. Leave her to ‘cry it out’.

Upsides: None.

Downsides: It wakes up the rest of the household and makes you want to die. After ten minutes, she’s choking and hyperventilating and it then takes you thirty minutes to calm her down, which makes it counterproductive anyway.

Overall verdict: Might work with earplugs and sociopaths, but painful for all concerned.

6. Shout and scream right back.

Upsides: It feels good.

Downsides: It doesn’t help get her to sleep.

Overall verdict: The only people you should be shouting at are reality TV stars and politicians. Or when they’re both.

7. Take her for a drive.

Upsides: You get to see interesting places, people and wildlife, and avoid watching teleshopping.

Downsides: When you get home after an hour speeding around the countryside, she’s more awake than you are.

Overall verdict: Save your petrol money, pay for a nanny.

8. Take her for a walk.

On these mean streets? In the dark? You must be joking.

9. Give her Calpol.

Upsides: When she’s ill, it soothes her enough to sleep.

Downsides: Unless she’s ill, why are you giving your kid painkillers, you psycho? It’s not a freaking sedative!

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable, you’re at the top of a slippery slope that leads to sprinkling benzos on their breakfast cereal and fixing their ouchies with ketamine.

10. Spike her evening milk with rum/gin/whisky.

Upsides: Your elderly relatives will respect you for following their advice.

Downsides: Are you freaking kidding me?

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable…

11. Cuddle her on the sofa.

Upsides: It’s nice, she goes to sleep, and you get to catch up on a box set..

Downsides: It is physically impossible to get her from the sofa to her cot without her waking up and starting to scream.

Overall verdict: It’s great for killing time on the long evenings when she just won’t settle, but you’re simply deferring the problem till later. And worse, now she’s slept for a few minutes, she uses it as a springboard to propel her past midnight and into the early hours. Depends how much you want to catch up on Game of Thrones, I suppose.

12. Rock her in your arms.

Upsides: Really effective and gives you biceps like Dwayne Johnson.

Downsides: Cramp, boredom, and you’re still left with the problem of transferring her into the cot.

Overall verdict: Can work if she’s really tired, but if she’s not, get ready for her eyes to pop open and her lungs to fill during the transition.

13. Sing to her.

Upsides: You get to practice your aria with an uncritical listener.

Downsides: Pretty hard to get the right pitch and intonation when someone’s screaming at you.

Overall verdict: It can work, but you’d better keep singing because the second you stop, she’s going to give you feedback, and you probably won’t like what you hear.

14. Read to her.

Upsides: You get to do something interesting and she gets to work on her grammar.

Downsides: You have to have the light on. And even if she does fall asleep, you face the awkward prospect of having to get up and creep across the creaky floorboards without waking her up.

Overall verdict: quite good, but it can take a long, long, LONG time.

15. Stay in the room with her.

Upsides: You get to sit there and completely ignore her. You have the power!

Downsides: If she’s anything like my kid, she starts off quiet, then starts talking, then starts shouting, crying, screaming, choking, hyperventilating and then dying, until you have to sort her out. End result: she wins.

Overall verdict: She wins.

16. Bring her into your bed for the start of the night.

Upsides: She goes to sleep happily and easily.

Downsides: You still have to transfer her back to the cot, and since she’s been so happy and comfortable, it makes her doubly angry when she wakes up mid-transition and even less likely to settle.

Overall verdict: It’s better to avoid the aggro.

17. Bring her into your bed for the whole night.

Upsides: The easiest technique of all.

Downsides: Where do I begin? You have the same bedtime as a baby; you’re going to get kicked in the nuts and punched in the neck half of the night; babies are a real passion-killer; you’re paranoid you’re going to roll over and squash her.

Overall verdict: Don’t. Do. It. Once you’ve started, how and when do you stop? It might seem like the easy option in the short term, but do you really want your ten-year-old still sharing a bed with you because she never learnt to sleep by herself? Jesus, cut the apron strings.

18. Give her a relaxing massage.

Upsides: A great way to bond with your child.

Downsides: She giggles the entire time like it’s the funniest thing ever, which isn’t relaxing at all.

Overall verdict: If laughter makes you sleepy, go right ahead. If you’re normal, might be best to skip this one.

19. Give her a slap.

Upsides: I’m not even going there.

Downsides: If you want her to stop screaming, slapping her probably won’t achieve that. Well, I guess it depends how hard you slap…

Overall verdict: Not an effective tool for bedtime, or daytime, or any time, actually, unless you like the look of prison.

20. Knock yourself unconscious.

Upsides: You sleep.

Downsides: She doesn’t.

Overall verdict: Doesn’t solve the problem.

21. Put her on her back in the cot, slip your arm through the slats, place your hand on her chest and pin her to the mattress.

Upsides: You’re in the room with her; you’re in physical contact with her; she can hold onto your hand; she’s reassured that she’s not been left alone; she’s lying down and can’t stand up; when she whines you can rock her gently; you can sing to her at the same time; and eventually when she goes to sleep, you don’t have to transfer her because she’s already asleep in her cot. Job done!

Downsides: This can take up to forty-five minutes; depending on the size of your forearms and the gap between the bars, your arm will probably ache after three; once she’s asleep you’re faced with slowly removing your hand from her chest without waking her and you still have to get out of the room; and if she isn’t tired after all, you’ve just wasted three-quarters of an hour.

Overall verdict: It works. It’s time-consuming and labour intensive, but my God, it works. Most of the time. And it’s the only way I’ve figured out to get her to sleep these days. You might as well try it – what have you got to lose?

How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler

Understanding how a toddler sees the world is the first step in effective discipline. Below are the basics you need to know before you even begin attempting to correct your child’s behaviour.

Toddlers aren’t naughty per se

As an autistic guy, I’m told my Theory of Mind skills are fairly poor. This means that I struggle to read or understand the thoughts and feelings of others, so find it difficult to see things from another’s perspective, predict their behaviour, or put myself in their shoes.

However, I have to say that, as the father of a 33-month-old, I think most of society has poor Theory of Mind skills when it comes to toddlers. If anything, I think I understand toddlers better than most.

The important aspect of ToM – well, important to me, at least – is interpreting intent. If you can’t understand where people are coming from then you can’t understand why they do things and therefore you misinterpret their motives, their capabilities, and the fact that mostly another person’s behaviour has nothing to do with you.

My wife, for example, who is also on the autism spectrum, is unable to fathom that if somebody did something that upset her, they didn’t necessarily do it in order to upset her. She gets it into her head that the person has deliberately chosen to slight her, has selected a course of action designed to offend her, and is fully cognizant of the effects of their behaviour.

This seems to be the way most adults think of toddlers – that they deliberately misbehave, that they know when they’re being naughty, and that they have some sort of inbuilt moral compass that they choose to disregard just to annoy you.

I’ve heard it so many times – you did that on purpose, stop being naughty, you knew what would happen, what’s wrong with you, just behave!

I find myself doing it sometimes – ‘Be a good girl for Granny,’ I say, as though a toddler has any idea what being a ‘good girl’ actually means. She doesn’t – of course she doesn’t. Like a person with autism, she needs to be given specific instructions – ‘When Granny tells you to do something, you have to do it,’ is a far better lesson than the horribly arbitrary injunction to be ‘good’ or to ‘behave’. Being ‘good’ is a thousand different acceptable behaviours, and until a toddler has learnt them all, how can we possibly ascribe malicious intent to them?

So when your child is doing things that are naughty, try to get it out of your head that they’re aware they’re being naughty and doing it to be naughty. It’s nothing personal, it just is. As frustrating and upsetting as their behaviours can be, they don’t ‘mean it’.  Bear that in mind when they’re pushing every one of your buttons at the same time, as only toddler can.

Toddlers aren’t little adults

There’s been a trend in recent years to treat children as little adults – as rational beings that are capable of making informed choices. You simply have to explain things to them, so the logic goes, treat them with respect, ask for consent to change their nappies, trust them, and they will behave like great little people.

None of that is actually true, but people like to think it is.

The truth is that toddlers are aliens. They are totally unlike adults. You’d be better off trying to reason with a jellyfish. That’s not to say that they can’t learn and you can’t teach them to behave, but children are not moral beings and are unable to make moral judgements about right and wrong, and anyone who thinks they are hasn’t done their research.

I have. During my Psychology A-Level I experimented on children (nothing sinister). Adapting an experiment I found in a textbook, I wrote two stories. In the first, Sam was called down to dinner. Unbeknownst to Sam, behind the door on a chair were fifteen glasses, and when Sam opened the door, the chair was knocked over and all fifteen glasses smashed. In the second story, Jo wanted a cookie but Jo’s mother said no. When Jo’s mother went out, Jo climbed up onto the sideboard to get a cookie, in the process knocking one glass off the edge, which smashed on the floor. These were sent to various middle schools, to children aged 5-6 and 10-11, along with a questionnaire to ask which child was naughtiest.

I deliberately avoided using the words ‘accidentally’ and ‘on purpose’, since even very young kids are taught through tellings-off that accidental equals good and on purpose equals bad, and the results were pretty conclusive.

95% of the children aged 5-6 thought Sam was naughtiest because Sam broke fifteen glasses and Jo only broke one; how the glasses were broken, and what the child was doing at the time, didn’t factor into their thinking about morality. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the extent of the damage, not the intent.

95% of the children aged 10-11, on the other hand, thought Jo was naughtiest because while Sam’s was clearly an accident, Jo was being disobedient when he broke his glass. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the context and intent of the behaviour.

Clearly, then, unless you spell it out to them, children don’t have the cognitive ability to work out good and bad behaviour until they’re between the ages of 7-10. Expecting toddlers to make good moral judgements is the height of ignorance. The only right and wrong they understand is that which you drum into them. They’re not naughty because they’re bad; they’re naughty because they don’t understand the concept of naughtiness.

Toddlers haven’t yet learned to control their emotions

You can control your impulses because you’re an adult and have spent your whole life learning that feelings and actions are different things. You are aware that just because you have a feeling, that doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

Toddlers haven’t learnt that yet.

For the most part, they live in the present tense, with no concept of consequence. If they have an urge or a feeling, they want it gratified there and then. What’s worse, by the time they’re toddlers they know how to fulfil their wants and needs but haven’t yet developed the notion of whether they should.

Whether or not you believe in Freudian theory, it provides a useful illustration for this stage of development. The idea is that the human mind is divided into three parts that develop over time. We start with the id, that part of ourselves that is pure desire and lust. It is the part of the mind that says, ‘I am hungry!’

Then we develop the ego, the part of the mind that enables us to fulfill our wants. If the id says ‘I am hungry!’ then the ego says, ‘I will eat a biscuit!’

And lastly there’s the superego, which delves into morals and ethics. It’s the bit that says, ‘Well, I could have a biscuit, but I’m on a diet, and actually it’s not even my biscuit, so maybe I’d better not.’

Toddlers have ids and egos, but the superego is a work in progress. Thus if you expect them to ask themselves whether they should do something, you’ll be consistently disappointed.

Alongside this lack of impulse control is a lack of reasoning ability. If they want something, they want it there and then, and if they can’t, it seems unfair, arbitrary and painful. A toddler doesn’t care if you explain to them that the reason they can’t have a choc-choc bar is because the shop is closed: in that moment, all they can see is that they’re hungry, they want a choc-choc bar, and you are preventing them from having it. Thus toddlers have as poor Theory of Mind skills as many of their parents as they similarly believe that if something upsets them, it’s your fault and you’re doing it deliberately. Overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all, it’s no wonder they throw themselves on the floor and tantrum.

But we’re adults, and we have to be above it. They’re not having a tantrum to be naughty – they simply don’t understand and can’t process their emotions when their needs cannot be immediately fulfilled.

Setting boundaries and creating consequence

Taking into account all of the above, this is how it works in practice:

You’re sitting eating dinner with your child when she suddenly picks up a handful of potato and throws it right in your face. How do you react?

If you said, ‘Scream and shout and get angry,’ you’d be completely normal, because a handful of potato flung in your face isn’t exactly a pleasant experience. But why did your child do it? To be naughty? To annoy and upset you?

No, of course not. Probably, they did it because they thought, ‘I want to throw this.’ Or, ‘I wonder if I can throw this in daddy’s face?’ Or, if they’re slightly more advanced, ‘What would happen if I throw this in daddy’s face?’ So really, despite thinking you’re the centre of the universe, a toddler’s behaviour has very little to do with you.

Of course, they are capable of following instructions, so if they still throw potato in your face after you’ve specifically asked them not to, what’s happening there? Simple. Either they’re lost in the moment and have completely forgotten there might be consequences, or they’re testing boundaries.

Authority, consequence and the limits of acceptability are all things that need to be learnt. Your child is exploring who is in charge, what they can get away with, the effects of their actions, and the flexibility, or otherwise, of all these things.

Try to remember that just because something happened once in a specific context, that doesn’t mean a toddler understands right and wrong. In this example, she has learned once what happens when she throws potato in her daddy’s face. There’s still a whole world of possibilities out there to discover: is this what will happen every time or do the consequences change? What if I throw potato in mummy’s face instead? What if, instead of potato, I throw Spaghetti Bolognese? Does this rule only apply at the table? Does it only apply to food? What if I throw a plastic block in daddy’s face? If I keep doing it, will he eventually accept it?

That is why, when disciplining or instructing toddlers, you have to adopt the three Cs – be clear, consistent, and calm.

  • Clear – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is. ‘Don’t throw food at daddy!’ leaves them open to throw food at other people and throw other things. Far better to say, ‘Don’t throw things,’ and leave them in no doubt what is expected of them.
  • Consistent – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is and what happens when it is crossed. It’s no good shouting when she throws food the first time, putting her on the naughty step the second time, and ignoring it the third time as this sends mixed messages and confuses your child. The same behaviour should receive the same consequence every time.
  • Calm – because that will help you achieve the other two.

Be prepared to repeat yourself again and again and again. It takes time for a toddler to understand consequence; it takes them a while to learn; and it takes a long time for them to accept that they cannot have their own way all the time. Unless you master the three Cs, you’re setting yourself up for a far longer, harder period.

Look out for How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

 

Out the mouths of babes

There’s this idea out there that children, because they aren’t tainted by the vices and peculiarities of society, are possessed of a special kind of wisdom that we lose as we age. They haven’t yet learned to lie, so their utterances are factual, and honest, and tap into a purer, more innocent state of being. If you want to hear truth, so the logic goes, ask a child – they’ll tell it to you straight, without sugar-coating or prevarication. People have even written books about how we can learn to live a fuller, happier life simply by listening to the instinctive wisdom of our children and incorporating it into our daily lives.

What a load of bollocks.

I’m not saying that kids don’t have their moments, but I’m really not sure we should be taking life advice from people who think it’s okay to scratch their arseholes in front of mixed company.

While it’s true that children can be very honest and address subjects normally taboo in polite society, that doesn’t mean they’re right – and they’re normally pretty far from it. It’s not because they’re stupid, but because they just don’t have the experience. Like tonight, when my two-year-old delighted in telling me that ‘Mummy’s got really big nipples’ – given she’s only ever seen three other pairs (mine, hers, and her baby sister’s), she has nothing to compare them to. Honesty is therefore not a measure of truth or reality – it’s just a two-year-old’s very unqualified opinion about something she knows nothing about. (For the record, my extensive knowledge of slightly more than three sets of nipples suggests they’re pretty-much average-sized, not ‘really big’ at all).

Likewise, innocence doesn’t show us a purer way to live – it just shows us ignorance. Like when my daughter tries to play hide-and-seek in the car, pulls her T-shirt up over her face, and cries, ‘Where am I, daddy? You can’t see me! Me hiding.’ Or when after clearing the dinner plate because I tell her eating it will make her grow up big and strong, she stands on tiptoes, reaches to the sky, and says, ‘Me bigger now?’ Or when she tells me that she’s not old enough to be a boy yet, but will be one day – although, to be fair, given the current predilection for transgenderism, she may well be right on that one.

Even so, you can’t trust a child’s judgement because the way they think is just too weird and unpolished. Over dinner this evening, my daughter leaned over towards me and said, ‘Me hope you fart,’ and then went straight back to eating. And she will not stop stripping all her dolls from her Sylvanian Families playsets because, ‘Me like them naked.’ And a few days ago she said, ‘Me not like you paint my nose. Me not like bogies.’ I’m not entirely sure what ‘wisdom’ I’m supposed to glean from these little pearls.

She can be snarky too. My wife was busy today so I took the little one to swimming lessons. Since I’ve not done it in a while, I said to her, ‘You’ll have to tell me what to do.’

From the back of the car, this sarcastic little voice replied, ‘You get in the water…and then you swim.’

Gee, thanks.

She can also be rather creepy at times. The other day she came up to me and, out of the blue, said, ‘Daddy, please may me have a knife?’

‘What on earth do you want a knife for?’

‘Nothing. Me have one?’

She’s two, for God’s sake!

Just as bad was when we were out driving. She suddenly said, ‘Daddy, me wearing pants or a nappy?’

‘Pants.’

‘Oh. Okay.’

And then an ominous silence.

‘Do you need the toilet?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she replied. That was one uncomfortable car journey, I can tell you!

But then, I guess there was one positive thing she did this week. For the umpteenth time while bathing my daughter, my wife asked for help putting the baby to bed, so I snapped, ‘For crying out loud, just give her her dummy like I’ve said fifteen times already.’

My daughter looked up at me, subdued, and whispered, ‘You mean to mummy.’

‘No, I wasn’t being mean, I was…okay, maybe I was being a little mean.’

‘You say sorry to mummy.’

And she wouldn’t let it rest until I had apologised. And she was right.

So maybe we can learn some things from our children. As a general rule, however, I think I’ll be happier not taking guidance on how to live my life from someone who, this evening while sitting on the toilet, was sobbing because, ‘Me not like poo coming out of my bottom!’

Not exactly worthy of the Dalai Lama, is it?

Fifty things you should NEVER say to a parent…

…unless you want your eyes scratched out, especially if you don’t have kids of your own (N.B. these have all been said to me in the last month or so).

  1. She’s quite chunky, isn’t she?
  2. I think she’s had enough milk.
  3. Maybe you should change the formula she’s on.
  4. Well I think the Health Visitor’s wrong.
  5. I don’t trust NHS guidelines at all.
  6. You know dummies are bad for them, don’t you?
  7. Is that how you put her top on?
  8. Let me show you how you’re meant to do it.
  9. This is the way she prefers it.
  10. You should cook all her meals from scratch.
  11. You were up twice in the night? Well that’s not so bad.
  12. If I had kids, I’d be fine with the nights.
  13. Lack of sleep doesn’t bother me.
  14. What’s his name? He is a boy, right? Oh. What’s her name?
  15. I used to have a dog called that.
  16. He was only playing.
  17. He didn’t bite her that hard.
  18. It was her own fault for getting too close to him.
  19. It’s taught her an important lesson.
  20. Let’s not make a fuss about it.
  21. Everyone else’s children are potty-trained by now.
  22. Don’t make it an issue.
  23. She really ought to be potty-trained by now.
  24. It must be nice to sit around at home all day.
  25. Isn’t it about time you got back out to work?
  26. Having kids is no excuse for an untidy house.
  27. Why don’t I take them off your hands for a couple of hours so you can do some housework?
  28. When I have kids, I’m going to set aside an hour every day to clean.
  29. Looks like somebody has some ironing to do.
  30. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
  31. Well, you chose to be a parent.
  32. And you’ll have to keep doing this for the rest of your life.
  33. We’ve all been there, you don’t have to go on about it.
  34. Parents these days have no idea how easy they have it.
  35. When I had my kids I had nobody to help me.
  36. All this modern ‘naughty step’ rubbish.
  37. Smacking never did anyone any harm.
  38. You’re making a rod for your own back.
  39. You shouldn’t cuddle her so much.
  40. Did you see that great programme on TV last night?
  41. You really need to read this book.
  42. You look more tired every time I see you.
  43. I don’t remember you having all that grey in your beard.
  44. Why have you put on so much weight?
  45. It doesn’t get any easier.
  46. If you think this is hard, wait until…
  47. Don’t worry, they’ll be starting school in four years.
  48. You should value this time of your life.
  49. It goes by so quickly.
  50. Remember to enjoy every moment!