The theory that explains Peppa Pig (and Mr Potato is the key!)

I’m going to be honest – I watch far more Peppa Pig than an adult should. Of course, this is because my four-year-old and my two-year-old are obsessed with the little porker, but I have to admit it’s not actually that bad. It’s not as twee as Our Family, not as whiny as Bing, and the less said about Wallybuloo, the better. It’s got plenty of subtle jokes for adults, like when the kids dress up as different UN member states and all end up fighting (‘Is this how you think the countries of the world behave?’), and Brian Blessed as an incompetent sailor-cum-astronaut is comedy gold.

But of course, as an adult, you ask questions of the material that children wouldn’t, and when you do, you start to realise that a lot of it makes no sense. And then, like most people with too much time on their hands, you see if you can come up with a theory that explains all the seeming errors and inconsistencies. And I have.

Don’t worry, it’s not a particularly original or ground-breaking theory, but given that the show was created by adults, I think it provides a coherent cosmology that ties together all the following headscratchers.

1. What exactly are they cooking on those barbecues? Pigs are people in their world. So are cows, and sheep, and goats, and rabbits. Are they all cannibals?

2. Why is there only one set of grandparents? I don’t know about you, but everyone I know has four grandparents. In the Peppa Pig world, everyone seems to have two. Taken to its logical conclusion, that might explain why everyone’s nose is on the side of their head. And speaking of irreparably corrupting the gene pool…

3. Are there laws preventing interspecies coupling? Every adult character in Peppa Pig is either single or married to a member of their own species. Why? Would Miss Rabbit getting it on with Grandad Dog result in stigma and ostracism? Is that why she’s still single and works every single job in town – to distract her from the love that dare not speak its name?

4. Why doesn’t George fit the alliterative-species naming scheme? All the children are named things like Peppa Pig, Danny Dog, Suzy Sheep and Rebecca Rabbit. So why is George just George? They never even refer to him as George Pig. Was he adopted? Is his fixation on dinosaurs because he actually hatched from an egg?

5. Why is Peppa the only one to have a unique name? Given the rest are called things like Edmund, Freddy and Zoe, did the writers invent one name and then get lazy? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to call her Poppy or Pippa?

6. Why do Mummy and Daddy Pig’s friends call them Mummy and Daddy Pig, and not their real names? Did they lose their names when they became parents? Were their identities wiped out at the same time?

7. What the hell is Mr Potato? Talking animals? I don’t have a problem with that. Everyone living on their own hilltop? Unlikely topography, but okay, it’s a fantasy. But a sentient root vegetable? It’s starch and water. How did it grow a brain?

8. How come they have a doctor and a vet? They’re all animals. The job of a doctor and the job of a vet should be interchangeable. (And as a side note, why is the GP called Dr Brown Bear? There’s no Mummy Pink Pig or Grampy White Rabbit, is there?).

9. Why are all the animals the same size? Irrespective of species, everyone in Peppa Pig is one of five sizes: baby, toddler, young child, older child, adult. There is no distinction between an adult elephant and an adult hamster. That’s pretty messed up. Was there some kind of atomic event that mutated these animals even as it wiped out every human being except the Queen?

10. Why are people’s jobs so unrealistic? Mummy Pig simply types on a computer from time to time. The extent of Daddy Pig’s architectural expertise is drawing houses on pieces of paper and occasionally mentioning concrete. Meanwhile, Miss Rabbit does a hundred different jobs, while Mr Bull seems to juggle work for the council with private contracts, ranging from digging up the road to building houses and fixing roofs. You couldn’t possibly run an economy like this. It makes no sense.

 

So how do you tie all these disparate threads together? What’s the theory that explains it all? (Don’t get your hopes up). Here it is:

All the characters are human, and everything that happens is happening in Peppa’s head. It’s not reality but her perception of reality.

Told you it wasn’t very original. In this case, however, it seems to fit.

Peppa is an infant playing a game of make-believe involving the people and situations around her. But it’s not a very sophisticated game, because she’s a kid – she includes barbecues, and doctors and vets, because she doesn’t have the capacity to think through the full ramifications of her fantasy.

The human Peppa whose perceptions we’re seeing is a typical kid, in that she thinks the world revolves around her. She thinks she’s special, she’s unique – that’s why she has an identity (a name) that is different from everyone around her. And, like most kids, she thinks she’s more special within her own family than her siblings, that she is her parent’s proper child (Peppa Pig) while her younger brother is nothing more than an adopted nobody (George without the surname).

As a typically egocentric child, she can’t conceive of her parents having a life outside looking after her. They don’t even have names other than mummy and daddy. And while they do jobs, her interpretation of them is that mummy is playing on the computer and daddy is just drawing pictures, when they should be paying attention to her.

Because she’s a child, her perceptions are black and white, without nuance or subtlety. If her house is on a slight slope, she tells people it’s on top of a massive hill. A muddy puddle is ‘the biggest in the whole world’, while all adults are exactly the same size because they’re all bigger than her. In fact, all adults look pretty much the same to her – every shop worker, bus driver, and ice-cream seller looks like Miss Rabbit, while every builder, handyman or road worker looks like Mr Bull.

Only being able to interpret the world from her own narrow perspective explains why she depicts each complete family unit as a separate species – as a child, the family is her way of structuring the world around her into discrete entities, and she is too young to understand that families can break down and the father from one family (a lion, say) can run off with the mother of another family (a gazelle).

It’s why everyone only has one set of grandparents. Peppa herself only has one set of grandparents, so she perceives everyone else as having one set too, ignoring any evidence to the contrary, as that is how she structures her reality.

And where are Daddy Pig’s parents? Possibly they’re dead, possibly they’re negligent, but possibly they’re simply unwelcome. Given Mummy Pig’s incessant, passive-aggressive belittling of her husband, we might infer that she married beneath her, particularly as her parents are depicted as somewhat posh. Possibly Daddy Pig’s parents were racist lowlifes. The evidence for this comes from the name Peppa chooses for her doctor in her fantasy – not Dr Bear, but Dr Brown Bear. Where did she get that from? Has she heard somebody, her daddy perhaps, referring to their ethnic minority medical practitioner as Dr Brown?

Which brings us at last to Mr Potato, who underscores the entire theory and shows that this is what the creators of Peppa Pig had in mind. Mr Potato has no reason to exist in the Peppa Pig universe at all. So why does he?

Because children can’t differentiate fantasy from reality. As I said, my kids love Peppa Pig, and when we go to Peppa Pig World, they seem to think that the person in the giant Peppa Pig costume actually is Peppa Pig. The same is true of the human Peppa. She watches TV shows depicting anthropomorphic versions of animals, and has met costumed versions in real life so thinks they’re real. In her fantasy, as she makes people into animals, she has to shift the animals one step down the ladder, turning them into anthropomorphic versions of vegetables. That’s why Mr Potato, the fictional TV character in the Peppa Pig universe also exists as a real character in the Peppa Pig universe. The scriptwriters are using Mr Potato to tell us, the audience, that this is not reality: it’s Peppa’s perception, a young child’s perception, of reality.

We could even go deeper. Why has Peppa had three voices during the series? Because the human Peppa is getting older, but still clinging to this comforting infantile make-believe. That’s why early episodes were centred on the town and playgroup, while later ones went to Italy and Australia –  not because the writers were running out of ideas, but because Peppa herself was becoming more knowledgeable about the world. And why is she so desperate to escape into this elaborate world of pretend innocence? How awful is the real Peppa’s life that this is her happy place?

I’m telling you, the creators of Peppa Pig are freaking geniuses. That’s why it’s so popular with kids – it’s their perspective, writ large. That’s why I bath my kids with Peppa Pig soap, dry them with Peppa Pig towels, brush their teeth with Peppa Pig toothbrushes, dress them in Peppa Pig pyjamas, tuck them into Peppa Pig bedsheets, and read them a Peppa Pig bedtime story. For breakfast they have Peppa Pig yoghurt, then they pack their Peppa Pig stationery into their Peppa Pig rucksacks so they have something to do on the way to the Peppa Pig theme park. When we forget to use Peppa Pig prophylactics we use a Peppa Pig pregnancy test. Actually, no, but there might be a day, sooner than you think, that there is no other world outside Peppa Pig.

I’ll say it again: the creators of Peppa Pig are freaking geniuses.

Or am I just overthinking this?

Why Zebras Have Stripes (and 21 other things you’re probably wrong about)

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I like to think of myself as a reasonably knowledgeable guy. Actually, scratch that – I like to think of myself as an extremely knowledgeable guy. I’m aware that I’ve not specialised in any particular area, so my knowledge is not necessarily particularly deep, but it’s definitely broader than most.

At university and on my own I’ve studied anatomy, ancient languages, anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art history, astronomy and autism, and that’s just the first letter of the alphabet. I’ve done history and science and history of science; forensics and psychology and forensic psychology; politics and philosophy and political philosophy. Warfare and weaponry; crime and punishment; history, geography, geology, etymology; and a partridge in a pear tree. 

But I’m not a one-trick pony. Since I live in the real world of Ed Sheeran, Ellen DeGeneres and Elon Musk, I back up this academic knowledge with a sound insight into popular culture. I can tell my Spielbergs from my Scorceses, and my Khloes from my Kourtneys; my Family Guy and Firefly from my Stranger Things and Breaking Bad. Other than my Achilles Heel (sport), I’m the one you want on your pub quiz team.

But there are a number of difficulties that come from being so knowledgeable. Firstly, you’re surrounded by people who know less than you, which makes you feel great until you realise that when you want to talk about something that interests you, nobody is able to offer anything resembling an informed opinion until you’ve schooled them on your subject. Secondly, it makes you think that knowledge is a static monolith, when it’s actually a fluid multitude of changing viewpoints, so staying current on such a breadth of ideas is impossible and makes much of what you know obsolete. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, it makes you act like an arrogant turd.

Like the other day when my wife told me that zebras have stripes to stop flies landing on them.

‘Of course they don’t,’ I said, practically laughing in her face. ‘Who told you that rubbish?’

‘My friend.’

‘Well, your friend is wrong,’ I said in a very superior way. ‘Zebras evolved stripes as a way of breaking up their outline to make it more difficult for predators to cut an individual out from the herd.’

‘But it stops flies from landing on them because the stripes confuse them.’

‘Well, that might be a secondary benefit, but come on – evolution is all about survival. You really think they evolved stripes to stop flies landing on them and not to counter the 400lbs of teeth and claws trying to rip them to pieces on a daily basis? Use just a basic modicum of thought and you can see how stupid that sounds.’

And then, to hammer home how much of an asshole I am, I googled it to show her how I was right and she was…

Ah, hell.

I was right that evolution is all about survival. I was totally wrong about everything else. The current scientific consensus is that zebras evolved stripes to stop disease-carrying flies from landing on them. Thinking about it, it makes sense: there are probably a million flies for every lion, and once you’re weakened by a disease, you’re going to be easier to pick off.

So I was wrong. Completely. And more importantly, my wife was right. I’m never going to live this one down.

So I thought I’d make a list of some things that people think they know but are actually quite wrong about, whether through old information, fictionalisation in movies and TV, or simply because the conventional wisdom isn’t always as wise as it thinks it is. Arm yourself with these facts so you don’t fall into the same trap I did.

1. Hyenas are mostly predators, not scavengers. Estimates vary, but the widest known species, the spotted hyena, kills between 50% and 80% of the food it eats, and when lions and hyenas are seen around kills, in more than half of the cases, the hyenas made the kill. So why do we see them as skulking scavengers? Centuries of negative portrayals in literature, mythology and folklore because of how they look and sound. Yep, the maligning of Africa’s most successful predator is the closest we get to racism with regard to the Animal Kingdom.

2. Humans have far more than the five senses you were taught as kids. We also have equilibrioception (sense of balance and ability to detect acceleration); proprioception (sense of self-movement and body/limb positions); nociception (sense of pain); thermoception (sense of temperature); and a whole bunch of others like hunger, thirst, fullness, need to pee and need to poop. The best estimate is that we have between 14 and 20. Take that, M. Night Shyamalan.

3. You already use 100% of your brain. The myth that we only use 10%, and could do so much more if only we could unlock the rest of our potential, needs to be put to bed, not only because it’s wrong but because it keeps spawning naff action movies (Limitless, Lucy). You use different parts of your brain for different things, so you’re not going to use the whole 100% at the same time, but that doesn’t mean those other parts aren’t used. If they weren’t, they’d get colonised by other parts of the brain. The idea that a massive amount of the body’s blood supply goes to nourish an organ of which 90% lies dormant is just ‘laughable’.

4. The fat, laughing, half-naked golden Chinaman is not the Buddha. He is Budai, a 10th century CE Chinese Buddhist monk. Technically, he’s a Bodhisattva, like Patrick Swayze in Point Break – a spiritually-enlightened being. The actual Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who lived in the 5th century BCE. Most depictions of him are of a slim man sitting cross-legged, with short, tight curls and a top-knot on his head, a ‘third eye’ on his forehead, and a beatific expression on his face. This holy figure is most often seen as a neighbour’s lawn ornament. Speaking of holy figures…

5. The man we know as Jesus of Nazareth was actually called YeshuaThe Aramaic name Yeshua from the Hebrew Bible entered the Greek Bible as Iesous, which was translated into the Latin Bible as Iesus, and into the English Bible as Jesus. Likewise, God was not Jehovah, but Yahweh. Don’t anybody tell the guys at the Watchtower.

6. The Coriolis effect doesn’t make toilets flush clockwise/anti-clockwise in the northern/southern hemisphere. The Coriolis effect – essentially the deflection of an object that travels a long distance over the surface of the Earth without actually touching it – is caused by the planet rotating faster at the equator than at the poles, and affects weather patterns, ocean currents and the occasional sniper’s bullet, but not toilets, despite what you might have seen on The Simpsons. Toilets and even swimming pools are simply too small for the Coriolis effect to have any influence.

7. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct. Yep, this is a hard one to get your head around because it’s been drummed into you all your life that dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, but they didn’t. Most did, but the bird branch of the family tree survived and evolved into the avian species we know today. Birds are Maniraptors, which are coelurosaurs, which are theropods, which are saurischians, which are dinosaurs. Weird. Even stranger, the flying reptiles (pterosaurs), the swimming reptiles (ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs) and the squat ones with the sails on their backs (dimetrodons) that you see in all the posters, aren’t even dinosaurs at all. A simple rule of thumb is that a dinosaur’s legs are under the body, so anything with legs that stick out to the sides (like a crocodile or a tortoise) isn’t a dinosaur.

8. Cutting an earthworm in half doesn’t create two worms. Quite simply, worms have a head and a tail. The head has a mouth, the tail doesn’t. Both ends might wriggle around for a bit afterwards, but only the head can survive – the tail won’t.

9. Things burn up on entry into Earth’s atmosphere primarily because of air compression, not friction. When something hits the atmosphere, it’s normally travelling several kilometres a second. In the upper atmosphere where the descent is hottest and fastest, the air is too thin to create very much friction. Instead, the object’s travelling so fast the air in front of it can’t move out of the way so becomes squashed. As anybody who’s used a bike pump should know, when you compress air it heats up, and in the case of an object entering the atmosphere, massively so. There’s a lot of science involved, so if you want to properly understand it, follow this link to a guy from NASA explaining it better than I ever could.

10. The ‘alphas’ in wolf packs didn’t get there through aggression. For aeons we’ve been justifying competitive, hierarchical, and oftentimes quite shitty behaviour in business and society using the model of the wolf pack, in which a dominant ‘alpha’ male fights his way to the top like a particularly furry Al Capone. It’s a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, after all, especially if you want to become ‘top dog’. However, while this might be true of captive wolves in which unrelated individuals are confined together, studies in the wild show something very different. The ‘alphas’ at the top of the social hierarchy in wild wolf packs are actually ‘mum and dad‘; the subordinates are ‘their children’. When they reach maturity, young wolves go off to become alphas of their own packs i.e. find a partner, settle down and have some kids. Even among primates, where the alpha can physically dominate the rest of the tribe, their behaviour is far more supportive and nurturing than the ‘alpha male’ stereotype that business magnates and your asshole boss would have you believe.

11. Carrots don’t help you see in the dark. If you have a vitamin A deficiency that causes a loss of night vision, eating carrots rich in vitamin A will restore your night vision to the same level as a normal, healthy person. If you don’t have vitamin A deficiency, eating carrots won’t make you see any better in the dark than someone who never touches carrots. This is a myth that goes back to the Second World War. To conceal the fact that the RAF were intercepting German bombers at night using radar, the Air Ministry issued press releases claiming their pilots could see in the dark by eating carrots. Not only did the Germans believe it but the British public did too, and here we are almost eighty years later still fooled.

12. Glass is a solid at room temperature and doesn’t continue to flow. I’ve been told many times that glass is a supercooled liquid – once by a guide showing me around the Colleges of Cambridge University. The error seems to stem from the fact that the glass in the windows of old buildings is thicker at the bottom – which my erstwhile guide pointed out many times during the tour – suggesting that the glass has continued to flow over hundreds of years. This is actually completely wrong. Glass is an amorphous solid. This means its atomic structure isn’t neat, the way it is in crystals, say, but it’s still solid. The reason medieval glass is thicker at the bottom is simple: glass-making back then wasn’t exactly refined, so the sheets they created were often uneven; builders would put the thicker end at the bottom, because they weren’t stupid. That said, I have seen the occasional examples where they’ve put the glass in with the thicker end at the top, proving (if it even needed proof) that glass is a solid. And speaking of people in the past being stupid…

13. People didn’t used to think the world was flat. At least, not for the past 2500 years. Okay, some people still think the world is flat, but the experts, like scientists, mathematicians and navigators, knew it was roughly spherical. Ancient Greek astronomers (3rd century BCE), Roman astronomers (1st century CE) and Arab astronomers (830 CE) all calculated the circumference of the Earth, and there are anecdotal, pseudoscientific claims that the Ancient Egyptians also knew. The reason Europeans mocked Christopher Columbus was not because they thought he’d fall off the edge of the world but because they knew he was wrong. Columbus massively miscalculated the size of the Earth (he also thought it was pear-shaped), and if he hadn’t stumbled into America, his crews would all have starved. In fact, he died still thinking he’d sailed all the way to India, when he was actually closer to India in Europe without ever leaving home!

14. Columbus wasn’t even the first European to visit North America. There were Viking colonies in Greenland and Canada hundreds of years before the Spanish conquistadors. The best guess is that the first European in North America was Leif Eriksson around 1000 CE, five-hundred years before Columbus.

15. You can’t restart a stopped heart with electricity. The defibrillator stops a heart that’s in atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat i.e. a heart attack) in the hope it starts itself in a normal rhythm. It does nothing to an already-stopped heart, so there would be no situation where the heart monitor flatlines, someone shouts, ‘Clear!’ and with a loud PA-JOOM, the patient is jolted back to life. So why do we see it all the time on TV, even in shows that are otherwise medically accurate? Because audiences expect it. Presumably it was first used, wrongly, to make for a dramatic scene; then others started doing it; and now, if you don’t do it, people are taken out of the movie or show because they’re thinking, ‘Why’s he not shocking her?’ This particular nonsense shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

16. Shaving doesn’t make your hair grow back thicker and faster. It just feels like it does. Your hair follicle is under the skin, so when you shave, you’re not removing the hair entirely, just the end of it. What you actually do by chopping off the end is to make it blunt, and therefore rougher to the touch. It doesn’t stimulate growth or anything else. And while we’re on the topic of hair…

17. Your hair and fingernails don’t keep growing after you die. Folklorists and internet experts will tell you that the vampire myth comes from people digging up dead bodies only to discover their hair, teeth and nails had grown longer. This is only a partial truth. In reality, the longer hair, teeth and nails is the result of the corpse’s skin shrinking as it decomposes. In addition, dark ‘purge fluids’ leaking from mouth and nostrils, and the bloating of the corpse through trapped decomposition gases, all contributed to the idea that the dead could climb out of their coffins and drink blood from the living. (As a side note, the belief in vampires is still scarily common in certain parts of the world, with a bunch of villagers digging up and defiling the corpse of a neighbour in Romania in 2003 after he turned into a ‘strigoi‘).

18. Stretching before exercise doesn’t prevent soreness. Sure, we’ve all been indoctrinated into the belief that you need to stretch before a workout to avoid aching the next day, but it isn’t actually true. Stretching regularly helps to keep you supple and flexible, but it doesn’t prevent strains, injuries or aches. So whether it’s before, during, or after exercise, stretching is about increasing your range of movement, not a magical preventative to protect you from overdoing it.

19. Cracking your knuckles doesn’t cause arthritis. It’s not a pleasant thing to do by any means, but popping bubbles in the synovial fluid around your joints isn’t going to wreck your hands in later life. There is some evidence it might reduce grip strength, and you might break your knuckle if you do it too hard, but you’re not going to give yourself arthritis.

20. Stomach ulcers aren’t caused by stress. Since time immemorial it was thought that peptic ulcers – a thinning of the lining of the stomach to create a sore – was caused by lifestyle factors, such as stress, coffee, alcohol and spicy foods. While these things certainly exacerbate peptic ulcers, they don’t actually cause them. Instead, up to 90% are caused by helicobacter pylori bacteria, and the rest by long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, although smoking apparently increases your risk (as it seems to do with everything). Unfortunately, knowing it’s not caused by stress makes a certain Malcolm in the Middle episode far less enjoyable.

21. There is no such thing as biological race. Or, to quote National Geographic, ‘There’s no scientific basis for race – it’s a made-up label’. Yeah, this is a controversial one and perhaps the most difficult to accept. If you look at genetics, there is incredibly little difference between people. We’re more closely related to one another than chimpanzees to other chimpanzees. In fact, since all non-Africans are descended from the same few thousand individuals that left the continent 60,000 years ago, Europeans and Asians and Native Americans and Oceanians are more closely related to one another than Africans to other Africans. The category ‘black’ to refer to all Africans as a single ‘race’ is therefore incredibly reductive, since they encompass far more genetic variation than non-blacks.

‘But we look different,’ I hear you cry. Yes, we do, but that’s mostly because we’ve adapted to where we happen to live on the planet, and haven’t moved around very much, so each population has ended up looking a little different, the way that my kids look like me and my brother’s kids look like him. Genetically, however, beneath the superficialities of skin colour, eye-shape and whether or not you can grow facial hair, we’ve remained remarkably similar. Indeed, of a person’s 20,000 genes and three-billion base pairs, a difference in a single gene, SLC24A5, where there is a G in sub-Saharan Africans, and an in Europeans, accounts for most of the difference in skin pigmentation.

If we were different races – if there were more than just superficial differences – you’d expect there to be distinctive alleles (the particular ‘flavour’ of a gene) belonging to each different race. There are indeed different alleles that appear to relate to different regions – around 7.4% of the total studied. However, these ‘race-specific’ alleles only occur in 1% of the population, meaning 1% of Africans have an African allele, 1% of Europeans have a European allele, and so on. Indeed, given the variation within populations, a European might be more genetically similar to an Asian than another European. This is hard scientific proof that while you might be able to infer a person’s ancestry from their appearance, we are all the same.

So if race doesn’t exist, why are we still so obsessed with it? Probably because we invented the notion of race to explain why we look different long before we had a scientific understanding of DNA and genetics. I mean, the Human Genome Project wasn’t completed until 2003. We’ve spent the past few hundred years dividing people into different races based on their ancestry, and then assigning those races different characteristics and relative values, so while race might not exist as a biological reality, it certainly exists as a social, political, cultural and psychological construct, interwoven into the fabric of how we see ourselves and others. If everyone came to accept the new, scientific view that the differences between people are cultural, not biological, perhaps the world would be a better place; but in doing so, you’d undermine the means by which billions of people self-identify. Instead of proclaiming that black lives matter, we really ought to be chanting that race doesn’t really exist, but I honestly don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

And these are my facts. If you’ve made it this far, well done: you’re better armed against the untruths that litter society. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Read both sides of an argument. See which you agree with or if there’s a consensus.

And if you can, do it before you put your foot in your mouth.

How children learn to talk

As a guy with Asperger’s, and the parent of two kids at different stages of learning to speak, the English language fascinates me. This might sound strange considering that part of living with autism means struggling to communicate, but by forcing me to obsess about words and meaning, those very difficulties made me not only an expert on morphology and syntax, but also a bit of a grammar Nazi. This means I find it incredibly satisfying to watch my girls struggling to work out the rules of the language – and often very annoying too.

‘But surely,’ I hear you non-parents cry, ‘children learn to speak by imitation. They don’t learn grammar until they’re at school.’

You’re wrong. Emphatically so. It’s hardwired into us to spot patterns, and two facets of the English language provide incontrovertible proof that toddlers are not simply passive recipients of their mother tongue, mindlessly parroting back what they’ve heard, but active participants in deciphering language: irregular verbs and irregular plural nouns.

Since most people don’t read grammar primers for fun, a bit of explanation is required. Let’s start with the verbs. There are strong, irregular verbs that have three forms to denote tenses (present, past and past imperfect), like ‘sink, sank, have sunk’, or ‘swim, swam, have swum’, and some with two, like ‘buy’ and ‘bought’, and ‘think’ and ‘thought’. By far the most common, however, are the weak, regular verbs that simply add ‘ed’ to the end to change tense, so ‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’ and ‘talk’ becomes ‘talked’.

Ever heard a child say that they ‘winned’ or they ‘runned’ or they ‘taked’ or they ‘eated’? They absolutely did not pick that up by listening to other people. What they’ve done is notice a rule – that you put a ‘d’ sound on the end of a regular verb to change its tense – and they’ve generalised that rule and applied it to every verb, including the irregular ones. Even if they’re not consciously doing it, they’re grappling with the rules of grammar to make meaning.

The same is true of irregular plural nouns. You pluralise regular nouns by adding an ‘s’ at the end, so ‘bed’ becomes ‘beds’ and ‘tree’ becomes ‘trees’. How, then, are we to account for toddlers talking about ‘sheeps’ and ‘childs’ and ‘mouses’, instead of ‘sheep’ and ‘children’ and ‘mice’? They’ve learned a rule and applied it where it doesn’t work. As seemingly incapable as they are, they’re advanced pattern-recognition machines. That’s right, every kid is a freaking genius.

Another thing children have to do when they learn to talk is limit the range of meanings a particular word can have. If you point at a picture of a silver convertible and say ‘car’, you’d be pretty confident they understand something so simple, but you’d again be wrong. The truth is that pinning down the meaning of a word is far more complicated than that. Are you saying this individual vehicle is a car? Are you saying that all things with wheels are cars? Are you saying all silver things are cars? All convertibles?

As an example, two of the first words my youngest learned were ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, and while she was accurately able to distinguish a dog from a cat, her fluency was actually rather deceptive. We quickly discovered that she understood ‘cat’ to be a catchall term for ‘anything alive that is not a dog’, so rabbits, mice, monkeys, or even people were cats in her mind. Similarly, my oldest often makes mistakes with gender-specific pronouns, thinking ‘he’ and ‘his’ are universal instead of referring to a particular sex, so it can be quite confusing when she’s talking about her friend Phoebe and starts using ‘he’ and ‘him’. Kids have to work out what individual words refer to, or which of several separate meanings is the one you want, and that’s before they can even feed themselves properly.

Speaking of personal pronouns, have you ever thought about the complexity of a sentence as apparently simple as, ‘She gave it to me’? In order to say it, children have to learn to distinguish between first, second and third-person, singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and identify the subject and object of a sentence.

‘Now you’re talking nonsense,’ I hear you cry. ‘That can wait till secondary school.’

Actually, no. While it’s true that English lost most of its inflections and gender constructions, for some reason we kept them when it comes to pronouns. This is another topic that needs a bit of unpacking, so buckle in, it’s going to get interesting.

‘I’ is the first person singular. ‘We’ is the first-person plural. It’s easiest to think of the first-person as involving yourself. I am part of what’s happening, whether it’s just me on my own, or me and some others. You use this when speaking about yourself.

‘You’ is the second-person. You is both singular and plural. You use this when you’re addressing someone to refer to them.

‘He’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ is the third-person singular. ‘They’ is the plural. You use this to describe what other people did that didn’t include you. It’s in the third-person singular that gender comes in – he, she, him, his, her – and is the reason it’s become a battlefield of the trans movement. The only gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun is ‘it’, which normally refers to inanimate objects or gender-indistinguishable animals, whereas many gender-neutral individuals like Sam Smith prefer to be referred to as ‘they’, which purists object to since that is a third-person plural term.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Subject and object is far easier.

The subject of a sentence is the one who does something; the object is the one who has something done to them. In English, we normally distinguish them by their place in the sentence in relation to the verb. Thus in the sentence ‘John kisses Mary’, John is the subject (the one who kisses) and Mary is the object (the one who is kissed). If you want to reverse the meaning, you simply switch the nouns around to ‘Mary kisses John’. This is why English is referred to as an SVO language, because we construct meaning using ‘subject-verb-object’ (about half the planet’s languages are SOV, or subject-object-verb, so would write ‘Mary John kisses’, but it’s not important to know this).

Many of the older languages that influenced English, like German, French, Greek and Latin, are inflected languages, which means the words change their form to reflect their relationship to other words. In Latin, for example, whether a word is the subject or the object is denoted by its ending rather than its position in the sentence, thus ‘Sextus laborat mulum’ and ‘mulum laborat Sextus’ mean exactly the same thing: ‘Sextus works the mule’ (theoretically, the words could be in any order, but in practice, Latin was an SOV language).

The trouble with inflected endings is that people are lazy speakers, so over time they drop word endings, which totally messes up the meaning and forces the language to evolve. English speakers tend be very lazy speakers – we’ve reduced most of our endings to the ‘schwa’ vowel sound ‘uh’, hence the endings of footballer, theatre, literature and banana are now pronounced the same (at least where I live, anyway), so that’s how we ended up with an SVO language. Whether a noun is the subject or the object it stays the same, unless it’s a personal pronoun, in which case it gets tricky.

Now comes the fun part. In order to speak properly using pronouns, you have to know the person (first, second or third), the quantity (singular or plural) and identify the subject and object. That’s how you know the first-person singular subject ‘I’ becomes ‘me’ as the object, just as the first-person plural subject ‘we’ becomes ‘us’ as the object. It’s how you know ‘he’, the third-person singular masculine subject, gives something to ‘him’, the third-person singular masculine object, and ‘she’ gives something to ‘her’. It’s how you know ‘they’, the third -person plural subject, becomes ‘them’. And this is without even mentioning the possessive pronouns ‘my’, ‘our’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and ‘their’.

Pretty complex ideas that need to be unpacked right from the start of learning to talk, not at secondary school. Whether they know it or not, kids are having to sift through a linguistic labyrinth just to say something as simple as ‘I gave it to her’. It’s the reason you hear so many toddlers say, ‘Me do it!’ and the reason it hits your ear wrong: they’ve correctly identified that ‘me’ is first-person singular, but they haven’t yet managed to grasp that ‘I’ is the proper term to use when they’re the subject. See? Kids are sorting out incredibly complex rules, most of them without even being aware they’re doing it.

What I really enjoy about children learning to speak is when their misapplication of the rules, mishearing of idioms, or simple mispronunciations create something genuinely interesting.

Like my youngest the other day walked up to the cat and gave her a kick. I told her off, and then a few minutes later she did it again. When I asked her why, she pointed at the screen and said, ‘Kick cat.’ It didn’t dawn on me until later that we’d been watching a programme on chocolate and they were talking about KitKats!

It’s also been really difficult to convince her that her name is not ‘me’, it’s Rosie. The closest we’ve managed is to get her to say, ‘Rose-me,’ which I guess is close enough.

My eldest, Izzie, is an expert at mixing up expressions. She always says, ‘by your own’ because she’s combined two expressions that mean the same thing: ‘by yourself’ and ‘on your own’. Also, because there’s a bedtime and a night time, she often shouts out in the middle of the night, ‘Is it morning time yet?’

Her pronunciation also leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of dropping the ends of her words and replacing them with a schwa, she has a tendency to drop the start of her words, so banana becomes ‘uhnana’ and ‘pretending’ is pronounced ‘uhtending ‘. And I swear she must have lived in Louisiana in a past life, because at times she has the most Southern drawl of any English girl I’ve ever met. Instead of hotel, she says, ‘Ho-TAY-ul,’ and instead of daffodil, it’s ‘daff-o-DEE-ul.’ It’s like sharing a house with that racist redneck sheriff from the Bond movies.

But the best thing she’s ever done is her song, ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy.’ She’s been singing it for months, and it drives me nuts, but I’ve only just figured out where it comes from.

If you study idioms, you find that their meanings and the words therein gradually change over time. This is particularly true if they contain a word that falls out of fashion and survives only as part of that idiom, and that word is normally changed to one that is more familiar. ‘All that glisters is not gold’ became ‘All that glistens is not gold,’ for example, and people everywhere these days say they’re ‘chomping’ at the bit, when the expression is ‘champing‘.

Kids do this all the time. With their limited vocabulary, they hear something and try to fit it into the words they already know. ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy’? She’s really singing, ‘Alcohol, alcohol, make you crazy.’

Of course, just because I know the difference between the definite and indefinite article doesn’t mean that I’m immune from misunderstandings, far from it, in fact. I’ll leave you with this little anecdote that happened to me the other day. I was listening to the radio in the car when an advert came on extolling the virtues of a particular brand of tyre. It ended with the line, ‘If you want a tyre without standing grip and performance, buy…’ and whatever the brand was called.

I frowned out at the road. Why would you want a tyre that has no standing grip? If you parked it on a hill, what’s it going to do, slide down to the bottom? And what on earth do they mean by standing performance? Surely you want the best performance when you’re driving down the road, not when you’re standing still. What odd characteristics they chose to highlight in their advert, I thought.

It was only later that I realised the man had said, ‘with outstanding grip and performance’. Whoops.

The definition of impossible

Before you have kids, you think of the impossible in terms of massively unachievable goals that affect the very nature of our existence. World peace, faster-than-light travel, a day without anybody mentioning Brexit. You know, big things.

After you’ve had kids, your understanding of impossibility comes much closer to home.

Like, have you ever tried explaining to a four-year-old that the man who lives with Granny isn’t Grandpa but is actually Granny’s boyfriend? What about the difference between a boyfriend and a husband, or why some people get married and some people don’t? It makes faster-than-light travel seem a cinch by comparison.

What about trying to follow the labyrinthine stories they tell through all the twists and turns of pointless details and extraneous information? You might as well try learning ancient Greek without a primer for all the sense it makes.

Have you ever tried fishing poo out of the bathtub without smearing it all over the sides? Or explaining to a toddler that she really shouldn’t poop in the bath.

Why? Why?

Have you ever tried explaining to your kids that Justin Fletcher and Mr Tumble are the same person, or that the distinction between ‘not nearly there yet’ and ‘nearly there yet’ is longer than thirty seconds? I’ve given up trying to make them understand perspective – if they think the moon is chasing the car every time we drive, I’m just going to have to leave that delusion intact.

I’ve also decided not to bother asking what my eldest did at school anymore, because it’s a mystery I will never get to the bottom of. Other than learning that she once saw a pigeon in the playground, whatever happens inside those school gates stays inside those school gates.

And forget trying to get your kid to understand how to tell a joke.

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Izzie. Ha ha!

Izzie who?

Izzie. It’s me. Your daughter.

Oh

At least her chicken jokes are getting better, if only because their randomness makes them unintentionally amusing. Why did the cow cross the road? Because it was the dog’s day off at work, ha ha!

Of course, some people out there are going to argue that these things aren’t really impossible, and they’re hardly universal, applying only to me in my very limited family sphere. To those people, I will say that I’ve come to believe there are some impossible truths that cross all cultures and time periods and afflict every parent in human history: the word ‘no’ will never be the end of it; you cannot cut an onion small enough that your kids don’t pick every last bit out of their dinner; and even if you tie their shoes together and lock them in a safe, when you come to leave the house, one will always be missing.

I’ll leave you with this little nugget about the impossible in the life of a parent: it is easier to get an honest answer from a politician than to get your kids to change their bedtime story.

In a World of Poo

Like sex, periods and who farted in the elevator, poo and pooping is something we really don’t like to talk about. As a species, we keep up this strange charade that we don’t poop, even though the presence of toilet paper in everyone’s bathrooms suggests we’re really bad liars. It’s a natural bodily process, yet it’s shrouded by an aura of mystery and wonder, shame and disgust, as though we’re crapping out porno mags we’d hate our grandmothers to see. And that’s just silly.

Now, I’m not suggesting it’s something we should discuss over dinner, and I’m certainly not advocating we start taking photos of our bowel movements to impress our neighbours with, but as someone who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is allergic to all different kinds of food, and spends much of his life either sitting on toilets or else desperately trying to find them, it can be a lot of fun watching people squirm whenever you bring it up. And if we can’t talk about it, we’re not only denying the reality of our experience and reassuring other sufferers that they’re perfectly normal, we’re missing out on a lot of potential humour.

From an early age I had problems with my gut. The slightest things could trigger a bout of diarrhoea – too much wheat, too much cheese, a new food, skipping a meal, even simple nervousness. I’ve taken allergy tests (I should avoid gluten, dairy, chocolate and pulses, apparently), given up wheat, and carefully manage my diet, but while severe episodes have become less frequent, my digestive system cannot be called normal by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, I’ve been passing soft stools for so many decades, I worry what might happen to my asshole should I ever pass something hard!

I often disappear from parties, weddings, barbecues and family dinners to spend a half-hour moaning as I destroy a kindly person’s perfectly clean toilet bowl. Thanks to an episode in an Amarillo coach station, I missed my bus, leaving me stranded in Texas while my luggage travelled 450 miles away to Denver. A month ago I was sitting in traffic on a busy road when I realised I just couldn’t hold it anymore – the conclusion to this story, involving my new hat and one of my baby daughter’s nappies, I’m not going to go into here.

But why do I bring all this up on a blog about parenting? Because it’s been dominating my thoughts since I’ve spent the past six days up to my elbows in a three-year-old’s watery-porridge-like poop, and it might be all my fault.

Saturday she had a stomach ache all day and was off her food. That night it started, and by today (Thursday), it still hasn’t stopped. If anything, it’s got worse because despite being out of nappies for a year, she’s become incontinent. If you want to know where she is, you just have to follow the slick brown snail trail that leads across the carpet, and there you will find her, sitting in a mess at the end of it.

Our sinks are clogged with chocolate-coated knickers; the bath tub is populated by two polka-dotted pillows and a slime-smeared rug; and there is a duvet out on the washing line in the pouring rain because it’s better out there than in here.

Some of her clothes aren’t worth trying to salvage, so have been dumped in a bin that the sea gulls have become very interested in. We’ve put her in her sister’s nappies, but as a three-year-old who is mistaken for a five-year-old all the time, they catch only some of the deluge before giving up and resigning themselves to the flow. We are drowning in a floodtide of poo, like a Biblical plague that destroys all before it, and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to end.

The funny thing is that she’s fine in herself – other than that first day, her appetite has been good, she doesn’t have a temperature, and she has bundles of energy – and nor has she passed it to her little sister, her mother or me, so it’s clearly not viral and/or infectious. I thought it might be bacterial, but apparently not.

After she left a big brown dollop on the landing, which I stepped in at five o’clock this morning with bare feet, I took her to the doctor, who said she would put money on it being a food allergy. Despite eating wheat since we weaned her, apparently you can develop an allergy suddenly – almost overnight. We’ve been told to cut wheat out of her diet and she’s been referred to specialists for tests.

And so my daughter may well be embarking upon a lifetime of being that awkward one at the restaurant who asks for the special dietary menu, the asshole that everyone has to buy expensive ingredients to cater for, and the bastard who keeps stinking out their friends’ houses. And she will likely talk to all and sundry about the realities of living with her condition, and inwardly smile as she watches the discomfort on their faces.

Like father, like daughter.

The Greatest Spoonman

I am 39 years old, give or take six months. That means I’ve been alive around 14,235 days not accounting for leap years. I’m good at some things, less so at others, but one thing I can say without any exaggeration or false modesty: I’m damned good at using a spoon.

Some people look at me and think I was just born with certain genetic advantages, but I wasn’t. My skill with a spoon does not come naturally but has been honed over a lifetime of practice and hard work. If we scratch out the first two years of my life (which are a little vague in my memory), let’s suppose for the next four years, I used a spoon an average of four times a day, or a total of 5,840 times. If you use anything that many times, you become an expert. You have to put in the effort to get the results.

Unfortunately, my dedication to spoons slackened off after that as life got in the way. After starting school, up until eleven, I probably used a spoon twice a day – once for my cereal in the morning and once for pudding at teatime. Although I wasn’t really focusing on my spoon-wielding skills, I still managed to get another 4,380 uses in my logbook. Quite good for the average person, but not enough if you want your spooning to take you to the Olympics.

Then at twelve I started to take things more seriously. Like a quintessential Englishman, I started drinking tea to help focus my performances. For five years, seven spoons a day, that’s another 12,775 times.

At seventeen, shortly after taking silver at the National Spooning Championships, I realised I would have to add coffee to my daily regimen if I ever wanted gold. Eight to ten cups a day, plus cereal for breakfast and yoghurt for pudding, say, twelve spoons a day for 23 years, and you’re looking at 100,740.

Total times I’ve used a spoon in my life (give or take a couple of thousand): 123,735.

That is how I became what I am today. All my plaudits and successes in spoon usage have come from 39 years of single-minded pursuit of excellence. I am, without a doubt and by any objective measure, a giant of spoon-wielding brilliance.

But apparently, I’m using my spoon wrong. I’ve been using it wrong all my life. Luckily, my three-year-old was able to put me right over breakfast this morning. How lucky I am to have such an expert in my home who is able to correct years of bad technique.

Her lectures on how to properly use toilet paper, the best way of making coffee, and how I should shave my face have also been greatly appreciated and improved my life no end.

This will take me to the next level, so look out world! If I was unstoppable before, with the help of my three-year-old’s wisdom and expertise, I will soon conquer this puny planet. All hail your new emperor.

My Daddy-Obsessed Daughter Rosie

My daughter is killing me.

I don’t mean that figuratively. I’m pretty sure that each day that passes, she’s shaving a bit off my life expectancy. I was going to reach a hundred. I’m down to eighty-nine. Keep this up, and I won’t be seeing fifty. Sometimes I think I’ll be lucky to see tomorrow.

Allow me to explain.

Over the past year, while I’ve repeatedly mentioned my three-year-old daughter Izzie on this blog, I’ve rarely referred to her sixteen-month-old sister Rosie. This has not been a deliberate decision, but come about as a result of the fact that, as Izzie continues to break new ground and present me with new challenges as a father, she gives me new things to write about. Rosie, on the other hand, as the second child, walks in her older sister’s footsteps as far as growing up goes, and as such gives me less new subject matter to work with.

As in the world of blogging, so in the world itself. My daughter is in the unfortunate position of being younger sister to the shining star that is my Izzie. While Rosie is no less delightful, no less adorable, no less loveable and intelligent and playful and lovely, she has been cursed to be born two years after her sister arrived. Had Rosie arrived first, I have no doubt she would be the world’s darling, but, through no fault of her own, she did not, and the consequence is to not only follow in her sister’s footsteps, but to be in her shadow.

Rosie is my forgotten sweetheart. It breaks my heart to see her so neglected by the very people who ought to be the most attentive. The family loved Izzie as she was the first daughter, grandchild, niece, whatever. They organised one day a week they’d look after her; two evenings a week they’d cook for her; booked her into classes; got memberships so they could visit zoos and soft play centres and adventure parks with her. When Rosie came along, these things were already in place, and they couldn’t possibly look after two children at once, so they simply stuck with the one. Meaning they were already so invested in Izzie they didn’t have the room or the inclination to integrate Rosie into their lives.

The long and the short of it is that for the past year, Rosie has mostly stayed at home with her daddy while Izzie has been gallivanting about the countryside with the extended family. Our household has become two separate teams – mummy going out with Izzie, and daddy staying at home with Rosie. This might be okay in families whose division of labour within the home is roughly equal, but since I do the lion’s share of the childcare – I get them up in the morning, get them breakfast, lunch and dinner, change all the nappies, wipe all the bottoms, do all the baths and put them both to bed every night – it means that while Izzie gets attention from both of us, Rosie only has me. And this has a significant effect on our relationship.

For a long time, Rosie has been a daddy’s girl. If I left the room she started to grizzle. If she felt unsure, unsafe, it was daddy to whom she fled. I thought it was rather cute, at first.

Then it started to concern me. Izzie would come and give me a hug, and Rosie would scream and try to pull her off me. Sibling rivalry, they said. Perfectly normal, they said.

About a month ago, I was lying on the sofa and my wife came over, got on her knees and placed her head on my chest. In a flash, Rosie had my wife’s hair entwined around her fingers and was dragging her away from me. And then, mission accomplished, she climbed up onto my chest and sat there like the king of the castle. Mine, she was almost saying. He’s mine.

Ouch. You can imagine what that does to a mother’s self-esteem.

Worse comes at night. She will only fall asleep with daddy, which means when I try to walk away, she morphs into a snarling, spitting, screaming creature that I barely recognise as human. I’m seriously waiting for her head to rotate 360-degrees as she projectile vomits pea soup. I’ve even found two sixes on her scalp – one more and we’ll know her true name (joking! But she does have an unusual birthmark on the back of her head…).

It’s a horrible life I seem to have carved out for myself. I advised in a previous post that you shouldn’t get into a place where your child will only fall asleep on you, but I unfortunately didn’t follow my own advice.

It’s my own fault. With the first baby, I went upstairs with her every night, rocked her in my arms, sang her to sleep or else read her a chapter of a book. With the second, I didn’t have the energy. I’d put the first to bed and, instead of rocking the second for hours, I figured it’d be easier just to lie on the sofa with her till she fell asleep naturally.

Big mistake.

The plan for the new year is to distance myself from my youngest. It sounds mean, sure, but she needs a far wider base of support than I can give her – especially if she wants me around in future years. Because, as much as I love her, I wish my little Rosie didn’t love me quite so much!