Making the most of a new life


It might be a comic, but it is not funny.

It is rant week on ChangingDad, and I’m getting those niggly things about parenthood that irritate me off my chest. These are not things that are, in the final analysis, important but bother me nonetheless.

Today I want to talk about children’s magazines. These are the things we get hassled for in places such as supermarkets, railway stations, motorway service areas and pretty much every convenience store. There is no escape from them, and no wonder considering the profits that must be made from them.

In order to make them more attractive to children, as if having their favourite characters on the front were not enough, they usually have some sort of plastic toy clamped to the front. When I look at these all I see is some crappy thing that is going to break as soon as the average child gets hold of it. To my boys they look like the gold at the end of the rainbow, the nirvana of their shopping expedition.

And so the pestering begins, and goes on and on and on. More often than not we resist the temptation to give in, but perhaps one time in ten we are just too tired or in too much of a hurry to go through the whole process of steering the conversation elsewhere; usually a reasonable lengthy process.

So we end up with one of these comics, open up the treasure and, more often than not, it falls out either broken or breaks on impact. If not then it breaks within five minutes of being played with, with predictable consequences, meaning that the discontent has only been delayed from shop to home.

I find this to be a very cynical policy by the makers of these products, and the worst kind of marketing. They play on the desires of the children, and they play on the fact that the magazines are sold in situations which are often stressful for parents who will give in rather than being embarrassed in public by their children. In fact the only playing that is not done is the children with the toys. We are played by the marketers every time.

Any trip through a supermarket with a child will tell you how effective marketing is with well known characters staring down from the shelves on anything from yoghurt to clothes, from birthday cakes to kitchen roll. A Lightning McQueen yoghurt will taste much better than a properly healthy one, and a Pooh nappy is much more comfortable than a biodegradable one with a generic animal on it; and while I find this frustrating it is no where near as bad as those crappy magazine toys.

In the end though I do not think that these strategies work as well as they could because, despite what the marketers may think, children actually are not that stupid and soon come to realise that they are being sold a pup (but that is a whole other story).

This is what really gets my goat. What marketing practices annoy you? Do you think that our children are targeted more than the rest of us, and is this ethically wrong?

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 10. Presents

In many ways Karen and I were victims of our own success. Since most of our relatives live overseas we were given budgets, albeit modest ones, to buy presents for the boys. Presents that would be what the boys wanted and that would fit with their existing toys. This seemed a good idea because it meant that they would not have presents that they did not want, and so would not sit in the corner unplayed with.

So Karen and I spent many hours looking for the right toys at the right price on eBay in particular, since we thought that it was a responsible thing to do to reuse rather that buy new, our criteria being that the toys were pretty much in mint condition and came in their original box. There were certainly plenty to choose from this year, no doubt with many people wanting to sell unused and seldom played with toys to fund their Christmases this year, and we got a good haul of clean new looking toys for a fraction of the new price. We were so pleased with ourselves, and as each new parcel arrived we checked it and put it away in the garage.

The thing was that we did not see all the boxes together in one place, and as the parcels began to appear and were ripped open over the Christmas period we began to view the growing mound of presents in the corner with some alarm. By Christmas morning we had decided that the boys should have one more present and their stockings and call a halt the the proceedings so they had an opportunity to play with what they had, and save the unopened ones (which they did not know about) until the New Year when we come back from Germany.

Are we right to do this? I do not know. It felt right at the time. It felt as if we had presented the boys with all the parcels at once they would have been completely overwhelmed by the whole thing and, although it would have looked amazing, they would not have known where to start once everything was open. But, on the other hand, I also wonder whether we should have trusted them more.

For me this also begs the question of who the presents are for. Do we present our children with mounds of presents at Christmas to somehow prove we are good parents? Or do we just want to make them happy, and think that this happiness can me measured quantitatively somehow? I suspect that the boys, certainly at their current ages, would have a good time however big the mound of presents we gave them, since we tried hard to make the rest of Christmas, and the run up to the bug day, special for them as well.

Whatever the answer to these questions are we will certainly be rethinking this next year, but I have a feeling that as the boys get older new issues will emerge. As with most things only time will tell as the change continues.

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 8. Eve

The boys are now in bed. They have had a few presents and had a chance to get to know them and play with them. There has been much excitement with tearing of paper and joyous looks on their faces.

Then comes my favourite part. The bit where we put out the stockings, leave a drink and mince pie for Father Christmas, and go outside and leave sparkly reindeer food on the drive, and a carrot on the doorstep, and then persuade them to go to bed in their excitement: otherwise he might not come. Sure it is subterfuge, but of the nicest kind, and they both take part in the ceremony with great keenness, and I just love concocting a story for them.

So after all the build up, the planning and the suspense Christmas has finally begun, and it was very nice to sit down with Karen, have a glass of wine and open our presents to each other (that way we could actually open them ourselves). It was a lovely quiet oasis in the middle of an otherwise extremely full-on time of the year, and it was great just to sit and reflect and be with each other. Who knows how short the night will be, but I did tell Jake that Father Christmas comes around 8am on Christmas morning. Let’s see whether that one works.

Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas. May it be everything you want it to be.

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 7. Bendy Bus Memories

It is Christmas Eve and, along with our policy of spreading Christmas out, we gave the boys a present each to open up this morning. They both got identical plastic bendy buses. They were something that we had been looking for for ages, and finally found them about a week ago, hence they were a little something extra.

We had been looking for them for so long because Jake has had one of these for ages and had played so much with it that the tyres had disintegrated on it and he really missed playing with it. It was special too because my late Father bought it for him and he always played with it when we went up to visit. We would get to a certain place on the motorway on the way up to Grandpa’s and Jake would talk about playing with the bendy bus when we got there: he just loved it.

So there was much joy when these presents were opened this morning, and when Jake and Sam started playing with them we heard what turned out to be quite an emotive sound from the bendy bus that reminded me of visits to my Father, that fake engine sound when they pushed them and the wheels turned. I think this was the same for Jake who went quiet for a while until he started playing again.

This for me was a timely reminder of who would not be around this Christmas, reinforced by our visiting the rest of my family yesterday. We have now lost a whole two generations of family since the Christmases of my childhood, and my Step-Sister and I are now the eldest. Our parents and grandparents have all passed away, and it has always been a sadness for me that my Mother never got to see her grandchildren.

This is the second Christmas without my Father and I shall miss his jolly presence. When my nieces were younger he always dresses up as Father Christmas for special surprise presents on the 26th; he was in charge of the black plastic bag which collected up the packaging and wrapping paper, and did in such a way that made us laugh; and he made ridiculous guesses as to what his presents might be. Most of all he always made us very welcome and made sure everyone had the Christmas they wanted. It was never a stressful experience going home for Christmas; quite the opposite.

In this sense Christmases will never be the same again but, like our parents and grandparents before us we have to move on; and this year we are back up to three generations again as one of my nieces had a baby during the year and it is so brilliant to have children around at Christmas. This does not mean that we forget those who are not with us, it is a great time to remember them fondly. But who would have thought a noisy plastic bendy bus would have helped us to do just that this year.

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 5. The Three Letters

There are three envelopes sitting on our mantlepiece. Inside, apparently, are three letters to Santa. I say apparently because we have no idea what is inside them. Jake brought them home from school and they have been living there for a couple of weeks now.

It could be that the contents of these letters are quite mundane, a series of pictures or collages that Jake has made for Santa; or they could separately or collectively represent a list.

Jake’s definitive Christmas list?

We have asked him about the contents but his reply is always “it’s a secret, just for Santa”, but for Santa to take on Christmas night (not when visiting him in his Grotto).  Because of this we are eager to know what is in these well-sealed envelopes, but certainly do not feel as if we should open them, not yet anyway.

We can only  open them on Christmas night as part of Father Christmas’s ‘visit’ to our house and it will be interesting whether the contents of these letters matches the contents of the parcels sitting below them. If not, we will have to see whether this will matter to Jake, after all he has been known to change his mind in the past.

As we know all too well it is not long to wait now, and I can certainly feel the suspense.

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The ChangingDad 12 Blogs of Christmas: 4. Grotto

My wife, Karen, finds the notion of taking children to Santa’s Grotto as being something rather unusual, since it is not something that people really do in Germany. She says that it provides British people with another excuse to do some queueing, a stereotype of which I think most of we British are rightly proud.

Whether or not she is right, one thing is for sure: if you want to take your children to a grotto then you can expect to queue, and queue, and queue; with lots of other parents getting slowly more exasperated. I certainly find myself standing there thinking: “just how long does it take for a child to see him” as the snake of people progresses all to slowly, and we have certainly spent a significant part of December standing in such queues.

To what end? Meeting someone dressed in a red suit with a beard, telling our boys they had better be good, asking them what they want and usually handing out low quality toys. On the face of it it is not really worth the wait.

Except it is. Because no matter how grotty the grotto, the boys come out with a sense of wonder. On more than one occasion this time Jake has become so overawed that he as been completely tongue tied and had been unable to recall anything from his well-constructed and comprehensive Christmas list. Sam usually stands there shouting ‘papa istmas’. Both love the experience, and I have loved taking them; and let’s face it once we are in there I do not care how long it takes.

It surely is not my imagination that there has been something of a proliferation of grottos over the last few years. They are everywhere: in stores, on trains, in schools (Santa was at Jake’s school twice), in museums and, yes, even in churches. I seems an obligatory part of any Christmas scene, and we have had to steer the boys past one on more than one occasion this year. After all if we go to too many they might begin to suspect that Father Christmas is spreading himself a bit thin, and that would not do at all.


The Final Countdown

So that’s Halloween over with, Guy Fawkes Night out of the way, so it’s the final countdown to Christmas. That’s how Jake sees it anyway.

Of course there is nothing in the shops that would make him think any differently. The witches and fireworks hanging from the ceiling of our local supermarket have been replaced by santas and reindeer; and the Christmas goods, present since the beginning of September, have now been moved into even more prominent positions. The excitement is palpable as Jake pours over toy catalogues and makes snowman collages; and everything that he ‘wants’ has been put on an (ever-changing) mental list. It is only a matter of time until the big day now, and the fact that we are due to have snow in December is likely to only ramp the excitement up even further.

I do not want to blame Jake for this. Although he does not watch anything but the BBC, he is still prey to the tentacles of the advertiser on billboards, the sides of buses and trams; as well as in shops and, yes, through school and various community events. I do not blame him because he is actually usually very satisfied with a haul of Christmas/ birthday presents which seem modest in comparison with many of his peers. He is also very good at receiving presents: “just what I always wanted” he will genuinely say.

It would be easy to turn this into a riff on how kids do not know how lucky they are, and how I did not have this, that and the other in my day. But actually I do not want to say this, nor do I want to say it to the boys because in many respects childhood is no different then as it is now, and while I would like to think that I did not anticipate Christmas until the week before, I know that this is not true and I know that a part of me looked forward to Christmas months and months before (and part of me also mourned its passing for another year once it was over).

I think it is often very easy to judge things through our adult eyes and conveniently forget how we were when we were young, probably because we put such things out of our minds when we were teenagers: how embarrassing to have fallen for the “Santa trick”.

So I do not begrudge the boys their Christmas build-up because such events are milestones in our own histories, milestones that are good to remember. I remember many childhood Christmases vividly. I look forward to taking them to see Santa, and I look forward to seeing the look on their faces when they see their stockings magically filled with toys. I know it is not what Christmas is all about but it is certainly part of it

Jake loves the build up to Christmas, oh and he has also been asking about when he can have his chocolate eggs for Easter.