What my Dad taught me (without saying a word…)

Today is my second Father’s Day without my Dad. It’s a gut-wrenching day to spend without hearing his voice or seeing his face. But I’ve chosen to smile, knowing that’s how Dad would want me to spend my day – smiling in his memory and focussing on the good things.

So we’ve had a good family day today, we’ve eaten outside, played games and enjoyed fun, laughter and chocolate. We’ve celebrated my husband for being a great dad to our three sons.

That’s not to say I don’t think about my Dad on such days. I do. And I’m thankful for the memories, for the good times and for his legacy. He taught me a lot of things growing up and often had some wise words to share. Words about thankfulness or trust or God’s goodness.

But there’s something that he never really talked about, but simply modelled to me throughout his life. And I think it might just be the most important thing he ever taught me – without saying a single word.

My Dad showed great interest in people. He was friendly and kind to all – whether the guy selling vegetables at a market stall, an old lady sitting alone at the back of church, or the caretaker of the school after parents’ evening. Everyone was important to my Dad and he showed respect to all, regardless of their education or background.

I’ll never forget the time he invited the postman and the milkman in for breakfast one Saturday morning! Dad just wanted to make everyone feel welcome, and was generally easy-going with all those he met. In his job as a chartered surveyor, he sometimes had the opportunity to mingle with some pretty wealthy businessmen. But he never hankered after mixing with the upper crust of society. He showed equal amount of attention to those of both high and low status.

And that’s something for which I’ll always be grateful. My Dad taught me the importance of the individual, the value of listening to others. Without saying one word in this regard, or offering any direct advice, he showed me how to mix with a vast cross-section of society and to be at ease in a variety of settings.

So far in my life, this has proven invaluable – at work, at the school gates, in my neighbourhood, while travelling. When I find myself welcoming strangers or encouraging an outsider, I’m reminded how my Dad’s legacy lives on. In my thoughts, words and actions – as well as in some traits of my sons.

So, thanks, Dad, for being an exemplary father and an all-round decent man – always willing to honour others and show friendliness to all.

See also: My Dad, an English Gentleman, here.

Managing the Media in Your Family

Image

Photo Credit: dazex, Creative Commons

It’s a recurring theme in our family life. The tapping of keys at the keyboard, the alluring glow of a DSi, mobile phone or iPod Touch, eyes glazed over oblivious to the conversation nearby.

Sound familiar? In just one generation we’ve gone from radio and four channels on TV to a whole Pandora’s box of continual media, demanding our attention or distracting us from other pursuits.

If you’ve been struggling to maintain some kind of balance of media consumption in your home, or have become frustrated over attempts to restrict what your children view, you are not alone. But where do you even start?

While most parents don’t think twice about exerting some influence over their child’s appearance (at least pre-teen), meals or behaviour, many are bewildered when it comes to setting limits on media.

There is no easy answer; each family needs to navigate through this issue depending on the age and maturity of their kids, but there are some practical ways to curb the time and influence that the media exerts over our children, as well as us.

Be aware

Firstly, be aware of how media is consumed both in and out of your home. Stay informed about  your child’s internet use and avoid TVs, computers and consoles in bedrooms (even amidst complaints that everyone has these things in their room). Make yourself familiar with the gadgets they own and what they are used for.

Set limits

When our [then] seven year old son received a new DSi for his birthday, we had already agreed that it should not be used before school, nor till after homework has been completed. Agree the limits in advance with your child, otherwise you may well find your offspring permanently attached to their gadget every waking hour.

Discuss

Discuss the concerns you have and the reasons for them. Encourage open conversation about what your child has seen or heard, trying as best you can to not appear too alarmed by what they may share with you! Discuss issues of cyberbullying and personal safety. Have a look at websites such as thinkuknow to get better informed.

Rules

There’s nothing wrong with establishing a few rules when it comes to managing the media in your house; like only having censored versions of CDs or mp3 tracks, rather than the expletive ridden originals from artists such as Tinie Tempah or Plan B. Likewise feel free to  insist on adhering closely to the age restrictions on DVDs and video games.

One rule we’ve adopted is ‘“No phones’ at the meal table. Texting is only allowed once others have left the table. This allows for uninterrupted conversation as well as the learning of some manners. (And, yes, this rule does get broken now and again, but at least phones aren’t a regular mealtime feature.)

Use technology to help you

Find out about and use parental software controls, passwords on computers and TV (Google it!) Explain to your child that you will be monitoring their TV and internet use and that certain sites are off limits (I highly recommend Open DNS for a free internet filtering service that protects every computer in the house. There are variable options and restrictions. Check it out here.)

Be a good role model

Look at your own media habits. Are you always glaring at your laptop or hooked to your smartphone? Chances are that your child will copy you. Show restraint, for example, by not spending hours on the internet every night and try restricting social media to certain times of day.

You’ve got the power

Lastly, do not forget that you are the parent with the power to unplug or remove a gadget from your child, particularly if signs of addiction are evident. (Refusing to eat or get dressed is a sure-fire indication, but there are others.)

The benefits

In setting up some limits and restrictions, there will be more opportunities available to take back family time together. Often we’ve lost the art of relaxing without a screen or gadget; but this can be good for health, well being and relationships. Why not play a board game or go for a walk together? Or be more creative by painting, learning an instrument or a new hobby.

When the possibility of further electronic items is removed, kids generally find they actually enjoy themselves (after their initial moan). In our family we’ve noticed that we become more thoughtful of one another, a sense of humour restored and brighter faces return from time spent outdoors.  We’re still far from having everything sussed in this area, but we’re trying to have some measure of control over our media habits, rather than allow technology and the media to control us.

This article was first published in 2012 by Lookingatlife, a former webzine of Care for the Family. Written by Annie Carter

The Huhne Effect: What parents can learn from one man’s fall from grace

My older sons have yet to enter the world of serious texters, those who fire off dozens of messages, questions or inane thoughts every day. Despite owning mobile phones for quite some time now, the allure of being in constant contact with anyone, not least me, hasn’t quite taken off. This may be in part due to the fact that the phones generally get left at home and partly because they’ve yet to be enamoured by girls seeking their attention. Playing games on their iPod Touches still seems to be the preferred digital activity. So, for the time being anyway, our conversations or disagreements take place largely in person. (And I dread the thought of every exchange between me and an irate son being forever put to print.)

One thing’s for sure. Most parents in Britain will have learned a thing or two from the disclosure of texts between disgraced politician Chris Huhne and his teenage son, Peter. Most will have reeled in shock at the blatant hatred and profanity contained within Peter’s messages or cringed at the sheer extent of insults contained within his words. Teenagers aren’t known for thinking before expressing their opinion; texts are no different in this respect.

The personal exchanges between a bitter son and his errant father are poignant, for they reveal the extent to which a child can feel deeply hurt and let down by their parent’s actions. The words chosen by Peter reflect a sense of utter betrayal, while the pleas of desperation for his father to come clean show how much children can possess a strong sense of justice concerning wrongdoing (if they have been brought up within any strong moral framework). To witness a parent stoop so low morally has long-lasting, devastating effects on a child and we gain painful insight into the massive effort that will be needed to restore some semblance of a relationship once such damage has been inflicted.

Despite Huhne’s catalogue of indiscretions, most parents will feel a tinge of compassion for the man considering the dire circumstances in which he now finds himself. For we, too, are fallible. Hopefully not wilfully deceitful and law-breaking as in Huhne’s case; but we know we fail at parenting sometimes, too, and that our children can be easily disappointed by our inability to live up to their expectations of what constitutes a perfect parent.

In Huhne’s favour lies the obvious expression of patience and love for his son, speaking kindly even in the face of such vitriolic outbursts from his own flesh and blood.  And so a parent should rightly respond; we are the grownups, the ones supposedly capable of rational, measured responses. We also see the bigger picture – a future in which the ties between us and our child remain, no matter what may have come between them. Nothing is worth severing that bond – and perhaps we should all consider the consequences of our actions beforehand instead of trying to repair damage afterwards.

In putting forth his point of view calmly and not ceasing to write genuine messages of care, Huhne may well have demonstrated his one major saving grace in this debacle in the public eye: that of an unrelenting, loving parent. In doing so, he has also unwittingly reflected the father heart of God, who never ceases to love his children, despite their flaws and angry rants. Unlike Huhne, though, God is a faithful, perfect father who never lies to his children. God remains committed to us, even when we’re verging on losing faith or feel wounded by what’s been allowed to occur in our lives. He never stops loving us, but continues to extend his compassion and grace. How comforting to know that God’s words to us can always be trusted, since he is wholly infallible and good.

For all the furore surrounding this very public family breakdown, I would hope that all parents glean something positive from this story, including the value of both personal and professional integrity.

Epic Battles of Parenting: How YouTube is Corrupting Our Children (one rap at a time…)

YouTube video: Epic Battles of History

Most parents consider what media is being consumed by their children and dutifully provide age appropriate DVDs and games, and switch off the TV before the 9pm watershed. Parental settings are placed on smartphones and other technological paraphernalia.

We are aware that some material out there is not good to be consumed by our 11 or 8 year olds. We install filters on our internet too (OpenDNS is a great, free service that works via the router to all computers in the house). We feel we’re at least making an effort to protect our children from sinister content and feel we can relax a little, right?

Wrong!

Since time immemorial, older kids introduce the younger ones to vile language and rude jokes. Can’t really be stopped, I accept that. But that’s where it used to stay: in the school playground or dinner hall – confined to a few minutes a day or subject to threats of detention if overheard by a zealous teacher. Most kids realised it was pretty naughty and took care over what they repeated.

But then someone came up with YouTube. I love YouTube; I think it’s a great idea and a great tool. But I wish they would come up with a YouTube for kids, that was free from the uncensored bile that is spewing forth from its videos these days.

The same parent that won’t let their child watch The Simpsons because of its rude content, may not realise that young Jack is happily viewing Epic Rap Battles of History which all his friends are raving about.

To save you the bother, I’ll explain: These are witty little raps between two characters from history or popular culture who engage in a slanging match of sorts, whereby they sing their own praises while dissing their opponent in uber derogative fashion. Thus we have Hitler vs Darth Vader, Moses vs Santa and Dr Seuss vs William Shakespeare.  Sounds fun?

It is, to an extent. It’s a clever idea and very entertaining.

But this is 18+ stuff that you would have only come across on the comedian circuits or late night Channel  4 programming in a previous generation.

The first video I mentioned in this piece, at 1 minute 41 seconds long, contains 9 expletives or crude phrases. That’s one every eleven seconds! And it’s being watched repeatedly and regurgitated by the masses at a secondary school near you.

Perhaps more disconcerting than the profanity, is the misrepresentation of historic figures, along with the trivialization of some major events (holocaust, slavery and the like). Prepare to see a whole load of Hitler impersonations in school corridors very soon. And unsuspecting eleven year olds getting unwittingly put in detention or accused of racism for something they really don’t understand and haven’t been taught yet.

Thanks a lot, YouTube!

This is where parenting gets tricky. You can easily keep some unsavoury stuff away from your primary (elementary) aged children.  But be prepared for an onslaught of filth once your child enters secondary education.

I’m now thinking about blocking Youtube on the older boys’ iPod touches and only allowing it on a family computer at specified times. No, it won’t stop what they see at lunchtime, but it’ll prevent the multiple, mindless viewing.

Ugh, the challenges of the Internet Age. I don’t like to ban everything, but something needs to be done. We may have blocked the porn, but YouTube is broadcasting something akin to audio porn. And the masses are lapping it up. Hitler vs Darth Vader has racked up over 68 million views, and it’s readily available for your younger children to see too.

How do other parents handle these dilemmas?

What I love about Bear Grylls

In an era of cynicism and negativity, I find the character of Bear Grylls exceedingly refreshing. Constantly upbeat and dynamic, he encourages everyone to step beyond their small mindset and think big – to achieve what others call ‘the impossible’.

Chief Scout in the UK, enterprising, risk-taking and wholly inspiring, Bear Grylls is also a model parent. Having three sons myself, I take a keen interest in both his style and wisdom. I also share the same faith as Grylls and find his words concerning the spiritual to be genuine and heartfelt.

What better person to feature on my last blog of the year?

Here is a short Christmas message that was recorded at a London church recently. I find it worthy of repeating here – a simple and timeless message. Enjoy.

Be sure to also check out the amazing song ‘Mary Did You Know’ (a couple of posts down).

Games, Guns and Killing – A Parent’s Call of Duty

Photo credit: Geektyrant.com

On both sides of the Atlantic there is rousing debate about gun control and the need to prevent further school shootings. The arguments range from: ‘It’s people who do bad things, it’s no use banning guns’ – to: ‘If we didn’t allow guns, we wouldn’t have mass shootings’.

Enough people have commented on this issue already, so I’d like to focus my attention on the story from a different angle. It’s time to talk about violent gaming.

Many of the people decrying the ownership and use of guns in America are quite happy to play realistic, violent games such as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, or to allow their pre-teen children to play them.

Immediately most readers will groan as they hash up that old argument in their head: “Just because I like to pretend I’m a soldier wielding guns and knives  in video games, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to go out and kill someone in real life. It’s just a game!’

I agree. Read my lips, I mean print; I agree.

YOU are not likely to go out and kill anybody after hundreds of hours of playing such games.

But one sad, lonely, emotionally stunted or mentally challenged individual is.

And therein lies the problem.

I call it the ‘One in a Million Theory’ (though the odds could quite likely be the 10 or 100 in a million theory).   Of all the millions playing such games, a very small proportion will be obsessing over their love of virtual killing. They may be reclusive types, loner types, angry types, or as one former classmate of Adam Lanza said ‘one of the freaks’.

Such individuals are storing up the images in their head and becoming inclined towards wanting to kill in real life. When they will strike may depend on a variety of influences and current mood. But death is lurking within them, way before they strike out to harm someone or many ones, as in Newtown, Connecticut.

Murder doesn’t happen in a day.

I’m convinced that the desire to kill begins as a small seed in a person’s psyche or heart before they ever pick up their weapon of choice.

The Bible talks about the desire to sin, and how what starts in our hearts can lead to death. [James 1:14: Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. 15These desires give birth to sinful (evil) actions. And when sin (evil) is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.]

I believe that playing violent video games waters and fertilises the seed, encouraging thoughts of killing to grow. Other influences or family dysfunction also play their part. But once the seed is fully grown, the perpetrator strikes out.

‘So what’s that got to do with me?’ You might ask yourself. ‘I don’t have a desire to kill anyone and I’m not watering anything!’

Again, correct. But if one in a million players is a psychologically disturbed individual, then we could potentially have dozens of budding Adam Lanzas lurking out there. Think about it: dozens of others willing to enact such brutal destruction and loss in just a few moments of action.

Admittedly, the banning of guns would reduce the scale of death, but even with a couple of knives, Lanza could still have killed several before being restrained or detained.

The one in a million is still capable of inflicting excessive pain and loss.

I think it’s time to not just think about gun control, but think about fascination with virtual killing. Children, in particular, are more influenced by what they see on a screen, than rational adults who have already learnt empathy, kindness and, hopefully, self control.

In the last few years, I have noticed an increase of stories in the media about young men, ranging  from teens to those in their 30s, who have never committed any crime before, lashing out to kill their wife or girlfriend or family member. In the UK, this is usually a knife inflicted murder. Stories such as this or this. And more recently, this. (An horrific killing in front of the couple’s young son)

Ordinary men. Often responsible men with children. Middle class men. Decent employees. These were, in fact, not weird or reclusive individuals.

Yet in a moment of madness they have killed. Perhaps they were angry with something their partner said or did. But instead of leaving or working through the conflict, they did the thing they so instinctively found easy to do: They reached for a knife and killed.

It would be interesting to know what they had in their dvd or gaming collection.

I find it hard to believe that the correlation between spur of the moment killing and violent gaming is considered ludicrous. Yet mass killer, Norwgian Anders Behring Breivik even boasted that he had practised on Modern Warfare 2 (part of the CoD games)  for around seven hours a day before carrying out his killing spree on the island of Utoya in the summer of 2011. (Reference) Likewise, it has been reported that Lanza liked to play violent video games.

Do we really think that there are not any others like him out there? Even if it is only one in a million players, do the calculations. Around one billion dollars of revenue from  Call of Duty – Black Ops II, that means around 16 million games sold, if the item costs around 60 dollars. That means 16 budding killers according to my modest, hypothesis. If you think that ten in a million players could be disaffected, disturbed people, that figure jumps to 160. Sounds alarming.

In the same way that people wish to see gun restrictions enforced for the good of the many, I would like to see video game restrictions enforced to help reduce the cultivation of killing among so many young people, an obsession that has potential to translate into killing in real life, at some point in the future.

In the same way, that gun owners are encouraged to lock away their weapon, I’d like to see parents lock away their 18 (or R) rated games, and game producers to tone down the level of violence.

I once read that during WWI, many soldiers found it hard to kill human opponents, having just practised on circular targets. Thereafter, the military trained soldiers to shoot lifelike, stuffed figures, that resembled people. The soldiers responded as expected – shooting their opponents came more naturally to them; they no longer flinched or held back during WWII battles.

Now we have high tech, visually realistic killing scenarios, surely it is much easier for the one in a million to enact what they’ve done on screen countless times: wipe out a human life. A precious human life.

Blood and gore doesn’t faze them; they’ve seen it all before. How utterly horrific.

Outside legitimate settings of war or training for war, what business does entertainment have with the promotion of graphic, realistic killing? Not just a few seconds in a movie, but scenes played over and over and over again in the comfort of one’s bedroom or living room. Where the player is the perpetrator.

We wouldn’t dare suggest that children should play with AK47s or knives. So why is it OK to let them play with such weapons in a virtual world (that is now highly realistic in its depictions of action, gore and death)? (For the record, I am not against toy guns or paintballing and the like – these pursuits do not involve gore.)

For those of us who are parents, it’s a tough call. Ironically, what is OUR call of duty? To succumb to group pressure from the rest of the class and let them play such games, or to buck the trend and stand up for what we know to be right: Children and young teens shouldn’t be spending hours every day killing people on screen.

Violent gaming is effectively a social experiment that could be brewing a whole host of future killers.

I’m no mathematician, but if there were an equation for a killer, I’m certain that violent gaming would be one of the variables. Yes, there are other parts to the equation – ‘isolated and withdrawn character’ perhaps one of the constants – but if we could remove one part, perhaps the formula might crumble a little and not result in multiple deaths.

One thing is certain: gaming has played a part in several massacres.

Endnote – An interesting article addressed to parents about the latest CoD installment, Black Ops II.

Another article discuss the same issue here, mentioning nine year olds who play CoD with their fathers.

Why the Law Really is an Ass Sometimes…

Are you someone who tends to stick to the law or are you a bit of a rebel? My husband will ensure that he goes not one mile over 60mph on country roads, yet sometimes I cling tensely onto car handles as he whizzes round curves on the quiet lanes.

I’ll admit I’m quite different.  I’ll drive cautiously on such roads as I’m concerned about what might be lurking around the corner (…a farmer and his herd of sheep, possibly, or a bunch of errant cyclers?)  But I’ll happily slip way past 70mph on a quiet stretch of straight motorway, keeping my distance from the car safely within Highway Code guidelines.

I believe speed limits were imposed to improve road safety and reduce fatalities.  Yet I’m certain that more fatalities have occurred on country roads with drivers going 60, than on aforementioned motorways with law defying drivers.

It’s all about the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law.

Consider this: Pharmacies will not allow me to flout the law by a margin of only 6 months to purchase eczema cream for my son, but school nurses would happily supply a potential 13 year old daughter of mine a stack of contraception and advice. In fact if she were 14 or 15 a doctor might deem her mature enough to opt for an abortion if she found herself unwittingly pregnant.

That without my knowledge or consent. A major procedure that is not necessarily without complication or error.  And perhaps she wouldn’t know the answer to questions about her parents’ and grandparents’ health or blood pressure problems.

That’s absolutely fine according to the laws of this land. But I, on the other hand, may not use my parental prerogative to administer specialist eczema cream to my 11 year old son, who is already physically the size of an average 12 year old, because the packet states that it is only to be used by those over the age of 12.

The woman behind the counter glared at me as if I were attempting to buy cigarettes for my son.  I just wanted to avoid a doctor’s visit and a long spell in a stuffy waiting room full of spluttering sick people and crying babies.

I’d be more than happy to follow the rules if pharmacists, doctors and teachers would likewise adhere to other rules concerning young people. What do you bet that any barely post-pubescent child could walk in and request a pregnancy test without anyone batting an eyelid?

Up and down the country girls and boys of 13 and 14 are supported and encouraged to break the law regarding the age of consent.

The argument goes… Well they’re only going to go out and engage in sexual activity anyway, so we should at least help them be safe.

Well how about…  Oh, the parent is only going to find another pharmacy to supply medicinal ointment for her unwell child, so they may as well sell her (i.e. me) the product.

Never gonna happen.  Yet one law concerns those who are still children, whose decisions are mostly fuelled by emotions and peer pressure; the other is an adult who has significantly more years of life experience under her belt and knows about dodgy signs or side effects to look out for.

Many 14 year olds can’t even follow simple instructions on a teacher’s PowerPoint yet we hope they’ll read all the contraindications listed on their packet of contraceptive pills?

Consider this also…  If I go to purchase a video or Xbox game that is rated 18, no one behind the counter asks if I have children at home who will also be watching and what their ages are.

As a former teacher who’s marked hundreds of year 7 scrapbook projects, I found it hard to comprehend how countless boys of 11 named Call of Duty their favourite video game.

Oh but that’s all right. The parents obviously believe that their child is mature enough to blow people to pieces on screen, despite being 7 years under the age limit.

But woe betide any parent attempting to push the boundaries by 6 months to administer some skin cream. Quelle horreur! Will they be sending round the social workers to metaphorically slap me on the wrist any time soon?

Unfortunately it would not surprise me. Thankfully, I decided not to go to another pharmacist to pretend the cream was for my older son, but rather followed the letter of the law and duly booked an appointment at the surgery. (So no, you can’t nail me with wrongdoing here, though I am guilty as charged concerning motorway driving sometimes.)

And I really do understand the perspective of the sales lady behind the counter.  She must adhere to the rules.  It’s just disappointing that no one adheres to many other rules regarding children these days.  And in some cases rules are shockingly absent.

If I want to, I could buy my 11 year old son a laptop or tablet for Christmas and let him use it unsupervised in his bedroom without any parental restrictions.  It would be perfectly legal to do so, in the process allowing him to view violence, pornography and yep, 18 movies downloaded online. (You’d be surprised how many parents know nothing much about installing restrictions on devices in their homes.)

I could likewise allow same said son to drink a glass of wine at Christmas (from age 5 this is legal). But I will only allow him a sip or two because as his parent I do actually possess a modicum of common sense and like to follow the spirit of the law rather than arbitrarily following the letter of the law.

What has incensed you lately about the laws of the land?

Fifty Shades of Gender

        

Imagine if you will, a world in which every man typified the quintessential male: tall, muscular, hairy, possessing remarkable strength, a very deep voice and stereotypical emotional traits of insensitivity and bullishness. In addition to this, all these males were driven by success, excelled in science and maths and were the epitome of logical thinking and toughness.

Every one of them. No other variants.

Your husband or brother or boss. Every guy in every shop and social setting – some kind of life size, hirsute Ken doll with a fierce disposition.

Now imagine every woman as some kind of softly spoken, highly sensitive and emotional Barbie doll.

Stop! I hear the collective cries of protest across the Web rise up.

We all instantly recognise how variety and difference make for an interesting world. The thought of universal conformity, or everyone personifying the extreme stereotype, horrifies.

So, why then do we try to pigeonhole and define genders? Why – despite the obvious biological differences and a few generalities which tend to be common (though certainly not universal) – do we often project our image of maleness or femaleness onto others, maybe even our own children?

Before you start thinking that I’m one of these progressive types who believe in making girls play with trucks and boys try on angel outfits … I am not. (Though I would certainly have no qualms about letting them play with whatever they want).

What I am is a firm believer in letting people be what they should be. If we were to imagine a scale of gender for men and women, that went from 0 to 50, where 50 meant that you were recognised as the paragon of masculinity or femininity, and where 0 meant you had the biological parts – but little else that fitted in with society’s notions of gender – why could we not accept this simply as variation? Instead of trying to say that someone is less of a man or woman?

And how about the freedom to move up and down those scales throughout different stages of one’s life? I’ve certainly experienced different phases…

Back in the 70s I was free to be a tomboy. No one really talked about it, but when I heard the phrase once and read about it in Famous Five stories, I recognised that I was one. I was a fast runner, got picked early on for playground teams, preferred swinging around on the school climbing frame to skipping with girls and don’t remember crying much or getting easily upset.  I remember being given a rather ornate doll one Christmas, as did both of my older sisters, and thinking “What am I supposed to do with this?” I liked teddy bears, not dolls.

When I watched old black and white western movies in the holidays, I imagined what it would be like to have a gun and go around chasing the bad guys. The lack of brothers meant that cars, cap guns and trains were not on offer in my house. But I liked to imagine.

I didn’t feel much of an anomaly among my peers; in fact, a friend round the corner who had three older brothers, was also quite like me. And apart from the doll incident, my parents never tried to make me do girly things – like join the Brownies. I didn’t pay much attention to what I wore, either. Thankfully it was the 70s and I wasn’t forced to wear pink. (I’m still not very keen on pink – mainly because it doesn’t suit my skin tone.) I put on what was given -mostly hand me downs – and wasn’t concerned by outward appearance. I loved tearing around on my bike – a childhood as it should be – no pressure, just free to play and be what you wanted to be.

I think at one point I may have thought that I would prefer to be a man when I grew up, but this was not more than a fleeting opinion, triggered by the view that it seemed unfair that men didn’t have to have babies. And at age 10 I really didn’t like the thought of having a baby.

Not until a year or so after puberty did my perspective start to change and I began to develop my own taste for fashion and style. I was influenced in part by my sisters, but overall it was my choice. By the 80s I was an over the top, stripy skirt and silver bangle wearing teen, plastered in makeup. My mum never told me to wear it, I wanted to. I even liked stiletto heels until they started to deform my feet.

Thankfully, since then I’ve scaled back with the makeup, though I’m still rather fond if it, and my clothes vary, depending on the occasion or what I’m doing. I’m equally happy in jeans as a skirt, though I’ll admit to not really enjoying the whole glamour, long dress thing. But I don’t expect I’ll need to do a red carpet appearance any time soon! And as for the baby thing, well yeah, three offspring later I suppose I got over that hurdle. But you tend to think a bit differently by the time you reach your late twenties. It’s part of growing up.

In the same way, many men speak about becoming more gentle or emotional once they become fathers. I’ve read that older men also often experience a longing for intimacy and tenderness that they didn’t need in their younger days.

I’m not sure where my dad would have fitted on the scale – in some respects he was very typically male, in that he loved technology and woodwork and was good with cars and fixing things. On the other hand he hated the pastime of most men of his era – football – in fact, he didn’t like sport at all. And it was my mum who caught the spiders in our house!

The purpose of these observations and personal revelations – which could probably be mirrored by millions around the world – is to demonstrate how we are all different and have varying seasons of life; we should be given the freedom by society to develop at different rates and in different ways.

Children in particular should not be pressured to look or behave a certain way. And new mums would perhaps benefit more from reading 50 Shades of Gender than 50 Shades of Grey – a text that is rife with stereotypes and gender extremes (albeit without the hairy male). Please save us from a world filled with Christian Greys and Anastasia  Steeles! *

And as for that scale we discussed earlier… According to Twitter, over 75% of its follow recommendations that are apparently ‘Similar to @AnnieCarterUK’ are male. I guess I must write and think like a guy then! So I’m probably a 12 or 13 on that scale. But then again, I do like jewellery and lipstick so maybe I’m more of a 24. How about you?

*P.S I couldn’t bear to read the book, but have read more than enough reviews and critiques to know that it would infuriate me. I’m also not in favour of literary (or not so literary) porn.

For further reading about one man’s sad and confusing gender story, click here.

For a great article in The Independent that highlights parental opposition to classifying toys by gender in shops, read here.

Reclaiming Symbols (and vegetables)…

After picking up a pumpkin from the shop, my middle son expressed surprise on the journey home. “But that’s a Halloween thing!” He said. “We don’t celebrate that.”

My response: “It’s a vegetable. It doesn’t have to belong to Halloween. We can scoop it out and put a candle in, just for fun. Or we could make pumpkin soup if you kids would eat soup. We’re celebrating autumn (Americans: that’s the British term for ‘fall’) and harvest time. Who says people who don’t celebrate Halloween can’t have a pumpkin in their home?!”

As I ended this minor rant to a perplexed car full of kids, I found myself pondering other things or symbols that have been hijacked by causes or organisations that I don’t hold in high esteem. How about the dove, used in Christianity to symbolise the Holy Spirit, frequently used by CND or other political organisations to denote peace?

Or what about the rainbow, which signifies a reminder of God’s faithfulness, being used by LGBT groups such as Gay Pride to symbolise acceptance of non conventional sexual relationships? Will I stop my children from drawing rainbows or wearing a rainbow sticker because of the alternative meanings it represents? Of course not!

In a democratic nation people are free to use non trademarked symbols or objects for any purpose they wish. I’ve decided, along with many other Christians, to stop demonising pumpkins and candles at this time of year. They’ll feature in my home because I like them during this season, nothing more, nothing less.

I may object to some of the monstrous commercialism and hints of darkness that have overtaken our supermarkets at Halloween, but I will not succumb to over-spiritualisation of everything.

Now –  whether we’ll carve a smile, a weird shape or a cross into the pumpkin… We’ve yet to agree on that.  Perhaps something a little arty or tasteful, as seen in the featured photo above, may be more appropriate now the children are a bit older.

Setting things straight – Regarding Rupert Everett’s Assertion About Gay Parents

Mr Everett, an openly gay, British actor who starred in the 90s hit Shakespeare in Love, has certainly kicked up a media storm among the proponents of gay marriage and parenting by saying: “I can’t think of anything worse than being brought up by two gay dads.”*

I’m wondering whether his assertion might be groundbreaking here. A gay man attacking a gay lifestyle choice? Virtually unheard of. The likes of Stonewall and other organisations must be quaking in their boots. How dare he stray from the party line!

What’s that you say? There isn’t a gay political party?

Perhaps not, but at times it’s seemed as if every gay person has to toe the line over the rules of attraction, marriage and parenthood. Or risk being shunned from the very community which is meant to wholeheartedly accept them.** Perhaps this explains in part why Everett has decided to disassociate himself from said community. (Quote: “I’m not speaking on behalf of the gay community. In fact, I don’t feel like I’m part of any ‘community'”)

I admire Everett for his boldness to state his opinion. After all, the whole basis for the gay movement is underpinned by a belief in sexual freedom and the right to live as one pleases without threat or discrimination. This surely includes the freedom to hold and express one’s own opinion.

Looking at this topic aside from the perspective of gay rights and gay wishes, there arises a very poignant issue – namely that of the adopted or surrogate children, who ultimately have no say in the matter. They are simply denied the opportunity to be parented by both male and female figures. And no, I don’t think having uncles, aunts or friends of both sexes really counts – though such individuals are certainly valuable to a child’s upbringing.

I hope that the gay community take it upon themselves to consider the long term consequences of growing up in a family consisting of same sex parents. Each one should perhaps ask themselves: How much would I have enjoyed growing up with two mums or two dads? Would I have missed out on something?

Like Everett, such a thought seems horrific to me. Growing up with only sisters, for instance, I valued even the variety that male presence in the shape of my father brought to the household. However, to be denied the input of a mother, despite her flaws or imperfections, would have been unthinkable.  Meanwhile, the thought of only two mums… I won’t go into that.

And yet, regardless of the assumption that two, loving gay parents might do a very fine job of raising children (and indeed better than two irresponsible or immature heterosexual parents) – what about the wishes and rights of a young child?

Little human beings are not accessories or pets to boost our ego or fulfil our dreams, nor should they be part of a societal experiment. We would all do well to remember that. Only time will reveal the loss experienced by those with no voice.

History shows us that civilisations thrive where families consisting of mother, father and children are the norm. And future research will hopefully include reports from interviewed adults who have grown up in non-conventional family units. For how we are brought up shapes us long after we have moved out of our childhood home.

I think it’s good that someone like Rupert Everett has had the audacity to bring such issues to the surface. Long may there continue to be like-minded individuals (gay or straight) who will put forward their point of view, in spite of the ensuing media backlash.

*In an interview by the Sunday Times Magazine, 16 September 2012 (Online subscribers only.) For more about the furore, you can read excerpts of the interview here.

**Reaction from the gay lobby was similarly aghast when earlier this year lesbian actress Cynthia Dixon from Sex and the City fame, who used to have a husband, claimed that – for her, being gay was ‘a choice’.  See this article

Disclaimer: I don’t hate gays. In the past I have happily engaged with both gay neighbours and lesbian ones. I liked them. They were very nice people; I invited them over. I just don’t have to agree with everything they do or say or stand for. Is that okay? Same goes for all my friends. Likewise, they’re free to disagree with me.