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The one which tells how it all began

imageEr, is this thing on? Ok here goes…..It all started on a grey weekday afternoon. Mummy was at work. I was cuddled up on the sofa with my young son watching He-Man on Netflix.

I could tell his attention was starting to waver as he began to ask me deep questions, which was unfortunate because it was getting to the good bit when Skeletor attacked Castle Greyskull.

He looked at me (my son, not Skeletor), golden curls framing his little face, eyes filled with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and asked: ‘Daddy, what’s a daddy for?’ I gave a throaty laugh, the sort which is supposed to mean ‘It’s truly adorable that you are so precocious but could you please shut up now.’ Jocular and proud, but with just a tiny hint of threat. But he kept at it, asking again, ‘But Daddy, what is a daddy for?’ the inflection in his voice rising at the end of the question as if he was pondering the utter pointlessness of the whole concept of daddies.

Worryingly I couldn’t think of an answer immediately. My usual tactic when faced with a tricky question (‘Ask mummy’) seemed not to be appropriate at this moment. Instead I settled for diversion tactics, bashing him repeatedly over the head with a cushion while doing my best evil giant voice and telling him I was going to use his bones as toothpicks.

However, the whole episode did start me thinking in a new way about the absolutely terrifying beautiful maddening wonder of being a parent and how it changes everything about your life. Usually when I start thinking I start writing. This blog is the result. I hope you enjoy it.

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The Challenge concludes

And so, the end is nigh.

After three weeks The Challenge draws to its painful and inevitable conclusion.

For those who don’t remember (or care), I’d agreed to be an ambassador for Safefood’s START campaign. It encourages participants to instigate one ‘healthy start’ into their routine on a daily basis. Changing one thing about our diet and sticking with it. They call it the ‘daily win’. The philosophy is that big results begin with little changes.

It started with me experimenting with healthier breakfasts. My son’s Coco Pops were exchanged for the now infamous organic puffed rice cereal (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/11/09/the-challenge/).

It continued with the introduction of a daily walk into the family routine (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/11/16/the-challenge-ii-with-video/).

And now it’s done. I won’t pretend that it’s been easy. We’ve had a surfeit of rows and, yes, I did end up with a bowl of organic puffed rice cereal over my head at one point. As the semi skimmed milk dripped from my nose I did wonder why I was bothering.

It’s very hard to change a routine. None of us ever have the time to do all the things we want and we all fall too quickly back into the lazy old habits. Eating the same food, not being active enough.

But we’ve stuck with the concept gamely. At the very least it’s part of the conversation now. It’s on my son’s radar.

Today I was shovelling a slice of apple pie into my mouth. My son stopped me.

‘Daddy, why are you always eating treats? You have to eat healthily.’

True, he was eating a McDonald’s Happy Meal at the time, but you take one step at a time.

So the next question is what do I do now that it’s over?

I’m in the process of running myself a goose fat bath when I hesitate. Maybe now that I’ve started this thing is it not worth sticking with it? Maybe the little steps will grow into great strides for my son if I keep pushing the healthy eating and active lifestyle message?

There has to be a balance. After all, he’s four years old. He’ll always want his treats and will gorge on chocolate if I allow it. I just have to try and balance it with fresh fruit, milk, the odd rice cake smuggled into his lunchbox instead of a biscuit.

And the message is starting to get through. I noticed in the news last week that Kellogg’s Ireland has announced it is to reduce the amount of sugar in its cereals. The firm says sugar in Coco Pops will come down by 40% next year – from 30g per 100g to 17g.

This announcement was made just days after I wrote about how I was replacing Coco Pops with the organic puffed rice cereal.

Coincidence?

I’ll let you decide.

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The magic of Christmas

It starts, as my stories often do, with a conversation in a coffee shop.

I’m chatting lazily with a friend. Inevitably we’re drawn into the Christmas conversation. The presents bought, not yet bought. The food. The time off off work (neither of us actually have a job so this is ironically done). The comfort of shared ritual.

“Are you going…” I ask, vacantly wiping the froth from a cappuccino from my beard with a paper napkin, “….to the carol service on Sunday?”

He shakes his head. A slight but definite motion.

“No, I don’t go to church.”

I’m startled. A momentarily loss of composure. It’s partly the directness of the response. The mentioning of a shibboleth. As an atheist living in a small society where Christian principles still maintain traction, I’m used to avoiding religion as a subject for polite discourse.

But it’s more than this. I’m caught by surprise. His response is so quaint that it disarms me.

I almost respond: ‘What the bloody hell has church got to do with a Christmas carol service?’

But, of course, it’s perfectly logical. I’m asking someone if they want to stand beside me singing songs about the birth of a child in a manger two millennia back. A story which forms the origin of one of the world’s dominant religions today.

For a clear mind, an uncluttered mind, it’s the obvious response.

“No, I don’t go to church.”

The open air carol service takes place a few weeks before Christmas in the centre of the little village where I live. In a small clearing an attractively modest tree adorned with oversized ruby baubles has been erected.

Several hundred people turn up. Mostly families. Excited young children on their daddy’s shoulders, straining for a better view of the tree. Our little boy has brought a glowing wand and pretends he’s turning the mayor into a frog during an opening prayer.

It’s cross-denominational with representatives of all the local churches in attendance. An elderly man stresses that people of all faiths are welcome. As, I have to assume, are those of none.

The ceremony starts with a silver band playing Joy to the World. Silver, not brass, as the mayor states.

Then a choir of children from the local school start to sing. There’s a lot of mumbling at first before the outline of something recognisable emerges. I enthusiastically join in. Other parents begin to step nervously away from me. Mummy points out I’m on the wrong page and am singing a different hymn from everyone else.

We count down from ten to zero before the mayor turns on the lights. We cheer and clap our hands and chat happily.

Happy because the carols come closer than anything else to unlocking something inside us. A feeling. An idea of something. Something which provides succour. They’re undeniably familiar. A link back to childhood and a sense of wonder around Christmas. A feeling that we casually cast aside somewhere in early adolescence and then spent the rest of our lives trying to recapture.

The melodies of the carols are wonderful and as instantly recognisable as my son’s smile. Lyrically, there are more womb mentions than necessary but nobody ever seems to remember anything past for first couple of lines so it’s alright.

Then there’s the joy in doing something as a community. Gathered together around a tree in the night in scarves and gloves chanting ancient rhymes while the frost, light as a glistening, silver web, descends on us. If I close my eyes and listen to the band playing God Rest Thee Merry Gentlemen, I can almost feel like a character in a Dickens story.

And then we go home to see what’s on Netflix.

The Christmas season is upon us.

I retune my battered little wireless to Classic FM because they play the traditional carols. I search for my old DVD of The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. I find it and triumphantly blow the dust from the case. Then I remember I don’t have a DVD player and put it back where I found it.

My mind is full of lists (I never help myself by writing anything down). Lists of Santa presents, mummy presents, other presents. The baking list – mince pies, Christmas cake, gingerbread, edible gifts.

Mummy, son and I will be in our own house right throughout the holiday season this year. Just how I like it.

I’m cooking. All on my own. For the two sides of the family over Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day. I won’t accept any help. Stay out of my kitchen.

My newborn infant nephew will be there, being tenderly passed around the adults. Precious as gold (or frankincense and myrrh).

It will all be stressful, expensive, unnecessarily lavish, wasteful and undoubtedly detrimental to my diet.

And I expect that I will enjoy every sentimental moment of it.

The carol service is done. Next on the list is the nativity play. My son is a shepherd. There seems to be about 200 shepherds at this birth.

He’s learning at school about the Christmas story. I took him to the hospital recently to visit his new baby cousin.

As we walked through the ward we had an unexpected exchange.

‘Daddy, do you know who the most special baby of all is?’

‘Who?’

‘It’s the baby Jesus.’

‘Actually son, it’s not. It’s you.’

I didn’t want to confuse him so I left it there.

But it did start a flea buzzing in my head. It was there also when my friend told me why he didn’t go to the carol service and when I was singing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing while everyone else sang Once in Royal David’s City.

What is this mess of a thing called Christmas?

When I go to a church it’s to admire the architecture. Never to worship. But I throatily bellow out the religious sentiments in the carols with no evident sense of embarrassment or acknowledgment of hypocrisy.

I try to teach my son that Christmas means compassion, sharing and charity while simultaneously feeding his desire for more and more useless material possessions.

Which brings me to the two most common complaints I hear about Christmas. That it’s lost its true meaning. And that it’s become too commercial.

But trying to find a true meaning in the origins of Christmas is as elusive and pointless as waiting up all night to see Santa.

Start by taking elements of various folk and pagan festivals. Some Ancient Greek practices, the Roman Saturnalia, Jewish Hanukkah, Druid traditions.

There is nothing remotely Christian about the date of December 25. It’s not mentioned in any gospel. It’s an evolution of an ancient pagan midwinter festival. The winter solstice has passed, the days have finally begun to get longer. It’s as good a reason as any for a party.

The practices of decorating houses with foliage, cutting holly and mistletoe and even carol singing all originated from midwinter festivals.

But even if you leave all of this aside and concentrate on the Biblical origins of Christmas it’s not much more helpful.

Matthew and Luke’s gospels give wildly differing accounts. Matthew has an angel visiting Joseph. Luke’s account tells of an angel visiting Mary. Matthew has wise men led to Bethlehem by a star. Luke has shepherds led by an angel.

Matthew’s account mentions nothing at all about Jesus being born in a manger. He has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem and Jesus born in a house there.

Luke has the family coming from Nazareth but travelling to Bethlehem for a census and the birth in a manger.

The gospel of Mark, which may have been written earliest, does not mention the birth of Jesus at all.

Now I have no particular interest in starting a discussion about how all the differing stories and traditions can be made consistent, I merely highlight them to point out that searching for a true original meaning of Christmas is ultimately pointless.

And what of the other charge? That it has become too commercial.

Well, yes.

But then that’s our world. Untrammelled and unfettered attempts to make more and more money by seducing more and more people into spending more and more of it. Christmas and money have always been closely connected. Commercialism is out of control and drags Christmas along with it, not the other way around.

And it’s not a new thing for people to be uncomfortable with the lavish excesses of Christmas. In the 17th and 18th century religious puritans attempted to banish the holiday altogether, opposed to a festival which was so clearly orientated towards having fun.

It was only repopularised in Britain in Victorian times when Prince Albert brought a series of festive traditions with him from Germany, such as the Christmas tree.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol probably did more than anything else to set the template for what a Christmas should be that we recognise today. Ironically much of the success of Dickens’ book and the popularity of the Victorian Christmas seems to be down to nostalgia. An attempt to recreate the magic of Christmases from a distant time.

Some things, it seems, never change.

So now, when I describe Christmas as a mess, hopefully you see what I mean.

And trying to make sense of it will only give you a sore head to rival that which follows your work Christmas party.

There is no set meaning of Christmas. Make of it what you will. It doesn’t belong to a Christian. Or a Druid. Or a parent. Or a child. Or a trader.

I’ve always loved it. I’m sure I always will.

And here’s why.

I’m going to get to spend two whole weeks with my wife and son. I’ll get to see all my other family members also. I’ll catch up with many old friends. I know there will be so many laughs.

I’ll spend too much money on presents. I get happiness from being able to surprise my wife by picking the right gift. It really is better to give than to receive. If I get socks and drawers then that’s just grand.

I get to bake and cook and eat far too much and feel that I have an excuse. I’ll roast a turkey, a ham, maybe a goose too.

I’ll watch a few films. I’ll listen to a load of carols, singing my lungs out.

I might even visit a church or two, to see the decorations or nativity scene. But I won’t be there to worship.

We’ll count the days down with my son, watching the excitement build as we get closer.

And then on Christmas morning we’ll wake early. I’ll take his little hand and we’ll go down the stairs. Mummy and I will be right there with him as he opens the door. We’ll see the look on his face. He might not always remember the moment. But I will.

It’s the closest thing we have in this world to real magic.

And it’s fine. It’s absolutely fine.

As a Christmas hero once put it, ‘Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.’

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The stay at home daddy

I dare not make a sound.

I’m creeping past the door. Softly, softly.

My senses are heightened and I can feel my bare toes rubbing against the individual strands of the thick carpet.

Don’t rush it.

I can’t help myself. I peek in, holding the door slightly open. He’s sitting on the carpet watching Peppa, eyes burning into the TV screen. He doesn’t know I’m there. Not yet.

Am I ashamed that I’ve been reduced to tip-toeing around the house so my son doesn’t notice me?

Absolutely not. When you’ve got a whole day of looking after a young child you do what you can to grab a moment to yourself.

I try to move past the room but there’s a tiny creaking sound. It might be the door. It might be my bones. Whatever; it’s enough.

He turns around, his little red face opening up in a smile.

‘Daddy!’

‘Hi son. Are you enjoying Peppa?’

The advantage is with him now and he know how to press it home. He stands to face me, arms in front, held wide open.

‘Hug daddy?’

What am I to do? I know it’s a trap but I’m inevitably drawn to it like a foolish man rushing towards his own ruin.

I step towards him and give him a big embrace. His arms go around me, tightening like vines.

‘Let’s play daddy.’

‘I will buddy, I just need to get the breakfast ready for you and mummy.’

But he’s already pulling at me. With the inevitability of a torpedoed liner sinking to the bottom of the ocean, I’m dragged to the floor.

Play consists of this familiar routine of him wrapping his arms around my neck and pulling me to the ground. Then he’ll order me to get up do it all over again. Each time he drags me over he yells ‘Timber!’

When he tires of this game he forces me onto my back. He sits on my stomach and bounces up and down chanting ‘Daddy’s got a big fat belly!’

I used to have a job, an executive role in an office. I used to have responsibility for a large team of workers and a budget. My phone used to ring incessantly.

Now I’m a belly.

And the phone never rings anymore.

I struggle to free myself and rush to the kitchen. I know mummy has to get to Dublin for work and it’s my job to get the breakfast ready on time. Tea, toast, boiled eggs (in a cup, the way she likes them).

I shout back to my son.

‘Do you want some toast buddy?’

‘No!’

‘What d’ye want for your breakfast then?’

‘Breadsticks!’

Always a picky eater, he has recently decided to test my nerves by moving towards an all breadsticks diet. The more I discourage it, the further he travels towards it with absolute conviction.

I make him some cereal. I’m pretty certain he won’t eat it but at least I can tick the box of saying I tried for one more meal. I give him a smoothie as well, the only way I can get him to eat fruit. And a few breadsticks.

Mummy and I breakfast at the kitchen table.

He remains in the living room pouring the milk from his cereal into the spaces between the cushions on the leather sofa.

Mummy has to leave for work now.

He is angelic, kissing and hugging her and putting on his best little boy smile as she walks out of the door.

I wait.

Mummy drives off. I see the back of her car disappearing around the corner.

It’s very quiet. I wait.

Then.

‘I want mummy.’

‘Now buddy, you know mummy’s gone to work. She loves you very much and will be home really soon.’

‘I want mummy.’ A little bit louder, more threatening.

‘Yes I miss mummy too but it’s you and me now. It’s a daddy and son day!’

I get that feeling I’ve said the wrong thing.

He takes a moment, as if deciding which sort of tantrum to go for.

The rage tantrum is more direct, gets the point across quickly, allows for a bit of foot stamping and some object throwing. You get to shout a lot too. Easy to see the attraction for him.

Ah, but then there’s the sorrow tantrum too. A good old bawl, tears dripping onto your clothes. Lying inconsolable on the ground. Much to be said for that too.

He decides on rage. But he’ll blend a bit of sorrow in there as well. Just to keep it fresh.

The feet stamp. That’s how it begins.

‘I hate daddy! I hate daddy! I hate daddy!’

‘But I love you son.’

My words sound utterly impotent in the face of his anger, like trying to stop a tsunami with a jam jar.

I move towards him. I know that despite his show of anger I need to give him comfort. To address his insecurity with reassurance.

A breadstick bounces off my nose.

Then another flies past my ear.

‘Now son you can’t throw food, that’s not good behaviour.’

‘I hate you daddy! I want mummy!

He starts to make a noise, something between a scream, a screech and a wail. He’s my boy and I love him but I have to say it sounds a bit demonic.

I put him in his room to calm down. I want him to know that he’s not being punished, I just want him to think about his actions, to learn to take responsibility for them.

‘Now wee man, daddy loves you very much. I just want you to think about why I put you in there.’

He screams again, kicking the door to add to the sound effect.

‘Yes I know you’re angry, but we all need to learn to control our emotions.’

He’s been through this before and knows the drill. He soon quietens, knowing I’ll crack and open the door. I pull him into my arms and give him a consoling cuddle.

I can hear myself saying sorry again and again even though I’m thinking it should be the other way around.

‘D’ye want some breadsticks? And some juice?’

He nods a grumpy assent. Not talking to me. Making it clear I’ll have to go a bit further to atone for my wrongdoings. I’ll have to think about my actions.

‘And we can go to the park later if you want? Or to feed the ducks?’

We go back to the front room and he sits on my lap as we watch more TV. He munches determinedly and soon I’m covered in a thin layer of breadstick crumbs.

At some point we’ll have to tackle getting dressed. Then there’s lunch. Trying to persuade him he can’t have breadsticks for lunch. Leaving the house. Going to the shops. Going to the park. Dealing with the tears when we leave the park. Starting dinner. Trying to persuade him he can’t have breadsticks for dinner.

But they’re all a bit too daunting to think about at the minute. Too many mountains. For now we just enjoy sitting in our pyjamas and watching Peppa.

Soon I’m feeling sleepy. Exhaustion is pouring through my body like ink in water. I must have dozed off because when I come around I’ve got breadstick crumbs on the side of my face. I rub them away.

I look at my son. Eyes still burning into the TV screen. I look at my watch. It feels like we’ve done a lot already, like we’ve been to the other side of everything and back again.

It’s 8:47am. Only 8:47am.

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The bedtime ritual

I hold a weary arm up to protect my eyes from the sting of a weakening watery sun which is sinking into a coppery sky.

My son is jumping in the garden, playing some imaginary game known only to him. His golden hair plastered across his forehead like wet grass. Anyone can see he is tired. Anyone apart from my son.

I’ve already let it go on longer than I should have. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of a special day.

Picking the right moment to put him to bed is an exercise in timing, like trying to snatch a young salmon out of a fast-flowing river. Too early and he’s still got energy and meets you with rage. Too late and he’s overtired and meets you with rage. I think it’s the latter now.

I begin the process by calling out to him. He pretends not to hear. I let it go a couple of minutes and then do it again with the same result. I move towards him.

‘Come on now buddy, time to go up.’

Still no acknowledgement, he’s concentrating on two toy cars, one in each hand.

‘We’ve had a great day buddy, we’ve played football and pirates, but it’s storytime now.’

I move towards him and, although pretending not to see me, he darts away as I get close. I entertain the game for a short time, enjoying his manic giggles as I chase him around the garden.

Soon I have to lift him. He goes through the motions of roaring at me and swinging his arms but I can feel the exhaustion seeping out of his limbs and I know his heart’s not in it. His growls soon soften and he rests his burning cheek against me and we go upstairs.

I know I should really bath him but it’s late and we’re both weary. I settle instead for washing his face, hands and arms and brushing his teeth. He gets a new jolt of energy as I’m undressing him and we play-fight on the bed for a few minutes.

I help him with his pyjamas. I know he can do it himself and I know I should let him but there’s a comfort for both of us in doing it together.

He asks where mummy is on several occasions as I read his book of choice. His mother and I almost always try to both be present for the nighttime ritual, as if it holds some sort of secret, mystical importance. We both hate not to be there at the end of his day. However, there is the rare occasion where one or other has to be away. Tonight she is working late.

My son is lucky to have a wonderful mother, always kind and caring and forever putting the needs of others before herself. Her calm and supportive parenting is the perfect foil to my often chaotic and rambling incoherence. My son rightly worships her.

He asks again. ‘Where’s mummy?’. I feel a stab of jealousy and don’t like myself for it.

My son wants to sleep in our bed tonight. Not an uncommon request which I go along with. I suspect I probably should encourage him to go to his own bed. But then he’s my boy. My only child. I know it won’t be too many more years until he won’t even want to sit in the same room as me and will think the guy who pushes the trollies around the Tesco carpark is cooler than his daddy. If he wants to sleep in our bed then that’s just fine with me.

I take off my shirt and cuddle in beside him. He puts his face against my chest. There’s an unspoken intimacy in his skin against mine, a link which goes back to when he was a baby and I had to get up in the middle of the night to feed and wind him. Then he was so small that he could fit in the palm one of my hands and he would rest his soft little head against my shoulder. It made me feel that I was his whole world.

Soon he is asleep, snoring softly, moving around the bed like a drunk man. I could leave him now, go downstairs to watch TV, surf the web or check in with people I don’t really know on social media. I decide to stay and watch my son sleep.

As he murmurs quietly I can’t help but wonder what’s going on in his head. What dreams and fears are trying to form which he doesn’t yet understand? His pale skin is slightly illuminated by the soft bedside lamp and as I watch I’m so in love. The tantrums, questions, demands, insults, slaps and the early mornings all feel gloriously inconsequential.

Now, like this, with his thin chest rising and falling, I want time to stop. I want to throw something around him to protect him from the journey we all must take. I feel that I couldn’t bear it if he were to ever suffer or be unhappy like I was. I feel that I want to take all the pain in his life and absorb it into my own body.

He turns over, his twig-like arm reaches out, as if searching for something. It comes to rest on my stomach and a little bit of his warmth of his hand transfers into me.

I know I’m being selfish. I know to even think about denying anyone any aspect of their journey is the worst sin.

People often tell me I’m a good daddy. Good because I care so much, do so much, put so much of myself into it. But here, as the last of the evening light disappears like a snubbed candle, I don’t feel that way. It’s always at night when you are least certain, when the doubts attack your mind like hungry crows. I wonder if other parents get these thoughts.

I do what I do because I want to feel needed. I want to feel that he depends on me entirely. I need to be part of everything that he is and does and will be. What’s one of the hardest parts of parenting? Letting go. Letting go that little bit more every time the sun rises.

He doesn’t fit in the palm of my hand anymore and I don’t feel like I’m his whole world now. But I’m still his daddy.

Tiredness is coming on me now like the returning tide and I sink down into the bed. I put an arm around him and he moves in close. We’re protecting each other. We’ve got plenty of time.

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The Challenge II (with video)

So.

A lot has happened since I posted last week about doing the START healthy lifestyles challenge (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/11/09/the-challenge/).

Firstly, and most predictably, my son has decided he doesn’t like organic puffed rice cereal anymore. I’ve compensated by trying to introduce other healthy elements into his breakfast. Some fruit, a bagel, a little milk.

Despite the time pressures of getting ready for school we’ve managed to maintain the conversation about eating more healthily each morning. It’s in his psyche now. It wasn’t before. This is good progress.

There have been some tantrums and tears along the way but that’s not unusual for me before I get my first cup of coffee.

Second, I got chastised by my paymasters at the government body Safefood for using a photograph of a particular brand of organic puffed rice cereal in my last blog.

Just to clear things up. Other brands of organic puffed rice cereal are also available.

Safefood were also concerned that my consumption of organic puffed rice cereal might be seen as a little bit too elitist. Not quite accessible enough. To use their phrase, I wasn’t “on-message”. Apparently King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette used to bathe in solid gold tubs full of organic puffed rice cereal at the palace of Versailles. Anger over this among the working classes led directly to the French Revolution.

So, I’ll clear that one up too. There are other healthy foods apart from organic puffed rice cereal. For example a banana. Or a carrot. A melon maybe. All readily available at reasonable prices.

Following my last blog I got sent an email with rules in big red letters which told me not to mention organic puffed rice cereal again. Needless to say I’ll do my best to comply.

Right. Let’s all move on.

Having taken on an eating challenge last time, this week I decided it would be good to do something physical.

My son is very active. I go through phases of doing exercise, little bursts of energy and good intentions. And phases of seemingly interminable lounging and lethargy. I ran a marathon 18 months ago. Now I get out of breath looking for the remote control under the sofa.

We could all do with getting outside a bit more. And it seemed like a good opportunity to do something active together as a family.

I decided to integrate a daily walk into our activities.

And, just in case I should face any further accusations of elitism, I’ll point out straightaway that other forms of physical exercise are also available. Skipping. Jumping. Hopping…..

My plan was this. On days when we had a little bit of time we’d go somewhere nice for a stroll, like Hillsborough lake (other beauty spots are also available).

On days when we were pushed for time we’d be a bit more inventive. Perhaps just walking together to the local shop. Or walking part of the route to school in the morning.

I set us the minimum of walking 15 minutes together every day. Usually we’d do a lot more. I found it’s a great way of encouraging conversation, catching up on the news of the day. Taking time to listen to each other.

My wife made a little video (see above) of one of our walks. We’ve speeded it up and set it to the Benny Hill theme tune (other comedy theme tunes are also available).

As well as walking it gives my son plenty of time to engage in one of his favourite hobbies.

Jumping in muddy puddles.

Peppa Pig’s got a lot to answer for.

Other pig-based kids’ TV programmes featuring muddy puddles are also available.

Although I can’t think of any at the moment.

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The teeth whitening leaflet

The schoolbag adventures continue….

After the beauty salon book yesterday, today in the schoolbag I found a voucher for £50 off teeth whitening.

The leaflet says ‘One of the greatest assets to your beauty is confidence, and the confidence that a nice smile can give you is invaluable.’

Overleaf it says ‘If you are not happy with your smile tooth whitening is a great first step.’

It also says ‘Smile bright this party season.’

Well at least I know what to get my four-year-old son for Christmas now.

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The Challenge

I only half-read the email at first. But as I was quickly scanning the message a line jumped out at me.

‘We’d like you to be an ambassador….’

Ah! Finally the recognition that I’d craved for years. I’d always seen myself in an ambassadorial role. I started to imagine a scene where I was lounging on a couch, hosting the social event of the year in a grand country house while a maid carried around a big tray of Ferrero Rocher.

But hang on, there were so many questions. Who wanted me to be an ambassador? What would my duties be? Would I have my own butler?

I read the email in more detail. It was from Safefood, an all-Ireland public body responsible for raising consumer awareness of issues relating to food safety and healthy eating. They were seeking my blogging services to help promote a new family orientated campaign to encourage children to eat healthier.

Ok, no butler, but still a worthy cause. I agreed to help. Thus I’m being paid a modest sum for writing this blog. I’ve never used my blog for commercial purposes before and I’m only doing it now because, like many other parents, I worry about the food my son eats and would like to improve his diet.

So the challenge? The START campaign encourages participants to instigate one ‘healthy start’ on a daily basis. Changing one thing about our diet and sticking with it. They call it the ‘daily win’. The philosophy is that big results begin with little changes.

I started thinking about it. My four-year-old is the pickiest of eaters. A daily win usually involves getting him to eat anything at all, healthy or not. He eschews most fruit and all veg and seems to have an inbuilt radar that sniffs out anything which might be remotely considered healthy.

In my mind this became more than a challenge. It was The Challenge.

Breakfast seemed a good place to start. My boy is in P1. I send a healthy packed lunch with him everyday to school but I’ve no way of controlling how much or any of it he eats. It’s often stated that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and this is underlined when you know it might be the only thing your son eats until you pick him up in the afternoon.

But as it stands his breakfast consists of Coco Pops. Or Honey Puffs. Or a combination of both (Coco Honey Pops Puffs?)

I’ve tried him with various healthier options but it usually descends into a tantrum (him, me or both) until I give in. Better that he eats something sugary rather than nothing, I reason.

My bold, and rather hopeful idea, is that I’m going to replace Coco Pops with organic wholegrain puffed rice cereal. Essentially Coco Pops without the coco. And the pop.

To ease the passage I start eating the puffed rice for my breakfast a couple of days before him so my son gets familiar with the idea. I can’t sell them to him as organic wholegrain puffed rice cereal so we both settle on the name ‘daddy rice’. Catchy.

They’re a little bland but I can sex them up a bit with pecans and blueberries. But I know I won’t have this option when I introduce my son to the new breakfast.

I briefly flirt with the idea of making my own puffed rice. The logic being that if I can get my son interested in making them he might be interested in eating them too.

But when I google it the method seems desperately complicated. One recipe suggests using a miniature cannon to create the high pressure necessary to puff the grains. Reluctantly I abandon this idea following discussions with my wife. Me and a cannon. It would end in tears.

The night before The Challenge begins I sit my son down to talk to him about it. Make him aware, keep him involved, get him excited about it. He seems to like the idea. We do a high five. My hopes are lifted.

Then he says.

‘But I’ll still get my Coco Pops, won’t I daddy?’

Hmmm. It could be a tricky morning.

The hour before school is always frenetic. Rows over dressing and washing. Add The Challenge into the equation and the potential for an overflow of tension is very real.

My son’s watching some TV when I produce two bowls, one small, one large, of the organic puffed rice. I sit beside him.

‘Wo-hoo! It’s time for The Challenge.’

His face screws up in disgust.

‘I want Coco Pops daddy.’

‘We’ve talked about this son. Remember we said we were going to try the new healthy breakfast.’

This debate goes back and forward for a few minutes. I spoon rice into my mouth while going ‘Mmmmmmmm!’ He remains unmoved.

I’m left with no other option. I’m going to have to dance.

I hastily compose a little song. Basically it goes like this:

‘How nice is daddy rice? How nice is daddy rice?’

I move around the room singing this while doing a crazy marching dance reminiscent of Suggs from Madness when he sings One Step Beyond (note to Safefood. I’m really earning my flipping money here).

My son laughs and softens. I take the opportunity to stuff some rice into his open mouth.

He doesn’t completely hate it.

He begins to feed himself merrily. Every time I try to sit down he shouts:

‘Daddy do the song and the dance again.’

I keep doing it. He keeps eating.

He’s eaten about two thirds of the bowl when he decides he’s had enough. I pull another old trick.

‘Just take five more spoonfuls son.’

‘That’s too many daddy. Two.’

He’s a better negotiator than me and we settle on three.

I feed him two spoonfuls and then pretend I’ve lost count and have to start again. By the time I’ve finally got to three the bowl is empty.

Then he drinks a fruit smoothie. Strawberry and banana. Tomorrow I might try a little sliced apple as well.

As he goes happily off to school I remind him that I’ve made him a healthy packed lunch, but his mind is already in the playground with his friends.

That’s day one. I have to do this for three weeks.

I think I’m going to need some new dance routines.

To be continued…..

For more information about the START campaign visit http://www.makeastart.org