Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

Archive for the tag “teens”

24 Hours in Cambridge

King's College from the river

One of the many things my wife’s new career has done has been to throw me and my youngest son (the Small Boy Wonder) closer together. I’m close to his elder siblings as well, but in different ways – in their cases adversity has often been the mother of connection. The SBW and I are much more like each other in terms of personality than any other two members of our family.  And as a result of the sometimes intense distraction of the Beautiful Armenian’s course, we’ve spent a lot of time together over the last few years.

This week he and I have been in Cambridge. His mother is writing an essay, I had a few days’ leave to use up, he has half-term, and I said we were going to do something vaguely improving.  He turned down walking in the Yorkshire Dales, on the basis of it involving both walking and the Yorkshire Dales.  He also declined a trip to Chester, having apparently developed an inexplicable aversion for anything too far north.  So, having informed the BA that in a man’s world “what goes on on tour, stays on tour,” we set course for the city of my student days.

Trinity College

St John's College from the river

A week ago, if you had believed the weather forecasts, you might have been a little nervous about the possible incursion of polar bears into these normally tranquil parts.  Yesterday morning we were punting along the River Cam in almost spring like conditions. And we managed to avoid falling in. In between times we got upgraded at the hotel, had a walk round some of the Colleges, rejected the ubiquitous chain restaurants for a great little cafe/bistro (with the added attraction of a waitress who the SBW said was at least an eight out of ten – bless him, he had about as much chance with her as I did), went to the cinema to see Chronicle (bad news for the waitress, this got a straight ten out of ten) and looked at paintings and porcelain in the Fitzwilliam Museum. I also pretended that the whole trip was calorie-neutral by spending an hour in the fitness centre (can you lose weight in the sauna?).

I would be misleading you if I said that my student days at Cambridge were uniformly happy. The Beautiful Armenian and I had decided even at that young age that we intended to spend the rest of our lives together, although we might not have been quite bold enough to say it to each other, and being apart wasn’t always easy. I also found the place so very, very different from the small-town grammar school from which I had emerged – there were a lot of unbelievably pretentious and capricious people there (and still are from what I could see this week).

Courtyard at Pembroke College

But in time I found my feet and made good friends, and overall the experience was very positive. Not least because I had an understanding of how lucky I was. I had access to fabulous facilities, I had many of the normal hassles of student life looked after for me, and I lived for three years in one of the most beautiful of places. And as far as I can work out, I ended up there for no other reason than that I had a knack for doing well in exams. Believe me, I am no great intellect.

Each time I go back, that sense of good fortune strengthens. I wasn’t lucky to have gone there. It was an incredible privilege.  And I think I’ve taken away from it a confidence in my own abilities, which counters my natural shyness, and has served me well.

I think any of my children could have followed me to Cambridge, but nobody has to date and I think it unlikely that the SBW will.  It hasn’t seemed the right place for them.  Their talents all lie in areas which Cambridge doesn’t serve.  But it’s still a wonderful place in which to spend a couple of days.

Another view of St John's

 

Queen's College from the river

Do Our Children Need to Watch More Sex and Violence on TV?

We had a letter home from school this week about the Small Boy Wonder’s (SBW) behaviour.  It’s always with some trepidation that I open an envelope with the school’s postmark on it.

It’s probably been a tough week for teachers.  The last week before the half-term break, and the weather doesn’t help – we’re still in the grips of a prolonged bout of harsh winter weather (even if the Arctic Armageddon and related breakdown of society forecast for Thursday night actually manifested itself as a light dusting of snow and a moderately hard frost – we do like our over-reactions to these things).  This may allow the lovely area where we live to shimmy up the cat-walk in a rarely-seen white gown of beauty (done no real justice by my third-rate photography).  But it doesn’t make things easy in school.

However, I’m not sure the teachers make life easy for themselves.  We’ve now had serious winter conditions three years in a row, but this time we seem to have avoided extensive school closures, airports shutting down, the imposition of martial law etc.  Even the head of the SBW’s school – who in previous years has shown a hair-trigger tendency to close the place completely and put his feet up in front of a roaring log fire at the merest suggestion from that lovely Carol Kirkwood on breakfast TV that it might be getting a bit nippy – has managed to keep the show on the road.  But this created the situation last week in which hundreds of boisterous teenagers were itching to get out and mess around in the snow, but a staff of teachers fully inducted into the zealous cult of health and safety were trying to stop them.  Apparently it culminated in a full-blown, but generally good-natured, rebellion as students and teachers clashed head-on in a struggle for control of the means of production of snowballs.

If I were in charge I would simply say, yes, you can play in the snow, but if anyone does anything stupid, expect big trouble.  Maybe that’s just too sensible?

More about the SBW and his behaviour letter shortly.  What about the sex and violence promised in the title?

That lovely Carol Kirkwood

It’s got nothing to do with Carol.  I just thought that seeing as we’ve mentioned her, we should have a picture of her as well. (Welcome at this stage to anyone who’s arrived here by searching for Carol Kirkwood and sex on Google – sorry if this isn’t quite what you were hoping for, but why not read on anyway).

One of the things we’ve noticed as parents is that since the Very Precious Daughter left home a couple of years ago, the Small Boy Wonder has in effect become an only child.  This has required quite an adjustment by myself and the Beautiful Armenian.  I’m very conscious that we have to be careful that we don’t subject him to too much scrutiny and over-bearing attention, but it also leaves him with a lot of time by himself, with no siblings around to provide any form of distraction.  He’s got lots of interests and lots of friends, but there are still many hours to fill.

The SBW is a teenager living in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century and so his first inclination is to spend that time interacting with a screen.  So is his second inclination, his third inclination and many subsequent inclinations as well.  We also have to contend with the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out) which afflicts most teens today.  All this means that given time to himself the SBW will in all likelihood spend it on a computer, a games console, an iPOD or glued to his Blackberry.

As I’ve said before, I worry about this sometimes, but I’m not entirely sure what to do.  But I do think that trying to offer him something more interesting to do is a better tactic than instigating bans or harsh time restrictions.  And something that has proved fairly successful in our house in this regard is watching DVDs together.

We’re quite big on gangsters (the Mob variety rather than urban rappers).  Last week we watched Carlito’s Way  in 30 minute instalments.  The SBW particularly liked this, identifying with the small-time criminal trying to go straight.  We’ve also watched all the Godfather films, Scarface and The Untouchables.  And last year we worked our way through every single episode of The Sopranos. That’s something like 75 hours of television. If you had told me before I came across The Sopranos that not only was it one of the best shows ever made, it was also a mixture of gangland action, family inter-play and psychotherapy, I would have thought that you were just trying to be nice to me.  As far as this family is concerned, there could be no better combination.

We do other things as well: the Rocky films, some spaghetti westerns, the occasional Dickens adaptation or low-budget movie.

But the content isn’t really that important. What matters is that we watch these things together. And that means that we talk about what we’ve watched. And it also means that the SBW is with us and not engaged in solitary screen activity, although he does have a remarkable capacity to keep up with whatever’s  new and interesting in the local teenage world via his Blackberry (although I can’t for the life of me imagine what that might be) and to watch with us at the same time and take in more detail than I do.

Now my worry is that sometimes I’ve let the SBW watch more sex, violence and swearing than I should. We’ve got friends who wouldn’t dream of watching some of these things with their kids.

But then I tell myself that I shouldn’t worry. Most of these things are high quality productions that deal with real life issues. And in this day and age, you simply can’t shield your children from X-rated content. Even if you do manage to control what they see in your own house, you never know what they’re doing when they’re round at their friends. The one thing which the SBW found distressing about the Godfather films was when old man Corleone keeled over and died of a heart attack amongst the tomatoes. Because it happened in front of the little kid. The SBW actually told me I was a bad parent for letting him see that bit!  Silly me.  There I was worrying about harmless things like a severed horse’s head, Michael’s wife getting blown up, and somebody getting shot through the eye.

It’s ironic – but a sign of the times – that I should regard the television, which everyone feared was going to ruin my generation when I was growing up, as something which can help hold a family together.

OK then, Superdad, you may be thinking. You’re trying to suggest that all this adult content is actually good for young people, but aren’t you the one with the letter home from school about your son’s behavior?

Indeed I am. It arrived on Saturday morning. Once I’d read it, I called the SBW away from his computer (fittingly enough), asked his mother to join us and and told them what had happened. The SBW looked dreadful – he was clearly very worried. I then handed him the letter and asked him to read it.

Dear Mr and Mrs Toby,

We are writing to thank the Small Boy Wonder for his cooperation and good behavior on our recent trip to Belgium and France. His mature attitude and sensitivity during the visit was intrinsic to its success.

It went on in a similar vein for several more paragraphs.

So maybe all that exposure to Tony Soprano isn’t such a bad thing. Who know?

But I can’t help wondering what it was that made the young lad look so worried when he thought the letter was bad. What have I missed?  Any ideas, Tony?

Tony Soprano

Should We Worry For Our Children’s Futures?

The Small Boy Wonder (SBW) and I spent Saturday hedge-laying.  In November and December we were pollarding willows, so get us and our green craft ways.  Anyone with any measure of concern for the natural environment will be relieved to know that this has all been under the supervision of the local Wildlife Trust.  We’ve not been let loose with bill-hooks and pole-saws on our own.  The SBW needed to do some voluntary work to complete his Duke of Edinburgh bronze award.

Here is some of our handiwork.

Hedge-laying

Pollarding willows

As we made our way across the frozen nature reserve on Saturday, the SBW asked me (referring to a conversation from earlier in the week) why we don’t like it when he spends too long on the X-box.  He didn’t think that adults really understood these things.  I said I feared that too many hours on the console could addle the brain.  We then had a quick chat about the meaning of the word addle.  I also said that he certainly becomes more irritable when the game-time rises.

He said this was nothing to do with X-box playing.  It would happen if you spent too long doing any one thing.

We left it at that.

Now I would be misleading you if I said that the SBW is a keen nature-lover who has enjoyed every minute of his days with the Wildlife Trust. One of the reasons for the hedge-laying was to block off gaps used by youths on trail bikes.  The SBW expressed the view that the bike runs looked pretty cool, and that our environmental efforts would leave the local youth feeling “well vexed.”

But to his credit, he worked hard and didn’t make a fuss, and it’s given us some good father-and-son time together (even if a day’s physical work leaves me a complete wreck).  His good attitude is in part because he recognises that getting the D of E awards may help him in the future.

The future.  How scary must it be to be 15 these days and to wonder what the future will bring?  And, even harder, what you need to do to equip yourself best to face it?

It used to be relatively easy.  Today it’s likely that a lot of the jobs our 15 year olds will do haven’t yet been invented.  If they go to university to study something related to technology, then a lot of what they learn in the first year will be out-of-date by the time they graduate.

Last week also saw the SBW getting the results from his first GCSE modules (can you believe it, he had an exam worth 25% of his maths grade about 10 weeks into the course!).  They weren’t quite as good as we had hoped.  But he wouldn’t be a Boy Wonder if he didn’t have an angle, and he was very quick to explain that Cs and Bs are the new A stars:

  • The human mind can, apparently, only just comprehend the size of the number of people in his year who did worse than he did.
  • It would have been a whole lot different if he hadn’t got into trouble with his maths teacher the week before the exam for repeatedly forgetting to bring his homework in, and been punished by having to do loads more revision questions than anyone else.  So well done him for his sloppiness.
  • The exam boards have finally bowed to the pressure of Daily Mail England and started to make the papers proper hard.  What awful luck for him that they’ve caved in this year.  It seems that Stephen Hawking would struggle to get anything more than a low B in GCSE Physics at the moment.

And so his apparently mediocre efforts represent a veritable academic triumph, when viewed in the right way.

To be fair to him, this isn’t all spin.  We’ve had an e-mail from school, and the teachers are well vexed about the difficulty of the science paper.

But he could have done better with a bit more effort, and he will now have to do re-sits.  His problem.

I feel that I should get more worked up about the SBW’s tendency towards slight academic under-achievement.  I was a real swot at school (they would call me a nerd these days).  But I can’t get very cross with my son.  I think the rules have changed so much.  I’ve seen lots of successful people in business with no great academic background.  Skills and personal qualities seem to count for at least as much as formal qualifications and there are many admirable things about the SBW – he’s engaging, determined, has a fantastic memory, wisdom beyond his years, excellent analytical skills and has already shown a distinct entrepreneurial flair.  His sister is also excelling in a field for which school was virtually no preparation (although, despite her various personal meltdowns, she did come out with a good set of results).

So I think the SBW will be alright.

Although I won’t be sharing these views with him until after he’s done all his exams.

He’s also got a lovely sense of humour.  Hedge-laying turned out to be a lot more dull for him than lopping branches off willows and burning them.  The SBW also worked out that he’d done his required D of E hours by about lunchtime on Saturday.  Early in the afternoon, after he’d been sharpening poles for a while (see below), he came up to me and said:

“We need to go home.  I’ve been doing this so long my brain’s getting addled and I’m definitely getting irritable.”

Stella Could Be As Good As Gavin And Stacey

Ruth Jones as Stella

I’m not usually an early adopter of anything, but I am quietly proud of the fact that I discovered Gavin and Stacey before it became widely known.  I don’t really know why that should be a source of pride, but it is.

On Friday we watched the first episode of Stella, Ruth Jones’ new series on Sky 1.  We loved it.  The Beautiful Armenian and I have quite different tastes in comedy, but there were laugh-out-loud moments for both of us.

There were some good teenager and family moments, so enough of a tenuous link to the subject matter of this blog (as far as I’m concerned).  For me the quality of the writing really stood out. The way that the true (and complex) character of Stella’s sister-in-law was gradually revealed.  The way that Stella was immediately established as a character deserving of our sympathy, even though she didn’t handle her daughter’s issues very well.

Ruth Jones as Nessa

All in all a very promising start.  No, more than that.  I get quite emotional about things I really like, and I can feel myself becoming a big fan of Stella already.  Isn’t it interesting how you can often feel the quality of a film or a TV series or a book very early on (although I suppose sometimes the biggest disappointments come from things which appear to be brilliant, but then don’t deliver).

Let’s hope Stella doesn’t go that way.  I’m quietly confident it won’t.  The Independent has been less than completely enthusiastic, so I thought I’d see if I could find out what they thought about Gavin and Stacey in its early days.  It seems they thought it was “respectable.”  So there.

Anyway, there are nine one-hour episodes to go, and plenty of repeats of the first one this week.  I’m going to be looking forward to Friday nights even more than normal over the next couple of months!

I Won’t Be A Parent Of Children Much Longer

Don’t worry.  I’ve not decided to murder them all, tempting though it occasionally  can be.  No, it’s just that I’ve realised that I am now in the autumn years of my life as a parent of children, rather than as a parent of teenagers or young adults.  Hence the picture of some yellowing leaves to underline my weak metaphor.

The Small Boy Wonder is growing up fast.  Our youngest child has turned fifteen.   The freshwater streams of his childhood are dissolving into the salty waters of adult life.

He’s already loved and lost (although, to be fair, I think he loved and lost interest).  Encounters with the dreaded alcohol are becoming more frequent.  Drugs are freely available, but thankfully he has a strong antipathy towards them.  He’s nearly as tall as me, and certainly fitter and stronger.

And of course, because he’s a teenager, he bubbles away in a toxic soup of hormones and emotions.  Persuading him to do something completely unreasonable, like take to his bed before eleven o’ clock on a school night or apply himself to his Maths GCSE even if the teacher is indeed “a knob”, can be very much like trying to handle a wounded wasp – it doesn’t matter how careful you are you know you’re going to get stung.

But it’s by no means all bad news.  We went to watch rugby together recently – a pulsating Heineken Cup match – and it was wonderful.  It really struck me that for the first time it was much more like doing something with a friend than doing something with a child.  The Small Boy Wonder has articulate views on adult subjects, and an increasingly grown-up sense of humour.  I think that being a teenager today is generally rubbish, but there will still always be that great excitement that derives from there being so much more to come than has gone.

And yet we’ve not completely lost the innocent of the pre-teen years.  Recently there have been two reminders of this:

  • Excitement at the park: our local park is where it all happens for teenagers.  Where they learn about drinking and smoking and sex.  From what I’ve heard, Friday night on a  summer evening is very far from pretty down there. The SBW has made a few forays into this world, and although it’s a rite of passage, I’m not sure he really enjoys it. But there is something about the park that has really made him happy.  Not the availability of vodka or cannabis or young girls eager to shed the skin of sexual inexperience.  No, none of these.  What has really pushed his buttons has been the new play equipment that’s been installed.  And above all else, the new zipwire, a trip down which is now apparently an integral part of his journey home each day!
  • Legitimate cock jokes: he’s been doing badminton in PE.  They shorten “shuttlecock” to “cock” and this creates almost limitless possibilities.  “Can we get our cocks out, sir?”  “Look at my cock, Emma.”  “I think my cock’s broken, sir.”  Etc, etc, etc, etc.

Now, I know he’s male, and therefore that any female readers will be putting on their weary, knowing heads, rolling their pretty eyes, and saying that he’ll never grow out of this sort of thing actually.  But it’s not quite that.  There is something in the breadth of his grin when he recounts these stories that tells me that the child is not yet fully grown.

And that is something worth clinging on to.  The Beautiful Armenian and I will accept the passing of this phase of our lives – there’s lots of good stuff that comes with it.  But for me there will still be a measure of regret.  There are lots of things that I’ll probably never do again.  Build a lego castle.  Be better at a video game.  Go running and be able to keep up.

Time for some more leaf-based melancholy.

Our First Visit to Accident and Emergency

As I’ve started to learn about the world of blogging, I’ve spent a lot of time surfing blogs with a parenting theme.  There’s a lot of material about our first step, our first wee in the toilet, our first day at big school.  I haven’t found anything about our first recovery from an alcoholic stupor in hospital.  So here goes.

This happened a few years ago, and began when one of the Very Precious Daughter’s friends had the presence of mind to call us.  I think that was quite a big thing for him, because he probably had some part in things getting out of hand.  But he called us, and told us that the VPD was in a bit of a state and that we should probably come and collect her.

The first of many issues that night was the fact that it was 10.30 p.m. on Friday, our daughter was at a house party 15 miles away and I’d had too many glasses of wine to be able to jump in the car.  There are no taxi firms near where we live so we had to call one from about 10 miles away.  When it arrived, I took great care to explain that the whole purpose of the trip was to fetch back an inebriated 16 year old.  I took some plastic bags with me, because at that point I thought that the worst that could happen was that she might vomit on the way home.

When we found the house, her friends were waiting for us.  They wouldn’t let me go in to the party, but said they would bring her out.  A couple of minutes later two of them appeared, supporting the VPD between them.  At first she didn’t seem to be in too bad a state, but when her friends passed her over to me to get her into the taxi, she was a dead weight.  We finally got into the back of the car, the VPD slumped against me, unable to communicate in any way.  I was still some considerable way from realising just how serious things were.  The taxi driver, however, was going through a rapid loss of enthusiasm.  I have to be honest here, and acknowledge that (not for the last time that night) I was feeling more concerned for how I looked as a rubbish parent, responsible for the ills of a generation, than I was for the crisis.  Not because of a lack of concern.  Because of sheer, bloody ignorance.

We set off, but hadn’t got very far before she started to be sick.  No great volume of vomit, but (quite understandably) the taxi driver was starting to get a bit jumpy about another half an hour of this.  We stopped, I managed to haul the VPD out of the car and sat her on a kerb on a side street.  She still hadn’t managed to communicate.  I think the taxi driver might have suggested that perhaps hospital would be a good idea, but I then realised (accepting that we weren’t going to get home in any great hurry) that we were only a mile or so from an old friend’s house.  I was loath to disturb him (it was getting on for midnight by now and he has more than enough on his plate without this kind of rubbish) but it appeared to be my only option.

So that’s where we went.  I was already getting quite tired with all the lifting, but we managed to get my daughter out of the taxi and into the house.  I negotiated with the cab driver about the cost of everything, paid him and tried to regroup.

My friend was great – really supportive and helpful.  I then set about spending the next hour making a serious situation much worse.

Mistake one: assume that if we just wait a while she’ll come round.  She didn’t.

Mistake two: take at face value the statement of a drunk friend of the VPD that she hadn’t had anything other than vodka.  As it happens, this was true.  But I should have questioned it much more strongly.  If it hadn’t been true, heaven only knows what would have happened.

Mistake three: deploy blind optimism as your main strategy and conclude that your very sensible wife is over-reacting when she repeatedly expresses the view from the other end of a phone line that medical help is required.

Mistake four: imagine that a bit of black coffee might help.  Although the VPD was in no fit state to cooperate with anything we were trying to do, what we should have done was to get as much water down her as possible.

Mistake five: the really big one.  When the other mistaken strategies are having little effect, try giving her a little bit of fresh air.  Disaster.  With the help of my friend’s wife, I removed the VPD’s trousers as they were vomit-stained and then sat her out in the garden for a while in the middle of a fresh autumn night.  By doing this, I nearly bloody killed her.  What I should have done was to make her as warm as possible – because of the state she was in she was losing body heat all the time.

Mistake six:  allow your shame at having a child in this state, and your belief that the emergency services have got far better things to do with their time late at night on a Friday than to look after privileged kids who have over-indulged, to delay further calling for medical help.

I don’t remember exactly how it all happened but when we did finally call an ambulance we had my daughter in the house lying (still almost completely unconscious) on a mattress in the back room.  They were very concerned when I spoke to them and described the state she was in.  And they came very quickly.   Once they had started to put right some of my mistakes, mainly by trying to make her warm, they put most of their effort into trying to find out whether her state was due only to alcohol or whether there had been drugs as well.  There were two paramedics – the male one was quite surly and aggressive (knock some sense into them type approach).  The girl was lovely.  They did some medical stuff (I really have no capacity for remembering such things).  And after about twenty minutes I was thanking my friend and climbing into the back of the ambulance.  The paramedics were not giving any indication that they regarded this as purely routine.

And so to hospital.  Having done my best to persuade tragedy to pay us a visit when clearly she’d been thinking of giving us a second chance, I now became fleetingly distracted by falling hopelessly in love with the female paramedic.  It may only have been a casual encounter.  But believe me it was packed with meaning.   She really was a total sweetheart.  Blonde, local, and truly wonderful.  I get like this with young women occasionally.   OK, I get like this with young women frequently. It’s nothing to do with anything dodgy.  It’s to do with admiration, optimism and sheer unadulterated soppiness.  I imagined that if I were the dad of this young girl, I would be so very, very proud, and hoped that her dad was.

There must be limits to my optimism about medical matters, but they’ve not yet been discovered.  The paramedics were clearly still concerned, but I don’t think I ever thought it was going to end really badly.  I still had it in my head that at some point we were going to be made to wait a very long time, just to emphasise to us how there were many far more deserving people waiting for help that night.  But it didn’t happen.  The VPD was taken straight through the reception of Accident and Emergency into a bay on her own.   Again the same questions – “You’re sure it’s only been alcohol?”  She was still unconscious, and they quickly put her on a drip – just saline I believe to rehydrate her.

I truly hope that no-one reading this ever has to watch their child come round from an alcoholic stupor in hospital.  If you can avoid it, you should.  But having said that, it’s quite something.  And it’s also quite funny.  When the drip starts to work, it’s very dramatic, like fast-forwarding a DVD of somebody moving through several stages of sobering up.  The VPD went from being dangerously comatose, to nothing more than ridiculously drunk, in what seemed like a few minutes.  As she came round she started to get very concerned about the blood she could see in the tube leading into her arm, and began pulling at it.  A nurse appeared, and stopped her.  Like the little sweetheart earlier, this matronly rough diamond was exactly the kind of person I would have wished for at this point.  She was very, very firm with the VPD.  And with a fairly comic and pouting resentment, the VPD listened.

We were left alone again.  Despite the dramatic transformation, the VPD was still very drunk, drifting in and out of coherence.  There was a tannoy of some sorts in her bay, and at one stage an Asian-sounding voice said something over it.  She sat up, and looked at me as if to suggest that I must be thinking exactly the same as her.  Then she eyed the tannoy suspiciously and shouted: “Fucking Poles!”

To this day she has no idea at all where that came from.  I think she’s always found it far more embarrassing than anything else that happened that night.

When at her best, my daughter is one of the most engaging people you could ever meet.  And happily this is what came through as she began to sober up properly.  After a couple more minor spats with the nurse, they soon established an equilibrium, and used that to move rapidly towards becoming best-friends-for-ever over the next half hour.  The VPD told her how much she loved her, what a disgrace she was, and how she would be coming back to make her rich when she made her fortune.  The nurse tried to give the appearance of being unmoved by this, but failed.

Following a brief moment of panic when the VPD insisted on locking herself in a toilet and then falling asleep, it was becoming apparent that the crisis stage was over, and although the medical staff remained thoroughly professional and helpful, it did now become clear that they needed to move on to more pressing issues.

We went through to the public reception and I sat the VPD down whilst I sorted out another taxi.  I only had to leave her on her own for about 30 seconds.  Despite being wrapped in a vomit-stained hospital blanket, she managed to use that time to approach two of the meanest, roughest looking boys I’ve ever seen with a view to becoming friends on Facebook or something similar.  I intervened, guided her to the taxi and off we went.  After about 5 minutes of random rambling, she fell fast asleep.  She stayed that way for the next 10 hours.

Evil VODKA - every little counts

The next day, the VPD was sheepish and embarrassed. But not as completely riven by shame as I might have expected or wanted. This concerns me, and we’ve since found out that going through this hospital experience is something of a badge of honour amongst some teenagers. We established that the root causes of what happened were a failure to eat properly, and VODKA. Apparently she and two friends had got hold of a bottle, and she had become concerned that she wasn’t getting her fair share. She decided to remedy this by pouring as much down her neck as she could as quickly as she could.

The Beautiful Armenian and I fully acknowledge our responsibility as parents, and that our daughter’s behaviour is in part, in substantial part, a reflection on us. We make no attempt to hide from this. But the way we organise our society doesn’t make it easy for parents. I’ve posted before about the price and availability of strong alcohol, and I note the story this week about an alarming rise in alcoholic liver disease amongst relatively young people in the north-east of England.  The Royal College of Physicians have identified the price of alcohol and its promotion to young people as the cause.  The drinks industry, of course, takes a different view.  I know that it’s not straightforward – nothing ever is – but my experience as a parent tells me that on this one the doctors have got a very good point.

Half Term Fun (2) – Good Family Rows Cost Less at Sainsbury’s

The view as we crossed the Thames

After Day 1 of the trip, we were under strict instructions not to ring the doorbell of the student house when we left the car outside.  We didn’t, and we got a text from the Small Boy Wonder soon afterwards saying all was well (although the Very Precious Daughter had taken him to a student party).

The Beautiful Armenian and I then spent a lovely day in London.  We went to the Courtauld Gallery (see this post for more detail), wandered across the Thames to the South Bank and then made leisurely progress to where we were to meet our treasured offspring for a quick cup of tea prior to a whiz round Sainsbury’s – one of the various stealth taxes that goes with being the parents of a student.

The VPD ceased being a teenager a little while ago.  But so stunning was her performance in that role – with such utter conviction did she make it her own – that she has been invited by the NCATB (National Council for Appalling Teenage Behaviour) to stay on in an honorary capacity.  And this afternoon she confirmed what an outstanding decision that was.

After talking about holidays for next year (including something potentially very special) and what we might do on her birthday, we had a conversation that went something like this:

PARENTS: You asked us yesterday if you and your four housemates could all come and stay with us for a night a few days before Xmas.

DAUGHTER:  I did.  We’ll be on a tour of the country visiting all 5 home towns, and having a night out on the lash in each one.

PARENTS: We’ve talked about it overnight and although we love seeing your friends we just don’t think it’s reasonable to ask for this in the week before Xmas.

DAUGHTER (tossing head): I knew you’d be like this.  I almost didn’t bother asking.

PARENTS:  We’re normally very happy for your friends to stay whenever you like, and to come on holiday with us as well. But you know how much we’ve got on at that time of year.  Any other time would be fine, but on this occasion we’re saying no.

DAUGHTER:  I just hate it when we have these conversations.  All the other parents have said yes, by the way

PARENTS:  Sorry. We’re not.

DAUGHTER: Well you do realise this means I won’t be able to spend as much time with you guys at Xmas, don’t you?

PARENTS:  Really?  How does that work?

DAUGHTER: Because we’ll now have to do the trip after Xmas and so it will eat into the time I would have spent with you.  But if that’s how you want it, it’s your choice.

My Total Bollocks Detector was beginning to flash red at this point.  The Beautiful Armenian doesn’t have quite such a high spec model, and I could see she was beginning to wobble.  The VPD hadn’t gone into a full eruption, but experienced observers were looking with concern at the gathering clouds. The government was on the brink of cancelling all flights over the south of England.  The VPD then unleashed her “You really are the world’s worst parents” look and announced that she needed to get on so could we go to Sainsbury’s now please.

She stormed off.  As we followed in her wake, I said that I had very serious doubts that the trip would ever have got off the ground, but that we shouldn’t give in to this sort of pressure.  The Beautiful A saw it in an even dimmer light.  She felt she was being bullied.  Right conclusion.  Worrying implications for the rest of the afternoon.

If I said that the first 5 minutes in Sainsbury’s were chilled and relaxed, I would be misleading you ever so slightly.  But at least things were finding their way into the trolley.  We then all got separated and at this point TBA decided that of the bullying she was having none.  Telling the VPD that she had spent too much of her life pretending that everything was OK when it wasn’t, she explained (quietly but unambiguously) that she found it unacceptable for the VPD to try to force us to agree to her request under threat of a disrupted Xmas.

The VPD said that she could see this, and that she was very sorry for the upset she had caused.

That last sentence is my little joke.  The little darling in fact completely went off on one.  She denied that this is what she had said, and turned the volume of her indignation up to 11.  She stormed off again – even by her standards twice in less than 10 minutes is quite something.  She also demonstrated admirable female multi-tasking skills by simultaneously displaying complete moral outrage and continuing her progress round fruit juices, bread and cereals at our expense.

The four of us did convene briefly in frozen foods for an exchange of further denials and accusations, whilst pensioners with sticks and young mothers with double buggies tried to navigate their way round us.

What was most disappointing about all this was that it looked as though this would be how we would part company.

But long story short, we did in fact make our peace on the tube train back to where the Very Precious Daughter lives.  She didn’t climb down as such, but she did say that she had misunderstood what we were saying.  We let her have this way out.  And we all parted on good terms.

I’m writing this a couple of weeks after it happened.  A lot more has happened since (more on that another time).  But I feel that we have slightly redefined the nature of our relationship with the VPD, and that things are better for it.  I think she was genuinely caught out by her mother’s unexpected resolve.  And if you want to know the origins of that, look no further than the course and the therapy.

My daughter is beautiful.  She is talented.   She has wonderful friends, and is a wonderful friend to them.  She can be warm, funny, engaging, and she is always sincere.  She is deeply, deeply loved by us.

We’ve probably let her get away with too much at times in the past.  This probably won’t be the last time we have hours like this, nor the last time it will all seem so petty and inexplicable in retrospect.  Somehow  – and sometimes it takes a lot of hard work – we always seem to be able to get past these moments and move on.

Nobody ever said that being a parent would be easy.

The Price of VODKA

The Scottish government announced plans last week to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol – see here for the full story.  There has inevitably been a mixed reaction to this. In the context of teenage drinking, I think this is a GOOD THING.   Teenage drinking must be a much bigger problem today than it was when I was growing up.  And the fact that strong alcohol is relatively so cheap must be a big factor in this.  How can it not be?   The Scottish government have pointed out that youngsters can get hold of enough alcohol to kill themselves for less than £5.

There was a second piece of related news this week, but it didn’t get quite the same coverage in the press.  My attempt not to drink for 4 weeks ended in failure after just 5 days.  Not very impressive.  The lure of a glass of wine or two on Friday night was too much.  I bargained with myself that I was being needlessly ambitious  – it isn’t giving up completely that’s the issue, it’s trying to cut down.  This might not have persuaded everyone, but it was good enough for me.

Although this has been my lowest drinking week for some time, there is no doubt that I drink too much.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a long way from being on the gin by 11.00 a.m. But I have a drink too often – there are probably only 3 nights in an average week when we don’t open a bottle of wine. And once I’ve started, I usually find it hard to stop at one glass. I often end up having extra glasses that I could well do without, especially at the weekend. On a Friday night, I know that I’m often using alcohol to dull the pressures of the working week.

When I was at university, I also had something of a reputation for over-indulgence.

So, is it right that I should take the strong view that I do about teenage drinking? Am I being a hypocrite?

We have a friend with teenage children who says that our generation has to take responsibility for the very poor relationship that our offspring have with booze. She’s obviously right, but if that’s your only view on the subject, then I would say you’re ducking the issue.  I hate sounding like a grumpy old man, but you can’t deny that things have changed since we were young.

Teenagers today seem to start getting hold of alcohol when they are about 13 or 14 years old.  I don’t remember anyone I knew at that age going anywhere near drink. True, we were able to start sneaking into pubs from about 16, but when we did we were in public and likely not to be served if we drew attention to ourselves in any way. Also, when we did start drinking, it was beer or cider and nothing else. I don’t think I got drunk on spirits until I was about 20. Teenagers today seem to start on spirits, before they’ve learned anything at all about drinking, before they ‘ve any idea about their capacity. And why do they do this? Because it’s easy to transport. Because it gives a bigger and more immediate hit. But most of all, because it’s cheap.

Will minimum pricing cure the problems of teenage drinking by itself? Of course not. Is it completely fair on everyone? Probably not. But I’m convinced that there’s a very strong link between ease of availability and consumption in the teenage world and so I for one hope the idea from Scotland gets exported south (even if I end up paying more for my own habit).

Homophobic bullying (things can only get better?)

I came across this very moving video the other day (I found it on TED, but this is the YouTube link).

Three thoughts occurred to me.

It brought back some very painful memories
Our eldest son (the Big Boy Wonder) was bullied at school because of his sexuality.  For us as parents, the experience  really only lasted one day.  For him, there was much, much more to it.  I will never forget him sitting on our sofa aged 14 sobbing uncontrollably and pleading with us never to send him back to his school.   If you had asked me beforehand what my reaction would have been, I would have predicted that I would tell him he had to go back and face things, but that we would give him all possible support in doing this.

In fact I found myself saying that he wouldn’t have to go back.  And he never did.

It emerged from many conversations over the next few days that the bullying had taken two forms.

There had been the sort of name-calling and harassment you would expect from meat-headed older boys.  This was very public and very humiliating.  Our son hadn’t come out to the world at this point, but he did attract attention by spending most of his time at school with a group of girls (who were probably beginning to attract attention of their own from the same older boys).  And he also dressed far more smartly and with far greater attention to his appearance than most of his peers.

But there had also been some more complex behaviour within his friendship group, within that group of girls in fact.  What seems to have happened is that the BBW confided to one or two of them that he thought he might be gay.  Being fourteen year old girls, those confidants swore to keep this secret.  They then promptly  spread it around the rest of the group.  At this point he retracted what he had said, I suspect fearing the consequences of its wider transmission.

The girls then rounded on him, not for being gay, but for changing his story.  In a way which is almost unfathomable to me, they felt genuinely and deeply affronted by one of the versions (“I am gay” or “I am not gay”) having obviously been false.  This was much more important to them than anything BBW may have been feeling.  And from what I can work out, his life became a living hell.  There isn’t anything you can do to our son likely to hurt him more than to withdraw affection, to make him lonely.  This is what they did.

There are a couple of ironies in this story.  The first is that BBW had one special friend, an angel of a girl who has been his life-long soul mate.  If she had been around she would not have betrayed his confidence, and she may have been a refuge for him.  She wasn’t around because her parents had sent her to private school the year before. They felt they had to offer her the same chance as her older brother, who had been bullied out of the same school, by similar homophobic idiots as the older boys who tormented our son (despite the fact that this other boy wasn’t gay at all).

The other irony is that BBW remained friends (in some cases, good friends) with some of the girls who had tormented him.  He still counts a couple of them amongst his friends, more than ten years later.  My wife has shown herself to be capable of acts of profound forgiveness at times in her life.  She still struggles to forgive these girls.  I don’t see it in quite the same way.  Whilst the effects of what they did were awful, I don’t think they had any real idea of what they were doing.  They were just being teenage girls.

It reinforced the feeling I have that, despite the seriousness of the issues we have faced as BBW’s parents, we have in fact come off relatively lightly
We spent a lot of time over the next week talking to the school.  This is not some inner-city sink school, but one of the best schools in the region.  Many people move into the area so that their children can go there.

We received a lot of help from one of the deputy heads, a man of many years service nearing retirement.  However, the main thrust of his advice, and therefore of the school’s advice, was that if we could afford to put our son into private school (which we had indicated we could), then that would be the best course of action.  This turned out to be excellent advice, but it still amazes me that it was given.  There was virtually no suggestion that the bullying be tackled.  The implications of this for anyone who couldn’t afford to move their child are very worrying.

Two weeks later, BBW started at a private school in the city we are nearest to.  It’s a highly regarded school, and to send him there was indeed the best thing to do in the circumstances.   It transpired that this school was genuinely concerned about the whole child, and in his time there BBW was encouraged to do things he might not otherwise have done (such as competitive sport, and the Duke of Edinburgh awards).

The school was also very sensitive to his issues and it had a strong pastoral system.  There were one or two very isolated incidents of homophobic behaviour over the next year or two, and the school dealt with them effectively and immediately.

The pain that the bullying caused our son was profound.  It is undoubtedly still with him today, and will be for years.  I don’t belittle or underestimate what he went through.  But when I watch Joel Burn’s video, it makes me realize how relatively lucky we have been.

If anyone reading this ever comes across homophobic bullying of any kind, I would beg you from the bottom of my heart, whatever your views might be on homosexuality or any other subject, to consider the child, consider the human being on the receiving end.

It reminded me of the strong feeling I had about my son, that one day it would come together
The change in BBW’s schooling arrangements meant that he and I spent an hour together in the car each morning over the next five years.  He was obviously going through a tough time, and these journeys were sometimes the scene of arguments and parental lectures.

But they were also the scene of many, many conversations about his life and his hopes and fears.  It took two or three years for him to feel completely confident about the new environment, and I often had to do what I could to reassure him about the day ahead, and to help him feel strong enough to face it.

I remember telling him one day that I did have a very strong feeling that however difficult his teenage years might be, he was growing towards a time when it would all feel very different.  And I think that has been true.  He is still a long way from leaving his teenage issues behind, but bullying has not been a part of his life for some years now, and I think he has lost his fear of it.  Joel Burns’ words in the video are very moving, and I hope that they provide some comfort to any child or teenager who is going through what Joel, my son and so many others so sadly have to go through.

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