A post with adult themes

WARNING: those of a sensitive disposition may not wish to read this. It contains references to rude stuff. Also, I shudder to think what kind of spam comments this will attract, but here goes.

Dot writes: this afternoon Ken asked me what we are going to do when our sons start watching porn on the internet. Obviously we both hope this is not going to happen soon, as they are five and seven, but it’s always good to discuss these things in a calm, theoretical way well in advance, and not just when we realise they’re getting really careful about deleting their browsing history.

We both agreed that we aren’t going to be able to prevent it. Micro-managing is almost certainly not possible. I gather you can block sites on your own computers (I suppose I should find out how to do that), but you can’t know what they might or might not have access to at friends’ houses.

We wondered if perhaps the best approach might be to bite the bullet, be embarrassing parents, and talk to them about it. “Sons,” we will say, sitting at the kitchen table hand in hand, “just remember that normal sex is not like porn sex. Normal people do not look like porn people. Also, it is important to consider the woman’s pleasure.” We will then glance lovingly at each other, and they will be so traumatised they won’t have sex until they’re thirty-five.

But there are some obvious disadvantages to this approach, such as getting a couple of teenage boys out of their bedrooms at the same time for long enough to sit down with their parents, so we decided a better strategy would be to leave enlightened sex manuals somewhere discreet but accessible. They would be sure to read them, if the gap on the shelf wouldn’t be too obvious, and with luck the sage advice and pencil drawings of rather hairy people would give them a better attitude.

I guess my own parents’ approach was rather similar to this. Exposure to internet porn was not something parents worried about in the nineties, but, still, I do remember finding a couple of helpful books on their shelves. Such as this one, How to Do Sex Properly by Bruce Aiken, Bridgid Herridge and Charles Rowe.



It illustrated sexual positions with teddy bears. I remember, for example, The Australian (“Bruce and Sheila show you how”), which showed two koalas, not remarkably close together, one of them standing on its head. I shall be very disappointed if I ever discover this is not, in fact, how Australians have sex. After all, I am a great believer in the superiority of book-learning to the rubbish you read on the internet.



New Job; or reflections on a spell as a stay at home dad

Ken writes:

I’ll be starting a new job on Monday. Aside from a brief spell with Diageo that I arranged as an industrial placement during my MSc, this will be the first paying job I’ve had since Frank was born back in late 2009. It feels pretty good to be joining the ranks of the wage slaves again. I can take a lot of positives away from my time as a stay at home dad. I think I have a close relationship with the boys, especially Frank. My cooking has improved immensely. I have learned how to cook roasts, casseroles, sweet as well as savory pies; I can make my own curry sauce from the constituent spices. I have done amazing feats of DIY, including insulating the attic, tiling the kitchen and bathroom, painting the walls. I’ve laid out the garden, planting trees and putting in raised beds. But despite these achievements, it was slowly driving me insane. I’m just too old fashioned in my basic outlook on life to regard being the principal care-giver for two boys as an acceptable life for a man. I was ashamed of my situation. Now, if it had been Dot in the same situation, I would not have seen it as shameful for her. If it had been one of my male friends, and they had not felt ashamed, I wouldn’t have judged them for it either, but I’d be lying if I said I had been perfectly happy with it. As well as not contributing the the family finances during straightened times I was the largest expense as I have the biggest appetite. That’s just an example. What got me was the feeling that I was a burden on the family.

Raising a family presents a lot of challenges for modern parents. Housing costs mean most families have to have two working parents. Childcare costs mean that the second income is often almost completely taken up with that. The newspapers are filled with dreadful stories of various forms of dangers to children. There aren’t many safe places for children to play. Many people, like me and Dot, have careers that required they move away from where they grew up, so they don’t have all the support that comes with being rooted in a community. And then there is the fact that working parents are also paying for everyone else through the tax system. In some ways, my being out of work has spared the family a few of these difficulties and we’re fortunate that Dot’s job kept us solvent.

Life is a series of compromises. It is not possible to ‘have it all’. When I go back to work, it will mean I see less of the kids. I hope, on the other hand, that the time I do have with them will be better because I won’t be morose or gloomy anymore. I don’t want to have it all, anyway. I’m content now to have some. To have a job and a place in society and to be able to set a good example for my children.

Grandma wins

Dot writes: when I was a girl my mother made amazing cakes for my birthday parties. I remember a marvellous one that was constructed to look like a swamp with hippos in it with grass stems made of angelica, and an even more marvellous one in the shape of Blickling Hall. When my boy, then boys, started to have birthday cakes I made it a point of principle always to make the cake myself. The cooking I can manage, more-or-less. (I struggle with tin sizes. You can’t buy a new tin for every cake, but why are cake recipes apparently never designed for the tins I happen to have?) The decorating, however, is a headache.

My sons have wonderful faith in my ability to produce cakes in the shape of the Gup-X or a spinosaurus or Batman or whatever. I rarely attempt anything quite that fancy. However, for Hugh’s party tomorrow I thought I would have a go at a castle. Three separate cakes (one of them – shh – a Betty Crocker instant mix) and a bit of a disaster with the buttercream later we now have this:


It is, I think, recognisably a castle. Inside it has alternating layers of chocolate and madeira cake, partly to make it tall enough and partly to satisfy Hugh’s friend Douglas, who, I was told by Hugh, requires something with “chocolate and lots of sugar”. But Blickling Hall it ain’t. Sigh.

Meanwhile, here is Hugh modelling the fabulous cardigan that my mother made him. That’s a triceratops on the right and a diplodocus on the left.

P.S. Since my mother is my mother I don’t feel I have to compete with her and I certainly don’t resent her talents. It’s only in the slightly competitive atmosphere of party-giving that I wish I had inherited a few more of them. I do have talents of my own, of course; but I have to work quite hard to engineer opportunities to show off to the other mums how well I translate from Old English…

Them as can…

Dot writes: you have to be able to do something to teach it, but being able to do it doesn’t enable you to teach it. I encounter this from two ends these days – the beginnings of formal learning with my sons, in which I have to get past the very effortlessness of my own reading or basic maths to help Hugh and Frank, and a much more advanced stage in my job, for which I’m currently deep in preparation for a new course on History of the English Language. The right tools help, and a bit of patience. Hugh’s reading practice is going well, with a lot of help from the books, whose authors have worked wonders in finding interesting stories in very simple vocabulary. On the work side, I’m doing the approved thing and putting together an online resource for my course, with links to e-lectures, scanned articles (saving the poor darlings the trouble of going to the library – for selected popular items, anyway), reading lists and so forth. It’s helpful for me to collect this stuff together, and it will save the students time and make sure they have access to key items. But I know I need to do a lot more than chuck materials at my students to actually help them learn.

I’m not one of those university teachers who refuses to be told how to teach, or who doesn’t think it’s worth going on teaching courses. I’ve benefited from the courses I’ve been on and I’m keen to get better. But I can’t help noticing two things: (a) our own systems conspire to stop us following a lot of the advice we’re given; (b) a really good teacher can be good while not following the advice, and a bad one can be bad while following it.

Take lectures. Every teaching course I’ve been on has insisted that lectures are the least effective way to teach. At least, standing talking while others listen is ineffective, certainly when the others have iPhones. However, the majority of our courses are built around lectures, for simple reasons of numbers and timetabling. I’ve been on courses on large group teaching that have suggested ways to jazz up lectures and make them more interactive, and I do try to follow that advice; but there are limits to what you can do and it also eats into the available time to an amazing degree. So, knowing that lecturing isn’t much good, I spend a fair amount of my time lecturing. At least the students can see I’m working for my pay packet.

Yet, one of the best and most popular teachers I know lectures through a high proportion of classes as well as formal lectures, and the students seem to come out knowing a pretty high proportion of what they’ve been told and feeling excited about it. As they say, go figure. I think students respond to a remarkable degree to being given a sense, which a really knowledgeable and enthusiastic lecturer can give, that they are being offered a wonderful glimpse of a new world of the mind, and that the lecturer has not the slightest doubt it’s a world worth entering.

And then again, there’s a part of any learning process that a teacher simply cannot do for the students. In arts subjects in Higher Education, the really important thing is simply that the students read a lot. Of the right stuff, ideally (thus my web resource). But basically, if they aren’t putting in the hours on their own, there’s not a great deal I can do for them. One of the great evils of high fees is that it encourages the attitude that learning is something that is transferred from the teacher to the student, rather than something that is structured and guided by the teacher but that has to happen through the student’s own work. But even at primary level the most crucial stuff doesn’t happen in school. OK, in school they get the phonics worksheets, but at home they learn that reading is just something you do every day, both for fun and out of necessity, as an essential part of life. Seeing Hugh sneakily turning the night-light on so he can look at a book after bedtime, even though he isn’t anywhere near being able to read the words yet because the book is much too hard, I feel that basic lesson is being learned.

That conversation

Dot writes: and so we have come to the question every parent must, shuddering, face at some point: how much to tell them, and how soon? I’m not talking, fortunately, about the true Big One. (“Mummy, what do you actually do at work all day?” “Well, it involves irregular verbs…are you sure you’re ready for this?”) But one of the problems with having little boys who see no reason at all why their mum should ever be on the wrong side of a closed door from them, including when that door is the bathroom door, is that they’ve both noticed that something odd goes on at certain times of the month.

Frank is direct. “What dat? My see!”

Hugh draws on his experience to try to make sense of things. “Have you had a nosebleed, Mummy?”

It’s very hard to get this sort of thing right, isn’t it? My approach is, as far as I can manage, to answer their questions (it’s all normal and natural, let’s not seed any neuroses, etc etc), but being a university lecturer I do have to try very hard not to flood them with unnecessary information. Four-year-olds probably don’t need to have words like “progesterone” or “luteal phase” in their vocabularies, and when you find yourself drawing diagrams you know you’ve gone too far. So this morning I told Hugh that each month my body prepares itself in case there’s another baby. I have only myself to blame if he now thinks that babies come from nosebleeds.

What makes a good playground?

Dot writes: they’re putting in a new playground at Dun Laoghaire, as part of a re-landscaping of the seafront near the DART station mostly directed at providing chic pavement seating areas for the cafes near the yacht club. I’ve been cycling past this playground all summer and thinking it will be ready just after we move to the opposite side of Dublin. As our moving date has receded and receded (this is not the post to discuss that; suffice it to say I’m not sure I know enough swearwords) those responsible for the playground have ensured that it has stayed not-quite-ready, presumably in a polite effort not to prove me wrong. I wouldn’t mind being wrong, though. It looks like quite a jolly playground. It’s fairly small but the design is appealing: two blocks of play equipment so shaped that together they look like the prow and stern of a sailing ship, with a mast in the middle.

The proof, however, will be in the playing. We have quite a large repertoire of playgrounds, a couple in walking distance plus some others we drive to. The favourite, or at least the one Hugh regularly asks to go to when given a choice, is the ‘red playground’. This is the one near Booterstown DART station, which from a parent’s point of view is most notable for being the furthest away of all our regular playgrounds and without free parking. This morning, when I discovered that there was also a brand new no-right-turn sign forcing me to do a confusing loop to get back to the carpark, I was trying to work out what makes the red playground so attractive.

1. It’s a treat: we don’t go there that often.
2. When we do go, it’s a weekend and there are lots of other children, among whom there are always some boys of about the right age ready to play pirates with Hugh.
3. It is full of attractive bright colours (mostly red), as a result of being pretty new.
4. There’s lots of equipment and my boys like almost all of it.

The equipment at the red playground consists of swings, little roundabouts and a see-saw, plus three blocks of climbing frame/slides; the climbing frames all have steps up so they’re quite easy to get onto, but the biggest one also has a curved ladder, monkey bars, a net and a mini-climbing wall, while the smallest is in the shape of a boat, so there are challenges for the bigger children and the designers have suggested directions for imaginative play. But, given that Frank (who isn’t two yet) managed both the curved ladder and the net this morning, I do wonder how long this playground will stay difficult enough to retain my boys’ interest. The largest playgrounds, such as those in Cabinteely Park and Marley Park, have huge towering rope nets like the creations of some monstrous spider. At the moment these are no good to Hugh or Frank, but one day maybe ascending to their dizzy summits will be the only thing between an eight-year-old and helpless ennui. On the other hand, it is the older children who are more interested in the imaginative dimension. The size of the slides on the boat in the red playground makes it clear it’s aimed at the very tiniest tots, but it’s the children of three and up who want to play boat.

So, what makes a good playground? This varies according to the age of the children, of course: there has to be enough to do, and there has to be enough of the right level of difficulty – not too hard, not too easy – for whatever age your children happen to be. But there are some features that seem to me to be generally important:

1. It has to be well-maintained without broken or missing equipment. This seems very obvious but it’s worth mentioning because one does encounter exceptions, and it’s incredibly frustrating to encounter roped-off swings or roundabouts that don’t turn.

2. Every playground worth its salt should have at least two, and preferably three or more, toddler swings, by which I mean the swings with a restraining bar all round the child’s waist. The tiniest children can’t really use anything else, so there are always queues for the toddler swings.

3. It has to have a good surface underneath. I’m not just talking about a safe surface, but one that doesn’t insert itself painfully through the holes in crocs or demand to be chucked around. Woodchips should be soft, gravel is awful, and one of those slightly sprung mat surfaces is very much the best.

4. Any climbing frame should either be easy to get on and off in at least two places or virtually inaccessible. It’s no good having a frame that small children can climb onto but not exit, but it’s surprising how often you meet them. I also hate it when you get a circuit climbing frame that my kids can only get halfway round. The hardest bit should be the start.

5. The gate should be closed, and children under about 5 should not be able to open it. This is REALLY IMPORTANT. Unfortunately the red playground is not quite up to scratch in this aspect. When we were there a few weeks ago Frank escaped and ran off to join some American footballers who were practising in the park just by us; as there’s a busy road just beyond this was alarming, though I was proud to hear the footballers commenting on Frank’s impressive turn of speed.

6. There should be plenty of benches for tired parents to sit on, just in case we get the chance.

I’m not sure how important I think it that there should be equipment aimed more at imaginative than athletic play. At one time I considered this was a waste of space except in very big playgrounds: my position was that you can be imaginative on a climbing frame, but it’s harder to be athletic on a stationary wooden train. However, Hugh can be athletic on anything. My position now is that every playground should at the very least have a little house in it (underneath the climbing frame is fine). This comes in useful when it rains too.


Dot writes: there are still a few things I try to do the way the Baby Whisperer told me to, and one of them is Fighting the Whinge.

“Muuuuum, I want miiiiiiilk!”
“How do you ask nicely?”
“Can you say it in a nice voice, like this: can I have some milk, please?”
“Canave milk please?”
“That’ll do. Yes, you can have milk.”

I can’t begin to count how many times we’ve been through this routine or versions of it (for instance, there’s the one where I would have to put Hugh’s first speech in capital letters, and the one with theatrical sobbing). And sometimes I wonder how much sense it makes to him – does he ever properly realise how whingy and whining he is being? I mean, the first time he always thinks it’s about the content (whether he said please); to change the tone of voice I have to demonstrate. And he is actually reasonably good at remembering the please first time, these days. Isn’t it a bit like that infuriating thing that teachers did at school, of putting red marks all over the spelling mistakes and punctuation errors and hardly seeming to notice what the work actually said? Why is the presentation important?

My approach to this question has been muddied over the years by dipping the odd toe into History of the English Language and having it drummed into me the extent to which today’s grammatical solecisms are often yesterday’s or tomorrow’s perfectly decent usages. It’s all just presentation. Take that dear old shibboleth, the glottal stop: from the perspective of descriptive linguistics, this is not an error, just the realisation of the phoneme /t/ in medial and final position in quite a number of words in quite a number of varieties of English. And again, the split infinitive: what is really the problem with ‘to boldly go’? No words are interrupted in the making of this phrase; it’s entirely comprehensible; it’s simply that some grammarian long ago didn’t like it because you can’t do it in Latin.* Usages like these make no difference to the clarity of the message and there is nothing inherently ugly about them (what could be inherently ugly about a place of articulation?). What they do proclaim, extremely loudly, is a social message: this person does not adhere to the rules of pronunciation associated with middle class speech / the rules of writing associated with published texts. And isn’t it a bit shallow and snobbish to care about that sort of thing? Isn’t a cockney just as good (indeed rather better) than an Old Etonian in these democratic days? Is not the lavishly-sprinkled apostrophe proud to be championed by the industrious greengrocer?+

Fortunately sociolinguistics leads us back out of the mire of relativism (having helped to lead us in). OK, these usages give social messages. Those social messages are an important part of what we communicate when we speak or write, and we need to master the codes. That annoying teacher had a point: your second-year essay on the Babylonians was never going to be the high point of your scholarly career, and you’ve forgotten what you said in it anyway, but if you hadn’t finally got the hang of full-stops there would still be people getting cross with you about it. Ken is no fan of Lynne Truss, but I like her analogy between punctuation and manners: there’s something arbitrary about the rules, but they help people to relate to you. They show you’re making an effort; you’re playing by the rules of a shared game. Accent, of course, is quite hard to modify (though a lot of us accommodate slightly to the people we’re talking to, in an almost unconscious effort to be friendly); but the conventions of written language can be learned at school and it seems worth doing.

Which brings us back to tone of voice. The whinge is part of the message. In fact, a lot of the time it is the message: Hugh doesn’t especially want milk, he just feels out of sorts and wants me to do something for him (and not for his brother). The whinge says “you are mine, mother; I hang on you; deal with my discontent.” And fighting the whinge says “oh no I won’t. I’ll get you milk but you have to pull yourself together first and not drape your mood on me like a wet towel.” And next week I’ll start teaching Hugh about the apostrophe.

*I haven’t checked this – it’s the equivalent of linguistic folklore – but I expect it’s true.
+This is my descriptivist Achilles heel. I HATE the greengrocer’s apostrophe. I know there is no difference between “it’s” and “its” in the spoken language. I know it’s not a sign of moral weakness to get it wrong. But still when I see “it’s” as a possessive I start to grind my teeth.

Words in pairs

Dot writes: Frank says
– “Dat way.” (Pointing in the opposite direction to the one I wanted him to go in.)
– “Big bird!” (Big is his universal adjective. He knows “heavy” and “hot” and “cold” as well, and possibly some others, but I haven’t particularly noticed him combining them with nouns.)
– “Dog! Two dog!” (On seeing two dogs, today at the beach.)
– “Issa duck.” (= It’s a duck.)
And more, which I’ll remember afterwards; Ken might find them easier to list as he spends more time with Frank. Frank often puts “a” before nouns; and he says “look, x!” (e.g. “look, a bus!”). My point being that word-combination is well underway.

I was vaguely reading David Crystal’s autobiography the other night. Apart from being struck by how astonishingly energetic and productive he has been as a scholar from an extremely early age (twenty-two, I think, when he was first appointed in Bangor), and also what awful misfortunes he has suffered (his third child died after a failed heart operation and his first wife killed herself a few years later), I noted how seriously he takes targets in early language development: after all, he developed the charts himself, using his own older children as data. Having remarried and had a son with his second wife, they were worried by that son’s failure to stick to the schedule:

Poor Ben! We spent so much time giving him helpful linguistic stimuli that we ended up delaying his sentence development. We noticed when he was approaching his second-birthday: he wasn’t using the full range of two-word sentences that the LARSP chart insisted was normal for that age.
Hilary and I held a case conference. What could possibly be the problem? Then it dawned on us. We were doing all the hard work for him….Once we realized, we back-pedalled. Stopped reinforcing quite so much. He caught up within a month.
(Just a Phrase I’m Going Through, p. 183)

Poor Ben indeed. I may have mentioned I’m a bit of a liberal lefty, and also that I’ve been doing work on shame; I can’t help feeling that such a relentless focus on hitting a closely defined target isn’t entirely healthy. Yes, one wants to detect language delay because language is so fundamental to human functioning, but insisting that a two-year-old should be able to say the full range of sentences on a given list? That just seems far too prescriptive – and Crystal of all people is all about descriptive. Can’t children vary? Doesn’t development go in bursts? As Ben’s did – and the other aspect that strikes me about this anecdote is the conviction that parental behaviour was the controlling factor. What about the child? Maybe he was focusing on learning to build sandcastles that month.

I don’t know if Frank is saying all the phrases on the list. He’s still less than 22 months, anyway. I’m awfully proud of him regardless; and I doubt if his achievements have very much to do with me.

A post about willies

Dot writes: it’s one of my less admirable qualities as a mother, but I can’t help finding my sons’ penises amusing. There is something touching and also comical in meeting the most symbolically overloaded part of the male body in such a small form. Apparently Shiva once turned his phallus into an infinite pillar of light and challenged Brahma and Vishnu to find the ends of it. That’s one end of the scale, at the other end of which is Frank giving his winkle a little poke in the bath and saying “Oooh! Wee!” Probably women like me and our tender, ill-concealed amusement lie behind centuries of misogyny. (“I’ll teach you to laugh at my infant penis, woman!”) In my case, however, it’s sheer self-defence against a house otherwise packed to the brim with concentrated essence of boy (and I include my husband in that). It’s my last feeble attempt to maintain an independent perspective; farts are extremely amusing, did you know?

I don’t really want anyone to laugh at my boys’ penises, of course; not proper laughing, not cruelly. Regular readers will remember that Frank was born with a minor congenital genital defect: he has a mild case of hypospadias, a condition in which the opening of the urethra is not quite in the normal place. In serious cases the hole can be well down the shaft of the penis or even in the scrotal or perineal area; in girls (girls get it too) the urethra sometimes opens into the vagina. Frank just wees in slightly the wrong direction, the hole being on the underside of the glans maybe three millimetres away from where it should be. Ken and I have looked up the procedures used to correct this with the help of Dr Google and have wondered whether it would be better to leave it be: it basically works fine, and it’s such a delicate body part to start fiddling with. However, some months ago (about eight months ago, come to think of it) the public health nurse arranged a referral to the National Children’s Hospital in Crumlin and today we took Frank for a consultation at the surgical clinic.

We were late. This made us rather stressed (lots of swearing at traffic lights on the way there) but no-one at the hospital seemed to notice. Frank behaved charmingly: he trotted around the waiting room being interested in things, smiled happily at the doctor, pointed to me and said “Mummy” and to Ken and said “Daddy”, just to avoid any social awkwardness, and was amazingly good about having his bits examined. The doctor pointed out that not only does Frank have the little hole in the wrong place but he also has a little hole, or at least a little dimple, in the right place, and probably all they need to do is to close one hole and make sure the tube gets through to the other. The doctor seemed to feel both that it was an uncomplicated procedure and that it was normal to operate in cases like Frank’s, and indeed in milder cases. It is important to boys, she said, to be able to pee standing up. I think Frank might be able to pee standing up anyway, if he’s careful, but one certainly wants to be sure. So we were largely persuaded it was best to go ahead and get the operation done. The plan is that we will be sent an appointment, probably for some time in the autumn, for a day-case procedure; when Frank is under anaesthetic they will use a probe (poor lamb) to check that the tubes join up; if they don’t and it looks as though he would need to be catheterized they’ll wake him up and plan an in-patient operation for another day; but if the omens are good they will perform a “meatoplasty”. The name of the procedure is comic – sounds like cosmetic surgery for sausages – but the idea of my tiny Frank going under general anaesthetic and the knife is not. Still less funny, however, would be Frank enduring years of self-consciousness and maybe even bullying for his slightly non-standard knob. Especially with a big brother as fond of running around with no pants on as Hugh…

P.S. I shudder to think what would happen if I put tags on this post:-)

Child benefit: an impact model

Dot writes:

In these times of austerity it is fitting that all forms of funding be reviewed and scrutinized to ensure that they deliver value for money to the taxpayer. Under the proposed model, child benefit is no longer to be linked simply to outputs (children), but to the impact of those outputs. We seek to acknowledge and reward the considerable impact a carefully planned and effectively deployed toddler can have in the areas of work creation and generation of activity. In future, your child benefit will be assessed on the basis of your responses to the following simple questionnaire, which will take no more than twelve hours of your time to complete. Rather than confining the assessment to the ‘ivory tower’ or ‘metal stair-guard’ realm of the ‘nuclear family’, this questionnaire is designed to take into account the contribution toddlers make to the real economy, indexing funding for toddlers to their impact on things we consider important, such as business. So,

1. Has your toddler destroyed any shops lately?

2. How widely disseminated is your toddler? Tick all that apply:
– Tescos
– playgroup
– book-group
– Russell Group
– plane cockpit
– Athenaeum Club

3. Indicate your toddler’s chief areas of impact e.g. walls, floor, cupboards, decibel count, mental functioning.

4. Assess the degree of your toddler’s impact on a scale of 1-7 where 1=sits still, sucks thumb and 7=Hurricane Katrina.

5. Detail your toddler’s business connections. Where does your toddler do his/her business? Does s/he show a keen interest in that business?

6. Does your toddler smile at old ladies? Does that make them happy enough to go and buy things?