I woke at a quarter to six, alarmed.
From downstairs: a smash. But this wasn’t the only sound. Someone was singing the Ghostbusters theme, while someone else cried.
I nudged my wife but she didn’t respond. Sighing, I rolled out of bed. It probably wasn’t burglars (spare a thought for that profession during lockdown), unless they were experiencing an 80s-movie-themed breakdown of some sort.
Downstairs, my eldest son wore a backpack (where he’d got this from, I had no idea), held a Hoover attachment, and chased my sobbing youngest — whom he claimed to be a ghost — around the tiny kitchen.
Another day of lockdown had begun.
Some mornings, I wake with a brief amnesia. Assuming it’s the weekend, for my alarm hasn’t sounded, I plan some writing, a run, reading.
And then I remember: I have two kids. D, aged 8, who enjoys annoying J. And J, aged 4, who loves to annoy D.
They’re always out of bed before us. D tends to creep downstairs at six, in order to play a violent Xbox game without the censorious company of adults. J will watch his brother play, shouting up the stairs in panic should the gameplay become too bloody.
At the sound of stirring parents, D will turn off the console and make like he’s been reading, “what me?” face. Too tired to challenge him, I’ll stand dazed in the kitchen, measuring out coffee beans in the same way a desert traveller ruefully sips their ever-decreasing water.
I’ll eat the same cereal as the kids. That’s the stage of lockdown in which the Mitchell family finds itself. Gone are the well-meaning bowls of porridge or yoghurt. The kids’ breakfast provides an early morning sugar buzz but will have your stomach rumbling again in an hour or so.
‘Snacks!’ call the children, locusts given voice, at that point.
Recently, J had a meltdown because we wouldn’t feed him banana cake. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have banana cake. And have never mentioned banana cake. Or have ever offered him banana cake. I don’t think we’ve ever eaten banana cake.
D, playing the wise diplomat, said:
‘He only wants banana cake.’
But we continued to refuse him until the point my wife decided to bake some. Hours later, by which time, J’s storm of anger had diminished to drizzle, he was given a plate of banana cake. He tried a morsel.
‘Disgusting,’ he said and refused to eat any more.
I’m a teacher. I’m a writer too. (How to Rob a Bank and That Time I Got Kidnapped out with HarperCollins Children’s, people!) You’d think I’d have homeschooling sorted. I mean, before all this had really started, I didn’t think it’d be a problem. Sure, I predicted the legions of moaning parents, but I was doubly-sure I’d not be one.
This is called hubris.
During term-time isolation, D’s primary school set him daily work. You’d imagine the maths wouldn’t be problematic, considering the age of kid for which it was set. And, given that you can use your phone as a calculator, it wasn’t. Well, not massively, anyway.
I had to send the following picture to a Maths teacher friend. It completely defeated the shared efforts of not only my wife and me but also the parents’ WhatsApp group.
It wasn’t necessarily the filling in the blanks that caused the problem (although, it did) but also the necessity, that Maths mantra, of showing your working.
Not all the Maths problems have caused problems at the level of technique. Some exposed our stupidity by simply being incomprehensible. My wife had to summon me to help with a question that included the word ‘loog’. She’d Googled it and everything but still it made no sense. I was as stumped as her. Maybe, I offered, it was a code-breaking question?
It was at this point that D intervened to suggest that maybe it wasn’t ‘loog’ but, instead, ‘100g’. And, yes, this did make a lot more sense.
But life, as school, is more than Maths. Being a middle-class dad, I thought I’d play my boy some classical music. I had to Google an appropriate selection because I don’t know anything about classical music … because maybe my own dad had never played me any?
“Right, son. I’m going to play a piece of classical music and I want you to write down anything that comes into your head. Of what does it remind you? How does it make you feel?”
D nodded. His pencil was poised over the special home-schooling notebook that his mum had bought.
I started the music. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals.
D thought for a second and then, in large letters, wrote “boring”.
In learning about Ancient Greece, D got very confused because he thought the phrase ‘Western civilisation’ had something to do with cowboys.
An 8-year-old is more autonomous than a 4-year-old. And a 4-year-old is likely to resent time spent by a parent on anything but the 4-year-old. As J’s not yet at school, we’ve had to invent our own lockdown activities. One fun afternoon was spent investigating wood lice (“their feet are like tickle machines!”) until he allowed one to crawl into his mouth.
Like a lot of kids, he’s interested in bugs. It’d be great if we had a larger garden, one that might hold caterpillars instead of wood lice, say. And one with fewer flies. For there are often flies in our garden, which is bad news for J as he’s developed a phobia of them.
He’s convinced the things will bite him, given half the chance. No amount of reasoned argument/YouTube videos will disavow him of this opinion.
“They don’t even have teeth,” his brother has tried.
I drew a smiling fly, not an easy exercise for someone with artistic ability, which I lack. The sketch took ages. And, when finished, it was both recognisably of a fly and of one smiling. Job done. (This sounds like a horrendous image but, be assured, it was a happy cartoon, a jolly picture.)
On showing it to J, he immediately tore the paper to shreds. I sent him to his bedroom. He didn’t go. Instead, he cried. When I asked why he’d ripped the picture Daddy had spent a long time drawing, he explained that he doesn’t like flies because all they want to do is bite him and this one was smiling because it was looking forward to biting him.
At some point before midday, we’ll give up trying to educate the kids. We won’t quite be at the stage of allowing them on their tablets (that’d be a couple more hours yet), but we’ll make the fair compromise of allowing them to watch TV, as long as we get to choose the enriching film.
One Sunday, made wild by the final can of craft IPA that I’d been saving, I decided that said film would be For Your Eyes Only, Roger Moore’s best Bond movie, if you believe what the internet says.
J, 4, quickly decided he’d rather play with his cars. And my wife, 40, decided to go on Instagram. Fair enough. D, however, was engaged. And I was too. The opening scene starts with Bond kidnapped in a remote-controlled helicopter and ends with him dropping Blofeld down a chimney.
(Could this be … might this be … were we experiencing father-son bonding?)
Later, Bond arrives at a pool party. As D points out the many women in bikinis, I think to check what the film’s rating is.
‘He certainly likes the ladies!’ says D.
‘Why does he like the ladies?’ asks D.
‘I don’t know,’ I say, not wanting a Sunday conversation with an eight-year about toxic sexuality.
And I’d thought I’d got away with it until, later, a Bond girl tells Bond that she’s not a virgin and D looked to me and before he could ask what the word meant, I’d turned the TV off.
Like Bond, my boys enjoy fighting. If they were allowed to, they’d spend all day doing it. If, as parents, we were forced to choose between fighting and their other favourite activity, watching YouTube, it would make for a difficult decision.
Fighting is physical activity, I guess, but a dangerous one too. Recently, D gave me a black eye with an ‘accidental’ elbow as I was pulling his younger brother off D’s back. Incidentally, ‘accident’ is J’s favourite word. Whenever he’s done something wrong, he claims it was accidental. Either that, or that he was ‘joking’.
Often, these words are employed during discussions about food.
Because second, in awfulness, to getting the kids to do ‘home learning’ is getting them to do ‘home eating’. We’ve taken a stick and carrot approach to food. By this I mean that we have only breadsticks and carrots left with which to feed the kids.
(It’s good to laugh.)
We’ve tried all the sandwich shapes: triangle, square, rectangle. None work. The only techniques to make any difference is to leave lunch/dinner out and refuse the children any other food until the meals are eaten (a tricky one, given that the four-year-old has learnt to climb monkey-like up to the kitchen cupboards and refusing to feed your kids feels a bit abusey) AND/OR allowing them to watch YouTube on their tablets during eating.
Be warned: the latter approach, although successful, can result in mealtimes of over four hours.
I might choose this time to disappear to the bedroom to read. As any parent/teacher knows, however, the removal of a supervising adult from the company of children can have … suboptimal results.
Yesterday, within twenty seconds of settling upon my bed’s welcoming linen, a techno version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star blasted from the downstairs stereo, shaking the house. Next door’s baby started crying.
When I reached the volume dial (“Can’t I leave you two for ten seconds without trouble?”), the boys shrugged as if it’s not their fault that their father possessed a bat-like sensitivity to sound.
Here are four things I wish I hadn’t told my sons during lockdown:
- The passcode to my phone.
- That wrestling constitutes exercise.
- The floor is lava.
- To practise the piano every day.
I take my 8-year old to bed. We read together, separate books, before I read him a few pages from Right Ho, Jeeves. It’s a fantastically funny book, but I can’t believe he gets anything from it. On a number of occasions, I’ve suggested we read something else, something written for children. He refuses.
“I’m enjoying it.”
Maybe what you want as you fall asleep is a kind of unintelligible white noise, the same reason I listen to pompous podcasts about culture when I’m nodding off.
At the same time, my wife, ideally, will have convinced the 4-year-old to sleep. D starts in our bed and I’ll carry him through later. We realise this isn’t perfect, but parenting is the triumph of pragmatism over principle.
We, the adults, will reconvene on the sofa. We might drink a beer. If we can find anything decent, we’ll watch Netflix. As it plays, we’ll check our phones.
At around nine o’clock, we’ll call it a night. Time has lost meaning in lockdown, anyway, and tomorrow, we assure each other, will be the day we really shine as parents. Tomorrow will be the day we prepare the kids healthy vegan meals, just like the Instagram parents, and tomorrow will be the day we don’t lose patience with D over his Maths problems or J over his demands for banana cake.
But that’s for tomorrow. For now, we’ll sleep.