• Give something away today

    Boy playing with sand and father lying in the background
    Where’s my spade? (Photo by Melvina Mak)

    I went looking for my son’s lost spade today in the sandpits of Malmö. I found it in the same pit where we found his Spiderman cap the other day. Two kids were playing nearby and wondered who this man was stealing their digging toy. 

    In most of the sandpits in Malmö you’ll find buckets and spades. They’re left by people who are generous with their possessions. 

    My son didn’t want to leave his spade

    I don’t blame him. It’s a nice spade. On top of that, his parents are twitchy, nervous London types who wouldn’t leave a chocolate bar unlocked, just in case. What’s a kid meant to do? Learn from the adults, that’s what. 

    But this simple act of anonymous generosity struck me in that moment. As the kids watched me slipping away with my retrieved spade, I suddenly realised how much better I’d feel if I went out, spent £10 and distributed buckets and spades in all the local playgrounds. So much better than scurrying around to keep hold of all my son’s missing toys. 

    My first Swedish lesson

    It might not be very original, but my first lesson from those famously egalitarian Swedes is, unsurprisingly, generosity. Give a bit away and everyone ends up feeling richer. Including you. 

    For something else a kid can teach you, read my blog: Are You A Smartphone Addict?

  • A dad in the playground

    Empty playground equipment
    Play by the rules (Photo by Ward Mercer)

    I spent the recent Father’s Day in a pub garden playing with my kid. A girl came up to me and enthusiastically tried to get me to join in her game. She grabbed hold of my hand and tried to lead me off round the playground. 

    Paedo paranoia alert

    I flinched. I pulled my hand away. I tried to stand at a nonchalant distance from her. Why? Fear that the parent might look up from their smartphone and see a strange man ‘interfering with my child’. 

    Two depressing realisations:

    • The reason this child was so eager for my attention was that I was the only adult showing any interest in playing with a kid. Whoever was their parent was too busy with their smartphone. 
    • Though I would have been quite happy to play with the child, my fear of engaging with someone else’s child sent the clear message to this kid that I didn’t want to play, just like every other adult. 

    Saudi-style isolationism

    It’s a strange social phenomenon when we can’t be bothered to play with our kids (we’d rather look at anything, anything on our phones), but at the same time don’t want anyone else outside their age bracket to play with them. 

    The result is bizarre playgrounds like the one I found myself in, where children play with each other. Then occasionally a dad (it’s usually a dad, making up for his absence throughout the week) appears in the ring and they all want to engage him. But he will be careful to only play with his own child, and no one else’s. 

    Children have entered a realm akin to women in Saudi Arabia, able to interact only with members of their own family. For their own protection, you understand. Ironic, since I’m sure the experts are always telling us most abusers are family members. 

    What I should have done

    Hindsight is bliss. Afterwards, someone suggested what I should have done. That is, ask the child who their parent was, introduce myself, and ask them if perhaps they’d like to pop the smartphone away and come play, too! 

    While we’re on the subject of what males should do, apparently Boys Don’t Like Flowers

  • Lost and Found Words

    The Lost Words A Spell Book by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris

    This Christmas, I read my 3-year-old son The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris — a ‘spell book’ of poems and illustrations with the neat hook of celebrating nature words that have vanished from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in recent years. 

    Unprompted, he simply started naming the birds whose names he didn’t know. Here’s the result…

    Camilo’s new words

    • Canderlop — Heron
    • Gaiun — Raven
    • Kindercorn — Buzzard
    • Cheep — Wood Pigeon
    • Arandadoe — Sparrow
    • Lockantanj — Lark

    (The kingfisher and the magpie, which he already recognises, he simply called by their known names. Making up a name would be stupid, obviously.) 

    Living language

    The Lost Words has gone as viral as a large illustrated hardback can. It has spawned campaigns to get a copy into every primary school in Scotland, Herefordshire and no doubt elsewhere by now. It has touched a nerve. 

    The book makes the point that such things as the kingfisher or the dandelion have had other names that have fallen out of use. Kingfishers have been known as halcyon, evening angler and rainbow bird; dandelions as lion’s tooth, windblow and milkwitch.

    They also make up new names: colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker and river’s quiver for the kingfisher. Bane of lawn perfectionists, fallen star of the football pitch and scatterseed for dandelion.

    I expected The Lost Words to teach my son natural words we are losing. Instead, it led to him creating brand new words for birds he had never seen before. It turns out we’ll never stop speaking. It’s what we see that shapes our language. 

  • A walk in the cemetery

    gravestones in the sunshine
    A cemetery on a sunny day (Photo by Simeon Muller)

    I took a walk in the cemetery. The air was so clear that it made life undeniable. I stood on an asphalt path, looked at my shoes, inside which were my feet. I examined my legs and my torso. I was alive in a sea of dead. A massacre. Those who hadn’t made it strewn across the ground all around me.

    The view to the distant hills is fine, but I’m the only one who can see it. What a view! And in the corner of the cemetery, obscured behind a hedge, I find a children’s cemetery. The hedge creates an awful tenderness, to think that others have tried to shield their little ones from the wider cemetery by a beech hedge, and so from the enormity of what has befallen them.

    There is a pitiless howl about a child’s grave. The fluttering butterfly on a string, the toy dinosaur, the flowers. There is nothing left but to walk away.

    As I depart the gates, a shock of pigeons break from a tree, scattering into the cool blue air. Then, from the wall, I see a sleek young ginger cat, a pigeon in its jaws that is virtually its size. The pigeon is beating its wings in protest. The cat has it by the throat. It won’t let go. It drops down below the wall with its prey.

  • The new school way to work

    Parent and child holding hands
    A hard day’s work (Photo by Liv Bruce)

    This is outlandish. In fact, it’s so crazy you shouldn’t even countenance it. But I’m gonna say it anyway: kids love to help. Kids love to do. Kids love to be part of something bigger, more exciting, more grown up. Kids are really fast learners—faster than adults.

    Victorian Values 2.0

    What if we turned the notion of work, kids and learning upside down? What if there was no 9 to 5 and no childcare? What if we brought kids back to the workforce?

    Rewind a moment. Once, kids grew up working with mum and dad. Not working in a hangar full of other 4-year-olds on hammering a fluffy donkey into a Lego truck.

    I don’t mean slave labour. I don’t mean factory/chimney sweep/coal miner. That was the industrial mess that led to school. I mean before all that.

    Comanche kids could once ride horses bareback better than most adults alive today. Boys and girls learnt the artisan trades, the crafts, the whatever, of their parents virtually from the time they could stand and talk.

    If the factory’s broke [just ask Seth Godin: What is school for?], let’s reimagine the workplace.

    That doesn’t mean rewind—it means reimagine. Learn from the past, don’t just recreate it. We don’t all have to try and find a living as horsemen or artisan cobblers (but feel free to try!), but we could rethink what we do and how to do it.

    Hands on 3-year-olds

    When I picked my kid up from grandma—after an afternoon where daddy had to work, so he had to go somewhere else and be minded—I discovered that he’d been helping grandma set a table for her book club.

    Not just any table. It was a Dutch Masters’ still life table. Overflowing grapes, French cheeses, cut glass goblets. Stunning.

    Good work! What else could he do?