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For the cheek-tweakers out there, a column to update you on our fab four


Bonnie, 8, Billy, 12, Jed, 18 and 16-year-old Dougie, whose childhoods were documented in local papers

MY 12-YEAR-OLD son is looking simultaneously horrified and delighted. His eyes are saying, “Get her off me!” while his mouth is showing a wide smile. His cheeks are being held adoringly by someone who could pass as his granny, but who is actually a complete stranger.

This mild-mannered mugging in the supermarket is not unusual for my children. They were once the subject of a weekly newspaper column, which detailed their early years and my often chaotic parenting. And unbeknown to them, they still have fans. Readers who saw them appear in print as chubby babies, naughty toddlers, and mischievous teens who still recognise them, although the column stopped when the paper ceased being a daily a few years ago.

“Look how you’ve grown!” beams the friendly stranger, leaving Billy unsure whether to thank her or correct her; because in his head he’s not grown enough, being one of the oldest but tiniest in his year at school.

Meanwhile the lady has moved on to ruffle the hair of eight-year-old Bonnie, now looking like a fully-formed human being rather than the wobbly toddler the reader remembered. “And don’t you look like your mum?” she asks. Bonnie has become used to this observation and doesn’t yet see it as the worst thing on earth (although no doubt that will change). I chat to the lady a little longer, filling her in on what our older two are doing and thanking her for keeping track of My Bloke’s career as editor of another paper.

As we bid our farewells to carry on shopping, Bill and Bonn start to question me along the lines of: Who the hell was that and why does she know so much about us? (They had been much younger when the columns ran and possibly thought that all children had their photos taken on a weekly basis.)

jed doug b

Jed, Billy and Dougie, the early years

We carry on the discussion back at home with the elder sons, Jed and Dougie, now 18 and 16 respectively, who make sure the younger two understand that THEY were FAR more famous in their day, as they had their tantrums, birthdays, school applications, parents’ evenings and every other form of embarrassing scenario detailed to the public at large on a weekly basis for more than a decade. Cheek-tweaking by strangers was a weekly occurrence for us, not just a one-off, they claimed.

But how would they feel now if I’d kept writing about them? My change of job from full-time journalist to university journalism lecturer meant that I didn’t really get to discuss parenting mid-range teens. It would have been just as they hit the door-slamming years, and I would have had perfect source material for a parenting column, with topics like girlfriends, puberty, under-aged drinking, learning to drive, going abroad on their own or, critically at the moment, exams. But is it fair to expose the lives of your children as a paid job?


Dougie, aged 8, baby Bonnie and Jed, at 10.

Social media would possibly have exacerbated their embarrassment even more, because ten years ago they wouldn’t have been so ‘shared’ via Twitter and Facebook, although they were online.(They don’t have their own social media open to us, quite wisely.)

Feedback was generally pretty good on the column, readers wrote letters and emails sympathising or sharing their own stories, and often it would be grandparents as much as parents who read it, because they could see how attitudes and styles of bringing up kids had changed so dramatically.

Unlike the plethora of parenting advice books, the column wasn’t there to lecture anyone about the best way to bring up kids, but to share experience and tips. Well, that was the intention anyway. I did get relatively regular letters written by someone claiming to represent the entire population of a nursing home who apparently detested me and spelled this out in no uncertain terms. Then there was the mother who wrote to tell me that she was so appalled that I didn’t give out party bags at one particular birthday that she was GLAD her children did not know mine. Ouch.

I’ve always found it curious how hate-mail tended to be from women, who you’d think would be more supportive of the sisterhood. But no, I’m afraid the most zealous critics were female. At least I can say they were engaged enough to be bothered to actually write, buy a stamp and take it to the postbox. Today we’d call them trolls.


Jed and Doug today

Is writing about your own children in advice columns over-sharing? (And yes, of course I’m aware that I’m sharing their lives again, as I’m writing this right now). Is there a difference between parenting advice columns and the ubiquitous Facebook posts of the landmark events (or otherwise) of proud parents?

OK, so I did sit up in bed and write a column for the newspaper about the arrival of our new baby daughter on the day she was born. But because readers had spent nine months following the saga of my fourth pregnancy it seemed only fair to give them the conclusion. And to be frank, I was so pleased that having a home birth had been such a monumentally better experience than going into hospital, I wanted other people to understand there was nothing to be scared of. Plus, I was slightly off my head on post-partum painkillers.

DSC_0068If there was a story in the news about a particular parenting issue, like childcare, or health issues, I’d usually have experienced it one time or another, and knew how lonely, confusing and demoralising those early years as a mum can be. Jed and Doug are only 19-months apart in age, and like chalk and cheese, so I’d had a pretty intensive apprenticeship as a working parent, at a time when you were only allowed 3-6 months maternity leave. By the time Billy and then Bonnie came along, I had four children under ten and had given up caring what people thought of me.
I just wanted to tell people all the things I wish I’d done differently. Or even, and we probably don’t do enough of this, detailing parenting tips that had actually worked.

Today the urge to write about the offspring is somewhat offset by being able to share pictures and updates to family and friends via Facebook (which I try and use just for personal stuff). I will occasionally get asked to write the odd thing for a parenting site or magazine and happily rant away on BBC Radio Northampton whenever they are short of a guest with forthright opinions on bringing up baby.

Jed is now 18, just coming up to his A Levels, learning to drive, playing rugby, going out on the town and looking at universities. yes, terrifying, I know.
Dougie is almost 17, in the year below, doing AS Levels, playing first-team rugby (his team are in the Nat West Schools final at Twickenham in nine days time, and he’s fighting to get back from his first ever injury).
Billy , now 12, has started ‘big school’, also plays rugby, and does street dance, loves to cycle like his looky-likey dad, has successfully ingratiated himself with the sixth form at school, despite being a year seven.
Bonnie, now 8, doesn’t seem the slightest bit bothered that she’s the only one left at primary school, where she does gymnastics, yoga, recorder, ocarina, swimming and unlike her brothers, has never had a bad report. She’s girlier than you might expect (so much for nature/nurture) and somehow rules the roost. They are often hilarious and sometimes idiotic and make us incredibly proud.

Meanwhile, if you see my kids out and about, don’t be afraid to give them a tweak of the cheeks. They love it, really.



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Seriously, do you let your parents call your university lecturer or employer? It’s time to break free

Courtesy OnlineCollege.org Hovering Parents in the Workplace Infographic

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We went to the Olympics already, oh yes we did.

. . . and we’re in

LOTS of love for the Olympics eh? Us cynical old Brits might have been moaning about the fuss, the expense and the disastrous ticketing, but now the medals have started to come in for Team GB, we’re hooked.

We got back from a festival in Dorset in the early hours of Monday and on Tuesday were en-route to the Olympics in London. I’d tried to get tickets twice unsuccessfully but it was third time lucky as we booked four (the maximum allowed) to the first round of women’s hockey. Not so bad as our eldest son is hockey mad, taking himself off on the bus to Moulton each Saturday morning to start training at 9am.

Bloke had already offered to spend the day with our daughter Bonnie, 4, at his Mum’s in Letchworth, and our matches were in the evening session starting at 7pm.

So we got the train (pre-booked tickets, and a free London Travelcard came with the Olympic tickets)  at lunchtime and were surprised at how quiet the well-staffed King’s Cross Station was.

Then we walked around in a big circle trying to find the Javelin train which goes direct to the Olympic Park. It started to rain, and then we saw the sign saying the train was out-of-action.

A bloke on the gate told us there was already an hour’s wait for the next Javelin so we took the ‘normal’ tube to Liverpool Street and then Stratford. Then the wave of spectators hit us, just at the entrance to the Westfield Shopping Centre. It was heaving. I’d mistakenly thought it was wise to try and use the loos in the centre before queuing to get into the Olympic Park. Not so.

We were eventually funnelled into the park where there were few queues for the airport-style security checks. All the staff were very friendly with just the faintest and strangely welcoming hint of British sarcasm with each ‘have a nice day’. You can only take in a single rucksack per person, which gets put through a scanner along with your coat and pocket contents.

Once in the Olympic Park there’s an air of theme park impressiveness; you are actually there. The stadium is huge and while not yet open, you can see how fabulous it’s going to be when the athletics events start.

Being with three sons, their priority was to find ‘the world’s biggest MacDonalds. But on the way eight-year-old Billy, who is a little obsessed with ‘collecting stuff’ (football cards etc), temporarily distracted us into a Cola-branded ‘pin-swap shop’. Pins are enamel badges with (I didn’t realise) are sold and swapped at each Olympics. There are tonnes of them, and Billy wanted to spend his pocket money on a 2012 lanyard and two £5 badges. After a LONG time choosing we got to the till to find all the £5 and £6 pins were sold out. ON DAY THREE!

Getting in

He bought one for £7, a Cola branded one which barely mentions the games, and on the way out a kindly American ‘swap’ man, with hundreds of pins to trade, actually gave Billy a mascot pin from the 1996 Atlanta Games – FOR FREE! What a nice chap.

Our quest for the fast-food megastore was confusing. We found the huge burger bar but you couldn’t sit inside. Only on one of dozens of parasoled wooden picnic tables, all which were occupied. We perched on the end of one until the occupants got fed up and made room.

The architecture is amazing, and the telly doesn’t do it justice. The red ‘Orbit’ sculpture

The Orbit

cum lift tower thingy is stunning but you can’t go up it unless you booked tickets when you booked online for the event (which we couldn’t). The boys were most disgusted that I wanted to look at the gardens and plants around the park, which had once been home to allotments. For the gardeners among you, there’s a lot of meadow planting everywhere, mainly marigolds, daisies and cornflowers. I’m not sure they’ll look their best for long.


The corporate branding everywhere is overwhelming. We dodged the EDF energy pimps trying to entice us into their cinema, and couldn’t be bothered to wait 40 minutes in the queue for the BP ‘free photo by the stadium’ when we could just take our own.

I couldn’t get the promised free Wi-Fi to work so Tweeted rather than blogged, and by the time we got to the Riverside Stadium, hosting the hockey, I was virtually out of phone battery.

The Riverside stadium is about a ten minute walk past lots of other landmarks, and there are food and drink stalls everywhere you turn, selling overpriced soft drinks plus beer and cider (almost £5 for a small bottle of beer). The boys rather liked the enormous ‘pretzels’ which were like big hunks of bread for £1.80. The loos were plentiful if basic, and I noticed that all the hundreds of hand dryers had white stickers placed to conceal the brand name. Ridiculous.

The Riverside is an enormous mass of scaffolding poles with seats that go rather high for those with vertigo. The pitch is a bright blue ‘water based’ one (my son had to explain) with pink borders and it worked very well with the yellow ball. It was an 80s-style dayglo extravaganza. We watched Argentina get beaten by the USA and the Aussies thrash the Germans. The atmosphere was fantastic. Everyone in the stadium seemed in a great mood and there were lots of Mexican waves. One bonkers Australian mum entertained the crowd with shouts of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie – oi, oi, oi!’

By the time the second match started it was dark, and the stadium and all the various landmarks were all lit up against the new London skyline with an almost full moon too. It was quite magical to be there.

Leaving was easy, and the Javelin train was working well (it took six minutes to get back to St Pancras International, just across the road from King’s Cross). Sadly the train back to Letchworth was dirty and dilapidated, and the cheaper-than-usual first class tickets I’d invested in were useless as the one carriage was full and the boys had to sit on the floor.

However, it was a great day and despite my reservations I’d highly recommend you make the effort to keep trying for tickets if you have none. It’s not cheap though. Our four tickets cost £20 each. The train was about £40. Food and drink (you can’t take liquids in but there are water points) cost another £60 quid or so. And the boys were given ‘extra’ pocket money on the day, which of course, they spent on sweets . . . in WH Smith on the way home.



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Planning a festi-holiday: How to festival with family and a Camp Bestival 2012 preview

INSTEAD of searching the internet for prices of lovely sunny holidays abroad, I’m Googling levelling blocks. Not nice new swimsuits or sun-lotion, but levelling blocks.

These big cheese-shaped plastic blocks stop camper vans and caravans rolling off down a hill or all the blood rushing to your head when you have to sleep in one.

And for the fifth year in a row I’ll be spending my precious family break in a field, as we’ll be holidaying in our knackered old Japanese Bongo camper van.

Are you fired up for a home Olympic holiday, or planning to jet away to avoid it all this summer?

We had considered something different for our family holiday this year, other than our usual trip to a festival. But our bank balances never stretch far enough to take six of us abroad, and our annual trip to Dorset works so well we’re doing it all over again for the fourth year on the trot.

If you have children, or even if you don’t, I heartily recommend you look at what’s on offer at www.campbestival.net even if you feel like you’ve ‘done’ every festival or can’t face camping, let alone camping with kids.

Camp Bestival is the family-friendly little sister of the September Bestival festival on the Isle of Wight. It’s held each year over the last weekend in July after the schools have broken up for summer. The venue is the specular Lulworth Castle on the Dorset coast.

It’s a great combination of live music spanning the tastes of parents and teens, with a load of extra stuff for kids including the Gruffalo, Shrek, Dick & Dom, Mr Tumble and a Wall of Death! There’s a massive skatepark, street dance and DJs, comedy and jaw-dropping jousting. And as this year it coincides with the opening of the London Olympics, there’s a silly sports theme, which means you’ll see lots of families dressed in identical sports-related dressing up outfits. You can choose whether to join in or stick to the standard shorts and wellies combo.

If like us you have children spread in age from teens to tots, the site is contained enough to allow the older ones off the leash to go feral for an afternoon, while you wander around the kids’ field watching your younger ones test out ball pits and painting tents, dressing up stands and circus skills workshops. There’s something bonkers around every corner. You can also just opt to slouch about on one of many four poster sofas dotted around the festival site, cider in hand and watch the music on various stages.

Settling in

I’m not sure I can ever get as excited about a musical line-up after last year’s dream Friday-Saturday-Sunday offering of Blondie-Mark Ronson-Primal Scream. But there’s always something you’d like, whatever age or taste, from pop to classical.

The kids have already seen acts at Camp Bestival their mates are ‘well jell’ about, including Wretch 32, Katy B, Labyrinth, Florence and the Machine, Tiny Tempah, Friendly Fires and  Calvin Harris.

Camp Bestival’s music is fabulously eclectic, and this year is no different, with everything from chart stars (Hot Chip, Stooshe, Josh Kumra, Rizzle Kicks, Delilah) to old-skool classics (Happy Mondays, Kool and The Gang, Earth Wind and Fire, Adam Ant) and the downright bonkers (Rolf Harris, The Cuban Brothers).

There’s very little you wouldn’t let your kids see (except perhaps the comedy tent where we once, accidentally, exposed our under tens to Frankie Boyle in full-flow . . .). This year’s comedy offerings include the tax-dodging Jimmy Carr, which could be a lot of fun. Rufus Hound and Andrew Maxwell are regulars too.

“Daddy, they’re singing my song”

If you are camping, rather than coming in on a day ticket, there are several options. You can simply bring a tent, or you can actually pay to have someone put one up in advance for you. You can bring a camper van or even hire a teepee, or a Yurt, a Squrt, Cloudhouses, Podpads, Bell Tents, gypsy caravans or even a massive Airstream Trailer (if you have a couple of grand to spare). If you bring a car and a tent you can hire a trolley to drag your kit from car park to camping field. Or bring your own.

Camping with kids isn’t as bad as it sounds once you’ve got used to the idea of possibly wearing the same clothes for three days straight and eating crisps for breakfast. With six of us in the family, and no posh cooking or refrigeration devices, I usually bring a camping stove, kettle, gas lamps, wind up lamps and head torches, plenty of gas canisters, a frying pan, a saucepan, and many, many tins of beans and pouches of soup as I can, plus lots of packs of tortilla wraps, and bags of fruit. Milk is UHT and in bottles with screwcap lids. That way everyone gets something to eat or a cup of tea back at the tent so we aren’t always paying the best part of £30 each meal.

You’ll need wellies and warm waterproof coats as well as thin summer layers and plimsols. The weather, believe it or lot, is tentatively predicted to be good the last week in July, but even if we are spared the rain, it can get cold at night when you are sitting watching bands or traipsing back to tents, so blankets, coats and woolly hats are worth bringing too.

We invested £50 in a big metal garden trolley last year with pneumatic tyres. We left it at the tent during the day and took it out each evening loaded with blankets, drinks bottles, packets of tissues (for the loos) and coats, and when four-year-old Bonnie got tired, she sat/slept in it. It was a workout to get it up the hill to the site each night but well worth the effort and money.

Bonnie may only be four but she’s been to five festivals and survived. One year we did bring a pram, which was just a lightweight McLaren buggy. It got battered and mucky but did the job in the days before Bonnie could walk long distances. I’d leave any heavy or expensive, non-off-road prams at home. We were relieved when our heavy travel cot wasn’t needed to contain her in the tent anymore, and now we use two blow-up Ready Beds for the smaller two and camp beds for the older boys.

The most complicated and stressful parts of festivaling with family is the packing. You’ll need less than you think, and yet probably leave something essential at home. There are general stores on site selling everything from nappies to tent pegs, so don’t panic. Get there as early as you can and give yourself time to set up an organised camp. By the Sunday or Monday you’ll be stinking and tired and won’t care which groundsheet goes in which bag, but it would be good to remember where you put them.

Mobile phone reception at Lulworth is terrible, so be prepared to give up the Smartphone for a couple of days. Make sure you have regular times and places to meet up if you should separate and remember each child has a security wristband in case the get lost.

And most of all, enjoy it! It’s not that often these days we get to spend time with our kids without distractions and worries. You’ll probably find they pal up with the kids in a neighbouring tent very quickly and you may even get on well with other grown-ups too. The Camp Bestival website has a good forum section where you’ll find advice from regular festival goers.

Festival not as exciting as my phone

When you arrive it’s worth getting a programme as soon as possible to plan what you really want to see. You won’t necessarily get to see everything and need to factor in ‘down-time’ to let you recharge, especially if you have younger children who will get tired quickly. Don’t worry if all your normal routines go out of kilter, you’re on holiday.

There are a limited number of day tickets available if you wanted to try out the festival vibe without the camping (although make sure you book any external accommodation fast as everything will be booked up).

Adult festival tickets, including camping, cost £175 (add an extra tenner if you want to camp from Thursday July  rather than Friday).

Students pay £170, teens aged 15-17 pay £110 and 11-14s £95 (all under 18s must be accompanied by an adult and camp with their families).

Anyone aged ten or under gets in for free but you MUST book a ticket for them anyway.

Reviews of previous Camp Bestival outings can be found here (2011) and here (2010)


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Yo! It’s a 13th birthday treat

WE now have two teenagers. Those of you who have read my family saga for several years will be no doubt thinking the same as us – where did the time go?

And we’re also thinking: why can’t we understand a word they are saying? And why won’t they pick up the things they drop all over the floor?

Tuesday was Dougie’s 13th birthday. My cuddly little angel of a baby is now officially mumbling his way into adulthood and reminding me he’s old enough to get a Facebook account.

And my, how the tastes of teens have changed. For his birthday ‘treat’ he asked to go to Yo Sushi. Yes, a sushi bar, with a moving conveyer belt of mini dishes rolling past. A potential disaster with children, as you are charged for the plates you’ve picked.

I had visions of them all grabbing, sticking their fingers in or sniffing, and turning their noses up. Instead they were all fabulously behaved, perched on high stools, eating far more adventurously than expected and having a great time.

I’d highly recommend it just for the fun, although beware the bill – all those fun little dishes are colour coded, and while they all cost between £1.80 and £5, that deliciousness adds up. Limit your pinks and greys!

Oh, and the kids loved the dessert plate called dorayaki, but all hated the pink Mochi. It made a welcome change to one of many Pizza Hut visits.

The nearest Yo Sushi is in Milton Keynes. Perhaps we could get one closer to home . . ?

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Are we being ripped off if VAT-free ‘children’s’ clothing only goes up to age 12?

WHEN your children are babies, or pre-school, it feels like they cost more money than you could ever earn.

Nappies, special food, prams, cots, car seats, milk, clothes that they grow out of in a week and then perhaps nursery fees that cripple the family budget – even though childcare staff are among some of the lowest paid workers.

You know that when they come out of nappies, or start school, the bills should reduce, shouldn’t they?

School uniform is an expensive business, even when you don’t have to buy for three (or in our case, four from September). But at least we are told children’s clothes aren’t subject to 20 per cent VAT.

But what constitutes children’s clothes? Under 14, apparently.

Our eldest is 14, his brother just about to turn 13. Still children, right?

Not when it comes to clothing I’m afraid. My kids aren’t enormous, pretty average in height, but the eldest both measure in at size 14-15. Many of their friends their age have been six-foot tall for some time already, and they aren’t even 15 yet. Their parents will already have been doing what we are now having to do: buy them clothes and shoes intended for adults.

Jed and Doug in cheaper attire

The choice of clothes for boys aged 11-16 is very limited. Unlike girls, who seem to have racks of options, few clothing stores seem to cater for teen boys, which seems bonkers to me when they are more fashion conscious than ever before. They are also having frequent growth spurts not seen since they were newborns, and seem to need new trousers and shoes every other fortnight.

Why are the retailers so terrible at catering for them? Surprisingly, Next is rubbish for boys over 10, as are M&S, BHS, TK Maxx, John Lewis, Matalan, Debenhams, Primark, New Look and the supermarkets.

H&M are one of the few places I don’t have a fight on my hands when shopping, but they aren’t well stocked or cheap. As for shoes, they both have bigger feet than me and I have to now pay adult prices for adult-sized shoes (although half-decent children’s shoes are sometimes more expensive than adults’ anyway).

Adult clothes don’t quite fit either. The legs are too long, the tops too baggy, but it’s all we can get.

So who is getting the benefit of this zero VAT? Someone’s missing a trick.

Our kids have always had to put up with hand-me-downs, except Jed as the eldest, but even he has to wear second-hand now. Don’t tell him, but I’ve found that I’ve shrunk so many items of Bloke’s clothes they now fit his sons.

Thankfully, for the kids, he’s not quite got to the elasticated trouser and cardigan stage yet.

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Time for the book hoarders to let go

I’D just spent far too much of my Saturday cleaning out Jemima the Hamster’s two stinky cages when a load of heavy books landed on me.

I was not impressed. Closer inspection of the large bookcase in the boys’ room showed they’d wrecked it – mostly by shoving oversized books horizontally on top of already overstuffed, now broken shelves. It was like a precarious book-based giant game of Jenga.

Needless to say, the elder boys and I spent far too much of Sunday trying to fix the shelves and sort the books. It was way overdue. We hadn’t got rid of any books for 14 years and yet they rarely returned to any of them once they got past the bedtime story age.

But once they started sorting, I could sense they weren’t going to give them up easily. Rather than sorting them into piles – charity shop, recycling and back-in-the-bookcase – they both settled down and started to read. They might be barely into their teens but the room stank of nostalgia: “Aw, do you remember this one?” “Ah, there’s my ‘Where the Wild Things Are.” “No, it’s not yours, that was bought for me, I remember being read it. . . look, here’s where I ripped it. . .” and so on.

At one point the entire family was in the room, either having a long-forgotten bedtime story read to them, fighting over an out-of-date football annual or simply trying to sneak some of the tattier, drawn-in volumes out to the bin.

So I’ve inadvertently come across a way to get your children interested in reading: tip the contents of a small library all over their bedroom floor and then threaten to chuck it all out again. Which reminds me, I think there may have been overdue library books in those piles somewhere . . .

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Son’s £70 phone bill an expensive lesson learned all round

IT’S a different world these days, isn’t it, when bills no longer plop through the letterbox, but drop soundlessly into your email inbox.

But in the same way that you’d put those envelopes to one side to open later, when you have more time, you ignore the inbox reminder.

If it looks on first glance roughly about the same as last month, do you need to look any closer?

The utility companies – those unavoidable gas, electric, phone, mobile, TV, credit card and water firms – are onto a winner aren’t they? We’re too distracted to check the bill, too busy to pay the bills individually, manually. We click the direct debit box and off our money goes into the ether.

But on one odd occasion between Christmas and New Year, the figure on the phone/TV/broadband company bill caught my eye: It was more than twice as much as usual.

All right, so we may have watched an ‘on demand’ film with the kids over the holiday, but we use pre-paid mobile minutes to call each other, so why is the home-phone part of the bill SEVENTY POUNDS rather than the usual six or seven? Have we been hacked? Has the phone company made a terrible mistake?

No, it was a much simpler, old-fashioned explanation: We have a teenager in the house.

My children find it hard to believe that we were teenagers once, when PC stood for Police Constable not personal computer, mail came through the letterbox and a mobile was a thing you hung above a baby’s cot.

But like today, being on the phone was one of the major ignition points for a family row. You were far more conspicuous of course, being stuck in the hallway or front room, tied into a conversation everyone in the house could hear because the one phone in the house had a cord that stretched about as far as your arm.

But I used that phone at any and every opportunity. I can even remember our phone number, back in 1982. It wasn’t hard: 203. Yep. Three digits to freedom from my family.

And I got into trouble for running up phone bills – although I can say with all certainty they weren’t anything like £70. Nonetheless, it would be me getting berated by Dad for being on the phone all the time.

And now, of course, I’m saying the same thing to my own offspring:

“Why are you on the phone, you just saw *insert name here* five minutes ago?”

“Who is ringing who? I thought you said you had no credit?”

“Why don’t you text? Or use Facebook? Or Messenger? Here, use my phone. . .” (OK, I made that last part up).

How on earth did our mostly-monosyllabic First Born manage to ring up seventy quid’s worth of calls IN A MONTH!

Yes, so I did tell him it was OK to use the home phone to call landlines at evenings or weekends as long as he hung up after 59 minutes, because it’s free to ring at that time if you don’t exceed an hour. But he ‘forgot’ the ‘landline’ part and has been ringing his girlfriend/mates ON THEIR MOBILES for up to 59 minutes at a time. (The itemised bill also showed he’d been calling at midnight, when he’s supposed to be tucked up in bed asleep, but that’s another issue).

Needless to say, we hit the roof, and he voluntarily coughed-up his £45 Christmas money to pay for his mistake. (Cruel, cruel parents). Landlines only from now on, and no midnight calls. Lesson painfully learned.

Don’t tell him, but we’re going to give him the money back in return for a series of tedious chores . . .

Happy New Year kids!

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After babyhood, prepare yourself for the shock and awe of the teenage years

PLENTY of people warn you about the impact a newborn baby will have on your life, but there’s a second phase of shock and awe to come which is less discussed.

When it comes to coping with teens, the conversation just becomes clichéd.

It’s true that they do, literally overnight, lose the ability to speak without mumbling and leave clothes and towels all over the floor. They do get spots and fill the house with a gagging fog of Lynx body spray (I’m sure if you have daughters it’s something like Impulse).

But who ever tells you how you’ll feel when they’re suddenly as tall as you, or have bigger feet than you?

Or when they start having friends whose Mums you don’t know from the school gates?

Or going to parties that don’t involve a bouncy castle injury and a piece of squashed birthday cake?

In a weird way, watching them grow up gives you delight and sadness.

Somehow the years between the ages of about two and 11 seem strangely simple, if a little manic. Even when I had four of them aged ten and under.

You know – most of the time – where they are, who they’re with, and what they’re up to.

Then suddenly, you don’t.

It’s easy, well, easy-ish, to allow them some independence. That mobile phone you finally relented on when they started secondary school, that might make you feel better because you would always know where they were?

Well, now it’s not only the ever extending leash, it’s the source of all the stuff you don’t know about. The Twitter feed, the faceless friends, the Facebook events, and freedom from family.

I can’t pretend I’m not jittery about seeing my elder boys grow up, grow away. And while I try to be cool, try not to hover, Bloke tells me I need to resist the urge to stop them making their own mistakes. I need to stop throwing up the metaphorical bumpers at the bowling alley.

I can’t help it, I still see my 14-year-old as that wide-eyed smiley baby who wouldn’t sit still for a moment.

Anyway, to revert to the clichés, I can still enjoy being an embarrassing mother. Apparently they are mortified when I get cross in shops, or try to hug them in public. Emptying their three-year-old sister Bonnie’s potty by the kerb when she’s caught short in the car is one of my specialities (needs-must), as well as wolf-whistling loudly in public spaces to get their attention. Strangely, they aren’t particularly bothered about the fact I write about them in these columns.

Slightly bruised by their casual list of my misdemeanours, I ask, “What about Dad, doesn’t he ever embarrass you?”

“Nah, Dad’s pretty cool.”

I give up.

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Seeing your children turn into teens can be as baffling as having a newborn

THINGS have changed recently in our house. The basic dynamic of The Parent is Always Right is not as cut and dried as it used to be.

There are always small changes in a house where a new sibling has arrived every couple of years or so, but while they are all aged under ten(ish), the rule of Don’t Do What I Do, Do What I Say has kept things on an even, albeit not very democratic, keel.

Now we have a teenager in the house, and another racing to leave pre-teendom behind, it’s getting trickier.

The elder two get more independence, which the younger two feel is unfair, even though they still want their noses wiped and their laces tied.

The elder two are also expected to increase their contribution to the basic running of the household chores, at the same time that their age means they find it impossible to have any control over their own clothing or belongings. They simply all end up on the floor. Even when the washing basket, school bags or dustbins are within an arm’s length of where their ‘stuff’ ends up.

Add to that the need for more frequent washing, the increase in homework, the addition of girlfriends-you’ve-never-met and the creeping introduction of not-telling-your-parents-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth, and your carefully honed practical parenting skills go out of the window.

In short, seeing your children turn into teens can be as baffling as having a newborn. But the biggest difference between the two stages of development is that you can actually remember being a teenager yourself.

Without wishing to stereotype all teenage boys into the roles of Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke’s Kevin and Perry, it does catch you unawares when your previously inoffensive child turns 13 and inexplicably starts to rudely answer back, or spin an elaborate web of lies to cover up something they knew full well wasn’t allowed.
After the initial incredulity, and the inevitable angry counter retorts, you have to remind yourself that most of the time, they barely realise they are doing it. Getting into a screaming match with a 13 year old just because they muttered and back-chatted about still having a set bed-time isn’t very adult – as Bloke, the much calmer parent, frequently reminds me after the event.

It’s easier with little ones, really, it is. If they are rude to you, usually a cross look and “manners!” will do the trick, or at worst, sending them to their room or withholding privileges. It usually all ends, at the worst, with teary hugs and apologies.

It must be difficult being the eldest and having to go through the teen years first, not only because you haven’t had the advantage of seeing someone else get caught, but because your parents haven’t a clue how to react either.
I promised I wouldn’t embarrass him too much in these columns, but I recently found out the real reason our eldest had been volunteering to cycle to school. It was so he could wait until we’d left so he could wear his non-regulation Converse baseball boots to school instead of the boring black slips-ons he’s already kicked to bits.
My fury wasn’t actually about the boots, it was about the subterfuge. Plus the Big Fat Lie he told a teacher about how his school shoes had holes in, implying we hadn’t bothered to replace them. The shame.
It seems innocuous, but what I struggle with my growing boys is the ease of the lie. I truly find it painful when they fib to me. I’ve always told them that they’ll be in more trouble for the lie than for the original wrong-doing.
Yet I know I’m lying to myself for thinking that my kids won’t be just as devious as I was. After all, at Jed’s age, as soon as I got on the school bus I would flick the brace on my teeth into my pocket and swap my clumpy school shoes for the black suede, paisley-patterned, pointy stilettos that I’d hidden in my bag and which were definitely not allowed.

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