Parenting: such a horrible word, ugly on the ear and fundamentally misleading. It suggests that being a parent is a job, or a vocation, or even a craft, when in truth it is an exercise in survival. Nowadays, we are all under such pressure to be “successful” parents, but by my reckoning, if your children reach the age of 18 alive and not in prison, then you have done as well as can be hoped.
It was with such thoughts in mind that Guy Jenkin and I sat down in 2007 to write the TV series Outnumbered, as a comic hymn to parental incompetence and the love that attempts to paper over the damage. Now we have made a movie called What We Did on Our Holiday, starring Billy Connolly, David Tennant and Rosamund Pike. It, too, celebrates the rollercoaster of family life, when a holiday in Scotland takes an extraordinary turn and becomes a global news story.
Of course, not all jaunts will take as dramatic a turn as that, but on any holiday with small children, the hazards come at you thick and fast. My children are adults now, so they are no longer my legal responsibility, but from the dusty attic of my memory, here are 10 “Don’t”s that may help guide you through the minefield.
1 Don’t leave them on an island
It’s easily done, believe me, especially if you’re holidaying somewhere that has lots of islands, such as, say, Greece. So, anal as it may seem, if you have more than one child, it is always worth a quick count before you board the water-taxi. That way, you’ll be spared the heart-stopping moment when you realise what you’ve done, and the panic-stricken dash back to the island. In my case, luckily, the little chap was totally unfazed at being abandoned. In fact, he hadn’t even noticed our absence, because he had found a very interesting crab.
2 Don’t go to award-winning gastropubs
Small children have two settings: not hungry, and ravenous. They flip between the two in a microsecond, and if the food does not arrive quickly, you are likely to end up in the public stocks reserved for parents who cannot control their kids. Gastropubs tend to be run by people who take pride in their food. They will tell you it is organic and lovingly prepared. They may even have a sign asking customers to show patience. Screw them. This is about survival.
Even if they assure you that the food will arrive quickly, be ve-ry careful. It may arrive in fancy sauces, which all children regard as evil, or the sandwiches may be elaborately decorated with “garnish”, which can induce apoplexy. Simple rule of thumb: if the establishment doesn’t do Kidz Mealz and the menu is handwritten, in italics, on slate, then get the hell out of there.
3 Don’t let them do their own packing
This is a quick way to end up in Guantanamo Bay. If, purely as an example, one of your children has decided to pack a stone koala, then you will have a lot of questions to answer, possibly in a foreign language. Explaining that you have no idea why his luggage contains a doorstop, and that “kids just do weird things sometimes”, may not be enough to prevent a lengthy interrogation by men in dark glasses.
4 Don’t take them to places with roped-off furniture
If it rains, you may be driven indoors, possibly to a stately home or historic castle. If it has a dungeon with medieval instruments of torture, you might just get away with it, but otherwise your excursion is doomed to be cut short, although you will still have to run the gauntlet they call the gift shop. None of this is the kids’ fault. Furniture and children are natural enemies. Furthermore, no infant mind can be expected to understand the concept of being forbidden from bouncing on a chair simply because Anne Boleyn sat on it. If in doubt, visit pre-ruined castles.
5 Don’t expect them to be impressed
Small children nowadays have already seen everything, either on TV or on the internet. So, if you travel thousands of miles to view exotic animals, all you may get is a shrug. Thank you, Sir David Attenborough.
David Tennant and Rosamund Pike in What We Did on Our Holiday6 Don’t get to the airport too early
Children do not view time the way that adults do. To us, time is a winged chariot speeding up towards old age and death. To them, it is an infinity of potential boredom. In relative terms, one “adult hour” equals three “child months”. So, if you get there too early, you will have to live with the consequences.
7 Don’t let them chicken out of the kids’ club
Many holiday centres now have activity clubs for children, often run by charismatic, energetic young people called Brett. So, if your child is shy and reluctant to go into the club, ignore them. This isn’t about them, this is about you getting an hour of free time when you can play tennis and/or fall asleep. In the event that you experience feelings of guilt about putting your wishes ahead of those of your child, remember there is a bar nearby that can get rid of those for you.
8 Don’t chase the sun
Most sunny countries are too hot for small children. If you don’t want to waste hours of negotiations over suncream and hats, head north to a place where the sun is less brutal, if less reliable, eg Scotland. On a similar note, many children love the idea of a beach, but detest getting sandy. If in doubt, head for the rock pools, which are basically wet versions of Attenborough programmes.
9 Don’t feel you owe them the truth
There are many experts who maintain that you should never lie to your children. These people should be torn apart by wild horses. Do they seriously imagine any parent has ever given a truthful answer to questions like “Will I be bored?” and “Are those vegetables?” On holiday, you will find that, because the number of questions increases, you may have to increase your daily output of lies. Don’t worry about it. Golden rule: the answer to the question “Is it far?” is always “Not very”.
10 Don’t feel you have to entertain them all the time
We have been indoctrinated into believing that we need to constantly stimulate our children. But the harsh reality is that, for most kids, their parents are always the least interesting thing in the room. Computer games, DVDs, pencil and paper all come above us in the pecking order, and we should embrace these mini Prozacs. It is not neglect. My generation grew up in an age when family holidays could mean long hours sitting in a car outside a pub, with the occasional packet of crisps. And we grew up to be pictures of mental health, didn’t we?
Of course, these tips have come a little late in the year, but hopefully they will provide a template for future holidays, where children are happy because parents are happy, or at least not close to despair. But if the backwash of your summer holiday has left you needing further reassurance that you are not the most hapless of parents, come and see the movie.