The 5 year-old and the 2 year-old are playing at running a veterinary surgery (the 5 year-old’s department) and animal shelter (the 2 year-old’s department).

Annabel and John playing vets

The 5 year-old’s filled me in on the tragic backstory of this particular establishment: she and the 2 year-old are twins but were orphaned soon after birth. They were adopted by different families but then those families all died, too, and because everybody else in the world already had children there was nobody to adopt them and so they had to look after themselves. 67 years of schooling later, at age 15 (maths might need some work…), the pair of them decided, at the end of secondary school, that their shared love of animals meant that they should open a vet/shelter, and so they did.

When they’re not busy fitting collars for unicorns or treating yet-another-outbreak of canine chickenpox, they’re often found patrolling the streets and shouting “does anybody have any sick or injured animals?”. Except during naptime. Their work has a naptime, of course. (I wish my work had a naptime.)

It’s a tough job. Sometimes animals need quarantining in the safe. Sometimes you’ve got to fit an elderly crocodile with false teeth. Sometimes you’ve got a hippo whose owner says that it thinks it’s a duck, but thanks to your years of training you’re able to diagnose as actually thinking it’s a goose. Sometimes it’s a swan that won’t stop vomiting, or a snail that lost it’s shell and now has diarrhoea. It’s hard work, but the twins find it rewarding.

Imaginative play rocks.

How a video game community filled my nephew’s final days with joy

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Michael Holyland was elated by the empathy, kindness and creativity of the team behind his favourite video game Elite Dangerous. Photograph: Mathew James Westhorpe

My nephew, Michael, died on 22 May 2019. He was 15 years old.

He loved his family, tractors, lorries, tanks, spaceships and video games (mostly about tractors, lorries, tanks and spaceships), and confronted every challenge in his short, difficult life with a resolute will that earned him much love and respect. Online in his favourite game, Elite Dangerous by Frontier Developments, he was known as CMDR Michael Holyland.

In Michael’s last week of life, thanks to the Elite Dangerous player community, a whole network of new friends sprang up in our darkest hour and made things more bearable with a magnificent display of empathy, kindness and creativity. I know it was Michael’s wish to celebrate the generosity he was shown, so I’ve written this account of how Frontier and friends made the intolerable last days of a 15-year-old boy infinitely better.

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

A beautiful article which, despite its tragedy, does an excellent job of showcasing how video gaming communities can transcend barriers of distance, age, and ability and bring joy to the world. I wish that all gaming communities could be this open-minded and caring, and that they could do so more of the time.

Danny Daycare

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“Have you had a good wee day out?”

This isn’t how I behave when I’m out cycling with one of our little ‘uns in tow. But sometimes, just sometimes, when I see a solid-looking jump… I wish it could be. Honestly: our eldest would be well up for this! (And would probably be quite disappointed to sit around until the end where they reveal that, obviously, they swapped the small child for a doll for many of the shots.)

If your kid stops believing in Santa this year…

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“In our family, we have a special way of transitioning the kids from receiving from Santa, to becoming a Santa. This way, the Santa construct is not a lie that gets discovered, but an unfolding series of good deeds and Christmas spirit.
When they are 6 or 7, whenever you see that dawning suspicion that Santa may not be a material being, that means the child is ready. I take them out “for coffee” at the local wherever. We get a booth, order our drinks, and the following pronouncement is made: “You sure have grown an awful lot this year. Not only are you taller, but I can see that your heart has grown, too. [ Point out 2-3 examples of empathetic behavior, consideration of people’s feelings, good deeds etc, the kid has done in the past year]. In fact, your heart has grown so much that I think you are ready to become a Santa Claus.

You probably have noticed that most of the Santas you see are people dressed up like him. Some of your friends might have even told you that there is no Santa. A lot of children think that, because they aren’t ready to BE a Santa yet, but YOU ARE.

Tell me the best things about Santa. What does Santa get for all of his trouble? [lead the kid from “cookies” to the good feeling of having done something for someone else]. Well, now YOU are ready to do your first job as a Santa!” Make sure you maintain the proper conspiratorial tone.

We then have the child choose someone they know–a neighbor, usually. The child’s mission is to secretly, deviously, find out something that the person needs, and then provide it, wrap it, deliver it–and never reveal to the target where it came from. Being a Santa isn’t about getting credit, you see. It’s unselfish giving.

My oldest chose the “witch lady” on the corner. She really was horrible–had a fence around the house and would never let the kids go in and get a stray ball or Frisbee. She’d yell at them to play quieter, etc–a real pill. He noticed when we drove to school that she came out every morning to get her paper in bare feet, so he decided she needed slippers. So then he had to go spy and decide how big her feet were. He hid in the bushes one Saturday, and decided she was a medium. We went to Kmart and bought warm slippers. He wrapped them up, and tagged it “merry Christmas from Santa.” After dinner one evening, he slipped down to her house, and slid the package under her driveway gate. The next morning, we watched her waddle out to get the paper, pick up the present, and go inside. My son was all excited, and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. The next morning, as we drove off, there she was, out getting her paper–wearing the slippers. He was ecstatic. I had to remind him that NO ONE could ever know what he did, or he wouldn’t be a Santa.

Over the years, he chose a good number of targets, always coming up with a unique present just for them. One year, he polished up his bike, put a new seat on it, and gave it to one of our friend’s daughters. These people were and are very poor. We did ask the dad if it was ok. The look on her face, when she saw the bike on the patio with a big bow on it, was almost as good as the look on my son’s face.

When it came time for Son #2 to join the ranks, my oldest came along, and helped with the induction speech. They are both excellent gifters, by the way, and never felt that they had been lied to–because they were let in on the Secret of Being a Santa.”

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First up: why do people post galleries of images of text to Imgur? At that point, you’re taking some information, making it take up more space, be readable by fewer people, be harder to translate, inaccessible to robots, and result in less-readable text. It drives me nuts. Anyway, I converted the original images (which you can find behind the link if you really want) into text, above, thereby improving the entire thing immeasurably.

That minor rage out of the way: I’m not a fan of telling children that Santa is “real” in the first place, but if you’re going to do that, the approach promoted by the author of the above might come a close second. I’ve always seen the concept of Santa as being the representation of the spirit of anonymous gift-giving, and I love it for that reason. Just like the Easter Bunny representing the spirit of hiding chocolate eggs for other people to find, this approach fosters honesty, maturity, and the joy of the season and doesn’t have to detract from the magic of Christmas.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Poly Parents Evening

Our eldest, 4, started school this year and this week saw her first parents’ evening. This provided an opportunity for we, her parents, to “come out” to her teacher about our slightly-unconventional relationship structure. And everything was fine, which is nice.

Ruth, Dan, JTA and the kids at the top of the slides at a soft play area.
We’re a unusual shape for a family. But three of us are an unusual shape for being in a kids’ soft play area, too, I suppose.

I’m sure the first few months of every child’s school life are a time that’s interesting and full of change, but it’s been particularly fascinating to see the ways in which our young academic’s language has adapted to fit in with and be understood by her peers.

I first became aware of these changes, I think, when I overheard her describing me to one of her school friends as her “dad”: previously she’d always referred to me as her “Uncle Dan”. I asked her about it afterwards and she explained that I was like a dad, and that her friend didn’t have an “Uncle Dan” so she used words that her friend would know. I’m not sure whether I was prouder about the fact that she’d independently come to think of me as being like a bonus father figure, or the fact that she demonstrated such astute audience management.

School work showing a family description
She’s since gotten better at writing on the lines (and getting “b” and “d” the right way around), but you can make out “I have two dads”.

I don’t object to being assigned this (on-again, off-again, since then) nickname. My moniker of Uncle Dan came about as a combination of an effort to limit ambiguity (“wait… which dad?”) and an attempt not to tread on the toes of actual-father JTA: the kids themselves are welcome to call me pretty-much whatever they’re comfortable with. Indeed, they’d be carrying on a family tradition if they chose-for-themselves what to call me: Ruth and her brothers Robin and Owen address their father not by a paternal noun but by his first name, Tom, and this kids have followed suit by adopting “Grand-Tom” as their identifier for him.

Knowing that we were unusual, though, we’d taken the time to do some groundwork before our eldest started school. For example we shared a book about and spent a while talking about how families differ from one another: we figure that an understanding that families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes is a useful concept in general from a perspective of diversity and and acceptance. In fact, you can hear how this teaching pays-off in the language she uses to describe other aspects of the differences she sees in her friends and their families, too.

Still, it was a little bit of a surprise to find myself referred to as a “dad” after four years of “Uncle Dan”.

JTA with his youngest, on a slide.
I’ve no idea what the littler one – picture here with his father – will call me when he’s older, but this week has been a “terrible 2s” week in which he’s mostly called me “stop it” and “go away”.

Nonetheless: in light of the fact that she’d clearly been talking about her family at school and might have caused her teacher some confusion, when all three of us “parents” turned up to parents’ evening we opted to introduce ourselves and our relationship. Which was all fine (as you’d hope: as I mentioned the other day, our unusual relationship structure is pretty boring, really), and the only awkwardness was in having to find an additional chair than the teacher had been expecting to use with which to sit at the table.

There’s sometimes a shortage of happy “we did a thing, and it went basically the same as it would for a family with monogamous parents” poly-family stories online, so I thought this one was worth sharing.

And better yet: apparently she’s doing admirably at school. So we all celebrated with an after-school trip to one of our favourite local soft play centres.

Kids at soft play.
Run run run run run run run STOP. Eat snack. Run run run run run run…

This teacher had to tell her deaf students that people can hear farts. Their reaction was hilarious.

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Anna Trupiano is a first-grade teacher at a school that serves deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing students from birth through eighth grade.

In addition to teaching the usual subjects, Trupiano is charged with helping her students thrive in a society that doesn’t do enough to cater to the needs of the hard-of-hearing.

Recently, Trupiano had to teach her students about a rather personal topic: passing gas in public.

A six-year-old child farted so loud in class that some of their classmates began to laugh. The child was surprised by their reaction because they didn’t know farts make a sound. This created a wonderful and funny teaching moment for Trupiano.

Trupiano shared the conversation on Facebook.

Stranger Danger: Still the right message for children?

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Stranger Danger ad

Many parents remember the “Stranger Danger” message given to children during the 1970s and 80s. Government videos warned children not to talk to people they didn’t know. But a new message is being trialled in the UK, which its creators think is better at keeping children safe.

“I tried to get the [old] Stranger Danger message across to my son a few years ago and it backfired badly,” says Suzie Morgan, a primary school teacher who lives in Fareham, Hampshire.

He got frightened and confused, couldn’t sleep at night and was worried somebody was breaking into the house.

Like any parent she wanted to keep her child safe.

But she felt the Stranger Danger message she was teaching – which she herself had grown up with – was unhealthy for her six-year-old son, making him too afraid of the world.

“I didn’t know where else to go,” she says.

So she was hopeful when her son’s school piloted a new safety message. It’s called Clever Never Goes and was devised by the charity Action Against Abduction.

It aims to make children less afraid of the world, by giving them the confidence to make decisions about their own personal safety.

Morgan says it has given her son more freedom and independence.