Friday, 24 May 2013

Organised crime and successful parenting

I sit here at my laptop, my iphone never more than a few feet away. My daughter is enjoying mum’s new Kindle. My son is simultaneously battering her over the head with the wii controller. It’s hard to imagine how parents ever survived without technology.

However, I’ve come to realise that technology may be the single greatest barrier to effective parenting.
Now, I know what you’re thinking! Here comes another middle class parent harking back to the days when kids had a tangerine and a bit of string in their stocking. A family forced to lick the inside of the coal shed clean because they couldn’t afford turkey for Christmas dinner.
In reality our kids live in a world of technology. No matter how much effort you put into teaching your 5 year old how to play hop scotch it is still less attractive than a 12 hour Ben 10 marathon. Added to that I’m sure the lives of many children have been saved due to the advent of the mobile phone.
So what’s the problem? Well, let’s start with my trip to Palermo:
You see I’ve always wanted to be a gangster. The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, The Sopranos. I adore them all. From Scarface to The Krays I live and breathe the gangster genre. I love the clothes and the lifestyle. I love the attitude and the money. I love the gambling and the steamy nights in hotel rooms with the girls from Icelandic Air. I love the idea of living life exactly as you want with no consideration for anyone else. I love the adrenaline and excitement of it all.
 Could I be a gangster in real life? No! I’m the man who thinks the FBI is planning a dawn raid when I have an overdue parking ticket. The stress would kill me and I’d never cope with the shifts. Robert De Niro spends endless hours in nightclubs celebrating a particularly lucrative high jacking. I’d be hard pushed to drag myself away from Downton Abbey long enough to collect a winning lottery ticket. Problems with your boss at work? Imagine what it would be like if he could just have you clipped! (although the opposite is quite a tantalizing proposition)
So the gangster life is not for me, but there are certain aspects I can enjoy. Italian food and Italian wine. The simple pleasure of sipping espresso at a pavement cafe and where better to experience that than the Mafia capital of the world, Palermo.
So my wife arranged for a city break to Sicily’s capital for my 40th birthday.  The place was not what I expected at all. At the same time it was probably the most interesting place I have every visited. It was the most incredible concoction of Italian, Norman, Middle Eastern and North African influences.
At every turn a new and exciting image awaited – a row of bomb and bullet damaged, second world war, Baroque style buildings stepping back from the narrow busy street to reveal the most exquisite cathedral. Never have I seen a catholic church which included the minaret from a mosque framed by a Norman arch. Breathtaking!
I am fully aware I'm starting to sound like a bit of a girl but I will get to the point I promise.
Palermo is also one of the busiest, dirtiest, smelliest and congested places I have ever experienced. Like many other Italian cities, much graffiti was the order of the day. The taxi ride from the airport? Oh my god! It was like joyriding in a stolen fiat with a drunk rally driver.
Rubbish was piled up on the street, no doubt the result of some Mafia influenced contractual problems or government ineptitude. Or maybe no one fancied working today, preferring a coffee and a cigarette.
And then there were the police. I mean what other police force would drive Alfa Romeos? – Every police car I saw was static, it had probably broken down, but god they looked cool. Cigarette in one hand, mobile in the other, blissfully ignoring the myriad of minor criminal offences going on around them.
The surprises kept on coming. Waking up on the Sunday morning I stepped out onto our hotel balcony to be presented with a sight I never expected. People running - lots and lots of people running. Individuals, small groups, large groups, men, women, old and young, all in their running kit of for a Sunday morning workout.
This was something I never expected to see. Perhaps it’s the way the British are conditioned to think that the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle is the panacea for weight loss and health. We are forever presented with the idea of the Italians and the French eating cake for breakfast, and wine for lunch only to live a blissfully slim and attractive existence up until the point they die of lung cancer. I suppose I thought the Sicilians would be too cool to run.
So, aside from sounding like a cross between Judith Chalmers and the Sicilian tourist Board, what on earth has all this got to do with parenting? Well, something I didn’t mention is that we went without the kids. And like parents the world over, when you have time without your kids you talk about your kids and watch other people’s kids.
Now, we all know that the British are appalling parents. You only need to sit in a French airport to see that. The contrast between little Francois and Veronique sat quietly reading waiting for their flight whilst some hideous IT consultant from Guildford chases the equally hideous Oliver and Pippa up and down the departure lounge as they wreak havoc is almost laughable.
I always assumed this was down to poor discipline. I just thought we were weak and had lost sight of a child’s position in the hierarchy of the home. I thought the French and Italians just had a clearer, almost old fashioned understanding of who was boss. This is true. But during the course of the trip something pervaded my subconscious which I didn’t fully appreciate until I landed back in Blighty.
On arrival at Gatwick I noticed children. Noisy, attention seeking children misbehaving right in front of, and sometimes attached to, their parents. And what were their parents doing about it? Well, in almost all cases their contribution to the discipline of their child was “for god’s sake can you leave me be for one second while I send this text!”.
It struck me immediately. Sicilians are passionate about their kids. They are everywhere. In shops, restaurants and parks. We spent one blissful Monday evening in a lovely restaurant watching an extended Sicilian family enjoying a celebration. Kids of all ages were in attendance, at 9pm on a Monday night. We couldn't take our eyes off them. It looked like a scene from the Godfather.
I sat in a park near to our hotel sipping a cappuccino and watching mums and dads with their kids. Not an unusual sight. But it dawned on me that at no time – and I mean NO TIME DURING OUR ENTIRE STAY - did I see a mum or dad on their mobile while they were with the kids.
They were giving their kids their un-divided attention. Actually interacting! But back in London it was universally the opposite. Parents everywhere sat – texting, tweeting and updating their facebook status to “my child is screaming whilst hanging onto my leg”.
I can’t prove this is a major influence on behaviour. I’m no expert. But all children’s behaviour has a pay-off for them. Everything they do is to achieve a result. Now, if mum’s busy tweeting, perfect behaviour won’t get her attention. But bad behaviour will guarantee a reaction, even if it’s a negative one.
So the moral of the story is technology is a positive influence on our world and gives our kids experiences that we could never have. But for pity sake put down the mobile down for 5 minutes and have a chat!!
Now, where the bloody hell is my phone? I need to tweet about this blog entry!

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