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I had a great discussion on Sunday with a group of young adults about the morality/wisdom of telling your children that Father Christmas exists and delivers their presents each year.

 

Is it a form of lying? Is it, rather, a kind of mythology or fairy-tale that does no more harm than reading them bedtime stories, and actually does them good in helping them to develop their imagination and sense of wonder? Is it simply harmless? Or does it lead to a traumatic break in child-parent trust when they finally realise that the reality they have been told about by their parents is simply not true?

And – an extra question for Christian parents – if you are telling them stories about Santa Claus and Jesus at the same time, with the same awe-struck tone of voice, does it mean that the Jesus stories crumble as easily as the Santa ones a few years later?

I think your answer partly depends on your own experience. Some people never really believed in Santa anyway; there was some sixth sense that told them it was just a story, an act of make-believe. Some people really are traumatised when they discover The Big Lie that everyone around them has been conspiratorially involved in; and there is a questioning of what it means to trust their parents.

Others, much more low-key, remember a sense of disappointment and minor shock when they found out – they made a connection for themselves, or a big brother or sister told them, or they found the presents in their parents’ wardrobe the week before.

The other issue that came up was the fact that your decision as parents has an influence on others. Does it mean that your enlightened three-year old goes into the play group and tells all the other children it’s all a load of nonsense – to the consternation of the other parents?

Me? I can’t remember ever believing it – Santa Claus; reindeer; coming down the chimney; etc. I’m not saying I never did, I just can’t remember; and I can’t remember a moment of discovering it wasn’t true. My memories, perhaps quite late (5 or 6 years old?) are longing to fall asleep, knowing that mum and dad wouldn’t bring the presents in before then.

Comments please! Did it traumatise you? What do you tell your own children about Santa?

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When I was ‘researching’ the parenting booklet, one of the topics that came up again and again in the responses was the importance of families sitting down to eat together regularly.

Since then I found this article by Richard Corrigan, a London chef, who explains why he is supporting a research project that is looking into the effects of mealtimes on family life and social cohesion.

I have always instinctively felt the truth behind the cliché that the family which eats together stays together. But is that hunch backed up by hard facts or is it a nostalgic dream, increasingly unobtainable in a world where many parents work long and unpredictable hours?

Well, the usefulness of family meals is no fantasy. You would expect me, as a life-long restaurateur, to argue in favour of the positive effects of people breaking bread together. I watch people do it everyday. It is one of the reasons I love my work.

But I am equally passionate about the importance of meals in the home. My wife, Maria, and our three children – Richard, Jessica and Robert – try to sit down and eat together as often as we can. This has always felt like common sense. It worked for me as a boy growing up north of Dublin and, although there is less greenery around us at our home in north London, it works for me as a father.

It is one of the reasons I agreed to become the patron of a British think tank which tries to put some hard science behind the soft glow of a good home. The Home Renaissance Foundation was founded by my friend Sir Bryan Sanderson, a former managing director of BP and chairman of BUPA. He wanted to promote an understanding and an appreciation of what our homes can do when they work well. Research by the Home Renaissance Foundation shows us that family meals should not be dismissed as so much 1950s retro.

According to economics professor Dr Sophia Aguirre, who wrote a paper for the Foundation about this, family dinners generate “human capital”. Kids who sit down regularly with parents and siblings do better at exams than those who don’t. Rates of substance abuse, obesity and eating disorders are also lower. Her graphs show that what really matters is the quality of the time together. As soon as a television is switched on during a family meal, a lot of the good socialising stops.

Now, you could argue that, if kids have parents who are up to organising a family meal at the dining table, those children already have a headstart.

For one thing, many of the homes we build nowadays have no room for a dining table. And if it’s not the building, it’s the people. In chaotic families, the routine that regular meal times need just isn’t there.

But Dr Aguirre’s work also shows how it is precisely these disadvantaged youngsters who need formal family meals more than others. It is at the dining table that we impart some of the most important lessons of life: how to tell a story, share our recollections of the day and listen politely. It is where kids should learn something about manners. Not formal etiquette, but how to behave in company. It is easy to dismiss these things as irrelevant.

Here is the introduction to the ‘Meals and Food’ chapter of the parenting booklet:

Eating together, each day, without the TV or computer on, can bring so many blessings to family life. It gives your children time with you, and time with each other. It allows you to listen, to talk, and to share things. It gives rhythm and regularity to each day, and to the week – which is so important for the children. It puts the brakes on the constant rushing of modern life.

Eating together gives space for personalities to grow, for language to develop, for ideas to emerge. It gives a simple way of praying together, if you say grace before meals, and pray in thanksgiving after them. And you make sure that the children are eating well!

This is hard for many people. There are activities after school. Perhaps you have shift-work. The children want to go out or do homework or watch TV. Or the simple fact is that you are not in the habit of eating like this, and it seems like a big hassle to force everyone to sit together. But the long-term benefits are absolutely huge. Regular meals together – or as regular as is possible for you – are one of the keys to good family life.

And here is one of the quotes about how meals depend on tables!

Just having a table is important! Some of the families in our parish didn’t have a kitchen or dining table to sit round for meals at home. We spoke about this in the Holy Communion classes, and helped one or two to get a table. It doesn’t have to be expensive. They came back and said what a difference it made – talking, listening, and sometimes arguing, and then making up; just being together in a way that doesn’t happen if you don’t make time.

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Sometimes a single factoid can change the way you look at the world. Here was a recent one for me, quoted in this month’s Prospect, and originating from Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation:

One third of British citizens live within five miles of their birthplace.

I tend to imagine that we live in a culture defined by movement and change; that people are being constantly uprooted; that our sense of belonging (whether for a place, a tradition, or a set of values) is becoming weaker and weaker. There must be some truth to this, distorted by my own prejudices and the experience of living in a metropolis like London.

But there is the factoid: twenty million of us Brits live within walking distance of where we were born. We may not feel very rooted, and we may have been somewhere else in between – but that is where we have planted ourselves now. Belonging is more powerful than I thought, whether it is through a lifestyle choice or through harsh economic or social necessity.

It was only a few seconds later, after wondering about all these ‘other people’ who lived so locally, that I realised it was true for me too – born in Tottenham Court Road and now living in Chelsea, about three miles as the crow flies. I’ve ended up pretty near ‘home’ (the maternity ward at the old University College Hospital), with a few detours on the way.

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Gaby Hinsliff writes about her decision to resign as political editor of the Observer in order to spend more time with her two-year-old son. It’s a long, soul searching article about the inner conflicts experienced by her and other mothers as they try to juggle full-time work with parenting and family life:

For two crazed but fantastic years, I did – in that loaded cliche – have it all: terrific job, plus small child. Thanks largely to a brilliant nanny and a hands-on partner, I don’t honestly believe either suffered from the other. But what got lost in the rush was a life, if a life means having time for the people you love, engaging with the world around you, making a home rather than just running a household.

Launch of our new Capabilities Programme by Demos.

What makes the article so poignant (and painful) is that she’s not a strident campaigner for stay-at-home motherhood. The realisation that something needed to change came very slowly:

Surrender steals up on the working mother like hypothermia takes a stranded climber: the chill deepens day by day, disorientation sets in, and before you know it you are gone. In the sleepless blur of the last three years, I can barely even remember now how it started.

But perhaps it was back this spring, when I took my son to be measured for new shoes: the woman asked what size he took, and to my embarrassment I couldn’t remember. I felt like an imposter. Or perhaps it was the summer morning when our nanny had to peel my howling son off me: he had a fever and wanted his mother, but I had a cabinet minister to interview. I shot out of the door, hot with shame.

What surprised her, and surprises me, was the evidence (both anecdotal and statistical) of how many working mothers feel the same:

But I never expected the emotional outpouring that followed. “Wish I had the guts to do the same,” texted a junior minister, when I announced my resignation. A seemingly unflappable PR confessed secretly agonising over “not being the kind of mother my son deserves”: a colleague whose slick work-life balance I had always envied admitted she was “at the end of my tether”, dying to quit.

Confessions tumbled compulsively from people I barely knew: tales of stricken marriages, miscarriages, only children who were meant to have siblings but then a career got in the way. “Too many of us once had relationships that we haven’t got now because of this job,” said a veteran male reporter, now divorced.

“I can’t afford regrets,” mused a cabinet minister, “because I’ve had this fantastic career, but…” Politics had, he said, dominated his children’s lives.

Not everyone sympathised. “Fine if your husband can afford to keep you,” sniffed a Tory frontbencher. But the shock was how widespread the fantasy of leaving work, even among parents in gripping careers, seemed to be.

Survey after survey suggests a deep-seated, buried misery over the eternal battle between work and family. Half of working mothers with children under 15 would stay at home full-time in an ideal world, according to a 2001 survey for the then Department for Education. Eight years on, this month’s She magazine reports nearly three-quarters of its readers want to cut their hours: the journalist Cristina Odone’s recent think-tank pamphlet, What Women Want, claimed if money were no object only 12% of mothers would work full-time.

I don’t know what conclusions to draw. Perhaps, simply, that as a society we should do all we can to help those mothers who do hope to spend more time with their children to fulfil that hope. This would not, then, be a reactionary campaign to force mothers back into the kitchen; it would be a libertarian call to help individuals achieve their goals in whatever way seemed best to them – including, if this were the case, to have more time for their children.

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I’ve just finished the novel Home by Marilynne Robinson. It’s about the simplest of relationships – being a son, a daughter, a father – and all the heartbreaking complexities that arise within them. It’s about not understanding someone, and still loving them. It’s about not understanding oneself.

I nearly gave up halfway. The atmosphere of sadness almost overwhelmed me. And it’s so slow, clocking the hours as Jack Boughton tries to connect with his family after a twenty year absence. But this is the point. That in the monotony of domestic life, as people circle round each other – wary, uncertain – the small moments of tenderness and self-revelation are startling.

Grace is almost tangible. A natural grace that dignifies even those human hearts that seem most broken. And by the end, without any tidy resolutions, it makes you believe that hope is possible even when there is no sense of how that hope might be fulfilled.

I can’t recommend this novel, together with Robinson’s Gilead, highly enough.

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