When you’ve got as many young children as I have, the prospect of going on holiday anywhere isn’t very appealing. It’s not being somewhere else that’s the problem, though there’s a risk that their sleep patterns will be disrupted. Rather, it’s getting to wherever it is you’re going. How do you keep four children under seven entertained during the journey?
This Easter we’re off to Suffolk to stay with my parents-in-law and that means a two-and-a-half-hour drive. One method of passing the time is to get all four children to play I Spy, not easy given their ages. Charlie, our one-year-old, only participates in the guessing part of the game — and he always guesses the same thing, namely, ‘choo choo’. If I happen to see a train, I’ll say, ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with “t”,’ in the hope that when Charlie immediately pipes up with ‘choo choo’ I’ll be able to say, ‘Yes, Charlie, that’s right.’ But six-year-old Sasha is wise to this and will usually shout out ‘train’ before Charlie has a chance to speak.
Sasha, like her father, is pathologically competitive. When it’s her turn, which it is at least 50 per cent of the time, she’ll always come up with something fiendishly complicated, such as ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘r-h-t’.’ That is to say, three words rather than one. After five minutes, when nobody’s managed to guess it, she’ll say, ‘D’you give up?’ ‘Certainly not,’ I’ll say, even though I know it’s hopeless. Finally, after exhausting every possibility, I’ll reluctantly concede defeat. ‘Right hand turn,’ she’ll say, quickly followed by, ‘OK, my turn again.’
On the rare occasions that I manage to decipher one of Sasha’s codes, I’ll give my go to Ludo, our five-year-old. Ludo can play the game — just — but he lacks Sasha’s guile. For instance, he’ll always start with the letter ‘b’ and he’ll always be thinking of the same thing, namely, ‘bottle’. Caroline and I gamely pretend we can’t imagine what he’s spotted — ‘Banana?’ ‘Bridge?’ ‘Ball?’ — and he’ll get a few moments of pleasure before Sasha jumps in with ‘bottle’. Poor Ludo will look at her with furrowed-browed bafflement: ‘Yes, that’s right. How did you know?’
At least, that’s what used to happen. Then, the last time we were coming back from Suffolk, something remarkable happened. We had stopped at a traffic light in Shepherd’s Bush, a few yards from our home, and it was Sasha’s turn. ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘n-s’,’ she said, a smug look on her face. Caroline and I were stumped, but Ludo glanced out of the window and said, ‘Nut shop.’ Sasha stared at him as if he’d just recited one of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Japanese. ‘Yes Ludo, that’s right,’ she said. ‘How did you know?’ It reminded me of the moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the ape suddenly discovers that a bone can be used as a weapon.
It’s safe to say that it will be some time before Freddie, our two-year-old, experiences a similar breakthrough. He’s an enthusiastic participant in the game, but has yet to grasp that you’re only supposed to say the first letter of whatever it is you’ve spotted. ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with “chocolate”,’ he’ll say. It is then a question of who can say ‘chocolate’ the quickest, Sasha or Ludo. They invariably ask me to adjudicate and I always say, ‘Neck and neck. Freddie’s turn again.’ As you can imagine, this particular ritual can go on for some time.
I sometimes worry that by playing these competitive games with my children I am causing them some irreparable psychological harm. How will it affect them as adults? Ludo, in particular, may find the experience of being constantly beaten by his older sister so traumatic that he decides to opt out of the rat race and retire to Totnes to live in a yurt. But I take comfort from the example of Stanley Johnson, father of Boris and Rachel. In Andrew Gimson’s biography of Boris, he quotes Stanley’s daughter, Julia, on his parenting technique: ‘As long as I can remember there have been cut-throat meal-time quizzes, fearsome ping-pong matches, height, weight and blondness contests, and, of course, academic rivalry of mind-numbing magnitude.’
If my children turn out to be half as successful as Stanley’s, I’ll be more than happy.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 3, 2010