I’ve just had a massive row with Caroline about Christmas cards. We usually send about 120 and this year we’ve each ordered them from a different source — Caroline from the children’s primary in Shepherd’s Bush and me from the West London Free School. Our fight was about which batch to keep.
Caroline has sentiment on her side because the cards she wants to send out have been made by our children. It’s essentially a fund-raising ruse whereby the school gets each pupil to ‘design’ a Christmas card, i.e. put a few scribbles down on a piece of paper, then has them printed and sells them to parents at a massive mark-up. (I’ve paid for my cards too, incidentally, but they’re nothing like as expensive.)
Caroline thinks the people on our Christmas card list will enjoy getting our children’s cards because they’re ‘homemade’. I disagree. Yes, their grandparents will like them and, at a pinch, their aunts, uncles and cousins. But all 120 people on the list? In my experience, getting a Christmas card ‘designed’ by a child is always a bit embarrassing because of his or her conspicuous lack of artistic ability. It’s usually a reminder of the huge discrepancy between the parents’ estimation of their child’s ‘talent’ and everyone else’s. It’s one thing to stick their daubs up on the fridge, but another actually to send them to people. It’s like advertising the fact that you’re completely delusional about your child’s ‘gifts’.
The West London Free School card, by contrast, serves a number of useful purposes. As I pointed out to Caroline, it’s a reminder to our friends that the school exists and an option they might want to consider for their own children. It also serves to promote free schools in general, alerting the newspaper editors and journalists on our list that not all the schools set up under Michael Gove’s flagship programme are basket cases.
‘Don’t talk bollocks,’ said Caroline. ‘The only reason you want to send people that card is to advertise what a wonderful, public-spirited, philanthropic individual you are. “Ooh, look at me, I’ve started a school. Aren’t I brilliant?”’
That was uncomfortably close to the truth, so I decided to try a different tack.
‘Look, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and I think it’s something worth shouting about. I think most wives would be proud of their husbands if they’d set up a free school. I’m sorry you don’t feel that way.’
She gave me a withering look.
‘Now you’re beginning to sound like some whiny, passive-aggressive little girl,’ she said. ‘Man up and grow a pair.’
I gave it one more shot. The real reason I want to send out the West London Free School Christmas card, I explained, is to let my friends know what I’ve been up to for the past four years. I feel guilty about the fact that I’ve seen so little of them and want them to know that it’s not because I’ve forgotten about them, but because every spare moment has been filled with this project. Indeed, I usually write a note to them on the back of the card to that effect.
‘Sorry, I don’t buy it,’ she said. ‘But I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we have a family conference in which you can tell the children why it is you’d prefer to send out your Christmas card than theirs? Let’s see how that goes down.’
I knew at this point that I’d lost the argument. The first rule of modern parenthood is that the feelings of the children always trump those of the dad. Perhaps if I had one child I would occasionally get my way, but with four I don’t stand a chance. This applies to everything from watching television to our choice of what pizza restaurant to go to before the QPR game. I’d like to go to Franco Manca in Chiswick, but they always vote for Pizza Express because of the ‘children’s special’. (Dough balls and ice cream, essentially.)
Still, at least time is on my side. Sasha, my 10-year-old, is going to the West London Free School in September so I’ll be able to count on her vote next Christmas. Come to think of it, she’s like a mini-me version of her mother so her vote may be worth more than those of her three little brothers combined. And the beauty part is that Caroline will have to remain neutral because the second rule of modern parenthood is that the mum can’t take sides in any dispute between the children.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.