John’s a fast talking Scotsman. He’s the Founder of Smithery, an innovation studio which helps brands make things people want rather than making people want things. He lives in Brighton with his partner, a son aged 5 and a daughter aged 2 and a half. Follow him on twitter - @willsh or read his blog, it's good.
I do shit magic, not proper magic, shit magic - the thumb off, the coin disappearing and reappearing behind the ear - stuff like that. You don’t have to be any good at magic to do magic for kids. The point is how you show them magic in the world. It’s about giving them opportunities to get their hands and brains on things – setting them up and watching them go. What’s it going to be? What’s it going to make? What’s it going to turn into? That's exciting.
Then there’s really listening to how they talk about things. I think there’s nothing worse for children than not being listened to. That’s what I try and be as good as I can at, so rather than interrupting, I just listen and react and ask questions. I try to allow them to express themselves.
Have you seen Man of Steel, the latest Superman film? I went and watched it in the middle of the day. A meeting was cancelled, my family weren't at home. So I thought I’d go to the cinema!
It was the first time I’d watched a Superman film as a dad, not a son. Suddenly you’re thinking far more about what Jor-El and Jonathan Kent are doing. I felt a lot more empathy for the Jor-El character than I ever had. You see that when dads do the things they do it’s for a reason. It’s like you stop having to achieve everything yourself, but you set conditions for someone else to achieve them. Maybe being a dad is more about building a rocket than saving a planet.
Before I just did stuff, you know? Now I feel more invested – that’s a weird expression - more invested in the world because there’s going to be a part of me left when I'm not here.
We don’t know what the future is going to be like. We don’t know what skills are going to be needed, so the skills of adaptability and tenacity are going to be a much more vital. The more we teach those skills, the more we encourage that to be part of their make-up, the better for us all.
I could rant about Michael Gove's education policy for an hour if you want, but that whole agenda of making little clones that come out to serve a long dead economy is reductionist, capitalist nonsense. It’s almost like ‘Victorian times were pretty good, when people were taught how to read and write. How can we make it like that again, so they’ll get jobs at big long accounting tables counting pennies?’ That’s my major worry. How do we as parents work with teachers to sidestep the nonsense in the new curriculum to produce people who are fit to tackle and try things? Rather than create lots of people who can sit in factory like offices. The old way certainly won’t solve any more problems.
I want to be proud that my kids chose. I don’t mind what that is, but so long as they've chosen this and not that. I want them to try stuff out, and not just accept the world as it is.
Trying is really important, we’re thinking about that more. Helen (my wife) is really good at this and guides me on it. You praise attempts not success, and you see it paying back. Even in food, they try more. It’s about praising trying, rather than saying ‘oh good you ate that all up.’
Asking questions is great for this. Recently I asked my son ‘what’s the internet?’ he gave me a vague answer, so I asked a few different questions.
“How big is the internet?” I said. “As big as the world.” He said. Yep, that’s right.
“What does the internet feel like?” He said “It’s smooth”. You can see what he’s saying because it sits under glass.
“What shape is it?” I asked. He said “It’s square because it’s in square things.” Makes us idiots for trying to send it through round cables, doesn't it?
Then I asked “How heavy is the internet?” He said “Oh about 30-40 birds.” Which birds, I asked. “Robins of course.” I asked why 30 -40. He replied “Well if there’s a little going on then it’s only 30. If there’s a lot, then it’s 40.” So he was kind of talking about bandwidth; slow things are heavy, fast things are light.
The last question I asked was “What does it sound like?” He said “Lots and lots of different voices. And sometimes music.” Yep, spot on, wee man.
They’re all really good answers and you can see that asking questions helps him think about things.
For me, it’s remembering to make platforms not just give answers. Setting up the conditions for them to find and do new things themselves, rather than you doing it. It seems quicker to do it yourself because of course I know how to do it, I'm an adult, but in the long run it’s really not quicker.
We’re really lucky because I work and Helen doesn't at the moment. So having a parent with our children all the time is brilliant. I wish it could be 50/50 though. Not just so I could have more time with the kids, but so she can get back into her work. She’s a strategist, so going from that to full time parenting is hard for her.
Because I run Smithery, I work non-standard office hours, so I do more school drop offs, dinner times and bath times. I can change the day much more than if I was in a conventional 9-5 job, especially if you do that and you live outside of London. With the commute you’d miss so much more. I think it misses the point of parenthood. You don’t have kids to go ‘oh right, so now I’ll work doubly hard to support the kids that I never see.’ As a result I don’t really watch much television because I work between 7.30 and 9.30/10. That feels like a better trade off.
If there’s one thing that’s more detrimental to that set up, it’s the fact that I'm always kind of thinking about it at the back of my head. I can’t remember back to a time before this that I didn't think about work really. I like what I do, I like the problems that I have to work on, so it’s not something I feel I have to dispose of in a box and never think of over the weekend. It’s blended and I quite like that.
I wish more families had the chance to have one working parent, rather than two. It feels slightly like we’re sitting on time bomb. If all parents go to work all of the time, what does that generation of kids look like in 20 or 30 years when they've been farmed in and out of nurseries all the time? No one seems to have a long term desire to solve it. There’s a deeper question about what work is and therefore when you work and how you do it. That needs us as a wider society to answer.
It’s hard to find things that are challenging in something you love doing so much. It’s so first world problems anything I find challenging about being a dad is way outweighed by just being a dad.
We don’t have a parenting 101 instruction manual, so I get ideas from other people. I look at what other people are doing and say ‘oh that looks useful, I’ll try some of that.’ Social media gives you the opportunity to pick up on that stuff more readily. Half the people I follow on Twitter, I'm almost more interested in what they’re doing with their family, what’s interesting and what looks like fun.
The other thing is my work. A lot of the work I do involves setting up platforms for people to play and do things, like in workshops. That translates into kid’s stuff quite well, in that respect. Or maybe it’s the other way round? So I'm quite happy being the one saying we could do this and this and this. I like the idea of reinterpreting things from a work context into a family one, which sounds weird. It’s like asking yourself ‘how would I explain this to a five year old?’
For instance, this project I was working on involved making a board game, so over Christmas we made a board game with the kids. It became a project over Christmas. Friends would come over and we’d play it with them. We’d go back to it and make some more cards for it, my son kept coming up with ideas. I thought it was great because it showed him the world is malleable. You don’t have to buy a board game, you can make up one. You can push and pull at the world to make things you want.
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