I have a confession: I find my son easier to relate to than my daughter, especially on holiday. I know, of course, that it’s down to remembering the things that made me happy as a boy: the skateboarding, the BMXing, a kickabout, beach cricket, the 101 other ways to have fun with a bat and ball… I have a vast repertoire of father-son bonding resources at my disposal. I know how to entertain him because I knew how to entertain me.
Ally is happy to join in with the Dad Olympics, but Tom has eight years to her six, so in physical contests the odds are stacked in his favour. And when there’s only ever one winner, no one really enjoys taking part. Sooner or later (generally around Tom’s fifth victory lap) Ally’s interest wanes, the game is over and I’m left with the nagging, guilty feeling I’m tending to one child’s interests at the expense of the other’s.
At first I thought it was simple: ‘I don’t know what girls like; I’ve never been one’ was what I told myself. Next, I wondered if it was just the universal difficulty of trying to entertain two kids at different stages of physical development. Or maybe you just learn how to enjoy your first child and don’t adapt as well to the second? But then I thought about Ally’s creative streak versus Tom’s athleticism and tied myself in knots working out if there’s a difference between what boys and girls prefer — or if I’m just projecting the stereotypes I grew up with. And by that time, my head was hurting and both kids were bored senseless.
Of course, as a parent on holiday, you don’t have the time or the brain space for such existential dilemmas — you just get on with it. My problem, though, was ultimately a practical one. Ally wasn’t having enough fun with me: what was I going to do about it?
The other techniques I’d tried before had lost their efficacy or didn’t work on holiday. Dolly had apparently tired of tea parties and withdrawn from society, and my plan to get Ally onto Britain’s Got Talent came a cropper when our human-canine circus act came up against Ally’s lack of patience and the poor juggling skills of grandma’s Tibetan terrier.
I was stumped.
The answer finally came to me, from Ally herself, one morning, while I was rendered defenceless by a hangover. “I’m giving you a tattoo,” she announced. In permanent marker. The little daisy on my hand slowly turned into a full, floral felt-tip sleeve. I made it clear I wasn’t comfortable with this development. She loved that. She’d found joy in my suffering — and there it was, the magic bullet: dad’s discomfort. Tattoos turned to face paint and full-on makeovers, each groan from me met with a squeal of delight. It became clear to me the thing Ally loved best was developing creative forms of paternal torture. I couldn’t have been happier.
So these days, when I need to bond with Ally, I just think: ‘What would I really not like to happen to me right now?’ and I usually have an answer straight away. On this summer’s Brazil beach holiday, I let Ally bury me in the sand, her grin as bright as the sun.
My son loved it too. Burying your dad in sand has no age or gender restrictions and everyone’s a winner — except me, of course. But having both kids enjoying our holiday, with equal glee, was definitely worth spending two weeks with sand in my pants.
Published in the Winter 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)