My nine year-old stepdaughter came home from school the other day with a brightly-coloured, stiff-card certificate bearing the words: 'Star of the Week.'
Below this, it said: 'Awarded to Daisy for being a good friend to everyone.'
'Aww, that's sweet,' I said. 'And how were you a good friend to everyone?'
She shrugged her shoulders. 'Dunno,' she replied.
'Well,' I continued. 'Did you make everyone a glass of squash after netball?'
'Or talk to everyone about their troubles and woes?'
'Or help them with their classwork?'
She finally broke her Tweeny silence and declared: 'Look, I don't know what I did but everyone gets one. It was my turn this week.'
And this is my problem. Children seem to get awards for simply turning up to school these days. A pat on the back if they say 'Bless me!' after they sneeze. A bouquet of flowers if they put their hand up to go to the toilet. There are prizes for being the best reader, the best talker, the best trier, the most understanding. And everyone – no matter whether they are Einstein or Humpty Dumpty – gets a prize. Don't want the little dears to get upset, do we now?
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with all this encouragement, but children are competitive creatures. They smell a rat when they see undeserving classmates getting rewarded for simply knowing how to put their pants on the right way.
But most of all, this is not how it is in the real world. In the real world, our hopes are dashed, our dreams are crushed, are ambitions are razed to the ground. On a daily basis.
So now I'm starting my campaign for Real World Parenting. Its mission: to bring back common sense to the meaningless ceremonies and prepare our offspring for the big bad world of disappointment that lies in wait for them in years to come.
I'm kicking off this campaign with Competitive Housedad's 10-Point Plan of Do's and Don'ts to cover all areas of children's lives where I believe more crushing disappointment needs to be introduced. They'll thank me when they're older.
10 Point Plan for Real Parenting for Real Life (and I'm not being entirely serious, all the time)
Do: Go easy on them at first. Let them think they have a chance at beating you at football/bowling/running, but when they sense victory is in sight, do a bicycle kick/score a strike/open your stride, then kiss your badge/pump your fist/blow a kiss to the Heavens and shout: 'COME ONNNNNN!'
Don't: Hug them or pat them on the head. This is patronising and will make them feel worse. A firm handshake is enough (but not too firm – their bones are delicate at this age).
Do: Say, 'Homework's a lot easier than when I was at school. I could do that in 5 minutes flat. Bet you can't do it quicker than that?'
Don't: Correct their mistakes or admonish them for sloppy handwriting afterwards. Getting it over and done with so you can stop nagging until you're hoarse is the goal here, not winning prizes for calligraphy.
3. BOARD GAMES
Do: Stretch your children. Chess, not draughts; Trivial Pursuit, not Top Trumps; Poker not Snap.
Don't: Bother to explain the rules in too much detail. They're not going to beat you anyway, so there's no point wasting energy on explaining why they didn't win.
4. OUTDOOR PURSUITS
Do: Let them climb trees, swing on ropes, wade through streams and all manner of wet, muddy activities. But when they've got all that out of their system, whup their little butts at Pooh Sticks.
Don't: Ever, ever, attempt to climb a tree past the age of 30. You'll be stuck up there until the fire brigade arrives and will end up on the front page of the local paper to complete your humilation.
Do: Throw them in at the deep end. It's a sink or swim world out there, filled with sharks.
Don't: (Dads): Don't wear your budgie-smuggler Speedos – we're trying to teach them to swim, not scar them for life.
6. GETTING READY FOR SCHOOL
Do: Invest in a good stopwatch. Break the tasks down into manageable portions – 5 mins to wash and clean teeth; 5 mins to get dressed; 5 mins to eat their breakfast; 5 mins to get out of the door.
Don't: Give them any leeway for time lapses. Punishment may seem harsh and cruel in this enlightened era, but this is Real World Parenting. Their boss won't forgive them for turning up late in the mornings. If they lapse on the time, cut out breakfast the next day. Hunger is a sharp thorn. They won't lapse twice, trust me.
Do: Establish a Housework Olympics when they're as young as possible. Give them Gold Medals for Best Vacced Carpet, Tidiest Room, Least Mess Under The Bed, Sharpest Ironed Uniforms.
Don't: Hand out Silver or Bronze Medals. You get nothing in real life for finishing second. It's the winning, not the taking part that counts.
8. MAKING CUPS OF TEA
Do: Leave written instructions for how you want your tea to be made, specifying length of brewing time and precise quantities of sugar and milk. This is a great real world business task, designed to see if they can follow orders to the letter.
Don't: Ever say, 'Give it here, this tastes like stewed socks I'm better off doing it myself.' They have brilliant strategic minds: that's what they want you to do. You may have to sacrifice several teabags to get the perfect cuppa, but it's for the greater good.
9. RELATIONSHIPS, ESPECIALLY WITH SIBLINGS
Do: Wind each of them up behind their backs. Tell each one, privately, that they are 'Daddy's favourite.' Then ask the question in public. Stand back and watch the spectacle.
Don't: Say: 'You're all as clever/gifted/talented as each other.' They're not – and they know they're not. One sings like an angel, while the other sounds like a tomcat with its goolies caught on a barbed wire fence.
Do: Offer a selection of prizes: First One To Close Their Eyes; Child Who Can Keep Their Eyes Shut The Longest; Child Who Can Lie-In Longest At Weekends.
Don't: Challenge them when they suggest reading bedtime stories to each other. This is excellent practice for when they become parents themselves.
Good luck, parents. Real World Parenting ain't easy. You need grit, gumption, determination. Some might call it tough love - but it's not as tough as the reality of the big wide world out there!