I laughed at the mother who's bringing up her kids without electronic toys, but has a social media feed to boast about it... until I remembered the Red Train of Doom.
A relative once bought our son Kurtzhau a traditional wooden ridealong steam train. It was big and red and he was tiny and a boy and he was supposed to ride it around the flat.
You got the wooden part, right?
The damned thing took chunks out of the paintwork, hurt to trip over, and wouldn't steer. It was also uncomfortable to sit astride and too easy to fall off. Little Kurtzhau rode the train perhaps twice. Then he reverted to the comfy, steerable and less lethal plastic fire truck. Thank God.
However, the wooden train seemed somehow "special" and survived successive declutterings. These days it languishes at a relative's house for visiting children to ignore. Give it another half century and the train will be a heirloom dutifully hauled around between generations.
Nobody has the heart to throw it away! What the hell is going on? Why is this thing special?
A wooden train does not feature in my childhood memories. To the best of my knowledge, I never had a toy like that. I doubt my wife's family did either.
Born in 1968, I had a plush dog on wheels to ride or push, a metal trike and a (steerable!) wooden scooter. Nor were steam trains a thing for me (though I once fell off a table at kindergarten while trying to build Stephenson's Rocket, but that was more to do with engineering).
However, a big red wooden train does belong to the timeless Mary Poppins world of nurseries and nannies and gilded Christmas trees on advent calendars. It's the same world that makes us feel guilty that our kids don't spend more time running around out of doors or playing imaginatively with twigs and cardboard boxes. It's where the urge to "unplug" your kids comes from. It's why people tut and say "too many toys".
The situation is as Charlie described for "feeling adult", but worse. We measure the childhood we give our own offspring against a fossil of the idealised vision of aspirational childhood handed down from our great grandparent's generation.
However, whereas mistakenly not feeling adult merely makes us insecure or twitchy, wooden train parenting has more pressing consequences.
For a start, it creates friction and inconvenience and makes you look silly.
If your kids aren't allowed video games, but all the other kids are having a blast playing splitscreen Minecraft (or Halo (which is sweet when the 8 year olds join in with their elder siblings)), then that just creates a social dilemma wrapped around a cringey parent-child power struggle.
If you're dreadfully proud your kids don't have mobile phones yet, but then have to ask another child for their mobile number so you can get in touch when the group goes free range, then just perhaps you are comically confounding your own position.
Most importantly, though, wooden train parenting misses opportunities.
Ironically, this approach actually closes the door on traditional play and activities which never went away, but just reskinned as the world changed.
For example, kids still share games of make believe, draw pictures and write stories. They even play with cardboard boxes and potter around the garden.
As always, they are inspired by common cultural reference points. This once meant Tales of King Arthur and Improving Stories for Young Ladies. Now it means TV and video games. If your offspring don't have access to these, then it's harder to join in and you're arguably giving them a less rich childhood than you had!
Then there's this wistful thought that kids once roamed free - got put out the door at 9am on a Saturday and returned muddy and tired at dusk. That freedom isn't going to return any time soon. However modern technology actually restores some of the benefits it provided.
True, few kids can nowadays nip out to the street for a quick game of football. Child safety aside, their mates are likely scattered around the city. However, they can get online to build worlds or hunt aliens together - you should hear them yelling and giggling over Skype!
They can also use email and messenger to navigate their over-programmed lives and thus plan to get together in the flesh. And armed with a mobile phone, older kids - early teens - can enjoy the same measure of independence we did in less paranoid times. Barring your kids from electronics is the same as locking them indoors back in 1930 and then wondering why they don't have any friends.
Fun aside, these are all activities that develop timeless social and intellectual skills and do so in an environment that prepares them for the world they will have to inhabit as adults. Sooner or later, they'll need to collaborate online and organise themselves by email and phone. Where's the benefit in preventing them from learning to do this with their peers?
Wooden train parenting also rejects the wonderful possibilities of using abundance and technology in order to tailor childhood experiences to meet a particular child's needs and personality.
We've all endured smug parents flaunting the photogenic handcrafted childhoods of their stoneground children!
For a change, let me tell you about how Kurtzhau grew up with tonnes of toys and easy access to video games, not because he's special, but because he is illustrative.
When he was four, Kurtzhau became obsessed by the Romans.
If he'd had my 1970s childhood when everything was expensive and crap, he'd have had a handful of Timpo plastic Romans and yearned to build bigger formations.
Presumably wooden train parents would have sourced some ethically made hand stitched Roman doll figures (assuming they weren't disturbed by the militaristic and imperialist nature of his interests).
Me? I went on Ebay and bought him 60 Playmobil Romans.
Some visitors to the house would remark, "You have too many toys, Kurtzhau!"
Kurtzhau didn't care. He was busy putting his (only slightly understrength century) into wedge formation to punch a hole in the barbarian lines - more Ebay plus handmedowns from friends.
He could tell you who the centurion was - the indomitable Tertius - and who the Optio and Standard Bearer were, plus their service history, and that his unit was stationed at Cologne and spent a lot of time fighting the German barbarians. (He'd make me extemporise bedtime stories and I'd been reading Sharpe, so...)
At five, he was playing Rome Total War. It improved the heck out of his reading and geography! It also had me devouring history books so I could answer his questions, and it turned Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth into an intense shared experience. We had some memorable family visits to Hadrian's Wall and I made him lorica to go with the authentic helmet we bought. His interest broadened and he would surprise my friends by identifying migration era helmets and knowing who Belisarius was.
What a surprise! History you've experienced in simulations feels much more real to you than history you've seen in children's books, no matter how beautifully illustrated.
So literacy, geography, history, imagination... traditional markers for a good childhood given a power up by modernity.
However, Kurtzhau also learned things children of yesteryear couldn't easily because there was no way to teach them: things like strategy and planning, and infrastructure and supply chain.
"Why can't I make heavy cavalry, Daddy?"
"Did you build a blacksmith, son?"
Most kids watch youtubers talking about video games. By the time he was 10, Kurtzhau was watching them talk about video games companies, and discoursing confidently on whether a game was alienating a core audience. Sometimes he'd argue with my very patient mate who reviews games for a living.
These days, now 12, his prowess at Warhammer 40K gives him an opportunity to develop social skills while interacting with adults as a peer (harking back to the village cricket team - ha!). He also won a logic prize, attends programming club, and talks about becoming a project manager when he grows up. Meanwhile imagined worlds scroll across the screen of his Kindle at the touch of a button. And he's coming with us to Eastercon this year.
The point is that though he's unique in being himself and special to his parents, he's not uniquely special.
The obsessions are different, the personalities varied. However the depth and intensity is similar across the board. His entire cohort at like this, and his Cthulhu-obsessed little Steampunk sister and her cohort too.
All except the ones stuck playing with twigs in the garden while looking forward to using the cardboard box that the wooden train came in to pretend it's a game console...
What do you guys think?
M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: "Holy ****!") and is planning some more historical fiction. For his take on writing, read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (Ken MacLeod: "...very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story." Hannu Rajaniemi: "...find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.")