WHEN ex-army commando and best-selling parenting author Neil Sinclair talks to young fathers about the joys of stone-skimming he’s often met with bewilderment.
“They say ‘what’s that’? It’s not that they can’t do it — it’s that they don’t know what it is,” says Sinclair, who has warm memories of his own dad teaching him how to skim stones.
“People have become divorced from nature,” he says, they spend less time outdoors discovering new places.
“I don’t judge, I’m not a social commentator, but I notice that people are busier, and that when they think about doing an activity with the kids it’s often more about going to a theme park like Legoland. For me it’s more about going to your nearest forest and bringing a picnic.”
Things like making an outdoor lair from branches or swinging from a rope over a tree, which, obviously, you’ve already climbed, come naturally to Sinclair, a former army commando and member of a specialised five-man unit which worked in the most extreme conditions, including prolonged stints in the Arctic, Iraq (Desert Storm), as well as the jungles of Belize.
The father of three and former teacher, who lists Prince William and Andy Murray among his fans, has just published his latest parenting manual, the robustly titled Commando Dad: Mission Adventure, though as Sinclair points out, it’s not just for dads — it’s for up-and-at-it mums and grandparents too.
“It’s about parenting, really. I know mums who are very interested in bush-craft and outdoor adventures,” says Sinclair, who wrote his first book, Commando Dad: Basic Training on “getting fit for fatherhood”.
(Prince William got a copy when he was preparing for the birth of Prince George.)
When his wife Tara became pregnant for the first time, says Sinclair, it was also “the first time in my life I was not trained for a situation and I’d no concept about how difficult it could be — I wished someone would just give me a basic training manual.”
Becoming a parenting guru clearly wasn’t quite the career trajectory he had in mind — however, one can hardly accuse him of lacking the appropriate credentials.
On leaving the army he trained as a teacher then became a stay-at-home dad with his children Samuel, now 14, Jude, 13, and Liberty, 9, while his wife worked full time.
He also worked for three years as a qualified childminder.
Aimed at four-year-olds and upwards, this latest book is about having adventures with your kids — remember, he says, there’s only about 7,000 days between the time your child is born and the day he or she turns 18.
“When you put it in that context, you realise you have to use it or lose it,” he says.
And one of the ways you use it is to spend as much time as you can reasonably carve out of your day having real fun with your children: “It’s about being an active adventurist parent. Childhood has become very indoors. We’ve created it that way and parents are less inclined to give children the opportunity to go out and play.
“If you’re the breadwinner you won’t have masses of time to spend with the kids, but at the same time you can engage with them for short periods of time.”
When you are with them, he says, give the kids your undivided attention and be active with them.
Sinclair’s field guide is crammed with simple but fun missions for parents and their pint-sized troops, from making a rope swing, navigating by the stars, building a natural lean-to shelter from branches, and learning how to tie just the right kind of knot.
“It creates a bond with your son or daughter; it’s a connection set up for life.”
It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do all the time, he acknowledges, but how much time does it really take to, for example, skim a few stones across the local river with your son or go out into the local forest or even your garden and build a den with your daughter?
“It’s about going out there and giving yourself permission to get wet and kick the leaves around; it’s about giving people that nudge to do something with their kids, that does not have to cost money or take much time.”
However, it does take a little bit of planning.
Sinclair recommends the joys of ‘camming up’ (painting children’s faces with camouflage paint and playing hide and seek around the garden), going on a mini-beast hunt in the forest, and climbing a tree.
“When I was a kid if there was a tree there were kids in it. You don’t see that so much anymore.
“It’s a big thing for me, the lost art of tree climbing. It’s all about planning — looking at the tree, deciding which branches will take my weight and figuring out how, if I get to the top I get down again. It’s about how confident am I in my abilities to go a bit high.”
He’s big into making rope swings as well: “Children are far more robust than you give them credit for.
“We live in a very controlled, sterile environment. There are so many checks and balances in the way we live today, that the opportunity to climb a tree or swing on a rope swing is very exciting for them.”
Mums can be adventurous and enjoy a bit of rough and tumble with their kids; “There are plenty of women who like to do that,” says Sinclair — but horseplay, as many women will wearily attest, is something that seems to come more naturally to dads.
When he was a child-minder, says Sinclair he noticed that as a male, and, possibly as a former army commando, he was more likely to get down and dirty with the kids, whereas the female minders tended more towards arts and crafts activities.
“Children like the rough and tumble; they don’t mind if they get muddy and mucky.”
When in doubt, his advice is, put the emphasis on making memories together.
“Simplicity is often more important than we give it credit for. Life is complicated enough.”