Neil Sinclair, it’s fair to say, has found himself in some pretty terrifying situations in his life.
During six years as a British Army special forces commando, he tracked drug traders through the jungles of Belize, survived winters in the Arctic Circle and was shot at by snipers in Iraq. He never killed a man, ‘But if it had come to it,’ he says, ‘I would have done – that was the job.’
Yet not one of those situations did he ever find quite so daunting as the day, in 2002, when he arrived home from hospital with wife Tara and their first new born baby.
‘I remember getting in and suddenly thinking, ‘Well, flipping heck, what am I supposed do now?’’ recalls the 46-year-old today. ‘I had no idea what being a dad actually meant. There were so many advice books on preparing for the baby’s arrival that I reckon I could have delivered him myself if needed. But when it came to actually looking after this helpless little human, I just felt, for the first time in my life, completely out my depth.’
Thus was first born the idea for Commando Dad, a baby-care book for fathers written, playfully, in the language of military speak.
As a raw recruit in the British Army years earlier, Neil had been given a standard training manual that explained ‘everything from how to tie your shoelaces to extreme survival techniques’. Now, as he and Tara raised young Samuel – followed by second son Jude a year later and daughter Liberty four more after that – he kept thinking how useful such a guide on parenting would be.
And, so, since there were none already out there, he sat at the kitchen table and wrote one. Included were easy-to-follow instructions on ‘bomb disposals’ (that’s nappy changing to you and me), ‘preparing base camp’ (the baby’s room), and how an army always marches on its stomach (bottle feeding), as well as stuff like bath times and burping. He hoped a small publisher might take the book on and it would help a few fathers get to grips with their new role.
In fact, it fared rather better. Released in 2012, Commando Dad has sold more than 170,000 copies across the world and been translated into 15 languages. Among its readers have been tennis superstar Andy Murray, actor Benedict Cumberbatch and Britain’s Prince William.
‘When I hear that any father has the book, it’s always a feeling of immense pride,’ says Neil. ‘But when I was told Prince William was in the ranks, too, I admit, it was very special. I was half wondering, does that mean I’m partially responsible for the upbringing of a future king?’
Four years after its release and the popularity of Commando Dad shows no signs of abating. It remains one of the UK’s most popular baby books, and a big seller across the Gulf. Now, though, there is a follow up. Commando Dad: Mission Adventure picks up where the original ended, offering advice on how to be a great father for troops (AKA, kids) aged five to 12.
That’s why today I’m talking to Neil down a Skype line from...where? Paris?
In true action style, he and Tara have spent the summer inter-railing around Europe with the brood – now aged 14, 13 and nine. ‘It’s been a bit of a military operation in itself,’ he says.
‘Some people think you can’t do things like this with children but it’s just being organised. Like walking through busy city streets. We always have a parent sandwich. Dad first, then the troops, and mum bringing up the rear. That way everyone stays safe.’
Spending such quality time with the kids is pretty much the theme of the new book, as it goes.
It urges fathers to haul themselves away from work commitments and give their children regular periods of undivided attention. Key to doing that, it says, is creating time for adventures, both little and large, indoors and outdoors. Instructions for building dens, making rope swings, reading maps and flying kites are among the more than 47 activities included.
‘My dad taught me how to skim stones and that remains one of my most brilliant memories,’ says Neil today. ‘So this book is about offering tips and suggestions that can help dads today create those memories and make that connection with their own children.’
Especially recommended is digging out 15 minutes every day to spend with your young trooper, and extending this at weekends and holiday time where possible.
Yet some dads, I point out, even in 2016, don’t feel such hands-on engagement is their responsibility. A combination of cultural traditions and work pressures mean that many men simply leave such things to mum.
‘I think that’s a shame,’ says Neil. ‘Because what makes children feel really loved is not money or material things, it’s when their parents give them their time and their undivided attention. And it’s that connection which not only helps them develop into young people you can be proud of but for you, as a father, it’s very special. Spending time with your children actually, is one of greatest gifts there is.’
Neil, himself, has been a stay-at-home dad for the past 13 years. After leaving the British Army in 1993, he trained as a PE teacher and briefly did supply work. When he met Tara, a PR executive, the two moved to New York and he worked as a security guard. Upon relocating back to Britain in 2003, they struck a deal: whoever found a job first would go out to work and the other would look after the kids. Tara was employed within a couple of weeks.
‘I think there is still a slight stigma with being a stay-at-home dad,’ says the father of three.
‘I’d get that thing if I was in the supermarket with them: “Oh are you on babysitting duty today then?” And I’d be thinking, “No, I’m on parenting duty”.’ But it never bothered him. ‘I think one of the key things you teach your child is how to be individual and how to find happiness in yourself rather than in what other people expect of you,’ he says. ‘And I think being a stay-at-home dad was a great example to set them of both those things.’
He pauses for a minute.
‘Plus bravery: you have no idea how intimidating it is going into a playgroup where 30 women are all watching you, and wondering who the single guy is.’ The arrangement certainly hasn’t done his young troops any harm either. Stick them together and they appear a loving, confident and happy clan, completely at ease in both each others’ company and their own skin.
Although now Samuel is 14, he’s rather wary of his dad’s writing. ‘Eventually, the plan is to do another book on teenagers,’ says Neil. ‘So Samuel has started asking me if I’m making notes on things he does – it won’t be long before he’s asking to get paid for being my research subject.’
Commando Dad: Top Tips For Fatherhood
There is nothing quite so rewarding, says Neil, as changing a nappy. Perhaps when you’re elbows deep in the job itself you may care to disagree. But the point is valid, he insists. Getting involved, hands on and engaged in bringing up a young trooper right from birth is the best way to forge an early bond with your child that lasts a lifetime. In short, don’t leave the hard work to mum.
Quality time. Every day.
We all lead busy, stressful lives but dads should try and dig out at least 15 minutes every day to spend with their child. A bed time story, a conversation over dinner, a game in the evening. All these count.
‘But what’s absolutely key is that this should be uninterrupted quality time,’ says Neil. ‘That means no checking phone or taking calls. Undivided attention is the one gift you can give your children that they value most. It proves to them how important they are to you.’
Memories don’t cost money
Children are renowned for always asking, ‘Can I have that?’
But, really, they don’t need money or material things to feel fulfilled. More important is enriching their young lives with great memories.
‘And they cost nothing,’ says Neil. ‘You don’t need to go to fancy theme parks or shopping malls. A simple game in the garden done right will be something they cherish forever. Fly a kite at the beach, look for bugs in the garden, have water fights or play hide and seek. The list is endless.’
Preparation and planning prevent poor parenting performance.
As sayings go, it might be a bit of a mouthful but it’s absolutely true, reckons Neil. This is because key to making the most of your time with children is to organise, organise, organise. ‘If you have an activity planned the next day, just take a few minutes the night before to go through everything and check you have all you need,’ he says.
‘Thinking ahead that way reduces the stress and can help everything run smoothly and be more enjoyable.’
Don’t live vicariously
Sometimes – especially as they get older – children won’t necessarily want to do what you had expected or even hoped for them. That’s OK. They are leading their own lives. Not yours.
According to Neil, being a good commando dad is all about respecting every trooper, and allowing them to grow into individuals.
‘My oldest plays guitar and likes acting,’ explains Neil. ‘That’s not something he got from me – I was the exact opposite. But I couldn’t be more proud.’