Writing a letter to Santa isn’t easy – especially if one of you struggles to hold a pencil | Parents and parenting

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‘Try birdy,’ I say, gently, as my son struggles with his writing. He finds writing a bit fiddly, particularly how to hold his pencil. ‘Birdy,’ I’ve discovered, is the term his school use for the tripod of thumb, index and middle finger used to hold the nib in place. Trying to get my son to master it serves as yet another reminder of how many deviously complex things we make kids learn so young.

‘I can’t,’ he says, proving that his father’s tendency to give up the moment things get too difficult is a genetic trait. I can’t blame him. I’ve been talking about how to hold a pencil for so long now I’m actively forgetting how to do so myself. Also, since he’s left-handed, I’m doing all my examples with my own left hand, for him to transpose my actions. In theory, this should make it easier for him to emulate my motion, but as I’m right-handed, it just means my writing comes out all wonky and strange, which is probably not desirable in a teacher.

We’re writing his letter to Santa. I tell him I’ll write the first part and he can add in the toys he wants, and his signature. He’s doing great, me not so much. I don’t know if you’ve written with your less-favoured hand recently, but you should try it. It’s a startling exercise in forced humility, which probably does good things for the soul, but bad things for anyone trying to use the results as a template for their own writing.

As an act of solidarity, it has been extremely useful, as it engenders in me the same frustration he must feel; my hand cramped, my letters malformed. I find writing the letter ‘a’ borderline impossible; so too n, o, u, v and w. Worse, my left hand gets tired after even the shortest stint of writing, so no matter how carefully I form the first few letters I get down, within minutes I’m incapable of writing even the simplest word without them looking like something that’s been scrawled on the wall of an insane asylum.

From that point on, the blind are truly leading the blind and you would need an FBI agent versed in handwriting forensics to work out which section of warped and crooked text was written by me, and which was done by a four-year-old who has been writing for nine weeks. Actually, a diet of true crime podcasts informs me that graphology is a largely discredited science so I content myself with the knowledge I probably could frame my son for a murder, if push came to shove.

It might still come to that, since I don’t like the way he’s looking at me now. His glances began as concern, but are now somewhat piteous, as if he’s watching a dog trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. Quite apart from whether he’s learning anything from all this, I’m beginning to worry he thinks I’m illiterate.

And then we’re finished, and the letter we’ve written to Santa is on the fridge.

‘Wow,’ says my wife, ‘he did that all by himself?’ I don’t correct her. ‘He’s definitely getting better,’ she says, and I don’t know if I’m proud for him or me.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78

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