Do parents have favourites?

Catching leaves

The Girl is really doing my head in at the moment, and to be honest, I’m kind of relieved.

For the first three years of her life, I cuddled her, carried her everywhere, dressed her, slept in her bed with her if she had nightmares or growing pains or just wanted company in the night, let her off eating the rest of her dinner if she didn’t fancy it. My husband, the Fairy Godmother and I even sing to her in glorious three part harmony if we are all around when she wakes up at night. (As you can imagine, this has done nothing to decrease the frequency of nightwaking.)

In short, I have doted on her. She is simply the cutest, squidgiest, most adorable little person to ever dance around on two legs and then fall flat on her face.

Meanwhile, the Boy was difficult.

When he was two, I had a baby to deal with and I had to push him to be more independent. He got on with it and worked out how to dress and undress, climb into the bath by himself and learned to read himself stories for good measure.

When he was three, he started developing a will of Valyrian steel. It drove me nuts. Mainly, I was just outraged that he would defy me at all. For what seems like ages we locked horns. I would lay down the law – he would pursue his own, clearly superior plan. It took The Husband and I over a year to work out the best ways of challenging his behaviour and leading it down better, more acceptable paths.

It seemed to me, on a daily basis, like my interactions with the Boy were mostly negative and my time with the Girl was full of hugs and delight.

I started to worry that I had let myself develop a knee-jerk, negative response to the Boy.

I started to worry that I had A Favourite.

When I was in my early teens there was a period of a few months when I was convinced, with searing jealousy, that my Mum loved my brother more than me. I would catch her looking at him with an adoring look in her eye that spelled it all out plain as day, to my mind. Meanwhile, I felt I was getting all the jobs, the reprimands, the disapproval.

And you know what – maybe I did, at that time. He was a tween and still had a bit of the cute chubby cheeked look while I had just shot up and sprouted spots everywhere. Not so cute. Also, I was a teenager and did more stuff that deserved reprimanding. Also also, I was older and could handle more jobs.

Perhaps, at 3 and 1, the Girl was my favourite of the two. She said adorably cute things and let me dress her and she (mostly) did as I asked. If she was naughty, it wasn’t deliberate.

Fast forward to present day. The Boy at 5 is a delight. He is actually helpful: he can feed the cats, wash up, set the table, pour milk into the Girl’s cereal and has intelligent comments on multiple choice reading exams. He is fascinated by everything, and you can have amazing conversations with him about science and art and religion and you end up feeling like a genius because you know so much (compared to a 5 year old). His favourite pastimes no longer require my input or much supervision: he will play school by himself, he develops and executes craft projects with minimal help and he builds Lego intended for 7 year olds from the “inconstructions”, as he adorably calls them.

The Girl, on the other hand, clearly thinks Valyrian steel is for wimps and sissies and has developed a will made of diamonds. It sparkles so brightly, endears you with its determination and then BAM: she is on the floor wailing, refusing to move when you are already ten minutes late for school pick up.

When she does not want to do something, she will a) ignore you, then b) go limp on the floor refusing to move and c) start crying like you are taking her to prison. And believe me, there are many, very reasonable things that she does not want to do.

The Husband and I are working on strategies, but it may take a year or more to train this one. This time we are more upbeat though. At the table is a 5 year old building Lego, living proof that the threenager can be defeated.

So: do parents have favourites? Yes, yes we do. But who that favourite is depends entirely on who is the most pleasant to be around at the time – which may be different every day.

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When your kids should be bilingual – but aren’t

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Giant Seagull (c) P.M. Kroonenberg

I had high hopes and big dreams.

In my head, my children would, at 3 and 5, be completely fluent in both English and Dutch.

They would speak Dutch to me (grammatical Dutch, with age appropriate vocabulary) and then switch seamlessly to English when talking to Daddy.

They would read Dutch books with me and be card-carrying Annie MG Schmidt fans. They would read Suske & Wiske and excitedly run for the latest Donald Duck magazine in Albert Heijn. Dutch shop assistants would not be able to tell that these children lived in England most of the time.

I was not so aware of the extent and level of detail of my Dream, and the height of my expectations, until I had to face up to the fact that reality was falling far, far short of them.

“Mummy, you dragen me,” was for a long time the sum total of my daughter’s Dutch. (“Dragen” means “carry”). At best, we would get one stray Dutch word in the occasional sentence. On our last visit to the Netherlands she managed to crank this up to two, running up to me crying in the playground to tell me that “those jongetjes didn’t want me to spelen.”

Bringing kids up to be bilingual is hard.

I thought it would just happen, if I spoke Dutch to them all the time.

I hadn’t realised how hard it would be to do that: speak Dutch consistently. How my day to day life meant it would sometimes be rude to (when visiting English speaking friends and their children for a play date), or unwise to (in a city tense from terrorist attacks where guttural languages sound suspicious and it is better not to sound foreign), or just too much like hard work (when you can’t think of the words because you don’t speak Dutch much yourself in daily life).

If you want to be consistent, sometimes you need to switch languages constantly, speaking English to your partner and Dutch to the kids when everyone is in the same room at the same time. It’s hard work. And confusing.

I hadn’t realised that my own Dutch would have got so rusty that it was actually harder work to speak my mother tongue than to default to English.

I hadn’t realised that being consistent would be hindered by the kids’ own choice of language, that they would choose English, and that I would absent-mindedly respond in English too.

I have found it hard to come to terms with the result of this, with the reality. That my own children speak my language like a foreigner, if at all. Living here has been an exciting adventure so far, it has made me feel special to be an immigrant here, but my children not speaking Dutch to me makes me feel suddenly isolated. I realise now that I had imagined sharing with them all the little bits of me that don’t translate into English. And I can’t.

However, on our last visit to Opa and Oma they made me see things differently.

“But you are bilingual,” my Dad said. “And you didn’t learn English until you were seven.”

That is when I saw another hidden assumption I had made. I had assumed that this was it. I had thought: they are not fluent now, and so they will never be. I have missed the boat.

Suddenly, I remembered so many other examples of bilingual friends with messy stories: some who became bilingual at 8 or 11 years old because of a move; some with parents who never did; some with siblings who became bilingual while they lagged behind; some who grew up with two languages but ended up more proficient in a third; some who had spoken another language when they were young, lost it and found it again as an adult.

For all of them, being bilingual to some extent ended up defining the course of their life. I know it did for me.

My children’s experience of growing up with English and Dutch will not be what I had planned for them. But it will have a massive impact on who they are and what they do with their lives. I will just have to be patient and watch their own, individual stories unfold.

Tell me about your experiences of bilingualism, or share your words of wisdom below in the comments!

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A little message for Opa and Oma on their mirror: “Eye luv yoo” in Dutch

Should children be able to skip a class?

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(c) Quentin Blake

“Is Back to the Future real?” my son wanted to know.

“No.” I said regretfully. “People don’t know how to travel through time yet.”

“Oh.” The Boy looked disappointed.

“Hey, maybe you will invent time travel one day!” I said.

The Boy laughed modestly. “I might need a bit of help,” he mused. “Maybe Daddy and I can do that next week.”

He is nothing if not ambitious.

But honestly, I would not be surprised if he did invent time travel one day. He has already worked out his own method of doing multiplications at 5 years old, and can add two digit numbers and reads books in two languages and draws world maps with “Rusher” and Mexico on them.

In the Netherlands, if a child is bright and has an autumn birthday, it is not uncommon for them to skip a year. Often this is done right at the start of a new school, so you don’t have to join an already estabished class and be both the youngest and the newest.

In the UK the accepted wisdom seems to be that having an autumn birthday is an advantage – it is better to be the oldest, especially for boys, they say. Also, moving children out of their age group away from their immediate peers is just not done.

However, there is definitely a precedent of a British child successfully skipping not just one, but several years. I present you with: Matilda.

I mean, seriously. Moving her up to the top class, despite her age, was clearly the best thing to do. Differentiation was a nightmare for Miss Honey, she was getting far too invested in that one student to the detriment of the rest of the class and, generally speaking, you don’t want your kid to resort to telekinesis in order to get rid of their excess brain energy.

I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately. On the eve of The Boy starting reception, I considered asking if he could go straight into Year 1, as he was already reading and doing Maths at about year 1 level. I was concerned that the school would not be able to help him on with so many other children to guide through the basics at the same time. I was worried about him getting bored.

All the people I spoke to about this said the likelihood of him being moved up was practically zero, so I decided to just resign myself to it and hope for the best. As it turned out, they have excellent extra support in Reception and the Boy has two or three one to one sessions in the week to stretch his literacy and his maths, to fill in the blanks that he definitely has and to move him along. I am delighted at how he is doing and his class teacher is brilliant. Also, he is making friends and the thought of him moving out of that group is sad – I am not sure he would even want to.

But the doubts are creeping back in. Reception has these extra resources, but what will happen further up the school? As a teacher, I have plenty of first hand experience of the wide range of abilities you get in a class, and what you need to do to make sure everyone is learning. I don’t have teaching assistants or extra pairs of hands in my class, so catering to the different levels is all down to me.

It is so easy to just let the capable ones be a little bit bored.

This afternoon I sat with a student who was really struggling. I wanted to help her get just one answer to just one question about a reading text. I was painfully aware that my top two students had finished in minutes and were just keeping themselves occupied. But I had to help the weaker student: if I didn’t, she would lose motivation and lose faith in herself and stop learning. If the stronger students are a bit bored now and then… what then?

My students are adults and very self-motivating.

My students pay for their course and have clear goals they are aiming for. This helps them carry on, even when they are not being stretched enough sometimes.

But children live in the moment. They might be planning to become a fireman or an astronaut, but they won’t relate their literacy or maths sessions to this goal. It is still too distant. The hit on motivation for a weak student, who is struggling with the task at hand, is instant and instantly evident, and teacher support can have an instant effect.

The hit on motivation for an able student who is not being stretched is very slow and very gradual. It is the dimming of a light as their battery is run down and not being recharged. And sometimes, as a teacher, you don’t even notice when the battery is flat. Because the visible effect will be that the able student will just slot into what the class is doing and be more easy to manage. It is so easy to let your gaze slide off this and heave a secret sigh of relief.

Ofsted is not going to put the school into special measures for this and social services are not going to come calling. They might not even notice.

My son is loving school and comes home full of stories and excitement every day. Also, he is not moving plates or furniture around with excess brainpower just yet. He is happy where he is. And I don’t think he is going to end up on drugs or in the gutter if he is not challenged, his love of learning is not encouraged or he is not allowed to keep learning at his own speed. But he might also never cure diseases or invent time travel.

What I’m saying is: the future needs the bright kids to be fully charged, not held back because it is easier.

There are of course many, many questions to be asked about this. Is moving children up actually the solution, or should the battery recharging just happen outside of school, at home? Is it more important to stay with your peers? And do we even want time travel?

What do you think?