Play dates: Do not get involved!

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I lingered awkwardly in the kids’ bedroom.

The Boy’s New Friend had arrived for a playdate and with the Girl’s overenthusiastic help they had already pulled out all the Busy Books, all the Sylvanian family furniture and most of the cuddlies. I made micro-adjustments to the Sylvanian house and picked up some discarded socks. It really was time for me to leave them to it.

“You are not allowed in there,” The Boy announced imperiously to his friend, pointing at a shut door.

“Why not?” she wanted to know. She had not shown any interest in the door until then, but the Boy had sparked her curiosity.

“That’s Mummy and Daddy’s room. They don’t want friends to go in there. Only us. When they call us.”

I was listening in from the landing where I was fiddling with washing I had already hung out to dry. I was itching to jump in and make corrections to his pronouncements, which made us sound like crazy dictators. I was already imagining how this would sound when inevitably his friend would report back at home, Chinese whispers style.

I hurried to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Soon, the children came down as well and the Boy and his friend sat down at the table to do some drawing.

“Did you know you are made of atoms?” I heard the Boy say. Then with a swift change of tack: “Did you know that two sheep can get together and make a baby sheep?”

I was on the sofa in the other room, staring at my book, trying to make myself relax. It was impossible not to listen. Over the course of the next few hours, I heard the Boy tell jokes with no punchline, casually discuss death and religion, give dodgy science lessons and tell his guest that she was playing wrong.

With this last one, I finally felt I was allowed, nay, obligated to step in. “Don’t be bossy! You can’t tell other children how to play.”

More and more, since the Boy has started school, I have had to come to terms with the fact that he spends most of his time outside of my direct supervision. Listening to him chat away today made me realise with cold dread: He could be saying anything to anyone. He is out there in the world, potentially sounding bossy, precocious, pretentious, being insensitive or inappropriate and making us or himself sound a bit strange. He might be messing up what could be good friendships by acting more crazy than the other person likes. Or by being inflexible about how to play, or by crying every time he bumps his shoulder into a door frame. And I am not there to see or control it.

A terrifying thought.

And suddenly I feel a rush of sympathy for my mother’s irritated exclamations when my brother or I did not perform as expected in company.

“What business is it of yours?” I wanted to shout.

But I feel that ache now, of being separated from a small person that you invested in and brooded over for many years, trying to give them everything you thought they needed to do well in life. Not to repeat the same mistakes you did. To have everything you loved and avoid the things that caused you pain when you were growing up.

I realise that I can’t control this mad flutter of inexperienced wings on their maiden voyage, slowly flying down, on what may often seem like a collision course with the ground. And that is right and good. I can explain and I can demonstrate, but the rest must come with experience, with developing instinct. While he is learning that, there are going to be falls and disasters.

All we can do is put good stuff in and hope it will come out at the right moments.

 

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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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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?

You can’t marry your sister

LoveThe Boy is really into asking awkward questions at awkward times.

Just as our friends were saying their vows, unamplified at an outdoor wedding, he asks in a piercing voice: “Why did the people want to kill Jesus?”

Or on a ferry, surrounded by bored people with nothing better to do than eavesdrop on the moral and social education of our son, he wants to know the ins and outs of who can marry who. “Why can’t I marry my sister?” he asks, puzzled. I do my best by explaining that there are different kinds of love. Friend love and family love and the special love that you have for the person you marry.

He nods sagely. “You can NEVER marry your friends.”

“Well,” I back-paddle. “You might find that you start to feel that special love for one of your friends.”

He ponders this. “So why can’t I marry my sister?”

I try to give a sanitized child-friendly explanation of the dangers of mating with someone with very similar DNA. He doesn’t get it all but slowly the awareness seems to sink in that you can’t marry people who are already family.

It’s okay though. The Boy isn’t really planning to marry his sister. He has already chosen his future bride. They had been friends since they were very little and when they discovered there was such a thing as marriage they felt the choice was obvious. It is all decided between them: they will live in a big house in Wales with their 100 children and us parents are expected to visit regularly.

It’s very cute and I wonder sometimes how long this will go on for. Perhaps they will find new and different friends now that they are at different schools and their friendship will dull and the dreams of a house packed with children amid the rolling hills will fade until they are forgotten. Or perhaps they will stay close through the years and when hormones stir they will become Boyfriend and Girlfriend. I have seen this too among my friends’ children.

Today, the Boy asked: “Mama, how do you fall in love with someone?”

I braced myself and plunged in, preparing myself to help him work out future feelings for his chosen bride: “Well, when you see them you get butterflies in your tummy and you love spending time with them. You love looking at them and talking to them and hearing their voice and you want to cuddle them and hold them close all the time.”

His eyes shone in recognition.

“Yes!” he said. “That is how I feel about you, Mummy.”

Love. We’re still working on it.

Shock discovery: children are actual people

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One of the strange things about children is that they are real people.

I know it sounds obvious but bear with me.

They start off so totally dependent on you, with such limited methods of communication, that you spend quite a bit of time interpreting them and providing them with a voice that is not their own. “Oh, he’s just tired.” “Look, he looks so grumpy in that top, he obviously doesn’t like it.” “Oswald just adores Beethoven, don’t you Oswald?” I am totally guilty as charged, just read the Life Game posts.

It actually becomes a life long task for a parent to learn to accept your children as independent individuals with thoughts and ideas of their own.

When I started our summer of fun stuff, I had imagined myself in the role of Fun Bringer and Haver of Great Ideas. I filled our box with activities that I had come up with while the kids were asleep, hoping to surprise and delight them.

Instead, over the past two weeks, they have been surprising and delighting me. We have done about 7 or 8 cards since my last post, but our days have been full of fun and good ideas. Their good ideas. In fact, I found myself starting to write them down. And then making new cards, for next year, with the great games they came up with this summer.

There was the puppet show.

photo 2 (6)It came out of nowhere. One minute we were in the car, driving back from a boring supermarket trip. The next they were shouting: “Let’s have a puppet show!” And we were digging up the finger puppets and making a rudimentary theatre (a box lid on a kid’s chair with a quilt draped over it, in case you want to replicate our success), followed by a retelling of Goldilocks and the three bears using a princess, a tiger, an elephant and a lamb.

There was a plane outside, then a plane indoors. The pilot was a massive cuddly koala bear and the destination was, as always, Nediland (The Netherlands).

There were concerts of beautifully ambitious piano concertos, composed on the spot by one child and interrupted by the other. Then they would swap over.

There was Numberland. The floor was absolutely covered in numbers of all shapes and sizes and materials. It was a little traumatic for Mummy and Daddy, who tidied it all away as soon as the Boy was in bed.photo 3 (4)

There were many board games, which the Girl now understood enough to actually be a plausible participant in.

This just scratches the surface. Children have an amazing imagination. They are totally independent, totally new people, never seen before and utterly unique. Who was I to think they needed my ideas to have a great summer? Thank goodness I have them here, to brighten mine.

If you want to follow our summer Play-Along in greater detail, come and join me on Facebook, where I report on our activities as they happen.

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It wasn’t sofa naps, it was hospital: First Week of Play-Along

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I did warn you last week. I did say that sometimes the Summer Play-Along might be interrupted.

When I wrote that, though, I was thinking more along the lines of being too lazy to do craft activities. I wasn’t expecting it to be interrupted by a two day stay in the Children’s Ward of our favourite hospital. An infection caused an asthma flare up and Tuesday found us in A&E with the Boy on oxygen and hourly nebulisers. We got out two days later, as always feeling tearfully grateful for the wonderful nurses and doctors who looked after him, and the amazing play facilities provided for the children on the ward, while simultaneously being so so very happy to be back home.

Here is a little overview of what we did manage to do at home:

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And there was playing in the hospital as well, even if it wasn’t from The Box. The Boy made Numberjacks and minions out of paper, and The Girl fell in love with her “own little girl piggy”. When she came, supposedly to visit her brother, she ignored my arms held out ready for a big hug, thinking she would have missed me overnight, and searched the room for the pig. The pig got a hug, not me.

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What I have learned from this first week of summer activities is that sometimes just committing to doing something special every day is enough to make it happen, even if it wasn’t what you prepared earlier. Having steeled myself mentally for putting in a bit of effort every day made me more inclined to say yes to other things the children suggested or thinking up extra plans. We made rainbow pancakes from a Peppa Pig magazine and played Chloe’s Closet in the play tent, we made a 4 times table poster (every day is a school day for the Boy!) and played chase in the garden.

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Here’s hoping for a more normal week next week!

Life Game: Doing School

photo 1 (2)‘Sup gamers?

Hope you’re all enjoying Life Game. I’ve been very busy exploring and only just remembered that I owe you all a walk-through for the:

Great Pre-school Coup

When the Brother was only on Level 3 he somehow gained access to a mysterious cult known as Pre-School. They meet in a building full of toys every morning and share high level skills, forgotten lore and nursery rhymes. They also have access to privileged gear like climbing frames, bouncy castles and plastic sea creatures. For a long time I was only able to get into the building, but I couldn’t work out how you got into the cult itself. There are these five Guardians who are tall enough to bolt and unbolt the doors and it seemed they were the key to getting to stay for the whole morning.

My first breakthrough was when I discovered that there was some kind of feeder group for the cult, called a Toddler Group. You had to turn up at a specific date and time every week, but then you got to play with some of the toys in a separate room. Not quite there, but at least you could get into conversations with one of the guardians to try and win their favour.

Finally, I discovered how to get in for good.

They have passwords.

(I would warn you for spoilers at this point, but let’s face it, you’re not going to Google a walk-through unless you want to know spoilers, right?)

If you want to get in with the Rookies (which I recommend to start off with), the password is ‘Acorn’ and if you want to join the Veterans it’s ‘Chestnut’. Simple really. You just approach one of the guardians, say the password, and the next time you go up to the door there will be a little acorn/chestnut on the board with your name on it. Hey presto! You’re in Pre-School!

Some things you should know about Pre-School:

GOOD

* It comes with a backpack, which increases your inventory. Often you will find scrolls in there with useful information about hats and healthy snacks and concerts and sports days, and any drawings or projects you do will appear in the backpack at the end of the day as well;

* Pre-School also means you get a snack box, which gives your energy levels a boost. Plus having your own box with your name on it is cool.

* There are wonderful new people to meet at Pre-School. I’ve already got my eye on a few classmates that I plan to befriend by blasting them with my Charisma.

BAD

* There seems to be a bit of a bug in Pre-School. Once you have signed up and you are a part of the cult, you then can’t get out of it anymore. There is no way to switch off this automatic re-location to Pre-school every morning. Some days I just want to watch TV or I’ve planned a raid on the Brother’s cuddly toys, so I just don’t have the time to go to Pre-School, but I still keep ending up there. I tried Protest Loudly and Cry and Sulk but the Mummy just puts you in the car anyway and once you are there – dammit – you get distracted by the guardians and their cool toys and you forget to carry on with the crying.

* The only other bad thing about Pre-School is that it limits your wardrobe options. Hats are compulsory in sunny weather, and however much I try to click on the Party Dress option, it is greyed out on pre-school days and your only options are Sensible Clothes and Sensible Shoes. And yes, I tried Cry and Sulk here too but once again, the Mummy seems to have an override.

Well, I’m in now, and working hard to replace the Brother in his position in the cult. I am using a combination of Charm, Wit, Imagination and Hugs to ingratiate myself with the Guardians and make friends with all the other children. I think it must be working, because more and more often now there is talk of the Brother leaving Pre-School and going somewhere else called Big School after the summer. Clearly he has noticed that this is my place now and it ain’t big enough for the both of us.

Although.

Now that he is half out of the door I am a little sad.

Who will protect me from scooters that are about to bump into me now? Who will get my coat and my bag for me? Who will tell me what to play?

Will I have to do all that for myself?

And what is this Big School and how do I get into it?

Let me know if you have any ideas.

Yours with some concern,

The Girl

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Bossy

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The Boy loves racing his sister, as long as he wins.

“Haha, I win!” he sings delightedly as he gets to the end of the garden path first.

“Haha, I lose!” the Girl chants with equal enthusiasm, arriving just behind him.

Most of the time, they play very happily together. That is, as long as the Boy is in charge, or at least on board with the chosen activity.

Things go wrong when The Girl does not comply. This time she has not waited for the Boy. She pelts down the garden path with her doll’s pram, heading for the finish. The Boy is left behind, still trying to turn his bike around, crying and screeching at her: “NOOOO, I need to be in front! It’s not a race this time! STOP!”

It is not okay for the Girl to have her own ideas about what or how to play. He can say that they are racing or not racing, but she cannot.  When they are in the garden, they need to play the Boy’s elaborate games. If his sister is engrossed in some other activity of her own choosing, he gets more and more cross until he is stamping and crying with frustration.

After an incident this morning, I called the Boy into the kitchen. I showed him a bottle of (rather nice balsamic) vinegar and a squeezy bottle of honey.

“Smell,” I said. “Which one do you like better?”

He was still wiping tears of rage from his eyes. His sister had refused to come inside, and I had got cross with him for trying to drag her by her arm. He sniffed the honey and smiled. He sniffed the vinegar and pulled a face.

“I don’t like that one better,” he said.

“So you prefer the honey?”

“Yes. The honey.”

“If you were trying to catch a fly, what would you use to try to get them to come to you? The vinegar or the honey?”

He pointed at the honey.

“And if you want to get your sister to do something, how do you think you could persuade her? Would you say something sweet like the honey, or would you say something sour, like the vinegar?”

“Something sweet,” he said, cottoning on.

“That’s right. If you shout and yell and get cross, she won’t do what you want. But she might if you make it into something nice for her.”

I made a quick mental note that I should heed this advice myself a bit more often. I thought back, blushing, to many occasions this week when I was less than enticing trying to get the kids into the car to go to pre-school. Note to self: Use more metaphorical honey.

It’s not like I haven’t had a lifetime of practice.

As a child, I was an incredibly bossy older sister. Unlike The Boy, I had a very compliant younger sibling, so I did have an easier time of it with far less stamping and crying. But I also developed more effective tactics for getting my little brother to do what I wanted. I used plenty of honey. To entice him into my imaginary worlds, I used to make sure he was the main character. I was everyone else. When we played boarding school, I called it “Crickety Pitches” (my brother is a big cricket fan) and he got to be the protagonist – I played his best friend Ricky, the teachers, the bullies, the dinner ladies and misc ground staff. When we played Enchanted Planet Dnzjnov, he was the son of the ruling wizard and I was the servant girl side kick.

You’d think playing second fiddle would bother me, but I had discovered early on that it is not the main character who is in charge. Besides all the supporting roles and extras, I always played the part of the narrator. I shaped the world, I controlled the action, I was behind the earthquakes, the villains and their crafty plans and the sudden surprise Maths quizzes. I had discovered the power of the writer.

As you can see, I was an expert make up artist. I really thought I'd done a great job on the Easter Bunny facepaint.

As you can see, I was an expert make up artist. I really thought I’d done a great job on the Easter Bunny facepaint. Photo: (c) P.M.Kroonenberg

A case in point, preserved for posterity on a precious cassette tape, was our Easter Play. The story was ostensibly about the Easter Bunny, played by my brother at age 3. All the other credits were mine (Judith, age 6): set design, costumes, make up, supporting character (The Little Mouse) and narrator. Despite my parents’ best efforts at intervention, which can be heard on the tape, the Easter Bunny only got two, grudging lines in the whole play, one to say he was happy it was Easter, the other to say he was going home.

My brother was perfectly happy, even if my parents were not. He was drunk on honey.

Yes, I was a master, even at age 6. Is my son, at 4 1/2, ready to be my apprentice?

This afternoon, the kids have a friend round to play. In the hallway I can hear the Boy getting cross with his friend. “Noooo you need to go upstairs! We are playing with the cuddlies! GET BACK HERE!”

“Are you using honey?” I ask my son.

“No. Vinegar,” he says, ashamed.

“How can you ask nicely, so your friend might want to come upstairs with you?”

The Boy looks promisingly thoughtful, so I leave him to come up with a sensitive, gentle, conflict resolving scheme.

Five minutes later the Boy appears by my side with the bottle of honey. “I tried running upstairs with it, but he didn’t follow the honey,” he tells me. “It didn’t work.”

Hm. Not quite there yet.

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The Fantasy Worlds They Live In

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The Boy

“Mummy, will you play my fruit game? Here, press on a fruit sticker, and it will become REAL.

Mummy, now play my dog game. Which dog would you like? ZIP! Now it’s REAL!

Mummy, The Girl is making LOTS of pups! The dining room is full of pups. There are thirty-four of them now. This house is getting very full. There are not 97, not 98, not 99, but one hundred dogs now! Here, give this one a treat and it will grow even more.

Mummy, I can’t go to bed now, I need to do some more stickers on here. Ah, I’ll use the Easter egg stickers. If you press on an egg, it will come alive.

My house is really busy, because there are one hundred dogs, and one hundred Easter eggs, and one hundred of me as well.”

The Girl

In the car, the Girl suddenly sits up and says in alarm: “Mummy! There’s something behind us!”

Me: “What’s behind us?”

Her: “A fairy pony.”

Me: “Ah.”

Her: “It’s a magical pony. It can make us go super-fast.” Silence. “It’s coming through the seats.”

Another moment’s silence. Then very quietly she says: “Naughty magical pony.”

We drive along.

Her: “Talk to her Mummy.”

Me: “The magic pony can talk?”

Her: “Talk to her.”

Me: “Hi Magic Pony. Where do you live?”

Magic Pony: “Into my story cave.”

Me: “Okay. And do you have a special friend?”photo 1 (6)

Magic Pony: “Yes! It’s the star one. It’s a little star. But I can’t find her! She’s lost! She’s in terrible trouble!”

Her: “Don’t worry, Pony. We’ll help you.”

Pony: “Oh, thank you.”

Her: “Magic Pony, are you make us go super-fast?”

Pony: “Yes, course!”

Her: “Oh great.”

My Own Fantasy World

Me: “Kids, it’s 5.45am. It is not morning. It is the middle of the night. Why don’t you go back to sleep, or read quietly in your bed?”

Five minutes later, there is a sound most like a herd of elephants galloping on the landing, followed by piercing shrieks and sobbing because the Girl has taken one of the Boy’s 25 favourite cuddlies and insists it is hers.

Five minutes after that, Team Umizoomi is on TV and I am making myself a cup of tea, fantasising about when they are teenagers and sleep until midday.

Erasing Memories

As parents we are mostly in the business of making memories.

But often it is as important to get rid of them. Like the memory of rashly made promises that you find yourself unable to keep. Or of the chocolate cake you blithely set about making with the children the night before, forgetting that you are keeping your daughter off dairy for a week.

Cake? What cake?

Cake? What cake?

“The cake needs to cool right down before we can eat some. It needs to cool down overnight,” I said, hoping sleep would induce amnesia.

This morning, as I set about erasing the evidence with a cup of tea in the kitchen, I thought gloomily that my plan was doomed to failure. My son, who has taught himself to read primarily by building up a dizzying sight-vocabulary, has a near-photographic memory. Times this by ten for memories that are inconvenient to you. Times this by a hundred for memories involving snacks.

Just yesterday he asked me about the banana chocolate chip muffins we had made last week, wondering where they were. To his great disappointment, I had to admit that they were all gone now, and he pressed me for a detailed accounting of the fate of each of the twelve muffins.

On occasions when the Fairy Godmother is babysitting I give her a quick rundown of the important information of the day while rushing out the door. “And I did say that before bed he could finish sticking the alphabet land book he was making earlier, but he’s probably forgotten about that by now,” I say dismissively.

“Yeah, all those things you say he has probably forgotten? He never has,” the Fairy Godmother replies gloomily, as I run off to work leaving her in craft-hell.

Sometimes there are things the Boy actually wants to forget, but can’t.

His intense curiosity, lively imagination and sensitivity are a bad combination when it comes to films, books or TV shows that contain what is laughably referred to as ‘mild peril’. (For the record, Disney, to a four year old, an adorable little rat being swept away on a raft by a rushing river and getting separated from his family, while being shot at with a shotgun is not ‘mild peril’. Yes, I am looking at you, Ratatouille.) The Boy will back away from the screen, squeaking in fear, his eyes still glued to the TV, unable to look away. These are memories that he will refer to later and mull over, trying to unpick their meaning.

The images that have haunted him above all else were from a Barbapapa book about pollution and animal cruelty. (I know, not the ideal topic for a children’s book. It has taught me to re-read my childhood favourites before showing them to my children…) He loved the book and wanted to read it all day, asking me questions: why were those people hunting the animals? What did they want to do to the animals? What is coming out of that chimney? Why are the animals sad? What is the dirty stuff in the water? What are those people wearing on their faces? (They were gas masks. Barbapapa doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pushing its idealistic agenda onto the next generation). What are the people doing now? Is the air clean again now? Will the animals come back?

He woke in the night crying bitter tears, his dreams filled with smoke from chimneys and a sky that had gone black and would never be blue again. We talked, I explained, we prayed together, he slept. The next day he woke from a car-nap, again terrified and in tears because people had destroyed the earth and the sky was black.

We had really good conversations about all sorts of important things off the back of this book, but how I wished I could hide the book and erase the memories.

In the end, he worked out a way to do it himself.

“See,” he said, “This is the book all about me. It has lots of pages.”

“What book?” I said. He wasn’t holding anything.

“Here, in the air.”

I looked up. He was pointing proudly at nothing. He told me that the book had pictures, and he could look things up about when he was two or when he was three. I started to understand. The book was imaginary. It was the book of his life, with all his memories.

“But some pages I will take out,” he said very seriously. “Like the pages about the chimney with the smoke and the sky that is black. I will rip those pages out of my book.”

“That is a good idea,” I said. “And we can put nice pictures on the pages instead and fill up your book with good memories.”

“Yes,” the Boy agreed.

“Great,” I said, giving him a hug. “Let’s bake a chocolate cake.”