Cotton wool: on letting climbing kids climb and falling kids fall

 

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So much about my mothering life is different than I imagined. I thought today that I am both stricter and more easy-going than I thought I would be, as I put away the boys’ clothes at lightning speed. Lightning because Teddy was upstairs, by himself, and his crawling is now turbo-charged. Lightning because we no longer have stair-gates anywhere. And because he hasn’t yet fallen down the stairs, and there’s a first time for everything, and the first time will be soon.

Here’s where I’m less strict than I imagined: I thought I’d wrap them in cotton wool, and I don’t.

‘He will fall off that log in a minute’, I think, watching Henry from my perch on the bench. ‘I should get him down’.

I don’t move. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later he loses his footing and whacks his knee on his way down. He is outraged, and comes to show me. I administer the proper medicine (magic blow, kiss to injured area) and he goes off again. Henry’s legs have been a crossword puzzle of bruises since he could walk, just about.

I used to feel guilty about it. It used to feel like laziness. Perhaps you’re reading this, horrified. Let me offer some reassurances: I don’t let them anywhere near broken glass, I am as paranoid as it’s possible to be about road safety, I don’t take my eyes off them in water. But after meeting the imp on Henry’s shoulder, telling him to climb and jump and sprint, you’ll love it, I had to scrub off my sensitivity. It was either that or go insane. All Henry did, when he first learned to move, was climb higher than he should and fall off sooner than I wanted. The first few times, I sobbed along with him. After that, it stopped being such a big deal.

I read an article once about a playground in Wales deliberately constructed to be mildly dangerous – hills, piles of tyres, places to start little fires. The author talks about studies done a generation ago, where children found secret places to play and lived independent, imaginative lives away from their parents. Once print and electronic media made everyone hyper-aware of public danger, no one allowed their own children the same freedoms. The same authors went back to children now and tried to conduct the same studies, but found it was impossible. They were never left alone long enough to find places of their own.

I think the world now is not the world then, in many ways, and it pays to be vigilant. But one sentence in that article hit me so hard I can recite it: ‘In all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are being watched‘.

And do I want to raise boys who never grapple with their own uncertainties or construct their own stories? Who wants a childhood without stories? I’ve got plenty from mine. I think it’s part of their development to know that falling happens, and sometimes bikes spin downhill faster than you can control.

So I let them scramble over trees and structures too big for them at the park. Teddy buzzes around on hands and knees, dangling himself over the edges of our bed and sofa. He sat on the grass today stuffing handfuls in his mouth, and I thought about googling ‘are daisies toxic?’ but decided against it. He’s just learned to climb stairs, and I’m trying hard to let him.

And I still sometimes feel guilty. But in my evolving, imperfect and – alright – a tad lazy Theory of Parenthood, I think a grazed knee goes a long way.

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The genie in the sandpit: why I want my kids to read

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‘What a gift to give, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued…Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?’

Philip Pullman

I texted Tim around mid-afternoon.

‘Costco was good’, I wrote. ‘Got a new drying rack, pancake mix, baby food.

Also the complete works of Roald Dahl. Sorry.’

He didn’t reply. He expects that sort of thing when I go to Costco.

There are certain things I am determined to pass onto my boys: table manners, compassion, an inability to listen to Dean Friedman without breaking into interpretive dance. But oh, hobby gods, ye hander-outers of personality traits: please give them books. Even if I have to clobber them once a day with the complete works of Roald Dahl (it’s heavy), I want them to love to read.

Most of my early memories come from reading. I remember my mum and aunties laughing at me because I’d started saying ‘oh golly’ and eating condensed milk out of the tin with a spoon – I was reading too much Famous Five. I got myself to sleep for about seven years by making up new Prince Caspian stories on the Dawn Treader every night. Once, the end-of-lunchtime bell rang and shocked me out of Drina Ballerina. I’d been reading about how she’d twisted her ankle and wasn’t sure if she could dance anymore. I got up and limped all the way to the door before I remembered that her ankle hurt, not mine. I still do that now – when I read and read for a while, I have to go around touching things to make sure they’re solid. I’ve been sat in another reality so long that I feel like a ghost in my own house.

There’s a book for every mood and movement you can imagine. My comfort food author is Agatha Christie: when your certainties are uncertain and your decisions are unmade, it’s the best thing in the world to get stuck into a detective novel. No matter the variations or enjoyable tensions along the way, the reader knows one thing, sure as the sunrise: sooner or later, there will come a point at which Poirot will exclaim to himself ‘Ah! What an imbecile I have been!’ And then everyone will be summoned and everything will be explained, and someone in that room is GOING DOWN. A perfect ending. Every time. If only life were the same.

It would be impossible to tell you just how much reading books has done for me. When I was younger I imagined a genie in every sandpit, a door to a secret garden behind every curtain of ivy. It made everything exciting and mysterious. Words were exciting too – the obsession I’ve got with how to communicate so that the person reading it feels something emotional, how to put exactly the right words in the right order to make something beautiful – that came from reading books. It decided my university subject and my career path. It has made me.

And so I want my boys to open their eyes to worlds beyond their own. They will find characters in books that make them want to be better people. They will read books that give them glimpses of what it’s like to live in different countries, extreme poverty or a war zone. They will lose themselves, and find themselves, and find themselves changing. They will always, always know the difference between there, they’re and their. A boy could get an awfully long way with a skill set like that.

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I first wrote this post for Ceri’s Ginger Warrior blog, which you should definitely check out. But in tribute to Shakespeare’s birthday (and with her permission), I’m posting it here. Happy reading, all!

My children are more than a high school movie

Buffy, season 1. Where miniskirts ruled the world.

Buffy, season 1. Where miniskirts ruled the world, and the vice-presidents were sass and eye shadow.

I thought the other day that Henry and Teds had the potential to be superstars in the high school movie genre. If there’s a higher pinnacle of ambition for your children, I’d like to hear about it. And why? They’d be dead easy to cast.

Henry, loveable nerd.

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Long, stringy frame in a button-down shirt and jersey. Slightly highly-strung, with a headful of obscure details gleaned from the books he reads obsessively. He likes to perch. He prefers to explain things in twenty words when two-and-a-half would do.

Teddy, easy-going slacker.

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Blonde-haired, blue eyed, wrestler’s physique. When he blows, he really blows – but most of the time you’ll find him eating large meals, laughing at someone else’s jokes, accidentally standing on people, keeping his heart of gold resolutely on display.

I’ve spent a lot of time, since the boys were born, making note of their characters. I love their differences: Henry has always been fierce and funny, Teddy sweet and observant. It’s amazing how much personality babies cram into their tiny bodies, isn’t it? They come out bellowing with it.

And it’s fine to notice, because I believe we don’t make or mould our babies, but discover them, and help them to discover themselves: gently amplifying their strengths, taking compassionate stock of their weaknesses. Who knows them better than me, after all? I’ve hovered over their cribs, supervised their mealtimes, gathered them up into my lap after a fall. We go way back to the clammy-soft skin and desperate heaving of tiny ribs as they were passed to me for the first time: bawling, enraged, blazing with life. Everything I know about them is logged away, and I am desperately organising it into some magnificent mental database that will tell me exactly what to do at all times.

The problem is that no sooner do I triumphantly find and label a characteristic, they change it. It gets me into trouble. ‘Oh, Henry is great with people’, I say. ‘He’s not shy’. Except sometimes he is. He’ll stick his head under the sofa rather than look directly at someone new – if he hasn’t seen them before, or for a while, or if he feels like it. So basically, he’s shy except when he’s not, and he’s brave except when he’s not, and Teddy is quiet except when he’s shouting his head off, which is, hello, a lot of the time.

My instinct is to pin them down, and theirs is to reinvent. They are shy and loud and headstrong and watchful and fearless and terrified and thoughtfully kind and thoughtlessly mean. What do I know about them? Only what’s true in this minute.

One more thing. I come from a family where we knew, and often talked about, what our defining quality was. Four siblings, respectively The Brains, The Sporting Genius, The Funny One and The Looker. We mostly decided this for ourselves, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pinpointing what you’re good at. But over time it became set in stone. The fear of being Not Clever Enough is still the ugly root of a lot of my anxieties.

I don’t want that for them. There’s a lot of good to be done in this world, and I’d like them to get on with it without worrying about whether they’re allowed. I am breathless with possibility for them. Their horizon is just about anything they can imagine for themselves, and I am ready – and hoping – to be surprised.

In short, dear boys: sometimes you’re the nerd, and sometimes you’re the vampire slayer. But most of the time – brilliantly, heartbreakingly, and all at once – you’re every marvellous thing in between.

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My body is amazing

That’s what I’ve been making Henry repeat over and over around the house lately. You can do that with two-year-olds. Mostly I do it for my own amusement, but this time I mean it.

‘Your body is…?’ I prompt, helpfully.

‘Amaaaaazing!’ he chips in. With jazz hands.

He runs, he jumps, he stands on one leg and thinks it’s hilarious, he draws around his hands and counts on his fingers. Today he wanted to look at belly buttons, so we did: his a proper button outie, mine a stretchy, pockmarked valley, a casualty of birth. He put his head down on my stomach to listen to the food squelching inside, and pummelled the skin like bread dough, which is what it most resembles. I worked hard, hard, harder not to say anything negative about my squashiness. I told him about the boys that had lived in there, and everything my belly has done. I told him it was amazing.

I make a huge fuss of the good food he eats, tracing the vitamins and energy from his stomach, down his arms to the tips of his fingers and soles of his feet. At night we talk about the little men in his head, switching off his eyes and making his limbs heavy, so that they can help him grow and repair while he sleeps. (I hope to get more scientific on this one as we go along.)

He’ll get a different message eventually, but for now, this is the one I want ringing in his ears.

His body is amazing. Jazz hands.

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I think I took that phrase from Hollie McNish’s poem ‘Wow’, which I cannot, cannot recommend you hear enough. (I tried hard to find a transcript, but couldn’t – here’s a performance of it.) 

Boys in boxes

Before I had a baby I thought I was a girl’s girl. Here are some things I do not like: climbing trees, wearing trainers, kicking balls, throwing or catching balls, having to hit balls with a bat and missing, pretty much anything to do with balls, let’s leave it at that. And so when I thought about having babies, I imagined myself with a girl’s girl: covered in glitter glue, playing dolls’ houses, brushing hair, watching Cinderella.

Then I had a boy. He happens to be the most boyish boy you can imagine. No one would look at that face and think otherwise. It’s always covered in biro, for a start. And I can’t get enough of it. His bustly fearlessness, and the way he sprints everywhere with his arms in the air, and the gap-toothed beam that takes over his whole face, and the fact that no puddle goes unsplashed, no pile of mud unstirred, no high and sharp-cornered piece of furniture unclimbed-upon. His first word – apart from ‘Daddy’ – was ‘car’. He likes dogs and lions and electronics. He wears chunky jumpers like no one I’ve ever seen. It slays me. And somehow, it wasn’t an adjustment at all.

He’s a boy’s boy, my boy, but now I know he didn’t need to be. I watched him today, running around and doing dangerous things with his cousin, and thought about how we box up our expectations for our children, and hand it to them over a lifetime. But I might have a girl who hates Cinderella. Or a boy who loves to bake. Or has any one of a hundred surprising dreams and loves, none of which may be in my plans for him.

But it’s ok. What I’m realising, the further I get into this mothering lark, is that babies come as their own selves, and it’s only my job to teach them how to use it well. My loves, you must be compassionate, do right and try hard, but the rest is yours. I can’t stop myself constructing boxes for you, but I’ll make them whatever shape you come in.

Oh, but you must get a decent education, or there is a SMACKDOWN COMING. (Some things are non-negotiable.)

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P to the S: I’ll be doing the Year in Instagram round-up on Monday. If you want to do it but haven’t yet, do it quick! And for those who’ve done it: I LOVED it. Thanks for being as blurry-photo-obsessed as I am! (Though I have to say, your photos were a good bit better than mine.)

In praise of the paper-and-ink

There’s a place you can go where everything smells of unicorns and chocolate sprinkles. Stuff Disneyland. Just take me to Waterstone’s.

(I am putting the apostrophe back in, because COME ON, WATERSTONE’S.)

The Waterstone’s at home was a house of wonders. The books sat in the old Wool Exchange building in Bradford, and I breathed in the paper-and-ink under huge vaulted ceilings, wanting to take everything home with me. Instead I wandered through all the aisles, brushing the covers with the tips of my fingers, sitting on tucked-away sofas reading first chapters I dreamed about later. It was intoxicating.

If we’re shopping now, I save the bookshop till last, the way any sensible person saves the Yorkshire pudding till last on roast dinner days. If I have anything to do with it, my kids will want to savour it too. I want them to sit at the little table in the children’s section, rummage through shelves, run (clean) fingers over the pictures and find new things to love.

We might not be that lucky, of course. Bookshops are a rare breed, these days, and they’re getting rarer. Waterstone’s is the only one in my town, and it’s probably the only one in yours. Who’d bother to get out of the house and spend £8.99 on a book, when Amazon will deliver it to you in your pyjamas for £3.50?

Well, I would. And I think you should too. Think of it like buying free-range eggs: it’s more expensive and sometimes more hassle – especially if the eggs come with chicken poop still on them – but you do it for the hens, and because it’s the right thing to do. Online booksellers are cheap and convenient, but they’re not real. There’s no physical presence, no smell. You can’t come across something accidentally that becomes the best thing you ever read. If there comes a point where I can’t walk into a bookshop and get knocked over by the worlds waiting for me underneath the covers – because Amazon’s shut them all down – well. I will run away to live outside Shakespeare and Company, and I’ll be taking all the free-range hens with me. Because if we can’t sustain a shop full of books on the high street, not even one, then we don’t deserve nice things.

So buy bookshop. Do it for the hens. Do it for your cherub-faced children, who still have a lifetime to be amazed by words. Do it for everything lovely in the world. Do it for me, and I’ll bake you a cake and give you 10p. You can’t turn down an offer like that.

(You may find it hard to believe, but no one at all paid me to write this. Though, if you’re interested, Waterstone’s? Put the apostrophe back in, and let’s talk.)

Praiseworthy

I had a teacher when I was nine years old, and I don’t remember her name. I do remember, with the unembarrassed cruelty of a nine-year-old, that she had long, stringy dark hair and a moustache on her top lip. She was new to the school, young-ish and timid. We weren’t an easy class. I also remember that I was her favourite, or at least I felt that way.

I wasn’t an easy nine-year-old, either. Too clever by half, fond of hearing my own voice and even fonder of hearing it answer a question right, with an arsenal of long words I liked to use but didn’t always understand. This teacher made a huge fuss of me, though. She crowed over my answers, had admiring conversations about my work with the teaching assistant, asked me where I wanted to sit before she rearranged the class tables, and generally made me feel like I was the most important person in the room, with the possible exception of God.

I loved it. I luxuriated in the attention. I was going to be a world-famous novelist, a journalist, the eradicator of cancer, British Prime Minister by the time I was twenty-five. Clearly I deserved a bit of special treatment. It was the best year of primary school I ever had.

Do you know what else I remember, though? Underneath, I despised her. Even I could sense that she was going over the top, that I didn’t really deserve to be made such a fuss of. I suspected the real reason for my celebrity was some weakness in her, though I didn’t know what that was. And though I liked her and felt sorry for her, I despised her for it.

Ever since then, I’ve thought that kids want to work a little for their praise.

I can’t think about that teacher now without a pang – I hurt for her and her insecurity and my casual dismissal of her efforts, the way even her name has slid out of my head – but I think about her often these days. I think that what we praise our children for teaches them what we value, and becomes what they value in themselves. And how many times a day do I tell Henry he’s a clever boy?

Too many. Too many, when cleverness isn’t nearly as important as trying hard, or being kind, or being brave enough to try something new. When cleverness isn’t really what I’m praising him for at all.

He will be able to tell if I mean what I say. So I think I’d better start saying what I actually mean.

On building a body

Here is the most profound thing I ever read on a blog:

Your body houses a spirit. The spirit changes constantly with intelligence and progression. Your body will change with your spirit, constantly. … You might feel a need to restore your body to a certain age where you think your body belongs–even though you would never will your spirit backwards to that same place.

(Read the whole thing, here. I think you’ll like it.)

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, recently, because of my high-waisted skirt.

Oh, it’s a beautiful skirt. It was the outfit I wore to our wedding dinner, once all the white satin got too heavy to swish around in. I was dazed with exhaustion and tingly with happiness and keyed up with anticipation (ahem), but I really loved that skirt.

I wore it a lot once we were married, and carried on wearing it until breathing in it became a problem. Now it doesn’t fit. When I cleared out my wardrobe of too-small clothes, I kept it. It represents my old body to me – when it had settled into adulthood, when I’d come to terms with how it looked and started to embrace it, when I didn’t understand, yet, how much it could still change itself and me.

Once I get back into that skirt, I keep thinking, I’ll be back to how I was.

Here’s the thing, though: my ribs are wider. They stretched out when I grew a baby, obligingly, and haven’t gone back. So I don’t think I’ll ever zip that skirt up to the top again. Body and spirit, I am not who I was back then. Carrying and birthing and feeding this boy has marked me to the bones, that’s the truth of it, and it feels like a truth I should welcome. Our bodies have carried us through momentous things, whatever those things have been. Of course I am different. Everything is different. It should be.

I don’t want to go back. So I need a new skirt.

 

Today I was going to blog about things to do when you’re baby-free and a Tudor nerd and in the vicinity of Hever Castle (I was like a child in a sweet shop, if every sweet was in the shape of Henry VIII’s HEAD). Then I was reminded that it’s World Autism Awareness Day, and I read this, by a friend. And all of my other thoughts stopped.

READ IT. Then make other people read it, because if I said I thought it was astonishing, that wouldn’t nearly cover it.

I’ll blather about Hever Castle this evening :-)