When One Twin Stops Believing in Father Christmas

There are days that you start in the morning, thinking they will be like any other day, driving in the car with your 7-year-old twins, and then your daughter asks you “Mummy, are you Father Christmas?” Bam, a seminal part of their childhood is over. What can I do? I have to answer honestly, even though every part of me wants to say “Of course not!” Seven seems so young – I just want to cry. I had recognised the death knell last month when she asked about the Tooth Fairy. The problem is, Joy isn’t really ready to hear the truth. It’s her brother who is, and it’s him that was telling her that these things didn’t exist, which propelled her to ask me outright.

Ernest has questioned his belief in magic for some time now. He already asked me last year whether Father Christmas was real, and at age six, I really felt he was too young to know the truth and I did what any sensitive, intuitive, thoughtful mother would do: I lied. However, it was really just the beginning of his questioning phase, and as the year progressed he often would say “I don’t believe in magic” and “I don’t believe in fairies” much to Joy’s consternation. Although I feel that age seven is still a bit young for my liking, I realise that this is a natural stage his development. Even as I mourn the passing of this particularly sweet and magical part of his childhood, I recognise that he is developing very strong reasoning skills, and is certainly far cleverer than I was (I believed for far longer than was reasonable…) If he were a singleton, that is probably where the story would end, with a stern reminder not to give away the secret to any younger siblings. But he is not a singleton, he has a twin, with whom he shares everything, including his disbelief.

Perfectly logical to some...

Perfectly logical to some…

One of the perpetual challenges of raising twins is the fact that although you have two children of the same age, they will develop at different rates. Ernest is ready to stop believing in magic, and is not particularly affected by knowing the truth. Joy, however, is very definitely still in the magical childhood phase where the line between imagination and reality is not just very thin, but at times disappears entirely. She will frequently claim that she has seen magical creatures, that her stuffed animals moved by themselves, and that she used her “magic.” When I answered her questions about the Tooth Fairy, she said “but how come I saw her carry the tooth off with her friends?” She isn’t lying; she genuinely believes it, because right now her reasoning skills haven’t quite developed to the level of her brother’s. This is why I felt it so particularly keenly when she asked me the questions about the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas – she was expecting me to support her understanding, and tell her that they do exist, in the same way as she comes to me to arbitrate other disagreements she has with her brother.

So what happens when one twin is ready for the truth, and the other isn’t? Well, I can’t speak for other twin parents, but the result blindsided me: complete denial. To begin with, she went through the disappointment of learning the truth, and even said that she had had her doubts, as “If Father Christmas loves children so much, he wouldn’t wait until they were asleep to come. He’d want to talk to them.” (Her reasoning certainly works sometimes!) She questioned me very carefully about the different presents she had received, and where I had got them from, in the same way as she had asked to see the teeth I had collected in my role as Tooth Fairy. Each question I answered felt like another little piece of her childhood was being chipped away.

But a couple of days later, the denial kicked in, in the same way it had with the Tooth Fairy. When I had shown her her baby teeth, she had thought for a while, and then announced “I know, you help the Tooth Fairy. You collect the teeth, but she leaves the coin.” Her desire to believe was so strong, it eclipsed any logic. Something very similar has happened with Father Christmas. For Christmas we had bought her a very grown-up looking alarm clock in the shape of a pocket watch. She was sure that Father Christmas had made it himself, because she had never seen any clock like it. So she managed to work and squeeze the reality I was showing her into a shape that fitted her image of the world. It went something like this:

“I know Father Christmas gave me this clock because it doesn’t exist in any shop. So that means that Mummy is lying about Father Christmas not existing to keep Ernest happy, because she knows that he doesn’t believe in magic.”

Voilà! She can now stop being disappointed, because clearly the deception was about him not existing, not the other way around! I must say I was astounded, and to begin with a little concerned, at her ability to twist reality and evidence to suit her own vision. But right now her understanding of the world is simply not evidence-driven. Young children are able to hold opposing pieces of information and believe in both simultaneously until they get a firmer grasp on logic. The very part I was so disappointed to have taken away from her childhood, that is the belief in magic and a tenuous hold on reality, was the very thing that was actually protecting her from the truth. Ernest can’t make her stop believing, because she is just not ready yet.

I don’t know for certain if deep down she knows Father Christmas doesn’t exist, but doesn’t want to believe it, or if she simply does not give much weight to logic and evidence when drawing conclusions. She is on a fascinating cusp between asking for proof, then denying its admissibility. I know eventually she will learn to sort through the conflicting pieces of information in her head when she is ready. But for now I’m not going to push the point. All I know is that I have two happy twins – one that is satisfied to have worked out the truth, and the other who makes houses for fairies in the garden. And I am going to enjoy it while it lasts.

 

How I teach my kids to swear

cursing

Yes it can, but remember to practice safe swearing, kids!

My children had some friends round for a playdate the other day, and as they were having a snack one of their friends asked them, very matter-of-factly, “Does anyone know the F-word?” I had just stepped out to the kitchen, and blustered back into the room loudly offering more snacks and a change of subject. Unfortunately, everyone’s attention was piqued, and I realised it wasn’t going to be that simple. “Is it ‘fart’? my daughter asked a little coyly. I was rather relieved, and frankly slightly amazed, that she hasn’t overheard me over the years. Another friend piped up “I think I know the S- and C- words.” I tried to hide my astonishment, but I can’t help but think, and hope, that in this friend’s mind those words were ‘shoot’ and ‘can’t’. I wasn’t about to wait to find out, as I offered more food to put in their mouths. Then I had four sets of eyes turned to me, as they realised that I of course, being grown-up, would know. “What is the F-word, Mummy?” asked my son.

I aim to answer truthfully in all things, but I certainly wasn’t about to teach my children, let alone their friends, the worst swear words in the English language! I just said “It’s a word grown-ups use sometimes, and shouldn’t, but I’m not going to teach you it.” Of course lots of “why?”s ensued, but finally I managed to distract them with something else.

I was relieved when their attention had moved on, but it did get me to thinking about the whole issue of swearing, and what I want to teach my children about it. Eventually they will learn all the F-, S-, C- words and more. But how do I want them to learn about them? Will I tell them swearing is wrong? Are there certain words I’m ok with, and others not? Then I realised in many ways I had already begun the process.

If, like me, you have seven-year-olds at home, chances are they have already started the beginnings of swearing. I’m not saying they know the sorts of words we associate with swearing as adults, but my two are nonetheless fascinated by saying things that they are discovering are taboo. The number of conversations we have at the table where they start giggling uncontrollably because they are talking about poo or genitalia. They have learnt that the things they aren’t supposed to show in public are mightily hilarious to talk about in public. Isn’t that the root of most swear words? It strikes me that swearing is innate to humans from the moment they prefer to shut the bathroom door.

I think there is a swearing spectrum, and wherever you place yourself on it should be what you teach your children about it. Personally, I never swear in front of people I don’t know extremely well. In private it’s fair to say I have a bit of a potty mouth (especially when I’m driving!) and my husband and I actually like to out-swear each other with innovative combos for fun. But I think only my husband and my closest friends know that about me. So for me, swearing is all about setting and context.

Often my twins will come out with very silly sentences involving toilets or body parts, and of course they reinforce it in each other as they fall about in a heap of hysterics. Initially I thought I would just let it go, and let them have fun with it, but it really can drag on for an awfully long time if I don’t intervene! I then came to the conclusion that since this was becoming a regular feature in our daily lives, perhaps I should start teaching them a few rules about when it’s ok to be rude and when it’s not. If they are playing at home I let them do it as much as they want. I probably don’t even hear most of it! I have told them that it can be funny to say rude things sometimes, but there are rules about the time and places where you do it. The main rules I have are:

  • not around other grown-ups;
  • not around younger children;
  • not loudly anywhere where they could be overheard by either of the above;
  • not in the classroom;
  • limit it at the dinner table!

I don’t like giving my children rules without explaining why I have them. It can be a confusing concept for children to understand that something can be wrong at certain times, and ok at others. I wondered whether it would be simpler for them just to learn that they shouldn’t be rude, and work out for themselves that they need to do it in private so that they aren’t overheard. But then I considered that they are already learning that there are things they can’t show or do in public. Some of these they are learning instinctively, like closing the toilet door. Others I have to teach more explicitly, like telling my daughter not to do headstands in a dress in a restaurant. The point is, they already are learning that we moderate our actions according to settings, so it stands to reason that the words we use to describe these things are also setting-dependent. Once I made the link between what they do and what they say, it made more sense to them. The difference is just that we keep the behaviours private for our own benefit, while we keep our language private for other people’s. I also explained that we don’t say these things in front of younger children because they are too young to understand these rules themselves. As for the dinner table, it’s just an extension of good table manners.

I still have to remind my two of these rules on a regular basis, as they often forget themselves in the heat of a particularly side-splitting toilet-related idea. But they do understand the concept, and in time I’m hoping they will be able to stick to the guide so they can have good manners while still enjoying the silliness of being seven and beyond And when the time comes when they learn the big-hitters of the swearing lexicon they will have something to refer to when judging when to use them. I just hope it won’t be for a while yet…

Mummy is from Mars…and also from Venus

Mars Venus

Different planets, same solar system…

I have come to the realisation that I am an annoyingly contrary parent. I could blame it on having twins with very different personalities… and so I shall. I sometimes feel that being a twin parent is an opportunity to witness a nature/nurture experiment in action. But it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. Although my twins were born on the same day to the same parents, and have had as similar an environment as it is possible to have, that doesn’t make their upbringing identical. They have one very big difference in their experience: me. Since they are both so different, I end up being different to them, while hoping that they don’t pick up on any inconsistencies!

I first became aware of it when my two first started to be properly mobile. My son, who I shall call Ernest from now on, (not his real name, but appropriate nonetheless) was a very cautious toddler. We used to persuade, encourage and cajole him to climb on a climbing frame, or go down a small slide. “You can do it!” I would say. “It’s completely safe – I’ll catch you,” I would coax him. We praised every tiny step towards overcoming a fear. We would call him courageous, brave, grown-up – you name it.

And then there was my daughter, who I shall call Joy (again, not her real name.) While Ernest was trying to pluck up the courage to go down a two-foot slide, she was hurtling headfirst down helter-skelter. While Ernest was reluctantly climbing onto the first rung of a rope ladder, she would be jumping off the top level of a climbing frame with gay abandon, utterly trusting that we would catch her, whether she’d warned us or not. And was I praising these feats of bravery and courage? Not in the least. “Joy, be careful. Think before you jump. Check it’s safe first. Not so high.” We were desperately just trying to keep her alive!

And it doesn’t stop at those first days of teaching courage to one twin, and caution to the other. As they get older, and their personalities continue to develop in very different ways, I find myself constantly promoting the opposite of what they naturally want to do. Ernest loves his Lego sets, always following the instructions to the letter, never using any item for anything other than its original purpose. Joy takes a scarf and wears it like a dress and puts pencil cases on her feet as shoes. Am I congratulating Ernest on his ability to follow complex instructions and praising Joy’s out-of-the-box creativity? Well, yes, sometimes. But I’m also telling Ernest to use his imagination and make up his own constructions (thank you The Lego Movie – that helped!) and Joy to use things as they were intended otherwise they get damaged.

You try to be completely fair as a parent. As a twin parent, you are acutely aware that any inconstancies in approach are immediately recognisable, and cannot be explained away as “he/she is older/younger than you.” I realise I am often giving mixed messages to my twins. To one twin, I’m the one that’s constantly trying to get him to do things he finds scary, playing down the consequences, and teaching the value of taking a little risk. To the other I’m the one preventing her from just experiencing care-free fun, telling her to stop and think first. Their memories of me when they are grown-up may not match up entirely! But being fair with twins, or with any children, does not mean the same thing as treating them exactly the same way. Children are all born different, and you have to alter your parenting style accordingly, which becomes very obvious when your children are the same age.

Sometimes I do listen to myself when I am telling one twin they should be reading more, and the other one that they should be more active, and I wonder “why am I constantly trying to push them away from their natural inclination?” It’s not that I don’t value what they are doing naturally – I must do, because I’m always trying to get the other twin to do it. I have to remind myself to stop and marvel at the things they can do naturally, without any push from me. I just also see a value in teaching them what they wouldn’t think to do for themselves, because it will help them be more balanced and rounded (and safe, in my daughter’s case!)

So how to get around this and not have your children think that you are inconsistent or unfair? The first step is to be aware of it, and think about how your children will hear what you are saying. They may see you encourage their twin to do something you are telling them not to do. Make sure you explain why. If you know why you are doing it, your children will understand when you explain.

Make sure to praise what they are doing naturally so that they know you feel there is a value to what comes more easily to them. There are always two sides to every coin: if your child is very cautious and afraid of risk, they are likely to be very good at understanding consequences and keeping safe. If they don’t think before they act, and don’t consider safety before doing something, they may be more adaptable to change and open to new experiences. (This is also a development issue that resolves as they get older and experience more “consequences.”) If you have a child that is a bit rigid about keeping to the instructions, it means they are very good at structured, logical thinking and problem-solving. If they never want to follow the instructions or use things as they are meant to, it probably means they are very creative and independent-minded.

I may be different in what I encourage each twin to do, but the underlying message is always the same – I want to help them to be the best versions of themselves they can be. I don’t want to mould them into something they are not, but that doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from a little encouragement to develop aspects of themselves they wouldn’t think to do on their own. I just must always remember to temper it with an understanding of their underlying nature.

I think it’s impossible to ever disentangle genetics from environment. I am different to each twin because they are different to me, which starts an endless feedback-loop where you no longer know how much is genetics and how much is your response to those genetics. So what do I say when someone asks which of the twins’ traits are nature and which parts are nurture? It probably depends on who’s asking…

Decoding your child’s school day

confused

“We basically did nothing all day.”

I think it’s a fairly universal truth that it is hard work to find out from your children what exactly they have done all day at school. If you do manage to extract something more than a “nothing” or an “I can’t remember”, there can still be obstacles. Here is a fairly typical conversation I had with my daughter when I picked her up from school the other day:

Her: “They said I was ok mummy”

Me: “Who said you were ok?”

Her: “The lady in the office.”

Me: “Why were you in the office?”

Her: “Bailey took me.”

Me: “Why did Bailey take you?”

Her: “Because you take someone with you when you go to the office.”

Me: “But WHY WERE YOU THERE?!?”

Eventually it transpired that she had had a sore throat, but that the “lady in the office” had decided it was mild enough to wait till home time.

A parent’s impression of their child’s school day can be rather nebulous, and so I thought I would share a few techniques I’ve developed to get a bit of a firmer idea of what their school day is like.

1.  Ask the right questions

I can’t emphasise this one enough. If you ask a completely open question like “How was your day?” or “what did you do today?” you are opening yourself up to “fine” and “I can’t remember.” Most children, and some adults too, draw a blank when they are asked such a broad question. They can probably only conjure up what they did in the last couple of minutes, and that’s only with a fairly attentive child. You should only expect answers that are as good as your questions.

2.  Be specific 

Here are some examples of more closed questions that may get you a better answer:

Who did you sit next to at lunch today?

What game did you play at playtime?

Who makes you laugh in your class?

What was your favourite part of today? (A bit open, but sometimes works)

Is there anyone you don’t like to play with?

What book did your teacher read to you today?

If you’re lucky, this will be an opener for a conversation that will end up providing you with a lot more detail. Your child is more likely to remember and recount events when it’s part of a natural conversation.

3.  Ask about what interests them

For a lot of children, this is often playtime! Asking about what spellings they worked on and what they learnt in maths might not be the most scintillating conversation for your child, and they may not make much effort to remember. This may be what you want to find out, but if there is something specific about their learning you want to know, I recommend asking the teacher. So ask about the games they played, who they like to sit next to, who brought the tastiest snack, and who is the cheekiest child. You’ll end up learning a lot about their social groups, and how well they are fitting in.

4.  Do your research

If you do want to know a bit more about what is happening in the classroom, then do a little research on the subject. Find out about the class’s timetable, what themes or activities your children are working on, and which teachers they are working with. Hopefully the school will have already provided you with a lot of this information, but if not, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Then think of specific questions related to it, eg “Did you start your nature picture in art today?” or “which instrument did you play in music?”

5.  If you can, volunteer

This is a great way to have an insider’s view of your child’s school day and to put names to faces. Plus your children will love having you come into the class – it makes them feel very special. Even if you can’t do this regularly, see if you can offer to help on any one-off school or class events.

6.  Don’t believe everything you hear

A teacher once said “if you take what your children tell you about me with a pinch of salt, I’ll take what they say about you with one!” Even the most truthful, honest and intelligent children misinterpret words and actions sometimes. So before you are incensed and ready to give a teacher/other child a piece of your mind over something your child has told you, just breathe and get your facts straight first! It might all be a misunderstanding.

7.  Be prepared for the conversations that come at awkward times

Children have incredible timing. It will be just when you are rushing to get them out the door, or when they have got to bed really late that they come out with something like: “N told me I was mean” or “N made fun of me”. These are the moments when your children are needing your guidance and reassurance, but why couldn’t they have bloody told you at 4pm when you had nowhere to be and you had just asked them how their day had been?!? You can’t control when these issues will pop into your child’s mind, and I feel it’s really important to deal with them when they arise. You can’t recreate these moments at a more convenient time, because their attention will likely have moved on to something else, and the message you wanted to give will be lost.

 ——-

Even with all this effort on your part, you are still likely to get your fair share of “can’t remember” and “nothing”. The fact is you are never going to know everything about your child’s day. Children begin their independent life when they start school, albeit in a very limited and controlled way. They are making their own friends, taking on new responsibilities, and having a life separate from you. This means you should accept that you cannot know everything they are doing. The best you can hope for is to create as many opportunities for natural conversation, and be available when they do want to talk. Try not to get frustrated that they can’t remember the details you would like to know. I know that at the end of a long day when my husband asks how my day has been, my mind draws a blank and I find myself saying “Fine…”

Twins at school – individuals but undivided

 

Friends for life

Friends for life

My twins have recently started a new, much bigger, school and as I went through the enrolment process I was faced for the first time with having to actively choose to keep them in the same class. In the UK, while parents of primary-aged twins are given a choice (school-size permitting), I think the general expectation is that twins will be kept together unless parents say otherwise. I learnt that where we are in the US it is the other way around: after Kindergarten (Reception year) the expectation is that twins will be split up, unless the parents request to the contrary. I did exactly that, but I have to admit that my heart was in my mouth until I had confirmation that they would be kept together.

Having to actively request for them not to be split up felt very strange to me, as I had thought keeping them together would be the default position. I started to feel that somehow I was going against a general consensus that separating twins at six years old is for the best. I had never examined my reasons for keeping them together before, beyond the visceral feeling that my twins have always been together and would be so upset to be separated. I was, however, aware of the arguments for separation: the promotion of independence and self-reliance; the prevention of co-dependence, with each twin only developing half a set of skills; the reduction of competitiveness; the forging of independent friendship groups; and, sometimes, improved behaviour. I know all of these advantages, and understand parents making the choice to split their twins because of them, and yet in my gut I could not bear the thought of splitting them up so young. Was I just being sentimental? Could I not face the reality that eventually my twin babies were going to start leading separate lives from each other? Was I in fact hindering the development of their independence and individuality?

I realised I had to come up with more reasons than “it doesn’t feel right”. (Although, I don’t think that in itself is a bad one!) So after some serious thinking and soul-searching, here are my six advantages for keeping twins together:

  1. Keep it natural

Yes, twins will eventually go their separate ways, and go to different classes, different universities, and, eventually, lead entirely independent lives, albeit with a hopefully close relationship. This is the natural progression, and so it will happen in its own time without the need for its imposition before the twins themselves are ready for it. I don’t believe that keeping twins together makes the separation later all the harder. I think when they reach a certain stage in their development they will choose to do things separately, in the same way as children stop sucking their thumbs and give up their baby blanket; it’s heart-breaking to see them grow up, but reassuring that they are adjusting comfortably to their new stage. Separating twins when they really don’t want it will certainly have an immediate negative effect on their confidence and emotional wellbeing. A gradual transition is gentler, more natural and less traumatic.

  1. Independence starts at home

 Starting school is not the first time I have considered the issue of twins’ independence. When you are a twin parent you learn from the start that promoting self-identity for each twin is very important. You make sure that they have toys that belong to each individually, you make sure they have a bit of individual “mummy” or “daddy” time on occasion, you let them choose activities independently, the list goes on. I am always on the look-out to make sure that just because one twin can do something, it doesn’t mean the other isn’t bothering to learn it. Working the different TV remotes is a good example – my daughter always lets my son do it because it comes naturally to him. I have to remind her to do it herself sometimes, even if she finds it frustrating that it takes her longer. These are things that become so second-nature to twin parents, that I think perhaps those without twins don’t always realise that these are issues we are addressing on a daily basis. The classroom is not the only way they are learning independence.

  1. It needn’t be extreme

 Having been a teacher, I know there are many opportunities to allow children to be independent from each other while still in the same class. In time they can be in different groups within the class for certain activities, or sit at different tables, or be assigned different tasks. And they can also attend different afterschool clubs and activities. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

  1. Being a twin is a fact of life

Twins are going to be twins for life, long after they are finished with school. Their experience of life is always going to be a twin one, ie; they will always have shared experiences that go beyond that of just a ‘normal’ sibling. They share the same age, the same birthday, the same parents, the same childhood experiences, and often the same friends. And this will carry on to a lesser extent throughout their lives. Twins have to forge out their own independence in the face of such similarities and shared experience, and it is something that can be done whether or not they are also sharing a class. There is an important value in learning to be individuals while they are together, and not just when they are apart from each other.

  1. Logistics

Aside from the psychological and emotional aspects to this issue, there is also a logistical one. Schools are not set up for you to have two children in the same year but different classes, therefore every school event, parents’ evening, and school trip is going to involve clashes and difficulties, where you are supposed to be in two different places at once. There is also an advantage to the teacher knowing and understanding the dynamic between both children, as it leads to a greater understanding of them. There is continuity for the children, and the parents, where they have the same set of rules and expectations from the teacher. And, if you are lucky with your teacher, any ‘twin’ issues or co-dependence or competitiveness can be dealt with sensitively and effectively within the classroom.

  1. Enjoy the advantages

I think sometimes there is a feeling that twins should be separated at school because that is the experience that other children have. Singletons must face going to school alone, whereas twins are at an advantage because they have a ready-made friend and ally in their class. And this is absolutely true, it is an advantage, and there’s nothing wrong with that! That is an absolute perk of being a twin parent – you know that your children are not going to be lonely, that they will have someone looking out for them. Yes, they may stick together a lot at the beginning, but my two have always made friends with others, and played independently from each other once they feel settled in to a new place. The experience is just less traumatic for them, and I am deeply grateful for that. Lord knows there have been a lot of times when having twins has made life harder in the past (like no sleep for two years!), so I’m going to take the pros where I can get them!

Being a twin is a unique experience, both at school and far beyond that. To try to make their experience in line with everybody else is futile, as it never will nor should it be. Eventually they will grow up and lead separate lives, but in the meantime they are creating precious shared memories that will last a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONFESSION

Naughty or nice?

Naughty or nice?

I am going to admit to something that is taboo for a grown-up to say. Especially for one who has been a teacher and professes to love children. But here it goes: There are some kids I just don’t like. I know that sounds mean; how can I dislike a small child? But when I became a teacher I learnt that children are smaller versions of grown-ups: some you love, some you think are OK, and there are just a couple you really have an aversion to. (The trick is not to show it of course!)

It was brought home to me the other day when my daughter told me something that had upset her at school. This is a new school for her, and her first time in a proper big school, having only attended a small Montessori until now. She has settled in amazingly well, and is so eager to please her teacher. She was working hard on making a pattern with coloured wooden shapes, and a boy threw something at her work. She asked him to stop, but then he did it again and upset all the shapes and the pattern she had been making, and there was no time to start again. I asked if she had told the teacher, which she had, and the teacher had told the boy off, so at least I knew it had been dealt with.

She was obviously upset by the fact he had ruined what she had been working on so hard, but what mostly had upset her was the fact that he had seemed so pleased about it. She told me, “He looked happy that he had damaged it and upset me, mummy.” She was so confused by this idea. I could feel my inner protective-lioness creeping up. Just who was this beast-child? I wanted to go and tell him exactly what I thought of him. There is nothing like upsetting my child to bring about my taboo-hatred. Here was my sweet little girl with nothing but kindness and generosity in her heart, being exposed to deliberate meanness. She just could not understand why someone would derive pleasure from upsetting another person. To be honest, I’m a grown-up and I still don’t get it. I felt a little chink of her innocence being taken away.

Up till now I’ve always tried to explain naughty behaviour in other kids as having a cause – either they want attention, or they are tired, or they have got into bad habits. Just because someone does something you don’t like, it doesn’t mean you should stop liking them. But what about those people who just get a kick out of annoying others? Children often start out pretty self-centred, and generally have to be taught compassion and sympathy. But we all know adults that don’t ever develop it, and they were all children once.

You know when you send your children to school that you are letting them into the world without you, to fend for themselves in that brutal social jungle called the playground. This won’t be the last time my daughter has to cope with someone behaving in a way that upsets her. We all have to learn that while we shouldn’t put up with people being mean, it’s something everybody experiences from time to time. I have to teach her that it’s perfectly reasonable to be upset by that behaviour, and to tell the teacher, but that at the same time some kids are just like that, and to try to concentrate on the good things that happened at school.

This was a small incident of course, but it played on my mind how I should approach teaching my children to cope with unpleasant behaviour in others. Finding the balance between being patient and compassionate of others’ bad behaviour, while not accepting being a victim of it, is a tricky business. I try to teach them to find the good in people, and look for what may be provoking the less desirable traits; the “even good people do bad things” approach. I think it makes for a much more tolerant society if we do. But I also have a responsibility to teach them that there are some people you are just not going to like, and that is perfectly normal. That’s how we feel as adults, and so we should expect no differently of our children. It’s just important to ensure they know how to draw that distinction, and not be overly accepting, nor overly intolerant.

Of course that applies to me too. And I like to I think I’m pretty clear on how I draw my distinctions, as a few days later I intervene when my son is upset with my daughter: It turns out she was gleefully breaking up a sand pile he had been making. “What are you doing?” I say. “You know that was upsetting him. Why would you do that when you wouldn’t like it done to you?” “Oh, sorry Mummy.” She says, chastised. A time-out ensues. “Ah well,” I think to myself. “She must be over-tired…”

Balloon Mortality

Tick-tock

I think I am not the only parent who slightly dreads their children being given balloons at a party. This was especially true when mine were toddlers. I knew eventually the tears would come, either because of the loud bang of its bursting, or the disbelief that what had once been a beautiful brightly-coloured, round play-thing had suddenly been reduced to a limp rag. Usually both. I used to be sorely tempted to try to avoid the situation entirely, and not bring home balloons after parties, as I did get a bit fed up with the rigmarole, to be honest. But then I had an epiphany: balloons are often a child’s first introduction to mortality.

We all know children have to learn this lesson eventually: nothing lasts forever. But it’s a hard lesson to accept, whether you are a child or an adult. And nothing teaches it quite so simply or eloquently as a balloon. There is no escape from balloon grief! Either they are plucked in their prime with a dramatic “pop”, slowly deflate and wrinkle to a soft mass, or ascend directly to the heavens.  Either way, the ephemeral life of a balloon is something every child has to face. And perhaps how we deal with our child’s disappointment may be telling about our own approach dealing with certain of life’s unpleasant inevitabilities.

I realised the way in which I reacted to my children’s distress may well affect how they cope with that concept in the future. My first impulse was denial and avoidance; let’s try not to have too many balloons, and prevent the upset. But then that denies children the pure, unadulterated joy of a maddeningly lightweight ticking-time-bomb-ball. Plus it turns you into a meanie. And, besides, you are really only delaying the lesson. Yes, it may all end in tears, but it’s mighty fun until then.

Another approach we can have as parents is to say “don’t worry, I’ll get you another balloon.” Bearing in mind my analogy, I’m not sure this is the best message to give! After all, balloon bereavement needs a little grieving time… I also think that it’s important for children to realise that they can have a lot of fun with something, and that it has to come to an end. I’m really not trying to be a spoilsport here, but I think we can make a rod for our own backs if we try to prevent the inevitable disappointment. Regularly providing an immediate replacement for the lost balloon doesn’t allow your child to be consoled some other way; a cuddle, a different toy, playing a game. Before you know it, they will be expecting you to resolve any disappointment and provide them with a substitute. They won’t learn how to cope with it another way.

As children grow this is a message that will have to be repeated in a variety of contexts – the end of a party, a broken toy, a good friend moving away. And, of course, that first introduction to death, whether it (hopefully) comes in the form of withered plants, dead insects, or the loss of a pet. The message remains the same, even if the degree of sadness may vary considerably. You can’t protect your children from unhappy events, or disappointing outcomes, but you can teach them how to handle them.

So perhaps what parents have to do is learn to accept our child’s reaction. They will have balloons. Those balloons will expire and your child will be upset. Just go with it, sympathise with them, explain the laws of balloons. And then try to distract them with something else. It is still just a balloon after all.