The Flood

Owen has been paying attention to the warnings about climate change. Well, he’s been paying attention in a six-year-old’s way, where imagination fills in about 80% of the holes in his understanding. When the Paris Conference was on, he heard stories about sea levels rising and flooding. In his mind, what climate change will do is cause floods. Our house is way up on a hill, and we live really far from the ocean (as Duncan daily laments). It would take catastrophic upheavals in our planet for our house or village to flood (I am pretty sure no humans would still be around). Nevertheless, Owen and some of his willing friends have decided that they have to stop the flood. It has become the theme of virtually all of his school-time play (I mean work, as he constantly corrects me).

Owen no longer wants play dates. He needs work dates. His best friend arrives with supplies and ideas. Together, they draw plans of drains and tunnels. They construct prototypes out of toilet paper rolls and tape. Owen took one of my notebooks with him to school. His hands are now red and chapped from working in -10 weather… I have now forbidden him from taking it outside at recess. “Sorry Mummy.”

His friendships are confirmed by who does and does not believe in the flood. There were five of them before Christmas. Now there are just four. “It’s not a quarter of the class anymore!” Is my son a cult leader?

But Owen and his most loyal friend have found the source of the flood. It’s the Thames, in London. They came up with plans to drain the Thames… and then all the oceans… until they realized that they would hurt the sea creatures. So it is back to the drawing board.

I am frankly not sure whether to be pleased that he is taking an interest in the survival of the planet or dismayed that his play has become so apocalyptic. Did I play nuclear war when I was six? Is this how children deal with fear? Or is it just constructive imaginations playing, working out solutions that the rest of us don’t want to hear?

 

Bothering with Words

I am currently taking an online creative writing class, taught by Alice Bradley (of Finslippy). Our assignment for the weekend was to pay attention to conversations, so that we can get better at writing dialogue. I never got to a coffee shop to eavesdrop, but I did get some choice snippets from Owen, who speaks incessantly.

1. This morning, 6:15 am:

“Mummy, remember when Layla slept over?”

Confused, groggy, half asleep: “Layla has never slept over.”

(Then I remember: the last time she was here, Owen had a nap and Layla played by herself – that’s likely what he meant.)

“Yes she did. And remember when we had a fire and we were so good and did not touch the fire.”

“I do.”

“Because fire is hot. And I did not touch the fire and Layla did not touch the fire. We did not touch that fire.”

“No.”

“Because you can never touch a fire.” Wags his index finger. LONG pause. “Never.”

2. Breakfast, 7:40 am:

“Owen, after breakfast, are you going to help us fix the sink?”

“Yes, I will. We have to plumb the sink because it’s leaky.”

“Plumb the sink. That’s good!”

Duncan and I go off on a tangent about plumbing, plomberie, Latin, and lead pipes. We’re so fascinated with words, us two.

“I am going to get my screwdriver and plumb the leaky sink. Because the sink is leaky. And we can’t have a leaky sink. So we have to plumb it.”

(Do you see how his conversations go round and round in the same circles? He is nothing if not thorough).

3. Later, at the toy store, 12:15 pm:

Owen is playing trains.

“What’s the name of this engine?”

I read the bottom of the train: “Colley”

“No. It’s Coffey.”

“No, Owen, it really is Colley. Look. Those are Ls.”

“Well on Chuggington, it’s Coffey.”

“OK, but it says Colley on that train engine.”

“Mummy, stop it. You’re bothering my words. You have to stop bothering my words. It’s Coffey.”

It is not worth the bother to argue with a three-year-old, I decide. I stop bothering his words, but I repeat them in my head, over and over, because his words, his sentences, his ideas – they are absolutely worth bothering to remember and record.

If You Can’t Think of Anything Nice to Say…

In addition to being opinionated about people’s underwear, Owen has also started making untoward personal comments, which we really must nip in the bud. I know that I put my own mother on the spot a couple of times when I was small. She passed these stories on to me because they marked her.

The first story relates to my cultural ignorance. I was living in a rural, very white, environment and, as a consequence, was unfamiliar with differences in skin colour. So when I saw a black man on the bus, I asked him, quite earnestly, if he was made of chocolate. As my mother reports it, the man replied, oh-so-graciously, that yes, he was, and that I was made of vanilla, with just a touch of strawberry (pinching my round cheek). My mother, made of  (very red) beets, was horrified and relieved, in good measure. As she points out whenever she tells the story, the situation could well have gone sour, as in the next example.

Again on the bus, this time I spied a man with fairly severe acne on his face. I asked my mother, in a very loud, chirpy, toddler voice, why the man had polka dots all over his face. Humiliated, the man reddened and got off the bus at the next stop. My mother is still telling this story, decades later, because this incident shows how innocence can wound, as well as heal.

Owen has not wounded anyone yet, but he has made some very unfortunate comments lately.

The other day, when we were visiting an elderly relative, he took her hand to say goodbye. As he did so, he turned to me and said, “I don’t want my hand to get wrinkly like that.”

Luckily, the relative didn’t seem too offended. We all explained that wrinkles happen to all of us eventually, but that he doesn’t need to worry about them for a long time.

We were relieved that she had not overheard the questions about why she wears diapers, even though she’s a grown-up.

Then this morning, as I was dropping Owen off at daycare, one of the other mothers came up to me and told me that the other day, Owen had told her that he didn’t like the mole she had on her face. He asked if it would go away soon, and how she got it. Again, this mother was lovely about it, possibly because she understands the brutal honesty of children.

Still, I left the daycare with a sinking feeling that I need to deal with this “honesty” before Owen does manage to hurt someone with his idle chatter.

I would love to hear your suggestions on this one. I am not sure how to approach the issue without making a mess of it.

I Don’t Want to See Your Underwear.

Owen still needs “help” going to the bathroom. When I say “help,” I really mean company.  He likes to have conversations about what particular foods that he’s eaten have made their way through his body. And tell me how much he loves me. I’d really rather not be in the bathroom with him, though left to his own devices, he sometimes leaves puddles on the floor. The other day, Duncan and I listened as Owen (by himself) peed, flushed, and washed his hands (with soap) unprompted. We high-fived each other, as if to say, good job for raising an independent child! We were so proud. And then later, I sat down on the toilet  to realize that it was very, very wet. Oh well.

Despite Owen’s desire for company in the bathroom, he is starting to realize the connection between the bathroom and the need for privacy. When he was smaller, I would bring him in the bathroom with me to keep my eye on him, but now I try to get away completely and, you know, close the door. More often than not, I will soon hear the door handle turn, and a little face appear.

“What are you doing?”

“Go away. I want some privacy.”

“Are you peeing?”

“Yes. Go play.”

I was so glad, beyond glad, to put my body AWAY after childbirth, after breastfeeding. I was so happy to be able to keep my clothes on in public all day long. Small blessings. Owen’s interruptions seem to be the last hurdle in getting back some measure of dignity. It will come.

Meanwhile, Owen has developed odd moments of shyness. At the swimming pool last week, he insisted on putting his underwear back on when emerging from the bathroom stall, even though he was going to put his bathing suit on as soon as we got back to our locker. Then, with the bathing suit on, he covered his belly button with his hand, saying “I don’t want to show people my belly.” I had to show him that all of the boys were topless, too.

The other morning, Duncan got out of bed, wearing a T-shirt and underwear. As he was walking around, looking for some pants to put on, Owen chimed in: “Daddy! Put some pants on. I don’t want to see your underwear! You have to wear pants if you want to have breakfast.”

This is the child who runs around the house before his bath, shrieking, “I’m naked! I’m a naked boy in your bed! I’m a naked boy in the hall!” He even said goodbye to one of our friends with a naked-boy dance/hug.

In any case, I hold out some hope that for Owen, as well as for myself, the day will come when modesty will prevail.

The Story of “NO”

The idea for this post was suggested to me by my friend Alice in early October. She had noticed that in many books she was reading to her daughter, the word NO, or the denial of permission, was used as a plot device. Alice mentioned Robert Munsch’s use of “No,” NNNNno,” and “Nononononono” as a device in many of his stories.

I didn’t know what to do with this idea when she proposed it to me. I suggested that she write a guest post, but I suppose that, given that she was working full-time, AND in her third trimester with her second child, AND the mother of a busy a one-year old, she just didn’t have the time.

Anyway, I’ve been mulling over this idea ever since, and these are the musings I have come up with.

This is what one Robert Munsch story (Thomas’ Snowsuit) would look like without the word “No.”

One day, Thomas’ mother got him a nice, new, brown snowsuit. And when Thomas saw that snowsuit, he said, “That is the ugliest thing I have seen in my life.” But he put it on anyway. THE END.

See? No story at all. This is the story of my life, by the way. “Oh no! – Not the lavender store-brand running shoes with velcro fastenings from Kmart! But I have no others… so I will wear them.” THE END.

What is no, and why do toddlers make such copious use of it? No is an assertion of selfhood, right? When you’re a baby, you do whatever is done to you. You eat the food that comes at you, you wear the itchy sweater that your Auntie Matilda made for you. But when you get a bit older, you realize that there is this powerful word that makes grown-ups stop. No.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to wear the sweater, but it means that (if you’re lucky) the grown-ups will give you reasons to wear it. “Put this sweater on. It’s cold outside” or “Put this sweater on and smile for the camera so we can send Aunt Matilda a picture. You can take it off as soon as you’ve taken this picture. I promise.”

“NO” doesn’t mean that you don’t have to eat your broccoli, but it does mean that grown-ups may find creative ways to encourage you to eat it. They might tell you that you can be a giraffe. They might start telling you how delicious it tastes with cheese sauce. Or, if you live in my house, you might be told that it’s OK not to eat the broccoli, but if you don’t, you MIGHT get scurvy. And that would really be too bad. Because then your teeth would fall out…

What I am saying, I guess, is that the word “No” becomes the basis for an explanation, and also for a story. “No” inspires persuasion, tall tales, narratives.

Obedient children make boring characters, too. Here, for example, is the story of Peter Rabbit‘s sisters.

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail lived with their mother under the root of a very large fir tree. One day, their mother said “I’m going out. You may play in the meadow or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr McGregor’s garden. Your father had an accident there. He was made into a pie by Mrs McGregor.”* Their mother took her basket and went to do her shopping. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail went down the lane and gathered blackberries. When their mother returned, they had bread, and milk, and blackberries for supper. THE END.

*Now there’s a story…

Peter Rabbit doesn’t say “No” to his mother, but his disobedience is a willful negation of his mother’s wishes. His disobedience is the story. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail’s story might be the moral, but it isn’t interesting. Readers might want to be the good sisters, eating their delicious meal at the end of the day, but they don’t want to read about them.

Many parents (including myself) would doubtless like to shut down the “No” emerging from their children’s mouths. We’d love to have angelic faces beaming, with “Yes” emerging from cherubic lips. But that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? And there would be precious few stories to share.

Syndicated on BlogHer.com

Barbies and Other Myths

The other morning at breakfast, Owen said something about Barbies. I forget the context. I just remember stopping, because we don’t have any Barbies here and they seem a bit mature for anyone in his daycare class to be playing with.

I said, “What’s a Barbie, Owen?”

Wait for it:

“A Barbie is a mermaid what doesn’t have a fishy tail.”

And of course when I heard that definition, I thought: how perfect. In Owen’s world, most of the women are mothers, looking very little like Barbies. Fashionistas and models just aren’t on his radar. But mermaids are, I guess, thanks to books like the pirate one we were reading.

Then later that day, at daycare, Owen picked up a stray mermaid from one of his friends’ cubbies.

“Why she no have any feet, Mummy?”

I liked that, too. Didn’t someone do a study that showed that, anatomically, Barbies wouldn’t be able to stand?

Of course, whenever I see a Barbie, I am transported back to my own childhood, when a Barbie was the first toy I ever bought with my own money, a forbidden toy for a bunch of reasons, including child labour and unnatural foot to hip ratio.

But once I had a Barbie, or several, I played with them not in the way that my mother expected, or feared, but I translated them into the heroines of my imagination. They became pioneer Barbies, an odd hybrid of Scarlett O’Hara and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Or they would be consumptive Barbies, coughing up blood on a lonely cot by the wood stove. Looking back, it is no wonder to me that I ended up spending ridiculous amounts of time studying women in the nineteenth century.

It’s reassuring to me, somehow, that for all the millions (billions?) of dollars Mattel has spent over the years advertising Barbies, their cars, their houses, and their lifestyles, for most of us, it’s just a doll.

What’s a Barbie? Like so many toys: a blank canvas on which to project our own world views. And on some level, I think Owen’s interpretation is the best one I’ve ever heard. A Barbie IS like a mermaid without a tail, on so many levels. That’s why she casts her Siren’s spell on so many children. She’s a mythical woman, desirable and unattainable. And it also explains why her feet must hurt to walk on.

Terrible Mother

Owen and I didn’t get along so well this weekend. I think we spent too much time together. He clings to me, can’t be without me, sits on me, suffocates me. I can’t read a book, it seems, without his leg being on top of mine, or his elbow on my shoulder, and sometimes it’s marvellous, and other times it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s even painful.

The other night he crawled into our bed at 12:30am. I can handle it when he crawls in at 4:30. But at 12:30, when I know I have a whole night ahead of me, I can’t. Or, at least, couldn’t. I told him he’d have to go back to bed.

“No!”

I led him there. Sang to him. Tucked him in. He reads my falseness, I am sure. I was fairly sincere in wishing him sweet dreams, but I was secretly dreading that he would be up again, which of course he was.

“Fine, I said. If you’re sleeping here, I’m sleeping downstairs.” Mature, no?

“Fine. You sleep downstairs,” said Owen.

Fifteen minutes later, I heard his footsteps on the stairs. His small person stood, slightly belligerently, before me.

“Go back to bed.”

“No!”

“I came here so I could sleep, Owen. Go back and sleep with Daddy.”

“But I want to sleep with you. You can make me a pocket” (We make a pocket sometimes for Saturday morning cartoons).

“No. Go back to bed.” (Do I need to add that I knew how ineffective I was being?)

“No! If I can’t sleep with you, I’ll sleep on the chair. I want to be with you.”

Then my heart broke a little. Terrible mother, terrible mother, my inner voice muttered. The boy wants to be with you, always. How is that a problem? Except that it is.

Long story short, after an hour of wrangling, Owen ended up in the bed between us.

He was as sweet as honey the next morning. “Mummy, I like your shirt!”

I was still begrudging. I told him that tonight, he would have to sleep in his own bed.

“OK, Mummy. I will.”

When I am in a good mood, discipline is easy and Owen does what I want, more or less. When I am in a bad mood, I parent badly. I lack patience and he knows it. Even if I think I am acting even tempered, he senses my short fuses and tries to trip them. He sees that I am rushing him into bed. He knows that I have no time for him. And it is precisely when I have no time for him that he wants my time. It makes sense.

At nap time (the second or third time I am trying to get him into bed) I have been known to say “I don’t want to see you until you wake up from your nap.”

Owen has responded, hurt: “Why you no want to see me? You don’t want me?”

And I do want him. And I spend his nap wracked with guilt for ruining his childhood.

However.

Sometimes I do need a little space.

A Couple of Whiles

Owen is grappling, fiercely, with time.

– Will I be four tomorrow?

– No, you won’t be four until June. You’d better enjoy being three.

– Will I be four at Christmas?

– No.

– When is Christmas?

– In December. It’s next month. Right now it’s November.

-Oh.

***

3:00 am

– (whispers) Is it Christmas today?

– No. Go back to sleep. (He does)

***

Morning, discovering Owen in our bed:

– How long have you been here?

– Oh, just a couple of whiles.

***

– Mummy, when I grow up I want to be an Instruction Worker and fix bridges. All the bridges what are broken I will fix fix fix and people will be so happy when their bridges aren’t broken. Isn’t that a good idea, Mummy?

-When will you be grown up, Owen?

– In one hundred weeks.

– That’s a lot. You’ll be five in one hundred weeks. Can you count to a hundred?

– Oh, no, Mummy.

***

Are all children in such a  hurry to grow up? Owen gets furious if we call him a baby (I don’t, but Duncan loves to provoke him, and after baths picks him up like a kicking, yelling, 50-pound “baby”). He even gets mad if anyone says he’s cute. “I’m not cute. I’m not a baby. I’m big.” And he is big, no question.

Still, I wish he’d slow down a little on his road to maturity – at least for a couple of whiles.