4

Playing with Danger

 

“One thing that I really love about Papi,” middle son suddenly remarked the other day, “is that he lets us do really dangerous things…”

For those of you unfamiliar with Papi, he is the children’s paternal grandfather. And for those of you familiar with Papi, you will know that my son wasn’t lying.

Even in his seventies Papi loves living life on the edge. He likes testing the boundaries. He loves arguing with authority. And he is a firm believer that children nowadays – including his own grandchildren – need more danger in their lives so they can be in control of the environment around them, rather than the other way round.

When I say danger, I’m not talking about getting my children to run across railway tracks in front of intercity trains or teaching them how to jump off sheer cliffs. (Although he did once carry daughter – aged about four at the time – across a dual carriageway, and only admitted it to me when daughter told on him. He claimed their car had been stuck in a traffic jam on one side, it was a boiling hot day, she was desperate for a drink, and as there was a cafe on the other side of the dual carriageway it seemed the most sensible thing to do at the time).

But I am talking about things like teaching them how to use a chainsaw to cut garden hedges, encouraging them to try out new science experiments which involve very dodgy chemicals, putting up high scaffolding in the garden for them to climb on, and lighting great big bonfires with them.

I do get where he is coming from. I do get that children often aren’t allowed the time and freedom just to be kids. I do get that we wrap them up in far too much cotton wool and that everything we do in our world is subjected to risk assessments and safety regulations.

And I also get that mastery actually minimises danger. That most of us learn to walk without toppling over at a very young age so walking is no longer dangerous. That our parents teach us to climb stairs so we can then negotiate them safely. That they drag us to swimming lessons week after week so we know how to be safe in water.

But it’s the next bit that I struggle with. When learning to walk is replaced with learning to walk across a busy main road on your own, when learning how to climb stairs is replaced with learning how to climb onto a roof with an extra long ladder to retrieve your football. When learning to swim in the shallow, local swimming pool is replaced with kayaking on the local river or open sea.

I dread it when these situations arise (and it’s happening more and more). I dread it even though my head tells me my children are learning vital lessons for life, that they need to learn how to navigate the big, bad world and in so doing, understand which risks are worth taking and which aren’t.

Perhaps I spent too much time in my life as a reporter writing stories about nasty accidents involving children, knocking on the doors of distraught relatives. Perhaps it’s just in my make-up to immediately fear the worst when it comes to potentially dangerous situations the children might find themselves in – whether it be climbing a tree, crossing the road alone, or even a teenager attending a house party where I know there will be alcohol, goodness knows what else, and perhaps no parents around. Perhaps I fear how other people might judge me if something did go wrong, branding me one of those ‘irreponsible parents’. Or perhaps it’s all rather more practical and selfish – that I really don’t want to be spending my life in A and E, waiting for another of my offspring to be glued together or patched up.

But there’s no getting away from it. I have four lively children, three of them boisterous boys who always want to be exploring the great outdoors and trying out new things, and a daughter who insisted on abseiling down a church tower at the age of ten. That, alongside a Papi who won’t accept no for an answer, and I don’t have much of a choice but to let them get at least a sniff of danger.

So I mostly have to take a big deep breath, trust they’ll be OK, and remember that at their age I was out roaming our village with friends for hours at a time, exploring the local quarry blissfully unaware of the dangers lurking just beneath the ground, and walking home from brownies in the pitch black on my own.

It’s Papi on the phone. We’re spending a few days with him and the children’s grandmother, Madouce, during the Easter break.

Might be time for one of those deep breaths.

“Really looking forward to your visit”, he says in his usual loving, cheerful but matter-of-fact way. “That large hedge needs a really good cut. Tell the children we’ll definitely have to use the chainsaw for that one. And there’s a big bonfire at the bottom of the garden ready for them to light…”

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6

The chosen one?

 

“He’s going to be Joseph in the nativity play,” one of the lovely Reception staff told me as I picked teeniest up from school.

“Joseph”, I gasped, struggling to take the momentous news in. “JOSEPH?”

My youngest son was not going to be the usual sheep. Or goat. Or even donkey. During his first year at big school he had been picked to be someone a tiny bit special. Joseph.

In one split second all the trials and tribulations which go hand-in-hand with being a mum in the run-up to Christmas suddenly seemed to disappear…

All those hours spent surfing the internet for Christmas presents, and then the franctic regoogling when discovering the precious item I was after was out of stock.

All those trips to and from the Post Office to collect packages which hadn’t been delivered because I was out (Christmas shopping again, this time for things I couldn’t find on the internet), and the chase-up emails and calls to companies when parcels failed to arrive.

All those vain attempts to reason with a five-year-old who had decided to write a card to every child in his class of 30. Trying to persuade him that perhaps for sake of speed I could at least write the names on the envelopes. And then realising that the reason he wanted to send them in the first place was not because he wanted to wish his classmates a happy Christmas at all, but rather because he then got to post the cards in the class post box.

All that time patiently listening to middle son present me with all the evidence he had collected to prove Father Christmas does not exist. Since bravely announcing in October that he didn’t believe in Santa any more, he had spent hours doing extensive calculations based on the number of children in the world, distances, travel speeds, numbers of chimneys etc to back up his theory. Funnily enough though, his trump card was more simple. The fact that he had noticed the labels on his presents are always written in my handwriting.

All those arguments on where the Christmas tree was going to stand in our new house. Previously every decoration, every piece of tinsel, had its own place year after year, with no discussion needed. But in our new surroundings, the tree and all its lights and decorations had to be moved three times before finding a final resting place everyone was sort of happy with.

But now.

Did I care about present buying? Did I care about cards, written or unwritten? Did I care about family arguments over where the Christmas tree was going to stand?

Suddenly all this became mere trivia, mere pish-posh.

My child had been chosen to be the one and only Joseph in the nativity play. And I was feeling like the proudest mummy in the whole wide world.

My load suddenly lighter, I skipped through the Reception playground, teeniest staring at me quizzically.

“Tell him not to worry about his part”, I heard the teacher shout as I headed for the school gates.

“We’ve decided to have four Marys in the play this year. So there will be four Josephs as well…”

A big thank you to everyone who reads mumtwothreefour and gives me encouragement and support. I wish you all a very happy Christmas with your lovely families. And a special thought for Aunty Mary who always liked listening to how the children were getting on in their lives.

2

Welcome back, school mornings!

The new school year is upon us. But after a summer of relaxed mornings, am I the only one left wondering how on earth I am going to get everyone ready for school and out of the house on time?
My older children sort themselves out. They have to – their school bus waits for no-one. But if other households are like ours, here are some of the reasons parents with younger children might find it hard to get everyone out of the front door as they try to get used to school mornings again.
1. ALARM CLOCK DOESN’T GO OFF Either you were so tired when you went to bed that you forgot to switch it on – or more likely little fingers have been fiddling with the buttons again and set the alarm to go off at the wrong time.
2. READING RECORD MYSTERIOUSLY VANISHES You listened to your child read the night before, but forgot to sign the reading record. And now the reading record isn’t where it should be in the bookbag…or anywhere else in the house. Aghhhhh!
3. I FEEL SICK! – Your child wakes up complaining they feel sick. They look slightly off-colour, but they manage to eat a bit of breakfast and don’t actually seem too poorly. You’ve got to go to work, or have an important appointment you don’t want to cancel. You spend the next hour deliberating whether to send them to school or not, instead of concentrating on getting the children ready, yourself ready, and the bags packed.
4. DRINK SPILLAGE AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE Just as you thought things were going well, one of the children spills a glass of orange juice all over the kitchen table AND their school uniform. It’s going to need lots of frantic mopping up, both of clothes and the table.
5. LOST SHOE How is it possible a child can come home wearing two shoes the night before, but is only able to find one of them the next morning? Looking under the sofa is always a good starting point in our house for finding it.
6. NATURE CALLS! You’re about to walk out of the front door when your child suddenly announces they need the toilet NOW! You feel completely helpless. It’s difficult to shout at them, but you know you could be waiting some time…
7. WHAT’S THE WEATHER DOING? Typical! School starts and the sun comes out again. The forecast says it is going to be a hot day and you really ought to put a bit of suncream on your child. You search high and low for the bottle, and when you eventually find it you then have to chase the unwilling individual around the house trying to apply it. In winter, defrosting the car windscreen or finding suitable gloves and scarves could well be the thing to slow you down.
8. I NEED MONEY! Why is that school cake sale always on a day when you have no money in your purse? There simply isn’t time to stop at the cashpoint, but even if there was that would be no good as you can’t possibly give your child a ten pound note to take into school.
9. THE PHONE RINGS You’ve horribly late. You’ve just about got everyone out of the door when… the phone rings. You spend precious seconds deciding whether to pick it up or not, by which time everyone has come back into the house to see what is going on and you need to usher them out all over again.
10. NON SCHOOL UNIFORM DAY You’ve actually made it out of the house for once! You’re nearly at school but something doesn’t feel quite right. You suddenly realise that all the other children heading to school are in home clothes, while your little treasure is looking very out of place in their school uniform. Time for quick decisions. Do you risk being late by turning round and going home to change their clothes, or carry on to the school gate knowing that they may feel miserable all day as they are the only one in their class wearing school uniform?

*Please feel free to add your own reasons for morning panics – it’ll make me feel better!

4

Girls ahead of the pack?

“We need to think about packing”, I tell the family about a week before we go on our summer holiday.
“But packing’s so boring”, says middle son, yawning. “All I need to take are my loom bands, my DS and my book of ‘One Thousand Science Facts’. Done.”
“And what exactly are you going to wear for two weeks?” I reply. “Your book of ‘One Thousand Science Facts’ won’t help you much in the swimming pool, that’s for sure.”
“Why do we have to pack so early anyway?” grumbles teenager. “It’s not like we’re going away tomorrow. And anyway we don’t do need to take much. We’re only going on holiday.”
“No”, I reply as calmly as I can. “You’re right. We’re not going away tomorrow. But you know how I hate leaving everything until the last minute. And you’ll be surprised what you need for a two week holiday.”
“I’ll pack”, pipes up teeniest, who for several days now has been strutting around the house in his new Spider Man armbands and swimming trunks, just in case the holiday swimming begins before we’ve even left the house and got on the plane. “Can we get the suitcases out of the loft straight now?”
An hour and a half later. Suitcases are out of the loft. So are last year’s Christmas decorations, a basket of old toys the children thought they might like to reacquaint themselves with, a camera tripod which teenager has taken a fancy to and a box of school clothes which will fit middle son very nicely in September.
A few days later.
Teeniest’s suitcase contains Spider Man armbands which we finally persuaded him to take off, swimming trunks and a pile of Christmas decorations. I might have to pack for him – he’s only four after all.
Middle son’s consists of loom bands, DS, book of ‘One Thousand Science Facts’, swimming trunks and a pair of goggles. I might have to give him a hand too. All he’s thinking about is weighing his case to check the airline luggage weight restriction.
Teenager’s is empty – along with husbands. No help on offer here I’m afraid.
Daughter’s is overflowing. Clothes, sandals, toiletries, make-up. She’ll have to lay everything on her bed then cut it by half.
Mine’s nearly done. Clothes for hot weather, clothes for cold weather. Clothes for dry weather, clothes for wet weather. Shoes for walking. Shoes for going out. Shoes for the poolside. Medicines for temperatures. Medicines for insect bites. Medicines for dodgy tummies. Swimming towels and extra swimming towels. Washing powder (new ones might react with our skin), suncreams and of course English teabags… Lucky I’ve got the biggest suitcase. You never know what you might need.
Night before we go on holiday. We’re all finally packed. Teenager took about ten minutes. Beat husband by a whisker.
Just time for middle son to check the 20kg airline weight limit per suitcase.
Husband’s and boys’ suitcases are well under. Daughter’s is fine now too, surprisingly. But mine’s over. Damn.
“Told you we shouldn’t pack much”, says teenager.

2

First time at the flicks…

“Would you like to go to the cinema?” I ask teeniest, having spotted a great new children’s film about to show at our small town theatre.
“Will there be trains there? Or cars?” he replies excitedly. I suddenly realise that we haven’t ever taken him to the cinema before and so he has no idea what it actually is!
“No, no trains or cars”, I say with a smile. “Going to the cinema is a bit like watching a film on television, only the screen is much bigger.”
“Oh”, says teeniest, brain whirring.
“You usually get treats at the cinema as well”, I add. “Drinks, sweets, popcorn – things like that.”
“OK. I’ll go”, he replies immediately, rushing into the hall to look for his shoes. “Can we go straight now?”…

Three sleeps later and it’s cinema day.
“You said there was a big TV”, whines teeniest when we get to the auditorium. All he can see is dark red curtains which are hiding the screen.
“You’ll see it in a minute”, I say, trying to find our seats. As soon as we sit down, he’s up again. He’s found that banging the seat down as hard as you can, then watching it bounce up again is a great game.
Curtains open, lights dim and the trailers start.
“Who’s got the TV remote?”, teeniest shouts, as he kneels on his seat and peers around the cinema in the dark to try and find the lucky person.
“No-one, darling”, I whisper, trying desperately to get him to sit down again and be quiet. “There’s a man at the back who projects the film onto the screen. Now let’s just watch the trailers”.
“Trailers”, he repeats incredulously, standing up again. “Why didn’t you say there were tractors here? You said there were no cars…”

Film eventually starts. Teeniest starts fidgeting. I think he’s still looking for the man with the TV remote. Then he says he needs a wee, so we dash to the toilet.
Half an hour passes. I try to get into the film.
Teeniest, meanwhile:
* Munches noisly on a bag of crisps
*Sucks furiously on a drink carton straw, making slurpy noises just as the film gets to a quiet scene
*Says he needs a wee again (I realise he’s taken a liking to the handdryer in the ladies)
*Gets glared at by the grown up in front whose seat he has been continuously kicking
*Starts searching through my handbag for a red toy car that he insists he brought with him and has to play with NOW.
Once again I try to ignore him. The film is getting to a good bit. I know it’s a children’s film but even I am quite gripped.
“Mummy.” Teeniest starts prodding me again.
“Mummy,” he announces loudly. “I think I like coming to the cinema…
But when’s the film actually going to start?”

2

Brace yourself…

Moodswings, meltdowns, eye-rolling, door slamming…
We all expect to spend time dealing with problems like these when our children hit their teens. Yet there’s another very time-consuming matter for us parents which happens when the kids reach about this age. But it’s one I hadn’t really been warned about, and it took me a little by surprise. Braces.
Don’t get me wrong. I am extremely grateful for the expert orthodontic treatment my children are receiving, which will ensure they end up with lovely, straight teeth. But with our orthodontist situated a fair drive from home (and I know many other parents face the same problem), and with teenager and daughter both undergoing treatment at the same time, I just wasn’t prepared for how much time would be taken up ferrying them to and from appointments for impressions, adjustments and new fittings, not to mention the emergency bookings when a wire unexpectedly comes loose. Nor was I ready for some of the practicalities of braces and the impact they would have on general family life.
So here is my mini guide – THE JOYS OF BRACES – for parents of other children who are having, or are about to have, their teeth straightened.

Toothbrushes – you will need to buy a whole range of different toothbrushes for all that brushing, interdental cleaning, gum cleaning. Oh, and don’t forget the plaque disclosing tablets, fluoride rinse – and cleaning tablets for removeable braces.
Haribo-type sweets – strictly off limits, as is toffee, chewing gum, and any other hard foods. Back to those days of eating apple and raw carrot chopped up really small, but hopefully you won’t be doing the chopping yourself this time round!
Embarrassing – there’s nothing like food getting stuck in braces. The secret – so I have been told – is for the brace wearer to keep a travel toothbrush and travel mirror with them at all times!

Jitters – lots of these in our house when it came to thinking about braces, especially just before they were fitted. Questions like “What will my friends say?” “Will I still be able to talk?” “Will I get teased?”
Over-the-counter pain killers – definitely stock up on these, just in case the aches and pains get really bad, especially when the braces are first fitted. It’s amazing how a tablet, a few sympathetic words and a hug can usually make everything seem a bit better.
Yellow, pink, purple, blue? – a big dilemma, especially among girls, is what colour to choose for the fitted brace.
Straws – the only way to drink pure orange juice without ruining your teeth when you have braces on is with a straw, so we’ve been told. Currently, we’ve got striped straws, spotted ones, fluorescent ones, shimmery ones in our cupboard. Youngest child, aged four, loves it…

Oh no, how are we going to make that appointment? – a common question parents ask themselves when their children have braces. Especially if the only slot available for the day you want is slap bang in the middle of it. How on earth do you get time off work again, never mind the issue of your child missing lessons?
Fizzy drinks – sorry, but these are off limits too, apart from the odd sneaky can when the going gets really tough.

Boredom – my children’s, when waiting for an appointment. I, meanwhile, am usually found slumped in a chair trying to calm my nerves, having got stuck in traffic, spent ages trying to find a parking space, and then legged it to the surgery, convinced we were going to miss our precious slot.
Rubber bands – usually found on the side of plates, under the sofa, in the bath, in jean pockets. These tiny little white bands, which often come with fixed braces, seem to be everywhere…except actually on the teeth.
Adjustments – you just have to accept that sometimes you may have to make an hour-long round trip to the orthodontist for a minute-long brace adjustment.
Calendar – you need a big one, with lots of space to write in all the appointments. We’re lucky enough to have text reminders as well, but don’t forget to check your phone.
Extractions – be prepared that your child may not only need to wear braces, but may also have to have teeth taken out at some point if their mouth is too crowded. But best not to tell them that bit until you really have to.
Saying thank-you – we moan, we swear, we scream. Us parents, I mean. But how quickly we forget those countless trips once our children have had their braces removed and their fantastic, straight teeth are revealed. We then spend ages writing long thank you cards to our orthodontist, which are pinned up in the waiting room for the next lot of frazzled parents to read. Now it’s just the retainers we have to deal with…

1

No space to listen

“Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.” Catherine M Wallace

I love this quote by Catherine M Wallace. Reflecting back on the past few weeks, listening to the children is not something I have been particularly good at. I am hoping I may be able to change that during half term.

“Did you know our fridge killed a star?”, says middle son, reading his latest book on space at the kitchen table while I frantically whip up some fairy cakes for tomorrow’s school cake sale and throw together a bolognese sauce for tea at the same time.
“Really darling”, I reply vaguely, wondering how I am possibly going to get everything done before cubs at 6.30pm. “Talking about the fridge, could you just get the eggs out for me please.”
“The thing is…” he continues, totally ignoring my request. “The thing is that our fridge is partly made of iron, right? Well. This book says that stars burn on fuel. First hydrogen, then helium, then heavier and heavier elements until eventually they burn iron.”
“Oh no!” I shriek, dropping flour all over the floor as I sprint across the kitchen to the hob. “They’re burning. The onions are burning. They’ll be ruined!”
“Mum, you’re not listening to what I’m saying”, states middle son glumly. “I said stars burn iron, not onions. Then the iron absorbs energy.”
“I want a star. A chocolate one”, squeals teeniest, spotting a bag of chocolate stars which I had been planning to use to decorate the cakes. Until now he had been quietly sitting in the corner of the kitchen unnoticed, pulling the 100 cupcake cases out of the packet, one by one, then lining them up, and carefully placing a marble in the middle of each one.
“Stars aren’t chocolate, stupid,” says middle son, trying to snatch the bag of stars off teeniest. “Stars have iron in them. When gravity crushes a star it explodes and the iron…”
“I’m going to explode in a minute”, I scream, as teeniest tries to hold onto the packet of stars for dear life, then promptly drops it and its contents all over the floor. Stars, cupcake cases, marbles are everywhere. This was not in my plan.
“I’m not going to tell you the rest”, says middle son indignantly, about to strop off. “You never listen to anything I say. You’re just not interested.”
I start to feel a bit bad. He’s so right. I haven’t been paying attention to any of his explanation.
I lie.
“Fridges…Burning…Stars…Explosions… I’ve been listening to every single word. It’s just that I’m a little bit busy right now. Please tell me the rest.”
Middle son immediately cheers up. “Well you see, when a star explodes, the iron is attracted to the earth, becomes part of the rocks – and when the miners dig it out it is used to make our fridge. So basically our fridge killed a star.”
“Brilliant”, I say, making a real effort. “Fantastic. I never knew any of that. It’s really interesting.”
Suddenly I realise the time. Nobody has been fed yet and the cakes haven’t even been made. We’ll never get to cubs at this rate. Yet again listening goes out of the window.
“It’s great to know that fridges kill stars”, I say, trying not to sound impatient. “But all I’m really interested in right now is you actually opening ours and getting the eggs out for me…”