Dear Dave

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Being there

Dear Dave,

I'm sorry to hear that Sam has lost his cuddly green cat called Blue Rabbit. Have you checked inside his wellies, behind the sofa and under his mattress? How about coat pockets and the freezer? (Yeah, sorry, I know you're an old hand at this and you've probably searched everywhere twice but sometimes it's easy to overlook the obvious places).

Before Christmas, Marie lost a pink hat by posting it through the gap between the back and hood of her buggy. She thought it had landed safely in the shopping net underneath but, in fact, she'd cunningly dropped it on the pavement behind us. The next day, when we discovered it missing, we went searching but it had vanished. She was distraught. She wanted us to go door-to-door asking for it. Eventually, I had to tell her that it had 'gone to live on a farm' and it was happy gambolling through the fields. "No, it's not," she whimpered. "It's crying because it's lost me."

What can you do?

I hate not being able to fix things. It's particularly frustrating when children go out of their way to create insoluble problems. The other day, Marie burst into tears because I'd brought her raincoat rather than her umbrella when I collected her from nursery. We got soaked as she shuffled slowly and miserably home. All the way, she whined that she wanted her umbrella. Since the umbrella was at home and that's where we were going, I'm not sure exactly what she wanted me to do. She was just determined to be annoyed.

Usually in these situations, she gets a handful of Extra Strong Mints to cheer her up. She loves having 'a fiery mouth', apparently. Unfortunately, the day before, she'd got a public health DVD from nursery detailing how to brush teeth and trying to persuade us to avoid sugary snacks. She'd insisted on watching it half a dozen times. It made her feel hungry and me feel guilty. Now, when she's not whining about me having brought the wrong waterproof equipment, she's whining because I won't give her Extra Strong Mints in case her teeth fall out.

Still, for a while, it was nice being able to put almost anything right with a touch of minty freshness.

Dental hygiene aside, though, it wouldn't have lasted anyway. The boys have already encountered emotional issues that are much harder to deal with than by just fobbing them off with sweets. For instance, when Lewis was only four, he was inconsolable for weeks after he learnt his best friend was going to a different school.

Fraser gets upset if particular kids won't play with him at school. He comes out of the gate at the end of the day and wants me to talk to their parents. I have to explain that adults can't force other children to be friends with him. He doesn't really seem to understand, though:

Years ago, when he was in nursery, I asked him who his friends were and he laughed and said, "We're all friends in nursery. That's the rule." I kept trying to find out who he was particularly friendly with but he just kept saying, "We're all friends in nursery," in a Stepford kind of way. All the kids had obviously had this drummed into them. It's a nice idea but, you and I both know, it's really just institutional short-hand for, 'We will peacefully tolerate each other's presence and not whack each other senseless with Duplo.' Fraser took it rather more literally, however, and hasn't quite recovered.

I try suggesting other children in his class he could play with but they won't do. He wants everyone to be friends with him but reserves the right to be selective about returning the affection. (Which, I guess, is normal - it's just a shame for everybody involved). My instant desire is to fix things for 'my little boy' and to make it all go away. That's not possible, though, and maybe it's not even a good idea. Coping with loss and disappointment is an important skill he should learn. I can help by acknowledging the hurt and giving him sympathy but there's no point pretending that everything's OK and it doesn't matter really. He needs to know that it's all right to be sad sometimes.

Admittedly, sometimes he needs to get a grip - in my book, it's not acceptable to burst into tears because you got the wrong type of bedtime hug nor to kick your brother in frustration because he doesn't want to play the same game as you. These situations require patience, respect and negotiation rather than emotional outbursts. Still, there are occasions when he has a right to feel genuinely upset and I shouldn't expect him to just shrug it off. Being rejected isn't fun.

All I can do is let him know we love him no matter what he does or achieves, and encourage him to explore and control his emotions. Giving him something to look forward to doesn't do any harm either. A Pokemon card battle is a great healer.

Good luck finding a replacement for that cat/rabbit. Will Sam be happy with a brand new one or will he insist on it looking, feeling and smelling the same? Hopefully he'll just accept your explanation that you've 'given it a wash'. If not, at least you can vent your parental frustration by giving the flipping thing a good battering with a shovel.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Don't forget to pour some milk on it and leave it in the sun for three days before wiping it on the nose of a passing dog. That should get the scent and texture just about perfect...

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