Dear Dave

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Some things are hard to grow out of

Dear Dave,

There are at least two sides to every story. I'm sure you'll become steadily more aware of this as your children get older. Conversations in your household will frequently run along the following lines:

Daisy: Sam pulled my hair!

Sam: She bit me.

Daisy: He hit me first.

Sam: She grabbed the car from me.

Daisy: It's my car!

Sam: I was playing with it first.

Daisy: I said I was going to play with it first.

Sam: I was playing with it before lunch.

Daisy: So it is my turn!

Sam: I hadn't finished my turn.

Daisy: It was your turn yesterday.

Sam: I didn't want to play with it yesterday.

Daisy: So? It was still your turn.

Sam: But you were playing with it.

Daisy: So?

Sam: So it was your turn yesterday.

Daisy: No, it wasn't it.

Sam: Yes, it was.

Daisy: No, it...

And so it will go on. Luckily, in this situation, the solution is a pretty easy call. Both children have started out by shopping each other for a couple of rule violations and then continued by shouting angrily at everyone - they both get sent to their rooms while you get a few minutes peace to sit and read the paper. Who gets to play with the car once the time-out is over is less clear but it's really up to personal parenting preference. You could toss a coin, work out a sharing timetable, give the thing to the most penitent-seeming child or just make it mysteriously vanish for a couple of days. Another option is to try distracting the kids from the whole issue with a fun and exciting activity. It's probably not worth the effort, though. As soon as the activity is done, they'll start arguing about the car again. You might as well address the issue straight off.

Yep, in the above scenario, it's almost impossible to get to the bottom of things. There is no root cause to the conflict except, maybe, Daisy's conception. These are just the kind of spats you have to deal with if you have more than one child.

There are some cases, however, where one side of a story is vastly more illuminating than the other:

Sam (rushing into the room): Dad! Dad! Daisy sat on my head!

You: Really? Where was your head when she sat on it?

Sam: Hiding under her favourite cushion.

You: Uh-huh...

Actually, let's face it, most stories are pretty open and shut, but your children will try hard to convince you otherwise. More often than not, however, one of them will have 'forgotten' some salient fact, such as a threat to eat the other's nose, the lobbing of a cuddly toy into a ceiling fan or the incriminating sock they're holding that is not their own. It's usually not too hard getting an approximation of the truth fairly quickly. Sometimes, though, particularly if only one child was present at the incident, it can take a fair amount of probing to find out what happened. For instance, things didn't entirely add up when Fraser fell down the stairs recently:

There was a huge thud and a small scream and I ran to investigate. Thankfully, since our stairs are carpeted and divided into flights of only six steps, he was more scared than hurt. I untangled him and checked him for injuries. He had a couple of bruises. I gave him a cuddle and some sympathy but I was a little suspicious. It was at least the fourth time that Fraser has fallen down the stairs. Given that Marie and Lewis have only managed it once between them, there's the possibility that he's not always being entirely careful. On this particular occasion, taking into account that my Nintendo DS was lying open beside him when I arrived on the scene, there was the distinct possibility that he'd been being positively careless.

Playing videogames while using stairs is never liable to go well for long.

"Were you holding onto the rail?" I asked.

"Yes," said Fraser mournfully.

"Why did you have the DS open? You know you're not supposed to go up and down stairs with it open."

Fraser went on the defensive. "I hadn't started going down. I was just about to close it."

"You hadn't started going down but you were holding onto the rail?" I said, raising an eyebrow.

"I was on the top step and I slipped."

My suspicions were confirmed but I decided not to press things further. He had just fallen down the stairs, after all. I couldn't help myself from a little bit of telling off, though, to make up for the scare he'd given me. "OK, well maybe if you'd closed it before you got to the stairs, you might have been able to concentrate on not falling."

Fraser's concerns were elsewhere, however. "Is the DS broken?" he said anxiously.

"I think it's still working."

"What about the pen?" Fraser asked. "Did you find the pen?"

I was confused. "Isn't the pen in the holder?"

"I had it in my hand."

"So you had the DS in one hand, the pen in your other hand AND you were holding onto the rail?"

"Er..." said Fraser, obviously attempting to concoct a viable explanation for a temporary third hand. He stalled with, "But I wasn't going down the stairs."

Fortunately for him, I was just glad he was OK. "Uh-huh," I said and went to get us both some chocolate.

Doubtless, if I'd continued questioning him, he would have argued at length how he really had been being careful. He'd probably even have convinced himself. As it was, we both knew he'd broken a rule or two, and he had some aches and pains to remind him to be a little more sensible in future. It had taken a while to get there but the conclusions weren't really in doubt. As I said, open and shut.

Of course, I'm not saying it's a good idea to leap to conclusions. (You don't want to end up starring in your own personal sitcom). Always check the facts and consider different possibilities. It's just that children can spin a very complicated defence from an indefensible position. At best, this confuses the issue. ('I wasn't talking loudly while you were on the phone... I was singing!') At worst, it will incriminate them in several other cases of rule-breaking. ('I didn't throw the remote at Marie. I was juggling it with some knives but Fraser moved his leg that I was standing on and made me drop them all. It's his fault!).

Sometimes it's fairer to give them a short hearing than a long one.

This can feel wrong, though. We're used to balanced arguments. Debates, talk shows, news items and magazine articles are often set up so that both sides get equal time. In reality, both sides may not deserve equal time.

I got to thinking about this after receiving an invitation to an online discussion over the pros and cons of child vaccinations. A wealth of information was promised, along with input from experts on both sides of the debate. I just sighed. There is no debate. Vaccinations save countless lives and take a great deal of worry out of parenting. Horrible diseases have been eradicated; others have been held at bay. Vaccinating everyone who's old enough doesn't just protect those who have been vaccinated, it prevents the disease in question from spreading and infecting those who are too young or too sick to be vaccinated themselves. Vaccinations are fantastic.

You wouldn't know that from watching the news, however. Some shows have to pad out their time with endless discussion and controversy. Others feel the need to be impartial and give the same air-time to different points of view. Admittedly, we don't want the media to tell us how to think but a fair presentation of the facts doesn't necessarily lead to a balanced debate. Sometimes, giving equal time and weight to both sides of an argument isn't impartiality, it's bias towards nonsense.

I actually danced around the room when a recent Teletext article dismissed any link between the MMR jab and autism as discredited in a very off-hand way. Sanity at last.

The world is full of people constructing convoluted arguments and emotional appeals to further their point of view. Before long, your house will be full of little people doing the same. On occasion, you may want to treat the children like adults and hear them out. Most of the time, however, you'd be better taking it all as training to view adults like children - children who've got bigger and who are still determined to prove that it wasn't their fault they fell down the stairs while playing videogames.

Many things makes a lot more sense that way.

Yours in a woman's world,



Gwen said...

Hi Ed,
My name is Gwen. I'm a friend and colleague of your wife from the U.S. and I've been reading your blog for about 9 months. I really enjoy how you are able to draw meaning from funny stories about your life and children. :)
This post and your comments about the media reminded me of a song that my husband wrote called "man bites dog". It has a similar (although perhaps not identical) theme - the way the media distorts reality by focusing on the sensational. If you are interested, you can hear the song from this site:

and/or read the lyrics here:

(If you have trouble with these links, google "man bites dog" & lyrics & Campbell.)

I hope you are enjoying all that free time now that Marie is in school! ;)

Take care,

Gwen said...

PS - The references in the song are, not surprisingly, from U.S. news stories - I hope it's still relevant and amusing across the pond...

DadsDinner said...

Hi Gwen,

Thanks for the appreciation. I enjoyed the song. I'll listen to some of the others when I get the chance. Turns out, though, there's even less of this mystical extra free time than I was expecting...



Anonymous said...

My kids have managed to turn everything around so that it's my fault.
They wouldn't have fallen down the stairs if I hadn't asked them to set the table. They wouldn't fight over toys if there was two of everything in the house.

Silly me, I should know better.

Gwen said...

Ah yes, free time - the holy grail...
As hikers say each time their objective doesn't materialise, "Don't worry, I'm sure it's just over the *next* hill!" ;)

DadsDinner said...

Jenk - Sproglette has started blaming her tummy for telling her to be bad. I'm now reduced to having arguments with her belly button.

Gwen - Another 18 months and she starts school. I'm bound to have free time then... Maybe...