Dear Dave

Friday 23 May 2008

Housedads are from Mars, children are from...

Dear Dave,

It's true. Spend enough time looking after children and you start to anticipate their every move. You just know when they're going to run off or throw a tantrum or inconveniently demand the toilet. Pre-empting disaster becomes second nature.

You begin to think like them.

The other week, while we were waiting outside the swimming pool for it to open, I caught Fraser scratching his name on the red stone of the wall with his fingernail. I ignored him for a few moments but then I decided that, even if it was only his fingernail he was using, it was probably best to discourage graffiti - particularly as I couldn't be certain he wouldn't add our address and telephone number once he was done with his name. I told him to stop and, after some whining dissension, he did so.

This week, I caught him close to the wall, staring at it... very, very hard.

"Fraser!" I said, warning him.

"I didn't do anything!" he protested.

"I know," I said. "You were thinking about it, though, weren't you?" He looked sheepish. "I can read your mind, Fraser."

I was pretty smug. Even as I said the words, though, I knew I'd regret them before long. Children are easy to predict but, equally, they can unexpectedly learn and change. They're also unbound by the laws of reason and common sense. Each of mine has done something since then to challenge my assumptions.

Like when I asked Fraser if he's getting enough to eat in his packed lunch. He reckoned he was but then Lewis said, "I'm not."

I snorted. "What do you mean? You keep leaving half your lunch and eating it in the playground when you come out of school."

"Yeah," he said. "I leave it until I come out of school because I don't have enough to eat and I know I'm going to be hungry when I come out of school. If I ate all the food at lunch-time, I'd still be hungry when I came out of school and I wouldn't have anything left to eat then to stop me being hungry."

"Right..." I said, playing that over in my head a couple more times. "Would you like twice as many sandwiches?"

"Twice as much of everything!"

So that's what I gave him and he ate it all at lunch-time. Weird.

On another occasion, we were standing around after a funeral service and Fraser asked, "What's green and green and red and green and red and green and red and red and red?"

Before he could be stopped, he answered the question himself. "An alien in a blender." (He's been reading a book of astronaut jokes.)

No one knew quite what to say.

Then he added, "What's a blender?"

It has to be said that I wasn't surprised that he told a joke. I was even less surprised that he didn't understand it. What surprised me was, that when I told him the purpose of a blender, he muttered quietly, "If I'd known that, I wouldn't have said it." There was both a hint of remorse and a glimmering of tact. He's picking up some social skills! I was astonished.

My most immediate confrontation with unexpected child behaviour, however, was when we got into the swimming pool. The boys can get themselves ready, so I left them to it and went into a cubicle with Marie. We were in a big hurry because they all have swimming lessons which start only five minutes after the doors open. (Yeah, I know, but it was that or lessons at separate times, which would have been worse.)

"Lift your foot," I said, trying to get her changed as quickly as possible. Since I was attempting to yank off her right trouser leg, I was hoping she'd lift her right foot. Obviously, I was expecting her to raise her left foot.

I wasn't disappointed.

"No, lift your other foot!" I said in exasperation.

So she did. She raised her right leg.

What I hadn't counted on, was that she didn't put her left leg down first. She fell over sideways and I was left clutching her socks.

"Er, I didn't mean both feet at once," I said.

"But I was holding onto your trousers..." she whimpered.

Quite how she imagined a light grasp on my knee-coverings would imbue her with the power of levitation, I'll never know. Fortunately, a brief cuddle and we were able to get back to the task in hand. My smugness, nonetheless, was already gone.

Children are a different species - full of surprises, peculiar understandings, interesting ideas, cultural differences and strangely coloured goo. Yeah, you know what they're thinking, but sometimes it's revealing to ask if that's all they're thinking. Who knows what else is going on in there? There might be any manner of things to discover, from a theory on the nature of the universe to a diabolical plan involving cheese.

It's probably worth checking.

(Now I think of it, this may well be true of adults too. Kids are just more likely to give a straight answer.)

Yours in a woman's world,


PS If you're unlucky, and get carried away, you can start to not only think like them but act like them as well. You know it's happened when you yell, "But what about what I want!" and throw yourself to the ground, flailing limbs about and screaming.

Actually, no, that's a symptom of sleep deprivation and over-exposure to Teletubbies. It's when you do it in the middle of the aisle at Tesco, that's when you know you've gone native.

This is to be avoided.

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