Dear Dave

Wednesday 11 June 2008

A bath to themselves

Dear Dave,

Your Sam is not the only one getting himself into trouble at the swing park. Marie's always been something of a daredevil, learning to climb before she could walk. She spent her toddler years testing my reactions by clambering up to high places and then jumping off, expecting me to catch her whether she gave me warning or not. I thought she was past that but recently she's got bigger and stronger and has been able to reach different locations to throw herself from.

This has brought fresh excitement to both our lives.

Particularly entertaining is her love of the monkey bars. She's worked out how to climb up to the first one, grab hold of it and swing. She's very proud of this feat and makes complete strangers watch. She's also keen that I stay completely out of it, shouting at me until I'm twenty feet away. "You go over there, Daddy! I don't need help!" She launches herself off the top step, oscillates briefly and then dangles, suspended half a metre above the ground. All the while, she keeps shouting, "You stay over there, Daddy! I don't need help!" Then she kicks her feet about a little. After that, her arms begin to get tired and she realises that the only way is down. There's a pause. Then she frantically yells, "Help, Daddy! Come here! I need help!" I have to rush over and rescue her before she plummets to her doom. (Well, in the direction of a sore bottom anyway.)

At least I don't have to shadow her as closely as I used to. She's not as likely as she once was to walk in front of an on-coming swing or to simply tumble out of a climbing frame but I'm struggling to judge exactly how far back I can stand. She needs space to try stuff on her own without me hovering around but she also needs someone on hand to stop the roundabout when she pushes it faster than she can run and then fails to let go. Next summer will be fine. I'll be able to sit on a bench and merely glance up from my book every so often. This year, I'm treading an awkward line between protection and empowerment.

It doesn't help that that's a line which moves about for different children.

I sent Fraser out solo for the first time the other week. It was only to the post-box but it was a nerve-wracking experience. I watched him cross the road and then gazed anxiously along the street for the entire three minutes he was out sight. (He was not quite eight.)

I really shouldn't have worried. He was in absolutely no danger of being knocked down by a car - if he so much as glimpsed one in the distance, he waited until it had gone past. This kept giving enough time for a slowly moving speck to become visible on the horizon in the other direction. When it didn't, he triple-checked just to allow a little more opportunity for some traffic to appear. He was more at risk from attack by a pack of rabid snails than from a collision.

With this experience behind me, Lewis will doubtless get to do the same thing at seven and a half. Marie, meanwhile, will be sky-diving before she reaches Primary 2 and will be allowed to wander the streets until midnight by the time she can read.

Eldest children tend to get worked up about this (even once they've become adults). Younger siblings seem to have greater freedom and get away with so much more.

There's some justification to these complaints. Having been through situations with an older child, parents are wiser, more relaxed and too tired to argue. Then again, as the youngest of four myself, I know there are certain disadvantages to being 'the baby'. These include not being taken seriously and always having someone else answer for you. (Last summer, while visiting my parents' church, I was asked if I was planning on having any more kids. Before I could speak, my mum laughed and replied, "Three children is enough for anyone." She didn't so much as blink at the irony. Cheers...)

Middle children don't get on any better. Between forbidding the eldest to do anything and fretting about the youngest who's out roller-blading past eleven o'clock while juggling knives and wearing a mini-skirt, parents don't necessarily have much attention left for the others.

I try my best to be fair to my children and give them equal opportunities at any given age but it's hard. I simply am wiser, more relaxed and too tired. Beyond that, life has changed - unlike the boys, Marie's options aren't restricted by me having a baby to deal with. Conversely, her afternoons are totally constrained by the need for us to collect her older brothers from school.

The other day, I became aware that there are certain situations where being 'fair' is impossible. Take getting a bath to themselves as an example. Fraser had to share a bath, sometimes with two other children, until he was seven. Then he ceased to fit and he got a bath to himself. Lewis has recently lobbied for solo bathing and got there several months earlier. This is a little unfair but I can justify it for various reasons to do with practicality and child size.

It does, of course, mean that Marie is getting a bath to herself at half the age Fraser did. Unless I start borrowing dirty children from elsewhere, there's no avoiding it. Any attempt at equality is scuppered. Lewis has probably done the best out of it. He's had ample space and company for as long as he wanted. Fraser spent a while being cramped and Marie's now a bit lonely.

Something similar is going to happen with walking to school. Marie will get to skip along the road without constant parental mutterings to hurry up when she reaches Primary 4. Lewis will gain the same freedom at the same time (i.e. when he's in Primary 6) because it's going to be hard for us to accompany Marie without accompanying him as well. Fraser will only get peace in the morning when he starts secondary school. It's a shame for him but that's the way it goes unless he fancies leaving home five minutes ahead of everyone else. (Like that's going to happen...)

There must be countless other scenarios where the amount of freedom or restraint a child receives is as dependent on the age of their siblings as on their own. I have the luxury of letting Marie throw herself off monkey bars because I don't have a younger kid to deal with. You'll have fewer options with Sam because you have Daisy to entertain.

However, since it turns out that 'being fair' is not difficult but actually physically impossible, the pressure is off. No matter how many children you have, they will all bemoan being first, last, in the middle or part of a matching set. No matter what you do, they're all going to have something to whinge about. This means you might as well not worry about it too much and instead balance protection and empowerment in whatever way keeps you sane. If Sam isn't allowed on the climbing frame even though all his friends are, then so be it.

I've said before that every child is different but so are their parents, families and situations. Do what you have to do...

...and in three years time, when his little sister is busy throwing herself off monkey bars and he complains that he was never allowed to do such things, smile in the knowledge that he'd be complaining whatever choices you might have made.

Ignore him entirely and concentrate on catching.

Yours in a woman's world,



Anonymous said...

I'm betting that my kids are already planning out the therapy sessions that they will be attending because I am the "most unfair Mommy EVER!"

I think the baby gets the best deal, but that may be because I was one.

I just noticed your indiana jones skateboarding dad in the corner. Hee! Very funny.

DadsDinner said...

That's my point - do the best you can and don't worry about it. They'll need the therapy sessions anyway...

Glad you like 'Indy dad'. I should probably go switch him back to normal, though. LEGO week has already been nearly a fortnight!