When my first child was born I was quite precious about every aspect of what his little mind and body was exposed to. With open-mouthed horror, I read articles written about the damaging effects of television on young brains, and begrudgingly dutifully whiled away my evenings pureeing and then freezing small cubes of wholesome baby food for him to eat as I reasoned with myself, having read what various experts said on the subject, that I was a better mother because of it. So what happened to make the same mother, over the course of time, come to point where she thinks it’s okay to have a 5 year old who watches films that are way above the recommended age limit, plays computer games for hours on end and lives on a diet of sugar lumps and lollies?
There are three possible causes, as far as I can tell:
With your first child it’s fine to be fastidious with every aspect of their lives, from having ear phones strapped to your belly playing Beethoven (yes I did this) in order to better grow a cultured foetus, to showing a 6 month old flash cards in the hope it will give them an edge over their competition peers. With the second child you’re happy if everyone is dressed and fed and you convince yourself that the older one is passing on all the wisdom you attempted to impart in them to their younger sibling. By the time you’ve reached your third child, a good day constitutes not having misplaced any of them and not having had the neighbours report the screaming coming from next door to social services. Little do they know that it is you screaming, not your children. While you’re searching for your sanity, the kids are blissfully happy expressing the artistic streak that the pre-school that you handpicked actively encourages by using the sudocrem as their paint, and your walls, sofa and floor as their canvas. You see when number three arrived, the balance of power shifted as the kids suddenly outnumber the adults, which anyone will tell you is a tactical disaster. You don’t stand a chance of spending your day doing anything more productive than repeatedly asking ‘are you listening to me?’ and ‘do I really have to repeat myself?’. You may as well give up and go and lock yourself in the bathroom with Facebook and a large glass of wine.
Have you noticed that the majority of people who claim to be parenting experts are those without children (no, Gina Ford, I’m not looking directly at you, just jabbing my finger frenetically in your direction when you’re not looking). Everything we believe to be the truth about parenting seems utterly reasonable and straightforward until the point we have to squeeze a big baby’s head out of a small hole (or a giant surgeon’s hand into our once unblemished stomach). Curiously though, reasonableness is replaced with frustration as you realise that the baby hasn’t read the rule books. Nothing sums this up more than the first time your little boy’s willy rises up (which is shock enough) the moment you open his nappy and aims right at your face with the menacing intent of a tank taking aim. It is slightly more satisfying (if more problematic to clean up) if the point and shoot happens as you have both legs grasped firmly in your hands, bum in the air and gravity suddenly redirects the intended stream of wee into the shocked baby’s face. Of course this isn’t an issue for the parents of brand new baby girls. They, instead, manage, in the millisecond between taking one nappy off and placing another clean one under their bottom, to summon forth a small lake that makes its way up the absorbent, and just put on, baby vest, towards the freshly washed hair. By baby two you’re more prepared for the tactical manoeuvres of the newborn and trick them by opening the nappy long enough to convince the child that an unprotected rug is theirs to desecrate, only to throw the top of it back over before anything escapes. Child three has their nappy changed on the sofa with all defensive procedures put in place instinctively. You haven’t got time to worry about a bit of wee because your eyes are focused on the toddler about to post the marmite on toast into the DVD player and the pre-schooler drawing anatomically correct breasts on his chest with permanent marker so he can breast feed his Thomas the Tank engine (whilst also grabbing his willy doing the ‘I need a wee’ dance despite adamantly denying the biological imperative).
The environment that the first child experiences is vastly different from the one the second and subsequent children are born into. With no on-tap companionship or outlet for curiosity (usually in the form of poking the just-gone-to-sleep-baby to see if it makes that noise again) the first child gets to interact with its parent in a relatively undistracted way (with Facebook surfing being the exception to this). The parent has more time and mental capacity to consider the environment that their child is raised in, and the patience and willingness to try and encourage that environment to be one that stimulates and nurtures their first born. The second time parent can be found wishing for the days where they could poo in peace and time is spent rationalising the amount of time the children spend in front of a DVD, by reminding themselves that the reason the DVD cost so much is because it is a baby Einstein, which means it must be educational, right? The second child’s understanding of language is learnt less from direct interaction between themselves and their parent and more from hearing repetitive conversations held in their presence such as ‘do you need a wee?’ repeated on average every ten minutes by the adult and ‘why?’ repeated every few seconds from the older sibling. The third child would probably get more direct conversation from the unconscious alcoholic that lives under the bridge than they will their parents, but they have the richest environment from which to learn. It is impossible to live in silence when there are two young children running around asking incessant questions and chattering nonstop, whereas the world of first children, especially if the parent feels self conscious baby talking to a cute but not particularly interactive wiggly thing, can be a very silent place. Babies love to watch other children, they are fascinated and delighted by the frenetic movement and constant noise (pretty much the polar opposite reaction that adults experience when exposed to the same experience). The richness and variety of the experience of other children outperforms any adult, however hard they have been working on their comedy routine, and for the most part, unless they’re actually being poked in the eye or sat on by a sibling, the interaction is positive and the siblings are far more likely to play peek-a-boo a billion times in succession than any adult is.
So what if you take a sociable baby away from its siblings into a small clinical room for weeks, maybe months at a time, with the only interaction with the outside world being strange adults who smile warmly at the baby before they (and the baby’s mother, who is expected to help) pin them down and do something terrifying and painful to them? And what if this happens over and over again? Imagine 5 years of swapping in-between the two different environments, and consider for a moment how a child would process those experiences in their rapidly developing brains. If you have a child who stays in a small room with very little interaction with other children at all, let alone children of their own age, for nearly a year without a break, it is little surprise that they quickly adapt to accept the environment that they are exposed to as being the norm. Humans, after all, adapt to survive. This is part of the reason that Dominic, my third child, is such a truly amazing and fascinating little boy to be around. He spent a year of his life learning to fit in with adults. His language, behaviour and interests reflected the world that he was exposed to and most of the adults that came across him found this small dot of a boy talking with great leg-waggling enthusiasm about Queen and Harry Potter and telling them who should win on the X factor, adorable. And it was adorable, but you only had to see his confusion and fear when surrounded by the unpredictability of other children to understand the implications of the environment that he was growing up in. He didn’t understand other children and couldn’t relate to any of their experiences as they were so vastly different from his own.
In his little room in big hospital it was completely normal to live on a diet of sugar and lollipops, to watch films all day and after the watershed TV at night, to talk to nurses about how best to play the air guitar and to spend time sculpting a surgeon’s hair into a Mohican because it looked ‘cooler’ than the hairstyle he had come into work with that morning. No other world existed for him. Home was a vague memory, and more and more a scary change that was something to cause anxiety rather than comfort.
The other two children’s environment was little better, with an uncared for house, absent mother and unpredictable variety of people stepping in to keep the bare minimum running. Handed from pillar to post they learnt to bottle up their emotions and to go to bed without a last kiss and cuddle to remind them that they were loved.
I did, in March 2011, finally return to the older two children, bringing my youngest little boy out of his safe idea of normal life and into the chaotic and busy life at home. It was incredibly difficult for him, it was incredibly difficult for all of us, as it can be surprising what you can get used to. Learning to not be utterly terrified of other children took a long time for Dominic, but having to bank experiences that are similar enough to your peers to enable you to share ideas, imagination and understanding took him considerably more time and still continues to be difficult. After all, the children he mixes with with can walk and run and eat and interact with their environment using those skills that he doesn’t have and consequently mostly draw on experiences that are, and may always be, inaccessible to him. But his different understanding of the world, all my children’s different experience of life, makes them the fascinating and insightful young people that they are today. No one makes me stop and draw in my breath at what I just heard more than the small 5 year old who has spent so long in small rooms that his mind is alive with keen, questioning intelligence and an ability to see a question and rotate it in order to look at it from every angle before giving you a reply. Not necessarily the reply you were expecting, either. His imagination, humour and warmth literally bring me to tears whenever I think about the lessons he learnt about what life is about in those precious baby years.
But what now for these three children? It becomes more apparent as they grow up that their perception of themselves is, by default, focused on their differences from their peers. It is very difficult to teach a self-conscious seven year old girl that she should be fiercely proud of the fact that the depth of her experience of life means she has the ability to empathise with other people, drawing on an understanding of the world that is slightly more complex than concerns over whether or not liking the colour pink is allowed this week or not. Or explaining to a 5 year old boy that, just because a well-meaning adult applauds him loudly for standing with support and says he’s almost walking, does not mean that tomorrow he will be able to chase his siblings.
And what does any of this have to do with You Tube, I hear you ask. Indeed this is the part where I’m about to convince you why You Tube should be seen as a valuable tool in expanding your child’s pool of experience, and I hope after you finish reading this, you’ll sit down with your child and watch the video at the end of this post and talk about what you’ve just seen.
You see, on You Tube you find life, in all its messy and unattractive glory. But in between the young teenagers pretending to be adult and the adults trying to convince themselves that they are still young there is a wealth of experiences, recorded and shared, that show my children people and experiences that they otherwise would never know existed. These are people that you rarely see on television, that you could go your whole life never knowing ever existed. You Tube gives me an opportunity to show my children what other people have achieved with the lot that was handed to them in life. Just consider for a moment the view of the world our children will have by only drawing from the information that is openly offered to them, the information that is filtered and given to us in films, on television and in the newspapers. Most of the stories that appear in the newspapers involving disabled people are focusing on people who have screwed the system for money, and you’ll struggle to find anything other than Glee that attempts to have a positive disabled role model in film or television. After the Paralympics are finished, the small amount of television time currently given to positive disabled role models will disappear with it. How are children ever meant to learn that disabled people contribute positively to the world if we don’t give them the information that they need in order to learn that they do? Dominic is the only child in a wheelchair in his school, the only one around where we live and no clubs exist locally for him to meet other children like him. It’s not very surprising that he wants to be like everyone else as he sees no one else like him. He needs to know that his disability does not define what he is capable of achieving, and he needs to know that there are other amazing people out there just as brilliant and filled with just as much potential as he is.
When my children look out of the window, it will always be easier for them to see a world that has treated them unfairly, to believe that they were given a bad lot in life and this has stunted their potential and held them back. I want them to see that in life you become what you tell yourself you can become, that human beings are capable of being amazing, no matter what circumstances life has handed them. Yes it takes hard work, unshakeable determination and balls of steel, but there is nothing stopping my children from being whatever they want to be, nothing except perhaps themselves. Your experiences make you who you are, and, as I tell my quirky, sticky, computer-mad, fabulous kids, it’s not how many times you fall that matters, it’s the style with which you pick yourself up, brush yourself off and give it another go that determines how far you’ll go in life.
There is no person better than Aaron Fotheringham to explain exactly why I’m glad that I slid the slippery slope from trying to raise my children in the way that the parenting books told me was in their best interests, to actually trying to teaching them that things in life only have as much importance as you allow them to have, and if you tell yourself something will hold you back or put you at a disadvantage, then it probably will.
Kids just need to know they have a value, and giving them organic food and banning TV isn’t going to teach them that. Helping them understand that they are capable of great things, not because of what they learn when life is easy, but the strength they learn they have when they stumble but don’t give up, now that beats an omega-3 rich, organic, ethically produced, fair-trade after school snack any day.
Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham – Courage in Sports
(don’t get put off by irritating voice-over man, the kid is the one to focus on)
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Last week’s amazing entries