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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Only children rock, part 2: bringing up baby (singular)

Alright then- you've decided, or nature has decided for you, that this baby is IT.  You'd like a manual for the singleton model, please!

I'm assuming you've already read the previous post, where I reassured you that you are NOT the Wicked Witch of the West for having just one child, and that your child is not doomed to be a bratty, insular, self-centred, dependent lap-dog. Yes? Good. Now let's talk about some sensible, reflective parenting of the only child.

The first thing we have to knock on the head is that only children are somehow different to bring up from other children.  They're not.  Children are children, and most have similar needs.  At the same time, every child is unique- the 'only' one you have of that particular model.  Good parenting is a matter of knowing your child and getting the balance right, no matter how many children you have.

But you may have to do a little tweaking from time to time, in the absence of siblings.  Siblings can certainly provide a bit of a reality check for each other, as the screams and wails issuing from the parent-of-two's playroom will attest.  Let's look at some specific aspects of 'only child' parenting balance.

My baby, my life!- the dangers of overindulgence

If you're silly enough to treat any child as though he's the centre of the universe and make your entire life revolve around him, instead of gradually helping him (and allowing him) to become independent, you're cruisin' for a bruisin'.

People will tell you that this only happens to only children, because they don't have any competition. Rubbish. It happens to a LOT of eldest children, and then there's hell to pay when Number 2 comes along. (See 'sibling rivalry'.) It can also happen to 'favourite' children or precociously talented children. Be very, very afraid. This is not the way to create a happy human being.

You may well fall madly in love with your new baby, but that's not an excuse to indulge yourself in indulging her, to the detriment of both the baby and your own life. It's not an excuse for you to live your life through your child.  Remind yourself he's not a possession.  Remind yourself she's a small person who needs to live an independent life one day.

Remind yourself that your job is not to play with, entertain, buy stuff for and wait upon this child 24 hours a day, because that's how people breed children who can't entertain themselves, have a dysfunctional sense of entitlement and think that 'mum' is a synonym for 'servant'.  In my very first post of this blog I talked about parenting as a process of letting go.  You'd better believe it.

Your job is not just to love and care for him, but to build realistic expectations. One day your baby will be a teenager.  Will you still be giving him everything he wants and jumping to attention every time he squeaks? Will you still prioritise her above everything that matters in your own life? (If you do, I promise she'll hate you for it.) When were you thinking of starting the transition to reality?

Obviously, you attend lovingly and patiently to all your tiny baby's genuine needs and give lots of cuddles and honest, kind communication. The trick is to gradually let her take the wheel as she gets older and take back the important parts of your own life, so that when it's time for your baby to leave home we have a tableau of happy adults excited about the future- not a terrified, unprepared, 25-year-old child and a pair of weeping, empty-nester parents. If you're having trouble getting the balance right when your baby is young- and yes, you DO need to think about this when your baby is quite young- Janet Lansbury's site is a mine of kind, non-judgmental information.

My one and only- the pitfalls of overprotection

Fear of abduction, death or injury must not be allowed to cripple your one-and-only's emotional growth.  If you went through hell to get that only child, or if you're a particularly fearful person, you might need to do a bit of emotional work on yourself before you can let your child take the minor, healthy risks they need for normal development. Do it. Hot-housing your child is bad for them, and for you.  That child needs to get out into the world and learn to cope without you.

Finding the line between acceptable and unacceptable risk can be hard for parents who only have one child and are terrified of losing him.  But if you protect any child from the realities of other people's quirks, differences and unpleasant behaviour- if you don't let her learn how to cope with other members of the human race, warts and all, from an early age- she's in for an unpleasant shock when she eventually has to assimilate without mum or dad at her side.

Children with siblings have to learn to deal with other kids at home every day (and their parents have to learn when to to butt out and let them sort it).  Children without siblings might need you to create opportunities for them to learn this, if your lifestyle doesn't lend itself naturally to this sort of interaction.

There's a good chance that an only child will end up preferring the company of adults, because that's what he's used to.  Once that's set in stone, it can become difficult for some children to integrate with peers once school starts (and it may be twice as hard if they're gifted as well; I refer you to the cautionary tale of 'only child, gifted child' Gavin, which you'll find towards the end of my post about gifted children.)  I wasn't an only child, but my brother was significantly older than me, and I still remember how awful it felt to be tossed into a sea of other children when I was used to adult company, civil behaviour and peace and quiet.

Want to avoid this for your child? Then that means- shock, horror- that you need to expose this delicate, precious little orchid flower of yours to Other People's Children sooner rather than later.

That might mean playgroup and daycare.  It might mean playing with their cousins and going to little athletics.  It could mean early music classes and plenty of time at the playground (without you being a helicopter parent). The idea is to let your child work out how to deal with other people from outside their family, and they can't do that if you're constantly hovering and 'saving them'.

The interactions don't have to be with children of exactly the same age.  Be guided by your own child's personality- as with every other aspect of parenting, you are the authority on your child and you are the best one to judge exactly what social activities will work for your child.  In my son's case, it often meant coming with me to choir rehearsals after school and interacting with a group of 15- to 18-year-old girls (who were not backward in coming forward when he did something outrageous).  Like Gavin, he was a gifted child and preferred the company of older people. I found that play dates with his peers were pretty useless, as he'd either be totally bored by their conversation or run rings around them instead of learning to co-operate and negotiate. (Or both.  Oh, the joys of parenting the gifted child... sigh.)

To this day he thanks me for exposing him to so many girls so young.  He swears it gave him an unfair advantage in the dating stakes later on.

NB: Note that working with choirs was a very important part of my life, and there was no way I was giving that up- my preschooler son just had to learn to fit in, and he did so with alacrity.  Let that be a lesson to you! Spend some time maintaining your own interests!  Maybe you too can work out a way to combine resuming your life interests with allowing your child to socialise.  Both are terribly important if you want to end up with that tableau of happy adults at parting time.

You're special- hello, so is everyone else

If you fail to nurture respect for other people's point of view in your child, then yes, you'll bring up a self-centred prat.  (Some parents manage to bring up whole families of self-centred prats, so don't you dare think that only children own the copyright on that one.)

And so, in the absence of siblings who will soon teach a child that everyone has a unique perspective (and last one with hands washed gets last pick of the cupcakes), you may have to make more of an effort to treat your only child in a slightly more pragmatic way and let him learn about reality. It's not called the human 'race' for nothing.

It's pretty natural to try to boost your child's ego and make her feel special, but you can't be hokey about it. (Kids pick 'hokey' very young.) You have to try to be realistic about where your child stands in relation to the world. By all means show interest in what he does, but don't give fake or excessive praise (this is a child, not a performing seal) and don't pretend he's infallible or The Best (what is that, anyway? The Best like Picasso, or The Best like Renoir?), even if he's precociously talented at something.

Try to be calm, try to be authentic, and be careful what you label as 'cute' or 'awesome'.  (Let me rephrase that: be careful with labels, full stop.) If you over-react to every little thing your child achieves, you're hard-wiring your child's brain to believe that the aim of life is to please YOU.  It's not. The first aim of life is to explore our own abilities and find and use our unique gifts, not to join the circus as a baby monkey and do handstands night after night till we die so people will throw peanuts.

Yes, you can be positive and interested without declaring that everything your baby produces is WONDERFUL.  (Even she knows that not everything she produces is wonderful- most of the time she's far more interested in the process of doing something than in the product that you hang on your fridge, anyway.) And you can, and must, create an atmosphere where he realises that there are other people in the world, and things are not always going to go his way, and that's not the end of the world.

So, for example, it's important that you don't spare your child the disappointment of losing when you play games. Again, you have to find a balance between the 'killer' parent, who plays to win regardless of the company, and the 'pushover' parent who constantly loses on purpose.

I remember learning how to play the card game "500" by having my father play my hand with me, until I had a decent grasp of the strategies.  That was brilliant.  I got the sense of being part of a team, I tasted a fair share of winning and losing- and then when I went solo, when I did win I knew I'd deserved it.  That's what we're aiming for here- a realistic balance.

You know, I've hardly said a thing here that only relates to the only child. I'll say it again: every child is unique, but most of them have similar basic needs.  Having one child means we might occasionally have to consider stepping in and replacing what siblings might contribute, but having more than one child means we have to consider dealing with a host of other difficult issues, like 'where did I put my life?' and 'how can I explain to Johnny that it's not okay to flush his sister's iPod down the toilet?'

For some of us, an only child is a choice; for others, it's imposed upon us against our will.  But honestly, it doesn't have to be an issue. If you have a pennyworth of common sense and enough interest in good parenting to keep you reading and learning about children, you and your singleton will be absolutely fine- and if anyone tells you otherwise, send them to me!!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Only children rock, part 1: the myths

Being the parent of an only child can be fraught with awkward, spiky social situations. Believe me, I know- my son is an only child.  I sometimes find it hard to believe that having just one child can cause so much judgment and controversy.

The parenting forums always have at least one thread, or sometimes a whole group of threads, devoted to the only child.  Do you have an only child by choice or circumstance? Are you an only child yourself? Did you wish for a sibling? Are you happy? Would you choose to have an only child yourself? What are the disadvantages? What are the advantages? What do you do when someone asks you when you're having another child?

And yes, there are plenty of people ready to jump down your throat if you've decided to have just one child.  Really, it mystifies me why other parents are so quick to attack the parent/s of the singleton- but I've seen it many times over.  My theory is that these people are so desperate for affirmation of their own choices that they strike out at anyone who chooses differently. (Read, insecure.) 

Certain myths are thrown at us with monotonous regularity.  She'll be spoilt.  He'll be lonely.  She'll never learn to share.  He'll miss out on having  an extended family group when he grows up. She'll have to take sole responsibility for caring for her parents in their old age.  He'll be too dependent on and attached to mum.  Believe me, I've heard them all, and for each myth there's a balancing one which suggests that all these problems are magically solved by having another baby.

Reality check: a baby doesn't solve any problem, ever, for anyone, regardless of where that baby comes in the sibling line-up. Having a baby is a gamble. You have no idea who you're going to get, how he or she will fit in with the family you've already got, and what challenges beyond the average that particular baby will bring.

Don't believe me?  Read this. Amy was desperate for a child when she and her husband adopted Kylie.

So while I delight in babies and love looking after them, just as Amy delights in and adores Kylie despite her challenges, in reality I think that any baby is far more likely to cause a problem than to solve one.  A second child is not a magic wand warding off the evils of selfishness, isolation and dependence; reflective, well-informed parenting practice is the way to achieve that. And I believe that NO child should be conceived JUST to avoid having an only child, or to fit in with society's knee-jerk expectations; every child's conception should be planned and considered equally carefully.  (Don't even start me on parents who have baby after baby of the same sex because they're 'trying for' the opposite sex. Poor children.)

If you read my post about the myth of the happy family, you'll understand that I take off the rose-tinted glasses when I view the relationships within a family unit.  Just because two babies are born to the same parents, there's no guarantee they'll love or even like one another. They don't necessarily even share a majority of genetic material- it's the luck of the draw- so to assume that siblings will automatically develop a close bond just because they're siblings is optimistic at best, and plain old self-delusion at worst.

There's considerably more likelihood that a first child will feel usurped and threatened by later children, especially if he or she has previously experienced an over-attentive parenting style or if the subsequent babies are challenging and need a lot of attention.  The term 'sibling rivalry' doesn't need to be explained to anyone, does it? It's common.

And because it's common, most of us have some experience of the strains felt between siblings.  I'm fortunate to get along perfectly well with my brother- but I spent part of my life in a relationship with a middle child, who had teamed up with the first child to bully their younger sister mercilessly in childhood and was still laughing about it years later. I didn't find it funny, and it didn't reassure me about the value of having siblings at all.

Nor did I find my relationship with a highly competitive eldest child amusing or reassuring, given that he regularly started roaring rows with his younger brothers over family lunches.  Give me my current peaceful relationship with an only child any day; he seems to have a lot more respect for other human beings' feelings.

Yet despite us knowing, really, that a larger family doesn't guarantee a happy family, our culture seems to demand that we aspire to at least two children.  If we decline, we are regarded with a certain suspicion and questioned relentlessly.  And so I present my evidence for the defence.

I am glad these days that I had an only child.  And honestly, he hasn't turned out too bad (she said with a proud grin, trying not to brag).

Was he spoilt? Possibly, at first, but that was hard to avoid given that he was the first grandchild on both sides of the family (and I knew a lot less about sensible parenting than I know now).  When my financial circumstances changed and I had to start saying no, he got unspoilt very quickly.

Was he lonely? Never- in fact he developed a wonderful ability to entertain himself, as well as attracting a wide circle of friends when he finally found some like-minded peers; he's now a leader within his chosen social/recreational activity.  (Did he ever complain of being bored? Of course. Doesn't every child?)

Did he learn to share?  He's generous to a fault, and has been since childhood.

Did he miss out on the extended family?  No, he has great relationships with his cousins and makes far more effort to stay in touch with the extended family than I do! 

Will he be burdened by caring for me in my decrepit old age? Absolutely not- I would never blight his life against his will.  I'll take my chances in a nursing home if I have to.  (How dare people do that to their children?!  It must always be a choice, not a demand.)

Is he too dependent on me?  Roars of laughter at that one.  He's incredibly independent.  I have absolutely no illusions that I have undue influence on his choices!

So no, I don't see that my academically high-flying, socially fluid, free-thinking, generous, self-sufficient child suffered by being a singleton- not at all.  To this day he says he liked being an only child.

More telling than his words, I think, is that he's chosen to marry another only child. Within his wife's character he finds a complementary independence and resourcefulness.

Only children rock.  Don't let anyone tell you any different.

Read Part 2 here!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sexualising our children isn't funny

Recently on Facebook, someone from the US posted an outraged reaction to a children's clothing store that was selling g-strings and crotchless undies in children's sizes.  Today in Australia, we have K Mart pulling a range of children's undies with sexualised messages ("Call me!"  "I love rich boys!") off their shelves, after similar outrage from responsible parents.

WHAT are people THINKING when they design and make this garbage and then try to sell it to children?

The US incident was rationalised (if, indeed, you CAN rationalise something that tacky and poorly judged) as an attempt by pedophiles to infiltrate the children's clothing market- something of an extreme view without evidence.  I thought that was drawing a little bit of a long bow.

I think it's bigger, more worrying and less overtly criminal than that.  I think that this is a creeping malaise that's got under our radar, through

(1) our failure to deal with our own personal insecurity, and

(2) our acceptance of other people's 'expert' bad decisions about what's appropriate for children.

Let me explain that.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

'Happy Families' is a card game

We have been brainwashed.

Did it start with TV shows like The Brady Bunch?  Or did that sort of show just perpetuate the myth that families are, naturally, a haven of universal and reciprocal affection?

Maybe there really are families that work like that somewhere on this earth, where Mum and Dad are founts of love and tolerance and understanding, where all the children adore and support each other, where every problem is eased along by mutual concern for others' happiness within the home circle. 

I'm scratching my head to think if I know any REAL families like that- but no, I don't.  And so my logical brain says, if that type of family is the norm, and if I've worked with families all my life, then why am I struggling to remember an example?

No, folks, I don't believe in that particular fairy tale. Last time I looked, The Brady Bunch was fiction (and a noxiously cloying variety thereof) and Happy Families was a card game (one that often led to massive rows around the family table about whether Johnny had lied about the presence or absence in his hand of Master Pinch the Pickpocket's Progeny... or something like that).

Please let me know if everyone in your family loves each other unconditionally and has no skeletonic resentment whatsoever hiding in the cupboard under the stairs.  Put your hand on your heart and tell me that Christmas will be a wonderful reunion, without a single squabble or insensitive behaviour.  I will need at least 500 families like that to give me even a 50-50 'perfect to imperfect' ratio. 

Yes, I can think of families who constantly work at their relationships and appear to do a damn good job of ironing out tensions, but there's always a flaw compared to the 'perfection' template.  There's an anorexic, or a dominating personality, or an unwanted pregnancy, or a child not achieving to potential, or a drunk, or a wife who's actually in love with someone else, or two members who can't bear to be in the same room, or a neurotic... go on, analyse some families you know.

Start with your own family and move on to your best friend's, because I can think of several families who appear to their mere acquaintances to be living the dream- but who are, underneath the patina of respectability, living the nightmare (at worst), or the undesirable compromise (at best).

So if the Perfect Happy Family is not the norm but the noteworthy exception, why are so many people- particularly women- beating themselves up over failed attempts to make their own family conform to a template that is essentially a fantasy?

I started musing about this question after I read a question on The Twin Coach's site from a slightly flummoxed mother, who was asking for advice on how to get her daughter to give her younger siblings some signs of familial affection such as the loving goodnight kiss.  Miss 5, far from conforming to the 'perfect family' template, was grouchily refusing to do any such thing, and mum was starting to worry that the little siblings might feel unloved.

Poor mum.  Children are so bad at conforming to our pre-ordained images of family.  They will insist on surprising us with behaviours we never imagined would come from the fruit of our loins, and on having their own strong and contrary feelings about things. 

We bore them, yes, we brought them into this world, but we don't own them- and we don't own or control their feelings, either.  They belong, from the start, to themselves. And we have to learn to live with that, and do our bit to negotiate peace when the different selves in our family declare war on each other in action or word.

That bewildered mum's question took me right back to when an 11-year-old boy I know, who I'll call 'Jamie', was presented with a little stepbrother by his dad and dad's new wife- let's call her 'Ruby'.  Poor Ruby had that fantasy template firmly embedded in her heart.  I won't say 'in her mind', because she was a very smart lady- a VERY smart lady- who would have been able to see her folly if it had ever occurred to her to analyse her expectations using the scientific method she learned at university.

That's the problem with being brainwashed. It doesn't occur to you to apply logic and contrary evidence. The Happy Family has been presented to us as our cultural norm, and if our family doesn't conform, then that makes US a failure.

Poppycock it does.

But back to Ruby and Jamie.  Ruby had her heart set on a Brady dynamic, while Jamie- who, as an adored only child for 11 years, probably had certain expectations of remaining so- was beset by a severe bout of rebellious rage. Nobody had asked HIM if he wanted a sibling. If they had, he would have said NO. He didn't even LIKE little kids, let alone LOVE this 24/7 package of screaming, pooping, demanding, incomprehensible, attention-seeking NUISANCE.

Simply speaking, he refused to play ball- or perhaps I should say 'cards'. It might have been a game of Happy Families until the new baby turned up, but he was damned if he was going to pretend to be happy now. And no, he would NOT kiss that baby goodnight, or smile for family photos with it.

At this point, Ruby made a fatal error- one which I would plead with that other mum not to make.  She pushed the point. She ordered Jamie to be nice. She tried to insist that Jamie show affection to the baby and conform to the Happy Family Paradigm.

Somewhere deep down, she must have seen Jamie's failure to love the baby on command as a personal affront to her values; when Jamie continued to refuse to play her game, she effectively declared war.  Jamie's failure to love the baby was presented as his failing of personality and upbringing. Blame was attributed freely. Punishments were meted out.

At no stage was Jamie given the space or approval to feel what he was, without doubt, feeling very strongly indeed.  Jamie wasn't acting out towards the baby.  He wasn't hitting it, or hurting it; he was just refusing to pretend he liked it. His whole world had shifted on its axis, and instead of being helped to find a comfortable place in that world by his adult guide, he was judged and condemned.

The result was inevitable; Jamie dug his heels in too, the whole situation escalated to the point where the parents were having constant arguments about it, and the marriage disintegrated.

Scorecard: Jamie, 10; single ex-stepmum (by now with two young children), minus 100.

What should Ruby have done?

The first thing she needed to do was to let go of her childhood dream of the perfect family, because it's a myth. She needed to play the hand she was dealt, not the hand she wished she had, and recognise that she and Jamie had a different set of emotions around that baby.  She needed to stop pretending that having a new baby was a positive experience for everyone in her family. What we want so desperately for ourselves may have a very different impact on those around us, as every career woman knows.

The second thing she needed to do was to let Jamie be himself, because none of us is very good at being someone we're not- and children are no exception.  Jamie needed to feel safe to express what he was really feeling about that baby- his fears, his resentment, his discomfort with the changes in his life, his anger that nobody had thought to prepare him for the possibility of a sibling before it was a fait accompli- and his hurt that, now that the baby was here, nobody considered his feelings to be valid or important.

Perhaps Jamie even needed to be praised for NOT acting out directly at the baby.  Some children who are racked by the emotions of sibling rivalry do actually hurt their brother or sister. Jamie had restrained himself admirably, given that his feelings were so strong. Eleven years is a long time to be the star of the show, and there are plenty of stars who've behaved worse than Jamie when an up-and-coming actor stole their limelight.

With the retrospectoscope- a powerful and (for the holder) totally useless instrument- it's also easy to see that perhaps it would have been wise to give Jamie a little less of the limelight in the first place. If we totally indulge our first child and spend every waking minute at his side, spend every cent in our purse giving him everything he wants and let him dominate our life decisions, we're setting ourselves up for a fall.

That's pretty much what happened to Jamie- the only child, the only grandchild on both sides, the apple of everyone's eye.  A little restraint might have given Jamie a more realistic view of the world. If you give a child everything and then have another baby, it doesn't take a degree in maths for that child to work out that half is less than one. Half the time, half the attention, half the disposable income, and that's if the parents are falling over themselves to be equitable (which new babies rarely allow).

You reap what you sow. Sow a little time for your second child when you have the first.

And so to that mother whose daughter won't kiss the babies goodnight, I'd say don't push it.  Let your daughter have her feelings, because her feelings are real.  Find a way to let her express those feelings- make it safe for her to speak about how she feels, or act out how she feels using dolls or teddies or puppets. 

Accept her reluctance to pretend; your daughter is being emotionally honest. Isn't that what you want her to be? Of course you do! You just don't want her to feel like that.

But that is out of your control.  She is herself. She has her own feelings. All you can do is to try to be aware, and not increase her feelings of resentment towards her siblings. She's not beating them up; good on her for that.  So chill.  Spend time with her, do the special things you used to do with her before the other babies arrived, make sure she feels your love.

When she grows up, you won't want her to feel she has to kiss people she doesn't want to kiss.  Nor will you want your younger children to accept forced kisses.  Start now. Give a consistent message.  This isn't a tableau for the camera- this is real life, and fake kisses are worthless to all parties.

Will stepping back work?  I think so.  It will give this little girl space to work through those feelings, instead of acting them out or suppressing them. That can only be good.  It will make her feel that mum now sees her as she really is, and accepts her, bad feelings and all.

I feel a great compassion for that little girl, struggling with those big feelings.  To that mum, I say that I wouldn't be worried about whether the younger siblings are feeling loved- I would be worried about whether the 5-year-old is feeling loved. This is what needs to change, not the tableau at bedtime.

There's a happy ending to Jamie's story, which might help and reassure that little girl's mum.

Once Jamie had the space to be himself, with his own real feelings, he stopped digging the hole of resentment deeper. As his little brother started to grow up and smile and say real words and show Jamie that he thought he was awesome, as only little brothers can, Jamie decided that he loved him after all.  They have a great relationship these days, full of genuine affection.

Accepting your children's feelings about their siblings is the first step in changing their rivalry.  Until you accept where they're at, you're the enemy in this highly emotive war. 

Step over the battle line.  Look at your family from your child's perspective.  What do you see?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Channeling my inner toddler: the concept of 'play as work'

It's really, REALLY hot in summer where I live. Fortunately I have a magnificent dam, complete with wharf, specifically for swimming- much less work than a swimming pool! The only drawback is that the edges can be a bit muddy, and sometimes when I climb out I end up looking like I'm wearing Ugh boots made out of mud.

So the other day I grabbed a long rope from my partner's old sailing kit, tied it to a tree on one side, swam across with it and tied it to the other side, so I'd have something stable to use to haul myself out without sinking. My beloved didn't even ask me what I was doing; it's taken him a while, but he's now worked out that when I get That Look in my eye, I'm channeling my inner toddler and it's NOT a good idea to interrupt or offer to help. I Can Do It. Don't Bother Me. (Sound familiar, toddler parents?)

When I finished, I not only had a great way of getting out of the water without the mudpack pedicure- I also had a new toy. I had an underwater tightrope.

And so since then, I've been playing with my new toy. First I used it as a lane marker so I could swim laps, but that was a bit boring. So next I decided to use it to develop my arm strength, by seeing how fast I could pull myself across the dam using only my arms.  That was kind of cool.

But once I started to see it as an underwater tightrope, things got REALLY interesting. The rope sags in the middle, you see, what with the weight of the rope and the weight of the water it sucks up. That's science. (I only really noticed that because I was in Toddler Mode. You should try it sometime; you see the world differently, with lots of interesting details you'd otherwise overlook, when you have a Personal Project based on an Interest.)

So I thought I'd try walking the tightrope across to the other side of the dam. 

Now, THAT was FUN. But it was also amazingly enlightening.

I couldn't actually see the rope, because the dam is a typical, Aussie, murky mud-brown dam.  I had to guess where the rope was, and feel with my feet, and simultaneously keep my balance with my arms. And the rope moves; it's quite bouncy, so you can't go at it too fast. I fell off quite a few times, despite my best arm-flailing efforts.

And suddenly I found myself thinking, this is what it was like learning to walk.

It really helped me with the concept of 'play as work'.  To anyone on the edges, it looked like I was just horsing around on a hot day, but I'd actually got a bee in my bonnet about getting to the other end without falling and I was teaching myself the 'rules' of staying on that rope, involving posture, balance, control, foot position and speed.

We adults don't play enough, you know. We don't set ourselves enough recreational challenges, just to see if we CAN. If we played more, and mucked around at the edges of our ability more, we wouldn't have so much trouble understanding that children's play is their form of work, and that we shouldn't interfere when they're apparently 'just playing'- but in fact, busy working something out. And we shouldn't rescue them when they're taking a risk by learning a new physical skill.

I Can Do It. Don't Bother Me.

Are you a golfer, maybe? Trying to improve your swing? Think of that feeling. Don't Bother Me. I'm Working. That's what your child is feeling when they play, and you may not understand exactly what they're teaching themselves- but believe me, they WILL be teaching themselves something.  Think before you interrupt. Let them finish what they're doing. Think of the feeling when your phone rings mid-swing. DON'T BOTHER ME! I'M PLAYING!!

All the time I was in the dam, my dog was trying to interrupt me.  He was channeling his inner toddler, too. (I've decided that, for him, the age after toddlerhood will be senility- but I digress.) When he realised I was not going to find a stick for him and throw it in the dam for him to fetch, because I Was Busy, he decided to get one for himself. (Toddlers do that.)

I could hardly blame him for coming back with a stick the size of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; it was  a branch, actually.  Now, there was another example of 'play as work'.  I watched him wrestle that 'stick' from the fence near the bush, all the way around the dam till he got it to the end of the rope, where he knew I'd get out. He spiked himself on it a few times along the way, yelping loudly enough to make my partner come and ask what was wrong.

But he's a dog, not a child; nobody interrupted his game. When he finally got that branch where he wanted it, the look of achievement on his face gave me the giggles, even though I just about broke an ankle trying to get around the damn thing when I pulled myself out of the dam.

And the realisation that it'd taken him exactly two swims to figure out exactly where I'd set foot on land reminded me that toddler he may be, but stupid he ain't.

And that, my friends, is also a lesson for all of us.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A gift for you, the readers

When I started this blog nearly a year ago, I was being pursued by the Black Dog of depression. It's been snapping at my heels for most of my adult life. For many intensely creative or talented people, chronic mental or emotional vulnerability is trotting faithfully along behind its master, Brilliance, and the leash is both invisible and indestructible.

So many of my artistic heroes were victims. Brett Whiteley's paintings are unique and heart-stoppingly beautiful, but he saw the world through a veil of heroin that eventually entangled and engulfed him. Van Gogh, another unique voice, amputated his own ear in a moment of psychological agony. Tchaikowsky, a seemingly endless fount of glorious melodies, drank water that he knew to be contaminated with cholera just to break the cycle of despair. Schumann, a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer, became so fixated on perfecting his piano-playing technique that he invented a machine to strengthen the fourth fingers of each hand; the use of this contraption crippled him so that he could no longer play at all, and he ended up in an asylum for the insane.

I'm sure you too can think of endless famous creative or talented souls who have lurched into substance abuse or extremist behaviour in an attempt to escape the demons in their heads. Amy Winehouse. Elvis. Kurt Cobain. Go on, add your own.

I may not be anything approaching that famous, nor do I have dangerous addictions or obsessions; but if I eschew false modesty, it should come as little surprise to those who know me well that Aunt Annie the storyteller, poet, musician, composer, blogger, dramatist, puppeteer, wisecracker, teacher extraordinaire and effortless entertainer of little children has a shadow following her. I might not be in Tchaikowsky's stratosphere, but I can sure understand why he quaffed that glass, as can anyone who's ridden the roller coaster from 'creative euphoria' to 'severe depressive episode'.

If you want a gut level understanding of clinical depression, I recommend this cartoon by the amazingly talented blogger Allie, of Hyperbole and a Half, who has spent the best part of the last year crippled by this illness despite the appearance of 'having it all'- a genuine talent for witty, hilarious writing, a zillion blog followers, a great boyfriend, a pending book deal. She's captured the symptoms perfectly. This unutterable blackness... from someone who can have us rolling around the floor laughing with posts like this one? No, I'm not surprised really. I know. One day some brilliant medical scientist will discover a physical relationship between talent and depression. There has to be one.

But anyway, I won't be drinking from Tchaikowsky's poisoned chalice just yet, because you- yes, you, out there reading this- you have saved me from myself. And so in this, my 100th post, I want to thank you for being there and for the way you receive my work. For reading, for coming back to read more, for sharing my words with others, for daring to be frank without being cruel in your comments.

Writing a blog has been, for me, a magical way to break the relationship between the glass of intoxicating joy and the chaser of despair. When I write this blog, I still get the joy of creation every time; each post is written and rewritten as carefully as any poem, each draft tweaked and polished until I think it's ready to meet the world.  Then when I read it and finally feel that explosive, tingling burst of brilliant firework joy that most women associate only with bearing a real life human child, I read it over one more time- yes, I admit I indulge myself, because it's so good to feel that creative blast that I want to feel it again- and come back down to earth while I'm still feeling good about what I've written. I re-engage with reality. I send it out with a click of a button to the wide blue yonder- to YOU.

And instead of the long, heartbreaking wait of trying to get my writing to the readers who might need it or appreciate it- month after month of waiting for the invariably negative response from a publisher, whose first priority is whether my writing will make the company money, whether the work of my heart and soul is worth taking a financial risk on- instead of that grinding road to hopelessness, within hours I have a genuine indication of whether my writing was really any good. Whether it made a difference. Whether, today, I have been the change I wanted to see in the world.

It's you who makes the difference. You tell me, honestly, about my life's work by coming back again and reading- or not. By commenting- or not. By reposting- or not. By doing these things, you tell me whether my writing is a contribution to a better world, or just a case of Narcissus looking into the pond in a flurry of self-delusion.

And that matters to me. It matters enough to make the difference between despair that needs medication, and sadness that I can control by looking into the mirror and saying 'This too will pass'.

Any writer can sit at home reading his own work, telling himself how wonderful it is and cursing the world and the publishers for not seeing its value, blaming the few who've read it for having no taste and reminding himself how many times Harry Potter was rejected. Put it out on a blog instead, and there's no deluding yourself. The general public, YOU, will soon give Narcissus a measure of his true beauty. And in my case, the result has been so positive; so many of you have come back, over and over again. I have evidence that I must be doing something worthwhile, after all.

And you've been honest in your reflection- more so than the pond was to Narcissus. I thank you for that, because kind words of criticism can be as nourishing as praise. I've learned so much from what you've said to me. For example, there's Lisa, who gently explained that I'd misunderstood the distinction between sexuality and gender identity in my post about prejudice, and had used an insensitively placed pronoun in my story. It opened my eyes to another layer I wasn't aware of, in the shady world of discrimination. Thank you. Please keep telling me the truth.

Another reader urged me to read more about recent research before recommending controlled crying across the board- I learned from that, too, and edited the post on children's sleep. What a wonderful thing the internet is, where we can correct our mistakes instead of having them seared on our foreheads in perpetuity because the book has already left the printer.

Those are but two examples of many. Thank you for being my kindly teachers as well as my students. That's what the best relationships are like, you know- we can learn from each other, and I want so much for you to believe that you have something to contribute. Pedestals are for statues.

And you've been encouraging. It's hard to find the words to express my gratitude to those like Janet Lansbury, Scott from Brick by Brick and Teacher Tom, just to mention a few. These people haven't just made encouraging comments to me- they've also shared my posts on their far more established sites, so that I've reached whole worlds of new readers across the globe. They've made a difference to the life of someone they've never met by being bothered. It's easy to read someone else's writing, think it's good, and keep it to yourself. Putting up links to others' words from your own territory takes not only time and effort, but also a lack of ego.

This encouragement does more good than just nourishing my self-esteem. Seeing these fine people taking the time and making the effort, devoid of the ego which might stop other bloggers from sending readers away from their own sites, gives me faith in the depths of my frequent darknesses that there are decent people out there in the world still, no matter how badly the politicians and bankers and media magnates and industry tycoons and warlords might be behaving on my television every night.

That matters to me, too. It puts the one percent back in proportion, even on days when I feel like I've fallen victim to the one percent's proteges in my professional or personal life.

And so this, my 100th post, is dedicated to you, the invisible but essential partners in the blogger-reader relationship. Thank you for what you've done for me this year.

I can't finish without giving you a thank-you gift. It's something I made at home...

...I've been sitting on a story I wrote that's important to me, hoping that someone would publish it in the Real World. I haven't heard a word from any Real Publisher, even though I believe that this story could be a breakthrough tool for those of us who are struggling with some aspects of the inclusion of children with ASD in mainstream classrooms.

Well, I'm over struggling. You deserve to have this story, because you've been here for me and you've been kind and patient. Maybe you need this story.

I hope you enjoy it. Copy it and read it to the kids if you think it will help. It needs pictures, of course; I'm not a good enough artist to do those. Maybe you can take pictures of the children in your class, and use those.

So here's "Being Friends with Bodie Finch". It's dedicated to Kalob and Ella, a pair of 5-year-olds- one with ASD, one neurotypical- who taught me a lot of what I know about inclusion.


There's a new boy in our class. His name is Bodie Finch. I don't like him.

When I make a tower out of blocks, Bodie Finch knocks it down.

When I play in home corner, Bodie Finch snatches my baby and runs away.

When I make a cubby house, Bodie Finch gets in it.

Mummy said “Zara, ignore Bodie Finch and walk away.” But when I walk away from him, Bodie Finch runs after me. Bodie Finch can run very fast. I hide behind the teacher and she tells him to STOP.

Mrs Baker is a nice teacher. I love her lots.

Bodie Finch doesn't talk properly. He says “AR” a lot, and “WISH”, and “NO”. He says “AR” the most of all. Most of the time I don't know what he means.

Mrs Baker doesn't know either. Sometimes she does a big sigh and says “Bodie Finch, I wish I knew what you wanted.” She looks at Bodie when he kicks our blocks and snatches our toys and chases us till we cry, and her face is all sad and twisty, like she's going to cry too.

When Bodie Finch gets cross, he throws things. I get scared. One day he threw a chair at me. Mrs Baker made him go home. I didn't want to come to school the next day. Mummy rang up Mrs Baker and she promised to fix it.

After that Miss Tinker came in our room when Bodie was there. Miss Tinker is Bodie Finch's special helper. Mrs Baker doesn't look so sad now Miss Tinker has come.

Miss Tinker made us stand on the mat really close together. We were so close we were all squeezed up and touching each other. I was next to my friend Lilly, but I was next to Eric too. I don't like Eric. He says mean things.

Some people thought it was funny, but I thought it was horrible. Miss Tinker said “How do you feel? Are you too close?” and I said, “It's yucky! I want to get out!”

Miss Tinker said that's what it's like for Bodie Finch all the time. People are too close and he doesn't like it. That's why Bodie likes hiding in cubbies.

Miss Tinker helped us learn some of Bodie's words. She said “AR” means he's sad and he wants to go home in the car. Bodie Finch can't say car. It comes out as “AR”.

Lots of things make Bodie Finch sad. It makes him sad when we get too busy playing inside. It makes him sad when too many people are talking and laughing and running and painting and building at once.

That's when he says “AR”. Miss Tinker takes him outside by himself now when he says that. Bodie doesn't throw chairs any more.

I like Miss Tinker. Bodie Finch is nicer since Miss Tinker came. I think she's magic, like Tinkerbell.

I didn't know Bodie Finch was sad.

Miss Tinker says that when Bodie Finch snatches our toys and runs after us he's trying to play with us. Bodie is still learning how to play nicely.

I didn't know Bodie Finch wanted to play. I thought he was just mean, like Eric.

Miss Tinker says that Bodie is very clever, even though he can't talk properly. She showed us. She gave Bodie Zac's toy car that was broken and Bodie fixed it, just like that. Zac was so scared Bodie Finch would throw his car and break it even more, but Miss Tinker said “It's okay, Zac. Bodie isn't sad now.”

Bodie Finch can fix anything.

Mrs Baker got the big blocks out for Bodie so he could build his own stuff instead of knocking ours down. Bodie Finch is very strong. He can pick up the big blocks easily. This is what he built.

I said, “What is it, Bodie Finch?”

Bodie smiled at me. He sat on the front of his thing and pretended to throw something. Then he started winding and winding with one hand. Bodie Finch said “WISH!”

I couldn't believe it. I yelled out, “Mrs Baker! Look, Bodie made a boat! He's fishing! When he says wish, he means fish!”

We were being so dumb. I mean, Bodie only says WISH when we have lunch and he's throwing his food on the floor.

Now the cook gives him fish fingers for lunch most days.

When it gets busy inside I make Bodie Finch a cubby. Mrs Baker helps me. We hang a sheet over the table and I say “Bodie, cubby. Come.” I make a roof shape over my head and I point to the cubby and hold out my hand, and he comes with me.

Miss Tinker told us to just use a few words when we talk to Bodie, and use our hands to talk too. It's kind of fun talking with our hands. Sometimes at rest time I talk to Bodie with my hands when we're meant to be sleeping. Mrs Baker tells us to stop, but she always says it with a happy face.

The first time I made Bodie a cubby I was so excited I grabbed his hand, and he pulled it away and yelled like it hurt. Miss Tinker says it's hard for Bodie Finch when people touch him. She said it's like he hasn't got any skin.

I thought about the time I took all the skin off my knee. It hurt when I touched it. Then it grew a scab and didn't hurt as much. Miss Tinker says Bodie will get better too if we're kind. She told me to say Bodie's name first, and then hold out my hand so he can touch me if he wants to.

Inside the cubby we play with the dolls and cars till it's quiet outside. I sit at one side and Bodie sits at the other. We don't talk. Miss Tinker says there's too much noise in Bodie's head already. She said that the inside of Bodie's head gets like a crazy circus, with lights flashing too brightly, and rides whirling too fast, and people yelling and music playing too loudly, and bangs and crashes and animals growling and balloons popping all the time.

It's not fun when you're not really at the circus, and you can't make all the crazy stuff stop and be still and quiet. I think I'd say “AR” too. Except I can say “car,” and people would know I wanted to go home.

It must be horrible when you can't say what you mean.

Bodie Finch is really good at playing chasings. I say “Bodie, chase me!” and start running, and he takes off like a rocket. Then everyone else wants to play too. Bodie can catch everyone except me. I'm a really fast runner too.

Today Mrs Baker was doing letters with us at mat time. She made an E for Eric, and a W for Willow, and an L for Lilly with the long blocks.

Bodie was in his cubby. He doesn't like mat time, but he sits in his cubby and listens. All of a sudden he climbed out of the cubby and grabbed the blocks from Mrs Baker, and made a shape with them.

It was a Z.

“That's my letter,” said Zac. He was really surprised.

Bodie shook his head. “NO. AR.”

“Car starts with C, not Z,” said Eric. He had that mean look on his face again, like he knew he was so much smarter than Bodie.

Bodie banged his hand on the floor hard. He frowned. He pointed his finger at me, without looking. Bodie never looks at anyone, not even Miss Tinker.

Then he pointed at the Z. “ARA”, said Bodie Finch.

Z is for Zara.

Bodie Finch said my name.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Parenting without slavery: how not to be your child's servant

I have to admit that I can be a bit of a perfectionist at times.  My friends have been known to crack jokes about my OCD- which wouldn't be funny at all if I had full-blown OCD, of course, but which are probably inevitable given that I compulsively over-categorise things, to the point of hanging out my washing and organising my home bookshelves in rainbow colour order.

Stop laughing. NOW.

Truly, I'm one of those people who likes all the Duplo to be in the Duplo box when we pack up, not mixed through the Mobilo with the odd coloured pencil thrown in.  An astrologer would say I'm a 'typical Libran'.  I hate housework, but if I HAVE to do it, then things are going to look BEAUTIFUL once I've finished.

And that makes me a perfect candidate to become a slave to little children.   

I've had to learn how to let go.  I know I don't really have OCD, because I don't constantly try to control every aspect of my surroundings (no, you can NOT eat off my floor- bleaugh!)- and I've been able to teach myself to STOP doing it when it's not a priority.  But sometimes it's still a struggle. 

And I can see now how my need for a certain type of order led to grief for my child, who really never had a chance to learn to do this stuff for himself in a way that didn't become a drama.  His resistance to my attempts to get him to do things my way just exaggerated his natural obstinacy, and encouraged his determination to turn it around and be the one in control of the situation.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Lessons from The Slap: My child is perfect... or not.

As I wander around the internet reading blogs, advice columns and news articles about bringing up children, I often have cause to stop and cringe. 

Of course, I often have cause to stop in my tracks and say 'AHA!', too.  There is some brilliant parenting advice out there.  But sad to say, there are a lot of dodgy recommendations out there masquerading as good parenting advice. 

I don't mean the sort of 'whack-'em,-silence-'em-and keep-'em-in-line' advice that lacks respect for children as human beings; I scan that, shaking my head, and move on, because some people are just lost and will never see the light.  There's a lot of it on the forums.  I drop in my two cents' worth of rationality, hoping to balance the scales, and move on.

No, I'm talking about the sort of advice that is so fulsomely positive (and I use 'fulsome' with its original definition) that it gives children a false view of the world.  Your child is perfect. Let them follow their desires or you risk stifling their creativity.  Praise everything you can, to boost their self-esteem. That sort of thing.

Poor, confused parents.  Good parenting, like truth, is such a subjective thing. It falls somewhere between 'too much' and 'too little', and nobody will agree on the location of the line.  In fact, people will argue till they're blue in the face about whether the line's over HERE or over THERE. (They can get quite nasty about it, actually.)  Parents who are struggling are not helped by vague, extreme advice.

That's probably why the ABC TV drama 'The Slap', about a 'spoilt' child who is slapped by a non-parental adult at a party, is causing so much debate.