Thursday, 24 November 2011

motherhood and empathy pie


Snooks walked out of school the other day brandishing an apple.

I say brandishing as this shows you exactly how he was carrying it (like an offensive weapon) and Snooks’ attitude toward all fruit (like an offensive weapon).

Delighted to see him holding such a symbol of life and goodness and well-being (except the whole Eve thing), I swelled with pride.

“Ooh what’s that you’ve got?’ I asked, stupidly, but hoping to draw the eyes of the other mums that they may hear his answer which in my excitement I had thought might spell ‘reward for good behaviour’. Stupid.

“An apple,” said Snooks, a little disconsolately, a touch embarrassed, even.

“I know but why have you got it?” (On I went, ever optimistic)

“The teacher gave it to me.” (Oh joy, oh joy, could it be a toy picked up voluntarily, a friend in need helped, even a song sung or story told for the enjoyment of the class…)

Snooks looked at it, frowned a little and said, matter of factly, “I don’t think she wanted it.”

You have got to love him. All my hopes for his having learned to play the system and get the rewards by following a few simple rules vanished in a flash, but my love for this funny little child flooded in.

Apart from his absolute inability to dissemble in order to win credit for himself, he also honestly cannot understand why anyone in their right mind would want fruit.

And then it dawned on me. Empathy. It is one of the few specific occasions I can remember where Snooks has demonstrated his ability to empathise. He put himself in teach’s shoes and thought about why she had given it away. And the answer was clear. Fruit sucks.

A friend hypothesised the other day about the correlation between children role-playing with toys and games and their ability to empathise. We were not sure which came first, those with natural empathy like to role-play or those encouraged to role play developed empathy. Perhaps a bit of both.

It has become fond family joke chez Snooks that when other children come to play, they cast around the room filled with cars, trucks, planes and tractors and ask: “But where are the people?”

Believe me I have tried. Remember back to the early days when Clairebear was snugged into the boy buggy only to be hurled out and run over with the wheels?

We have held tea parties for all the cuddlies where Snooks has peered into his tiny china cup wondering why there was no real food and drink in this joint.

Then came the era of dressing up where I donated half my vintage wardrobe to a box in his room hoping the more lifelike the clothes, the more likely Snooks would be to take part. But after one or two parades around the house wearing my matador–with-roses hat and a fake moustache, he lost interest. Even when I caved in and bought a commercial pirate costume accompanied by a hat, which frankly I am tempted to wear myself, Snooks refuses to act up.

So this, this faint glimmer of recognition about others, their separateness and their feelings heralds the dawn of a new era.

But it comes at a price. During that same week, I witnessed Snooks in an encounter, which also demonstrated his newfound sensitivity to others, though not in a good way.

He and his new school friend had gone to the local park after school as many do and were joined by another older boy who is a long standing friend of Snooks’ school pal.

I thought I had observed a little hostility from the older one when this combination cropped up accidentally once before but had dismissed it as my hypersensitivity to such things.

However there was no mistaking this one. As the boys scooted and the mums chatted my antennae (do you get that thing, where you just know something before it happens?) twitched when I noticed Snooks was lagging uncharacteristically behind the others. As the group moved on, the older boy turned back and walked towards Snooks, who slowly drew to a halt. Snooks is a little under height for his age and this boy is tall for his, and as I saw him stand and tower over my son, my legs started to take me over in their direction. They were in full view of the park so the boy would have been unwise to use his fists. But he did not need to. Whatever he said caused Snooks to dissolve into heaving sobs and cling around my neck the moment I arrived.

Now Snooks is small but pretty tough and I have seen him pushed, hit and even bitten with barely a flinch. So I was fairly sure this was not a physical threat. This he would have brushed off or offered similar in return. No this was something else.

“Take me home now!” he shouted, wrapping his legs around me.

I knew there was no point in asking the boy what he had said and when I tried to find out from Snooks he begged me not to ask him about it or tell anyone.

Although what I felt like doing was taking this boy to one side and carrying out some Guantanamo-style interrogation on him until he told me what he had said, I decided to grant Snooks his wish to get the hell out of there.

But as we were heading for the gate I noticed the boys returning some balloons they had been playing with to another child who had brought them to the park and remembered that Snooks did not have one.

Out of earshot I gently asked Snooks whether he had wanted a balloon to play with and was that the problem.

“I want to go to the party,” he sobbed sadly into my shoulder.

As we rejoined the mums to say goodbye, the older boy stood behind his looking guiltily up at Snooks.

“I think there has been a misunderstanding,” I enunciated clearly to the boy’s mum. “X seems to think someone is having a party but I don’t think that is so, is it?” I asked turning my best steely gaze on the boy. It was a gamble, but I knew the balloons had been brought to the park by a child who was new to the area and did not know anybody. I knew this because his mother had asked me if Snooks would play with him.

“Is there a party?” she asked him.

“No,” he muttered.

“There is no party is there?” I asked him in a way which I hoped said: “You do that to my son again and you have me to deal with,” and we left it at that.

Snooks eventually recovered though it took longer than any other pain he has encountered yet in his life. I did my best to help him through explaining that not everyone would be nice to him and cashing in on the opportunity to remind him how important it was to be kind to others.

Empathy. Like fruit. It sucks.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

fair play


Snooks is having a day off.

He’s had a few days off recently. The realisation that school is a chore for him, even though he has come to accept its inevitability, softened my resolve on this.

Mums seem to split into two camps. One says ‘give ‘em an inch…’ and the other says ‘they are only three’. I leaned towards the former at first, after the painful battle we had to get Snooks to go to school at all, not wanting to have to repeat the nightmare every other week.

But from the slim shreds of information I have gleaned about Snooks’ time inside those four walls the picture I have built up is that he is bored, he plays mostly alone and his high spot is finding a particular car which he plays with pretty much from the moment he arrives until he goes home.

A little concerned at his apparent solitude I asked a member of staff how he was getting on.

“Oh he is doing really well, so well I don’t really notice him anymore,” she said. In other words, he has stopped causing trouble; Good. And he had dropped under the radar; Bad.

It actually made me more sad than when he was rolling around kicking out in fury at having been left there and having to be attended to much of the time. The thought of him biding his time quietly until I came to take him home horrified me.

So that, combined with a bit of a sniffly nose, has earned him a couple of days at home with me. And on these days, this little boy had played happily for hours with and without me, helped to tidy up, eaten his dinner and been, more or less, an exemplary child. More or less.

The experience has reassured me that Snooks is able follow instructions and so is perhaps not suffering a behavioural malady which compels him to reject social contact and all authority.

He just does not want to.

His dilemma seems to be that he wants to play with other children but cannot bear that they don’t play the way he likes. He seems unable to compromise on this, even knowing that the price will be not playing with the friend. And he expresses his frustration at this dilemma physically – throwing stuff, pinching and biting.

One morning this week we ended up at a playgroup for much younger children where one or two toddlers were pottering about in a warm snug hut with three or four toys. There were two paid council childcare staff on hand to play with the tots and support the mums. This is a far cry from the playgroups Snooks and I attended, which were a free-for-all in a church hall where one stern old lady oversaw a scrum for the pile of battered old toys.

We were dropping off a toy borrowed from the Toy Library when Snooks caught sight of a train set and sat down to play with it.

I faced my own dilemma; take him away from the contact with others because he finds it difficult and deprive him of the chance to play in this nice peaceful place, or suck it and see.

Paying the Ayatollah’s ransom it cost for an hour of such exclusive access to the council’s facilities, I sat down to push the car round the track while Snooks made the train go, acting out his favourite ‘near miss at the level crossing’ game over and over again.

However, as often happens when Snooks and I play together in public, another child came over to join in, fatally grabbling the train Snooks was pushing around.

As Snooks grabbed it back and threw a left hook catching the younger boy on the back, a smaller child crawled over and pulled up the track before his mother could stop him. Snooks lost his temper completely and I had to hold him back as he screamed in fury. Both mothers pulled their children away, staring at Snooks with mutterings about ‘having a go when he has finished’.

I let out a big sigh here. I used to regularly rescue Snooks from aggressive older boys at playgroups and feel furious that the mothers of these children did not jump in to stop them hurting him. Now here was mine, lashing out, out of control, unacceptable.

Except. Now I cannot condone the violence. But Snooks was playing with the train and the children came and ruined his game. Is that fair? Would you like it if a stranger walked over to you in the middle of a tennis match, took your racquet and shouted ‘my turn’?

Sure the toys are for sharing but does that necessitate tandem playing? If the children wanted a turn, could their mothers not have asked and explained to them they had to wait. Am I wrong here people?

By the time they did ask Snooks was enraged and indignant about being dragged away from the toy. He, somewhat understandably, refused point blank to share it with anyone.

Also to add to the confusion, we had agreed with the library lady that we would borrow the train set and so in Snooks’ mind it had become, temporarily, his.

After he had calmed down, the library lady cleared the air suggesting that if Snooks shared the train with the others now, he could take it home afterwards.

As he silently resumed playing, ignoring her, the other helper slid across the floor on her belly and lay down next to the track looking up at him.

“Hi, I’m Nicky,” she said.

Within 15 minutes she had persuaded Snooks to: apologise to me for hitting me and ‘making me sad’, exchange names, ages and a high five with her, relinquish the train set and perform a full rendition of the song Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Snooks then voluntarily handed out cars to the two other children, inviting them to come and join him in a new game of sliding them down a track while counting how long it took for each one to get down.

“The single one takes four seconds and the linked one takes five seconds,” he told Nicky.

During this same 15 minutes Nicky and I had also conducted a silently mouthed conversation, which went something like this.

Me: “He loves other children but cannot seem to play with them.”

Her: “He needs to learn to share. What is his nursery’s plan for him and what does his keyworker say?”

Me: “His what now?”

I am pr├ęcising but she pulled a shock horror face about now.

By the time we left, the other mothers were smiling and had intimated that they thought he was a genius.

Nicky had also told me some stuff; how he could learn to express anger appropriately (by throwing soft toys), how he could learn to protect his personal space while playing (by raising his hand and saying ‘stop’ rather than lashing out); that his problems playing with other kids stemmed from frustration possibly due to his high intelligence (duh) and that I should change nursery.

What I saw is that Snooks knows exactly what is expected of him. He demonstrated for Nicky, who he clearly warmed to, that he could share very well, when he wants to. He just does not want to.

Would a key worker and a proper care plan make any difference to him?

Snooks loves adult attention having had mine almost exclusively for almost four years and would no doubt enjoy his current nursery more, were it available there. It may be that another nursery would provide this.

But is it what he needs?

Friday, 11 November 2011

safety in numbers


I stood with Snooks this morning in our kitchen and counted to a hundred.

This was not, as you may have expected, a calming down exercise, though come to think of it that is not a bad idea.

It was just for fun. It is Snooks’ quintessential idea of a good time and after we had reached the century he shrieked with joy: “Can we do it again?”

Not for the first time I realise that the hundreds of pounds spent on plastic objects piled up in our dining room could have been put to some other use – like a decent haircut or a nice handbag. The annual negotiation with the Engineer about What To Get Him For Christmas held this week with the usual ‘where do we keep it/how do we afford it?’ caveats could have been much shorter. A calculator, in his pocket, under a tenner.

Snooks’ fascination with numbers has grown up gradually and has not, I might add, been especially encouraged by me. Not that I am against his reading off every door number, published telephone number (you would be amazed how many there are in a walk around the block – estate agent boards, taxi firm numbers, trademen’s vans) and digital clock display, just that I try very hard not to be tempted to push him somewhere he might not really want to go.

I can’t deny, it is tempting. When he first showed some football proficiency, dribbling with ease down our hallway and showing a clear left foot preference I could not help but look up local mini soccer teams and make enquiries about at what age professional clubs start looking for young talent.

Then came the verbal flair and the extraordinary phase when he appeared to be talking in French (see Say Quoi) and performed Frere Jacques for his French-speaking cousin and aunt at the ripe old age of two and three months.

But he’s over all that now. Oh yes he’ll still kick a football on the Common with his best friend and can throw a mini rugby ball over the top of a full size rugby post (thanks to the World Cup All Blacks victory last month which sent Snooks and the Engineer running across the road to the nearby rugby pitch in a post-match frenzy of excitement). But today he is all about the numbers.

My approach has been that so long as he asks I will play numbers with him. We add up on scraps of paper wherever we go, we play “guess the missing number” as we walk down the street where the absence or every other number causes him some concern and we even make the shapes of numbers with our bodies, bringing maths and yoga together in a harmony which seems just right. The latter was inspired by Snooks standing before his father and I with his arms crossed in front of himself shouting “Look, a four!”

And it's not just addition and sequences that turn him on. While visiting the Engineer's place of work recently, Snooks' attention was drawn to the cluster of air conditioning units outside the building which I assumed he had stopped to count. I am used to him counting the objects in his surroundings, a trait which my father had all his life. But this one surprised me. As I eavesdropped on his quiet calculations, I realised he was grouping them into sets, carrying out multiplication and addition at the same time.

"So three twos and two twos makes ten," he whispered to himself.
"Blimey, did you hear that?" I whispered in turn to the Engineer.

I admit, I am proud of his ability. I waver between excitement at where it could lead him if nurtured properly and fear about where it might take him if not.

But a quick squizz on mumsnet the other day revealed I am not alone. I discovered there are other ‘mathsy toddlers’ some of whom have continued to enjoy numbers throughout their childhood without incident and some who got bored at the slow pace at school and suffered.

It is early days for Snooks yet. It may be yet another phase. He seems to develop quickly in some areas and slowly in others, so his peers may well catch up before school starts.

His first few years in education will focus, as the curriculum dictates, on social skills, which, shall we say, could use a little work. By the time he starts maths at school he may well have moved on to something else – like music for instance.

Did I mention we have a piano arriving next week?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

you say potato


Snooks delighted an older lady the other day with a rendition of this Gershwin classic while sitting on a beach at Ryde in the Isle of Wight.

He had begun the song and faltered slightly leading her to mistakenly think that he may not remember all the lyrics to such a grown-up number. So she supplied the next line only for him to sing the whole song more or less word, note and intonation perfect.

At the point where the singer (in our collection, Ella Fitz) relents about calling the whole thing off “For we know we need each other so we better call the calling off off” he turned to me and grinned with a knowing beyond his years.

Snooks’ persistent contrariness has driven me to distraction. I have devoted more hours of thought, reading, weeping and talking to this subject than any other in my lifetime. Even the most elusive exes did not take up this much room in my head. He really does Drive Me Crazy.

So the song has become a fond joke between us, a pressure valve when his defiance in the face of every request is about to blow the roof off.

When I find myself sitting with my three year old, engaged in yet another “but you said/but I said” debate over whether he should get down from the table/brush his teeth/wash his hands/ get dressed/ pick up his toys/ go to bed/ stay in bed/ share/ say sorry/ be quiet or just simply listen, I resort to singing the song. It makes us laugh and it makes the point. And he gets it too.

However, it has changed nothing. First people said it was the house move, he would settle down. Then it was being an only (as my adult ‘only’ friend calls her kind) and nursery would sort it.

Occasionally he will comply, temporarily, if my fury has finally gone beyond his idea of fun (though this is quite a long way) but then he soon resumes his campaign which no stickers, no toys, no chocolates and no threats of punishment can weaken.

I do admire his will and as some have said, when they have run out of any other encouraging remarks to make, it will stand him in good stead later on.

But our current battle has taken me to my limits. My latest action is more reading (How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk) some withdrawing from society to save the stress of fighting in front of friends and some reaching out for help – to the same friends who thankfully understand.

Just as I was beginning to feel resentful of Snooks' constant resistance, I read somewhere that children with such great ‘control issues’ need to be able to let go and let the adults be in charge so that they can get on with being a child. It suddenly made me feel sorry for him again. It spoke to my desire to protect him and made me wonder if for some reason he is afraid to let us steer the ship.

Snooks seems to be afraid of very little. He is not keen on heights, he does not like being alone in the dark (who does?) and he’s never been mad about people pretending to be something else (see clowns, entertainers, face painting, fancy dress costumes, children’s television presenters and anyone who feigns interest in him). But other than that he is pretty much invincible.

But could it be that he is afraid that he is not safe with the Engineer and I at the helm?

If so, I don’t think even the great George and Ira can sort that one out