I’m not one for universally acknowledged truths, so this generalisation will probably bite me in the behind, but I suspect that most – if not quite all – parents have, at some point, a series of thoughts around the things they don’t want to hand down to their offspring. The hangups and torments, the weaknesses and inner monologues. While we’re busy wondering if they’ll have our hair, or avoid our grandfather’s unfortunate nose, there are things about our outlook – no matter how much we’ve found peace with ourselves – that we probably wouldn’t hand down with Uncle Joe’s cheekbones and Auntie Jean’s height.
I was a nervous child. And a conflict-avoiding adult. It has taken decades of practicing the things I love – that I’m good at – to create enough of a core of confidence to make certain moves in my life. Weirdly, even though I have a very low opinion of my appearance to this day, I can be brashly confident about, say, posting an outfit photo on Instagram (well aware I don’t look that great! Don’t care!) and I told my then good friend that he loved me before he knew it himself (ten years, one marriage, a house, a cat and a child later I still know I was right). But when it comes to New Things I have to actively fight an inner voice that tells me these things are not for me; they’re for better people, cleverer people, prettier people.
I’m not unaware of how much of this is inextricably bound up with being female in this world. And when I knew I was having a daughter, busy being overjoyed simply because she was, I was relieved in some part not to have the responsibility of raising a feminist-friendly man but also terrified of the threats she was going to face both to her person and to her personhood. I prayed she’d get her father’s slight build, so she wouldn’t have to be a fat, female child – something I’d never choose to go through again – and also his calm, sweet fearlessness. He’s bungee jumped and abseiled down Table Mountain and I swear if he could hang out of an aeroplane window with his tongue hanging out like a gleeful spaniel, he would. I won’t even jump off a low wall and have to say the Lord’s Prayer in two languages under my breath as soon as the engines fire up on a plane.
But it’s more than that. He’s the one I get to make the phone calls and organise the appointments. He’s the one who happily wanders up to anyone in the room, whether he’s met them before or not, and shares life stories. There’s an undercurrent there – a reason he’s so keen to make friends, past trauma – but it manifests itself in this glorious openness. Sitting in the Monsters Inc Laugh Floor in Florida, the camera turned on him and labelled him as the guy who just wanted to get up and dance. Up he sprang and made sure it was the most outrageously embarrassing dance he could possibly manage, making our daughter almost vomit with the giggles, and then sat down, cheeks pink but pride undamaged. He will so happily make an idiot of himself, and then get over it instantly. I would be replaying any moment of accidental humiliation in my head for the next 24 years.
What has all this got to do with getting rid of old things and trying new things? I’m getting to it. You can probably see where this is going.
Our 6yo is her mother’s daughter. Sure, she also has my superpowers (an easy facility with language, a low-effort / high-reward approach to academia) but try as I might to hide my fearfulness it has leaked into the bond between us. She is cautious, frequently shy and absolutely terrified… of being terrified. Unexpected significant changes to routine bother her (she never seems to enjoy the idea of a holiday until she’s actually on it), and she really, really hates giving or throwing things away unless they’re demonstrably so far beyond use – or gross – that she can bear to tear herself away. And because the cinema is loud and dark, she has misgivings about new films – even though she loves TV and will obsessively watch the things she likes – and it’s sometimes hard to work out what will scare her. Some things, like The Jungle Book I predicted (and gave her an out, having offered to go without her anyway); others are harder to anticipate. She is extremely bright and imaginative, and thinks about things very deeply – so deeply she has told me outright, without prompting, that she can’t help considering what the worst thing that can happen is.
It can be hard for adults. On our second trip to Disney World, a place we all love and obviously have to invest both time and money to get to, rides and experiences she’d loved so much she cried when she had to leave them last time suddenly became too terrifying to do again. We started to ride things in turns so she could sit out, although she also braved and enjoyed things I hadn’t expected her to. She surprises and confuses me constantly, and sometimes, I admit, it distresses, frustrates and disappoints me. I so desperately want to be able to share the things I love with her – for her to love them too – that I can forget to let her be herself and learn and grow out of these things in her own time (and accept that she might never love those things, even if she’s not scared of them anymore). Because when I think about it at any length I know she must and will grow out of it, simply because most people do. When I look back, I was every bit as scared and only did things she was allowed to opt out of because my parents didn’t consider letting me avoid them and my big sister made fun of me. So then I was just scared and resentful – which didn’t achieve much, really. I still had to go through the process of becoming not-scared, only then with shame attached. And at the moment that R expressed fearfully that she thought she might ruin the holiday for others by being different, I knew that my gut feeling that pushing the issue was not the way to go was correct.
In the past few weeks we’ve had two issues crop up that I handled, in the first instance, extremely badly while trying to do the right thing. But then which, with patience, lots of love and a bit of strategic thinking, we were able to resolve in a way that made everyone content. So here I offer my mistakes and my successes, in the hope that if you, too, have a child who thinks about everything just a little bit more than they need to, you might find some help – or at least solidarity – in them.
The Moana Incident
When Moana came out in cinemas I was really keen to see it, but R dithered. I was perfectly happy to go without her, but she also really wanted to see it. But, unlike films on DVD at home that I’d seen before, I couldn’t tell her what might be scary and how it would resolve – I didn’t know. So we agreed we’d just get it on DVD and if it was on a small screen everything would be much easier to deal with and could be paused, etc. It arrived at home to her enormous bouncing excitement; then she read the back cover, caught a sight of some words that suggested danger or scary moments, and decided she wasn’t going to watch it after all.
I bribed. I cajoled. I argued. It did not end well.
So I apologised. And I backed off. And then I started to think about why she had wanted to see it (musical snippets on YouTube; the kid’s a sucker for a musical and has been listening to carefully vetted bits of Hamilton for weeks on my phone). For me, getting her to see it was an exercise in helping her to see the worth of overcoming her nervousness; for her, it was a chance to find a new thing she’d enjoy.
So I bought the soundtrack. First we just listened to the one everyone knows. Then we started listening to some of the other songs.
“I know there’s a big scary crab in it. My cousin told me. I don’t want to hear his song.”
One day in the car, when she was in a good mood, she wanted to listen to the soundtrack all the way through. “But the deal is, we’re not skipping Shiny,” I said. “FINE!” came the answer. During the song, she stuck her fingers in her ears.
We listened to the soundtrack all the way through again. One finger came out of her ears. “This doesn’t sound that bad… show me a picture of the crab?” We looked at them on my small phone screen. She looked on with trepidation. I showed her a picture of Jemaine Clement, because we like chatting about who does the voices.
Then one Saturday afternoon, I watched the film. She left the room with the iPad. And kept coming back in, and leaving, and coming back in, and leaving. She caught a glimpse of Tamatoa. She popped back in for the last ten minutes and was monumentally unfussed by Te Ka. Big animals = bad. Lava monsters = fine and dandy thanks, here, incinerate my island I don’t care.
The next day: “Can we watch it again?” She stayed in the room for everything except Tamatoa.
A few days later, I watched Tamatoa’s scene on my phone, knowing she wouldn’t be able to resist poking her head over. “He doesn’t look that bad, I suppose. And I saw a picture of him on Google with Jemaine Clement’s face.” I laughed out loud.
All of this happened over maybe two weeks. We’ve seen the film over and over again since then, because she adores it. She insists on watching all the credits through to see Tamatoa’s brief end-credit sequence. It’s a great new joy in her life, and she has at least one example in her head now of a time when, having gradually desensitized herself to something that worried her, it worked out for a best. That won’t always be the case, but I needed her to have that example.
So if I have any tips it would be: don’t push, at all, but do gradually build up exposure by going for the most tempting bit. All carrot, no stick.
The Great Clothes Clear-Out of 2017
R didn’t just inherit her dad’s build; she got his height, too. Then again, I’m almost 5’9″ myself. She’s 6yo and right in the middle of the weight range, but she wears size 2 shoes and to get the length right her leggings and dresses – her preferred uniform – are all aged 8-10. She doesn’t like trousers much these days, but it’s just as well on a practical level – the waist gapes if the length is right unless they’re trackie bums like the ones she wears for stage school (yes, it does massively help confidence if you can afford it / talk them in through the door, but it’s by far not the only way if you can’t or can’t right now).
Being prone to impressive growth spurts means you end up with a lot of clothes in good condition that need to move on. Whether to family and friends – her cousin of the same age is slightly shorter and slighter – or to a charity shop.
I suggested we might need to move on a few pieces she’s clearly outgrown – and in some cases never really liked in the first place. CUE THE TEARS.
We tried logic – getting her to try them on to see how badly they fitted. We tried appealing to charity – wouldn’t it be nice for another child to have them? We tried pointing out the horrendously limited storage in our shoebox of a house. To no avail. On – gentle – questioning, two issues emerged:
- Many of these things were presents from us or her grandparents – what if said grandparents were mortally offended or thought she hadn’t liked their gifts?
- What if she wanted to wear them again?
There wasn’t a whole lot we could do about the second of these. The rigmarole of trying on tiny jumpers and short leggings helped – she could, with a bit of lighthearted cajoling, recognise that, as angry as she was about it, she couldn’t make the clothes bigger or herself smaller. But the former was a really big issue for her. She seemed to feel especially bad about pieces I could tell she’d never been that fond of, since she felt a sense of guilt she hadn’t even got use out of them when they did fit. A mixture of failed obligation and FOMO. I briskly told her that obligation be damned – you’re not obliged to like or use a gift. You are obliged to politely thank someone for it. Equally, the person you give it to is not obliged to like or use it after. Once it’s no longer yours you cannot dictate the terms (she got a bit reproachful about this – “what if they don’t care about it like I do?!” – but accepted at least she wouldn’t be there to see it).
The sticking point remained. Finally, we came to an agreement. We would gently broach the subject with the grandparents next time we saw them and explain that the clothes no longer fit – and ask their permission to give them away. In the end, she asked my mother hrself, and was so reassured by the answer she forgot to even mention it to my mother-in-law. And once we also pointed out that clearing out would leave room for a few new bits and pieces we needed to get her, the fog began to lift. The very next day after that visit to my mother, she helped me carry every item of clothing she owned into the living room and took control of the whole process: we had a pile for keeping, a pile for the bin / recycling (old underwear and tortured socks), a pile for friends and family and a pile for the charity shop. I held up the items, we agreed on their destination, she piled them up accordingly. We matched socks, stuffed things in bags and handed them to Daddy to send on their way (or temporarily store). And she has never once regretted a single item.
I am sure I will get it wrong again. Sometimes impatience to see her best self breaks through. Sometimes she surprises me so much; at her end-of-term showcase at stage school we were expecting her usual shy mumble, but she read her poem beautifully with a happy smile and bounced through the rest of the show, even the dancing which I could tell was slightly embarrassing her. She’s really excited about having a part as a hula girl in the next show, and a bit where she holds up a sign to the audience. She was a confident narrator in the school Christmas show. She meets new people of all ages and can go from hiding behind my leg to being their BFF in under 20 minutes. She fears being embarrassed and standing out by wearing a BOBBLE HAT IN SCHOOL OMG even though her friends do, but chooses the most outrageously day-glo trainers for out of school that you can imagine, and tells all her friends about them. She says I’m embarrassing her all. the. time. but also happily still gets before-school kisses and cuddles at the gate.
I never know when one of these bone-deep reactions is going to hit, or what understandable or less understandable issue it’s going to hit over. I, too, have to learn as she is learning. Each time I have to remind myself that patience works – and that it’s no less than she deserves. That validating her feelings of fear – telling her she’s entitled to them – isn’t the same as saying there’s anything to be scared of. That, as much as I’m an unapologetically strict parent about certain things – manners and consideration for others, for example – carrot is a considerably more effective tool than stick (metaphorical stick, I hasten to add – I do not believe in ever raising a hand to a child in anger, ever). And frankly, carrot is really all I want to put into the world where my daughter is concerned. Even if she never changes one bit, I’ll love her just the same, just as deeply and fiercely.
I often think I’ve given her the wooden spoon that is the worst of myself. The least I can do is teach her the ways to add the spoonful of sugar that I’ve had to learn the hard way. If she can learn faster than I did – cocooned with love, not shame – then maybe I can have given her a little of the best of myself, too.