Tag Archives: childhood

Small Imaginations Hold the Most

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite stories was by Astrid Lindgren, and it was called ‘Nils Karlsson, the Elf.’

Image: gimmesumhunny.wordpress.com - also on this blog, there is a full transcript of the story, which pleased me hugely. I hadn't read it in a long, long time before this morning.

Image: gimmesumhunny.wordpress.com – also on this blog, there is a full transcript of the story, which pleased me hugely. I hadn’t read it in a long, long time before this morning.

It tells the story of a lonely little boy named Bertil, left alone each day while his parents go out to work. Beneath his bed is a nail, which – when he touches it and says a magic word – makes him small enough to play with a tiny elf named Nils Karlsson who happens to live in his bedroom. So, the story tells us, Bertil was lonely and afraid no more when his parents left him alone, because now he had a friend to keep him company, and the whole world looked new and different when he was no bigger than a thumb.

I loved that story then, and I love it now. I love it because it makes me realise how much a child’s imagination can hold – how many worlds, how many characters, how much magic. I loved it particularly because Bertil can grow big again when he’s finished playing, and so he has his parents on one hand, and the magical world of Nils Karlsson on the other. That, to me, was the perfect story.

This past weekend, my husband and I visited one of his oldest friends, a man whom my husband has known since they were both about four years old. This is particularly wonderful because my husband’s friend now has a daughter who has just turned four, as well as a little son who is just over eighteen months old. It was amazing to see my husband and his friend fall into the speech patterns and comfortable-ness of their shared youth while his wife and I played with the children – and by played, I do mean played. The four-year-old has an imagination the size of eternity.

During the few hours we spent together, this little girl, her brother, her Mummy and me took a plane journey across another galaxy in order to find a beach in China where we could swim with all our clothes on. We had a safety belt to hold us in our seats (which, when not moonlighting as airline security equipment, is a skipping rope); we had one ‘crash helmet’ (which was a witch’s hat left over from Halloween) which we had to share between us; we suffered alien attacks, volcanic eruptions, inter-stellar fuel difficulties and a severe make-believe coffee shortage until, finally, we arrived at our magic beach.

It was the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time.

I was amazed to hear the constant patter of chat from this tiny girl, all the time making up more and more elaborate tales, constructing story world after story world, taking changes and twists into account. Everything became magical – her scooter became a rocket, her parents’ bedroom a mighty sea. Her own bedroom was a magical cave. She read to me from her books, and told me better stories than the ones written on the page.

And then, like Bertil from my favourite story, when she wanted to return to her ‘own’ world it was a simple matter of refocusing her gaze. Her magic rocket became her scooter again, and her house stopped being an inter-galactic cruise ship just long enough for her to reassure herself that her Mummy and Daddy were still there, or for her to get some juice or finish her dinner. Then, when she wanted it to, her beautiful imaginary world clicked back into place and it was all systems go once more.

I think there’s something very profound in that little lesson.

It also made me wonder whether my own imagination, old and dessicated as it has become, is big enough and flexible enough to hold all the worlds that children can imagine so effortlessly, and so fluidly. I can but try.

Image: omtimes.com

Image: omtimes.com

(Note: my husband drew my attention to this article, a blog in Scientific American, about the value of pretend play to a child’s development. It’s very interesting, and rather relevant to my own little post. So, check it out if you like!)

It’s the Little Things

Lots of things in life bother me. I’m one of those people where ‘the river runs close to the surface,’ if you know what I mean; I am emotional, and sometimes I find myself shedding a tear where other people would go unmoved. If I’m honest, I like this aspect of my personality, though I know it upsets my loved ones at times. I like the fact that I feel things deeply, even though it’s painful; it makes me feel connected to myself, and to others.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

At the weekend, I was standing at traffic lights waiting for a chance to cross the road in safety. Facing me, coming in the opposite direction, was a set of young parents and their two boys, probably aged about seven and five. I’m not a parent, but I’m more than aware of how boisterous and energetic children of this age can be, and these two little boys were no different from the average kid. One of them started pressing the ‘Walk’ button repeatedly, as children do, and the other was prancing about from foot to foot, singing a little song to himself. Just as I was thinking what cute children they were, I witnessed a show of anger from the parents that left me reeling. The children were shoved and shouted at, and the boy with his hand on the ‘Walk’ button had it forcibly removed. The singing child was yelled at and told to shut up. As they started to cross the road, one boy dawdled, his attention caught by something in one of the idling cars, and his father grabbed him and shoved him across the road with what I felt was unnecessary force, shouting at him all the way. In no point was the child in danger – the green ‘walk’ signal was lit, and the cars were not moving. The physicality was extreme and unwarranted, I thought. I glared at the man, and said, very clearly, ‘there’s no need for that!’ as we passed one another on the road – he ignored me, of course. I hardly expected anything else. I’m fully prepared to accept that my actions may not have been appropriate; it’s not for me to say how anyone else raises their children, and I know that. Having said that, I watched the two little boys as they reached the far side of the road; from being the curious, singing little things they’d been at the beginning of this scenario, now they were both crying and angry. The whole family was furious with one another, and it radiated from them like steam from boiling water.

I walked home feeling so sad at what I’d seen. It stayed on my heart all day, weighing it down.

There’s a poem called ‘Children Learn What they Live,’ which played on my mind for most of the rest of the weekend. It begins: ‘If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn; if a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight; if a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.’ I’ve often read this poem and it has always been clear to me how perceptive and true it is. It makes me wonder how a parent thinks treating their child with aggression can lead to anything but pain, or how they think that a child is going to grow up as a happy, contented and secure adult if they’ve felt bullied and belittled all their lives.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the family I saw was abusive, or anything like that. Every family has its bad moments, and perhaps I simply happened to be there at the wrong time for this particular family. I’m also not saying that children shouldn’t be corrected when they misbehave; teaching a child how to negotiate the world with respect for themselves and others is a vital part of parenting, and discipline is part of that. For the record, I don’t believe in physical discipline of children, but I know opinions differ on that. I feel, too, that correcting a child’s misbehaviour with appropriate discipline is different from using them as punchbags for an adult’s own feelings of anger or upset or frustration; the latter is inexcusable.

Of course I would love to see a world where no child would ever know aggression, whether it’s verbal or physical, but we’re all aware of how realistic that dream is.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

I have a huge amount of sympathy for parents who, under pressure from every corner, find raising their children difficult; it’s not easy to find the money and the time and the energy to parent energetic, never-sleeping, inquisitive little people. There are going to be times when tempers boil over and anger reaches flashing point and things are said which will be regretted later – but it’s really important to express this regret, and ‘mend the fences’, and reassure the child that they are still, and always, loved. Love is such a little thing – such a short word, and so often bandied about – but at the same time it’s the single most important thing a parent can give their child. I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most important thing one person can give another.

I would love to see a situation where every child was afforded an education, the chance to learn how to read and write fluently and confidently, and the knowledge that – no matter what – they are loved. Imagine the generation of happy, compassionate and intelligent people we would raise.

Imagine the difference it would make to the world.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

 

 

 

 

Old Haunts

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a surprise birthday party for a man who has been a loyal and affectionate friend to my parents for many years. This man, and his lovely wife, met my parents when they were all on honeymoon – the two couples happened to choose the same hotel, and bonded over their shared ‘Irish abroad’ status – and they have been inseparable friends ever since. Growing up, they seemed to my brother and I more like an extra aunt and uncle than ‘mere’ family friends, and they are a deeply loved branch of the family at this stage.

On our way to the hotel in which we were spending the night of the party, my husband and I drove through landscapes tightly woven with my memories of childhood. My brother and I spent so many summers staying with our parents’ friends and their two children, who were – more or less – the same age as we were, and all those sunny, happy days came back to me as we drove down streets that I would once have known like the back of my hand. In my first year at university, I stayed in our friends’ house, walking about two miles every morning to catch the bus to college (and, crucially, two miles back in the evening, when it was dark, or rainy, or I’d perhaps been at the student bar…); as we drove along the same road I used to walk, I could almost see myself striding along, ready to welcome my new, adult life. I wondered what the ‘me’ of my early adulthood would think of the ‘me’ of today. I hope she’d be proud.

The day after the party, we called down to our friends’ house and took a wander through their estate (or ‘neighbourhood’, I suppose, for my North American friends!) It was almost overwhelming to feel the onrush of memories, the swell of happy childhood days well spent, and the more stressful and (at times) upsetting days of my early college life. I realised how so much of what I remembered from that time has changed, while at the same time the shadows of streets and houses I remember are still there, like ghosts.

We walked through a huge field that I spent so many hours exploring with my brother and our two friends, both of whom are grown men with children of their own now; it was wonderful to be able to set foot in it again with my husband, linking the two halves of my life so neatly and securely. There used to be wonderfully exciting rock formations in that field when we were young – which, of course, became battlements and castles and forts and impregnable cliffs in our imaginations – and sadly, these have long been removed now, but the trees we used to play around are still there. I walked past a row of these huge trees, looking at the mounds of earth around their roots, up and down which I would trundle, carefully, on a borrowed and unfamiliar bike as a little girl. They seemed so huge to me then; I could step over them, now. I was so happy to see that not only are the trees, and the field, still there, but that someone has planted new trees, too – future generations of children will be able to play as we did in that very same field.

My only regret, really, from the weekend was that my brother wasn’t able to be there with me. He had to work, and I wish he’d been able to share these memories with me. But, hopefully, there’ll be another chance to do that.

I looked around at my family and friends as we celebrated together this past weekend, marking the life and birthday of a man who is so dearly loved by all of us, and realised again that ‘this is what life is all about.’ Life’s not about money, or status, or objects, or possessions, or who has the biggest car or the biggest house. Life is – or, perhaps, should be – about weekends like the one I just spent, laughing and talking and spending time with the people you love. I’m privileged to have so many people who love me, and I hope I’ll always remember how important this realisation is.

I hope you all had lovely weekends, too, and if – as is the case in Ireland – today is a day off for you, I hope you spend it well, doing something you’ll be happy to remember in years to come. Happy New Week!

Image: regreenspringfield.com

Image: regreenspringfield.com

Protecting Childhood

In the media yesterday, a story broke about an inappropriate greeting card, aimed at teenage girls, which was found for sale in the United Kingdom. I don’t want to re-hash the card, or its ‘message’ on my blog, but there’s a news article here which will give the details, if you want to check them out for yourself. The first I heard of it was on Twitter, where the person who had found the card for sale (a prominent US-based children’s and YA author) posted a photograph of it, to the widespread disgust of everyone who saw it, including me. For a long time, I felt sure that the card had to be a hoax, such was the level of my disgust at what I saw; I honestly couldn’t believe that such a thing could ever have been produced, let alone permitted to be sold. The makers of the disgusting greeting card defended themselves by saying that the card is a design from several years ago which should no longer have been available to purchase – but that’s hardly the point, is it? The point is, it was designed, approved, printed, shipped, and sold in the first place.

I was reminded of several stories which have made headlines in recent years, including one in which a retailer was found to be selling wildly inappropriate toys through its online arm, including a pole-dancing kit for children (yes, you read that right!), among others. One that also springs to mind is the shirt made for little girls emblazoned with the logo ‘So Many Boys, So Little Time’, which was also withdrawn from sale after parental complaints. Recently, several retailers pledged to make their stock more appropriate for children, which was a step in the right direction, and it was widely welcomed. However, despite the fact that steps have apparently been taken to halt this early sexualisation of children, I fear that it is still going on. Recently, I was in a children’s clothes shop looking for a present for a friend’s wife, who had recently given birth to a baby girl. I found a beautiful outfit, and had just handed over my money, when I noticed that there was a display of underwear aimed at 2- to 3-year-old girls beside the till; I was disgusted to see that they were made to resemble adult underwear. I almost felt like asking for my money back and turning on my heel, but my nerve failed me, and I didn’t say anything to the sales assistant. I should have.

Why do we put so much pressure on our own children? Why do parents buy these sort of items for their children? Parents who allow their daughters to dress in Playboy-branded clothing ‘because it’s just a bit of fun’ are, clearly, unaware of the damage they’re doing; I refuse to believe they don’t care about the effect their choices are having on their children. I can’t understand how this has been allowed to happen. Is it driven by market demand, or is the ‘fashion’ for these sexualised items created by manufacturers? I can’t imagine purchasing anything for any child which bore any hint of an inappropriate or sexual message, so I’m completely baffled at the thought of a parent buying such an item for their own child. Perhaps I’m underestimating the power of pestering – if a child sees that all their classmates have lewdly-branded schoolbags, or whatever, then they’ll stamp and whine until they get one, too. I’d really hope, however, that if I’m ever lucky enough to be a parent, that my own sense of what’s appropriate will win out over my child’s ability to annoy me.

I'm going to stand here until you buy me that stripper outfit, Mother! You just watch me!

I’m going to stand here until you buy me that stripper outfit, Mother! You just watch me!

I don’t accept, either, the argument that if a child is too young to understand the message they’re bearing on their clothing, or whatever, that it does them no harm. My own feeling is that if a young girl grows up wearing (for instance) Playboy-branded clothing, that she’ll be inclined to think there’s nothing unsavoury about the brand as she grows older, and begins to understand what it really means. The brands are building their future client base by targeting the youngest consumers they can; even that cynical market-building, on its own, makes me uneasy. If a little girl is given clothing which labels her as ‘juicy’, or ‘sexy’, or whatever, that’s the sort of mental image she’ll construct of herself. Then, when she grows into womanhood, it may be the case that she’ll be more inclined to judge her own worth by her appearance, or her sexuality, than might have been the case otherwise. This sort of reduction of womanhood is prevalent enough as it is – we don’t need future generations of women to keep doing it to themselves.

I am heartened that there was such an outcry over the greeting card, all over the world, when it was discovered. I’m also heartened that parents were the ones who drove the big retailers to change their policies and take some of these horrible items out of the marketplace. But I do fear it’s just an aspect of a larger problem, and that the war is far from being won. Childhood is short and fragile enough – I hope we come to our senses, as a society, and protect it for as long as we can.