Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Read to Me, Please! Why Parents Must Read to Their Children.

Over the last couple of years, I have developed a strong interest in investigating why some children are readers and others are not.  My interest arose after marking a particularly appalling set of exam papers for Grade 8 (12-13 year olds) in February of 2010.  All but a few managed to write an essay that had a beginning, middle and end, that used paragraphs and that contained a well-narrated, interesting storyline.  I started reading widely on the subject and also asked the pupils themselves what they had read as children and what their parents had read to them.  I was shocked to find that more than half could not remember anyone reading to them at all.  I was also shocked to find out how many of them had televisions and/or playstations in their rooms.  I came to the conclusion that, though I was teaching at a private school, many of the pupls had actually suffered some degree of emotional neglect: some hardly saw their parents at all and were looked after by a maid.  A couple were even left alone in the house for more than one night with just the maid or gardener for company and a driver to bring them to school.  The following is a talk I gave at Foundation Steps Nursery School In Ndola:
I’d like to begin by telling you I’m not an expert of any sort.  I haven’t got a degree in education and nor have I written a book about it.  What then, you may ask, are my credentials?  I’m a secondary English teacher so why should I bother myself with the lower end of the educational spectrum?  The fact of the matter is that I am asked by many, many parents to give their children extra lessons.  For some, it is their ardent belief that extra English tuition will help their children pass their IGCSEs.  Of course, these parents have good intentions, but I’ll tell you right now that there is very little one can do to improve one’s English after a certain age.  Punctuation, pronunciation and imaginative input: all these have their foundations laid at a young age.  My first question to these parents is always: ‘Does your child read?’  I don’t think I have ever received the answer, ‘Yes’.  The truth of the matter is that children who read, write well.  The two are inextricably linked.  I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone who writes imaginative essays with good use of punctuation who never picks up a book.  The top pupils in English always have a book with them.
                I consider myself very lucky in life for two reasons in particular, among others.  Firstly, when I was growing up in Zimbabwe, there was only one TV channel.  Children’s programmes were on at a certain time, not all day as they are today.  Most importantly, however, I had a mother who read to me.  Every single night we had a story.  She either read to us from a book, or made up stories in her head.  We had books for birthdays and books for Christmas.  We were taught to love and respect them.  They were everywhere in the house.  Both my parents read and many of the books that were read to us were classics and favourites that they themselves had read as children. 
                Now, going back to the parents who ask me how to improve their children’s English, I said the first question I ask is whether they read or not.  99% of the time, it’s no.  But then I also have parents add, ‘I don’t know why.  We read.  We love reading.  We read all the time.’  The question is though, have those parents made reading a shared experience?  A child, for instance, who feels their parents’ attention is not on them, but on a book, who constantly feels second place to a book, will not view reading as a pleasant experience and will probably be put off books.  That is why it is very important to read to your children.  It shows them that you want to share something with them and that you are able to give them your time.
                Many parents do not have time to share with their kids.  They buy them things: toys, games, dvds – but have no intention of sitting down and playing with them.  It’s also very easy to put the TV on while you’re working or cooking or whatever you’re doing and stick your child in front of it.  It’s the perfect babysitter.  But when reading, you’re taking time out from your busy schedule and sitting down and saying, I have time for you. 
                Reading to your children creates a special bond.  Perhaps you’re in their bedroom, they’re ready for bed, winding down: the atmosphere is one of quiet and calm.  You look at pictures, you answer questions about the story, perhaps you predict what’s going to happen in the end.  There’s this shared experience which doesn’t happen with computer games or toys.  You’ll find children like to snuggle up to you; it’s not the same as sending them to bed to read by themselves.  Children who are hyperactive tend to calm down when being read to.  If you give them a cup of warm milk, this will also help settle them.  Children love routine.  If you set a time to read together every day, they will look forward to this and learn to appreciate it.  As much as possible, don’t upset this routine once you’ve started it because it doesn’t work for you.  It’s like breaking a promise.  Young children also like reading the same book over and over: this gives them a feeling of security.  You are not sitting down to read them War and Peace - it is usally a period of fun for parents and children alike.  Very young children love books where certain words are repeated or they have to look under the flaps for animals or things. Older children like books with funny characters or where they have to think about something, like solve a mystery.
Unfortunately, not all parents are at home when their kids go to bed.  Perhaps a maid or a relative is putting them to sleep.  If possible, encourage them to read to your kids if you can’t be at home.  This can be difficult if their reading skills are not too strong, but everyone can at least look at a picture book and discuss what’s going on.  One of the biggest mistakes is in thinking that children won’t understand something.  Children understand far more of the world than we give them credit for.  It also surprises me that many parents will say that their child is too young for books, but will happily sit them down in front of the tv and watch their children imitate singing and dancing or look at various characters.  If you read a simple picture book of farm animals for instance with a one year old, they will soon pick up noises that each animal makes and what to look out for on each page.  You’ll soon be able to ask 'where’s the duck?' or watch them point at a dog and try and say 'woof, woof'. 
                Many people believe that you can read to newborn babies, some that you can read to a baby before its even born.  Obviously, they won’t understand a story, but they understand tone, the way you speak to them and a 'reading voice' is a comforting one.  They will therefore associate the act of reading with a sense of well-being and thus develop a positive attitude towards books.  Many children who don’t like reading are those who have been put off it, and this is usually because they see reading as a task.  They associate it with school.  Now, if you’re not a strong reader and maybe you stutter and stumble a bit or find long words difficult to pronounce, you’ll associate reading with a feeling of embarrassment from having to read aloud and having others laugh at you.  Moreover, class readers are often quite boring and predictable and don’t necessarily stimulate interest in reading for its own sake. 
                But if a child is read TO, those pressures disappear.  They can sit back and listen and enjoy the story.  Adults can use a range of tones in their telling of the story, or they might use different voices for different characters.  The atmosphere they create is generally far more exciting than that of the child who is just trying to get past the words, plodding along, and missing the story.
                If you read to your children, they can develop their reading skills and also their vocabulary.  You can obviously read them harder books than they can, so you are always pushing those boundaries for them, otherwise they will get stuck with only the books they can read and those tend to be very basic. They can ask what certain words mean and you’ll be surprised how easily they pick up and remember them.  By the time a child is five, they should be choosing books with chapters, where they have to wait for the next installment every night.  This improves their attention skills; they have to remember what happened the previous night and they come to realise that a story can go on and take various twists and turns.  This is very different to the instant gratification of televison programmes.
                This gives you the opportunity to talk about the story at other times, perhaps at a meal time or in the car on the way to school.  'What do you think is going to happen next?' you can ask. This helps develop a child’s imagination and create their own stories.  Again, this is something that TV doesn’t do.  It doesn’t allow you to imagine characters and plot differently to what is shown on the screen.  Everything is given to you and is therefore what is termed passive learning.
Nursery rhymes and songs are also very important.  The songs often tell a story or they have actions which go with which involve the child.  Nursery rhymes are instrumental in helping children to spell because of the rhyming action: children learn to predict which word is coming next.
                Every parent wants to give their children the best and often we think the best is what we didn’t have in our own childhoods.  This usually means televisions and dvd players or the latest gadget or phone.  We think that if we are able to provide our children with their OWN tv set, then we must have really made it in life, because we never had that.  We are also sometimes worried about the amount of technology that our children are subjected to, but tend to think, what else can we do?  This is the world today.  If we take away the television set, my child will fall behind somehow in comparison to their peers.  So although we don’t like something, we go along with it.
                First and foremost we must remember that the most important thing we can give our children is our time.  Children thrive when they know they are the centre of their parents’ lives.  TV is not all bad as long as it is not used as a babysitter and as long as there is some control imposed, both in terms of the time it is allowed on and the content that is viewed.  Sit and watch some TV together, see what your kids are watching, take an interest.  Don’t just use the TV as a way of getting them to keep quiet while you do something else.  If your children are able to join a library, ask them what they are reading or go with them and make suggestions.  It means a lot to a child if you can pass on to them your love of a particular author or character.  Even with older children – and here I mean teenagers – read what they are reading.  Too often we assume the teenager’s world is one that we can’t share or that we will find nothing of interest in – but you can save yourself a lot of hassle with bad behaviour if you make an attempt to share that world.
                You don’t have to feel you need to go home and sell the television set off.  What you do need to do, is monitor how much time your child spends in front of the TV and the content of what they are watching.  Channels like CBeebies are great, channels like Cartoon Network aren’t.  Make sure your child does not fall asleep in front of the television.  And also make sure the TV is only on when someone is watching it.  I have been to many homes where the TV is  on in the background from the time you wake up in the morning till the time you go to bed, even if no one is there.  The danger with this is that it does not encourage listening skills and has been blamed for the increase in ADHD and other behavioural difficulties.  Children who are subjected to a lot of noise, learn to cut it out.  And, believe you me, they include you in that noise!  If possible, please do not be tempted to put a TV in your child’s room.  Children need quiet time and they need a quiet room.  They also need to wind down after a day’s activities, not be hyped up by TV which is very stimulating.
                If you are an avid reader, share that love with your children; don’t take the ‘why don’t you read’ approach.  Show them how to love reading, and don’t let your love of reading make them feel excluded.  It is very important for boys especially to see their fathers read.  And fathers should also be encouraged as much as possible to read to their children as well.  Buy your children books.  Make them feel books are special.  Show them how to hold them and turn the pages.  Don’t make them feel that books are second to television or a DVD.  Some parents feel they have to buy all the classics for their children as this is good reading matter.  However, it’s more important that a child enjoys what is being read to them and doesn’t find it boring.  Reading to your children must not be seen as a chore.  Remember, you are teaching them to LOVE something!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

In Defence of Enid (Part Two)

The best books are the ones you don't want to end.  I can think of a few books like this that I read, and then reread, as a child.  'The Magic Faraway Tree' was one and 'The Adventures of the Wishing Chair' is another.  Luckily, there were three books in 'The Faraway' series and two in 'The Wishing Chair', but I am sure I probably wished there were more. 
Considering how much I loved these books, and I know there is a whole fan club out there dedicated to them, it really is no surprise to see that someone has decided to continue both the stories.  Silky, the beautiful fairy with lovely silken hair, now appears in a series of her own entitled 'Enchanted World' and Jack, Jessica and Wishler have replaced Peter, Molly and Chinky in 'The New Adventures of The Wishing Chair'.  Although I can well understand why someone would want to continue the stories as I imagine they loved them as much as I did, there is also something really objectionable about these books.
The fact that the language used is modern isn't the main problem, although, of course, it contributes to a change in atmosphere in the sequels.  It's the content which is problematic for me.  In the original 'Faraway' series, Silky is a pretty little fairy with lovely silky hair, hence the name, but she isn't preoccupied with her looks and they don't affect the course of the plot.  In 'Enchanted World', Silky is a precociously self-confident pre-teen.  She and her friends spend at least a quarter of the book discussing what clothes to wear and how to transform each other's wardrobes.  While Jack and Jessica of 'The New Adventures of the Wishing Chair' are a little more like children (but not Enid Blyton children for Jessica wears a T-shirt and shorts, not a frock!), they no longer have to wait for the wishing chair to grow wings and then fly off over the countryside to new lands.  Instead, they can sit in it at any time, say where they want to go, there's a flash of blue light, and they're there.
There isn't a Land of Goodies or a Land or Birthdays or Spells, but a Land of Mythical Creatures and Spellworld (it's a wonder there isn't one called Spells R Us).  You might be wondering what I'm complaining about.  What is the problem with these books?  The problem is that the author's character isn't there any more and these books are just like a whole lot of other ones out there with very bland, uninteresting storylines.  I couldn't, for instance, imagine that in thirty years' time, my grown-up children will get all starry-eyed and nostalgic over these stories, or that people would have Internet sites and fan clubs dedicated to them; that they would, in short, become iconic children's books.
I don't know if I'm old-fashioned, but I don't want to read stories about fairies who listen to ipods or gnomes who play computer games.  I want Mr Watziname and The Angry Pixie, Dame Washalot and Mr Grimm with his School for Bad Brownies.  What I don't understand is if a writer is going to attempt a sequel to a well-loved children's classic, presumably because they enjoyed it so much as a child, then why change the character of the book to such an extent? Call me cynical, but perhaps there is also an attempt to cash in on a name - rather ironically, I think, the full title of the books are 'Enid Blyton's The New Adventures of the Wishing Chair' and 'Enid Blyton's Enchanted World' and a page at the front of each book lists both the original and sequels as 'Books by Enid Blyton'.  Strange.
One of the criticisms levelled against Enid Blyton is that she is sexist.  Boys always solve mysteries, while girls watch on, quietly puzzled, and it's always the boys who have adventures.  However, her books, written for a young audience, appealed to both boys and girls.  Although girls sometimes got scared or weren't allowed to do something, they didn't sit around looking at themselves in the mirror or discussing whether their shoes matched the outfit they were wearing.  Even stranger then that the sequels have female characters who are very much female characters.  In fact, there are no male characters in the 'Enchanted World' and so the books appeal to a wholly female audience.  I found the copy my daughter has so boring that I couldn't wait to finish it.  I was reading three chapters at a time so we could finish it in a couple of days and go on to something else!  Besides much hair brushing and pouting of lips nothing happened.  They were boring!
And so I end my defence of Enid Blyton by saying that I don't mind the out-dated language and mores, and I don't think most children do.  I think adults under-estimate the ability of children to comprehend unusual words and expressions.  If you don't know, you ask.  I remember my mother explaining to me that tea time in the UK wasn't the same as tea time in Zimbabwe.  Although I thought that British people had a hell of a lot to eat (thanks to Enid Blyton's descriptions of 'lashings' of wonderful treats), it didn't mean that I gave up on her books and thought, well, I can't read that anymore.  I just don't understand this tea thing. 
Enid Blyton is one of the most well-loved, and hated, children's authors.  In my opinion, if you don't like her, read something else.  If you do like her, admire her work, but leave it alone.  A classic is a classic for a reason.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In Defence of Enid (Part One)

I recently paid a visit to Ndola Public Library, a rather shabby looking establishment on Independence Way (no irony lost there).  I expected to find little in the way of books  - perhaps a few paperbacks in much need of repair, or maybe even no books at all.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if it hadn’t been turned into one of the ubiquitous Internet cafes I see round town, or a cell phone shop, full of beautiful, but blank, shop assistants who’d stare at me in confused amazement if I’d ask where the books were. 
                Instead, I entered a place of complete and utter quiet.  The atmosphere was one of studious occupation:  all the tables were taken with people doing research and the shelves were full of books.  A closer look revealed them to all be of the hardback variety with red or brown covers and gold or black lettering on the spines.  I felt as though I had stepped back in time into a library of the early 1960s.  Even the public library in Bulawayo is much more up to date in its reading matter and has allowed the odd paperback to creep in.  I looked in the children’s section in particular; authors included A.A. Milne, Noel Streatfield and Enid Blyton (there was even an Enid Blyton album from 1955).  In fact, it was worth paying the 20 000 Kwacha (US$4) a year membership fee just to have a look round for valuable first editions.
                What struck me most about the children’s books was how uniform and unexciting the covers were.  They were very much of their era in seeming to promote careful, sensible living habits.  I could imagine clean, fresh-faced children in their pyjamas and dressing gowns sitting round to listen to Mother or Father read them a bedtime story before going off to sleep to dream good, wholesome dreams about being doctors or lawyers or having a job in the City.  The books of today are a far cry from those of fifty years ago, and it is little wonder that I didn’t find any children in the library or that some books hadn’t been taken out since 1989. 
                Modern books like to term themselves ‘interactive’.  For the very young, this means books with pictures that you can feel and even smell.  There are fluffy things and shiny things and things that squeak, beep or play tunes (‘touchy-feely’ is the word here).  There are pop-up books and pull-out books and books to colour and stick things into.  For older children, pictures are still very important, especially on the covers and I doubt many modern children would like to be given a book with a hard red cover, even if they were told it was a good read.
                Books, of course, have far more competition these days than they have ever had before. They have to contend with the likes of television, computer games , films and dvds for the modern child’s attention and these forms of entertainment are also becoming more interactive, offering a more ‘real’ experience than reading does.  What I feel is most worrying about this competition is that, as children get older and move into books with chapters and fewer illustrations, today’s authors seem at pains to represent real life as much and as bluntly as possible in their work.  Death is no longer a taboo subject for children and while there may be good reason for this, I question whether books need to be as graphic as they are about the subject. 
                I grew up an ardent Enid Blyton fan.  I believed in  fairies and elves and spent a large part of my childhood looking for the Faraway Tree or pretending to solve mysteries like The Famous Five did.  Later on in life, I studied children’s literature for a semester and felt afterwards that I could never again read a children’s book without questioning the motive behind it.  Was it sexist?  Or racist?  What did it lead children to believe about the world they were growing up in?  Enid Blyton was definitely out; in fact, declaring a love for her writing was tantamount to admitting to be a neo-Nazi in the eyes of some! 
                For me, one of the joys of motherhood is being able to pass on my love of reading to my daughters.  I love being able to recommend a book and to see their joy in reading it (or at least listening to it being read).  Story time is perhaps my favourite time of day, probably because it allows me to be a child again and to relive those magical moments in literature.  I often go on reading a book after my kids have fallen asleep and I sometimes begrudge my partner doing the reading because it means I miss out on a chapter here and there! 
                In terms of choice of author, I do find myself going back to old Enid – sorry all those people who don’t like her!  I do see all the faults – the smacking, the golliwogs and the gender stereotypes (the smacking and the golliwogs have been removed from the modern editions), but somewhere along the line she tapped into what children want.  She had a very simple way of writing: there were no sub-plots and no complex characters.   No one died.  No one got divorced.  No one was sad for long.  ( It’s ironic that all references to smacking have been removed from Blyton’s work, yet other forms of violence are perfectly acceptable in children’s books of today.)  Summer days stretched endlessly into the distance and world events never entered her plots.  And perhaps that’s what makes them timeless.  It’s also their appeal as an adult: you are drawn back into the golden days of childhood which don’t belong to a particular time or place.  There’s something wonderful about relinquishing yourself to this world and letting go of your adult self.  I somehow don’t imagine the same could be said of a book that centres around the London bombings or 9/11!
                There has been some debate recently as to whether the language of Enid Blyton’s novels needs to be updated.  Even words such as ‘splendid’ and ‘jolly good’ are considered old-fashioned now.  The idea, say the publishers of The Famous Five, Hodder , is to keep her work timeless.  The irony, I feel, is that modern language will actually ground her novels in time, this time now.  They will become just like all the other books written these days: books about war, about terrorist threats, divorce and death – all books symptomatic of our time.  It’s the slightly unfamiliar language and talk of ‘the nursery’ and the ‘lashings’ of food at teatime and midnight feasts (I could go on!) that all contributes to a feeling of a world that is different to ours, yet still recognizable.  It’s what makes a story fun to read (children love funny sayings: ‘Goodness gracious,’ said Moonface.  ‘What a splendid idea!’), and it’s what makes them memorable.  And at the end of the day, perhaps Enid has the last laugh.  She has sold more than 500 million copies of her books and remains of the best-selling authors of all time.  She must have done something right.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Stands the Clock at Ten to Three . . .

If I had to name one major difference between my life in Zimbabwe and my present life here in Zambia, it would be this:  that here I feel I don't have enough time and that my life lacks an adequate structure that would enable me to have more time.  Some may say this is a natural consequence of having two young children and that I would feel this lack of time wherever I lived in the world.  But it is more than that: it is something to do with the way time is measured and the importance placed on it.
"For I have known them all already, known them all: /Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, /  I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;"  laments T.S. Eliot's Mr Prufrock, and although his song may suggest a certain weariness with the routine of life, it is this very routine that gave my life in Zimbabwe a sense of harmony and rhythm, however hard the situation became.
When I was pregnant with my first child, and regularly regaled with horror stories of motherhood and what was to come, one of the things I was told was that I would find myself making cups of tea which I never drank. This I found harder to believe than the assertion that at least twice in the first few months, I would find myself packing my bags and walking out the door, prepared to leave both baby and partner behind.
Of course, I'd never leave a cup of tea unattended, never mind not drunk!  But it happened!  Mug after mug was thrown away, cold, grey and undrinkable.  The good news is that it didn't last forever and soon I was back into my old routine. The same cannot be said of the period since my second child was born in Zambia two years ago.  Somehow I have never managed to get back into the rhythm of things and I drink tea randomly, sometimes being in too much of a rush to enjoy it, often forgetting I have made it altogether.
In my novel, This September Sun, the grandmother, Evelyn, has a great respect for tea: she lays a tray, she uses a teapot and cups and saucers, and, perhaps most importantly, she takes the time to drink a fine cup of properly brewed tea.  It is this respect for tea, and time, that Ellie notices is absent from her life in the UK: 'There such formalities have long disappeared from everyday life and a teabag in a mug takes its place, for no one has time for the leisure and appreciation of tea drinking.'  Yet even here in Zambia, in a country that borders Zimbabwe, does the world spin that much faster and no one has time to set trays or wait for tea to brew.
If there's one meal in the day I'd like to take time over, prepare for, savour and enjoy, it's not a three course dinner or a long lunch, but breakfast.  I love a properly laid table with a white cloth, white crockery, a proper pot for the marmalade (with its own spoon!), a toast rack, a small vase of flowers and a pot of steaming tea (with a strainer - no tea bags, of course!)  Unfortunately, reality is more often a quick bowl of weet-bix or muesli eaten while standing in the kitchen listening to the radio in the morning, and a mug of tea that somehow gets lost while children are dressed and washed.
In most work places in Zimbabwe, there is a tea break at ten in the morning; not so here.  Even my domestic worker rarely has a tea break, even though it is on offer.  And afternoon tea most definitely does not exist.  As a child, we had tea every day at four o'clock.  The mismatched Willsgrove seconds would be laid out on a tray with the Kango teapot and the woolen tea cosy.  There would be a plate of biscuits - Lobels shortcake were the best - or, if we were lucky, scones and jam.  We only used cups and saucers and teabags weren't available in Zimbabwe then, being as remote to us as sugar cubes.
Where did those days go?  And why don't we take the time to preserve such nicities, these rituals which make our lives so much richer and ironically only serve to stretch time, to make us feel we are enjoying it, not watching it fall through our fingers.  As poor old Rupert Brooke, mourning a changing England, once wrote: 'Stands the Church clock at ten to three?  And is there honey still for tea?'

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Heigh Ho, Silver!

I must admit I've never been one of those people who like horses.  You know the type who stroll about in jodhpurs even when they're not riding and laugh heartily at horsey jokes and talk copiously about stirrups and bridles and strawberry roans? Yes, that's them. I didn't even read Black Beauty or those Green Grass of Wyoming books as a child.  It was as if just by reading about horses I'd be at a disadvantage, not knowing what went where and what the importance was anyway.  Instead, I chose to be a little more than mildly derisive about horse lovers: that they got bow legs and that their faces grew long and their teeth longer, for everyone knows that horsey people begin to look like their equine friends.  (Look at Princess Anne, for example).
It is therefore rather disconcerting to have a six year old daughter who has developed a real interest in horses.  I thought it might be one of those passing phases, like the ballet phase she so recently emerged from.  We bought the shoes and the leotard and off she went for numerous lessons, enthusiastically at first and then less so (she didn't realise that you don't just step into ballet pumps and turn pirouettes on the tips of your toes).
Yes, I could handle ballet - I never once made a quip about ballerinas walking like ducks or comment on the way they seem to flutter their hands pretentiously even during the most mundane of actions like passing the salt or pointing the way to the bathroom.  And too, I could handle ballet parents: mostly rather perplexed looking mothers who always arrive on time to collect their little darlings.  You can see they worry about things like vitamins and good food and how much pink their daughters are wearing.  Is it enough?  An extra frill here, perhaps, or some glitter on the tutu. 
Not so the horsey mums.  I can imagine great thigh-slapping types who roar up to the stables in muddy 4X4s, who drink litre bottles of coke while waiting for their kids to finish and smoke at least twenty a day -a habit which helps create a suitably hearty laugh for all those horsey jokes.  I imagine I'd have to join in and talk knowledgeably about horse riding equipment and lineage - I'd have to know who sired who and who was a good breeder and  . . . the thought is terrifying!
But how to escape - that's the problem.  What can I tell my daughter about horses that could put her off for life?  I could always read Dick Francis to her; that might do it.  Or Jilly Cooper.  OK, perhaps not.  Should I show her pictures of Princess Anne and warn her in the same way I warn her about going out in the sun without UV protection?
In my heart of hearts, I know I can't do it.  So I sit and read and read all the pony books brought back from the library and join in as enthusiastically as possible when asked to be 'the trainer' (she's the pony and I have to lead her out of the stables and take her for a trot round a field.  Sometimes there's a big race to prepare for, but that's another story). 
Finally, I have arranged a few lessons and this week begins my foray into new country (see, I'm already starting to use Green Grass of Wyoming language)  I'm hoping the experience will open up new pastures for me  (see, again - pastures, good pun) and perhaps I'll be able to write a couple of horsey stories myself, or at least create a character who could gallop around boldly, with all the right tack, of course.  Failing that, of course, I might just have to settle for a litre bottle of coke and a packet of Marlboro and just hope against hope it's another passing phase.

Monday, January 24, 2011

If You've Got It, I Want It

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those pictures of little kids all dressed merrily in white, sitting very still and smelling daisies or something equally inane as that?  Well, in case you’ve been taken in by the nicey-nicey, lovey-dovey impression these pictures create, let me tell you something – it doesn’t happen in real life.  It’s a set-up.  Yes, accept it and move away from that rail of white kiddies’ clothes that tempts you so much.  One, children don’t sit long enough to smell flowers; they squeeze them, they mutilate them, they scrunch them up.  They do not smell them.  Two, no child under twelve can wear white for more than five minutes without something being spilled down it. 
                For mothers, too, white is an option that can be shelved for at least ten years.  I don’t know how exactly it all happens, but it is a foregone conclusion that by the end of the day, you will be covered in everything from mashed banana and yoghurt to mud to some strange sort of yellow sticky stuff whose origin cannot be fathomed.
                Believe me, many is the time I have thought of inventing a range of clothes in plastic.  Good plastic, mind you.  Not Shoprite plastic bag plastic, but something thick and strong and durable.  And fashionable.  It’s the last bit that’s got me stumped.  For the moment, that is, but when I make that breakthrough, I’m gonna be rich, rich, rich.
                My other great plan is to make toys that kids actually play with.  Real cell phones and car keys, for instance.  Not these plastic things that they’re not fooled with for a moment.  Except that that probably wouldn’t work either as there’s only one thing children want and that’s what you have.
                Children learn very early on what you use and what you don’t use, what you value and what you don’t value.  So it’s no use giving your five year old daughter a bag full of old make-up and declaring brightly, ‘And this special make up is just for you!’  It won’t work.  She’ll be suspicious the moment you hand it over.  The best things come at a price, they’re not just given to you, especially not with kisses and hugs and assurances that ‘now you’re just like Mommy.’  That’s boring.  What’s far more exciting for her is stealing your Revlon $50 wonder out of your bag – that one that everyone says suits you to a T, and the one that you’ll either never be able to afford again or you have discovered has disappeared from the market – and painting not just her lips, but her entire face with it – and that of her baby sister.
                This problem applies to food as well.  Picture this: you’re in a restaurant ordering  a meal.  You read out the menu and make a suggestion.  ‘I think you’d like a hamburger for lunch.’
                ‘No.  I want chips.’
                ‘Chips and what else?’
                ‘Chips.’
                ‘Just chips?’
                ‘Chips.’
So you order yourself a delicious plate of creamy cannelloni and get the brat a plate of chips.  Of course, we all know what’s going to happen: the food arrives, the brat looks longingly over at you tucking into your food with unrestrained glee and says, ‘I want some.  What didn’t you buy me some.’  And so you end up eating a plate of chips and maybe a couple of pieces of cannelloni that didn’t quite make the grade: those that  were chewed up and unceremoniously spat out. 
This scenario applies in particular to dessert.  Look, we know we’d all like our kids to love fruit salad and turn their noses up at warm chocolate brownies covered in gooey chocolate sauce and served with a dollop of ice cream.  But, let’s face it, it’s not going to happen.  In particular, this doesn’t happen when you have ordered a brownie and they have a bowl of fruit salad.  It starts off with, ‘Can I try a little bit of yours?’ and suddenly you’re eating soggy bananas in tinned syrup while they’re wolfing down your only source of sanity and delight the day has to offer.  Even worse is when they’ve ordered one of those smooth, wobbly crème brulees, that slithers down your throat at the same time that you’re trying not to vomit it up.  The best way to handle this situation is to prevent it happening in the first place.  Top Tip: make sure your children order something you’d like.  Better still, order the same thing.
This belief that what’s yours is mine, begins with keys, cell phones and stationery – how many times has YOUR pen been used to decorate YOUR notebook?  - and continues, I’m told, with cars, clothes and audio equipment.  I haven’t got to that stage yet, thank goodness, but where I am is no less frustrating – or embarrassing.  Last week, for instance, I was having my hair done by my daughter, a form of torture that involves having my hair brushed with great vehemence, clips dotted haphazardly here and there, and about three great pony tails strung up out of what hair is left after the vigorous brushing.  At the same time, I was rather optimistically trying to make notes for my ever-retreating second novel with a blunt stub of pink pencil on the back of a cereal box, my younger daughter having taken my fountain pen to grind doodles into my notebook.  There was a knock at the door and there stood one of those mothers who has never faced the above outlined crises.  Beautifully made up, dressed in matching cream trousers and top, and carrying her white-clad ultra-obedient, daisy-smelling toddler, she clutched her car keys nervously to her as both my daughters ran towards her with frightening speed. 
‘You left these at my house,’ she said, holding out a pair of off-white  trousers.  ‘I’ve tried bleach, but nothing seems to get that yellow stuff out.  What was it, that gooey stuff?’
‘Oh, nothing too serious,’ I said, whipping the trousers away and cursing the relative who fell for the ‘beautiful children in white’ picture.  ‘You know children.’
‘Yes,’ she replied, rather uncertainly as though she didn’t quite believe that I do.  ‘By the way,’ she said, as she turned to leave.  ‘Is that . . . mashed banana on your face?’