Saturday, 28 April 2012

Technology baby: out of touch

All children I know and have ever met have been obsessed with technology. I suspect it is somehow linked to their connection with the future - they are, of course, closer to it than us. Kicking off the edge of the past, as represented by us, floating out further than we can reach to find new depths and mysteries and magic.

This is why their mortality is so heartbreaking. Children are not the future, they are only the now as we are; they are just better at looking beyond it.

The holy grail of all toys in our house has always been the mobile phone. Both of my babies would have happily killed me dead to get their hands on one and I often catch the youngest copping a feel in my handbag just in case it is there.

When Spider-boy, well under a year, first actually got one to himself the first thing he did was lift it high, hold it an arms length from his face and look between the display screen and the distance. He was giving us a perfect lesson in our defunct-ness. For him, this lump of metal/plastic/glass was not a device for aural or oral communication: it was a device for capturing images of now. His experience of the world had taught him I had a special camera for him which I kept on me at all times.

I marvelled at this easy analysis of the actual uses and relevances of technology from his tiny brain. As someone old enough to remember university halls with just one payphone, I have had to get used to smart phones and learn to avoid the perils of too fat fingers and cheeks which cut off calls in between whilst harking back to a simpler time. I'm so bad I insisted on retro dial phones at home, as I so miss the safety of a heavy cupped receiver. But it is thrilling too.

They are helped, toddlers and babies especially, by many things. Their energy and lack of things to bore and worry them. Also their limited grasp of linguistic device and their developmental stages which, whilst holding them back, also allow them to see things for what they 'really' are. Take early obsessions, for example. Things little ones get mad for when they are first learning to gesticulate and speak: to say a word, or better ask 'what's that?' Their awed cheeks every time they see a cat, say, or a car, or a train, or a dolly is brilliant. Unable (or unwilling?) to group things as we do, every cat is a new individual object to them. They are able and eager to fill their brains with new images and words and experiences for comparisons. This is how they learn. No wonder it is so exciting, and on occasion terrifying for them.

What grown ups gain in simplifying the world into known things grouped together, they lose in the simple spark of wonder that comes from being conscious of something they haven't seen before. So complacent are we in the too-much-to-know-ness of our exhilarating world that we miss out or even become annoyed.

I knew I'd reached my saturation point when it came to planets. I was taught nine: NINE. I was taught that as a fundamental of the vast universe, and grounded it made me too. I even learned the nattiest bloody mnemonic to remember them and was eager to pass it on (My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets, in case you are interested). But now there are eight. EIGHT. I felt an electrical crackle and pfft as that part of my brain shut down when I heard this cataclysmic planetary reduction on the radio. I'm too old, too old for there to be eight planets. That synaptic hissy fit at least ignited a burst of empathy - for all the times I groaned inside when my parents and grandparents persisted in long dead names for countries and capitals.

We adults, inundated and drowning in new things and old things must emphasis the collective to keep the world manageable. And we must hanker after the old and recognisable even when it no longer fits - we still call our mobiles 'phones', even though for many of us they have different functionality (they are for writing, drafting, reading, emailing, recording, media centres holding music, video, radio, games, creating wireless networks, sat navs and on and on and on). 'Phones' relates to communication, which these objects allow, but they are a slither of battery life which offer something more complex: a rendering of ourselves externally (by creating our image, doctoring it with filters, defying geography, editorialising our social image and space, and making us chameleons in our multitasking).

My mobile is rarely for making and taking calls, it is for exchanging pictures, taking them, displaying them, for storing ideas and playing scrabble, condensing thoughts/instructions/itineraries/jokes into brief text messaging, sometimes in code, checking in on the million social media streams which filter a view of the world back to me dependent on what I've done in the past (who I've liked and followed, what I've bought) rather than who I could be. Ironically, given my reliance on googlemaps to get me to new places, it is also for defying time and space so I can work and 'interact' regardless of where I am. I can't work out how any of this works and at times must 'learn' to be 'intuitive' with my complex gizmos.

Newborn can. He is 3.5 years younger than his brother, but he rendered Spider-boy as archaic as me and my husband when he first fingered a phone. His mitts on my lowly BlackBerry and the first thing he did was hold it down in front of his chest, pause for a second then drag the second finger of his right hand across the screen with meaning. My little Smartie, he knows iPhones and iPads are the things to aspire to. Steve Jobs would be proud.

He then picked up my Kindle. He dragged his finger and the image didn't even flicker. He tipped the screen to see if the picture moved. Nothing. He tried again. Nada. He looked towards the window into the sun stream considered for a second and tossed aside an object 5mm thick which can hold every book we'd house in our home. To him a qwerty keyboard and a 3G enabled library in his pocket: too old and out of touch.

And what was I doing, as he made this analysis? Taking his photo of course. On my phone.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Power of Chocolate 2: When good books go bad

Spider-boy has finally discovered the joy of a proper bedtime story. One that stretches out over a week or more, a longer narrative worming into your brain as you snuggle up to someone you love. It is one of the things about parenting I was most excited about. I am still. I don't even care that mostly daddy is the go to reading guy, my sentimental side swells anyway, our boy: curled on the sofa, listening, waiting, scoffing up words and tropes and brave new worlds.

But books at bedtime can bring many perils. I've noted before a pamphlet I adore by Roald Dahl, in which he explores the world of the child and dismisses the way many adults talk to children saying they have completely forgotten what being a kid is really like. I think this can be very true - most interestingly when we are trying to foist onto our offspring things we loved or enjoyed ourselves, the hallmarks of our own childhood passed on down.

There's a disconnect (often by a year or two), in my experience, in our recollection of age. We think we remember being four, but do we really? This is why, I think, people often tell toddlers off for whinging, bemoan three-year-olds for being boystrous and chastise four-year-olds for being physical and impatient and babyish. Hardly any of us truly remember those ages that well, we have fuzzy snap shots, but because of those pictures and the familiarity of our children (echoes of ourselves and siblings) we feel like we have the whole picture.

In our parental fervour to pass down the stuff we so cherish now, many of us jump too early. So keen are we to introduce our child to the things we enjoyed - films, books, toys, games, places to go - we often do it when the child is just a bit too young. This said, the opposite can be true. We can be too fearful of letting them learn life's lessons, of finding out there's more to everything than Guess How Much I Love You.

I have done this with books, books which I remember loving, and therefore were probably books I had when I was at least Spider-boy's age now, not when I bought them for him (when he was in my tummy!) And with reading aloud books, we tried to be careful. He bedded in for The Animals Of Farthing Wood, and prepared for the grim and gross by Horrible Histories and the like, had a rapturous rapport with The Twits. His imagination ballooned and his eyes jumped out when we told him about George and his crazy dad, marvellous medicine and grandma with a mouth that was puckered like a dog's bum.

And so we moved on to Charlie (he of the chocolate factory). I was reticent, Husband was terribly keen. Tantalising chapters of chocolate waterfalls and minty grass, snapping candy memories of words that fizzed your brain like Refreshers in CocaCola. But I was wrong. As things began, the fudge whippled magic took hold: Spiderboy was hooked. Charlie is so lovely. Grandpa Joe is such a treat and Wonka, so crazy and odd and mythical and, like Dahl, unpredictable. It was only once we were a couple of chapters in that I realised what was going to happen: I was going to watch hope die. I had to have faith it was worth it.

The great thing about hearing more complicated stories than you could manage to read on your own is being sworn in to the mysteries and magic of playing the long game. My son was being pushed on to revel in adjectives by Dahl's linguistic fiddling and made up words, and forced out of his comfort zone in terms of suspense, narrative, literary devices like metaphors, and the confusion of reliable and unreliable narrators. The relationship between author and reader (or in his case, the bit in daddy's normal voice and how that speaks directly to the little listener) was especially novel. Trust is on the line too. Spider-boy's books up until then are mostly short and no author has ever dared to disappoint him. Books for young children are usually sweet and quickly resolved.

The gratification is deferred, of course, but only really for a page or two, and that at most is a couple of paragraphs, if not only a couple of words. Bobo gets his mummy soon enough in Hug. If the suspense is longer, that isn't because something bad has happened - and the wait is rewarded with picture flaps as in Dear Zoo or humour, as in Pooh Is That You Bertie? or The Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business.

The trouble with Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is the build up is so confectionery sweet - Charlie's starving, he gets one chocolate bar a year, there are golden tickets to A CHOCOLATE FACTORY in chocolate bars, he's nice and sweet and deserving and hopeful. It is like anticipation for Christmas - we all know our mums are fibbing when they tell us about kids who really did get a stocking full of coal!

Spider-boy started to talk incessantly each breakfast time about whether 'tonight is the night Charlie gets his ticket'. He's enjoyed the build up, now it is time for Charlie's birthday when he can win his golden passport in to a building full of sweeties. Mr Thatwoman and my sister who was staying with us got excited too. But they had forgotten who they were dealing with. They had left Roald Dahl behind in childhood, to allow it to get a rosy glow and fudgey memory defined by the final satisfaction of his twists. They now only remembered the best bits of his books not the specifics: they were as naive as Spider-boy. (I had the foresight to write my dissertation at uni on Dahl. I knew he doesn't give you your sweetness straight away; he's not that stupid or that condescending, he's interested in toughening up his readers and is a pretty good judge of what they are tough enough to take - see also his descriptions of war and death in Boy and Going Solo).

As Charlie opened his chocolate bar, to find just chocolate I felt the room shift: Spider-boy's eyes flickering with all the stages of grief and back to anger. The sacred pact of spoon-feeding from all his other books and television and film was broken. He had been cruelly crushed in his expectation of happy endings (or in this case Charlie's happy beginning). He'd learned that things don't always work out as they should. See:


Husband and sister exchanged the 'eek' face. I mouthed 'told you'. Spider-boy dared to push on. I knew at this point I would have to leave the room. As I knew, again what was coming. Grandpa Joe made a plan. A plan to buy another bar, I could smell the (misguided) relief from the other adults. An old man, a starving child, one chance thwarted, the daus ex machina of a secret coin saved under the covers of a bed of dying pensioners: we all know how that should work out. Spider-boy latched on to the literary device of a gift from the Gods, and to his faith in goodies and baddies and who should triumph. And he, the foolish darling boy, he hoped. Bam: no ticket.

My heart was nearly torn in two. And it was gone 8pm. Time for bed.

The next day son woke with a slightly broken voice. 'I just don't know' he confessed, 'how Charlie will get a ticket!' It was as if he'd been thrown into confusion over what books would and could do: challenge, fib, upset us. It was a foundation stage version of John Fowles - had he been hoodwinked by a lying cover, was this book anything it promised to be?

Thank God for the next night and Dahl's final surrender. Not without another hiccup - even the luckiest bar bought with the luckiest find for a starving schoolboy: a coin in the snow, even that doesn't yield a ticket straight away. I have a theory that by making Charlie give in to baser instincts and buy two bars not one Dahl was underscoring punitive theories of surveillance - somebody somewhere notices when you aren't as good as you could be (Charlie after all should save the second bar's worth of money for his folks). But in practice the real lesson was for Spider-boy - he had to learn to be teased. A better life lesson that, even better than the bitter truth that sometimes people as nice like Charlie don't get the nice things that should come to them.

He learned that really good books might do more than just give you a happy ending straight away. He now knows that some bets are off in literature, that stories have twists in their tales. And he's experienced a writer prepared to toy with him a bit. Which is good because it has forced him to a point of being discerning. When he picks a book he has an inkling he had better be bloody sure he's in a safe pair of hands. He might not get what he wants or what he expects from Dahl, but for all the fear that you have to ride out with books which don't kowtow to sentiment on every page, the rewards (whether it is laughing out-loud at something ruder than you can believe a grown up would write, bubbling with mirth over a witty observation you can tie in with your life, reading out a long word like c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e, or good triumphing in the end) can be astonishing when it comes.

And I've learned that chocolate has a magic power for him, as it does for his brother, even when it is only a long word written down.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The power of chocolate - Part One

Easter. So much sweet stuff; so little time. My lads love chocolate, though Newborn has a faith of sorts in cocoa. He attacks eggs and bunnies, crams so much in his mouth. He's prepared to let a third dribble away to get the rest in, and he scoffs with suspicious eyes. They are live with triumph, and you can almost hear his mind: if I just keep eating it and don't say a word, *they* won't realise they've given me so MUCH.

Reading their mind is a fool's errand, but so tempting. Talking to a friend today, we speculated on what the hell *they* are thinking. I'd love to believe it was a fantastical dreamlike place, all precocious interpretation with a hallowed view of me; I fancy it is something far more brutal. That what goes on in a toddler's mind is probably even more punitive than my inner mummy critic.

Take this week. Post egg hunts we came home to London a baby light - Spider-boy was staying with Aunties for his school holiday. I was so sad, my walk from work devoid of endless questions. While he stayed away, the rest of us made an odd threesome. There have been times when I've been alone with Newborn, but they've usually been horrible times when he's been ill. And there have been fleeting moments between play dates, and the worst of times of all (hospital) when it has just been Mr Thatwoman, Newborn and I. I've tried to find the good in those situations (afterwards at least, I'm no Pollyanna) and enjoy the moments with this strange, beautiful other one. And I fret he's often relegated to ever-bridesmaid: trailing behind, looking cute, always getting sloppy seconds.

He's so fond of his brother right now, though, and I was convinced, so sure, that he would pine. Just like he pines for Mr Thatwoman on the nights that I collect from nursery (which he does with toddler subtlety, by standing at the front door sobbing till he hiccups and shouting 'Dada' with increasingly hysterical volume).

Newborn's capacity for novelty remained, however. He developed a strut. He surveyed his new command posts, seconded a kitchen stool, worked out how to drag it round and reach the saucepans and the Calpol. He honed new skills, hijacking the telephone, learned to step forwards, not back, down the stairs. By the second night, he'd climbed into his brother's bed.

He sat, smiling, all cheek and bedtime eyes, my Goldilocks. I thought: wow, usurping something as painfully symbolic as a bed in our house is pretty cool. But there was something else in his sleepy dimples: a question. When he's querying me or the world he pulls his chin down,and exaggerates the angle he has to look up. It was as if he was saying: have I done it?

I was minded of Spider-boy's assertive look when he asked: 'And who will be his mummy?' after grudgingly conceding he was going to have a sibling. And his later, semi-hopeful, probing in the last weeks of my maternity leave: 'Now you are going back to work, is he going back in your tummy?'

Next day: the same look. Newborn is especially keen to get his hands on the chocolate tin. And so proud he squeals when he realises the small chair can also be used mount the worktop though I've confiscated the stool. His sigh of pleasure and furtive glancing round while he snaffles a shard of egg makes me wonder if he has his own magical thinking. Perhaps, I think with slight horror and awe, he thinks the chocolate is a magic force, keeping his brother away?

Today after completing his round, touching every single thing his brother has ever owned, he finds the last bit of chocolate in the house. We're a household of instant gratification: the Friday after Easter is way past the stage where a smashed Lindt bunny might be hiding in the fridge. He points at my handbag for 10 minutes making a guttural, insistent groan. I fish out toys, and a travel card, my phone, a purse, a pen. He screams at kettle pitch. I pass the bag and say: 'OK. What do you want? You find it!' He discards the trove of tickets and loose pennies and unearths a Finger of Fudge which has been there so long, I'd forgotten it exists.

He crouches like a monk and eats, bowing his head and glancing up through his lashes: once more with feeling. He moans with pleasure, chuckles to himself and opens an eye. Maybe he imagines that if he eats even more chocolate his brother will come back, I hope.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Mother Tongue: Only connect...

This weekend I had a fleeting online chat with Michael Rosen , a massive hero of mine. We tweeted about the inner meanings of Roald Dahl's The Twits. It was one of my proudest moments when he retweeted my undergraduate analysis (that The Twits is all Foucault innit, a parable on internal flaws exposed). Or it would have been the proudest moment of my online career, had I not described the story as a tail. He graciously made a Freudian pun. The slipperiness of language, and my grasp on it, even in my 34th year, exposed. I know the spelling but my fingers and brains fudged up in their haste to record a thought and send it to someone whom I wanted to engage.

I love language. And I love the way having young people grappling, exploring, building, questioning, embracing it makes you re-think what a connection really means. I try to embrace my fortune in this role of introduction.

Take phonics. Sound blocks. Building each word, distilling a language. I don't know exactly what I think of phonics, though I've enjoyed the explosive introduction of them in a multilingual inner London classroom lead by a teacher with a Mancunian accent. I've seen my son soar with some of the ideas - hand signal a-a-ants, making rhymes with similar sounds, the general games, the confidence building at the beginning. Also, in a funny sort of way, I've seen him soar higher with the phonic frustrations - he glows white hot with creation when he hits up against the magpie (thanks @rykalski) nature of his mother tongue.

My son speaks English and is learning to read and write it. English is a language which absorbs and builds on others - pick your metaphor about how it has created and evolved: melting pot, scavenger, survivor, conqueror, patchwork quilt, evolutionary gene.

What I've always loved about this, the fact that English is such a mish mashed, congealed pile of delicious and often unguessable left overs from a pot luck linguistic dinner, is that I feel the evolutionary force of it empowers its users. It practically demands they create, reinvent, reinvigorate it themselves every day. This is why I don't like snobs or those immediately down on linguistic play and challenge (eg automatic txtspk haters). English is the language I live in and speak in and she invites me to play. Every day.

I see my son fathoming her unmappable depths, his assertions so bold and enticing. For example, as he bounds along at my side while we try to catch a train:

The thing about the word gate, Mummy, is it is very tricky. It has a naughty letter. A hiding letter. G-A-I-T, see, the I is there but you don't know it

His confidence is awesome: he's telling me. But his language has provided a double bluff. He's right and he's wrong. I tell him gait is a word, but it means the way we walk, illustrated as we gambol over a pelican crossing and then run to the station's ticket gate. I explain that gate does have a tricky bit, but that's the missing 'y'. He takes this, because he's moved beyond looking at me like a lunatic and started to expect his language, so easy and malleable but as hard to catch as the moon on a millpond, to surprise him. Every day, every hour we spend brings another surprise. My world is as much one of sticky chins and small warm hands in mine, as one of half rhymes: one part Clarks advert, three parts English Lit all Chaucer-style gobbling up of what we can see, chewing out the meaning.

I love hearing him sounding out words, and then producing for me his spittle lisped best guess as he takes a punt on how a word should or could be. It is invigorating watching him relabel the world all around, and the world of metaphor and feeling from the humming sounding out in his head as he concentrates on tearing apart a sound and remaking it with others- it reminds me of the bit in Hamlet:

He keeps them, like an ape, an apple, in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed to be last swallowed

My son the master and king, working out which working-outs are worth keeping and which should be quashed. These murmurs used to rebuild from scratch old sound signs - this is what buzzwords should mean.

Learning to read, write, speak, create in English (I'm guessing any language, but I only have this one to go on) doesn't start from ground zero, after all. Language has surrounded you forever; your task becomes to master it and develop a way of exchanging your bursts of meaning with others.

And you  hit it running in a sort of attack at precisely the developmental stage where you are craving and embracing rules (show me a four year-old, I'll show you the world's most accomplished and certain judge and jury) and trying to break them to work out whether you and those around you are as solid as you hope or as weak as you fear.

As this goes on, the other child, my one year-old word warrior, continues on his journey, forcing into the open his need to connect and his need to be encouraged. With him, my task is affirming his linguistic mastery. Showing him I understand (which can mean giving him the chocolates he's spied and pointed out) and letting him show he understands me. But how? He has already reached a level of irony and challenge which complicates things. His mimicry is loaded.

Take today, as he climbed up and stood on every obstacle in his path: every stool, chair, table, speaker, toy. On his third ascent of a picnic bench, twice thwarted and told off by me already, he reaches the plate.  He turns to check I'm running, again, to stop him. Before I can open my mouth to repeat my 'no', he addresses me and my friend from his mount:

'Yeah, yeah!' he shouts, eyeballs on me to be sure I get his meaning: 'NO'

And what I want to shout is YES.