H turns 5 in a week. I’m talking years. To be clear, that’s half a decade. It’s also how long I’ve been a mum for. It feels like forever, and truly, I can’t quite remember life before kids. OK, that’s total bullsh*t, because I do remember life before kids. Clearly. It was peaceful and relaxing. I slept as much as I liked and had long baths and I read loads of books. I sunbathed. I never, ever had to wee with 2 small children in the cubicle with me. I could eat snacks out in the open. Whenever I liked. But I will never have those days back, so it feels better to just pretend that I don’t remember them. Best to embrace this new, mum life. It’s not like I can send these kids back and ask for a refund when they malfunction. And after 5 years, I have to say being a mum has grown on me anyway.
A memory recently resurfaced out of the depths of my oxytocin sodden brain: when H was just a baby, long before the arrival of the other 2, I remember meeting up with Dadallama’s Kiwi cousin and her husband who were passing through London on their travels; they were keen to meet our little one whilst they were in town. Their own kids were already adults and I remember a wistful conversation about ‘how quickly they grow’, how formative the first few years are, and that basically, their personalities are fixed by the time they are 5 or 6. In short, the first 5 years are crucial. If you haven’t managed to teach them how not to be a dick by then, you never will. At the time, this information didn’t quite register -5 years felt like a lifetime ahead! But here we are, on the cusp of Year 5 – and this memory has been triggered, this little nugget of information that I had so deftly tucked away into a corner of my mind, and never thought of – until now.
Before panicking, I channelled my inner Dadallama and instantly knew what I had to do. Find evidence.
OK Google. By what age are childrens’ personalities fixed?’
113,000,000 search results later, I was relieved to find that there is No Conclusive Data to confirm that everything gets locked down by Age 5. There are a bunch of studies that postulate a similar notion, but of course, everything is hypothetical. Phew. Perhaps I still have more than a week to impart my limited knowledge on how to be a human to this young person after all.
Since H was born, I have had a first row seat watching him grow up. I mean this is our firstborn we are talking about – probably the only one out of our 3 kids who will have his every move scrutinised and analysed by his paranoid parents – determined to do our best by him, and eager to learn as much for when the time comes for us to deal with the other 2. This fantastic thing that we made! Are we raising him right? Every time he does something questionable, we ask ourselves ‘Was it something we did?’ How much of this was already hardcoded into his system? Over the years we have tried not only to understand him, but also help him understand the world as he navigates through it. And on any given day, Dadallama and I would say with confidence that we know H pretty damn well. Better than he knows himself, we might add!
But… now I’m not so sure. Lots of ch-ch-ch-changes are happening.
He has always been shy, much more comfortable observing from a distance than joining in. He is inert. Still. He is so still that his sheets remain un-crumpled when he wakes each morning, save a kid shaped lump where he slumbered the night before. He has always been the kid that starts to warm up just as a party is about to end. Children’s entertainers – forget about audience participation! H would sooner freeze when spoken to in the hope that no one notices that he’s standing right there (this is a classic family trait that he shares with his cousin P, and M does the same). When faced with a freshly demolished piñata and a shower of sweeties, he is the kid who hangs back instead of rushing in to join the frenzy – often resulting in him getting a much smaller haul than his peers. He’s always been great at talking and picking up new words – but these words were rarely uttered to anyone outside of our family. He’s never been one to say hello, much less hand cuddles out, especially not to people he’s unfamiliar with, often coming across as stand-offish and unfriendly. As a parent, it has been hard because I’ve always worried that no one would ever get to see the real H, the silly goofy kid that I knew.
So you can understand the confusion (and sometimes humiliation) that races through our minds when recently faced with a boisterous version of our son, bouncing of the walls like a Minion on crack most mornings and evenings, with a penchant for being naked, savouring every given opportunity to simply hang out in the nude. Performing in the buff is so much enjoyed that once, when poor Uncle W and Auntie L came for a nice Sunday dinner, instead of nice warm cuddles, they were presented with H’s exuberant pre-bath butt dance. He took the time to go up to each of them, and made sure they both got a good view of his exposed, wiggling bum. The last time they came round, it was a slog just getting him to say hello, so this time, they were surprised (and traumatised) to say the least. I would never have put him down as being a streaker but I think if he discovered it, the neighbourhood will never be the same again. A few weeks ago, we were showing our basement flat to prospective tenants, when our ‘shy’ son wandered in, clearly bored from being left alone for too long. He lifted his t-shirt up to expose his belly and started rolling around on the sofa whilst Dadallama tried to act casual and continued answering questions about the amenities available to the flat, trying to ignore the rollicking child on the sofa, assuring visitors that the child did not come with the flat.
This new confident version of H is also now doing things that make him what I like to call ‘The Children’s Champion’. Every week, after our family swim, the kids like to re-fuel with apple juice and Hula Hoops (Red ones for H, Green ones for M. None for N yet.) In the café, there is a telly that is only ever used as a radio. This, to H, our resident TV addict- is a criminal offence and so every week, without fail, he patiently joins the queue, and when he gets to the front, he orders nothing, but asks for CBeebies to be put on – much to the delight of every other child in the café, who hadn’t realised that this was an option. These days, the café staff need only to just see our wet headed kid approaching and they switch on the telly because they now know the drill. This new level of confidence around unfamiliar people manifested itself heartwarmingly the other day when he decided to smile and wave to a lonely looking old man sitting across from us on the tube- who was surprised and clearly thrilled by this small act of kindness. This is probably very ordinary behaviour for any average child – but for our H, it was a big change.
I mentioned above that H is a TV addict. Shamefully, this is true. Perhaps what we are seeing is the rapid release of pent up screen time deprivation collected over the first 2 years of his life. The child can watch inflight movies for 13 hours solid while munching on nuts and sipping on apple juice without moving, and hardly sleeping. He will watch anything on a screen. Ads, billboards – any moving image and he’s mesmerized. He is an advertisers dream.
During our recent half term holiday – we spent a week in Nanallama’s little holiday house in a breathtakingly beautiful spot in Wales, where we were surrounded by endless fields and sheep. We decided that this would be a TV free holiday – so we broke the (fake) news that unfortunately the telly was broken. H was clearly devastated, but soon learnt that telly time was replaced by family game time (usually accompanied with snacks like nuts and crisps – his other great loves). He discovered Charades, which we played some evenings. I’m not sure he’s fully grasped the concept because he would prance around madly, repeatedly saying ‘I’m the Joker!’ in a weird, excited but hushed voice, only for us to guess: ‘Are you the Joker?’ and he would say ‘Yeah!’ before announcing he had another one for us to guess, and do exactly the same thing, except he would repeatedly say ‘I’m Batman!’ in a weird, excited but hushed voice. At the end of the holiday – a breakthrough statement from H. ‘Daddy, at first I thought it was going to be so bad without telly, but actually, it was pretty fun!’ Music to our ears and a huge change in attitude from the child that could give Willy Wonka’s Mike Teavee a run for his money- never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever hear these words come from his mouth.
But it’s not all been positive changes forward. I remember a chat with a mum friend once and she was saying how she really hates it when things go backwards. When you think you’ve overcome something only to have it come back in full force. We had this in a big way over half term. I had signed H up to intensive swimming lessons – half an hour every morning. Usually I have a sense about how nervous H will be about a new experience, but these lessons felt like they would be a breeze. He had been going for swimming lessons for nearly 2 years now – albeit in a different pool but these days he is far from being scared of the water. He took to starting school (the biggest of all new experiences) like a duck to water, so it took me completely by surprise when H was paralyzed with fear at the prospect of starting these new swim lessons. He showed no sign of worry until we were physically in the changing room, and he was down to his swimming shorts – literally steps away from the main pool where the lessons were happening. I have never seen H look like this in my life. All the colour had drained from his face. He refused to step out of the changing room. I tried ALL of the bribes. Treats. Toys. Telly. But it was futile. So on it went for about 1.5 hours, with me yelling furiously, then whispering empathetically in a psychopathic cycle, willing this child to summon up the courage to simply walk towards the pool to have a look. He had been to new pools before, this wasn’t the first time, so I was totally baffled and exasperated when he looked as if I was asking him to walk into some snake infested Sarlacc pit of doom. Finally, I managed to convince him to just come in and watch the lesson (we had missed ours an hour earlier) and he finally realised that it was all not as scary as he had thought. When he had calmed down, he said it was because it was all new and he didn’t know what to expect (which explains some of the bizarre questions he was spluttering when he was freaking out in the changing room – like, ‘is the new teacher bald?’). Thankfully the lessons that followed went swimmingly (excuse the pun, too good to resist) but the trauma of that first lesson is firmly etched in my mind. You think you’ve moved forward, so sure that your cautious child has outgrown his fear of new things, only to find that when you least expect it, he can still be as worried and afraid as he was when he was a toddler.
Apart from changes that move forwards and backwards, we’ve also witnessed some completely new ones. The emergence of Empathy. We were watching ‘The Little Mermaid’ the other day, (we like including a good Disney Princess movie in his repertoire- though this one I do admit is a feminist’s worst nightmare) and when we got to the bittersweet ending, where King Triton himself changes Ariel into a human, even though it meant saying goodbye to his precious daughter- we noticed that our H was wiping away tears from his eyes. ‘It’s so sad, but also happy’ he said quietly, ‘it’s making my eyes wet. The tears.. they are just falling from my eyes’ Of all the movies for my superhero loving, ninja worshipping, Wonder Woman mocking (I know, I’m working on this) H to shed his first tears to, this was a surprise, but also what made it extra special. I’ve got a favourite t-shirt that says ‘Strong Girls Club’ on it – but at that moment I wished I had one that said ‘Sensitive Boys Club’ to also wear with pride.
I don’t want to speak to soon, but sitting back and taking stock of how H has grown, how much he’s changed (and stayed the same) over the last 5 years – my palpitations are slowing down and panic levels have fallen. I think we’ll be ok. I think he’s going to be just fine. I hope. My hunch is that he will probably be a pretty similar person when he’s all grown up (I can’t even imagine him as an adult), and he’ll probably continue to change and evolve, like his much beloved Pokemons, different but better, more powerful each time. He’ll continue to surprise us with new traits and behaviours (some that I will probably – no, definitely- won’t like), but still retain the essence of who he’s always been since he was a gurgling lump. I suspect Batman may always remain his all time favourite superhero and he’ll love Lego till he’s 99, as recommended on the box- but it all remains to be seen. As he (and the other 2) grow up, we’ll just have to turn and face the strange, embrace it and hope for the best.