The other day I wore a dress and M ran up to me excitedly and proclaimed “mummy, you’re a girl!” I was a little nonplussed by M’s comment, having assumed it was an apparent feature, despite my wardrobe consisting mostly of jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers (and for work adding a somewhat more elegant top and switching to ballets as the norm) as M, some months before, had, and quite vocally, discovered the dominant sexual dichotomy and interpellated that dresses were for girls. The interesting thing about sartorial sexism, is that, for what may soon be redundant sexual norms, it operates oppressively on males, as women, Jeanne D’arc would be pleased to note, can wear traditionally male clothing without a conservative eye even registering the fact, whereas a male robed in anything other than a kilt that does not betray his bipedal form immediately, skirts social norms.
Once M registered there was a distinct imposed social difference between boys and girls, he started to investigate the biological basis. My mother and I were asked at different times throughout the same week whether we, as girls, had a “pisha” (which is our Serbian diminutive for the boys to refer to their penises). We informed him we did not. M was flummoxed. If you don’t have anyone, he wondered, then how do you pee? I told him this was an excellent question and explained that while females don’t possess penises we do possess a urethra, which was inside our bodies and an opening to pee. This seemed to satisfy M and he next asked me a more cosmic question concerning the placement of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and was visibly disappointed when I explained that was a fact I needed to look up.
Concomitantly with M’s questions about female biology, L was questioning how he was created and how exactly he ventured into the world. “I know I was in your tummy, but how did I get out?” L asked. I was ill prepared to answer this and wished to ruminate on a proper answer. I had not researched how to approach these questions or sex and sexuality in general with my kids, as I thought I had more time. I did not want them growing under the belief for instance, that only “mummies and daddies” had kids. Yet I also did not think the time was ripe to properly analyze and digest how children came into this world. Today, with the help of science, they are created in numerous ways, each as magical as the other. Some children are unfortunately born through a stygian circumstance of physical force and denial of proper healthcare and choice to the unwilling mother, which I certainly have no attention of revealing to my sons at ages 2 and 4. Yet, it’s becoming glaringly obvious to me that my kids are not going to be reared and educated on my timeline. They are keenly observing the world around them and have an insatiable appetite to acquire more knowledge. The last thing I want to do is to impede their inquisitiveness and ability to question. Rather, it’s what I aim to encourage.
So, I walk the tightrope. I explained there are numerous ways that children are brought into the world and that we will soon discuss these in detail. However, I explained to them, L and M were created by a special kind of loving hug between mummy and daddy. I stressed it was not any hug, it was a special kind. L asked how to replicate it. I told him that would wait until our later session. L agreed to have patience but demanded to know how he was born. M was also keenly listening. “How did I get of your tummy, mummy?” M asked. This question arrested me. “Did you forget?” L asked. It was this point that I felt my cheeks incarnadine. “I did not” I stammered. “Well, remember I said there’s a special hole that girls have to pee?” The boys nodded, entranced. “Well, there’s another special hole. A magical baby hole and you came out of it that one.” It was not my greatest moment. My boys didn’t react initially, digesting this new discovery. Suddenly L burst out laughing. “You mean you pooped us out?” The boys erupted in laughter and expertly came up with one poop joke after another. The question of their creation was left for another day.
The increasingly delicate questions do not simply concern biology but increasingly question our society. A few weeks ago, L asked why there were people sleeping on the street. I told him they slept on the street because there was nowhere else for them to go. L was flabbergasted. “They don’t have a home?” I told him that under our particular society, you needed money to pay for a home. You either paid outright (to the person selling the house to you) or paid a bank (a place that made money from money – more on that later, I noted) or simply paid to “borrow” the house from the owner to be able to live in a home, which we call a “lease”. Unfortunately, for many different reasons, some people did not have enough money to pay for a home. L was incredulous. I told him it was not right and that there was a social union termed a “government” which received money from everybody that earnt money. I told him the government’s mandate was to take care of people and by extension, to house people that could not house themselves. L wondered why, if that was the government’s responsibility, people continued to live on the street. I told him that was an excellent question and one he should take up. For it certainly was not right and needed to be changed. My husband later questioned whether it was appropriate to impose our politics onto our 4 year old. I told him it was more than appropriate- it was necessary. It was our duty to encourage civic virtue and explain the power structures in our society. He agreed but asked whether it was the appropriate time. “Shouldn’t we let our children be children without this burden imposed upon them?” L was already worried about the plethora of plastic in the oceans and its impact on marine life, including his beloved orcas (L loves to put both legs in one trouser leg and exclaim “look at my fluke!”). It pained my husband to see L’s avid stress (how can anyone not have at least latent environmental anxiety in this world?). Was it right to burden a future generation with our misdeeds? I don’t think that’s the right question. We’ve already burdened them as they will indubitably have to face the consequences of our and our forebearers’ actions. Children are like an empty cup in search of liquid. If you don’t fill it up, someone else will. Perhaps I would not have pointed out the people asleep in the street just yet and asked L to question why that was the case. However, he’s 4, not blind and he observed it and inquired about it. To deflect the question would be to accept that it was not important that there are- and increasingly so- homeless people in our society and the disturbing, cruel and unproductive way numerous cities have dealt with this issue, by criminalizing them, rather than coming to their aid (I did a podcast on this on Gravity, thegravity.fm, a few years ago titled “Housing Not Handcuffs”, thankfully the 9th Circuit has appropriately clamped down on these laws in its decision in Martin v. Boise last year).
L can now read in the hundreds of millions for numbers and at a first grade level according to the Bob books we’ve been using (they’ve been very helpful). How does he read 393, 428, 501? By breaking it up into threes. If you can read hundreds and understand a thousand gets you to the next round of numbers, you can read any number. A thousand million is a billion and so on and this concept was easily digested by L albeit reading a billion is still “tricky”.
Unfortunately, M has noticed that he is far behind his brother. L is bigger, can run faster, throw a ball farther, swims, reads and knows “big” numbers. This has caused a tumult of tantrums. How do you explain to a younger brother that he cannot, at least at this time, compete with his older brother? And how do you explain to your older son that he must not always take the limelight? What has worked for L is to give him the position of “teaching assistant” as we teach M what L already knows. This allows L to show off what he knows, but with patience for M to be able to effectively respond to questions without L beating him to it. It is however a process we are still trying to negotiate a resolution of….
A month ago, M decided he wanted to be a firefighter, specifically, aiming to “save all the children”. Having noticed that there were no fires around for him to extinguish, M decided he was in dire need of business development and that if he wanted to be a fire-fighter, his first step was to start a fire to fight. So M started fires. Thankfully his fire-starting skills were as firmly phantom as his fire-fighting skills and the actual fire brigade did not need to be called. A week ago M discarded his chosen profession and decided he was going to become an astronaut. “Mama, I will bring rocks for you from Mars” he proudly pronounced. “Will you go see my rocket launch?” I asked L if he wanted to go with M to Mars. “No thanks” he said. “I’m afraid of heights so I only want to pretend to go to Mars.”
I decided to utilize M’s interests in astronomy to propel his mathematical learning. I told him astronauts needed to be good at mathematics and physics, which was applied mathematics. This seemed to work. I also utilized making and serving “number soup” to our resident “stuffies”, Totoro being our most persistent patron, following closely behind in his appetite by the giant avocado. This activity helps M with number recognition, because he is continuing to have trouble deciphering 2 and 5 and 6 and 9, and any number which includes these, and aids in teaching addition and subtraction to both boys. The ingredients are all numbers. We have to add multiple ingredients. Sometimes a patron is allergic or has a strict dietary preference which they’ve informed their waiter of and the kitchen has to work on their soup accordingly (the boys take turns being the waiter and the chef). The boys love playing restaurant (they opened up their “L and M Fish Place” last year and L chose fish as their orcas could bring in fresh daily catch) and it’s an exciting and instructive exercise for them, not just in mathematics but in harnessing memory, as they have to memorize the menu and the orders provided to them.
While L can read large numbers, L is not the best at addition and subtraction, which we have been working on and M, whom I wasn’t even teaching but who moonlighted our lessons, picked up on the principle. M is very good at counting and understands the concept of numbers, including zero, but continues to have issues recognizing the four numbers above (2,5 and 6 and 9). He has repeatedly asked me to tell him the difference between 2 and 5. His inability to see the difference is interesting, because M knows his right and left and differentiates and recognizes various shapes (octagon, hexagon, trapezium etc.) but this difference alludes him. So I decided to imprint in his understanding a connection to an animal. For “2” I told him to look for a swan. For “5” I told him to look for a kangaroo with a big pouch. Now, incredibly, he can recognize 2 without wondering whether it’s 5, but is confused as to whether “5” is 5 or 2. For 6s and 9s and I told him 6 has the neck and belly and 9 has the head and tail, but this hasn’t caught on as well as swan for “2”. I think my mistake is that a kangaroo was not an adequate choice for “5” and I need animals for 6 and 9, so that’s my next task…
M has taken to running to the potty and squatting over it, rather than sitting on it, crying out “muuuumy, I did a colossal kaka!” I haven’t pinned down what attracts boys to poop, but my boys like to think of it as a collective activity and like to investigate each other’s results. “Wow, that’s titanic!” L exclaims as M proudly points to his poop and then folds over into an adho mukha svanasana and reminds me to be “gentle” and only use the “wet wipes”.
M got terribly ill the other week and was poorly for nine days. He asked to go to the doctor and informed me he had a fever. L said he would give him a check-up and immediately sauntered towards his doctor kit, to which M scowled, his lower lip trembling and directed his admonishment towards me. “A real Doctor” he directed. M the proceeded to milk his sickness. He couldn’t eat his veggies, because he was too ill (L, on the other hand complained his peas were "too healthy", when I asked how something could be too healthy, L explained, "healthy food makes you run fast, but this is too healthy - it will make me run too fast and when you run too fast, you slip"), but M's illness somehow did not prevent him from enjoying ice cream, which he vociferously requested. He couldn’t do his lessons or go to school, but he could cuddle in bed and direct which books he wanted to me to read and which films he wanted to watch (his favourite being “Wall-E”). M was cheerful in his febrile state. He discovered the hilarity of existence. “You are a mummy” he giggled to me. Yes, indeed, it’s funny I suppose. My twenty-five year old self would have been floored. If we didn’t know he had a fever, we would have been suspicious of what he had imbibed because he appeared thoroughly inebriated.
While M was ill, we were told he was sorely missed in school. He had been loving towards his teachers and fellow students, telling them not to worry if they cried and putting his stamp on social activities. For instance, the usual walk-to-the-park songs were changed under M’s direction to Williams’s Imperial March hummed by an orchestra of preschoolers holding the rope en route to the park. However, when he recovered from his illness, M was irascible and tempestuous, throwing spectacular tantrums to the point that my husband and I entertained the idea of going to a child psychologist. M would rush to us and try and push us, telling us that we needed to be in “time out” when we asked him to do simple things, such as for instance, sit at the table during dinner. He also reverted to waking up multiple times during the night and regressed to the sleep-time habits he possessed as a five month old sans nursing. We were flabbergasted because no major incident appeared to precipitate this pandemonium. I was worried his persistent misbehavior at home was cascading into school. On inquiry, his teachers informed me that M was closing his eyes when a teacher directed him to do something, was being loud and disruptive and even pushed a friend. This was quite depressing and worrisome to hear because M, except for when he is attacked, is a very gentle character. M periodically has come up to me to say he needs to clean my glasses and does so with utmost care (which admittedly says as much about his concern for my sight as it does for my own upkeep). The teachers analyzed it as attention seeking behavior. Indeed, it makes sense that when a child is “acting out” they are usually crying out for help. We tried to uncover what was hurting M, but M refused to discuss it. Our only way of quelling M’s tantrums was to pretend to have a dire issue resolving something, like for instance, not being able to get milk from the fridge and requesting his aid. Once M established himself as the hero in the situation, pointing out that his “strong muscles” allowed him to, for instance, get the milk from the fridge and bring it to us (and thus holding our attention), a momentary cease-fire ensued until M found slight in another directive as if he were waging resistance to our colonization of his turf. Yet, just as it started, M’s tantrums appear to be dissipating with no real cause.
Everything has an unintended consequence (to some extent, we’re all unintended consequences). In order to encourage my boys to do things independently, I found the most efficient means was to feign trouble. I congratulated myself on being such a successful parent until one day L asked my husband to help him with a task, saying I was inept at it. This has caused me some anguish. What kind of role model have I been projecting? Have I been unwittingly projecting that women cannot do rudimentary things in an effort to have my sons develop their own ability to do them? This insight has overhauled my whole system of pedagogy and I no longer pretend, for instance, that I forgot what comes after 49 or have trouble reading “rocket” or am too weak to carry their lunch boxes. Instead, after I’ve expended all my positive discipline tools, which work remarkably well most of the time, I resort to carrots and sticks.
I’ve also discovered it’s a fine line as to when you are enriching your child and when you are doing them a disservice. Learning has to be fun. If it’s a chore and a bore, they are going to push against it. L asked to read zillions. I panicked because I could not remember what a zillion was and then I remembered it was a fictitious number. I told him we would come to that later after he learnt his billions. After a lesson in which L got to 3 billion, he told me that he didn’t like reading “tricky” numbers. His concentration waned. A child’s lesson must only be as long as their concentration. Not only is nothing hitting home while their brain is elsewhere entertained, but they leave their lesson with an understanding that it is something they dislike and they become recalcitrant to the general idea of learning. I’ve noticed I have a reflexive tendency to push, which is an extension of how I relate to myself and have needed to actively quell that instinct.
An exercise L has thoroughly enjoyed, which has resulted in him understanding his home address, so that if he were lost he could state his full name, our full names and his address and know to call 911 and ask for the police relating the same to them, is our hitch-hiking the universe game. First, we need to inform the friendly aliens what galaxy to head to. “The Milky Way!” the boys shout. Next, we have to head to our solar system. This caused some issue because I discovered I didn’t know what our sun was called. The boys questioned me on this and I said it was something I had to look up. I discovered that I did not know the name of our sun, because the International Astronomical Union did not designate a name for our sun (nor for our moon for that matter). Well isn’t that presumptuous. I understand there is a petition to revive Pluto as planet, even though it doesn’t clear its orbital path and for other reasons is squarely within the definition of a dwarf planet but I don’t think there is one for official nomenclature of our nearer celestial bodies. Surely our sun and moon deserve names?
But I digress. Back to our journey home. After we’ve reached our solar system, the boys have to direct the magnanimous aliens returning them home to their planet, then their continent, their country, their state, their city, their street, their building and finally their apartment number. I tell them that now they can come home wherever they find themselves in the universe. “So please have a rocket?” M asked, who has followed L’s exercise quite well (albeit our building number is beyond his reach).
It has been raining of late and we’ve done many indoor activities. One indoor activity has simply been to boogie. L instructed me that we should stop the music and freeze now and again and we jigged until we were all as elated as exhausted. “Dance freeze is fun!” I exclaimed jovially, to which L rolled his eyes and corrected me as if I had just said that the world was flat,
“actually, it’s freeze dance mum”. I felt past my prime to say the least.