Explaining the World to A Four-Year-Old: “Mum, Why Are You Crying?”

I just drove M to nursery and I was sobbing most of the way. From the back seat I heard: “Mum, why are you crying?”

“I’m not crying,” I said, and turned the music up. “Did you say you’re not crying?”

Yes. Yes I lied. Because it was easier than trying to explain why I am crying to you. Because I’m the parent and you’re the four-year-old. So no, I’m not crying.

I’m not crying because I shouted at you to put your coat on and get ready to go because when I said I wasn’t taking two coats today you threw yourself on the floor and had a tantrum. Because I didn’t have the energy for an explanation of why I want to carry as little as possible to the car now that L is too big to lug around in the car seat and I have to take him in the sling. And why even though you love your Batman vest coat you still need the other one in case it rains so today just take the other one.

I’m not crying because I know I should have shown more patience and because when I said sorry for shouting you said “you always shout at me.” Which isn’t true but is obviously how you felt in that moment and that breaks my heart.

I’m not crying because I feel like the house is a perpetual mess and sometimes I feel like life is an endless round of washing up and laundry and when I don’t have the energy to tackle the washing up/laundry and instead play with you and your brother I feel guilty when your dad comes home and the house is a mess but when I tidy the house when you are around I feel guilty for not being better organised and tidying when you are asleep so we have time to play.

I’m not crying because I stayed up until 12.15am last night tidying so we could get on with a nice day this morning and then you and your brother woke up at 6.30am.

I’m not crying because I spent the morning on the phone to HMRC/tax credits while you watched Tom and Jerry and we played a couple of games but then it was time to get ready to go to nursery and I felt guilty that you had sat and watched TV for so long.

I’m not crying because your brother cried in his cot while I quickly got the sauce in the crock pot for spaghetti tonight so your dad doesn’t have to cook dinner yet again when he gets home.

I’m not crying because the kitchen is now a mess again.

I’m not crying because I want to be the best mum to you boys but I feel like it is all just quite hard sometimes and I feel guilty for feeling that especially because I can see how fast you are growing up.

But I love you and you read me two books today. And I taught you to say “th” instead of “l.” And you did as I asked and went to try to cheer your brother up when I was making the pasta sauce and I could hear you over the baby monitor saying “it’s OK, I’m here, mummy’s just coming… Mum! It’s not working.”

I love you so much but I think about all the things I do wrong instead of the things that I do right.

Which is why I’m not crying.

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Explaining the World to a Four-Year Old: “I Heard a McDonalds Sound”

Driving back home after drama class this morning (I have enrolled M in a little preschool drama group and he loves it) I had the radio on. Out of nowhere M announced from the back seat: “I heard a McDonalds sound.”

“What’s a McDonalds sound?” I asked, thinking I already knew the answer as, on reflection, the news jingle for our local radio station does seem similar to the “da da da da daaah… I’m Lovin’ It” song.

“You know,” M said. “The sound they do at the end of the advert.”

Yes. Right. Great. McDonalds has burrowed it’s way into my preschooler’s brain. Woohoo for advertising.

M often asks me about things he has heard in adverts, which is odd as he doesn’t really see that many of them except at Grandma’s house. We don’t watch a lot of TV, which isn’t to say we don’t watch anything. M tends to watch DVDs and my husband and I watch box sets or Netflix-style streaming, or we record things and then fast-forward through the adverts. I am just not that used to adverts any more and when I do watch them I do so with a detached ironic disdain.

M, however, seems to love them and views them as the oracle on ‘all-the-things-that-exist-that-I-don’t-have’, which is of course the point of advertising. He will always watch all of the adverts on his DVDs and when we are at Grandma’s house he loves the adverts on the Sky kids’ channels almost as much as the shows themselves.

At Christmas I had to tell him bluntly that I didn’t care what advert he saw or how much he liked it, Santa was under strict instructions not to bring him the game where you pick up dog poo or the game where you pull bogies out of the guy’s nose because they are just. too. gross.

Santa was also not going to bring The Dinosaur that Pooped… series of books but Grandma helped him out on that one (I still refuse to read them as they initiate my gag reflex). Those were not advertised but he was drawn to them at the bookstore like a four-year-old boy to books about dinosaurs pooping stuff.

A little before Christmas, again out of nowhere, M announced at breakfast: “it’s a good job we have adverts.” “Oh yeah?” I replied “why’s that?”

“So we know what games there are” he announced as if I was some sort of simpleton.

Yes dearest one, where would we be without adverts making us want random junky plastic crap? Just goes to show that even if you eschew commercialism, shop at charity shops and engage in a love-hate (but mostly hate) relationship with the consumer culture, your child may still have a part of their brain that knows what “The McDonalds Sound” is.

You’ve gotta love modern life. Oh no, wait, I don’t.

Explaining the World to a Four-Year-Old: “Because you’re My Mummy!”

This afternoon, my little boy was sitting eating his dinner (hotdogs – because my husband is cooking our Friday curry, which leaves M with a night off from my trying to get him to eat grown-up food) when he embarked on one of those conversations that equally makes my toes curl and my heart fill with love and wonder.

Before I tell the story, it is important to note that as a child I was terrified of death: of my dying and/or of anyone I knew dying. I had OCD then too and could not let go of the thought and would worry about it endlessly. My mother is an atheist but I was raised with a vague understanding of religion from attending a Church of England primary school. This mix of atheism and school-indoctrination led to some amusing incidents in my childhood, including the time my littlest brother, when asked why he had hit someone at school, confidently announced “Jesus told me to do it.” Or when, in a teenage rage, I accidentally sparked a parental dispute when I responded to some perfectly reasonable request of my step-dad’s with “for God’s sake!” and “Jesus Christ!” and got a “we-don’t-take-God’s-name-in-vain-in-this-house” lecture (he in turn got a “we-are-not-a-religious-household” lecture from my mother and I must add that he didn’t seem to have the same problem with the Lord’s name when people cut him off while driving). Needless to say, I grew up as an outsider to religion. At times I felt a bit like Peter Pan: nose pressed to the glass watching those people who were safe and secure in their faith and who knew exactly what death meant and where they were going when they died. I, meanwhile, used to cry myself to sleep worrying about the idea that when I died the world would go on and on and on forever and ever and ever without me. I started this when I was about M’s age and continued to fear dying well into adulthood.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not crazy about the concept even now. But I have had therapy, and I have read some Buddhist quotes, and I certainly understand enough about the world to know not to let my neurotic agnosticism negatively impact my child’s growing awareness of life, the universe, and everything. So, I grit my teeth and put on my best fake-cheery demeanor whenever he decides to broach the subject of death and dying.

My mum’s cat died when M was three and I wouldn’t let her tell him about it. My plan was to just not mention it and then if/when he asked about the cat to tell him that the cat didn’t live there any more as if he had just packed his bags and moved down the road one morning. My mum was rather incredulous at this idea but agreed to keep quiet (I imagine to avoid one of my “he’s-my-child-and-I-make-the-rules” lectures). But then my step-dad’s elderly father passed away from cancer a few months later and I couldn’t side-step that one. M already knew that he had a Grandpa (my husband’s late father) that he had never met and we had managed to show him photos and introduce him to the concept of a Grandpa who was not around and who he could never meet without an in-depth discussion of death. But when we had to explain why his great-grandfather would not be at Sunday dinner any more, I braced myself for the questions. And come they did, not all at once, but there have been a trickle of questions – and some interesting theories – about death since then (including that only men die – presumably because the people (and cats) that he knows who have died have all been male).

My largely off-the-cuff strategy has been to answer his questions and to not lie to him, but to try to avoid making him scared, the way I was. I want him to accept death without fearing it and so far it seems to have worked. But I still dislike the topic and wince at some of the things he comes out with because I just don’t want to think about it. It is hard enough to try to live life in the moment (something I have been trying hard to do of late) without worrying a) what we are doing here, b) how long we will be here for, and c) where we are going.

So I wasn’t thrilled when M embarked on another figuring-it-out exploration of death at the dinner table. Out of nowhere he announced:

“The soil is made up of people who have died.”

“Yes,” I replied, “but not only… it’s also made up of plants and trees and stuff that have decomposed – things do go back to the soil yes.”

“Mmmm… yes. I want to be buried in a graveyard.”

“[I take a deep breath to compose myself] Well,not yet. You won’t die for a very long time, until you’re an old man.”

“Yes, like Daddy. He’ll die. But not you.”

“Why not me?”

“Because you’re my mummy!”

He said this last part with a big smile on his face, as if I was very silly for asking why not me, and seemingly confident in the fact that his mummy (the only mummy) would always, always be here.

I said “that’s true, give me a cuddle.”

He gave me a cuddle and said “it is really true?” I said “what do you think?” He said “hmmm… Great-Grandma is an old lady.” I said “yes that’s true.” I left it there. I don’t want his brain to move past the certainty that his mummy will always be here, though with every conversation I think that we are edging closer to the realisation that one day, everyone dies. So far I have explained that people die because they are old, or because they are very ill. I know that he will realise one day that sometimes death just comes out of nowhere and shatters everything, even when no-one was old, or particularly ill, but he doesn’t have to realise it yet.

I hugged him extra tight tonight and took comfort in the fact that it is true, in a way. I won’t die because I am his mummy and because I am L’s mummy. Because everything my little boys do in their lives will be attributable to the fact that I grew them, and I bore them, and I raised them. Things will happen that would not have happened had they not been born and they would not have been born but for me.

Life, the universe, and everything makes my head hurt. I can still send myself into a panic thinking about it all – even writing this post stresses me out slightly. But it is moments like this that make life worth living: the wide-eyed innocence of a little boy who believes that I will never die, and the thought that through him and his brother, I never really will.

Explaining the World to a Four-Year Old: “There are Street Rats on the Seafront”

Today as we were getting in the car to go to nursery, M announced: “there are street rats on the seafront.” I let this go initially, mumbling “mmm… really?” absentmindedly while loading L into the car. As always though, I couldn’t resist engaging M in conversation – I love to tease his half-formed thoughts out and help him to understand his world. Admittedly, so far our little conversations have led onto topics such as WWII, the Berlin Wall, the French/Russian/American Revolutions, slavery, and a politically-correct explanation of what makes a family, to name a few (I have an MA in U.S. History that was supposed to be a PhD; five years in grad school studying the history of gender and race-relations means that I can’t help but try to explain the world to M in a way that challenges pre-conceived stereotypes and cultural constructions, hell, I even used the term “cultural construction” once when he asked why girls like pink!)

“What do you mean there are street rats on the seafront?” I asked. I thought it was a very odd comment but then realised that he had watched 10 minutes of Aladdin while I was getting L ready, and thought I knew where this was going. “You know,” he said, “people who can’t afford a house. Like Aladdin.” Aha. “Oh, you mean like the homeless people we see sometimes who ask for money?” Yes, that was what he meant. “Yes, I suppose they are a little bit like Aladdin,” I said, “he doesn’t have a house either does he?” M said “no, he lives in a cave. See, they are street rats.”

Cue explanation of why yes, technically he is right to make the link between the homeless people on our seafront and Aladdin, in that they are in the same situation of not having a home, and praising him for what is a rather astute observation for a four-year old, whilst at the same time trying to explain why we can’t actually call them street rats (all I need is to be walking past a homeless person and for my four-year-old to announce his street rat theory to the world!)

“But why isn’t it nice to say street rat? The man calls Aladdin a street rat.”

“Yes, I know he does, but he’s not a nice man and he is saying it to be horrible to Aladdin. It is not nice to call someone a street rat; the men who do that are the ones trying to lock Aladdin up aren’t they?”

“Maybe we should lock people up who say that?”

“Um… no, it’s not up to us to lock people up – it is up to the law and the police to lock up bad people, we just try to be kind to people whenever possible, and it should always be possible because it’s not that hard to be kind is it?”

I think he understood. This entire conversation happened whilst we were driving. We had got about halfway to nursery when I tried to sum up by telling him that I love him and that I am glad that he thinks about things and talks about the things he thinks about.
“Why?” He asks.
“Because it is good to think about the world, and you’re a lovely boy.”
“Except when I’m bad.”
(Here we go again)
“You’re not bad M, sometimes you’re an old grump, but that’s ok, it doesn’t mean you are bad, no children are bad. You’re a lovely boy.”

I try to explain his negative emotions and to place them in context for him. So, he is not bad, but he can behave badly. He shouldn’t say he hates things because hate is not a nice thing; kindness and love are much better. Equally, it is okay to be angry and frustrated, and to feel that he doesn’t like something, but it is not okay to go around saying he hates everything because hate is a very strong word.

I try to explain the world to him in a way that makes sense of the things he says and asks about, whilst striking a balance between telling the truth and leaving enough of the truth out that he doesn’t get the sense that the world is a horrible place. It is in this balance that I find joy in our conversations; in microcosm M is the future of our world. I am constantly reminded that the world does not have to be the way that it is. It is our collective actions that make the world the way it is and our actions are driven by our thoughts about what is (and is not) acceptable or possible. In turn, our understanding of what is (and is not) acceptable and possible come from the way that we learn about the world as children and how the adults around us interpret the world for us.

I try to teach M about the world as it is, so that he will not be blindsided as he grows older, but also about the world as it should be, so as he grows up he can be a drop in the ocean: a drop of tolerance, kindness, and hope.

That’s the theory anyway, like every parent I am muddling along as best I can.