The mind control is failing

March 2008

Dear Dave,

How's Sam getting on at nursery these days? Marie really enjoyed it at first. Then, after a couple of weeks, she comprehended it was every day and started complaining that she didn't want to go any more. She shuffled towards the nursery door each morning, shoulders slumped, head hung low, and complained she was tired. I showed very little sympathy. I told her to get used to it 'cos she had another fourteen and a half years of education left to go, and then I gave her a little shove to make sure she made it across the threshold.

This approach seems to have paid off, since she's now much more used to the idea. She comes out a lot less grumpy at the end of the morning. I get to hear about the snack she had and the story and sometimes a few of the things she's learned. They've been talking about health and food recently.

It's nice to listen to what she's been up to but it's a bit scary to realise that even my little girl is no longer entirely under my control. The kids are getting older. Other people teach them things without me being present. I don't get to police the flow of information to their brains and I'm constantly surprised when they tell me things which I didn't know they knew. The other day, Fraser was aware that the Himalayas are the highest mountain range in the world. I didn't tell him that. They must actually teach him stuff at school. What with all you hear about the state education system, this was more than I'd really bargained on. I was thinking of it as free childcare with some added social integration but there's definitely more to it than that. He's not yet eight but he can do simple division, recite information about Vikings and read Harry Potter books without moving his lips. I wonder what else they're teaching him? Actually, hang on a minute, he can read. He could be teaching stuff to himself!

This isn't good. He has enough opinions already. Imagine what it will be like if he has facts to back them up... I'm doomed.

Ho well. Then again, sometimes I'm surprised by what the kids don't know. Usually it's just a simple misunderstanding, like the time Marie asked, "Can I have some more juice please, Daddy?" (At least that's what I think she asked. It's possible she might have said, "I want more juice, slave!" but that's not important.)

"Sorry, Marie," I replied. "The juice has all gone, I'm afraid."

"Oh," she said. "Are you scared of the juice, Daddy?"

Other times, the misunderstanding can be much less simple:

Fraser had to read to me from a book about India for his homework. One passage was to do with fishermen who work at the shore in tiger reserves. The book said that they wear masks on the backs of their heads to scare off the tigers. Fraser read the words fluently but I was suspicious that he hadn't understood their sense when he looked at the picture of the fishermen and said, "What have they got on their heads?"

"Those are masks," I explained. "It means they can keep working without having to look over their shoulders all the time to make sure a tiger isn't creeping up on them. If a tiger sees their masks, it will think they're looking at it. That means it won't attack because it will think they'll see it coming and fight back."

Fraser was puzzled. "What if there's another tiger in front of them?"

"They really will be looking at that one," I said patiently, "so it won't attack them either."

"But what if the two tigers talk to each other?" he said, his face screwed up in confusion. "If they both say they see faces, then they'll know it's a trick."

I suddenly understood the scale of the issue I was dealing with. "Er... Tigers can't talk."

"I know," he said, to my relief. Unfortunately, he then followed that up with, "I mean in their own language."

"No - tigers can't speak at all," I said, regretting having ever let him watch The Jungle Book. "They can only growl. They can maybe tell each other to look out, or that there's food or something, by growling a bit differently, but they can't say anything more than that."

He didn't get it. "Yeah, but I mean in their own language..."

"Tigers don't have a language. Only people have languages." I was tempted to add a caveat about dolphins but decided not to confuse things further. "Animals can't have conversations."

"OK," said Fraser, although he still didn't look convinced, and we pressed on with the book.

There's so much that he knows now, I was astonished by this gaping hole in his understanding of the world. Did he find Ratatouille believable? What else has he not taken in? Are there basic safety issues that he's blissfully unaware of? Does he think the moon is made of cheese?

I'm nervous. I can't possibly 'remind' him of everything I think he should know, though. It would take too long and wouldn't help anyway. I'd be bound to assume too much. It wouldn't have crossed my mind that he thought animals could talk to each other. Who knows what else he's missed?

Then there are concepts he may never pick up. A few years back, we tried out a different translation of the Lord's Prayer at church. It didn't go down hugely well for various reasons, most notably that the new version was neither poetic nor particularly more understandable than the old version. There were those, however, who were angry that the minister was trying to 'change the words that Jesus taught us'. They just didn't seem to get that there can be more than one way to translate things and that all the ways can be equally valid. These weren't stupid people - it was just a subject of which they had little knowledge or experience.

On another occasion, Fraser came home from school having been given the task of finding out what molecules are made of. I sent him back with the answer, 'It depends how close you look,' and a basic grasp of sub-atomic physics. I got called in by the teacher to explain myself. I really thought she'd at least have heard of quarks...

I was in my teens before I worked out that those pictures of our galaxy we're so used to seeing aren't photos. I was thirty before I realised that just because psychologists have given a name to an illness doesn't mean they know how to positively identify it, what causes it or how to treat it. I still think that I graduated recently.

I guess that last one is a concept I simply don't want to learn the truth about. Marie had a similar feeling yesterday. After nursery, she saw one of her friends eating a Curly Wurly. "Anna's having a snack," she said. "It's not healthy."

I nodded. "Yep, you're right, that's not a very healthy snack."

"I'm going to have a snack after soft-play," Marie said. "It will be a healthy snack."

On past experience, this didn't seem very likely. "Really?" I said.


"What's your snack going to be?" I asked.

"A Milky Way!" Marie said, jumping up and down.

"That's not healthy."

She looked at me like I was on drugs. "Yes, it is."

"No," I said, "it's a chocolate bar. It's made of sugar and chocolate, just like the chocolate bar that Anna's eating."

"Oh," said Marie, deeply troubled by this revelation. It stuck in her head, though, because when soft-play was over, she perused the contents of the vending machine carefully. She spotted a Blueberry Slice in the bottom corner. "I want that. It's healthy."

"Maybe," I muttered, trying to work out what is was. It appeared to be a type of cake but it didn't have chocolate and the name implied some level of fruit content. It was almost certainly entirely made of lard and sugar apart from a small smattering of blueberry scrapings. Still, a hint of vitamins is sometimes all it takes to persuade a parent to cough up twice as much money as normal for a snack that explodes into sticky crumbs as soon as it's unwrapped.

More than that, I didn't have the heart to inform her that anything which comes from a vending machine is very unlikely to be nutritious. She wouldn't have been able to cope. She wanted to be healthy but she was tired and needed a snack. Compromise was the only way forward.

While I was busy hoovering us both down after we got home, I got to thinking about Fraser again. I can't possibly teach him everything. I don't know everything myself. There are things he's not ready for yet. There are things he won't want to hear. I may even struggle to convince him that he doesn't know everything already.

All I can do is continue to help him understand the world and try to answer his questions as they arise. The next time I get into an argument with him (or anyone else for that matter), I should take a step back, however. What's the argument really about? What assumptions are we both making? Does one of us think tigers can talk to each other?

It might help life run more smoothly.

Yours in a woman's world,


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