Rainbow Girl recently turned seven. We had a weekend party of course, with kids, smarties, balloons, and mayhem, but on RG’s actual birthday, midweek, we went, en famille, on RG’s Perfect Date.
The date—a peripatetic ritual honed over a number of school holidays—started with an after-school train ride into the CBD, just RG and me. We got off the train at Melbourne Central Station and went straight to that basement Asian grocery that has a cracking range of Kracie Popin Cookin. After careful consideration, RG chose the Kracie takoyaki (octopus balls). One escalator up, and we were at EB Games, spending a gift voucher from a relative—more Pikachus! From here we strolled (millennial flâneurs that we are) along the faux arcades of Melbourne Central and the Emporium to rendezvous with My Honey at Sushi Hon (known in our house as Sushi Train). More takoyaki (proper savoury ones this time), gyoza, udon, and assorted little sushi plates. The meal was rounded off with bubble tea from Chatime, where RG ordered her usual—chocolate milk tea with no sugar, quarter ice, pearls and rainbow jelly. And then we trained home to bath and bed.
To an outsider, there is probably nothing remarkable about Rainbow Girl’s Perfect Date. In my eyes though, the eyes of a parent, the date reflects Rainbow Girl’s unique, sensual aesthetic. What a privilege to watch that aesthetic develop. Happy birthday, Rainbow Girl. Happy birthday, my baby!
According to a recent blog post (The Imagination of the Child) by the principal of an alternative school in the UK, contemporary fantasy fiction is a threat to children’s mental health, and parents who don’t restrict their children’s access to such fiction are feckless. The UK Guardian, Telegraph, and Independent, all published online articles about the danger and absurdity of the principal’s claim that works works by Shelly, Dickens and Shakespeare were better suited to the ‘innocence’ of children than works by Tolkien, Rowling, and Suzanne Collins. Truth be told, the principal’s blog post is not as straightforward as it’s been portrayed. Rather it is a hot mess of psychobabble and Luddism delivered with poor English expression. I particularly liked the bit where he states that children “do not have thinking brains until, at the earliest, fourteen years of age.”
I’m 100% confident that almost-7yo Rainbow Girl has a thinking brain, and a highly imaginative thinking brain it is too. She loves a good fantasy story, and she loves role playing her favourite characters. Occasionally, very thoughtfully, she will check in with us about what is real, and what is not real, and will even ask “What does this mean?” because she knows, as an experienced consumer of fairy tales, that sometimes meaning is not literal. When you have the life experience of a 7yo it can be difficult to pin down meaning without help, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sense that there is more to things than meets the eye.
This is not to say that Rainbow Girl is never scared by fantasy fiction. When she was around three years old she would ask for Red Riding Hood without the Wolf (that’s the story where Red Riding Hood takes lemonade and cake to her Grandmother’s house and they have a nice tea…) More recently she decided to take a break from Harry Potter about one hundred pages into The Goblet of Fire, because Voldemort was giving her nightmares. As a parent I don’t feel like her Voldemort nightmares were a sign of deteriorating mental health anymore than her nightmares about sandcastles washing out to sea are a sign that her ‘innocence’ has in someway been violated. Indeed sandcastles washing out to sea epitomise transience, a matter that it is right and proper for her to recognise and explore, even as a child. Placing The Goblet of Fire back on the shelf was an easy fix for the nighttime Voldemort woes. If only the sandcastle business was as straightforward.
But back to the school principal. One of the things he made reference to in his blog post was sensationalism. To me there is a kind of irony here in the way the media latched on to his strange, rambling blog post, stirring up a blip of internet outrage against a man’s belief that The Old is more wholesome fare for the young than The New. I look at the same blog post and see a school principal who underestimates his students, whose grasp of grammar and clear thinking is questionable, and who is quite possibly is not as mentally robust as he proclaims. I hope, for the sake of his students that their parents recognise there is a problem here, and take appropriate action.
One of my absolute joys as a parent has been my ongoing, intimate engagement with my child’s acquisition of language. I think most parents would understand this at some level. From the moment a child is born, the dialogue begins. The baby cries and rubs it’s eyes, and we respond. In those early months it’s all about meeting the new little person’s needs, introducing them to the world around them, and prompting them to interact. Mum. Dad. Milk. Peek-a-boo! And then the surprises start.
When my daughter was around 6 months old, I was holding her against my chest in a sling, walking around the lounge room, rocking her to music—when suddenly she kissed my breast, and looked up at me, beaming. I knew she wasn’t hungry, and at first I took the kiss as a random display of affection (for the food source, not me as whole!) Then she did it again, and again, and suddenly I realised—the music on the CD player was Louis Armstrong singing Kiss of Fire, and my baby was kissing me every time Louis sang kiss. Knock me down with a feather.
It was around this time that I came across the idea of baby sign language. In light of the kiss experience, baby signing made absolute sense. I chose a few signs to work with, but the only one that my baby took to was the sign for more. Because—parenting 101—it’s all about motivation. Which is okay because motivation takes all kinds of forms, one of which is communicating life essentials.
Delight is a life essential. When my daughter was 7 months old, I made the saddening decision to withdraw from a Masters course that I’d deferred from a few months before she was born. I knew that I couldn’t give my child the attention she deserved if my head was immersed in the labyrinthine by-ways of cultural theory, and yet… As my baby and I trammed down Swanston Street to my exit interview with the Faculty, we looked at the Christmas decorations. “Star,” I said to her, repeatedly, as I pointed to massive sparkly stars hanging from street lights. She rolled this around her little head, and then the game began. “Da!” she said, pointing to the next lot of stars. We were off. Da! Da! Da! All the way to the university and back again. Yes, I had made the right choice. I had stars in my eyes.
The milestones since then have been many and varied, but some stand out more than others. Like the moment my daughter suddenly realised colour as a concept. She was around 18 months old, and still not much of a talker. Her favourite word at the time was moa which quite handily acted as signifier for her three primary obsessions of lawn mower, mailbox, and more (back to motivation…) Anyway, she rushed up to me, purple crayon clutched in hand, purple dress in the other, her face ablaze with excitement. She shook the crayon and dress at me meaningfully. Look Mummy. Look!!!! She persisted despite my blank incomprehension, and then… Oh my. We went to the crayon box. “Which one is red?” I asked. She pointed to red. “Green?” She pointed to green. Orange, blue, brown, yellow ochre… (we’re a bit arty at our place) She pointed to them all. She was exploding with accomplishment. She couldn’t say the words, but because the words existed she could receive and hold this amazing, wonderful concept, and she could find a way to share her understanding.
There are some concepts of course that the English language has no adequate word for. Love of a parent for a child is one of those concepts. If I want to convey to you how I love my child, I need to use not one, but many words, stringing them together to tell you the story of how our love unfolds and of how it changes me. I’ve been a lover of words for as long as I remember, but parenting has enriched my understanding of what is means to be a logophile. Love—deep love—is not a solitary thing. Such love is the recognition of self in other, and it motivates us to search for ways to encapsulate and share that which matters. Sometimes the way lies in a gesture—a touch on the arm or a hug. More often than not though, the way is through words. Thank you, words.