They say the fourth birthday is when you actually become conscious of birthdays, of past ones and future ones, and your corresponding position on the ever-ascending escalator of life. From what I’ve observed over the last couple of weeks, this is entirely true.
Yes, it’s time for a Busyboy birthday special, now we are four.
The day was celebrated with a small party and an airplane cake, which by late afternoon had been whittled away to a wrecked tail-piece marooned on a field of desiccated coconut, spookily reminiscent of Flight 901 for those of us who were alive in 1979. Favourite presents included an alarmingly complete toy doctor’s kit (they still use saws?!), which was immediately renamed “my midwife kit.” Pretty much everyone at the party had their blood pressure checked and their umbilical cord deftly snipped with the plastic scissors.
He had witnessed a couple of strategic purchases back in August, so the parental presents weren’t a total surprise. Nonetheless, he played along. “Oh, a battery-powered cable-car kit just exactly like the one Russell Brown’s kid has! My wishes came true!” he piped, like something out of Enid Blyton or E. Nesbit. He really does talk like this, I’m afraid – is it too many books, or just the inherent theatricality of the four year old?
One of the things that intrigues me about this business of child-rearing is how much, at any given moment, a child is their age as much as their essential self, as helpfully theorized by Louise Bates Ames and her colleagues at the Yale Child Study Center just up the road.
In other words, how much of what I see is Busyboy the unique, individual soul -- and how much is simply the universal spirit of Fourness? Are the traits I admire on Monday or deplore on Tuesday simply the calling cards of a cohort of October 2001 babies across the globe? (And is this true of life as a whole? Can it be said of someone that they are having a particularly Forty-Two day, or making decisions like a Twenty-Three Year Old?)
Another thing I wonder: how much credit for the mysterious amalgam of a person can really be claimed by a parent? I’m agnostic on this point, although gardening analogies suggest themselves. The seed contains the plant, yes; but you’d best treat it right if you want it to bloom as beautifully as it can.
So, a daffodil bulb will guarantee daffodils, but only as long as you plant it the right way up at the appropriate depth to begin with, and shovel some decent fertilizer in with it. A birch tree will never give you flowers in a vase, but will always shimmer fetchingly, and even more so if you pop it in a boggy, shady corner of the garden and leave it to its own devices. Possible rule of thumb for parenting, then: don’t put your daffs in the shade, or your birch in the sunniest spot, but between them you might just get the cottage garden of your dreams.
In any case, here is how Four looks around our house, these days. Bear in mind we’re only a couple of weeks into it, although very self-consciously so, in view of the imminent promotion to big brotherhood. The boy is not just four, he is FOUR! A BIG BOY! In his own eyes, practically a teenager. And he is also:
1. Obsessed with disasters As a family, we don’t watch much television -- a couple of hours a week of ploddingly genial Bob the Builder, and reassuring-friend-of-autistic-kids-everywhere Thomas the Tank Engine is about it. (Before you ask, the vile Barney is absolutely banned, although this awesome bootleg almost had me reconsidering -- NB not safe for work or kids).
The most dramatic televisual entertainment lately has been some deliciously reassuring hippie birth videos, in which babies float gently to the surface of birthing pools into the arms of their beautiful mothers and handsome, ringletted fathers. Sometimes siblings hop in the pool too, much to Busyboy’s delight, although I think I will draw the line at him bringing his beloved “mask-and-snorple.” (Home birth is a family event, but last time I looked, not a spectator sport.)
But we do wake up to the radio, and Hurricane Katrina and the Kashmir earthquake have been getting a lot of grim airtime.
Which has led to some creative new approaches to cleaning up toys; it used to be enough to dismantle the train layout, but now it must be swept away in a tide of toxic soup or uprooted by tectonic upheaval. Then there are the explosioning volcanoes, and the black holes, and the power cuts, and the train crashes and so on and so on.
The good news is that these don’t seem to be scary propositions at all, but Baden-Powell-like challenges to his capacity to be mentally prepared. There is always a magical solution to the disaster at hand involving jet planes and dinosaurs, or some real world cunning hack suggested by the estimable Bob (battery-powered lanterns and candles! Who knew?).
If the worst happens in our neighbourhood, I know who to ask for help.
2. Compassionate The upside of all the disaster news is a powerful new philanthropic urge. Just before Halloween, a local shop was giving away small cardboard boxes so kids could collect money for Unicef rather than candy for Mum and Dad to, er, discreetly dispose of. Busyboy grabbed three boxes - one for each of us - and as soon as we got home, he emptied his piggy bank to fill his own box. I found him scrabbling around in the cupboard for a stamp so that he could send money “straight to the kids in the earthquake so they can buy blankets for tonight.” He puts the rest of us to shame, he really does.
3. Politically aware The hurricane was a more troubling issue – a natural disaster, yes, but with significant human input. Somehow he picked up the notion that President Bush “didn’t care about the people,” and instantly became very censorious on the subject. “Oh, I hate that President Bush,” he would say, seditiously, “he’s just terrible at his job.” Not wanting to completely brainwash him, or, you know, get deported, I let the matter drop.
Then last week, we were in a bookshop, reading a kids’ book about the ill-fated Titanic. (His choice, not mine – an older friend has a copy of the same book, and it really is a riveting story, especially if you are into ocean liners in general). When we got to the part about how there weren’t enough lifeboats, I wondered aloud who was in charge of counting the passengers and making sure there were enough lifeboats for them all, because clearly they hadn’t done a very good job of it.
“Oh, probably President Bush,” was the instant reply, “and we should totally put him in jail.” Reckon the statute of limitations has run out on that one though, eh?
4. My favourite: Magical realist, to the max Channeling Borges and Garcia Marquez - with a dash of L. Ron Hubbard and Erich von Daniken - Busyboy tells endlessly entertaining tales of a place called South America. It is an extraordinary realm where anything is possible.
In South America, boy chickens lay eggs and nobody ever dies. Whenever you step on a crack in South America, a trapdoor opens up underneath you, which is both exciting and scary. You need to know that the land is largely frozen, and patrolled by transparent glowing robot police hippos, who travel on ice skates.
His Nonna and Poppa tried showing him photos of their own travels to a place they were pretty sure was South America, to no avail. “I know all about South America, and that’s not it.” Nope, it takes about fourteen days to get there on a plane, and when you do there is nowhere to stay because there are no people and no hotels (and the transparent glowing robot police hippos don’t run B & Bs, more’s the pity).
This South America has a rich and astonishing history. Brandishing a Lego construction that has five wheels and an indeterminate number of projecting bumps, he informs me: “This is a jet-jet. It was one of the first South American planes that was ever built. A hundred and fifty thousand years ago, when there was nuffing, even dinosaurs, or people, or cats, or dogs, or trees, or spiders, or anything else. That’s when this plane was built, when there was no anything, just nuffing. Just that plane. And robots. Actually, the plane was built by robots. Then the robots died out and the people came, and the dinosaurs. And that’s its real name, jet-jet. I didn’t make it up. That’s what they call it, in South America.” See, not a lot of people know that.
But the best part about this treasury of stories: there is an inexhaustible supply. “There’s lots more about South America,” he says, patting me on the arm. “When you’re a grandma, I’ll tell you the rest.” I’ll try to remember to hold him to that.