Nathan Ditum is a man who writes words about films and games, and is married to me
“Well, that is very sad.”
“By a whale.”
The first time I can ever remember being truly bowled over by something my children said – rather than by the fact they were saying anything at all, instead of sitting pinkly and staring – was when we were living in Sheffield. My son and I were playing football in our back garden, a small square of grass, and I asked if he wanted to go to the nearby park to play there instead.
“But daddy,” said Jay, who was two at the time, “we’re already at the park.” “No, Jay,” I replied patiently. “We’re in the garden, but we’re going to the park, aren’t we?” “We are in the park,” he insisted, “because the park is all everywhere, under the ground.” Oh, I thought, suddenly seeing the grass we were standing on as a canvas upon which the roads and pavements had been scrawled. Shit.
Few things are more worthy of attention than a newly articulate child’s take on the world, at least not if you’re the parent. But more than that, the point at which my children began to have thoughts and ideas removed from those I’d passed along to them, thoughts that I couldn’t have had myself, was a more significant waypoint in their terrifying (for me, naturally) journey into adulthood than the first step, the first word, or even the first succesfully unshat trouser.
I’m not sure I’ve ever evolved a philosophy of parenting past “Be kind to them, and try hard to help them grow into kind people.” But I’ve always hoped our kids would become smart, sceptical, engaged – an improvement on me, essentially – and I cherish (and also resent and stand in awe of) these verbal revelations as proof this is happening, that they’re becoming their own people. Often people who make me laugh.
A lot of what I value in my children’s speech and ideas comes, I think, from the fact that I write for a living. I rate being funny probably higher than I should – an ability to make me laugh is intrinsic to me liking most people, on the grounds that being funny displays an understanding of things and an imagination to see how they could be different. It’s probably unhealthy and I’m probably warping their sense of propriety and relationships, but I’m never prouder of my children than when they make me laugh.
Jay had us to himself for four years, when Sarah and I were mostly studying or writing from home. It was a calmer house and he was a more contemplative child – thus the thoughts on grass and parks – and it’s been amazing to watch him absorb the books, games and cultural overflow around him into a unique perspective on everything.
Recently we saw Dolly Parton on television, which prompted me to ask if he knew what plastic surgery was. “Hmm,” he considered. “Editing your face.” Other times the results are more alarming, like when I walked in on him telling his younger sister “I can disapparate my balls” – almost certainly not what JK Rowling had in mind while inspiring young readers, though a handy sign it was time for separate baths.
What I enjoy the most is the unselfconsiousness with which he and his friends use language. It’s a unique age, at around ten – their ability to express themselves flowering just as their understanding of things hurtles onwards and gives them a universe of things to express, directly and bluntly.
One time Jay overspent when entrusted with £20 a charity booksale. “But it’s for children with a disease that begins with M!” he cried earnestly. Another time we were waiting outside Halfords with one of his friends. “Make a noise when the bus comes” the friend said. “We’ll be in here smelling tyres.”
Madeleine is younger, and having grown up in a house with an increasingly noisy four-years-older Jay, she developed an ear for the sounds and shapes of conversation long before she grasped exactly what was supposed to go inside. Joyfully, she never cared – the shell of language was quite satisfying enough.
This led, when Mads was three, to endless renditions of knock knock and crossing the road jokes, some of which would spiral on for sentences and sentences. (“Why did the little girl cross the road? To go to a charity shop, and she saw the chicken, and it died, and a fox ate it and pooed it out.”)
But my favourite are the moments at which Maddy aligns her happy half-grasp of form and fills it with her natural resistance to believing or agreeing with anything I say, and comes up with a radical form of dissenting aggression. When I tried once to explain indefinite articles – “You wouldn’t say ‘an little girl’, would you?” –- she shot back, without a pause, “An little girl killed daddy in the woods.”
The results are heightened when she becomes frantic, too. Once, unable to contain a general thrill of being alive, she emitted a piercing scream in the middle of a cafe.”What does that mean?” I asked quietly. “It means I love you forever!” she barrelled. “And I wish you were crisps!”
Which is funnier than anything I’ve ever said or done. And I look forward to much more – to all the things they will say and all the ways they’ll be different and independent and more than I could have imagined or ever taught them. They are the greatest thing I will ever do, and it’s hardly me doing it at all.