Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Summer holidays (2)

If you experienced a slight delay on the M11 in Essex the other week, it might very well have been because of Tyrone the Tiger.

Tyrone was purchased five years ago in Hamleys, the famously hideous and over-priced toy shop in London’s once-elegant Regent Street. He is made of black and white striped boucle, which makes him more of a zebra than a tiger in my book, but all the same he is - and this is important - very dear to his owner, Amy, who is now ten.

While returning from holiday last week with Amy and her family, Tyrone was inexplicably sucked out of the sun roof of the family car as it travelled down the M11. Now in my experience, objects do not get “sucked out” of sun roofs unless somebody gives them a helping hand, but let us not delve too deeply. The fact remains that Tyrone was blown onto the cruel no-man’s land which is the central reservation of a motorway, and Amy was “devastated”.

To console her, Amy’s adoring parents reported Tyrone’s fate to the Essex police. The officer in charge of that stretch of the M11 decided to take a welcome break from the weary routine of chasing Essex gang leaders up and down it, and sent out a search party for Tyrone. Once the toy was spotted, it was the work of a moment to set up a road block - halting, for several minutes, all the people who happened to be driving to Stansted Airport to catch aeroplanes, among others - then to collect Tyrone and restore him to Amy’s loving arms.

Probably your stomach, like mine, churns at this Disneyishly sentimental tale. But what should Amy’s parents have done?

Let us recall what another parent did in similar circumstances.

In 1925, four year old Michael Tolkien became deeply attached to a tiny china dog. He carried “Rover” everywhere, including to the beach at Filey in Yorkshire, where he dropped it.
Michael‘s father returned to the beach and searched as best he could: but finding a tiny china dog, on a pebbly beach, at dusk, is a job even the Essex police would fail at, never mind a lone Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon.

So to deal with the tears of little Michael, who at four was, I would have thought, far less able to cope with such a loss than a ten year old, what did the child’s father, a devout Catholic, do?
Did he tell the child, as some American psychologists say we should that “stuff happens - deal with it”? No, because he was a kind man.

Did he tell the child that he would get the whole Yorkshire police force out looking for his toy? No, because that would have been (a) a shocking waste of Yorkshire policemen and (b) claiming an omnipotence no parent should pretend to.

Instead, he did something far wiser. He made up a long story for Michael all about the dog’s adventures after being lost on the beach. Rover went to the moon, he met a sand-sorcerer, a dragon and the King of the Sea; in the end he even turned into a real dog.

After years of re-telling, J. R. R. Tolkien had the story published as Roverandom (republished by Harper Collins in 2002). It isn’t the greatest story on earth but it’s a wonderful monument to humane, imaginative parenting.

Parents try to shield their children from distress: but we often go too far, shielding them instead from opportunities for strengthening resilience, for learning to cope with change. You don’t need to be a professor of Anglo-Saxon to think up a cheering tale to help a small child feel better - any parent can play this game. And for an older child, there must surely come a time when the words “Dearest, it is only a toy - not a real animal, you know” need to be gently whispered.

We do our children no favours by trying to turn ourselves into Supermum and Superdad, able to solve every problem. One day our little ones will have to face real sadness on their own: guarding them from every tiny sadness of childhood does not prepare them well.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Summer Holidays (1)

Home Front by Sarah Johnson

Catholic Herald 12 August 2005

The summer is another country: they do things differently there. They do without things. Doing without things, and learning how to get by without the things you regard as essential for the rest of the year, seems to be the main point of summer holidays.

My thirteen year old daughter is currently discovering what it is like to be in a idyllic Mediterranean paradise…and to have run out of English language reading material. The only solution, she is rapidly discovering, is to write a story for herself.

(The rest of us are discovering what it is like to be without the thirteen year old daughter, and are resolving never to let her go away for so long again.)

Boredom, caused either by the withdrawal of habitual pastimes, or by one’s parents’ being too busy to take one out on endless treats, is as great a mother of invention as necessity, I have often found. And boy, can summer holidays be boring. I’ve just discovered an attempt at a holiday diary kept by one of my children some time ago. On the first page it reads, “Day 1. Not terribly good.” The second page: “Day 2. Only did a little.” I can only hope that the blank pages which follow indicate that we subsequently became too busy for the keeping of a diary, rather than that things became so dull as to peter into emptiness.

Last summer my children had to get by without British television OR computers for two whole weeks. They are used to managing without computer games for the odd spell, but doing without these and also having their TV viewing restricted to the Olympic Games as seen through the eyes of Italian TV was a new challenge.

So the eldest one, after lying completely motionless on the loggia for about 48 hours, suddenly leapt to his feet and introduced us to an ingeniously subtle kind of cricket utilising nothing more sophisticated than scraps of paper spread out on a table top.

I won’t tell you the manner of play or the rules in case my son decides to patent the game one day, thereby making himself a fortune, but I have to say it was one of the most brilliantly devised games I’ve ever known.

One of its best aspects was that each player first has to pick their own cricket team. Anyone could be chosen - living, dead, fictional, and not necessarily human. This was enormous fun and we spent an entire day devising our teams. Mr J’s Ethical Philosophy All-Stars turned out to be a particularly strong side, featuring John Paul II (slogger) and Immanuel Kant (steady left-hander).

I think they were bowled out in the end by the seven-year-old’s spinners, Moomintroll and Ricky Gervais, but not before building up an impressive second innings partnership.

At church, too, we have to do without for the summer. We lack our regular choir during the summer holidays, so Family Mass takes a diminuendo turn from its noisy joyousness to a hushed, almost dreamlike feel. Churches are particularly wonderful places to be in the summer, when you step from brightest sunlight outside to the dim coolness within.

When you are travelling with children in a hot country, a church suddenly becomes for them a memorable place of comfort on a weary day. When they are wilting with the heat and you don’t want to go back home yet, suggest slipping into a church to cool off.

After moaning "Oh no, not another church", the children will breathe in the cool air gratefully and dip their fingers a little more deeply than usual in the stoop; the stone floor is blissful to step on and if you can get a child to sit with her eyes closed for a few minutes she can listen to the gentle symphony of footsteps, rustlings and murmurs which is the unmistakeable background music of a church.

If the light is in the right place when she opens her eyes, she will see sunbeams doing that corny Hollywood thing of slanting diagonally across the sanctuary and illuminating the altar as if angels were sliding down into our lives, fixing a perfect little moment into your child’s mind for ever.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Lilies of the field

Home Front

There was a particularly poignant detail in the reports this week of the brutal murder of an 18 year old black youth - by all accounts an adorable, hard-working and sporty lad who was thinking of becoming a lawyer and worked as a church youth leader in his spare time - in Liverpool.

(The murder was singled out by the police for special note because it was apparently motivated by racial hatred, which means we get to hear far more about it than, for example, that of the young man who died last week after stab wounds received because he objected to his girlfriend being pelted with food on a bus…or about any other of the many senseless killings of young men, by young men, which happen all year round.)

It was a detail that will have leapt out of the page for thousands of parents at this time of the year above all others.

Anthony Walker’s life was snatched from him two weeks before he was to receive his A-level results. Of all the torments his family must endure in the years to come, the arrival of those results will be among the most bizarre and cruel. The computer-print out bearing the precious grades will come in the post, presumably, as for every other student in the country, but in the Walker home there will be no nervous boy to tear open the envelope. It does not bear thinking about, does it?

What is it with us parents and exams? We press our young to work hard towards a specific set of very narrowly defined goals, and then when the results come in we blithely declare that there is “more to life than exams“. Any kid in any sixth form can tell you that in no way whatsoever is there “more to life” than exams. For the kind of driven student I remember being, life barely exists outside exams. And if you are good at exams, not everything else seems easy. It comes as a shock to find that life does not come with a list of set books attached.

It is so hard to get it right. Either we soften the blow of poor results by employing the old “Your uncle Kevin failed all his O-levels and it never did him any harm” line or by using newer, more modern versions of the same tactic, such as that suggested recently by teachers that failure be described only as “deferred success”.

Sheer hypocrisy, either way.

Of course exams matter. They matter dreadfully in a world which never takes the trouble to make anything other than a snap judgement about a person. We make our children sit these crucial exams, the foundation of many snap judgements in their future lives, at an age when they still find the idea of deferred gratification a tricky one, How to explain to a 15 year old boy that without an A-C grade at Maths GCSE, about two thirds of the decent-paid jobs in the world will be closed to him, when he can barely imagine himself having a job at all?

As our children progress through life we watch in agony as doors close on them one by one. At the age of three we know that the flat-footed daughter is not going to be a ballet dancer. At six we know the ham-fisted son is not going to be a piano player. Slipping down from top set to third set in Science at thirteen…oops, there goes the medical career.

The lilies of the field toil not, neither do they spin, and neither do they worry about exam results. It is a great blessing that the tragic Anthony Walker, though a diligent student, also filled his life with other joys and achievements besides revision. He was indeed a lily of the field, enjoying his youth properly and helping others rather than burying himself solely in exam results for the sake of far-distant success.

May all families anxiously tearing open envelopes this month think and pray for his family in their grief, and remember that their children, too, are lilies of the field in their own way - even those with a string of deferred successes.

Harry Potter for Christians

I would have thought the then Cardinal Ratzinger had more vital tasks on his plate in 2003 than ploughing through J. K. Rowling’s interminable Harry Potter books. So I wonder if, when His Eminence praised author Gabriele Kuby’s attack on the Potter phenomenon, he was completely [italics]au fait[end italics] with the exploits of the boy wizard.

There are many reasons for not liking the Harry Potter books; off the top of my head I could mention Rowling’s inability to use a verb of speech without a qualifying adverb; the flatness of most of the characters (the good ones boringly stay good and the bad ones stay bad, and that’s as far as it gets); or the timidity of the editorial staff at Bloomsbury, none of whom, apparently, has the courage to edit a story that crawls along inch by inch across thousands of pages of repetitive dialogue.
And I am becoming wearied of Harry himself, at times so infuriately slow on the uptake that I feel some sympathy for Professor Snape, the evil teacher who picks on our hero.

But to say that the books “deeply distort Christianity in the soul”, is missing the point by a mile. On the contrary, the Harry Potter stories have done more to lay down in the souls of unchurched children the foundations of key themes of Christianity than any other children’s story of our time.

If the Cardinal had had time to read the books (and I fancy he has even less time to do so nowadays) then he would learn that when Harry Potter was a helpless infant his life was saved by his mother’s love. The concept of redeeming love gradually emerges throughout the stories as the strongest “magic” of all - and in particular is the magic which will defeat the “Dark Lord” Voldemort.

The power of redeeming love versus the culture of death - and even the Dark Lord’s name is resonant of a despairing death-wish, [italics]volt de mort[end italics]: this surely is a ball any Christian parent can run with.

In the latest book, [italics]Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince[end italics], Harry’s mentor, the wizard Dumbledore, explains to Harry that he “has a power that Voldemort has never had.”

[italics]‘So when the prophecy says that I’ll have “power the Dark Lord knows not”, it just means - love?‘ asked Harry, feeling a little let down. ‘Yes - just love,‘ said Dumbledore.[end italics] Harry can scarecely believe it can be that easy, that ordinary - and thus the story steps briefly into the real world.

Rowling once explained to me that the idea of a parent’s love being the core of her story took hold in her mind after her own mother’s death. There is an echo in Lewis’s Narnia stories, in which Aslan gives his life for that of the “lost sheep”, Edmund…but rises again from the dead because of “the deeper, older magic” which the White Witch, imprisoned in her love-less state, did not know about.

In the Harry Potter books, the magic offers much uproarious and exciting entertainment, but also works as a metaphor for the power of earthly science and knowledge. The wizarding school, Hogwarts, exists to educate magically talented children to use their skills well, and not for evil or ignorant purposes. Great emphasis is laid on the idea that magical ability may occur in people of all backgrounds and races, the school's job being to gather them in and set them on the right road.

For science and knowledge - "magic" - can be perverted to evil ends, Rowling repeatedly stresses. And it becomes clear that this can happen unless they are controlled by the highest magic of all - which, as Harry discovers, is “just love”.

Gabriele Kuby and the American evangelicals who attack Pottermania are concerned that the books encourage an interest in the occult: they overlook the fact that the books more consistently teach that any knowledge, any science, any talent can be misused, once the user has sold out to the cult of death.

Let us see the glass as half-full. Considering the influence she has on our children, we should be deeply grateful Rowling is what she is - a well-read attendee of Church of Scotland services and a loving mother, whose moral outlook is rooted in Christianity. Let the critics, from all churches and of whatever eminence, read the books before passing judgement.