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.

Ends

1 comment:

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