Holidays are a time to learn the important things

2009-10-08 00:00

LAEL, my six-year-old daughter, took the opportunity afforded to her by the school holidays to run away from home. She doesn’t usually have the time to.

Into her handbag she packed her pink sunglasses, a wallet full of five-cent pieces and some bright-red lipstick, and then she left a note: “To Momy, I well run away if you kare arn bing rerd to me, Love Lael.” She had also taken the opportunity afforded by the school holidays to spell as she pleased. By the time I had phonetically sounded out the note, (To Mommy, I will run away if you carry on being rude to me, Love Lael) she had gone.

I bounded down the stairs, yanked open the front door and stumbled into the driveway. Five metres away, dressed in her best pink dress and her best set of high heels, Lael was facing her first crossroads: should she turn left to our flower beds or right to our orange tree. “Lael,” I said, “please come inside.” She turned, walked obediently in and sat down on the couch next to me.

Only a few minutes had passed since I’d read that note, but in my mind a lifetime of panic had played itself out: “So this is where it all starts,” I thought. “She begins to call the shots, I begin to dodge them and by the time she’s a teenager the gulf between us has widened so desperately that we can’t even hear each other’s war of words.” I decided to patch this scratch before it became a war wound.

“Lael, my girlie,” I said, just to remind her that although six is old, it isn’t yet adult, “we are not allowed to speak like this in our family.

“We are not allowed to say ‘If you don’t do this then I won’t do that.’ You are not allowed just to leave notes and then run away.”

“Sorry Mom, I didn’t realise that, because I did it to Dad the other day and he didn’t say anything.” Oh, so that’s what those little pieces of paper stuffed into Sam’s books were about: “I am vry krss with you, I am xtrmly krss with you.” We had pasted them into our family scrapbook, over much laughter and with a renewed determination to teach her her vowels.

“Well, I don’t think Dad realised what you were doing, or exactly what you were saying. But if you are cross or upset or hurt then you need to tell us about it and we will sit down and talk about it. But you can’t just write notes and then run away.”

By now the hypocrisy bells were ringing in my head: you don’t always sit down and politely explain why you are angry; how can you expect a six-year-old to do it? You sometimes say, “If you don’t do this, then I won’t do that”; where do you think she learnt that anyway? You’re so busy you often don’t even make eye contact when she tries to talk to you.

I pressed mute, turned my back on the voices and faced Lael. “I know I don’t always listen and actually let you talk. And I know that I don’t always speak politely. But we all need to learn to speak properly to each other and not rudely. That’s what a family does.” (And, I thought, this is what the school holidays do. They drop all the term’s frustrations in your lap and they give you some couch time to deal with them.) “Okay,” she nodded and I hugged her. Then she picked up her bag and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” I asked, trying not to sound panicky. “Just to see the tree that the gardener cut down. That’s all I was doing in the first place.”

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