So my increasingly-not-so-little man is turning four. There is nothing quite like the stark reality of another year ticking by to make parents nostalgic for ‘when you were a baby’, lamenting the fact that their bundle of joy is inevitably growing up. At least with a September birthday, Little Man still has the best part of a year at nursery before I send him off to school. Even if he might be ready, I’m not.
Yesterday we went to the park with Grandma and Grandad. Joe had an absolute whale of a time, as he always does when there are slides, trees and grassy slopes to clamber about on. He’s now what might be deemed ‘sensible enough’ to run ahead of the grown-ups a little bit, and will stop in his tracks when we shout for him to. Letting him run to the next bench or lamppost and knowing he will wait is part of the trust we show in him as a ‘big boy’, and he revels in his increasing independence.
Of course, running through the park unhindered is a different matter to walking along a busy road. Here we hold hands, he walks with mummy and daddy, he needs to be careful, he needs to be safe. Roads are dangerous, cars are dangerous, we always wait for the green man.
And this is the balancing act parents have to learn. I don’t want to wrap him in cotton wool, but I feel it’s important he understands the risks that are all around him, and learns to keep himself safe even from this young age. He knows he doesn’t play on the stairs, or run into the kitchen, or climb around on the furniture – even if sometimes he still does. He will learn the hard way, and that is part of childhood too. He will graze his knees and bump his head. We can’t always protect him from every little scrape, however much we might want to.
As much as I want him to understand the dangers in his own, otherwise safe, environment though, if there’s one thing I am determined to protect him from, it is the frightening and terrible reality faced by far too many other people in the world. In his own little bubble of life he is happy and has no reason to assume everybody else isn’t too. He doesn’t know that wars are raging, families are starving, people are dying at the hands of others – and he doesn’t need to, not for a long long time.
He won’t see the rolling news coverage of yet more atrocities on the TV, or have to look at upsetting images plastered across tabloid front pages, because we will protect him. He will sleep soundly at night, not waking in fear of a bad dream caused by seeing some horror he doesn’t understand, because we will protect him. Or at the very least we will try our absolute best to, because that is our job as parents. Childhood is all too fleeting as it is.
And when that day comes when he is old enough and inevitably wants to ask us why those men are waving guns around, why those children are crying, why those people are hurting each other, we will tell him that yes, baby, there are some truly awful things that happen in the world, and some very nasty people. But there are also lots of really wonderful people, and you are one of them.
Against all my protective instincts as a parent, I want him to grow up to be like the brave pair who rescued some animals from the Manchester Dogs Home fire without a thought for their own safety; to be like the selfless aid workers risking their lives to help stricken families in the many war-torn regions of the world; to be like every volunteer giving their all to make life better for those in need – because without people like this, there is no hope for any of us. If all of us lived being too afraid to do anything to help, life would be that much worse for everybody else. It takes special people to restore faith in humanity in the face of so many tragic events and I want my son to understand that; to care about others is what makes life worth living.
One day my little man will need to understand life outside his bubble, and how it is both terrible and wonderful in equal measure. How his life can be whatever he makes of it. How you still should really wait for the green man.
For now though, the joy of birthday cake and cuddles is all he needs to know.
The Child Eyes organisation is working to reduce the exposure of children to violent and sexual imagery in the media, such as tabloid front pages and ‘lads mags’, by campaigning against the display of such material at child height in shops and public spaces.