Our first child is always the prototype, no? The child who turns our own carefree child-like relationship upside down forever with their demands on arrival. The longed-for, hoped for expression of our excitement at a new stage in our life. The joy, delight, shock of how we manage and cope with each new stage in their development. We are elated by the first smile, the first step, the first word. We are horrified by their first supermarket tantrum; the first time we catch them lying, the first sign that they might not actually be the genius of geniuses that we had always assumed. The first child receives our undiluted delight at their every utterance and achievement, our undivided attention, the weight of all our expectation, our baffledness, our horror, our confusion.
But with the second child, often, we have learned to do things differently. We don’t track their every gram of gained weight, their every new word in the health visitor’s log; we don’t guard each lost milk tooth with the date of its loss in a velvet pouch in a jewellery box; we don’t fly immediately off the handle when they are the bearer of bad news about themselves. We have calmed down.
And so, as my beloved second child settles nicely, albeit with a few tears, into the whirlwind routine of her secondary school, where she is four school years below her brother, I am the picture of calm unflappability. It is true that my Darling Daughter is in some ways a much easier child than her brother. Nowhere near as mercurial, she has learned the benefits of getting on quietly with what she’s told to do. Of course, she and her brother have contrasting personalities and it might have something to do with their gender and the way they learn, but I think it has as much to do with their place in the family and the learning forced on us by her elder brother. So, drawing from what I have learned in the last four years, I have set out a behavioural code for myself for what will soon be her teen years:
DO NOT COMPARE Not just subject marks and grades, but do not allow yourself to be drawn into the comparisons made by other mums (and dads), naturally keen for their own darling offspring to outshine all others. I have learned not to get involved in sharp-elbowedness of mums jostling for position at their first meeting with the mothers of their child’s friends.
DO NOT RISE TO THE BAIT of “My daughter is fantastic at…” “My daughter’s already done….” etc. That is the path to certain misery.
DO NOT FRET when other mothers boast about their children’s tally of Recommended works or A*
DO NOT BOAST and crush some other poor mother whose child is not yet be quite on the right track at secondary school. Privately, however, make sure she always knows how proud of her you are. Good news is always best saved for the car or your own four walls.
TELL THE TRUTH Always. Even when it’s not good news. She must always be able to trust you. You should set an example.
DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED by the luxury houses of these Dulwich mums: we might be comparatively worse off but I’ll bet our slightly more far-flung house in an 0208 area (the horror!) is luxurious compared with the lives of most people, not a million miles away. This is a rarefied atmosphere.
DO NOT GNASH TEETH at the Scholarships won by others whose children are patently not as bright as my own.
DO NOT BE VICARIOUSLY COMPETITIVE It is her life and her furrow to plough as she sees fit.
DO NOT BE ANXIOUS when she unable, through lack of proximity to the school or lack of time to do all the clubs on offer. She can’t do everything.
DO NOT EXPECT HER TO LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES People often learn only from the mistakes that they themselves have made.
DO NOT TREAT HER AS AN ADULT She is not and it is unfair. Children need boundaries and the key, it seems to me, is to be unbudgeable on the big things (and be prepared calmly to explain the logic, consistently, over and over again) whilst not fretting the small things: blue hair will grow out; girls will soon learn that high heels are uncomfortable for daily wear around school, she will soon be able to find her way home on public transport.
DO MAKE SURE SHE IS A FRIEND ON FACEBOOK When the time comes. But comment only rarely and inconspicuously.
DO MAKE SURE to keep to the 9pm phone curfew and passwords for Internet use.
DO NOT GOSSIP or talk about other children in front of her. If she needs to tell you something about someone, listen, don’t talk. And don’t judge.
MAKE SURE SHE IS ORGANISED Don’t do it yourself, that is her job, but check regularly that she has done what is asked. It’s an awful lot for a young person to take on board and lack of organisation creates a domino effect on the rest of her life.
HELP WITH EXAM REVISION End of year revision is a new experience and no child automatically knows how to go about it.
BE YOUR CHILD’S CHAMPION But make sure you always see the story from all other angles.
REASSURE HER THAT SHE IS LOVED Hardest when you find each other unbearable. And you will. This is the most important time for a hug. You want her to look back warmly on this relationship when she is grown.