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Favorite age as malleable as Jell-O

Life with children
by: JOSEPH GALLIVAN, The layered perspectives of a 5-year-old are still largely nontraditional, as this Jell-O birthday cake demonstrates. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Parents always say that whatever age their child is at present is the parents' favorite age. This is abetted by the instant amnesia of child rearing, whereby it's almost impossible to remember what the kid was doing six months previous.

Teething, toddling, talking … developmental milestones get flattened like it's 'Grand Theft Auto.'

When your baby is Gerber-perfect 6 months old, you can only look with pity on ruddy toddlers and gawky kindergartners. Having a second child adds to this double helix perspective, as you suddenly have two ages to root for.

But let me put in a good word for 5, the most wonderful age. A child is still naive enough to be astonished by even the most mundane objects or events (recent examples: a chip shaped like a stingray; a wall walk) yet rational enough to be able to plan a couple of steps ahead (tolerate the boring parts of the supermarket and we'll eventually get to the candy).

'Winnie the Pooh' author A.A. Milne wrote a famous poem, 'The End,' about being 6:

'When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,

I was nearly new.

When I was Three,

I was hardly Me.

When I was Four,

I was not much more.

When I was Five,

I was just alive.

But now I am Six, I'm as clever as clever.

So I think I'll be six now for ever and ever.'

Milne has a point: 6-year-olds usually have entered the eye-rolling, logo-loving years, which last well into your 40s. Five is much better.

My daughter, Helena, turned 5 two weeks ago. She's not one for tantrums or whining, but her interior life is adorably operatic, a Tilt-A-Whirl of emotions.

She isn't just Lady Macbeth one minute, Cenerentola the next - you could throw in a few male roles, too, like Mephistopheles, Don Giovanni and Alfredo (that excitable chap from 'La Traviata').

Time and space still are mysteries to her: Days of the week are all a jumble, and Iraq could be down the street or halfway around the world for all she knows. Dogs are monstrous, older kids are heroic, our bathtub is a swimming pool and our swimming pool is the ocean.

Fairies, Santa and God compete for mental real estate.

And yet she knows what's babyish and what isn't. She's no longer happy with simple stories.

When I do 'made ups' for her, she lays out the characters at the beginning and interrupts with plot points, puts me on pause while she runs to the bathroom, and at the end sometimes requests deleted scenes.

Parenting is increasingly defined by how parents feel they are perceived by other adults, but in this context, parenting is nine-tenths about trying to read a little girl's mind.

In the run up to turning 5, my wife and I badgered Helena about what kind of birthday party she wanted, until finally the girl admitted she didn't want one at all.

Birthday parties are an arms race, so my wife and I fully expected to be hosting her preschool pals and their parents at some ungodly hour, plying them with wine and cake and praying for no disasters.

But the guest list shrank from 10 to three to one after she intimated that any party would really be because we wanted it.

Well, that cleared that up, and a good time was had by all. Her best friend, her grandmother, her godmother and aunt were the main guests. She still wanted presents (and got them) but she laid down in advance that there was to be no cake and definitely no dirge-like birthday song.

Instead of a cake she had a castle of Jell-O, made in her seaside bucket, whose layers had to be pinned together by a bamboo skewer because they kept sliding apart.

Birthday parties feel like a competitive sport because I have four elder siblings. We were only allowed to have a party when we turned 10. And that made it all the more exciting.

Ham sandwiches, Jell-O, cake, Pass the Parcel and Blind Man's Bluff. No goody bags, no rented clowns. Not many kids in my elementary school had parties, anyway, except the rich.

And by rich I mean Katy Fletcher, whose dad had some kind of office job and threw parties at her weekend home in bucolic Bewdley, Worcestershire. (I dare not Google her in case her life turned out badly.)

It seemed like a journey to another land, and I recall a rickety bridge over a muddy creek, into which one of my best friends fell.

Noel McBride was given a spare pair of red short-shorts to change into, which was the height of humiliation. (Now there's someone I definitely don't want to Google.)

So far as I can tell, my job as a parent is to supply happy memories that will last a lifetime and create in my daughter a positive sense of self.

If this means Jello-O sandcastles and no humiliating outfits, I guess that's my lot. And in a year's time, I can ask her if it worked.

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