On the day of my son’s fifth birthday, we received an email from Mumsnet. It was called ‘Your child at five years’, and outlined what to expect of our child. Here’s an abridged version of what it said:
Your child at five years:
“Your five year old will be taller, slimmer and have so much energy you wonder if it’s all those pre-cooked meals he’s been eating. He may need an earlier bedtime, so he won’t be around so much in the evening. You see it does go quickly doesn’t it? Blink and he’ll be leaving home.
How he thinks: He feels more independent and has a wider range and control over his emotions – but still not much. He will be able to put himself in your shoes – just for a little while – and may show sympathy when you are violently sick or openly weeping (he won’t necessarily pick up more subtle clues). While his arguments with you may be less frequent and he will probably have stopped having tantrums, he has other people to argue with – typically children his age or his siblings. He will compare himself to other children, sometimes heart-breakingly so. He may still have some big fears that are not so much of ghosts but of being separated and lost from you. He realises he’s a boy, understands what happens when boys grow up and that he isn’t, without hormonal manipulation or surgery, going to grow up a woman. His memory has expanded – he can now recall events of about a year ago, especially Christmas and birthdays.
How he behaves: He likes to do proper grown up things, such as hand over the money for shopping and choose his clothes. He takes pride in what he wears and it’s sweet to see him develop his own style. He will be able to understand humour such as slapstick on television and get verbal jokes, after they’ve been explained in mind-numbing detail. He may then repeat them and expect you to laugh like a drain. The desire for responsibility looms large; with “I can do it” being a constant refrain. ”It” can be cooking the supper or doing the ironing – it’s usually a huge amount more he can manage just yet. But he may surprise you by how grown up he is sometimes, the way he sits looking through books or playing on his own without calling “mummy” for some serious amount of time (over 20 minutes). He is now highly competent at construction, using blocks to make 3 dimensional buildings. He will also proudly announce beforehand what he will draw and it may even be recognisable.
How he speaks: He now knows 2000 words and can repeat sentences of 10 syllables. He can make up a story and tell it although it may not be a story, as you would normally know it, as it is missing a plot. He can read his own name and will ask what words mean. Sometimes these words will be rude. He may know his alphabet, particularly if you have kept repeating it to him.
What he likes to play: He is keen on playing real life games such as mummy and daddy or teachers, using his teddies or dollies as pupils. You may be reassured to see he is much harsher on his children than you are. He can master a simple board game, where you take turns and observe rules, and have the patience to play it for a while but will be in despair if he loses.
He will have about five close friends. This is the age of the sunny disposition, where he is keen to enjoy life and see the best in people. Borrow or buy a video camera. This is the stuff you’ll want to be playing back when he’s left home.”
Well, Mumsnet, this might apply to the vast majority of your members’ children, but not mine. My child is autistic. He is far from independent, has little control over his emotions and has frequent tantrums (we call them meltdowns). He is unable to put himself in the shoes of others. Come to think of it, he can’t put himself in his own shoes. He is oblivious to much of what goes on around him, shows little interest or awareness in his own identity and struggles to understand the identity of others. He engages in only limited imaginative play and does not have the attention span for board games. He has a wide vocabulary but cannot engage in conversation. He has no friends. I do not think we shall ‘Blink and he’ll be leaving home.’ I think this young man will need our support far into his adult life.
The email was careful to include the usual disclaimers and point out that childrens’ development is varied and milestones differ. They also acknowledged that: ‘some children have special needs and the information in our developmental emails may not be relevant to them.’ It is not my intention, in this post, to criticise Mumsnet (I don’t know where we’d have been without its support forums over the past two years). Still, I have to say that the email, coming when it did, made for difficult reading. As much as I try to ignore it, my son’s development remains far behind what is expected of a five-year old. This email makes it painfully obvious.
But rather than dwelling on the injustice of it all, or pining for the child that never was, I thought I’d do something more constructive. I thought I’d write the message that Mumsnet should have sent (if they had a crystal ball and the means to send highly individualised emails!). Here’s what it should have said:
Your child at five years:
Your five-year old will be an exuberant, unstoppable ball of energy. He is bigger, stronger and faster, and you will wonder how it’s possible on a diet of only three different types of food.
Though your child does not have friends of his own age, he does cherish the company of his family, including his seven-year old brother, who he loves dearly. If the value of friendship is understanding and compassion, honesty, trust and love, companionship and laughter, then this child is rich in the benefits of friendship.
Like all children, your child loves to play. You may find, however, that you save a fortune on action figures; imaginative play is not his thing, although he does have an imaginary friend. He has named him Fartegun, and sees nothing wrong with shouting his name in public. His games involve racing and time trials. For his birthday, the most cherished gift he will receive is a child’s stopwatch. He also loves his Kiddizoom video camera and is a budding film director, although his work might be a little too art house for some tastes (like the video he made yesterday of his poo, in the toilet).
Your child never feels embarrassed, inferior, offended, worthless, inhibited, abandoned or ashamed. He is untroubled by such negative emotions. His is a world of (mostly) joyful abandonment. He is dynamic, adventurous, curious, radiant, good-natured, innocent and honest.
Your child has a unique, brilliant sense of humour. He finds joy in all manner of things, and (quite correctly) recognises that you are a comedy genius.
For a child who spends a lot of time avoiding eye contact, he can fix you with a gaze that will melt your heart.
Your boy is brilliantly headstrong, and though dependent on you for so many things, he also increasingly demonstrates an independent theory of mind. There is no argument he cannot win, blessed as he is with a unique sense of reasoning (and the ability to scream his way out of any situation). If he wants to do something himself, he will demonstrate a determination you did not think possible. How else did you think he cracked toilet training?
Your child overcomes adversity, challenge and setbacks like no other child you know. His successes are hard won, and all the more gratifying for it.
Your child is fearless and untroubled by imaginary fears. Why worry about things, when he has two attentive, alert parents who can do that for him?
Unlike the majority of children his age, your son has a very high reading ability. Stories hold less interest for him than factual books, in which he becomes engrossed. His IT skills are so good as to be a little scary, although his grandad was very grateful for the tutorial he gave on using PowerPoint.
Your child may not, in conversation, be able to recall to his Nanny what he did on holiday the previous week, but can identify any capital cities, name all the flags and recall song names and lengths on CDs he hasn’t heard in months. He will frequently astound you with his memory recall for his special interests. His intelligence and unlocked potential will be the light on the horizon and the reason why you know there is a place for your child in this world, that he has much to offer and that, ultimately, he will be alright.
That’s what the email should have said. My boy at five is a joy. A challenging, infuriating, exhausting joy, but a joy nonetheless. He is unique and cannot be summarised in a catch-all email. When you stop looking at the developmental milestones, and instead look at the boy, you will find a child of rare beauty. Happy birthday, son.