I’m a dog person. I had always envisaged that dogs would be part of my life. Our dogs are part of our family. I have never envisaged we would be a case of ‘My Family and OTHER animals’. So when my then 5 year old came home after a petting zoo party two years ago declaring that he wanted rats as pets and that he was missing the feeling of the rats crawling on him after the party; I held back the vomit and gently declared that rats just weren’t part of our vibe. A more accurate reflection of the situation was that rats were not even vaguely part of MY vibe but they were very much something that had literally tickled his fancy. He proceeded to talk about rats for two years and to cut a long rat tale short we presented him with two baby rats on his 7th birthday. This whole rat thing got me thinking which was quite a feat considering I have “There’s a rat in my kitchen” on constant replay inside my noisy head.
My only interest in rats in the past has been in not seeing them. I have dabbled in the world of differing interests from one’s child before. My oldest son is soccer mad. His soccer obsession surfaced about three years ago. He passionately watches it, plays it, reads about it, talks about it and dreams about it. Before the obsession onset I think it is fair to say, I could pretty much identify which sport was soccer had there been some sort of sports line-up situation AND I knew you had to get the ball into the goal – never actually doing so myself. Now, at the risk of gloating I can tell my arse from my Arsenal. I know my shin pad from my goalkeeper’s glove. I can use the word nutmeg in a soccer sentence and I have pretty much accepted that the offside rule will remain an elusive concept for all time.
I love that my kids have their own interests, ones that neither my husband nor I have brought into the mix. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when we connect on the shared interest front. Cooking together or getting lost in a book are very much up my alley. But there is something very special about having your children bring newness into the home… even if it is in rodent form.
Dan Siegel in his book Brainstorm discusses the importance of novelty seeking in the adolescent’s life but so too with adults do we need to ensure that we have stuff that takes us away from the same old same old; “When adults stop using their potential for creative exploration, the way they reason and approach life’s problems becomes simply a repeated familiar routine and imagination goes out the window. Life can become, well, lifeless.” Now we definitely cannot be handing over our novelty intake to our children! Hell no, this could lead to all manner of dysfunction but it has been interesting finding myself led into new worlds by my children.
Who knew that there were rat breeders for instance? (It seems to be all forgive and forget post the Bubonic Plague and the Black Death. Actually turns out after a bit of research that the rats have been exonerated for the spread of that disease. Turns out it was actually the gerbil who did the spreading. Why oh why wasn’t there more publicity around this?) Who knew that you could get ‘fancy rats’? Ours are Russian Blues and I wonder if we should take up Russian to give respect to their lineage. Who knew that it wouldn’t be easy to find baby rats when you went looking for them? (On the internet not in the sewers.) And most surprisingly who knew that I could love the rats! Yup you heard me, I’m totally smitten with our rittens (that’s what we rat people call our baby rats.) When my son takes the rats out to play I can be seen with Yoda and Sensei perched proudly on my shoulders, an image I thought as probable as me playing for Arsenal. Now I wonder things like, how do us rat people deal with uninvited rogue rats should we encounter them, do we still scream in demented panic and wish ill upon them or do we just gently home them as one of our own? There’s so much to learn and we haven’t even started on the rat tricks yet. Right now we are all enjoying the newness of the rat babies, even the dogs have a brighter glint in their eyes (can’t be sure that that’s love though.)
Separating out our stuff
In Siblings without Rivalry, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish talk about Property Rights amongst siblings and how this can be a huge source of contention. “Parents who are doctors, lawyers, even heads of corporations are often stymied by the legal complexities of the ‘Mine…No Mine! Wars.” They talk about identifying what is special for each child and therefore enjoys a private property status. I think this extends beyond physical property and it is about allowing the space for each child, to develop their own special interests. Just because your big sister was a prima ballerina doesn’t mean that you are going to like pirouetting too. This helped us in deciding to get our youngest son, the rats. Like his big brother, he is into soccer too and is open to other things as well but the rats felt like something that was just his and his alone and it felt good to hear that and respect that.
Similarly we have to be careful not to be pushing our own agenda onto our kids and whilst this is obviously relevant on the multiple children front, it can be quite pronounced on the only child front. Often we get children involved in things because we think they will be ‘good for them’ or because they were ‘good for us’ or even just because we did them as children. Mostly our intentions are good but we need to be careful. In Your Child’s Growing Mind, Jane Healy describes Celia who is a 9 year old girl who is doing a whole lot of things that her parents have scheduled her for, none of which she actually likes all of which actually make her miserable. Healy writes, “Externally, Celia is a perfect product. What a tragedy that she has never learned to feel ‘special’ inside herself. Her story is a good reminder that the most central –and most elusive-element of finishing childhood may be simply for parents to appreciate it while it lasts.”
Some children know what they are into and let you know about it with unbridled passion, others may not have a firm interest in anything. Either way no need to panic. Here are a few pointers if you are interested:
- Encourage but do not force children to try different things.
- Give them the space for free unstructured play that allows them to explore the world and their own imagination.
- Help children to talk about what might worry them about trying out new things – don’t minimise or explain away their fears.
- Remember that interests can and do change.
- Adolescents thrive on novelty – find creative ways for them to express and explore their interests
- Sharing in and encouraging an interest can be a valuable way to connect and engage with your child.
- Share in their interest but don’t take over or sabotage their interest. (I’m not starting to breed rats just in case you were wondering.)
With the rats came responsibility for my 7 year old. My older son asked me tonight if I really think that his brother is ready to be a parent based on the number of times he hears me saying variations of “Have you fed/played with the rats?” “Have you cleaned the cage?” Naggity nag nag. This is no fairy-rat-tale, boy meets rats and kicks into gear from the get go but he loves the rats and he is learning to take care of the rat babies. On the morning of my son’s birthday, post the rat gifting, we were eating breakfast to the sound of birthday songs that my husband had downloaded (basically like being smack bang in the middle of Spur at 7.30am on a Thursday morning). One of the song’s lyrics went something like, “May all your dreams come true…” and my son turned to me and said, “My dream has come true.” That’s worth a lot.