x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A new parental strategy: embrace the chaos

Disaster has a new sound, an exclamation for childish mishaps and adult calamities alike.

Disaster has a new sound in our household: "o-oh". Astrid makes this exclamation for childish mishaps and adult calamities alike. If a toy ends up prostrate on the ground, an "o-oh" will soon follow. If a glass tumbles to the floor and shatters, an "o-oh" accompanies the clatter of smashing glass. It is the noise our ears prick up for, the utterance we dread to hear.

Sometimes the sound highlights some as-yet-unnoticed problem. Walking along with Astrid in her pushchair one day, I heard her say "o-oh". Naturally, I stopped straight away, but it took me some time to work out what had gone wrong. Glancing back up the street, I noticed one of Astrid's shoes lying on the pavement. Without her warning, it would probably still be there.

Now and again this announcement is like an air-raid siren. It portends disaster. While we were building a tower out of wooden blocks, I heard "o-oh" a split second before the sound of blocks crashed to the floor. The timing made me wonder about the ways we come to comprehend how things - whatever they might be - are going wrong.

One development in car-safety technology involves having a camera permanently trained on the driver's face. Trained as in focused on, but also trained as in taught to react to the particular features of the driver's face over time. Apparently our faces display signs of distress before our brains can process and act upon all the sensory input of the drama unfolding before us. The camera is linked to a computer that applies the brakes if it registers a distressed look on the driver's face. This process is considerably quicker than the time the driver would take to apply the brakes with his or her foot.

This idea of the body feeling things before the conscious mind is not new. The heart sensing emotions that the rational mind cannot fathom has been a central trope of literature for centuries. In the past few years, scientists have started to unravel why the heart may have emerged as such as focus for emotions.

It turns out the heart contains more than 40,000 neurons, enough to form a nervous system, which can feel and sense independently of the brain. The signals sent through these pathways help to regulate parts of the autonomic nervous system, but they may also influence higher-level functions such as perception and thought in ways that have yet to be discovered. One thing is certain, the heart is more than just a mechanism pumping blood around the body.

Yet far from having a hyper-sensitive heart that is finely tuned to looming catastrophes, it is more likely in Astrid's case that she is at the root of them. Like many children, she seems to revel in events that we as adults find infuriating. Astrid's "o-oh" exclaimed as a glass splinters into shards has a hint of relish about it. I'm not suggesting she knocked the glass over on purpose, but she does seem to love it when the neat fabric of adult existence unravels. She seems to enjoy anarchy and delight in mayhem.

Perhaps there's something to be learnt from this breezy attitude to havoc. Instead of a fraught reaction to a broken glass or other domestic accident, it might be better to put it in perspective. The glass can be swept up. A new one can be bought.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting anything that would endanger a young child. Nor am I advocating the parental promotion of anarchy. But "o-oh" moments do happen and can never be eliminated completely. Given this fact, embracing chaos may be the way to go.