How children learn to talk

As a guy with Asperger’s, and the parent of two kids at different stages of learning to speak, the English language fascinates me. This might sound strange considering that part of living with autism means struggling to communicate, but by forcing me to obsess about words and meaning, those very difficulties made me not only an expert on morphology and syntax, but also a bit of a grammar Nazi. This means I find it incredibly satisfying to watch my girls struggling to work out the rules of the language – and often very annoying too.

‘But surely,’ I hear you non-parents cry, ‘children learn to speak by imitation. They don’t learn grammar until they’re at school.’

You’re wrong. Emphatically so. It’s hardwired into us to spot patterns, and two facets of the English language provide incontrovertible proof that toddlers are not simply passive recipients of their mother tongue, mindlessly parroting back what they’ve heard, but active participants in deciphering language: irregular verbs and irregular plural nouns.

Since most people don’t read grammar primers for fun, a bit of explanation is required. Let’s start with the verbs. There are strong, irregular verbs that have three forms to denote tenses (present, past and past imperfect), like ‘sink, sank, have sunk’, or ‘swim, swam, have swum’, and some with two, like ‘buy’ and ‘bought’, and ‘think’ and ‘thought’. By far the most common, however, are the weak, regular verbs that simply add ‘ed’ to the end to change tense, so ‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’ and ‘talk’ becomes ‘talked’.

Ever heard a child say that they ‘winned’ or they ‘runned’ or they ‘taked’ or they ‘eated’? They absolutely did not pick that up by listening to other people. What they’ve done is notice a rule – that you put a ‘d’ sound on the end of a regular verb to change its tense – and they’ve generalised that rule and applied it to every verb, including the irregular ones. Even if they’re not consciously doing it, they’re grappling with the rules of grammar to make meaning.

The same is true of irregular plural nouns. You pluralise regular nouns by adding an ‘s’ at the end, so ‘bed’ becomes ‘beds’ and ‘tree’ becomes ‘trees’. How, then, are we to account for toddlers talking about ‘sheeps’ and ‘childs’ and ‘mouses’, instead of ‘sheep’ and ‘children’ and ‘mice’? They’ve learned a rule and applied it where it doesn’t work. As seemingly incapable as they are, they’re advanced pattern-recognition machines. That’s right, every kid is a freaking genius.

Another thing children have to do when they learn to talk is limit the range of meanings a particular word can have. If you point at a picture of a silver convertible and say ‘car’, you’d be pretty confident they understand something so simple, but you’d again be wrong. The truth is that pinning down the meaning of a word is far more complicated than that. Are you saying this individual vehicle is a car? Are you saying that all things with wheels are cars? Are you saying all silver things are cars? All convertibles?

As an example, two of the first words my youngest learned were ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, and while she was accurately able to distinguish a dog from a cat, her fluency was actually rather deceptive. We quickly discovered that she understood ‘cat’ to be a catchall term for ‘anything alive that is not a dog’, so rabbits, mice, monkeys, or even people were cats in her mind. Similarly, my oldest often makes mistakes with gender-specific pronouns, thinking ‘he’ and ‘his’ are universal instead of referring to a particular sex, so it can be quite confusing when she’s talking about her friend Phoebe and starts using ‘he’ and ‘him’. Kids have to work out what individual words refer to, or which of several separate meanings is the one you want, and that’s before they can even feed themselves properly.

Speaking of personal pronouns, have you ever thought about the complexity of a sentence as apparently simple as, ‘She gave it to me’? In order to say it, children have to learn to distinguish between first, second and third-person, singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and identify the subject and object of a sentence.

‘Now you’re talking nonsense,’ I hear you cry. ‘That can wait till secondary school.’

Actually, no. While it’s true that English lost most of its inflections and gender constructions, for some reason we kept them when it comes to pronouns. This is another topic that needs a bit of unpacking, so buckle in, it’s going to get interesting.

‘I’ is the first person singular. ‘We’ is the first-person plural. It’s easiest to think of the first-person as involving yourself. I am part of what’s happening, whether it’s just me on my own, or me and some others. You use this when speaking about yourself.

‘You’ is the second-person. You is both singular and plural. You use this when you’re addressing someone to refer to them.

‘He’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ is the third-person singular. ‘They’ is the plural. You use this to describe what other people did that didn’t include you. It’s in the third-person singular that gender comes in – he, she, him, his, her – and is the reason it’s become a battlefield of the trans movement. The only gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun is ‘it’, which normally refers to inanimate objects or gender-indistinguishable animals, whereas many gender-neutral individuals like Sam Smith prefer to be referred to as ‘they’, which purists object to since that is a third-person plural term.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Subject and object is far easier.

The subject of a sentence is the one who does something; the object is the one who has something done to them. In English, we normally distinguish them by their place in the sentence in relation to the verb. Thus in the sentence ‘John kisses Mary’, John is the subject (the one who kisses) and Mary is the object (the one who is kissed). If you want to reverse the meaning, you simply switch the nouns around to ‘Mary kisses John’. This is why English is referred to as an SVO language, because we construct meaning using ‘subject-verb-object’ (about half the planet’s languages are SOV, or subject-object-verb, so would write ‘Mary John kisses’, but it’s not important to know this).

Many of the older languages that influenced English, like German, French, Greek and Latin, are inflected languages, which means the words change their form to reflect their relationship to other words. In Latin, for example, whether a word is the subject or the object is denoted by its ending rather than its position in the sentence, thus ‘Sextus laborat mulum’ and ‘mulum laborat Sextus’ mean exactly the same thing: ‘Sextus works the mule’ (theoretically, the words could be in any order, but in practice, Latin was an SOV language).

The trouble with inflected endings is that people are lazy speakers, so over time they drop word endings, which totally messes up the meaning and forces the language to evolve. English speakers tend be very lazy speakers – we’ve reduced most of our endings to the ‘schwa’ vowel sound ‘uh’, hence the endings of footballer, theatre, literature and banana are now pronounced the same (at least where I live, anyway), so that’s how we ended up with an SVO language. Whether a noun is the subject or the object it stays the same, unless it’s a personal pronoun, in which case it gets tricky.

Now comes the fun part. In order to speak properly using pronouns, you have to know the person (first, second or third), the quantity (singular or plural) and identify the subject and object. That’s how you know the first-person singular subject ‘I’ becomes ‘me’ as the object, just as the first-person plural subject ‘we’ becomes ‘us’ as the object. It’s how you know ‘he’, the third-person singular masculine subject, gives something to ‘him’, the third-person singular masculine object, and ‘she’ gives something to ‘her’. It’s how you know ‘they’, the third -person plural subject, becomes ‘them’. And this is without even mentioning the possessive pronouns ‘my’, ‘our’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and ‘their’.

Pretty complex ideas that need to be unpacked right from the start of learning to talk, not at secondary school. Whether they know it or not, kids are having to sift through a linguistic labyrinth just to say something as simple as ‘I gave it to her’. It’s the reason you hear so many toddlers say, ‘Me do it!’ and the reason it hits your ear wrong: they’ve correctly identified that ‘me’ is first-person singular, but they haven’t yet managed to grasp that ‘I’ is the proper term to use when they’re the subject. See? Kids are sorting out incredibly complex rules, most of them without even being aware they’re doing it.

What I really enjoy about children learning to speak is when their misapplication of the rules, mishearing of idioms, or simple mispronunciations create something genuinely interesting.

Like my youngest the other day walked up to the cat and gave her a kick. I told her off, and then a few minutes later she did it again. When I asked her why, she pointed at the screen and said, ‘Kick cat.’ It didn’t dawn on me until later that we’d been watching a programme on chocolate and they were talking about KitKats!

It’s also been really difficult to convince her that her name is not ‘me’, it’s Rosie. The closest we’ve managed is to get her to say, ‘Rose-me,’ which I guess is close enough.

My eldest, Izzie, is an expert at mixing up expressions. She always says, ‘by your own’ because she’s combined two expressions that mean the same thing: ‘by yourself’ and ‘on your own’. Also, because there’s a bedtime and a night time, she often shouts out in the middle of the night, ‘Is it morning time yet?’

Her pronunciation also leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of dropping the ends of her words and replacing them with a schwa, she has a tendency to drop the start of her words, so banana becomes ‘uhnana’ and ‘pretending’ is pronounced ‘uhtending ‘. And I swear she must have lived in Louisiana in a past life, because at times she has the most Southern drawl of any English girl I’ve ever met. Instead of hotel, she says, ‘Ho-TAY-ul,’ and instead of daffodil, it’s ‘daff-o-DEE-ul.’ It’s like sharing a house with that racist redneck sheriff from the Bond movies.

But the best thing she’s ever done is her song, ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy.’ She’s been singing it for months, and it drives me nuts, but I’ve only just figured out where it comes from.

If you study idioms, you find that their meanings and the words therein gradually change over time. This is particularly true if they contain a word that falls out of fashion and survives only as part of that idiom, and that word is normally changed to one that is more familiar. ‘All that glisters is not gold’ became ‘All that glistens is not gold,’ for example, and people everywhere these days say they’re ‘chomping’ at the bit, when the expression is ‘champing‘.

Kids do this all the time. With their limited vocabulary, they hear something and try to fit it into the words they already know. ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy’? She’s really singing, ‘Alcohol, alcohol, make you crazy.’

Of course, just because I know the difference between the definite and indefinite article doesn’t mean that I’m immune from misunderstandings, far from it, in fact. I’ll leave you with this little anecdote that happened to me the other day. I was listening to the radio in the car when an advert came on extolling the virtues of a particular brand of tyre. It ended with the line, ‘If you want a tyre without standing grip and performance, buy…’ and whatever the brand was called.

I frowned out at the road. Why would you want a tyre that has no standing grip? If you parked it on a hill, what’s it going to do, slide down to the bottom? And what on earth do they mean by standing performance? Surely you want the best performance when you’re driving down the road, not when you’re standing still. What odd characteristics they chose to highlight in their advert, I thought.

It was only later that I realised the man had said, ‘with outstanding grip and performance’. Whoops.

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Working on yourself isn’t selfish

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been struggling with mental illness for a while now. Well, all my life in fact, but it’s been particularly severe of late. I’ve pushed myself past the point of sanity, kept struggling on far longer than I should, sacrificing my health, my hobbies, my self-esteem and my dreams in order to be the best father I can be.

And after four years I’ve burned out and can’t give of my best anymore.

I’ve come to realise, as I should have done years ago, that you can’t look after anyone else if you don’t look after yourself. It’s like when a plane is going down and the oxygen masks drop from overhead – put your own mask on before you help the children with theirs, otherwise you pass out and you all die. I thought that being miserable was part of the job, that feeling empty and unfulfilled was a cross that every parent has to bear and I could stubbornly push on and survive on willpower alone. Now I know better.

You can’t be a good parent if all you do is parent. You have to leave the kids, go out and experience all the wonders that the world has to offer, so you can bring that wonder back into your life and give it to your children. Without balance – without time away to gain perspective – you become stuck in unhealthy and repetitive cycles.

need down time, hobbies and personal goals that aren’t centred on parenting. I need to find space for Gillan the man, alongside Gillan the dad.

At school I was told I wouldn’t find fulfilment anywhere outside a university, and they were right. After my first degree, I was strongly encouraged to do a PhD. Instead, I got a second degree and a Masters, after which I was even more strongly encouraged to do a PhD. That was 2015, a few months before my daughter was born and studying had to take a back seat.

Now that she’s started school and my second daughter is two, I’ve decided I want to go for my PhD, and it’s the first time in years that I’ve felt excited about something, where the future seems to hold possibility and light instead of an endless slog of crushed hopes and forgotten dreams.

I’m not unrealistic. With a needy wife and two young kids, I’ll have to do it part time, and without two beans to rub together I’ll have to secure funding, but with a will to succeed I don’t think these difficulties are insurmountable. And as it will make me a better, happier, more contented person, I will be a better father and better husband. To be frank, I’m not good at either right now, and if it keeps going as it is, my marriage is going to fail. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Unfortunately, my decision has been met with decidedly less enthusiasm than I imagined. I’ve been told by various people – people I thought would understand – that I ‘can’t’ do a PhD; that I have ‘delusions of grandeur’; that as a father, with a family to think of, the time and opportunity has passed. The implication has been, almost universally, that to do a PhD would somehow be ‘selfish’, and they think less of me for even entertaining such a notion.

I hadn’t realised that having children means your life is over. Forget having hopes and dreams, forget trying to improve yourself and your situation in life – where you are when you have kids is where you will remain until you die. I should just ‘man up’ and struggle on, I suppose, keep feeling horribly empty, irritable and unhappy, keep failing as a husband and a father, so long as I don’t upset the apple cart. How selfish of me to try and escape that destructive mentality and make something of myself, and in the process become the person I want to be.

There’s nothing noble about sacrificing your dreams when you become a parent. For some people, having a family is their whole life. It isn’t for me. I didn’t cease to be an individual the moment I slipped on my ‘dad hat’. I have many roles to play in this world and I refuse to be pigeonholed into one that is only part of who I am. Turning away from life to focus on on your children makes you insular, one-dimensional, and blind. I’d rather put out my eyes and engage with the world by touch than choose to ignore it.

It isn’t selfish to work on yourself. Nor is it desirable. It’s essential. It makes you a better person and a better parent. Would I want my girls to give up their dreams when they become mothers? No. I’d expect them to take their children with them as they shoot for the stars. And that’s the example I want to give them. Why settle for one or the other when you can have both? Life isn’t about shutting yourself off and staying in the same place, it’s about opening up and going on a journey. This river has been stagnant long enough; it’s time to let it flow again.

No matter what anyone else thinks.

Too young for a sleepover?

My daughter Izzie loves sleepovers, probably because they have been confined to Granny’s house, where she is spoiled rotten, is pampered and protected, and can invade Granny’s bed at any time of the night. I can sleep soundly knowing she’s being well looked after, and that if there are any problems, I will be alerted and can sort them out. Furthermore, being ‘within the family’ means any hiccups – behaviour I don’t approve of from either child or caregiver – can be corrected moving forward.

However, since turning four a couple of months ago, Izzie has decided she’s grown-up enough to have friends over for sleepovers or even go for sleepovers at their houses. I can well understand the thrill and excitement of hanging out with your friend without your parents, staying up late to muck around, and gaining a sense of independence and ownership over your life. But while my wife thinks sleepovers are fine, I am dead set against them because to my mind, four is way too young.

So when is the ‘right’ time to start sleepovers?

She has a friend that she’s known since they were both around six months old. This friend (and, of course, her mother) have been to our house dozens of times, and Izzie and my wife have been to hers probably more than this. They’ve been to parties together, the park, the theatre, swimming – all sorts. I’ve seen how the children interact together, how the mother disciplines her child, and the values and beliefs that this woman possesses. I have therefore, tentatively, agreed to my child going over to her friend’s house for a sleepover, on the understanding that if there are any problems we are to be informed immediately and come and collect her.

My wife unfortunately interpreted this as carte blanche on sleepovers, so promptly lined up another with a friend from nursery, a child I don’t really know, whose mother I’ve only met a few times and whose father, coming from a radically different socio-economic class to us (he’s undoubtedly many, many rungs closer to the Queen than we are), is such an unknown in terms of attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and child-rearing practices, that I’ve insisted my wife cancel.

And therein lies the rub, as my wife now refuses to budge. This is before the first sleepover has even taken place, and we’ve seen whether it was a success or not.

I’ve explained to my wife that I see it as my job to protect my daughter from harm – physical, psychological and emotional – and I am simply not comfortable allowing my four-year-old into a nighttime excursion at a virtual stranger’s house, a place filled with expensive breakables and a father I’ve never met. Her response is that she has met the family a number of times, I’m a control freak and need to learn to let go. Yes, I know I struggle to relinquish control, but frankly the safety of my children, to be looked after within my own home and under my own roof, is more important to me than fostering my daughter’s social connections.

We are therefore at loggerheads, and neither of us looks to back down anytime soon.

So which of us is right? Is four too young for sleepovers? What age were yours when they first slept out? And does anybody have any experiences, good or bad, they’d like to share about sleepovers?

I don’t look like a monster…

…but I definitely feel like one. It’s hard not to when you make your closest loved ones cry multiple times every day.

It happens when you have a precocious almost-four-year-old, a wilful one-and-a-half-year-old, and a wife who would rather be a best friend to our daughters than a parent.

I see more tears than smiles. I say no far more often than I say yes. While my wife gives them toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream, I take away toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream. My weapons are the naughty step, the counting to three, the threat (never followed through with) of bed without supper.

I am the one who says, ‘You’ve watched enough TV,’ before switching it off. I am the one who says, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ while driving past the restaurant on our way to homemade spaghetti bolognaise. Time for bed, time for bath, brush your teeth, put your shoes on, you need a coat, just behave, no, no, no.

And then once they’re in bed, I lay into my wife – stop buying so much, you’re spoiling them, the house is a tip, why did you give them sugar at bedtime? You have to toughen up, they’re walking all over you, I don’t care if they like having a tent in the living room, I’m taking it down. If you want to go on holiday, stop wasting your money on takeout. No, we’re not getting a gosh-darned rabbit, you don’t even look after the pets we’ve got. Another one? You want another baby? The two we’ve got are running me ragged and you want to add to this chaos?

So she goes to bed around half-eight every night, and I sit alone on the sofa and check to see if I’ve sprouted horns from my forehead.

How do my kids see me? When they don’t hate me, they seem to like me, but certainly from the eldest, the hate comes through far more often than the love. I’m definitely the mean one, the one who shouldn’t be crossed, the one who isn’t fun. I’m the one she wants to leave behind on family outings, and who isn’t invited to her birthday. I’m not the one she hugs and kisses and gives affection to, no matter how much I want to be.

And yet, I’m also the one she turns to whenever she’s in need of help. I’m the one who sorts out her ouchies, who wipes her bottom and fixes her toys. I’m the one she shouts for in the night to scare away the monsters. I’m the one that takes her to the doctor, the hospital, who gives her the medicine and puts on the cream. I’m the one she knows will be there for her, looking out for her, whether we’re friends or not.

In life, in relationships, we all have a role to play. Mine is the rock you cling to in stormy waters. I first noticed this at university, when I realised all my friendships were one-to-one, and consisted of meeting people in cafes so they could tell me all their problems and confess their deepest, darkest secrets. I wouldn’t see them for a few months until it was time for another counselling session. They had plenty of other friends to have fun with – I was the friend they needed when things got serious.

And that is the way it is with my kids.

I feel very lucky to be able to fulfil this role.

And awfully lonely because of it.

I guess even monsters have feelings.

Running Down the Clock

Time is a funny old thing. The ticking hands of the clock fool us into thinking it’s a constant, moving at the same speed regardless of what’s going on, but time is actually surprisingly malleable. It passes slower the further you get from a source of gravity, so skiiers on a mountain are measurably ageing less rapidly than sunbathers on a beach. Likewise, the faster you travel, the slower time passes, so the astronauts on the International Space Station return to Earth younger than if they’d stayed at home.

Of course, we’re talking nanoseconds here – nothing that humans could notice.

Subjectively, however, time passes at vastly different speeds, depending on our mood, level of attention, hormones and the amount of processing our brain has to do. Ten minutes in the company of a bore can feel like hours; hours in the company of your lover can feel like minutes. The car about to crash into you seems to take forever to hit, but sit down for an exam and half the time is gone before you’ve finished writing your name.

And the larger scale passage of time can be a paradox, being both squashed and at the same time incredibly stretched – especially when you have kids.

‘Can you believe she’s almost four?’ they say. ‘I can’t believe she’s starting school in September.’

On the one hand, it seems like just yesterday she was born; like yesterday we took her home from hospital; yesterday she took her first steps and said her first words. But at the same time, it’s been one hell of a long  four years, the longest of my life. And thinking back to before she was born – back when our lives weren’t dominated by children – seems like peering into the distant past. I read about it in history books and it isn’t me.

And another irregularity of time is when you get yourself stuck in a rut – when the days fly by without anything to mark their passing, but they go by So. Freaking. Slow.

It’s a trap I’ve fallen into over the past few weeks. I know we’re supposed to pay attention to every single moment, to enjoy our kids every second of every day because it goes so fast and they’ll never be this age again, but damn – at the moment I’m just running down the clock.

The days have become so slow, so repetitive, and I’m so freaking bored, all I’m doing is waiting for their bedtime, counting down the hours until I can be me again. But as soon as they’re in bed, I’m too tired to do anything, so I too go to bed. And that’s how I’m living. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Park, soft play, beach. Painting, play-do, bath. Every day, the same, the same. Life has been stripped of its fullness.

Time drags, but suddenly it’s the end of week and I’ve done nothing. And I just feel empty, this horrible sense of ennui, this existential nothingness.

Time stretches on endlessly and shrinks to nothing.

So today, to adjust my relationship with time, I have filled my day with fullness. I’ve driven through yellow fields of rape; explored old buildings cloaked in wisteria; and tonight I’m hunting for ghosts in the ruins of an old prison. Because life isn’t about counting the hours, it’s about making the hours count.

I just have to remember that.

In a World of Poo

Like sex, periods and who farted in the elevator, poo and pooping is something we really don’t like to talk about. As a species, we keep up this strange charade that we don’t poop, even though the presence of toilet paper in everyone’s bathrooms suggests we’re really bad liars. It’s a natural bodily process, yet it’s shrouded by an aura of mystery and wonder, shame and disgust, as though we’re crapping out porno mags we’d hate our grandmothers to see. And that’s just silly.

Now, I’m not suggesting it’s something we should discuss over dinner, and I’m certainly not advocating we start taking photos of our bowel movements to impress our neighbours with, but as someone who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is allergic to all different kinds of food, and spends much of his life either sitting on toilets or else desperately trying to find them, it can be a lot of fun watching people squirm whenever you bring it up. And if we can’t talk about it, we’re not only denying the reality of our experience and reassuring other sufferers that they’re perfectly normal, we’re missing out on a lot of potential humour.

From an early age I had problems with my gut. The slightest things could trigger a bout of diarrhoea – too much wheat, too much cheese, a new food, skipping a meal, even simple nervousness. I’ve taken allergy tests (I should avoid gluten, dairy, chocolate and pulses, apparently), given up wheat, and carefully manage my diet, but while severe episodes have become less frequent, my digestive system cannot be called normal by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, I’ve been passing soft stools for so many decades, I worry what might happen to my asshole should I ever pass something hard!

I often disappear from parties, weddings, barbecues and family dinners to spend a half-hour moaning as I destroy a kindly person’s perfectly clean toilet bowl. Thanks to an episode in an Amarillo coach station, I missed my bus, leaving me stranded in Texas while my luggage travelled 450 miles away to Denver. A month ago I was sitting in traffic on a busy road when I realised I just couldn’t hold it anymore – the conclusion to this story, involving my new hat and one of my baby daughter’s nappies, I’m not going to go into here.

But why do I bring all this up on a blog about parenting? Because it’s been dominating my thoughts since I’ve spent the past six days up to my elbows in a three-year-old’s watery-porridge-like poop, and it might be all my fault.

Saturday she had a stomach ache all day and was off her food. That night it started, and by today (Thursday), it still hasn’t stopped. If anything, it’s got worse because despite being out of nappies for a year, she’s become incontinent. If you want to know where she is, you just have to follow the slick brown snail trail that leads across the carpet, and there you will find her, sitting in a mess at the end of it.

Our sinks are clogged with chocolate-coated knickers; the bath tub is populated by two polka-dotted pillows and a slime-smeared rug; and there is a duvet out on the washing line in the pouring rain because it’s better out there than in here.

Some of her clothes aren’t worth trying to salvage, so have been dumped in a bin that the sea gulls have become very interested in. We’ve put her in her sister’s nappies, but as a three-year-old who is mistaken for a five-year-old all the time, they catch only some of the deluge before giving up and resigning themselves to the flow. We are drowning in a floodtide of poo, like a Biblical plague that destroys all before it, and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to end.

The funny thing is that she’s fine in herself – other than that first day, her appetite has been good, she doesn’t have a temperature, and she has bundles of energy – and nor has she passed it to her little sister, her mother or me, so it’s clearly not viral and/or infectious. I thought it might be bacterial, but apparently not.

After she left a big brown dollop on the landing, which I stepped in at five o’clock this morning with bare feet, I took her to the doctor, who said she would put money on it being a food allergy. Despite eating wheat since we weaned her, apparently you can develop an allergy suddenly – almost overnight. We’ve been told to cut wheat out of her diet and she’s been referred to specialists for tests.

And so my daughter may well be embarking upon a lifetime of being that awkward one at the restaurant who asks for the special dietary menu, the asshole that everyone has to buy expensive ingredients to cater for, and the bastard who keeps stinking out their friends’ houses. And she will likely talk to all and sundry about the realities of living with her condition, and inwardly smile as she watches the discomfort on their faces.

Like father, like daughter.

But how did her baby get into her tummy?

Ah. We have reached a developmental threshold. I thought we’d hit it before Christmas when my daughter said, ‘You know I was in mummy’s tummy? Well how did I get out?’ but that was only the mechanics of birth (and she didn’t believe me that mummy pushed her out her noo-noo). No, this question – the creation of life and the sexual dimension it implies – is altogether trickier, deeper, and represents a significant step outside of ‘that’s the way things are’ to ‘why are things that way?’ Yikes.

I must admit, I fudged the answer. I was alone with her in the car at the time, and I figured something like this ought to be discussed with her mother first so we can decide the best time, best way, and all that. To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with the concept of procreation for a few more years at least, so I wasn’t ready, and a garbled response about eggs and seeds probably isn’t the best way to introduce a three-year-old to the mysteries of the adult world.

My mind racing, I considered implying that birds and bees had something to do with it; storks, cabbage patches, magic; even the age-old ‘when a mummy and daddy love each other very much…’; but given that bees are dying, storks are terrifying, and one of her friends has two mummies, it’s no longer that simple.

I turned it on its head and asked her how she thought they got in there.

‘I think mummy swallows them,’ she said, and we left it at that.

Phew! Dodged a bullet.

I was taught about sex at the age of four or five – penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs. While I’m not sure about the appropriate lower age, there is definitely an age where you should already be clued in – I remember everybody making fun of a ten-year-old at my school because he thought he came out of his mother’s butt. Sucked to be that guy – pooped into the world.

There’s a danger to leaving it too late, too. When I was on a bus travelling through Alabama twenty years ago, I remember seeing a massive billboard that said: ‘Talk to your children about SEX, or SOMEONE ELSE WILL!’ You definitely don’t want them learning from porn and thinking, like today’s eleven-year-olds, that that’s how people actually do it. And, of course, the consequences of a lack of sex education have been devastatingly explored in fiction, from Stephen King’s Carrie to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Message received and understood.

But there’s a way to do it, and I know that showing embarrassment or squeamishness can send out the wrong message and lead to problems later down the line. I met a girl at university who said, ‘I’m bisexual, but I’m terrified of penises, so I’ve only ever been with girls and I don’t think I’ll ever have sex with a man, so behaviourally I’m a lesbian.’ (My response to this statement was, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Gillan, what’s your name?’). I don’t want that kind of confusion for my girls.

And I certainly don’t want them to think sex or masturbation or specific body parts are ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ or ‘shameful’ either. I want them to be body confident, with a healthy sexuality free from the hang-ups that I, an awkward, sexually-inexperienced autistic bloke might pass on to them.

So I started researching this topic online (very carefully – I don’t want to be on a watch list!), and I discovered I’m a lot more old-fashioned and out-of-touch than I realised.

Today’s Parent, for example, suggests teaching a child of 0 to 2 the words penis, vagina, vulva, clitoris, bum and nipple, meaning I missed that window. It also suggest explaining to them when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies – gently and in the privacy of their bedrooms, apparently – which I must confess I thought was a conversation for much, much, much later on.

For the 2 to 5 age range – where we’re at now – it suggests opening up about consent, explaining it’s not appropriate for others to ask to see or touch their genitals, and not to keep secrets about this, which is definitely good advice but, God, how do you have that conversation without implying the world’s full of sexual predators? Also, now’s the time to mention sperm and egg, perhaps leaving the gory details for when they’re older.

All of this seems alien to me. Far too young, I keep thinking, let them be children a little longer before you strip them of their innocence. But other sites, like Family Education, all seem to agree on this basic framework – the proper names for genitals and where and when it’s appropriate to touch yourself somewhere between 0 and 3, the egg and sperm speech and stranger danger around 3 to 5, and the more explicit details about 6 to 8.

I’ve been living under the erroneous belief that I could sit them down in about five years, have a one-off Q&A session, then avoid the issue until their first date when they’re sixteen, with a couple of ‘women’s issues’ interventions along the way. Instead, you need to mention sex throughout their upbringing, stressing issues of consent and context, in order to create a sexually healthy adult.

I guess I agreed to all this when I became a father, and next time she asks I’ll be better prepared. Sometimes, I think it would be better if a stork delivered us fully-formed to our parents. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about stretch marks and post-partum incontinence!