Family & Education

I know the pain of being the youngest child

Susan Reuben knows how tough it is being the butt of family jokes.


As I was walking in Highgate Wood recently with my kids, we came across a map. The five-year-old examined it carefully and picked out the words, “You Are Here”.

He turned to me, looking perplexed. “How does it know?” he asked.

My brain immediately sent me a silent message: “Don’t laugh, don’t laugh, don’t laugh.”

You see, I’m only too aware of what it’s like to be the youngest child, like he is; to have a looser grip on how the world works than the rest of your family, and therefore to suddenly find everyone doubled up with mirth at something you’ve said — leaving you out in the cold, with no idea what just happened.

I clearly remember the sensation of bewilderment and misery from being in this situation, and my son evidently feels the same. If you show any sign of amusement when he says something cute or naive, he immediately bursts into tears and screams, “Don’t laugh at me!”

I have three much older brothers, so I never really stood a chance as a kid of being taken seriously. At around the age of nine, for example, we were sitting having family dinner. I had been to my piano lesson earlier and I remembered that I had a bit of news to impart. “Mummy,” I said. “My teacher wants me to play in the Salzburg Festival.”

My mother looked confused. ‘You mean she wants you to watch the Salzburg Festival?’ she asked.

“No!” I replied impatiently. “She wants me to play in it.”

A lot of discussion followed, with me as utterly convinced that I was right as my mother was that I couldn’t possibly be. Then it occurred to me to go and look in my practice notebook where my piano teacher had written down the details.

I came back to the dinner table. “It’s not the Salzburg Festival,” I said. “It’s the Saltburn Festival.”

The roar of laughter round the room practically lifted the ceiling off. Meanwhile, I just sat there, aware that I should be feeling embarrassed, but not really understanding why.

I was only nine. How was I to know that the Salzburg Festival is a renowned gathering of some of the world’s greatest classical musicians, whereas the Saltburn Festival (Saltburn being a small seaside town near Hartlepool) is not?

It was a good decade before I was able to look back and laugh at the memory — effectively joining the adults in mocking my childhood self.

So I try, I really do try, not to laugh when my kids are amusing without meaning to be. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it when they are.

Malapropisms are a good example. For instance, my little one calls a sieve a “fizz”. So when we are baking he says, “Can I do the fizzing?” If I were a better parent I would correct him, but I know he’ll notice eventually that he’s got it wrong — and in the meantime…it’s funny.

The last time we were getting ready to go away, feeling that it is important to teach the children to be independent, we encouraged them to try packing for themselves. The five-year-old took his job very seriously, putting much thought and effort into filling his Peppa Pig rucksack. When he had finished, he told me what he had packed:

“Binoculars in case I want to go on an adventure; a duck in case I find a river; a tomato in case I want to do pretend eating; and a tiger and a dinosaur in case I need to scare a bad dog or cat.”

We were going to Limmud.

On the one hand, none of these items appeared on the “Things you may need” list in the conference brochure; but on the other hand, who was I to argue with his contingency planning? So I expressed grave admiration for his choices, and then went off to pack some more practical items to bring along as well.

It’s so essential to be able to put up with friendly teasing and, indeed, to know how to laugh at yourself. There is little more off-putting in an adult than the inability to do that. But I think this only applies if you understand why you’re laughing. When everyone laughs at you for something you’ve said and you’re too young to get why it’s funny, you don’t learn anything from that. You just feel rubbish.

Going back 35 years — I won my category at the Saltburn Festival and brought home an eye-wateringly ugly trophy that was so large it would hardly fit through the front door.

This trophy sat resplendent in our living room for the next 12 months till it was time to return it.

Served my family right.



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