The Big Ask

Gemma Rolleman faces up to the fact she no longer has all the answers to her kids’ questions.

It’s a sad day when your eight-year-old son turns to you for help with maths homework that might as well have been written in ancient Greek. For no matter how many times you study the algorithm he’s put in front of you, you can’t see the solution. And it comes when he’s starting to question your responses to his growing curiosity about the world. You really need to have this one under your belt to secure your status as genius of all things’ – in his eyes, anyway.

The problem is I was never very good at maths. I knew the day would come when he’d outsmart me in this department, but I’d always assumed my limited knowledge would at least carry me through to secondary-school level.

Only the week before he had approached me with his English homework, and I responded, feeling more than confident of my expertise in this area, “Ah well, if memory serves me correctly, I can tell you a conjunction links two clauses”. He looked at me with his head slightly cocked and one eye squinting: “That’s not right, Mum”. It’s funny how quickly I began to doubt myself as I rummaged through the depths of my mind and tried to recover bits of information lost for decades.

In the end, we Googled the word and, as it happened, I’d been correct. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. But this time I was really out on a limb, and my son knew it. I couldn’t even remember what an algorithm was, let alone decode it.

I pined for those innocent days when he would totter beside me, look at the sky and ask, “Mummy, why do some clouds move faster than others?” “Because they’re having a race,” I’d say. And he’d believe me. Because it was me. Genius of all things. Now, it seems, I have to convince him my answers are right, even when they are right.

I also suspect I’m becoming a bit of an embarrassment to him. I caught a glimpse of his discomfort when I careered out of our garage on his new scooter, swivelling my hips and yelling “Yee ha!”. Of course, I thought I was being fun and kind of cool – until I saw him watching me, squirming and glancing across at the neighbours’ house in the hope they were out for the afternoon.

I told my dentist this story the next day. She nodded knowingly and told me about her 13-year-old daughter, who won’t let her walk along beside her when they’re out in public. Instead, he has to trail behind, like an old dog, just in case they see any of her daughter’s friends. Not me, I thought, that’s not going to be me.

I made another attempt at my son’s maths homework. Again, I turned to Google for help. An algorithm, it said, is a formula or procedure for solving a problem. This time, after I’d confessed to him that maths was not one of my stronger suits, we sorted through the problem together and the solution became clear. So I’m starting to realise it’s not such a bad thing when they notice we are, after all, human – and that we don’t have all the answers.