A sudden realisation came to me the other evening, that I am no longer the mother of small children. As I was getting supper ready I called to the children to help. "One of you go and light the fire and the others come and lay the table, please," I yelled.
A few years ago the idea of actually telling my child to help himself to matches and apply them to paper and pine cones would have horrified me. Matches resided on high shelves in those days. Maybe once my son was nearly six we allowed him light the candle for supper, as we cautiously hovered over him.
Now in winter it is one of the older children's chores to build and light the fire in the evening. They served an apprenticeship of watching Dad build the fire and being allowed to put the match to the finished work of art. Now they are learning for themselves how to stack the wood for it to catch, but often I find them stuffing in a second batch of newspaper, when the first lot burned itself out without affecting the logs in the slightest.
The secret is in the pine cones. Once in a while we take a sack and wander up to the top of the farm, seeking out dry cones. We then stagger back heavy laden with enough free, non-toxic, fire-lighters to keep us going for a few weeks.
This year the older two have also become interested in learning how to cook supper, so they were initiated into the art of lighting the stove gas burners and using oven gloves to pick up hot pans. I carefully showed them how to do it all safely, told them in advance that if ever they burned themselves to go straight to the cold tap and hold the burn under the water for a long, long time.
Sometimes I wonder whether I've got too laid back though. A few days ago Youngest, who isn't quite five, wandered through from the sitting room with the box of matches, asking for help as she couldn't quite get the match to light. She'd insisted to her brother and sister that it was her turn to light the fire and wouldn't let them help her. A four year old attempting to light the fire, unsupervised by an adult?! Please don't tell the social services in Europe or they'll be there at the airport to meet us when we go home to visit!
I went back with her and lit the match holding it in the middle, so that I could pass it safely to her. She touched it to the newspaper in a couple of places and was quite pleased with herself for accomplishing another of the grown-up tasks that her brother and sister now do routinely.
Now I know how it was that my husband, who is the youngest of six, has so many hair-raising tales of the things he got up to as a child. Once a mother has been broken in by the first couple of children, the younger ones are free to experience life with far less cotton wool tucked around them!
Whether its weariness, or the realisation that children are far tougher than you initially thought, when you returned from hospital with your first precious bundle, or just that your expectations of normality are set by the oldest child, I've come to realise that in our family at least the youngest child gets to try new things at a far earlier age than the oldest ever did.