Squeezed Middle: We all want to equip our kids for the future, but Mandarin at four years old?

There is a tiny, nagging part of my brain that thinks I should be more like Rosa.

‘‘I’ve just brought the twins here for an hour while my four-year-old has her Mandarin lesson.”

Huh? I stare blankly at Rosa, a mother I have just started chatting to at the soft-play session. She is young, smiley, nicely dressed. She isn’t wearing a twinset or pearls or any other obvious accoutrements of an awful, pushy parent. And yet . . . Mandarin? Four years old?

“Then this afternoon we’re just staying at home.”

“We are, too,” I say, relieved. “God, afternoons, eh? We never do anything. Other than sit around watching Fireman Sam!”

“Really?” Rosa looks alarmed. “We usually do home schooling but this is our day off. I believe kids need to learn to manage boredom.”

This is happening to me more and more often: I’ll start a perfectly normal conversation with a perfectly normal-looking fellow parent and after five minutes things will get all weird. The other day, the mother of one of Larry’s friends from nursery told me she had signed her son up for a private primary school in a distant, leafier suburb. I almost choked. I mean, get a grip! Does she think she is doing him a favour? Quite apart from anything, he’s going to have to wear one of those dorky little hats.

I don’t blame people for feeling edgy, though. In a way, it’s good to know I’m not the only one. We are all trying to equip our children for what lies ahead and we are all fumbling uselessly in the dark. Will they live in a totalitarian cyber-state? Become drone labourers for the Chinese? Experience a hideous environmental apocalypse? We can’t confidently rule anything out.

Rosa yawns and rubs her weary eyes. On the trampoline, one twin is jumping on the other twin’s head. Before having children, she was a doctor. She was trained to figure out what is wrong with people and give them pills to make it better. She is applying the same practical, problem-solving approach to her children’s prospects.

There is a tiny, nagging part of my brain that thinks I should be more like Rosa. Instead of brooding helplessly about the future, I should focus on finding solutions. No doubt Mandarin would come in handy, and I’m sure there are computer programming courses for toddlers out there . . .

It’s no good. I just can’t do things that way. I’m not organised or determined enough. Instead, I fall back on a fuzzy conviction that if Larry and Moe are generally loved and have fun they will find a way to be happy even in challenging circumstances. If they both have nice friends and, when the time comes, nice girl (or boy) friends, I will consider myself to have done well.

Of course, this lackadaisical attitude is probably partly to blame for my own tumble down the socio-economic ladder.

There are some advantages to the fuzzy approach, though. As she bundles her twins into their double buggy and rushes off to carry on managing her daughter’s boredom, Rosa sighs and says the saddest thing in the world: “If you knew what it was really like before you had kids, you’d never do it, would you?”

Allez Français - Mandarin is the new in thing. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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