E Jane Dickson: 'I know it's important for children to have their secrets'

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The sign on Conor's door is unequivocal: "No GURLS Alowed. Enclooding Mum."

The sign on Conor's door is unequivocal: "No GURLS Alowed. Enclooding Mum." Half of me is flattered, at 42, to be thus enclooded, but I'm intrigued by this new turn for male exclusivity. What can Con and his little friends be doing in there? Are they just kickin' tyres on the Tonka toys? Maybe they've formed a self-help group to discover their inner boys.

I know it's important for children to have their secrets, so I press my ear to the door. Busted are mooning on about girls not dancing at discos on what Con likes to call his "music system" (an ancient cassette recorder) and there is a lot of giggling, but I can just make out the word "bum". Concerned that Con is leading a masterclass in swearing, or worse, I knock and cough discreetly. The bedroom door opens just wide enough for a stubby finger to point wordlessly at the "No Gurls" sign.

"I was just wondering," I say, "if you boys would like some juice and biscuits."

"Thanks," calls Con, as if to some well-meaning but hopelessly dim secretary, "just leave it outside the door."

I don't much care for this new tone. I'm used to Clara and her gal-pals rolling their eyes and falling silent at my approach, but Conor, at six, has, up to now, been an open book, keen to spill any beans. Beating down my pique, I deliver the refreshments and am given a new commission. "We need string," says Con. "Quite a lot of string."

Absurdly, I apologise for the lack of string to hand. (Is mine the only household in the country without a well-stocked string drawer?). Conor is frankly unimpressed and reminds me of my job description.

"You're a mum," he points out, "you're supposed to know where string is."

"Well excuse me all over the place, but I don't," I tell him. "I can do you some Sellotape or a Pritt Stick, but string's off."

Conor does a kind of Mutley mutter in which I can just make out the word "useless", then turns to the boys, palms extended in a what-can-you-do? shrug.

"I'm sorry, gang," he says. "I suppose we'll just have to make the parachutes at someone else's house." The boys are politely aghast at the craft-materials crisis, but seem to accept Con's general point that you just can't get the staff these days.

I wish I didn't feel so diminished by this. Clara has occasionally pulled this kind of number on me ("A mum is supposed to have tissues in her handbag." "Mums aren't supposed to sign school permission slips in crayon."), but some feeble, pre-feminist part of me mourns the disapproval of my newly macho son.

Later, when his friends have gone home, Con gets a lecture on the unwieldy theme of respect for mothers/girls/women and not talking to people like they're servants. The string business, I warn him, is not to be repeated.

"Aw, mum," he says, concluding business with a let's-be-friends hug. "Don't you worry about it. I'd forgotten the string already."

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