When young cousins come to blows…

Séamas O’Reilly
Photograph: Linda Venuto/Getty Images

It wasn’t a particularly hard smack. His fists are small, doughy things; fat and soft with dimples for knuckles, sunken into the flesh like the buttons of a sofa cushion. But it was a low blow, against his own cousin, and while she was having her nappy changed, no less. Even the most unreasonable prize fighter would never hit an opponent while they were lying down and, though I’ve never checked, I imagine that rule would count doubly if they were having their arse cleaned.

We had taken the boy to stay with his cousins, Ardal and Nora, last week. My son is the baby of the entire family, so all his cousins fawn over him, despite being only negligibly older themselves. At just under two, Nora is the second youngest, an incorrigibly sweet-natured girl with a blazing smile and a mop of tight blonde curls, yet she acts like she’s never seen something so delightfully childish as my son in her long and storied life.

The 162-day head-start she has on him has bred a certain airy superiority – a bit like that you get from being four episodes ahead of your friend in a true crime podcast, wincing each time they say they still suspect the boyfriend.

I loved growing up in a big family, and spending time with his 14 cousins allows my son to experience the best bits of that experience without me having to sire a dozen kids myself. And he’s a fan of the hand-me-downs he gets by way of Lego, jumpers and wellies. Alas, he’s less fond of our attention being divided while babysitting, and this trip led to his first fight. My wife had been tending to Nora’s nappy when the smack happened, as he’d crawled across the room in a fit of jealousy and slapped his cousin’s head.

It was startling to see his frowning little face and Nora’s sense of betrayal; to see the fury in his eyes when we remonstrated with him. Parenting often forces you to inhabit your child’s emotions, to learn or relearn some long-lost state, of sheer joy, unbridled excitement, devastating loss – some emotion you haven’t felt for 30 years, present once more. Here was rage, pure and simple. And then, minutes later, they’d made up as if nothing had happened.

As much as I recall those fights, I also remember them not meaning much for very long. I’m used to extolling the virtues of family as being those of togetherness. But that’s forgetting its hidden treasures; the thousand dry runs it allows you for antisocial behaviour, a place where you can do and say stupid, hurtful things in a controlled environment, suffer the consequences, and still be friends a few minutes later. This, the chance to cannon around the house like a rabble of inter-personal crash test dummies, is the true benefit of family. The wellies and Lego are just a bonus.

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