At the bottom of our airing cupboard, underneath the pile of old towels, is a faded, threadbare square of pink and grey. This is Mingo: a worn out flannel hand puppet in the shape of a flamingo’s head, with the thumb part operating the beak. And though our children are all grown up and left home now, and though Mingo has holes and is frayed at the seams, I am under strict instruction that he is to be Kept Forever.
I can’t remember where Mingo came from originally, but I remember thinking it was a clever idea to have a flannel in the shape of an animal as it seemed likely to improve the chances of a good scrub in the bath at a time when our girls were little and somewhat averse to the idea of getting too clean. Like in many families, baths were happy times at the end of the day and part of the bedtime routine before story and sleep.
As our girls got older and started nursery and then school, we realised it wasn’t always easy to find out how their days away from us had felt to them. ‘How was today?’ or ‘What did you do today?’ was more often than not met with a shrug or ‘ok’ / ‘nothing’ / ‘dunno’, even if we could tell from their mood that things may have not all been rosy. Bathtime seemed a good, relaxed place for a chat, but how exactly?
Watching the girls in the bath with their toys held the clue. They always chatted to their toys - and to Mingo too - why couldn’t Mingo ask them? So Mingo did! He would greet them enthusiastically each day, excited to hear what they had been up to. Suddenly the girls were keen to tell, even though they could see he was on our hand and though we gave him a silly voice, it was perfectly clear that it was still me (or Dad) doing the talking. The point was that in their imagination he wasn’t us - he was him: their friend - and always curious and interested. He would ask them what their good bits and bad bits of their day had been and he would tell them a few of his own (‘I ate a yummy pink fish today’), though actually they weren’t too worried about his news! He was naughty too sometimes and would tickle their toes with his beak - and they would laugh when the grown up at the other end of the arm told him off. Mingo never made much comment, but he rejoiced, sympathised, teased a bit, and most of all was a good listener.
So why is Mingo so loved? I think because he represented a safe space to learn early to talk about how things feel, that everyone has good bits and bad bits in their day and that bad bits aren’t the same as being at fault or being naughty. With him, the girls learned about their feelings and felt safe to give them words. It seemed to help them later on to gain the confidence to talk to us in our own right when things were tricky.
So what we learned was:
Bath time is a great time to chat to little ones about their day
A soft toy or hand puppet is a great way in to talking about feelings - it’s similar to how children engage with Embers the Dragon and the animal characters there.
Imagination, mischief and silly voices all help - playing and learning go together for young children.
If we are lucky then Mingo may reappear from the cupboard one day when there is a next generation to bath and reflect with. Let’s hope his seams will hold together so he can work his magic once again.