I braved the soft play today. I normally try to avoid this particular corner of Parent World at all costs, for a number of reasons. It’s not that I am anti- these primary-hued establishments. I can see the obvious merits in a large padded room which has the possibility of a bum on a chair for five minutes and a caffeinated beverage while the offspring run themselves tired and compliant. It’s just that, well…I hate it.
Firstly it’s the germs. Kids are germy little critters, and even in the cleanest looking play establishment I just cannot shake this notion that the germs are gonna get us (sung in the tune of the terrifyingly surreal “belly’s gonna get ya” Reebok ad from yesteryear). From the whiff of stomach bug on entry, to the “white-with-a-hint-of-impetigo” tabletops, to the ball-pit of hand, foot and mouth and the abundance of snot-wipage on, well, everything really, I anticipate the lurgy with ever-increasing certainty with every advancing step.
Secondly, I find any environment where there are lots of small children will also house lots of parents, primarily mothers, and that when there are lots of mothers gathered together in one place, it sadly too often leads to an atmosphere of judgemental passive aggression. I’d like to pretend we’ve evolved above it, but alas, we have not. From what did she call her kid? to gosh she hasn’t looked up from her phone in twenty three minutes to who exactly does she hope to impress with a full face of make up and killer heels in a soft play centre midmorning on a weekday? it seems that we just can’t help ourselves. I generally try to be a live-and-let-live kind of person, especially when it comes to parenting. If you aren’t injecting heroin into your eyeballs on the school run, or handing over KFC bargain buckets every morning in place of a lunchbag, then I probably haven’t critiqued your maternal prowess on any level. But in these sticky, shrill, nappy-strewn dens of disorder, even I have succumbed occasionally. I’m only human.
Out of choice, I’d never go. But the boy can’t get enough of a big yellow slide and those coin-operated ride ons that he sits on for ages but that I generally tell him are broken so I don’t have to part with a quid only for him to decide he doesn’t like it 7 seconds later, to the glee of a passing chocolate-fingered child I’ve never met. So today I called up my twin sister, who would have her own one year old and my other one year old nephew in tow, and I embarked on the perils of the playcentre.
Before I continue, it helps if you know a bit about my twin. She’s not like me at all, really. She’s an earth mother to three gorgeous boys and has looked after countless others as a Early Years teacher, a childminder and a super-aunt extraordinaire. She’s patient to a fault, calm and unflappable in any kid-engineered crisis, and I have almost never heard her really angry in our nearly 37 (gah!) years on the planet together. What with my tendency to the dramatic, my potty mouth and my resting bitch face, some may doubt that we’re twins at all. She’s the Mary Poppins to my Cruella De Vil. For the purposes of the story, you need to understand this.
It was all going well, I’d drunk a whole coffee and the kids were playing in sight in the toddler area, with so far only a brief hair-pulling incident between the cousins, which is par for the course with three boys, really. My sister and I were chatting over the usual things while keeping an eye on them, and I was trying not to inwardly retch every time one of them licked a foam surface or ate a biscuit they’d dropped on the floor. The usual.
Then, right near us, in a split second, a little girl climbed up onto a foam wall right next to my littlest nephew, and fell backwards off it, onto the floor. I’m crap with kid’s ages, but she couldn’t have been more than two, a cute little thing in a lovely dress. The wall was low – under a foot – and she wasn’t hurt, but she was shocked and she cried. Standard occurrence at soft play; kid falls, kid cries, designated adult swoops in for cuddles and tear-and-nose-tissue-action, and nine times out of ten there’s no harm done.
However, this girl’s mother decided my nephew had pushed her. I was watching when she fell and I did not see him do so, but let’s face it, he could have done, because kids do that sometimes, don’t they? The mother dramatically whisked her daughter away from the scene of the crime to the back area of the soft play to discuss it in detail with her girl gang, chucking snide glances in our direction in the manner of a Mean Girls character a fraction of her age.
My sister and I ignored this like the higher beings we obviously are and we’re getting on with our scintillating conversation about my daughter’s new tap shoes, until I heard my son’s voice in very animated tones, coming from the ball pit near where this group were sitting. Since you should never underestimate the fruit-shoot effect, and with a plastic net and several pre-schoolers blocking my view of him, I went to double check that he was behaving.
As I passed this mother, she was cuddling her clearly fully recovered daughter and saying in that soothing, singsongy voice that we can all do (and that I frequently use when cuddling my Friday night vat of Pinot),
“Did the horrible boy push you, sweetheart? We don’t like the horrible boy, do we? Shall we box him? Do you want to box him, sweetie?”
I headed back and mentioned this to my sister, not to shit-stir, but because this woman needed telling. And if a potentially awkward parenting altercation is necessary, then it is not sensible to send in Cruella. If I’d spoken to her, I’d have ended up wearing her as a coat, and that sort of caper in a children’s play centre will get you blacklisted from the whole franchise. (Dammit. I totally should have spoken to her. Dratted hindsight.)
This was a job for my sister, Mary Poppins, the gentlest and most caring woman I know. She picks up my nephew and heads over, and says that while she is not sure if her son had pushed the little girl, and she was very sorry if he had, but that he was in fact, not ‘a horrible boy’ but a perfectly normal one year old. A baby.
I am trying really hard as I write this not to judge this woman who I do not know. It may have been a bad day for her. Who knows what was going on in her life? But here’s the thing; she wouldn’t have it. She didn’t back down. She insisted that my nephew, aged one, was a horrible boy.
Let’s take a little look at him.
Here he is, the horrible boy. Look at his eyes, hardened by cruelty, and that knowing, malevolent smile. Note the clever way my sister has styled his hair to hide the devil horns, and the blanket cunningly arranged to hide the electronic tag that this little juvenile wears on his teeny tiny ankle.
This child, the woman asserted, had done a horrible thing. And when my sister oh-so-softly explained that he might have done an unkind thing, but that he didn’t fully understand that pushing the little girl would have resulted in her falling and hurting herself, she countered that my sister “couldn’t know that for sure”.
This child is ONE. He doesn’t understand why you shouldn’t eat play dough. He doesn’t know that if you pull open a drawer and then shut it with your fingers in, that you’ll hurt yourself. He doesn’t understand other people’s feelings, he doesn’t know that they have any. All children push, kick, bite and hit. It’s something they have to learn is not acceptable and it takes time. This incident in itself was not even an incident, it’s just growing up. No one was ultimately harmed; even while Divamother (ok, I do judge her a little bit) was conversing with my sister, the poor little victim of this clearly premeditated violent crime was wriggling away in the direction of the slide.
I do not write about this woman just to judge her, as I said, I am trying not to. But her words make me think. In calling my nephew horrible, in saying he knew he’d hurt her daughter by pushing her, she’s projecting a psychology much older than my nephew onto him. All children are good until they learn what it is to be otherwise. The mother went on to assert that “in [her daughter’s eyes] he was a horrible boy”. Again, not the case. Her daughter too is just an innocent child. She’d forgotten the fall within minutes, climbing back up on the same wall later on with not a care in the world. She will only grow to see the bad in people if she is repeatedly told that they are bad.
The world is becoming an increasingly horrible place, due in part to children being taught too early that people can be horrible. Let’s try to raise little people who see the good in others. A child is not a horrible child because they make a mistake, or because they are yet to learn, or because they acted without thinking. If a child makes a mistake, we should not label him or”box him in” – seriously, who talks like that? grade A parenting right there, Divamother – but we should be patient and help them learn from it, because even adults make mistakes. As Dr Suess wrote, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
My sister’s words didn’t have much effect on Divamother, who as I said, was hopefully just having a bad day. I highly doubt that Cruella jumping in and schooling her would have had an effect either. But maybe when I see a child kick another child in the playground, or a teenager behaving badly at the bus stop, I will try and remember that life is a learning curve. Maybe I need to remember that we were all innocent babies once. Maybe we all need to be a little more Poppins and a little less Cruella.
Turns out, soft play is kind of deep.