The Blunder Years: Toddlers and Friendship

06 Oct 2005 — Babies Crying — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

“I miss my friends.”

I felt a thud in the lumpy mattress of my heart. I looked at my son, Jack, in the car’s rear-view mirror, and saw that his little features were being weighed down by an achingly adult expression.

At that point he wasn’t much older than two, but here was a face already conveying levels of pain, regret and sadness seldom seen outwith the confines of the video for Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt. Surely toddlers can’t wear faces like that, I thought to myself. It was the sort of face you would imagine could only appear after the brain had been bombarded with nuclear-strength nostalgia: images of long ago summers spent running through the cornfields and dancing over lawn sprinklers, smiling and laughing and holding hands with friends, perhaps in slow motion as a wistful soundtrack scored the action, or an elderly Fred Savage added his pseudo-philosophical tuppence-worth. “We were happy. We were toddlers. We were the best of friends. Somehow we knew that this was it. That after this we were going to be on the long road to becoming the people we weren’t; the people that we didn’t know how to be. Our lives would never be this carefree again. So what else could we do? We joined hands, counted to ten… and violently shat ourselves.”

[Incidentally, in the commission of this throw-away gag that won’t be appreciated by anyone under the age of too-fucking-old I visited The Wonder Years’ IMDB page and discovered something cool. Do you know who provided the disembodied voice of future-Kevin? Only bloody Marv the burglar from Home Alone!]

I was driving Jack to a park and woodland above which loomed an old building that had as its centre-piece a giant stone pineapple, figuring the incongruity would give a pleasant jolt to the ever-knitting neurons of his burgeoning brain. Given his sudden shift in mood, I figured he could do with a jolt.

“I’m sorry, little buddy. You’ll see your friends again real soon, I promise.” It had been a great many weeks since he’d last seen his best pal – a little kid called Noah who shares a birthday with Jack, whose mothers met and became close friends after fate placed them in adjacent hospital beds post-partum – or any of his other toddler chums.

Jack’s sadness was total. Complete. We’re talking ‘Van Gogh running after the bus in the rain when he’s already late for his appointment to sign-on at the job centre’ sad. But much like the sadness of every other toddler on earth, it lasted for about three seconds before morphing into inexplicable euphoria; in fact, the only feeling to endure beyond the confines of the car that day was my sadness about his sadness – a sadness so fleeting that it wouldn’t even have outlasted your average mayfly’s awkward teenage phase.

Questions abounded. What could I do to make my son feel better? How on earth could he possess such a deep sense of the concept of friendship at this stage of his development? Especially since most of the time he was with his friends he either a) completely ignored them, or b) threw things at their heads. The questions kept coming – not all of them Jack-related. For instance: why is there a giant stone pineapple perched above a long-dead rich man’s house in a woodland in Central Scotland? Is there a reciprocal sculpture of a humungous alabaster square sausage above a cathedral somewhere in Costa Rica? Why do we Scots consider a square to be the best shape into which to chop our dead pigs? Do other countries venerate the man-made geometry of their foodstuffs? “Ah, Tecwin, pass me another slice of our world-famous triangular lamb, boyo.”

I discussed the ‘friend’ situation with my partner at home later on that day. It was heart-breaking for us to discover just how hard he was pining for his friends. At that point he hadn’t started attending playgroup, so we fretted that he wasn’t getting enough interaction with his peers and pals.

A week or so later, Jack and I were walking past the local play-park on our way to the shop when Jack suddenly got super-excited and started gesticulating in the direction of the park.

“My friends, my friends!” he cried, pointing at the gaggle of kids beyond the maximum-security cage that encircled the play-park. I peered in, expecting to see a familiar face or two. There wasn’t one to be found. They were all strangers. Every single one of them. Plus, they were all around twelve. “I want to play with my friends, daddy!” he hollered, as that same sadness from the Pineapple trip sank into his eyes, quickly joined by a hefty dollop of indignation. He started crying: “My friends, my friends!” he said, “Oh, father, I beseech you, my friends, I must have leave to speak with my friends! Monster! Gaoler! Oh heaven save me from this tyranny!”

I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly.

And so, the penny had dropped. In Jack’s brain the word ‘friend’ was synonymous with ‘other kid’. Or maybe he preferred his friendship Mayfly-style: e.g., “I like my friends like I like my coffee: instant.”

I love watching kids who’ve never met before interacting with each other. It’s refreshing. There’s no awkwardness, preamble, or ‘getting-to-know-you’ period. “So, are you from around here?” “What do you do for a living?” “Adjusting for inflation, how much do you reckon your toys are worth in the current economic climate?” Blah blah blah. Kids don’t care who you are, where you’re from, or what you do, so long as you know your way around a chute.

“Hi boy!” one of them shouts. “Hi girl!” the other one shouts back. And then they’re off: holding hands, bossing each other about, and running into the sunset in a birdsong of shrieks and giggles. One time at our local country park I and another dad – with whom I’d exchanged the grand total of one word – had to pursue our respective sons across a field, because the two of them had formed such an intense bond in the four minutes since they’d met that we oldies had ceased to exist, and presumably they were off to start a new life together in the forest.

“JACK! JAAAACCCCKKKKK! STOOPPPP!”

“JACK IS DEAD, DADDY, MY NEW NAME IS TREE McPLANTINGTON!”

I envy that. Single people will moan about how hard it is to meet a viable partner, but it’s even more difficult to find and make new friends – especially following the advent of parenthood when you discover that your social-life has choked and died like a fat, asthmatic pit-canary. It would be wonderful if we adults could emulate our young kids’ social interactions. Making friends would be a cinch. I could walk down the street and pass some guy who was wearing a ‘Sopranos’ T-shirt, and think to myself, ‘I bloody love The Sopranos; I’ll bet that guy’s on my wavelength’, and feel emboldened to grab his hand, swish it to and fro like a skipping rope, and say, ‘Hey, man, wanna go bowling with me?’ before pulling him down the street like a reluctant cow on market day. What do you think would happen next? Do you think we would giggle and skip down the street together, or do you think I would find myself sitting on the pavement coughing up my own teeth?

Jack – now a little over two-and-a-half – possesses an enviable, fearless confidence. He’ll talk to any kid, but he’ll also talk to any adult stranger. He has a deep and boundless curiosity about people in general, and it’s my sworn duty, my solemn responsibility as a father, to snuff that out of him immediately. Here there be monsters. The world isn’t safe. He doesn’t yet know that most people who walk the face of the earth are, to use the accepted psychological term, absolute fucking cunts.

It is cute, though: how he’ll introduce himself to literally any adult he encounters, usually with a weird bow, in the manner of some 17th century courtesan; how he’ll wordlessly insinuate himself into the middle of whatever activity an adult or a whole family happens to be engaged. I wish I could change the world… but I can’t, so I’ve got to change him (and his younger brother, Christopher, once he’s old enough to do anything other than laugh and shite himself). I need to guide Jack’s behaviour so that he’s aware of the potential dangers of strangers, but not so sternly or over-the-top that he becomes some jaded, fearful, feral dog of a boy, or loses his sense of wonder and self-confidence. I find that subtlety is always the key. For instance, if I’m out with Jack for a walk in the park, and he walks over to a man he’s never met before and starts blabbering about cartoon characters, showing off his new shoes or telling the man his name, I might just casually funnel my hands over my mouth and shout, ‘LOOK OUT, JACK, HE’S A PAEODOPHILE!’

We, as parents, will remain the be-all-and-end-all (Or Baaea, as the youth of today would probably call it) in our kids’ lives until our dying days… just so long as they don’t find out our secret. The secret that we’re shit. Laughably shit. Shit people, and even worse parents. We’re winging it. Completely and totally winging it. We don’t have a bloody clue. Half of our life has been spent getting it all wrong. And the other half has been spent lying about getting it all wrong, which we’ll continue to do, especially once our kids become teenagers and start calling us out on our hypocrisy, at which point we can open the emergency envelopes and draw out the sacred argument-winning cards that say things like: ‘WHILE YOU’RE LIVING UNDER MY ROOF, YOUNG LADY…’; ‘WHEN YOU MAKE YOUR OWN MONEY YOU CAN SPEND IT ON WHAT YOU LIKE’, and ‘YOU CAN JUDGE ME WHEN YOU WASH THE SKIDS FROM YOUR OWN PANTS, BOY.’  

I guess that life is a slow and constant retreat from the people who gave you life, into the bosom of your peer group, into the arms (and other parts) of a significant other, until finally you’re ready to repeat the pattern, and you too can raise children who will one day leave you in a corner to die: salivating and beshitted, half-mental and muttering about mayflies, giant pineapples and square sausage.

“Yep, that’s right, Dad, there was a giant pineapple. Could you see that through the window of the UFO you were abducted by? … Yes, doctor, if he shits himself one more time, just pull the plug.”

Existential nightmare at the soft-play warehouse

softplay

Last week we took our son to soft-play, or The Hunger Games with rubber-foam-ladders as I like to call it. We entered the reception area and were buzzed through a security door into a giant warehouse filled with bright primary colours and screams. It felt like we were visiting a criminally insane toddler on death row. Those screams. Those… screams. I closed my eyes and imagined the thudding din of helicopter blades alongside the cacophony of piercing shrieks. This could be a war movie, I thought; ‘Nam, only more brutal. Why was this happening to us?

It was mid-week. The schools in our area were all in session, which we thought would guarantee us a quiet afternoon with a low kid-count: silence of the bambinos. Unfortunately, we hadn’t known that a neighbouring town’s schools were closed for in-service days (or Teachers’ Gin Days if you like), and that, as a consequence, the soft-play would be the site of a full-scale osmotic invasion of hyperactive, psychopathic Stirling kids. Sartre was bang on when he said that ‘Hell is other people’, but his aphoristic aim should’ve been more precise: hell is other people’s kids.

I wasn’t alone in my pain. I could see it etched into the weather-beaten faces of the parents who fringed the perimeter of the play-area, their wearied flesh pressed and wedged into the cheap plastic seats. We walked past a succession of toothless, sunken-cheeked grannies, who were all wearing the same expression, one that silently screamed: ‘I WISH YOU COULD STILL FUCKING SMOKE IN PLACES LIKE THESE… YOUNG LUNGS BE DAMNED!’ Their dark, haunted eyes evoked the horror of a holocaust. I smiled faintly at them, and steeled myself for the nightmare to come.

Kids are crazy little bastards (apart from my kid, of course, who’s clearly an exceptional human being, and nothing at all like your shitty little disease-ridden mental cases), propelled by sugar and selfishness. They lack both the developmental capacity to credit other people with having selves distinct from their own, and the ability to show compassion and regard for the well-being of others. Helping our son safely navigate the tunnels, ladders, ball-pits and climbing platforms of each of the three mini-fortresses was a hazardous and stressful endeavour. Kids careened about with the frenetic zeal of angry dwarf Gladiators, as they pushed, shoved, kicked, and thudded their way through the mazes. Our son became a tiny Indiana Jones, dodging four-limbed-boulders here, ducking roof-bound punch-bags there, all the while cooing and smiling, oblivious to the great danger that threatened to engulf him from every direction.

My fear was focused at the microbial level, on the shiny surfaces that were slick with sweat and saliva and piss and Christ knows what else. I was sure that my hands carried the traces of the bogeys and bum-kernels of a thousand wet-nosed, shat-nappied children, and every disease, from swine-flu to AIDS, was busy gleefully replicating itself in my blood. Who cleans this place? Do they get down on their hands and knees and scrub every inch of every surface, or do they shrug their shoulders and think to themselves, ‘Screw it, kids are ill all the time anyway, and I only get paid £5 an hour, so fuck this, I’m going to spray some Febreeze over this ball-pit and then go out for a smoke.’

ballpit

Despite all that, the three of us soon found ourselves in the ball-pit, doing the back-stroke through the multi-coloured sea of circular-filth-nuggets. Our son was delighted with the ball tsunami his thrashing and splashing created. A few other kids jumped in just as we were beginning a ball-fight, and before long all fire was concentrated on my face. I retaliated, of course, because where else are you going to get the chance to throw things at children and get away with it? Once the blood-lust abated, I fished my son out of the balls, sat him upright and said, with a great deal of enthusiasm: “WHO WANTS TO GET OUT OF HERE AND GO DOWN THE CHUTE?” Three random kids thrust their arms into the air, shouting “ME!”

“Well, I wasn’t actually talking to you guys, but, what the hell, I guess you can come along.”

And so we dragged a comet’s tail of kids behind us as we clambered out of the ball-pit and began the long, slow journey to the top of the fortress. One little boy, slightly older than our son, went out of his way to help little Jack navigate the climbing platforms, pulling him up at each level and making sure he was safe and steady. Once we reached the higher levels, he stuck to Jack like glue, protecting him from the hordes of wayward children as they sped towards us on their savage and singular trajectories. I figured I would have to re-evaluate my stance on the inherent psychopathy of children. Here was a noble and nurturing boy, a credit to his sub-species. I guess I was wrong, I thought. Kids are sweet and caring and kind after all.

I quickly re-re-evaluated, though, and come to the conclusion that he was the fucking worst of the lot. Clearly he was responding to me as the alpha of the pack, and keeping Jack safe was his way of appeasing me and showing due deference. If I’d ordered him to pick up Jack and hurl him from the battlements, the sick little bastard would have done it without hesitation. I guess that’s why I felt completely justified when I kicked the little boy in the stomach and hurled him down the chute backwards.

When I told my partner I was going to write about our experience at the soft-play area, she said: “Just remember to write that we all had a nice, fun time, because we did. Don’t do what you usually do and make our perfectly normal, happy family times sound nightmarish and horrible. And for Christ’s sake, don’t say something sick like you kicked that nice little boy in the stomach and then hurled him down a chute backwards.”

“Oh, and please try to call it something nice like, ‘Family Fun Times’ or ‘Super Soft-play Day’. Don’t call it something awful like, oh, I dunno, ‘Existential Nightmare at the Soft-Play Warehouse.'”

Folks, I did have a really, really nice time, it’s just that ‘nice’ isn’t all that funny or interesting to anyone except us, and – most importantly – this is Jamie Andrew With Hands, not fucking Mumsnet.

A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS

  • Do. Not. Eat. The. Food. I waited an hour for Nachos that cost me a fiver, and when I say Nachos, I mean half a bag of Doritos that somebody had blown snot over and then shoved in a microwave for twelve seconds.
  • Do check your socks before leaving. I was lucky this time, having by chance selected the one pair of socks I own that doesn’t have a gaping hole in the toe. You don’t want to be prancing around a plastic fortress looking like Albert Steptoe.
  • Finding a parking place at these day-glo hell-holes is perhaps the most heart-busting part of the saga. You won’t find one. Even though these soft-plays are usually inside giant warehouses, there are only ever about six parking spaces. You’ll find yourself driving round and around like The Hulk on steroids, unleashing torrents of vile, paranoia-themed bile at your fellow space-seekers, shouting at families for not waddling back to their cars quickly enough, and trying to manoeuvre your car into a four-inch gap before finally screaming ‘FUCK IT’ and angrily mounting the kerb to park on the pavement.

More family-related articles for you to enjoy:

A celebration of public breastfeeding

Baby talk: Baby’s first workplace visit

Happy Fathers’ Day to me

Weighting it all up