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Monday, 11 June 2012

Parenting Room 101


Well, once again a perfectly good blog post about a completed DIY project has been overtaken by a massive rant.

The problem is that I was going to write my DIY post while at a certain, well-known upmarket soft play centre in London.  We got there nice and early, bagged a sofa in a quiet-ish corner with a good view of the play area, purchased tea and cake, installed Ben on his mat with some toys and I settled in with my laptop.

Unfortunately, I had overlooked the fact that it is half-term for some schools which, coupled with the kind of persistent rain that even Noah would be moaning about by now, meant that the play centre had a higher than usual older-children content.  There was also a smaller child’s birthday party.  Neither of these things would be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that both older children and party guests seemed to be exclusively accompanied by my least-favourite type of parent.

If I ever get invited on Room 101, my first pick will be “parents who don’t supervise their children.”

Actually, that is completely and utterly untrue, given that I have to admit to pretty much opening the door and hurling Thomas through it yelling “See you in four hours, my son!”  I mean, let’s face it, there would be very little point to soft play centres if it wasn’t for the fact that they allow you to exercise a bit of socially acceptable neglect while drinking tea and eating cake.  It’s not as though anyone actually wants to spend a fair chunk of their day sitting in a windowless primary-coloured hell-hole, listening to about three million children screaming at the full pitch of their impressive little lungs.  The only reason to go there is to avoid supervising your children as far as is humanly possible.

Thomas is actually a pretty good soft-play-er.  He generally doesn’t get involved in any argy-bargy, while determinedly refusing to be pushed around by those attempting to commit argy-bargy on him, and he almost never comes and moans that “a bigger boy pushed me”.  This is surprising given that he is capable of whinging that his biscuit looked at him funny or that his shoes are on the right feet, but obviously rather nice for me since I don’t have to follow him around, negotiating with other small children and arbitrating on his behalf.  Obviously, I am aware that he is only good as far as I know and that he could, in fact, be presiding over a toddler version of The Hunger Games while safely out of sight in the middle of the play-frame, but I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.  For now.

No, it’s not parents who don’t supervise their children who bug me.  It’s parents who don’t supervise their children while at the same time failing to acknowledge the fact that no-one else wants to supervise them either.

So my rather cosy sofa and laptop set-up was first disrupted by a small girl from the birthday party who decided that it would be fun to repeatedly climb on the back of the sofa, managing to kick me in the head or pull my hair every single time.  Unfortunately I made the novice error of actually speaking to her.  I was polite and smiley and did not hiss, as I was tempted to to, “stop pulling my hair, you little bugger” but requested that she desist forthwith from the aforementioned behaviour.

I should not have engaged with her.  Encouraged by my smiliness, she decided to abandon sofa-back-mountaineering in favour of perching on the arm, leaning on my shoulder in order to stick her upside down face about 2 milimetres from Ben’s nose, while screaming “What’s his name?”

I told her his name and pointed out that he was, in fact, currently attempting to feed.  Proximity to my semi-contained cleavage did not noticeably deter her and she continued to suspend herself precariously over him while crooning “Be-en, Be-en” and “Is he asleep?”

After I had run through my entire repertoire of “He’s feeding, pet, we mustn’t distract him” and “I think he might go to sleep, sweetheart, maybe we should be a bit quieter” type comments, I finally looked around for her mother.  Well, when I say looked around, I actually mean twitched my neck very slightly to the left while she continued to pin me to the sofa by my shoulder and Ben clutched me round the middle while making little “uh uh uh” noises, clearly intended to convey “don’t move, I’m so hungry I might die”.

Her mother was sitting about six feet away smiling serenely at my attempts to prevent her offspring from landing headfirst in my cleavage.  Perhaps she hadn’t heard my comments.  I raised my voice.

“Can you leave him alone, pet.  He gets a bit upset when he’s trying to eat.”

The mother made eye contact, smiled a little more broadly and turned away to talk to another party-goer’s mum.

She wasn’t daft.  Her child was being supervised by someone with a vested interest in her not falling off the sofa.  And she didn’t even need to be watching to know what her offspring was up to since my running commentary would keep her updated.

I made a few more ineffectual comments and eventually gave in to the inevitable.

Get.  Off.  The baby.” I hissed, fixing her with my best “I hate children with a passion only equalled by the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” expression.  I was actually fairly impressed by how well she took it.  She gave me a “fair dos” look and took herself back to her mother.  Who was clearly less impressed by the venomous look she shot me. 

Right back at you, lady.

Ben drifted off to sleep at this point and I thought for one brief moment that I might actually get a bit of me-time.  Unfortunately I had forgotten about Thomas’s ability to detect a milligram of chocolate muffin in a million gallons of slightly musty, child-scented recycled air.  I hadn’t even got the paper peeled off before he appeared, circling me like a little, sweet-toothed shark and waking Ben with his cries of “caaaaaaake”.

The problem with Ben is that even 30 seconds of nap is enough to prevent him going back to sleep for the next couple of hours.  He was therefore instantly awake, alert and demanding entertainment.

So we decamped to the baby area.  Now this is a rather nice, gated area for under 2s, with a strict height-limit.  Thomas is now too big and was therefore despatched to the main play area while Ben rolled about, swiping joyfully at coloured balls.  The only problem with the baby area is that it seems to exert an irresistible attraction upon older children.  I don’t know why.  I wouldn’t  have thought that the really small slide and minute ball pool would stand a chance next to the multi-storied, all-singing, all-dancing playframe about 10 feet away.  And yet I don’t think I ever remember a visit to this particular play centre that hasn’t involved a minor set-to with rampaging older children stuttering “but,but, but, I’m just….” while a parent of a younger, wailing child holds the gate open, shrieking “Out!  Out!”  The unattended children are, to be fair, fairly easy to evict.  The real problems occur when, for some unfathomable reason, some parents decide that the under-2s rule does not apply to their precious offspring.  It is spectacularly difficult to deal with the response of “But my mum said I could”, although I have had some success with “Well this mum says you can’t and if your mum would like to discuss it with me I will be right here” which is obviously the polite, middle-class mum version of “Oy, cowbag, you and me outside now.”

Now I am very far from being an over-protective parent.  At the point at which we entered the baby area I had probably seen Thomas for all of 30 seconds in the hour we had been there, and had made absolutely no attempt to go and check that he wasn’t dangling by the foot from the climbing net.  But I do draw the line at having my pre-crawling baby trampled underfoot by someone about 6 times his size.  So I did get a bit catsbum-mouthed at the repeated appearances by a child of about 8 whose mother kept performing the Dance of the Utterly Wet Parent, which involves a few, half-hearted shooing gestures, a couple of “I don’t think you should be in here really”s and then a spectacular giving-in and letting him rampage, while simpering around and giving little “what can you do?” shrugs.

Unfortunately, his third appearance coincided with the continuation of a spectacular row between two other parents.  I had missed the beginning of this particular confrontation, but it seemed to have been triggered by the mum asking the dad to remove his three older children from the baby area after they began swinging on some hanging toys, banged heads violently and fell off, nearly flattening her 1 year-old in the process. 

Now this dad was a particular type of dad.  I hate to stereotype..actually, who am I kidding?  I love a good bit of stereotyping.  The more stereotypey the better.  So you will probably know exactly what I am talking about if I say that I am pretty sure he played rugger, rather than rugby, probably while on jaunts with the chaps, as opposed to the more usual holidays with mates.  I also think it reasonably likely that his toddler son was called Tarquin, as opposed to Chardonnasius, example.  This type of dad doesn’t look entirely at home in soft play – they always have a slight hand-twitch, as though they are resisting the urge to whip out their mobile phone and hold a loud, pointed telephone conversation about something terribly important, in order to reinforce the fact that they aren’t really like the rest of us poor saps with nothing better to do with our days than hang around ball pools and stand outside toilet doors shouting “Haven’t you pooed yet?”

Anyway, the dad appeared to have taken exception to this request and decided to cross-examine the mum at length about whether his three daughters (aged between about 6 and 10) had in fact pushed her child, prevented her child from using the facilities or committed any other cardinal sin.  He then interpreted the negative response as “You are quite right, silly me, of course your children can ignore the rules because you are just so important, Mr Important Man-Thing”

When she persisted he exploded in a fairly unedifying tantrum which would have been barely acceptable in his small son.  In a grown man it was quite special.  The other mum briefly removed her child from the vicinity, quite understandably as she was being shouted at by someone twice her size while surrounded by small children.  When she returned a little later, the dad decided to pick up where he had left off, launching into a rant which concluded, rather ironically, with “I don’t want to talk to you.”

I was rather taken with the other mum.  I think we could have been friends.  She stood her ground and explained to the dad exactly what her problem with him was and what she intended to do about it.  I was transfixed.  Usually it is me doing the shouting.

Unfortunately, at this point, the other older child staged a come-back, running the length of the baby area and kicking a foam block that nearly hit Ben.  I located his mum and began to ask her to remove him when he decided it would be a good idea to run over him.  Literally.  His foot actually brushed Ben’s head.

You could probably see the mushroom cloud from several miles away.  That entire end of the play centre fell silent to listen as I pointed out, from my position up by the roof which I had just hit, that it might be a good idea if she stopped suggesting to him that he should get out and actually removed him.  In fairness to his mum, she didn’t attempt to defend herself and, after a couple more vague wafting motions, she did eventually pick him up and remove him bodily as I shrieked “utterly unacceptable” at her departing back, having been incapable of coming up with anything less librarian-like that wouldn’t corrupt the listening hordes of small children.

Since I was on a roll, I figured it was a shame to waste some superior quality rage and I therefore waded into the fray, pointing out to Mr Important Dad that “that is exactly the problem”.

Faced with two angry women, one of whom was succumbing to a serious case of fishwifery, he retreated.  But not with dignity.  After spluttering “Well why don’t you tell that little boy that he can’t stay in here because his sisters aren’t welcome” he gathered up his children and announced “Come on, let’s go on the bumper cars” while shooting death-stares at the two of us. 

Sorry.  You just can’t retreat with dignity if your parting remarks include the words “bumper cars”.

The other mum and I were left to settle into a good, solid bit of moaning about misuse of the baby area.  Occasionally Mr Important Dad would stomp past and glare at us.

I resisted the urge to wave.

I was less restrained upon leaving when Mr Important Dad and his children blocked the entire exit while his youngest chose which lollipop he wanted.  After I had repeated “excuse me” about half a dozen times he eventually noticed that he was being glared at by a lengthy queue of people and decided to try to look good.  “Quick, quick, move, move, mind the baby,” he chuntered at them. 

I fixed him with my best steely glare.  “You weren’t saying that half an hour ago,” I said and swept out, nose elevated snootily. 

Unfortunately my retreat was somewhat marred by the fact that I promptly tripped over Thomas and dropped half the contents of my bag all over the entrance area.

As exits go, it wasn’t much better than the bumper cars.

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