Play dates: Do not get involved!


I lingered awkwardly in the kids’ bedroom.

The Boy’s New Friend had arrived for a playdate and with the Girl’s overenthusiastic help they had already pulled out all the Busy Books, all the Sylvanian family furniture and most of the cuddlies. I made micro-adjustments to the Sylvanian house and picked up some discarded socks. It really was time for me to leave them to it.

“You are not allowed in there,” The Boy announced imperiously to his friend, pointing at a shut door.

“Why not?” she wanted to know. She had not shown any interest in the door until then, but the Boy had sparked her curiosity.

“That’s Mummy and Daddy’s room. They don’t want friends to go in there. Only us. When they call us.”

I was listening in from the landing where I was fiddling with washing I had already hung out to dry. I was itching to jump in and make corrections to his pronouncements, which made us sound like crazy dictators. I was already imagining how this would sound when inevitably his friend would report back at home, Chinese whispers style.

I hurried to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Soon, the children came down as well and the Boy and his friend sat down at the table to do some drawing.

“Did you know you are made of atoms?” I heard the Boy say. Then with a swift change of tack: “Did you know that two sheep can get together and make a baby sheep?”

I was on the sofa in the other room, staring at my book, trying to make myself relax. It was impossible not to listen. Over the course of the next few hours, I heard the Boy tell jokes with no punchline, casually discuss death and religion, give dodgy science lessons and tell his guest that she was playing wrong.

With this last one, I finally felt I was allowed, nay, obligated to step in. “Don’t be bossy! You can’t tell other children how to play.”

More and more, since the Boy has started school, I have had to come to terms with the fact that he spends most of his time outside of my direct supervision. Listening to him chat away today made me realise with cold dread: He could be saying anything to anyone. He is out there in the world, potentially sounding bossy, precocious, pretentious, being insensitive or inappropriate and making us or himself sound a bit strange. He might be messing up what could be good friendships by acting more crazy than the other person likes. Or by being inflexible about how to play, or by crying every time he bumps his shoulder into a door frame. And I am not there to see or control it.

A terrifying thought.

And suddenly I feel a rush of sympathy for my mother’s irritated exclamations when my brother or I did not perform as expected in company.

“What business is it of yours?” I wanted to shout.

But I feel that ache now, of being separated from a small person that you invested in and brooded over for many years, trying to give them everything you thought they needed to do well in life. Not to repeat the same mistakes you did. To have everything you loved and avoid the things that caused you pain when you were growing up.

I realise that I can’t control this mad flutter of inexperienced wings on their maiden voyage, slowly flying down, on what may often seem like a collision course with the ground. And that is right and good. I can explain and I can demonstrate, but the rest must come with experience, with developing instinct. While he is learning that, there are going to be falls and disasters.

All we can do is put good stuff in and hope it will come out at the right moments.