I’m talking to a friend about roller skates. Not the carefully designed ergonomic ones of today, complete with full body padding accessories but the seriously dodgy ones of my youth. Held onto the foot by a single strap of leather, they were impossible to control, so we would stumble up and down the street, twisting ankles and crashing straight into the nearest parked car.’ And then in sync we both said, in unnecessary Yorkshire accents: ‘And it never did us any harm!’
At ten, I would go out to play with my younger sister and mum would tell us not to come back till tea time. Once we came across a cachet of stolen stamps and decided to form a secret society. My younger sister wanted to join us and regretfully I had to say no because we would be ‘jumping from building to building solving crimes.’ We also knew there was a weird man at the end of the street. Mum referred to him as a ‘dirty old man’ and told us to stay away from him. My younger sister had her sources and said that he ‘tries to feel you up.’ I used to walk up and down the other side of the road. He ignored me and I felt slightly put out. Our local park was an unsavoury miasma of glass and dog shit.
And yet despite living in a neighbourhood of paedophiles, parks with hard surfaces and unsafe roller skates, I survived. Now when you walk past a playground, you see most of them are covered in that soft tarmac which offers a softer landing if the child falls a full ten inches from the swing. But even so, you still see small children wearing helmets. And sometimes elbow pads, and knee pads like mini Michelin figures. I mention this to my friend.
‘Ha!’ she says. Have you seen these! Toddler helmets. For small children crawling round the house. Soon I expect to see crash helmets that contain a built in ‘twat alert’ to protect them from unsuitable romantic partners, or crash helmets that feed a constant drip of affirmations to protect you from pain and failure: ‘You’re awesome!’ ‘You’re a winner!’
A whole industry has sprung up which feeds on parental paranoia, even before the baby is born. You can buy Baby Einstein or Brainy Baby cds that ‘educate’ your baby while still in the womb. But during a scan I could see my baby playing with her feet. And slurping the amniotic fluid. Drinking her own bath water? Bloody hell, I must have accidentally listened to the Chav Baby CD by mistake. Then once they are up and about, parents can buy a lock for the toilet just in case. Just in case what? The toddler falls down the loo? What’s more likely to happen is mum or dad staggering drunkenly up the stairs, and being unable to get the lid up, peeing on the floor instead.
And it doesn’t stop when the child is at school. More and more are driven, so they never get used to using their legs or traffic. And direct one cross word at the little princelings, and helicopter mum rushes up to the school to berate the teacher for not recognising that Timmy’s habit of hitting other children over the head with a mallet is simply his response to not being creatively stimulated enough.
You can dive in when the child is young but as they get older you have to take a step back and let them figure out their own friendship problems. So when my son was being bullied in primary school, I rushed up to see the Headmistress, breathing fire. I also cornered the bully in the playground and ‘had a word’. Actually I told him that if he carried on bullying my kid, I’d get him arrested. Mean yes, but he had thrown my boy against a wall and landed him in hospital. So if I scared the little shit – good.
But a few years later, I found out that a particular boy was being nasty to my son – inviting him to his house and then turning him away on the doorstep. I ached with misery, but had to stand back. So we came up with a plan. My boy would write down every incident in a book, to build up a picture and I got him to join some clubs out of school so he was less reliant on his peer group in school. It took time (and a lot of standing around on freezing cold touch lines on a Saturday morning) but after a few months, his ability to play football and crowd of friends outside school seemed to increase his confidence, and the problem melted away. I would ask him if he was ok and he would shrug me off. But he seemed happy. I left it.
I know one mother (and father to be fair) who installed cameras in the garden to ‘protect the children from paedophiles’. The daughter is now thirteen and has never crossed the road by herself. Another who marched up to her ten-year old son who was looking forward to going on the log ride at Thorpe Park and marched him away saying, ‘No you’ll be scared.’ These parents are ruining their kids – infecting them with their own beliefs that the world is a frightening place, ensuring they will still be coming home with their washing in their thirties.
Because all the pain, all the suffering you protect them from now will not stop it happening later. Your child will go out with someone unsuitable, someone you can SEE A MILE OFF will break their heart and there is nothing you can do. They will fail. Despite the ‘I’m a winner’ badges when they come last in the egg and spoon race. The best thing I can do is make my child feel confident, curious and able to deal with things head on. I try to remember this every time my daughter makes a half arsed job at making her bed or grumbles when I ask her to unload the dishwasher and I think – it would be easier to do it myself. But five years down the line and I’ll have a stroppy little madam who can’t see any reason why she needs to make her bed and unload the dishwasher because mum will grumble but she’ll end up doing it herself. And then she’ll go to college and be a crappy housemate, use up the milk, never make her bed, and nobody will like her. So yeah – go make your bed madam. And while you’re at it, you can hang up the washing.