Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Children's parties: the nightmare

Children's parties have the capacity to strike terror into even the most hardened of parents. Even the ones who can take soft play centres without buckling; the ones who can handle three children in a supermarket without resorting to sweet-based bribery; the ones who do not blanche when confronted by a toy-shop with their child in tow.

Children's parties are capable of having all the charm of a minor war-zone, being fought by feral kangaroos on smack. Bouncing, sugar-fuelled, deranged dictators rushing madly hither and yon until they collapse into a sobbing, screaming heap when the sugar wears off. You'd think that would be what I can't stand wouldn't you?

Actually, what I really can't handle is seeing how hard it all is for my poor LittleBear. Despite my desperate desire that LittleBear would grow up imbued with all the confidence and security that his parents lack, it turns out that I don't have the ability to make that happen. On my good days I shrug ruefully in the knowledge that a child's personality is not yours to mould - LittleBear is who he is, and if that person happens to be shy and unsure of himself, then all I can do is try to give him the tools to overcome that. On my bad days, I castigate myself for failing him so badly that he cannot handle social interaction. Where have I gone wrong? How have I managed to have a nearly-four year old who is so withdrawn and scared when confronted by other children?
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
                                                  - Phillip Larkin

We went to a party last weekend. The little boy in question turned four, and we have known him and played with him since he was a babe in arms. Similarly at least half the other small people there. We arrived, and immediately LittleBear retreated into a corner of the rented hall, clutching me and begging me to stay with him. The bouncy castles held no allure. The ride-on cars no appeal. I watched other small children arrive, shed their shoes and run headlong into playing without a backward glance. No need for reassurance, no need for parental support, no need for company. The mothers (and it was largely mothers) were then at liberty to settle down round the periphery, cup of coffee in hand, catching up with each other, guarding the door to prevent escapes and mediating the occasional contretemps. Meanwhile, back in our corner, I snuggled up with my LittleBear, provided a reassuring biscuit (food always makes any environment more comfortable) and eventually persuaded him that the bouncy toys might be quite fun.

LittleBear conceded that he would play. But only with me. He has a highly tuned proximity detector, set to a distance of about 6 feet, and would bounce and run, and jump and play and laugh and roll and fall.... but only as long as I was within his safe zone. And after every exciting undertaking he bounced straight back into my lap and out again, on a piece of imaginary but unbreakable elastic. Every jump and he glanced to me to make sure I was watching, every slide and he grinned at me for approval. Any other child that penetrated his safe zone, no matter how friendly, or how well-known, automatically triggered his tortoise-response. His shoulders climbed upwards and inwards towards his ears, his chin tipped down to his chest, his head tilted to one side and he peered up at me through his beautiful long eye-lashes, silently pleading with me to make these other, noisy, bouncy creatures go away. He stood rooted to the spot until no other child was near him.

I don't know how to bolster his confidence.

I am not the kind of mother who brusquely says "no, I'm not playing with you" and leaves him to it. He wouldn't play. I don't believe in "toughening him up" like that.

I'm not the kind of mother who says "let's go and play away from those nasty, noisy children". They're not nasty, they may be noisy, but they're just a group of normal, excited children who would play with him at the drop of a hat. I don't believe in reinforcing his fear of others.

I'm the kind of mother who gives a reassuring smile, a quick cuddle and says "it's OK lovely boy, they're just playing, you can join in too. I'll be right here if you need me". But it doesn't work. He doesn't join in. He doesn't play with the others. He does need me. I believe in positive encouragement, without abandonment. It's a shame that what I believe seems to be about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

I love the fact that I am his rock and comfort. I am glad he trusts me so completely. I love playing with my boy. But I desperately wish that he had whatever inner reserves he needs that would allow him to join in the riotous, tumbling, jumbling play with the others. I never did. BigBear never did. And maybe that's it. Maybe it's just nature. Maybe we can't help the way he is, any more than we can change the colour of his eyes. Or maybe we cannot escape transferring our own fears and insecurities through our manner of nurturing and every step of the way we are acting to create a small, scared boy who wants his Mummy more than he wants any other playmate. Either way, it's me. It's my nature, it's my nurture. My poor baby.

And so I spend another party sitting in a bouncy castle, being jumped on by my LittleBear, who is happy in his moment, who is filled with joy and love and excitement. But I cannot move away. I cannot talk to the other mothers. I cannot have a cup of coffee. I cannot leave my son or his joy evaporates and his world collapses.

My precious, timid boy cannot join in, so nor can I.

Or perhaps because I cannot join in I have raised a precious, timid boy who cannot join in.


  1. I'm with little bear I hated children's parties, my mother was rather less sympathetic & tried to force me to join in. In later life I also hated teenage parties, and student parties. I think it's just how some people are, Ithink now that my mother was the same ans she was trying to help.
    Now I'm a grown up, Or nearly it's ok to spend quiet times reading. I'm sure that Little Bear will find friends who also like doing things in small groups.

    1. Thank you. I do tend to agree - BigBear and I aren't exactly party animals, and I don't think LittleBear is either. He's absolutely happy and confident when with one or two friends, and (just like his parents) likes to spend hours at a time on the sofa with books. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and I have to accept that that's not necessarily a bad thing!

  2. Someone once told me that her (otherwise typically developing) child probably had ASD because he didn't like mushy food or several other textures. I didnt say anything....but I once terrified my then-future-spouse by chopping eight different soup ingredients into precisely the same size 0.75 cm cubes. So I think there's problematic and there's range of normal and if you listen to my spouse I'm not normal. :-)

    For my own kids, I tend to think it becomes a problem they need help with when they perceive it as a problem. Bug used to want to play with other kids but he would tell me he was scared so we practiced introducing ourselves and saying hi (for years!!). Then he'd ignore them.... So maybe one day Little Bear will want these skills and you can help him. That said, I haven't set foot in a mall or children's play place for YEARS because the NOISE and the LIGHTS and the MOVEMENT and the SHRIEKING and pretty soon I need a stiff drink and a lie-down. So I also have to say his response sounds completely reasonable to me. I hold all tot parties outdoors because it doesn't ECHO so much.

    Of course I still feel like I have trouble making good friends as opposed to random acquaintances so perhaps I still have a great deal to learn.

    1. Doesn't everyone chop their ingredients into perfectly equal pieces? I mean, anything else would be....

      LittleBear now declares that he is "shy", but in truth I think he just doesn't like lots of noise, so when there are a lot of children (and therefore automatically there's a lot of noise) he's not comfortable. When there are only a few children he's quite happy, holds his own, talks nineteen to the dozen and is perfectly relaxed and comfortable. And I'm the same, so really, when I'm calm and sane, it's not a problem, and he certainly doesn't think it's a problem, so I'll go with your principle of not worrying until he does.

      The last soft play place we went to.... oh dear... LittleBear and I were both overwhelmed by the noise and the children, and the screaming, and the sheer unadulterated horror of it, so neither of us want to go back. Which is a bit of a relief, because if he'd really liked it, I'd feel obliged to go at least now and then, and I'm not sure I have enough gin in the house to recover from the experience.

      Incidentally, are you quite sure you're not me? Because, basically, I think I could have written your comment, right down to the making friends versus acquaintances bit.

    2. Hah! We could be long lost twins. I'm quite friendly and chatty in public but noise gets me every time. And mostly I don't like most people.

      I thought I remembered he was happy and playful at your last to-do at your house. So perhaps he hates noisy crowded places, which seems reasonable to me!

      (I don't think I have ASD by the way, merely a full on THING about textures.)