Last week I took LittleBear to the bookshop so he could spend a bit of his birthday money (not, sadly, on books, but on a dinosaur toy he'd seen last time we were there). Happy as only a small boy with a new dinosaur can be, we then retreated to the bookshop cafe to have shortbread and milk (or coffee in my case) and play with the lovely new dinosaur. And several other dinosaurs who'd had to come shopping with us. Obviously.
While playing, another small face appeared over the back of a chair and announced, "I like dinosaurs!" A rather angelic small face, framed with shoulder-length curly hair. Making a foolish assumption, I suggested to LittleBear that we invite the little 'girl' to come and see his dinosaurs. I then asked 'her' name and discovered it was Otis. Oops. Otis didn't seem to mind and none of his accompanying adults had been within earshot, so I didn't offend anyone.
Otis then produced his own Spinosaurus to come and play with our dinosaurs, and settled down in a chair at our table. I nodded a smile to his grandmother and said it was fine, and away we went. For the next forty minutes I played with two small boys and four dinosaurs, attempting to keep the peace between warring dinosaur factions, negotiate the "correct" answer to taxing questions of palaeobiology between two very determined young men with differing views and prevent milk, coffee or shortbread being strewn too widely across the cafe.
Otis' mother and grandmother sat at a different table and had a nice relaxing cup of coffee and slab of cake each. My coffee went cold before I managed to drink it, and I didn't get to eat any of the shortbread.
Now, I didn't actually mind playing with LittleBear and Otis, and I was fully expecting to have to spend my cafe-time playing and chatting with LittleBear anyway, but I can't help but wonder how it is that I'm always the one who accrues children in this situation, and never the one who sheds them? Because this is not the only time I have accumulated additional children when out and about. Some mothers seem to have the knack of engineering a peaceful corner with a cup of coffee, and I seem to have the knack of surrounding myself with mess, chaos, noise and dinosaurs.
I have a sneaking suspicion I actually know the answer to this question... I think it's because I like talking to children. And being the perceptive little creatures that they are, I like to think
that small children are aware that I'm interested in talking to them,
and so come and talk to me. They have no front, no guile, no social niceties. They are usually inquisitive, interested, interesting and (generally unintentionally) very funny. And they seem quite happy with me just being me. I don't feel any pressure to look a certain way, or conform to any particular model of adult behaviour.
Much as I'm sure it will surprise anyone who's ever met me socially, I actually feel excruciatingly, gut-twistingly uncomfortable and ill-at-ease when meeting and talking to new people. And even not-that-new people. The fact that my defence mechanism in such situations is to talk too much does a pretty good job of plastering over the cracks, thus leading the world and his dog to assume that I am confident and self-assured. Whereas in truth I have been known to pace up and down outside a pub instead of going in to meet people I don't know well. I've been known to turn back in my car and go home rather than go to a social gathering that's making my lower intestine attempt to strangle my liver. And I've lost count of the number of invitations I've turned down because the thought of them makes me break out in a cold sweat. But mostly, when confronted with an uncomfortable social situation, I just become absurdly garrulous with a tendency to over-share.
And with children? They are judgemental and opinionated and tactless in a way no adult could ever manage. But that also means they are honest and open and straightforward. I know where I am with children. I know that they are not merely humouring me, not rolling their eyes behind my back, not itching to get away but plastering a smile on their faces simply because it's the polite thing to do. If LittleBear thinks I'm being stupid or unreasonable he has no qualms about sighing and rolling his eyes. If he's not interested in what I'm saying or doing he either wanders off to do something more interesting, or just interrupts me. I get instant, honest feedback. So much easier than the complex world of adult human interactions.
So, thank you Otis' mother and grandmother, for lending me your child for some honest, human interactions. Next time, maybe I could have some honest, human interactions with a slice of cake while you entertain two small boys?