I loved my NCT classes. I was lucky enough to have a really sensible, down to earth teacher and some lovely classmates that I still meet up with now. There is only so much they can teach you however. Beyond birth and breastfeeding, there is a whole world of lessons you are left to learn for yourself. I suspect these never really end, and I'll still be wondering how on earth to negotiate Duckling-related dilemmas when he's 21, 30, 45... ("How do I tell him that suit makes him look like a gangly undertaker?", "Should I tell him his wife's a narcissist?", "Is it reasonable to let him move back home after his divorce...?") Nonetheless, some basic pointers on negotiating the first few years would have been nice.
Today's quandary: how to react when all the other kids in the playground steal your son's toys. As I'm sure any parent will know, playgrounds are a breeding ground for tantrums, arguments and shoving. Against my advice, Duckling decided to take his small cement mixer, digger, and tipper truck to the sandpit today, along with his bucket, rake and spade. I agreed after deciding a nice quiet sandpit session was probably preferable to him running around, given he's currently battling his usual cold-induced chest issues. Unsurprisingly, he quickly became a magnet for other children wishing to "share" this bounty, it being far more alluring than the existing selection of discarded, sun-bleached plastic tat to be found in The Pit.
Duckling did not take kindly to this. "No! Is MY bucket! Give it back!" he shouted to the little (as it turned out) quite violent sub-two year old who first appeared on the scene. Duckling tried to grab the bucket, but Violent Victor was having none of that. In full, plain sight of his Mum, he yanked the bucket out of Duckling's hand, turned his back on him and started to fill it with sand.
His Mum asked Violent Victor to give the bucket back (at least I think she did - she spoke Russian). Victor ignored her and carried on shovelling. His Mum gave up instantly and just sat and watched him. Duckling sat and pouted. "Mummy! He protested. "That boy took my bucket! Get it back!".
What to do? Had Duckling done the same to Victor, I would probably have reprimanded him and made him return the bucket, explaining it didn't belong to him. Or I might have instructed him to ask nicely if he could share (or asked on his behalf if, like Victor, he was still preverbal). His Mum, perhaps because of the language barrier, or because she didn't realise the bucket was Duckling's, did neither. I think she may also have been as scared of Victor as we were.
So, not willing to wrestle a bucket off a toddler in full sight of his Mum, engage a mother who really didn't seem to want to engage, or send my child to his likely doom to retrieve it, I told Duckling the boy was just borrowing his bucket, and would give it back later. And Duckling, being a bit of a pacifist
wimp accepted this, and carried on playing with his trucks, while keeping a wary eye on young Victor. As did I.
For a while all was calm. Then Victor returned for round two, and tried to take Duckling's tipper truck. "My truck!" said Duckling, but was too slow to grab it back. I looked at his Mum. She looked away.
"Hey, I know," I said to Victor, "Let's do a swap. If you want to borrow Duckling's truck, you need to give his bucket back." I picked up Duckling's discarded bucket and gestured my intention. "Neeeeeee!" screeched Victor and lunged at the bucket, just grabbing the handle. We had a small, embarrassing tug of war before I relented, slightly scared Victor, who was now actively growling, might bite my hand. Thankfully in the tussle, Victor had dropped the truck, which I grabbed and stashed out of sight behind Duckling. Victor, who was legging it with the bucket, failed to notice initially but on turning round was dismayed to see it had disappeared. I did an internal cock-a-snook. Duckling looked on goggle-eyed. "I no like that little boy," he said. I didn't disagree.
Victor settled himself a little way off next to a small girl who was peacefully shovelling sand next to her Mum. At first I thought he might try to grab her spade, but Victor had much grander plans. He filled his bucket with sand and poured it over the girl's Mum's sandals. She was rather surprised. Victor's beleaguered Mum did react to this and apologetically dusted down the lady's shoes for her. Still no real reprimand for Victor though - at least not until he started whacking the poor lady's feet with his spade, at which point she removed him to the other side of The Pit. Clearly he believed gladiator sandals to be rather 2012.
While watching all of this, I had failed to notice a young girl approach Duckling. She was probably also two, but tall for her age so initially I took her for older. She took a shine to Duckling's cement mixer. "Ooh!" she cried and grabbed it. "No! Mine!" cried Duckling like a broken record. "Um, sweetheart, that's not actually yours..." I cried lamely, but Light-fingered Lucy was off, gambling awkwardly across the sand. Thankfully her Mum stopped her and brought her back. Phew, I thought, at least she's on the ball. "Would you mind if she borrowed this for a bit?" asked her Mum. "She really likes cement mixers." I was a bit taken aback. "Oh, err, sure," I said. "Do you mind if this little girl borrows your cement mixer Duckling?" I asked, feeling awful that I'd just loaned out another of his favourite toys. "Humph. OK" said Duckling in a small voice. "Well done," I said relieved, "it's very kind of you to share. She'll bring it back soon, I promise."
It was while I was standing, meerkat like, watching Lucy drive Duckling's cement mixer up a climbing frame, that his green rake was swiped by an older boy, probably about six. "My rake!" yelled Duckling. "GIVE IT BACK". Rakish Ryan ignored Duckling. Now this boy should have been old enough to know better. "Excuse me!" I said in my politest stern tones. "That's actually my son's. Could I swap you for this one?" I proffered a wonky blue rake with no handle, figuring it probably didn't belong to anyone (at least not any more). "Oh sure, sorry" said Ryan, handing back the rake but ignoring my offering. "Don't worry, I'll take this one instead." And he picked up Duckling's spade and charged off. "My spade!" yelled Duckling. "Oh FFS!!!" I muttered a little more loudly than I probably should have done.
In the end, the goodness of humanity prevailed. Violent Victor's Mum brought Duckling's bucket back (along with someone else's sieve and a plastic fish that he'd apparently also pilfered), Light-fingered Lucy's Mum returned the cement mixer while Lucy was busy stealing another child's scooter, and I reclaimed the spade off Ryan's friend's Mum, who was profoundly apologetic, even though she couldn't have had any idea where the spade had come from.
By the time we got home, I was exhausted by the social awkwardness of it all, as was Duckling. Had I let my own son down because of my personal dislike of making a scene and confronting strangers? Should I have stood up for him more? Or should I have made him stand up for himself? Was it wrong not to pull him up for shouting at the other children? Or, conversely, should I have praised him more for being so accommodating?
In the end I decided I didn't have a bloody clue, and nor does anyone really. You don't know other people's kids, you don't know why their parents parent them as they do, and you don't know how they (or their parents) will react to whatever type of intervention you try. So muddling through and trying to stop your own child dissolving into a rage of injustice is really the only option. Or you move to Finland, where the local authorities provide a shed load of toys in every public sandpit. It's definitely a bit easier to referee when the plastic digger with a missing wheel being fought over doesn't actually belong to either child. Or, more realistically, you say NO when your toddler asks to take half his toybox to the playground. Strictly bucket and spade only in future. With his name written on them. In caps. And maybe GPS security tagged for easy tracking. Surely there's an app for that?