It was the last day of the school term, but that doesn’t matter when you’re a three year old doing a tour of the local parks. We made our way, by random child’s choice, from the least used park (a poor, hidden, under-used little place at the bottom of my road), via another, to the most open and full park on the circuit. The latter of these, although just as dull in fixed play equipment to my adult eyes as the others, filled with the overflow of variously aged school-children released for the holidays. In short, there were plenty of people there of different ages and genders.
After a while of sitting in the sun, observing Gack’s usual comings and goings about the place, something just a little out of the ordinary took place. I thought that here was something I needed to write about. Here’s the build-up: Gack saw another boy of about his age pushing himself around the tarmac areas of the park on what must have been, to Gack, a wondrous sight; something coveted; something needed — a four-wheeled scooter! Not the ordinary common or garden two-wheeler, like his, not even the three-wheeler ‘two at the front, one at the back’ variety — a full-on four-wheeler! Gack needed to ride that scooter. He told me so.
It’s not yours, I told him. Deal with it. ‘But I want to have a go,’ he said straight up, though not taking his eyes off it. ‘So go ask.’ I sat on the grass and refused to do anything to help him because this was something he ought to man up about and just do. After a short while, it seemed, Gack realised I wasn’t going to do anything. The other boy was scooting around, oblivious to the desperate need of this other child a few yards from him. Eventually, Gack’s little voice peeked out from somewhere in the entrails of the static wooden train structure. The other boy rode past. ‘He didn’t hear me,’ Gack said on coming back to report to me. I shrugged. He went off and tried again.
Again and again the other boy circled around in his oblivious way. Eventually, there was eye contact, smiles, something connecting taking place. Somehow, the next scoot round the train was Gack scooting round with the other (laughing) boy in tow. The play took hold, and the other boy made use of Gack’s two-wheeler scooter in return (even having a need to wear Gack’s bike helmet). I watched on, slightly surprised that all this had taken place, and the play tumbled around and around.
That’s the build-up because at some point soon after this I started taking more notice of what the other boy’s father was doing: or rather, I started taking notice of what he wasn’t doing. He wasn’t doing anything. He sat about twenty yards from me: him on the bench under the tree, me on the grass. We both couldn’t see both of the boys all of the time. He wasn’t doing anything to get in the way of the play, and he especially didn’t do anything (apart from knowing where his boy was) when the child gravitated over to me. This happens (the gravity thing) sometimes, I find. It’s almost as if some children can sense the playworker sensibility. I don’t know. Maybe.
The other child didn’t speak with me at first: he just wandered closer and I sensed that he was curious, or then he wanted his scooter back for a while, or that he was checking to see if I was paying attention, or something like this. When the boy came over and sat with me and Gack, out of the corner of my eye I sensed from his father . . . just no panic. When the two children and me chatted on the grass, the boy’s father could see us but didn’t call his son over. He didn’t change the way he sat. He didn’t show any agitation or alarm of any sort. There was no negative vibe (not even when his son asked me to help him put Gack’s helmet on — I thought quickly about this, but in the moment it felt OK). I wondered if I should make at least eye contact with the boy’s father, but I didn’t because I knew it wasn’t needed: he didn’t seem to need me to ask for distant affirmation that this was OK, and I didn’t need him to say so in so many words. It was just fine. When Gack and the other boy wandered over and chatted with the other boy’s father, it was all fine.
Why am I surprised by all of this? Frankly, I see and feel a lot of the opposite when out and about in the parks with Gack on any other day. Generally speaking it’s the maternal protection instinct that I feel come at me in waves (even when with a three year old who, even if it’s not always clear that I’m related to him, then at least it’s evident that I’m on ‘snot-smearing on bare arms’ terms with!) I’m sorry to say that (although not by a long shot always) I’ve had enough knee-jerk ‘man in the playground’ reactions from over-protective mothers to warrant being pleasantly surprised by a father’s ‘everything’s fine’ approach (though the female au pairs and suchlike don’t seem to be as bothered as the mothers).
After a while, when Gack and I needed to get on, and when the boys had swapped their scooters back again, I did talk briefly with the other man. He’d come over to support his boy and I told him a quick story about what I’d seen earlier in the play. That was all. I didn’t feel it necessary to say thank you for the trust, or suchlike. It was all implicit within the overall communication. Off we all went on our separate ways.
What had happened here? Was I lucky enough to come across an unusually understanding play-appreciative and, most importantly, trusting father? Are the adult genders so far apart really in protective stances towards their children? I can only tell it the way I felt it at the time.
Gack and I left the park to go hunt down a bus. The heaps of released and variously aged school-children who were also in the park also didn’t seem to have any concerns about any of the adults around them. Trust, in a society that a lot of adults seem to have forgotten about how to do, goes a long way.