It’s just gone mid-day-ish and the bus driver at the station nods at me and says ‘Good luck’. I’m in parent mode with two under-fives (the youngest of which having just been a dog — in the way that young children can actually be the things they role play — in the middle of the town centre precinct). The children fly off towards the back of the bus — hence the ‘good luck’ — (I haven’t been on a bus yet with a child who doesn’t do this), and I tell the bus driver I’m already exhausted. We intended to make a trip to a park, but ended up on a bit of a detour (into the ‘castle’ where the princess is, apparently; into the puddles; in search of ice-cream). The bus driver nods.
This is the new year and I’m just starting to turn over in my head plenty of thinking I’ve previously gone through. That is to say, here, thinking on parent mode. I’m a playworker (that always strikes me as something faintly akin to being at an AA meeting when I state it in ways like this!). I’m a playworker first and foremost. I go into parent mode when I have Gack or his cousins around me (because Gack is Gack here, I’m going to call the other children Princess K and Dino-Boy). Those who read here and already know them will know who they are!
I sit in the local Children’s Centre that day with Princess K and Dino-Boy. I take them in to meet a friend who works there whilst we wait for the bus into town. We’ve missed the first bus because Dino-Boy, the youngest, has had the urgent need to examine the fallen mushy red berries on the pavement. None of us know what they are, but we agree there are a lot of red berry trees around that we’ve never noticed before. We’ve missed the bus and the children decide it would be a good idea to take up my suggestion and go wait for the next one, in the warm, in the Children’s Centre. We’re the only ones there and, whilst the children play, I discuss parent mode with my friend.
Of course, on the face of it, there are differences in being a playworker in a play provision (somewhere specifically set by for focusing on children’s play) and being in parent mode. Space, for one thing, comes to mind: that is, physical space where the acts of ‘being playworker’ and ‘being parent’ take place. On the playground, play can be rich; out on the street, in the home, play might not always have this form. We have to also consider ‘head space’ though, or so I’ve been of the opinion for a fair time now. It’s at this point that I need to state clearly enough that I know there are plenty of other things to also think about in parent mode. (Maybe that goes for playworker mode too though?) I know there are considerations of planning ahead in parent mode, of feeding and clothing and sleeping, and issues such as little brother or sister not kicking the shit out of the other sibling just because they feel like it!
However . . . I try and try to keep ‘being playworker’ when out on the street in parent mode. Sometimes it works excellently. There is, for example, great observational interest in how Dino-Boy finds the longest stick with the dangliest end bit and then proceeds to go fishing with it in every muddy puddle he sees in the Cathedral grounds. Some people are not best pleased that he comes within a few feet of inadvertently catching them with the fishing rod, and some people are pleasantly amused by the play. When he’s being a dog, on all fours, in the town centre precinct, I really don’t see anyone else around us (though I know they’re there). It’s fine.
Sometimes, ‘being playworker’ in parent mode has its challenges. When Princess K sees a pink dressing up costume, all shiny and mostly tutu, in the toy shop window, her excitement is just a little way short of being able to communicate with dolphins! ‘Eeeeeeee’ is what I take to mean ‘I need to go see that dress’. She likes shiny, girly, dressy-up: the works. So, OK, let’s go see, but let’s not think about the exit plan from said shop for her little brother a little while later! It’s all very well pointing him the way of the train set because I know that will excite him, but I don’t factor into the equation that the children consider this new and exciting play space to be just that and not, in fact, a shop, with profit margins and so forth.
The shop-keepers are very tolerant of the play though (which, on the whole, is a good thing for owners of a toy shop). I’m just about teetering on the edge of the playworker-parent mode divide: I’m fine with the play, I know the play is play and that the children need to do it right here and right now; I’m also aware though that there’s probably a finite amount of time that can be spent in toy shops not actually buying. If Dino-Boy could stay there all day, poking the battery-operated train engine that goes uphill on the train track, all on its own, all afternoon, I’m sure he would do. Princess K would, no doubt, be more than pleased to knock up an imaginary four course meal in the oversized play kitchen, and she would definitely try on the whole rack of sparkly, shiny princess dresses if the shop-keepers’ tolerances are proven to be of the infinite variety.
The only exit strategy that comes about is one of intense negotiation coupled with a spot of very non-playwork adulteration of the train play. (Maybe I got that one wrong). Maybe what I should have done is just stayed in that shop till the shop-keepers’ visual daggers actually did start to fly my way. Maybe I’ll brave that one out next time. Luckily, Princess K and Dino-Boy are children who are soon stimulated by other things as well (it’s amazing what you can see when you look through a child’s eyes: the glass roof of the shopping centre, how the Christmas lights come down from it, the ride in the glass lift, all the various Christmas trees in the streets, the lights of the ambulance, small yappy dogs with coats on, street musicians, and so on).
Yes, parent mode is exhausting. I bow down to those who do it more often than me. That said though, I often spend hours at a time on my feet on the playground, ‘being playworker’, and my body and my head do tend to hurt from movement (of body and mind). Maybe I’m getting old! Yes, parent mode is exhausting, and so is parent-playworker mode.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been frustrated (and exhausted) at parents who I’ve discussed the idea of ‘boundaries’ with: invariably these conversations are started by those parents who are controlling and not as child-centred as their children might like them to be. ‘Boundaries’ is about the parent, not the child. ‘Boundaries’ is a word that is out of place. A parent of a one year old I used to work with was always adamant that children should be enforced to follow the adult rules, using his own parenting style as a way of working with the school age children we worked with. It used to irritate the hell out of me. Boundaries, rules, control, order: let’s have another way of thinking so that we can realise we’re all on the same planet and can all get on: children and parents alike.
If I use his word here, in my parent-playworker thinking mode, these ‘boundaries’ are very flexible. Or rather, something like these slippages of who’s currently shouting loudest are flexible. In reality, if we’re thinking in terms of ‘who’s in control’ I don’t think the balance tips my way. Sure, I get the children on and off the bus, make sure they don’t walk off into the road, make judgement calls on moments when they can’t resolve things for themselves (I’m talking things like ‘Come on, we all need to get off to the toilet before your sister bursts’, not things like full-on fist-fights in the High Street or the like); however, the children are largely in control of the decisions on what happens next, they decide on what they play and where, they tell me in no uncertain terms when they’re bored of somewhere. It’s up to parent-playworker me to allow time for unknown futures to happen in the day.
So, sitting talking about parent mode with a friend in the Children’s Centre, whilst waiting for the bus because we were examining curious mushy red berries on the pavement, led me to thinking on parent mode, playworker mode, parent-playworker mode and so forth. Later that day, getting back on the bus at the bus station, and with a knowing nod from the driver, I sit down at the back with the children and realise that yes, this is exhausting, isn’t it? Yes, though what a privilege.