This week I channeled my inner David Attenborough to investigate a very special part of ‘Life on Earth’ in a little church hall. Back in the day they used to call it ‘Mother and Toddlers’ but that would be far too prescriptive these days. In fact, as a new grandfather I was made to feel very welcome by the mums, dads, grandmothers, grandfathers, church workers and child minders who were all in attendance.
You would have thought having had 4 children of my own that this would be a very natural activity, picking up where I left off 25 years ago, a bit like riding a bike. As we picked up my granddaughter, plugging her into a car seat that looked like it had been designed by NASA, I must admit to feeling ever so slightly nervous.
These first outings, or babysitting events, when the parents are not on hand can make new grandparents feel anxious. All the way in the car we kept telling ourselves that this was daft because we had done this millions of times with our own kids so we knew what we were doing but that didn’t seem to help as much as it should have.
Walking in with ‘the new girl’ I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was then that I realised, that all those years ago, I had taken the term ‘Mother and Toddlers’ quite literally. It suddenly hit me that this might actually have been the first time I had wholeheartedly attended one of these events rather than just being the taxi service back and fore.
Of course, I should point out that although I’m talking about this like it was a solo trip we did have back up in the form of Grammy, an experienced old hand at this type of thing. My daughter loves me but she’s not going to risk me being in sole charge of her new child is she?
Grammy might have known what was coming but I was quite taken by surprise. The first thing I noticed was the noise. Lots of kids equals lots of noise. This did not go unnoticed by my granddaughter as well. For the first 10 minutes we clung to each other until we got used to it and decided to explore. I nominated Grammy to take charge while I headed for the refreshments section.
Fair play, I was expecting squash and rich tea biscuits, but I was presently surprised to find really good proper coffee and plenty of fresh chocolate cake. I stopped for a moment to work it out in my head. At only £1 per child for the session, even just thinking in terms of a coffee break I was already up on the deal.
15 minutes into the adventure, armed with a recyclable coffee cup and a piece of cake, I had a chance to sit and observe the goings on. Now the strange thing is that with all those children there, the only one I was really looking at was ours. I watched her face as she watched all of the others. I could tell that this was really having an effect and not just a little confusion. She has lots of uncles and aunties who fuss around her and when I’m with her it’s not exactly quiet, but this was on a completely different size and scale.
One of the first things that happened was that as she sat in a little walker, literally finding her feet, another slightly older toddler walked up to her. Her initial reaction was to look him in the eye, smile and then reach out and grab his dummy. This did not go down at all well. Grammy and I grabbed the dummy and gave it back as soon as we could but not before the other kid had bashed our little angel in retribution. It was the look on her face that struck me. She didn’t cry but she was surprised, and it seemed to me she was trying to process what had just gone on.
In her world she reaches for things like my glasses or anything I’m holding, and I give it to her and laugh. This was a very different experience. I also realised this was the first time in life, and I realise sadly this isn’t true for every child, but this was the first time someone had been anything other than completely kind to her. But she has to learn etiquette, and also how to stand up for herself, and sometimes the only way to learn, even for us oldies, is the hard way.
As she started to relax into the morning I took a timeout to see what else was going on. Some kids were clinging to their carers, others were rushing around from one play station to the next, driving round on buggies and tricycles. Some were quiet, others were shouting. I also got a chance to look at the carers. Some were obviously new mums, others had a couple of kids with them, others were grandparents like us.
What I noticed was how much affect we can have on our offspring. One of the phrases I heard pretty often in the room was ’you need to share’. It seemed the most natural thing for a lot of kids to collect as many toys as possible and keep them away from everyone else. As they were told and shown that ‘caring is sharing’ I couldn’t help noticing quite a few of them weren’t completely convinced that they should give up their prized possessions. These are important lessons that can be painful to learn but its something we are all have a responsibility to help impart to the next generation unless we want the future to be a disaster. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.
Then we got ready for the finale, the singing session. The children who had been before knew exactly what to do and all made a mad grab to the box of instruments. Some would walk away with an armful of drums, tambourines, sleigh bells and maracas leaving the slow shy and smaller kids to return empty handed. It wasn’t long before everyone had been told they had to share and before we started every child had an instrument. It turned out there were plenty to go around, even the grownups had them.
There is something magical about singing together and you can see the smiles on everyone face. There is also the sound that only children toys can make. There is a famous American TV show that regularly records classic tracks with them.
Have a listen to this with Mariah Carey
So, me and my little girl are on a journey again. I wonder who will learn the most?