I am at soft play with my two boys. The newborn is dozing against my chest in his baby carrier. The toddler, who is today a stegosaurus, is rampaging free among the giant foam structures. I have a fresh coffee and a list of spooky subreddits to read on my phone. We are all, in our own way, in our happy places.
And then it happens. A toddler stand-off.
The first I know of it is a drop in temperature and a prickling at the back of my neck. Until now, my almost-three-year-old has been happily playing alone in a green plastic thingy, reciting the first line of every nursery rhyme he knows (as he does every hour of every day, forever and ever, amen). But, lo! Now, a much younger toddler is wobbling towards the green thingy, staring my son down with cross-eyed intent.
Time freezes. It is as though a toddler saloon door has slapped open and a toddler honkytonk pianist has stopped playing. Despite myself, I shiver. Then the little kid collapses awkwardly beside my son – who absolutely cannot believe the temerity of the child – and starts making himself comfortable.
“No!” cries my son. “Herbie’s! Get out!” Then he attempts to shoo the child away, as though he were a fly.
That’s it. “Herbie!” I call out, sternly. “Be nice, please. These toys are for everybody.” My son treats me to a betrayed glare, then slinks off to play instead with a big squashy orange thingy. “Herbie’s,” he whispers bitterly to himself.
I’ve known so many dicks in my time and I’m certain these dimwits did not learn particularly to share as children, or to respect boundaries, or to mind people’s feelings
We’ve talked about sharing. More so now he has a brother. When older children come to play at our house, my son is desperate to join in. He will excitedly explain to them, in his toddler-pidgin and whether or not they’re interested, the complex sub-plots of Paw Patrol. He will leap around the house with them, in beads and crowns, when they play fairy princesses. But if one of them even looks at one of his toys, he will go all big-eyed and whimper, “Herbie’s,” at me until the kid’s parent gets embarrassed and gets the kid to put it back.
Sharing is, I feel, a vital first step towards growing up to not be a dick. I’ve known so many dicks in my time – dicks who impose themselves, who have no empathy; dicks who feel the world owes them something, so they stick their hand up its skirt and call it frigid when it complains, for example – and I’m certain these dimwits did not learn particularly to share as children, or to respect boundaries, or to mind people’s feelings. I do not want my son to be one of these people.
So, we play sharing games. I invite him to share the sofa with me to read books or watch TV. When he’s playing with a toy, I’ll take it “for Mummy’s turn” and return it to him “for Herbie’s turn”. “It’s good to share, isn’t it, Herbie?” I’ll say. “Old MacDonald had a farm,” he will inform me. I don’t know if I’m getting through.
Back at soft play, the interloping toddler has long since gone off with his dad for a Millie’s Cookie, but now a bigger, meaner-looking kid has entered the fray. He spots my son, who is bouncing happily on the squashy orange thing, and shoulders his way over to him.
“Herbie’s,” my son begins, but the big kid pushes him over. “Mine,” he says, snatching the squashy orange thing. “Oh,” my son replies, as though there has been some terrible misunderstanding about scones.
“Mine,” the big kid says, bouncing the squashy orange thing – occasionally on my son’s head. “Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine.”
As I clamber ungracefully into the soft-play arena, all coffee and baby, to rescue my son from very eventual concussion, he looks up at me with a terrible understanding.
“Herbie sharing?” he asks.
What have I done?