September is here and most parents’ thoughts are in that back-to-school zone. In the back-to-school zone, there is mainly relief that the six-week marathon of juggling annual leave and entertaining a crowd tougher than a particularly grumpy Simon Cowell is finally over. For anyone whose child is starting school or pre-school, there will also be nerves about what to expect, separation anxiety and making friends.
Because, yes, just as you have found your own mum-friend groove, your offspring is going to throw the whole thing into disarray. They are going to start having their own opinions about who they want to hang out with, meaning that your carefully curated group of like-minded parents is about to be broken up.
I couldn’t wait for my son to stop doing side-by-side playing and start engaging with his ‘peers’ as they’re always called at pre-school. Peers makes them sound like a group of badly-behaved lords, but that’s probably a fair description. Nevertheless, the first games where they didn’t all run off in different directions and instead played together felt like a watershed moment – the end of the toddler-hood era.
However, their end of era is also your end of era. I’d spent the previous few years clinging to a group of mum mates that didn’t make me want to scream or feel any worse about my parenting style. My mum mates had become people that – gasp – I’d be friends with even if we didn’t share the connection of our children being the same age.
It can be difficult, then, when your child starts to form their own connections and you have to accept they might not form connections with the children of the people you have pre-vetted and are happy to stare down the barrel of soft-play with once a week.
For me, there was another realisation: if he’s starting to make friends, he’s also going to start falling out with them. He’ll start picking who he wants to play with in the park, who he doesn’t and – worse – they’re going to start picking or not picking him.
Watching a group of three- and four-year-olds work out their friendship dynamics is as excruciating as living through this during your own school days. Actually, it’s probably worse, because you have greater awareness but still zero control over the outcome.
You stand and watch, hoping everyone is invited to join in with games, and with no real idea about when you should step in and when you should let them work things out for themselves. At playdates, the cries of ‘so-and-so took my car/ball/toy’ start to reverberate around your house and you have to explain the concept of sharing (again) to people who genuinely think you using your phone timer to judge when it’s their turn to hold the toy is how playing works. Meanwhile, you’re just hoping the other kid’s mum agrees with the phone-timer system you came up with in a panic.
Nevertheless, you soon start to recognise the tropes: the natural leader that everyone likes; the fun and boisterous one that takes any game a bit too far; the quiet one who looks startled during the shrieking games. Then there’s the one that’s a bit of a snitch – that’s mine. As they all slowly work out who they are and how they interact with the world, you hope, heart in mouth, that they’re both accepted, and accepting of others, for who they are.
And, if you’re really honest, you hope the ones they accept the most are the ones with the parents you can most easily gossip and mainline coffee with for the next few years.
You can follow Helen on Instagram and Twitter at @itshelenwhitaker and @helbobwhitaker respectively. Helen’s debut novel, The School Run, about the comic lengths parents will go to for a school place, is out now.
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