There are two types of parents in the world: those who enjoy taking their children to play groups and those who would rather gouge out their own eyes with a rusty spoon than spend two hours in a dusty church hall surrounded by rampaging toddlers and colicky babies.
If you are the former, well done! You win at parenting and I salute you. If you are the latter, here’s a handy guide of what to expect at your average toddler group and how to avoid the common pitfalls.
The first time I ever set foot in a toddler group I made a fatal mistake: I tried to start a conversation with a group of child-minders.
Not that I could tell they were child-minders – they looked like a group of mums with young children. After a couple of awkward minuets of conversation from my side (I tend to just talk and talk and talk when nervous), I asked one of them how old their child was. “He’s not mine, I’m a child-minder” came the reply, and then the group continued with their own conversation while I sat there feeling like a spare part.
At every playgroup, there are specific groups of parents who tend to stick together. The grandparents, the Child-minders and nannies, the group of mums who met at an NCT group in pregnancy and the group of friends who run the group and sometimes act like the mafia. Then there are the mums who know no-body, but can’t seem to break into any of the above cliques. They only tend to last a few weeks before they can no longer take the crushing loneliness of sitting on a mat that stinks of feet while their baby throws toys at them; lets face it, if you are going to sit alone and watch your child play then you may as well do it in the comfort of your own home, in your pajamas with This Morning on in the background.
Making friends at playgroups can be a harrowing experience.
In some ways, it’s like being back at school yourself and the camaraderie you expect from parents who are all in the same boat doesn’t really tend to exist. It can be really difficult when you get groups of parents going who have known each other for years and tend to be quite insular as a group.
So what’s the best tactic to employ? Smile, drink tea and try to make small talk with the people who look as uncomfortable as you do and eventually, if you are lucky, you will find a kindred sprit or two. Even I managed to meet a couple of people at playgroups who I am still friends with 12 years on, so it can happen.
Oh, you didn’t realise there was a designated ‘snack time’? You thought the pile of biscuits precariously popped in the kitchen hatch was a free for all?
While snack time may not be mandated, other parents are watching you. It is an unwritten rule that you are not supposed to stuff your child’s face with free biscuits the second you walk in the door because a) it stops them whinging and b) you didn’t have time to feed them because this god-awful group starts at 9am.
If you let your child eat ten custard creams in the time it takes you for you to awkwardly find a chair and take off your coats, other parents will be judging you harshly.
Or applauding your laissez faire approach to breakfast but believe me, it won’t go unnoticed. Best to wait at least until you have managed to remove your child’s wellington boots before letting them tuck in.
Of course, if your child is the one who refuses to stand anywhere but underneath the kitchen hatch whinging for biscuits there is little you can do but avoid all eye contact with other parents and resolve to bring some biscuits along with you the next time you go.
You will probably have spent a good part of your child’s life so far saying the words “share nicely” every time you or anyone else plays with them.
Can I just let you down gently and tell you that you have been wasting your breath, because young children live in the moment. If they see something they want, they will do everything in their power to get it. On the flip side, if they have something they like, no one is taking it from them. Even if they don’t like it that much, the second they get a whiff of another child wanting a turn with it, it will become the Holy Grail of Toys, never to be parted with.
Take this example: Child A has a fire engine. Until Child B saw this, he was happily playing with the stacking bricks. Child B has never expressed an interest in fire engines at all, but now he has seen Child A with one, he suddenly loves them and he must play with this particular one, RIGHT NOW.
Child B is two years old, so instead of walking over to Child B and saying “I say old chap, may I have a turn with the shiny red fire engine now?” He simply walks over to him, grabs the fire engine from his hands, possibly throwing in a kick or a slap for good measure, because all young children hate each other. Sometimes the Child A in this situation will retaliate, because he does not want to give up his toy and this will escalate to a scene from Fight Club as the children’s parents look on in horror saying “Share nicely, darling” as they try to rip apart to scrapping two year olds.
In a playgroup situation there will also be a Child C, Child D and a Child E who will all pile in with tantrums, teeth, fists and feet as the shiny red fire engine who no one actually cared about before has now become the Toy of Toys and must be played with.
Which leads me neatly onto…
You know the saying that toddlers are like mini drunks? Have you ever seen a busy town center at pub closing time on a Friday night? Close your eyes and imagine Child A and Child B having it out over the last can of Fanta in the Kebab shop. See? Uncanny.
If you are the unlucky parent who has a hitter, a biter or a scratcher then I feel for you. From ages two to three, my son was a biter. Your child had they toy he wanted? He’d bite them. Your child accidently ran over his foot with the Little Tikes car? He’d bite them too. A child only had to look at him the wrong way for his teeth to sink into their arm and no amount of time outs, naughty steps, gentle parenting techniques or me screaming like a banshee helped. He was just a biter.
Most other parents at playgroups got this, and were actually very sympathetic at the times when I would have a near breakdown after he’d bit once again and I feared I was raising a future psychopath. Some parents judged though, sometimes quite loudly and that stung. It’s never nice to be told your child is the most horrible toddler in the room when you are trying your best to teach them the correct behavior.
Thankfully, he grew out of the behavior as quickly as it started, and I have never, ever judged a parent on their young child’s behavior as so many children bite, hit or scratch others.
Most playgroups have a time set aside for singing nursery rhymes at the end of a session. Don’t fool yourself; this isn’t for the good of the children.
The sole purpose of circle time is so that the children can be contained in one area while the harassed looking volunteers can shove the toys away as quickly as possible so they can finally go home.
If your child is anything like mine, he will have a pathological hatred for sitting still and doesn’t even like nursery rhymes when he has free reign of the iPad. If the thought of having to sit in a circle with other parents and children all happily singing ‘Wind The Bobbin Up’ while your child runs wild trying to un stack the chairs and liberate the tidied up toys from the store cupboard while screaming for more biscuits (see ‘snack time’) fills you with terror, what should you do?
Leave early. Honestly, life is too short and if you have the type of child who will not sit down and sing twenty-two verses of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ then there is not much you can do about it. I spent at least six months of each of my toddlers’ lives persevering with circle time at the end of playgroups and all it did was turn me to drink.
Go to any toddler group for a few weeks on the trot and I am sure you will be asked if you would like to volunteer. Seems a great opportunity to meet new friends, right? Let me tell you something: the answer should always be NO. Please listen to me on this, as I have been there, done that and I still bear the emotional scars.
Helping to run a playgroup is a thankless and joyless task.
There is nothing more awful that opening up a frankly depressing church hall on a rainy Monday morning and having to lug boxes of toys, books and ride on toys out of an overstuffed cupboard while your child trails behind you, intermittently screaming because you are not giving them your undivided attention.
Washing up at playgroups is another reason never to volunteer. You know how your child spat out three, chewed up biscuits into your half finished cup of tea? Well, half the other children did that too and if you find yourself on kitchen duty you will have to wash that up. You get less harsh punishments in prison.
Of course, the worst thing about volunteering is when it’s your turn to do the signing at circle time, which incidentally, will be on your very first day as no one likes doing it and everyone will pick on the new girl. So many nursery rhymes in the world, but when you are faced with twenty preschoolers and their parents staring at you, you mind goes blank and your mouth goes dry. And anyway, even if you could remember the words to ‘Sleeping Bunnies’, you can’t hold a note and you end up mumbling and hoping the ground will swallow you up.
What to do when you and/or your child simply cannot stand playgroups?
You forget them.
It’s fine not to go to any. I give you permission not to. Your child will grow up just fine and you will be happier for not putting yourself through the misery.
This article was written for and published on meetothermums