If The Kids Are Alright, What's Wrong With Me?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The weather was sweltering. It was hot, humid and sticky in the house so decamping to the garden seemed the perfect solution. One of the many advantages of working from home (and wireless internet access), aside from the lack of a commute, is that, should you so wish, you can work from any room in the house. Neatly ensconced at your 'proper' desk, propped up in bed, slouched on the sofa, concealed in the bathroom (okay, we won't go there) or, as I had chosen to be that particular day, comfortably seated in the garden. 

Under the shade of the gazebo and in the lee of the ancient vines … what? Oh, alright, it's more of a hut and the vines are only a few years old but this year, admittedly for the first time, we do actually have some grapes growing on them. What we do with them when they're ripe, well that's another story, but work with me here … Where was I? Oh, yes, the gazebo. Right. With the birds singing away, the odd frog plopping his way to the cover of the elephant ears (it's a plant, okay?), and nothing else but the sound of a gentle breeze rustling through the sycamore tree, it couldn't have been more perfect. The ultimate restful, creative working environment. 

And so it remained for about twenty minutes. Until they woke up next door. Now let me begin by saying that our new-ish neighbours next door are delightful people. Friendly, polite and respectful of those around them. The sort of people that aren't in and out of your house three times a day, but that you know are there should you need them. As you are for them. But they have four children. Four very active, boisterous and, as has been proved this summer, outdoorsy children. From the moment they get up to the minute they go to bed those kids are outside playing. Okay, that might be an exaggeration but when you're trying to work, four children jumping up and down on a trampoline, kicking a football, whacking a tennis ball and tearing about isn't entirely helpful. Now, I do realise that once I chose to work outside of the confines of my own home, with its thick sound-proof walls, I passed up any chance of controlling my environment. And I also know that all this is perfectly normal behaviour for young, active children. And that their parents should probably be applauded for raising such energetic youngsters. But sometimes, when you just want to sit in the quiet oasis of your garden, surrounded by nature and listening to birdsong, it's just a tad distracting to have a little head (however adorable it may be) bobbing up over the wall every four seconds.

If things stayed at that level, I could probably ignore it. But, the thing is, sooner or later one or other of the boys upsets his little sister. Either by making her join in when she'd rather sing lullabies to her Teletubbies doll, or laughing at her very young attempts at playing Swingball. And when she gets upset, do we ever know about it! It's like Violet Elizabeth Bott all over again. Boy, can she scream. She screams when she gets bossed around, when she falls over, when she can't do what she want, when she's feeling left out and sometimes when she just feels like it. And it's never very long into a play session before something sets her off. She's very young, of course, and it's not really her fault, but  somewhere along the line she's learned that if she screams loud and often enough, she gets her own way. And so she keeps doing it. 

Now never having had siblings to compete with, or children of my own to raise, I'm just not tuned in to this method of attention seeking. And neither am I used to this much noise. As far as I can tell, they're not extraordinarily noisy kids. Probably a bit above average, racket-wise, I'd guess. But loud enough when you're trying to enjoy a nice bit of alone-time.

Let me stop here. Because I reckon you all have me down as some monstrous individual who hates kids and who doesn't understand why anyone would choose to have them. I'm not.  I do get a bit hacked off with that whole militant mum thing where those of us who don't have kids are looked at with a sort of pity, as if we will never truly understand existence. I like kids but, as someone said recently, I don't really know what to do with them. You see I am an only child. My dad was an only child. My mum was one of two but didn't really spend much time in the company of her little sister. I have only two younger cousins and have spent probably eight days in their company in the last 30 years.  Although I had plenty of friends, I never lived in a street full of kids. I am simply not used to having children around. 

I believe that kids are fantastic. Wonderful. Our future. Full of hope and innocence and wonder. But I do not have a maternal streak. I have never been all gooey-eyed at the sight of babies. Of course I marvel at their miniscule fingernails and the fact that these tiny creatures will grow up into fabulous, flawed, clever, inventive adults.That they will develop bad habits, make things, fall in love, fall out of love, be loved, be heart-broken, have crushes, discover music, use technology of which I cannot even dream and perhaps go on to be world famous or a sporting hero. That fascinates me – all that promise, all that life to live. But I've never felt the urge to have a child of my own, cradle one in my arms even. Once I offered to help a young mother who was laden down with shopping bags and wielding a pushchair complete with gurgling baby, some help getting on to a bus. I was astonished to find that, rather than allow me to carry her bags, or let down the push-chair, she handed me the baby. I was terrified I would drop it, break it or something or that, rather like my auntie's dog was prone to do, it would see the fear in my eyes and begin acting up. As it happened I was able to return the baby to its mother without incident, but it did little to encourage me to motherhood. When I was younger, my mum was part of the local baby sitting circle. Sometimes she used to take me with her. Often I would go willingly. This probably gave her false hope that I would somehow develop that missing maternal streak. In truth I only went to the houses with lots of books to read and a cat to play with. I'm good with cats, you see. Even cats whose owners warned they were unsociable would usually end up curled on my lap. But children are a different story.

I'm immediately uncomfortable when required to pass comment on someone's new baby.It's lovely when someone has a baby. I've celebrated when my friends have announced they're expecting. I've sent cards and special gifts to mark births. And I've meant every bit of it. But when it's the baby of someone you don't really know, when everyone's expected to queue up, examine the infant and say something appropriate, I'm usually lost for words. Because 'Oh yes, lovely' doesn't seem to satisfy. And I hate to rely on the cliches like 'hasn't he got his daddy's nose?' Besides which, I tend to  agree with my dad who reckons all babies look like Winston Churchill. Or Mussolini. Sometimes both. And I wish parents begin colour-coding their children like they used to when I was little. All this neutral stuff makes it very difficult, without close examination or a name to go on (and sometimes even that doesn't help much) whether that lovely mop of golden curls belongs to a he or a she. And believe me, as someone who was once mistaken for a boy by a department store Santa, you have no idea of the long-term trauma a mix-up might cause your little one. (I blame my auntie and her over-zealous hairdressing 'skills' for that one, by the way).

Now,I might be very inexperienced around kids, but that doesn't mean I haven't learned a thing or two about them. I know, for example, that the first thing being in the company of a child teaches you is just how much (or little ) patience you have. That children, even when not in possession of an ice lolly tend towards stickiness. That they all have, to a boy and girl, very good memories. And they are very good mimics. Express any bad word or bad habit in their company? They will remember it and they will use it. At the most inopportune moment.

And that's really what I find the most distracting. Okay, I do get a bit irritated by the noise, of some kids, but I really get sidetracked when I start to wonder 'why the parents aren't doing anything'. You see, I rarely blame kids for the way they behave, well not little ones at least, because I know that everything they do has either been taught to them, or simply never discouraged, by the adults in their lives.

I know that, if you've children of your own, you'll probably think I have no right to judge anyone's parenting skills. I have no experience of them (aside from having once been a child, of course). And yes, probably typically for a childless person, I am prone to form an opinion on the good and bad parenting I observe. I know this is unfair. After all, it's a lot easier to parent in theory than in practice. But then I remember what an ex-professional footballer friend said, when asked whether he minded non-players critiquing players. "You don't have play the piano to know whether or not one is being played in tune." Quite so. So I feel, at least a little, validated in at least having an opinion. I do try to be reasonable and I would never dream of actually telling a parent what I think they are doing wrong. I might, of course, roll my eyes, perhaps mutter under my breath a bit. But I do shudder when I see parents using foul language in front of their kids then whacking them for using the same words. And I have seen it any number of times. 

After all, children who drop litter and teenagers who sprawl all over war memorials didn't invent that behaviour themselves. And I know that the little lad at the nursery around the corner didn't learn the kind of insult he once hurled at me from watching In The Night Garden. So, when I think about what some kids get up to, I realise that those children next door are veritable angels in human form by comparison.

And I know I'm being unreasonable. It's not like they are misbehaving, it's just that I'm not used to kids being … kids. And, of course, you probably don't get this with kids who spend all day in front of the telly or hooked up to a gaming system. I wonder whether they'd like to borrow the Playstation …