A few months ago, I took my daughter to Junglerama (one of those indoor kids playland places), which is one my favourite things to do with her as it’s a great excuse for me to play with her on the giant jungle gym frames and all those inflatable toys I was barred from in my 20’s for being “too old” for.
We were jumping around on the bouncy castle when a little girl about the same age as my daughter asked if she could play too. I said “sure”, there was plenty of room for her on the bouncy castle as it was just us at that point, and I figured she’d just bounce around and do her own thing.
After bouncing around with us for a minute or so, she asked if we wanted to see how to climb up the inflatable slide. It was a bit of a random question but I looked at my daughter and asked if she wanted to go, and she was keen so I thought why not…she’s usually just hanging out with me when I have her on the weekend so it would be nice for her to play with some other kids.
We went over to the big inflatable slide and the little girl who invited us over was climbing with another friend, so my daughter and I slid down with them a few times and they were all having fun. I thought “cool, they’re having a neat little random friendship moment”, and I tried to see out the corner of my eye if the parents of the two little girls were around but didn’t notice anyone immediately obvious, so I hoped that if they were watching that I didn’t look like this weird creeper guy. After a few more rounds of sliding I was getting tired, but also a bit conscious of the fact that this may look a bit dodgy so I told the girls I needed a break (which I did, kids and their energy levels!) and tried to divert my daughter back over to the bouncy castle.
However, the two little girls followed us and wanted to keep playing, and grabbed my hands in a ring-a-rosie circle and wanted to jump around with me. My internal conversation started getting really worried now – physical contact with strange children initiated by them! Arrrgh! My Looking-like-a-creep-o-meter was going crazy by now, but at the same time I was thinking “ok, there’s nothing dodgy going on here, these kids just want to play and it’s nice for my daughter to have someone else to play with when we’re hanging out…” However, the ‘looking like a creep’ feeling won this internal debate so I tried to whisk my daughter away under the pretenses of getting some lunch but the girls wanted to play tag now…”…tag?” “yeah, you chase us, you’re in!”
My daughter was already off running away with them, so I thought “ah bugger it” and half-heartedly (ok, probably two-thirds-heartedly) chased after them, thinking that I was going to get accosted any minute by their parents (which I wouldn’t have blamed them for doing at all). We ended up playing this game where they all threw ball-pit balls at me while I tried to shoo them away, which was out in the middle of the play area so I was hoping by that point the parents of the two little girls could see that I wasn’t some weirdo creeper (look, I brought my own daughter with me! I’m a legit parent!)
I finally managed to find a break in our game and ask my daughter if she was hungry, and as soon as the answer was in the affirmative I took my cue to escape this innocent-yet-uncomfortable situation and get us some lunch. Part of me was relieved that was over, but at the same time I was questioning why I was feeling awkward in the first place given it was all innocent and harmless fun.
Being a male and a single dad, I’m very much aware of how other parents, other people and society in general may view an adult male interacting with kids like this. I know too that, as a father I’d be watching pretty closely if my daughter was playing like that with a stranger (not that there’s much of a risk of that happening with my clingy daughter!). But at the same time these are the same perspectives that can cause men shy away from roles like teaching, especially early childhood teaching, which limits the number of male role models kids will engage with in their schooling years.
As a member of the community, and one who can feel a bit isolated in the parenting space, I don’t know whether i’m supposed to be more ‘on guard’ and closed to situations like this, which I think would ultimately be detrimental to both my daughter and myself.
A few days after this happened, I put the question out on my blog’s Facebook page to other dads and parents, asking for their perspective and whether they’ve had any similar experiences.
The responses were interesting – and were the most to any post I’d had on the page to date. Some parents spoke of either themselves or their male partners being in similar situations, and having the same issues of feeling uneasy or worried about the perceptions of their parents or others that something dodgy was going on. Some suggested solutions for managing these situations, such as locating the parents straight away (which can be tricky if they’re off somewhere else) or explaining to your children that you can’t play with other children as a rule. While these are the ‘safer’ options, I feel that these place the burden of proving ‘safety’ on men and reduce the spontaneity of an innocent play situation.
Other issues were raised: does it close off certain experiences for your children? Does the media and/or society portray interactions between men and young children in these situations as something to be suspicious of (while acknowledging the reality of the dangers out there)? And does it punish dads and other males for being actively engaged with their kids and others, and does it prevent men from pursuing careers where they would be caring for children, such as childcare/teaching due to the risk of this kind of perception?
I’ve only been in the parenting game for 3 and a half years now (and over two of those in 1 Player mode) so my experience in this area is admittedly a bit limited. If you’re a Dad (or a male in general) have you been in this situation before? How did you feel about it, and what did you do? And if you’re a female/mother, have you been in this situation? What are your thoughts?