God save me from perfect children, and parents that make them that way. I stayed over at the house of an acquaintance with two children, who I haven't seen for some time. A two-year gap between visits should have told me that instinct kept me away.
We arrived: me, two boys and a smelly dog.
"She'll have to go in the kennel with ours," the Acquaintance revealed.
"Your one won't let her in." I saw the terrier she owns bare its teeth at my poor Labrador with learning difficulties. We agreed on the garage. I made a noise about maybe going home later on, instead of the sleepover we'd planned.
"Oh you can't do that. I've arranged for a few of the others you haven't seen to call over when the kids are in bed." She snapped the kettle on with a decisive click. When I sit down to a coffee with a friend, I know my lads won't corral any child in a headlock, they know they'd have me to deal with afterwards, but my two turned up at the kitchen door jamb five minutes after I put a cup of filter to my lips. This is a sure sign for me, something isn't right.
"Leave them to it," she put a hand on my forearm. "They have to get on with it." I gave one of my 'murder you later' smiles -- to her, but I went with her dictate. They turned up again five minutes later.
"He thinks we're going to break things," one of the boys told me as we walked down the corridor together.
"They've a lot of stuff that isn't for playing with," the Acquaintance advised. I walked into a room: sheet music on a stand, different instruments; a purpose-built unit filled with sports equipment; two shelves for trophies and medals. One for the boy and one for the girl. A timetable pinned to the back of the door.
Prison. For Children. I don't care how gifted a child is, they don't need their bedroom turning into a classroom. The reason my lads couldn't wait to get out is there were no toys, apart from Lego, which they love. But the boy didn't want them playing with it.
"I have to make it myself," he piped.
"Didn't you bring anything with you?" Acquaintance asked me.
That night I drank de-alcoholised wine, while some women I barely knew talked about the leagues they were involved with, through their offspring. I felt exhausted just listening. Their children are all-singing, all-dancing, sporty, clever bests.
What I didn't say, to anyone, was how often I've met pushed children who grow up to be edgy adults. One sure way to turn an interest into a phobia is to give children too hard a shove. I expect emails from parents of perfect little beings who 'just love what they do'. I will answer: children like to please their parents and if they see achievement as the way to get approval, they'll burst blood vessels and pain barriers to bring home baubles and certificates for shelving and framing.
Driving home, wrecked and raging, one of my sons said: "When they come to our house, they'll have to follow our rules."
"What ones?" I asked.
"Playing. Making things up."
I felt the 24-hour neck brace snap off.