On entering new premises my baby-man immediately gets going on making friends, trying to infiltrate any gang of little people already in situ. It's an impressive effort, a trait he has inherited from his equally outgoing dad.
My husband, or Mr. R. as I like to call him, and I keenly get stuck into the drinks and nibbles safe in the knowledge that our firstborn is scoring cute points with his mispronounced words, pudding bowl hair and dirty cackle of a laugh, but both of us know this will be a short-lived hiatus.
The other kids dutifully do the responsible thing and look after him as instructed by the elders, but give it an hour and they're marching downstairs to announce that my little darling has wrecked their Lego Ninjago or he's standing in front of the TV or he's pulled all the clothes out of the drawers. Meet Fergus, aka Bobble, the loud, boisterous, cheeky, bull-headed, super-strong exhibitionist that is my son... polite circles would call him "lively," but to other kids he can be just plain annoying.
I see it over and over again. After various attempts to keep up, Bobble soon realizes that his mono-syllabic chat and compromised hand-eye coordination is not cutting it with his newfound posse so he resorts to extreme attention-seeking behavior.
I completely empathize with the 5-year-old girls who got cheesed off when he plonked himself in the middle of their sophisticated imaginary princess castle, and I pity his exasperated cousin attempting to read quietly with Bobble pressed hard up against him. I fear for the mild-mannered kids on the playgroup trampoline and physically shield the tiny babies he longs to hold tight. But most of all, I feel for Bobble.
He's akin to a big-hearted, lumbering Labrador puppy who hasn't grasped the notion of personal space and doesn't yet know his own strength. Not everyone loves dogs as much as I do. I try really hard to teach him tenderness but when the excitement of new people and places causes testosterone to rush around his little body, no one can stand in the way of his fun.
Sometimes the only option is to extract him (kicking and screaming) from a situation or, as I learned recently, take him out of his depth. I witnessed a rare show of vulnerability from Bobble at a 3-year-old girl's birthday party. Far from his cocky little self, he clung to my side, talked slowly and quietly and paid 100 percent attention to the party host. He was seriously outnumbered; everyone was floating about in Elsa from Frozen dresses and he'd never played pass-the-parcel before. Groups of girls can be really intimidating, even at 3 years old. Men are from Mars and all that...
I know Bobble means business when he does his "bum dance"... a signature move that precedes any kind of physical combat with another small person. I have learned to make judgement calls on whether he's in the ring with an equal opponent. If he's punching above his weight I let him carry on. It's trickier when he's the instigator of a wrestling match with a kid not versed in play fighting. Do I pull him away? Do I wait for the other parent to intervene? Do I wait for the other one to lamp him?
When the other parent stands next to me on the sidelines, I feel a sense of relief; it's a sign that Bobble has met his match. Let them be. We know that roughhousing is play. We know that no one is being mean. We know that they'll pick themselves up and dust themselves off. We know it's loud. We know it might look brutal. We know some people will think we're lazy, arrogant, irresponsible parents.
But we also know that spirited kids like Bobble are just programmed to be on or off, there is no moderate setting; believe me, I've pressed every button! Most of his days are spent laughing, rolling around and gasping with delight at the world. Bobble is a true lover of life; no one stays annoyed at him for long.
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