By Craig Idlebrook
Web Exclusive - September 21, 2007
It's Tuesday, so it must be playgroup-time.
I love taking my 15-month old daughter to the Tuesday playgroup at our local church. It's a chance for her to socialize with her chubby peers and for my wife to take a couple of hours off.
Tuesday playgroup is the only playgroup around where I feel welcome. All the other playgroups in town are actually called "moms' groups", which presents me with a gender barrier. I once approached a mom about crashing one of these groups; she didn't say no, but she didn't sound overly enthusiastic about the idea, either. In the end, I'm not brave enough to try it.
While I haven't seen many dads at the church playgroup, at least they aren't barred by the playgroup's title, so I try taking Clara out on Tuesdays every chance I get.
Going to playgroup is never a sure thing because it's tricky getting my daughter to leave the house with just me. If I play my cards wrong in trying to extract Clara from her mother, they will both end up sobbing, so I've learned not to force the issue.
But today, Clara's good to go. All I have to do is make a few car noises and she waddles over to the front door and loudly air-kisses her mother goodbye with a smack of her tiny hand, like a movie star leaving a party.
By the time we get to the car, Clara's practically vibrating. This is, in part, because she knows I'll play Johnny Mathis's version of "Sleigh Ride", her favorite, on continuous repeat all the way over.
Luckily, it's a short ride. As we park at the church lot, I remind myself to be polite and try talking to the other adults in the group. This is the one downside to Tuesday playgroup. I love playing with the other toddlers, but I usually find conversations with their parents to be a wonderful cure for insomnia.
Playgroup parents have little in common with each other besides the fact that we've all produced offspring. Since it's not polite to talk about how we accomplished this, there's nothing left to discuss but the offspring themselves. This means all conversation essentially boils down to an endless comparison of notes:
Parent 1: "Lisa started crawling at nine months."
Parent 2: "Really? Jesse started around ten."
Parent 1: "No kidding."
Parent 2: "Yup."
A conversation like this might drag on indefinitely, and can only be broken up by a child falling down and crying. Most playgroup veterans seem happy to talk like this, but I can't carry the conversation for more than a few seconds. Either I blissfully stare at my daughter and forget I'm interacting with someone or I try in vain to focus on the conversation until drool trickles out of my mouth.
But when we step into the church hall, we find a joyous surprise: There aren't any other parents inside, only the playgroup leader. This might have led to even more strained conversation, except the playgroup leader happens to be Clara's grandmother. I couldn't be happier.
Neither can Clara. She soon grasps the idea that she has both Grammy and a room full of new toys all to herself and she quickly gets to work.
What follows is the most focused and complex game my daughter has ever initiated. First, she takes out all the animals from the toy box and hands them to Grammy, giving each animal an appropriate sound. The sounds may not be species-specific, (all the snarling tigers sound like housecats, except for a few that sound like dogs), but they're pretty good for a 15-month old.
Once they're all lined up, Clara gives each of them something to eat or drink on little plastic plates and cups. The menu, restricted to items in her food vocabulary, consists of chocolate, apples, milk, tea, and tofu. Tea turns out to be a particular favorite among the tigers, while one of the rubber ducks (piloted by Clara's wild imagination) prefers munching on the face of a small plastic boy.
Grammy and I watch in bemused, if slightly horrified, silence, only occasionally stirring to respond to requests to hand over the next plate of tofu for the elephants. Such a game could never exist in a room full of toddlers; the tigers would have been scattered to the four winds in seconds. Nor could I have shielded Clara from such intrusions; I would have been too distracted by well-meaning parents asking me when Clara first let us put a hat on her (the answer: never).
Maybe, at least for this week, socialization with one's peers is overrated.