Balls-up in the ball pool?

Dot writes: Hugh is not a well boy. Last week we postponed Frank’s birthday party because I had gone down with a cold and swollen glands. This week we cancelled it because, with beautiful timing, both boys started to stream with snot on Friday. Frank is breathing through his mouth and has that dirty look around the lower face that children get when they are too young to blow their noses, but Hugh is really miserable: he spent two prolonged periods last night unable to sleep, with his breath whistling and heaving, coughing phlegmily and crying for his mum (when I turned up he switched to crying for milk, and then to have the light on, and then to be in the big bed, and then he gave up because he didn’t even have the energy for sustained whining). This would be worth a post in itself, but I’m not sure how much more I have to say about snot, other than that I would like it to go away and stop coating my sons. Instead I present it as a lengthy preamble to the following awkward moment for my command of parenting etiquette:

It’s a gorgeous day, but because of the aforementioned snot I decided to avoid the playgound in favour of somewhere warm and humid, and for the customary Sunday outing took the boys to the Sealife Centre in Bray. Hugh looked at all the fish with interest though without running as fast as normal. Then he ventured a very brief plunge in the ball-pool. Launching himself back towards the edge of the pool, his arm landed on another little boy. It was an accident, quite slow and can’t have hurt, but the other little boy saw fit to exclaim (after a slight pause): “OWW! That HURT!” Little sh*t, I remarked inwardly, and said nothing. But the other boy’s mother waded in to rebuke her own son: “Say sorry! Say sorry IMMEDIATELY! Say sorry or you’re getting out of the ball-pool!”

Now, the thing was, if anybody had hit anybody it was Hugh who had hit the other boy. The other boy was trying to get Hugh into trouble, but he hadn’t injured him exactly. Decidedly ineptly, I said as much to the other mother. “You know, it was my son who hit your son, though it was an accident.”

I’d really like to rewind and delete this and do it again. Because, if Hugh had hit someone, why hadn’t I asked him to apologise? I normally try to get him to apologise for things he does accidentally, because it matters when someone else gets hurt even if it wasn’t intended. And why did I have to speak in a way that must have sounded to the other mother much more like a correction than an apology? Hugh didn’t have the bounce to stay in the ball-pool any longer and we went back for another look at the sharks, so I didn’t even get the chance to make it up somehow with a display of friendliness toward the other mother or calm and responsible discipline towards Hugh.

The incident left me reflecting on how easily our parenting is affected by what we think other parents are thinking. I strongly suspect that the heavy-handed way the other mother waded in was at least partly for my benefit. I also suspect that her son is rather often involved in altercations with other children and that she’s got used to assuming it’s his fault. (I’m afraid when sharp cries occur in Hugh’s vicinity I similarly tend to think the worst.) And I note that what’s really itching at me about my handling of this incident is not just that I think I was rather rude, but that I also made myself look like a dreadfully lax mother. Whereas, in actual fact, I am enormously stern and an iron (but caring) disciplinarian. As all who know me will attest.

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