When I was but a youngster living in the leafy suburbs of north London, I would often stroll down to the bottom of my road where there was a big patch of greenery, to play with my cousins. We were, however, restricted from playing certain games down there – on a sign, nailed to one of the walls surrounding the small square of grass, stood foot-high letters spelling out ‘No Ball Games’. It made me angry then, and does even more so now.
In everyday life I see other such rules, telling children what they can or cannot do. Sometimes, of course, these are entirely appropriate, such as: ‘Don’t run on the tracks’ at a railway station or ‘Keep your arms inside the car’ on a rollercoaster. But sometimes, I see or hear about something where I am taken back to ‘No Ball Games’ – an instruction, a law, a rule, often accompanied by no good explanation, preventing children from enjoying or expressing themselves.
Recently, I saw crimson red while reading how an airline had introduced child-free zones on its planes. My anger levels went off the scale, however, when I read people’s reactions to the news, including this Guardian blog and Tweets calling for the concept to be introduced to UK flights. Let me get this straight: ‘children can be loud, so let’s ban them from certain areas of transport’? I am sure people suffering from conditions like Tourettes Syndrome may also distract people on flights, so let’s move them too, shall we!? Or people with really loud, hacking coughs? This is discrimination, pure and simple. Another case of children not being allowed to be themselves around others.
It goes back to the old saying – children should be seen and not heard. And though it is not something you hear said by many people nowadays, it still flows on an undercurrent in 2016. How many of us have incurred a tut or a small shake of the head when trying to control a child invading some else’s personal space, or one in meltdown after, say, they were told they have to wait five minutes for that emergency lolly in our change bag? It is infuriating. In fact, so much so that I make a point of showing an expression of solidarity with any parent I see in this or any similar situation, one of: ‘I’ve been there’ spliced with a dash of ’I feel your pain’.
A few months ago I took my wife to House of Tides in Newcastle, which is a pretty damned posh restaurant, for her surprise birthday lunch. I mention it by name so 1. It paints me as a romantic husband, and 2. In case the owner is reading this and fancies giving me a free meal for the name check. Anyway, at a table at the other end of the room were a couple and a small child, probably around 18 months old. He started kicking off, and they had to take it in turns to take him out of the room to sit with him while the other ate what they could before the tag-team swapped roles. This was repeated over the course of around an hour.
On the way out, I approached the mum, who told me she was visiting England for the first time with her small family, from Canada, and was desperate to try the restaurant out. I told her what I thought: Good for her. Flying her son across the globe so young and going for a bloody lovely meal with him. Her reaction was incredible. She broke down in tears of joy and relief: She had felt ashamed and embarrassed by her choice to come for lunch with him, and all it took was for a positive sentence or two to remind her that not everyone thinks children should be treated as second-class citizens.
I have decided that as I go through life and parenthood this will be something I will try to achieve – to remind people that kids have as much of a right to be themselves as anybody else. And next time I see some children looking bored underneath a ‘No Ball Games’ sign, I’m going to fetch my football and join them for a kick-about.
Jake Rusby | Rusby Media