It was a crisp, sunny winter’s afternoon and I’d collected my three children from school and taken them down to our local park.
‘What would you like to do?’ I asked.
‘Can we go to the adventure playground?’ asked the ten-year-old.
‘Oh, yes please,’ added her seven year-old brother.
Which created a family dilemma, because the north London local authority-owned and supervised adventure playground is for over-five-year-olds, and my youngest son has just turned four.
‘Let’s all go to the soft playground instead,’ I suggested.
Which was about as welcome as saying: ‘It’s 5 o’clock – time for beddy-byes.’
The ten year-old had a strop, followed quickly by her younger brother.
‘But the soft playground is for babies,’ they said.
And they had a point. My two oldest children are tall and lanky. They look like circus freaks amongst the tots and toddlers.
The obvious option was to split the family up: I’d stay with the youngest in the kiddies’ area, while the older two went off to enjoy some ‘controlled risks in a safe environment.’
But that wasn’t an option, either. The sign to the entrance to the adventure park said under-eights had to be accompanied by an adult.
What’s a dad to do?
We were about to go home, all bad moods, folded arms and jutting bottom lips, when I had an idea.
And thus, a few minutes later I was sitting on a bench inside the adventure playground, with my four year-old tucked firmly under my wing as he played Angry Birds on my iPhone.
The older two were in safely controlled-risk Heaven and the youngest was in super-controlled- risk-free-safety clamped to his dad’s side.
Where’s the harm in that? Where’s the danger to life and limb of my little boy?
Anyone passing might have looked at us, shaken their heads and tutted about ‘that little lad playing on a mobile phone when he should be swinging on tyres and the zip wire with his older brother and sister’. And they’d have been right.
But I figured what we were doing was making the best of a bad job and so my older children could let off some steam for half an hour while the youngest destroyed some on-screen igloos.
We were minding our own business when a man in his mid-20s, wearing a playground supervisor’s red T-shirt and holding a clipboard sat by my side.
‘Can I ask how many children you have here?’ he said.
He wrote it down.
‘And how old are they?’ he continued.
‘Nine, seven and four.’
He stopped writing and lifted his pen to his chin.
‘Ah, mmm, well, we have a problem,’ he said.
He pointed to my lad, snuggled under his father’s wing – the safest place any child in the whole universe could find – and said: ‘It’s over-fives only. They’re the rules I’m afraid.’
I was incredulous. ‘Yes, but he’s not doing any harm. Can’t you bend the rules slightly, just a tad. Pretend you haven’t seen us?’
‘I’m afraid not, it’s the rules. I’m just doing my job.’
‘But he’s not doing any harm. He’s not even playing on anything. He’s here – look – under my arm. And that’s where he’ll stay until we leave,’ I protested.
‘I’m sorry. If I make an exception for you, then we have to make an exception for everyone. The rules are there for a reason. It’s for children’s safety.’
I was becoming increasingly agitated.
‘But he’s totally safe. He couldn’t be safer. Are you seriously asking me to leave with him, which will also mean I have to leave with the seven year-old, and then just leave my daughter to play on her own instead of with her brothers?’
‘I’m afraid so,’ said Mr Jobsworth.
I suddenly turned into John McEnroe. ‘But. You. Cannot. Be Serious?’
The Jobsworth’s mood began to change, and so did mine.
‘I’ve asked you politely several times to leave now, Sir. Now please will you go?’ he said.
I shook my head. ‘Not a chance, mate. I’m sorry. You’re going to have to carry me out.’
I could see the Jobsworth starting to fume. He was used to the Computer Says No culture and now he was being confronted by a Dad Who Says No.
‘But..but…it’s for your son’s own safety. Don’t you understand? There are risks here. There are bigger children, more boisterous children.’
‘I get that,’ I said. ‘Which is why he is staying right here, under my wing.’
‘But..but…I don’t make the rules. I’m just doing my job. You have to leave, Sir. Please.’
‘Not. A. Chance. Why don’t you use your common sense and leave us alone? We’re not doing any harm. You can see that.’
‘But…but…you don’t understand my position. Last year, an under-five got hurt playing here. His parents were furious and threatened to sue. That’s why we have the rules.’
And at last, we had come to the truth of the situation: this ridiculous lack-of-common-sense cotton wool-wrapped health and safety culture has been caused by the handful of parents who screech: ‘LAWYER!’ every time their little precious is bumped or scratched. In their culture of blame, it’s always somebody else’s fault that Little Johnny or Mary has fallen off a swing or a slide, or has been toppled over in the playground.
They demand to know who is responsible and then determine to hang them high for the potential of a few pounds of compensation.
My children come home from school with bruises and grazes every day – and I’m glad they do. It’s called life experience, growing up, preparing for the big scary world of adulthood.
But other parents want recrimination. The other day, my youngest apparently banged his head in the playground, pulled over by one of his over-enthusiastic classmates. My son cried for a while, and did have an acorn-sized lump on the back of his head, but when the teacher told me about it, she was almost beside herself with worry.
‘We’ve filed an accident report,’ she said.
‘Really? Why?’ I asked.
‘Those are the rules.’
Translation: we have to in case you decide to sue us.
The same ‘rules’ are applied when it comes to banning a responsible parent from taking more than two children into the swimming, regardless of whether they’re got the fishy abilities of Rebecca Adlington or Ian Thorpe. The ‘rules’ are applied when babes in arms are charged an entrance fee along with their older siblings at soft play centres ‘for insurance reasons’ even though they take no part in the activities. The ‘rules’ are applied when parents are banned from taking photographs of their own children in playgrounds the length and breadth of Britain.
‘You can’t do that, we might get sued by another parent who objects,’ is their reasoning.
It’s the death of common sense and victory for the cotton wool compensation culture.
I’d like to tell you a happy ending to my adventure playground saga, but there isn’t one. Mr Jobsworth never saw common sense and when I flatly refused to leave, he put his hand on my arm and suggested I go quietly, which, really, I wished he hand’t. I may have said something along the lines of ‘Take your filthy paws off me you damned dirty Jobsworth,’ Planet-of-the-Apes style, which of course, meant I’d lost the moral high ground.
And so in a fit of parental pique, I gathered up my children and stormed out of the playground, never to return – and thus cutting of my children’s noses to spite their faces.
Perhaps what I should have done when Mr Jobsworth touched my arm was call my lawyer and sue for an invasion of my human right to non-molestation.