As the proud owner of a rambunctious four-year-old girl, I found that the heartwarming Channel 4 documentary Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds showcased beautifully what I already knew: these funny little people are an essential part of the very concept of joy.
A four-year-old is unhindered by prejudice, so an 80-year age gap is no barrier to friendship.
Four is an age when you still inhabit a world where nothing whatsoever matters other than loving, being loved and having fun. You could argue that beyond this age these are still the only things that should matter, but you don’t half get bogged down with other stuff: politics, mortgages, broken boilers, tax returns, other people’s opinions, and all the other things which can make being an adult such a terrible bore.
There are of course those who find the noise and chatter of these humans, yet to be stifled into silence by self-consciousness, irritating. There are those gloomy souls who tut and move seats on trains when flustered parents pile on with jabbering little ones, unaware that a smile or a quick natter with a young child would cheer them up rather than ruin their journey.
A coffee shop near me put haughty notices up recently warning that the excited noise of children would not be tolerated. And no, it was not nice or grown-up of me to dub the proprietor “The Child Catcher” and I’m sure that was not the reason it closed down.
There is undoubtedly a residue of the Victorian attitude “Children should be seen and not heard” lurking in our society. It’s very different outside big cities or in other countries, where people are much less afraid to make a fuss of other people’s children so they become a part of whatever is going on rather than a hindrance.
I live in London and there is very little blending of activities between those who have kids and those who don’t. We take our children to “child-friendly” places, but not everyone who doesn’t have kids, or whose children have grown up, wants to avoid their verve and energy.
Personally, I think children brighten up the place. Especially very little ones with their wobbly walks and turns of phrase which you don’t correct because they are too cute. “My top was inside-out but now I’ve got it outside-in,” said my daughter recently. Perfectly logical. Why on earth would I correct her?
Children force you to be present and in the moment. There’s no yesterday or tomorrow for them, there is just now. And ice cream. What a tonic this is when you’re down in the dumps or bogged down with the sort of life drama and admin which we are perpetually in danger of cocooning ourselves in.
I used to be a nanny for a three-year-old boy when I was 20. One day, I went to work devastated after finding out my boyfriend had cheated on me. My small friend had no time or patience for heartache – he had me on my feet singing tunes from The Lion King within five minutes of my arrival and though it took me weeks to be right again, every moment I spent with that child was a moment my heart forgot to weep and wail but instead sang: “I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware!” It splashed me with joy.
St Monica Trust retirement home in Bristol – which featured on the Channel 4 documentary showing what happens when nursery-age kids temporarily move in with the elderly – seemed very much like the retirement home I worked in as a student. Very still, very quiet, with no ripples and a strict adherence to routine.
Looking back, I think how glorious it would have been for a gaggle of four-year-olds to charge in and blather to the residents. Not every day, I know. As much as I love children, it is nice to finish a conversation with another adult or have a cup of tea without someone demanding a game of hide and seek or a piggyback, or wetting themselves on your lap.
But keeping the very old and the very young apart is no fun at all – and it’s taken us a long time to see it.
Rules don’t change when we get old. We might be less up for going out clubbing or checking out a new grime artist we have heard about, but loving, being loved and having fun are still the things we need to happen so that getting out of bed is still worth the bother.
I know when my own are grown, I’ll still want children in my life to make a fuss of and who tell me knock-knock jokes that don’t make sense. I will happily be the free babysitter to friends and neighbours and when I am very old, please ensure an army of toddlers charge into my retirement home and make a glorious mess.
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