A few Saturdays ago we decided the kids were old enough for us to do something entirely for them — not just visit a place we like and hope they enjoy it, but actually go somewhere created for kids. We considered this the first of many, many a Saturday devoted to their entertainment. It was our first head-first jump into kid — read: not baby — chaos.
We chose KidsQuest Children’s Museum, located in Bellevue. They’re a non-profit, though we didn’t know that as we handed over the exorbitant $38 for the four of us. They’re located in a mall, which turned me off right from the start, but they had a huge area devoted exclusively to kids under age three, which was appealing.
Post-hand sanitization, we entered the children’s play area. There were tiny houses and huts, a little kitchen and a garden with wooden vegetables. A dozen bouncer bunnies filled the floor, ready to be ridden. There was a huge carved-out tree in the corner with kids running all through the maze in its branches above. They had light-filled boxes, tactile toys and a train table. But all of that faded to black when Arden laid eyes on the fish tank. She ran toward it with her little finger pointing, lips in a kissy face blowing in and out as fast as she could, her classic fish impression. She stood there, forehead pressed to the glass, and we knew she didn’t need an entire children’s museum, just a fish tank. I briefly considered getting one as she stared in wonder, but then I thought of cleaning it every week it and the sentiment quickly passed.
Mike lifted Henry onto a giant leaf slide, guiding him down the gentle slope. That was all it took; Henry was hooked. As soon as his feet hit the floor, he immediately made the sign for “again” and then Arden joined the fun. We started a little toddler conveyer belt of them going up and down again and again.
And that’s when the playground parents in us came out.
As we were picking Henry up for another ride, a girl of about six walked up the slide and slid back down. Then a husky boy the same age tumbled down the slide while his mother circled the fake leaf, pretending not to notice. We looked at them for a minute, like, are you enjoying the toy made for children half your age? Do you realize your careers as playground bullies are off to promising starts?
Mike cut to the chase.
“He looks a little older than three,” he said loudly, obviously intending for the mother to hear. Almost immediately my brain registered: this is absurd, these are children, why do I feel angry enough to pick them up and throw them over the three-foot wall? But it’s like anything else in life — when someone isn’t following the rules, you just sort of want to kick them in the shins.
I always used to think that parents who got their panties in a twist over things like this just needed to get over themselves. But now that I was grabbing Henry out of the way of this bowling ball of a kid barreling toward him, I thought: hmm, no, those types of parents are right to press charges against pint-sized law-breakers. There are enormous play structures covering every inch of this place, and these kids had access to all of it. They did not need to play Jack and the Beanstalk with the under-three set.
I walked up to the woman who monitored the play area, intending to ask her to enforce the age limit, but as I watched her put all the wooden turnips and spatulas and rutabagas back in their places, I just couldn’t do it. I pick up after my children all day every day, but I do it out of love, and because they’re my own. I shuddered thinking that she took a job doing it for eight hours a day for complete strangers. Was I really going to be the Susie Tattletail who forces her to kick children out of play areas? Not while I still had any sense of decency, no, I wasn’t.
After forty minutes or so, we took the twins out to explore the other exhibits they could enjoy, if not entirely understand. We didn’t expect them to use magnets to create cog-and-wheel sets, but they could touch them and watch as we turned the gears. There was a life-sized semi-truck cabin that they could crawl through, and as we walked up the stairs into it a woman addressed us.
“Twins?” she asked. We said yes.
“I have twins too. How old?”
“Seventeen months,” we answered.
Looking right at them, she crossed her arms self-righteously and said, “Oh…ugh, I don’t miss those days.”
Before I could trot out my usual cheerful retort, Mike jumped right in. “Actually we’re having so much fun with them,” he said, and no one else could detect it, but I knew this was his polite parent speak for “you are heinous and an embarrassment to yourself.”
Still, I couldn’t help but ask, “And how old are yours?”
“Two and a half,” she said smugly. I almost burst out laughing. Here was a woman running her victory lap approximately sixteen years too soon, and taunting the people a mere year behind her.
Less than a minute later I stood behind Henry as he approached a window in the truck, except I realized a second too late that it wasn’t a window but an opening, and just then he put his hand out to lean on it and fell through to the metal platform below. I dove for him, blood cold, and scooped him up as he began to wail. I was instantly filled with self-hatred for not protecting him. Mike hollered an admonishing “ABBY!” and I didn’t blame him, but was still mortified. I thanked God the landing was just a foot below the opening — right before thinking, “What if it hadn’t been?” which ushered nightmares into my mind.
He cried in my arms and one of the little two-and-a-half-year-old twins rushed up to me and exclaimed, “Kiss him! Give him a kiss!” with such conviction and compassion I didn’t know what to do. A deep shame ran through me as I realized I hadn’t been kissing him, just holding him and comforting him and talking to him. I felt like an enormous idiot as I kissed my son at the direction of this preschooler, but what kind of monster would I be if I didn’t just because of my pride? The entire situation made me want to go back in time to a land before the concept of children’s museums was invented.
Henry being Henry, he was fine in a matter of minutes — even if his mother was emotionally scarred — and we actually had a good time exploring the rest of the place.
All in all we spent only an hour and a half at the museum, but in toddler time that is half a day, at least. We both felt relieved as we left, but wiser too. It felt like we had taken our first war tour and next time we’d be better prepared for the battlefield.
…which was two weeks later at Seattle Children’s Museum, and all I can say is it was such a superior experience we felt like generals. Okay maybe majors. But still.