Child’s play really is… child’s play

There is a secret nobody ever tells you about kids. We’ve all heard the parents of young children protesting about how they never get to go out and have fun anymore, and about how they have to spend every waking moment running around after their children – every moment that the child is awake, that is, which often coincides with moments when the parent would much rather be asleep.

While both of these things are true, there’s another side to it which I’ve recently discovered. Until now, parents out there have been hogging this information for themselves, as ammunition to use in their favourite pastime – complaining to their pals who aren’t parents about how their ‘lives’ are over now that they’ve taken the almost-always-voluntary decision to reproduce.

I’m sharing this information with my fellow Childless-Australians in an attempt to win the guilt-trip war. And just to remind you all, the deal is that we never, ever admit to feeling unfulfilled without children, okay?

The parents’ secret is this: while children are demanding, there is considerable upside involved. Because large proportions of the time they spend with their kids is devoted to playing games. Old-fashioned fun games that, surprisingly enough, haven’t gotten any less enjoyable since we were in primary school.

That’s right. You may have abandoned Lego and handball and chasings and wrestling and swinging on swings and see-sawing on see-saws. But they haven’t abandoned you. What’s more, they’re as good as ever.

I discovered this after spending over an hour playing hide-and-seek with my nephew on the weekend. He’s almost three, or as he would term it, “a big boy now”. And I want to get one thing straight from the outset: I won. Comprehensively.

Sure, there are some advantages that come from being older. I have sufficient patience, for instance, to be able to hide for minutes on end without moving or speaking, whereas he is currently unable to resist running out every thirty seconds to see where I am before returning to his hiding place. On that form, he certainly wouldn’t cut it as a ninja.

If I were his hide-and-seek coach rather than his adversary, I would also point out to him that his definition of a hiding place also leaves a little to be desired – he tends merely to choose spaces in which he fits, rather than spaces in which he fits and cannot be seen.

Perhaps his biggest weakness, though, is his tendency to hide in the exact same place where I just hid. And while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, I can vouch for the fact that it’s no way to win at hide-and-seek.

But in case you think that playing hide-and-seek with my nephew is like taking candy from a baby, only instead of candy it’s crushing victories, let me point out that he has a few natural advantages of his own. For starters, he is far, far smaller than me; probably less than 20% of my volume, which affords him many more places in which to hide. I’m obliged to hide behind cupboard doors and the like, whereas he could simply conceal himself in a laundry basket or a large planter pot. And although I spent most of the game finding him immediately and pretending I hadn’t so as to make my ‘seeking’ period last longer than fifteen seconds, there was one occasion when he hid in the tiny gap underneath a TV cabinet where I genuinely couldn’t figure out where he was.

What’s more, that same juvenile lack of patience means that he tends to ignore the ’count to ten’ section of the hide and seek rule book, and instead skips immediately to the ’coming ready or not’ part. This means that he often simply follows me, and thus and observes the place in which I’m hiding. Which tends to ruin the game somewhat. And while I congratulated him each time on finding me , I have to confess that I did so with a slight sense of resentment, and pondered an appeal to the third umpire.

The toughest part of playing against him, though, is it he tends to forget precisely how the seeking part works. If he can’t spot me immediately, he tends to run around shouting my name with increasing levels of panic. It requires all the self-control I can muster to harden my heart and not emerge immediately to put him out of his misery. But I refuse to do that, because while that may make him fret in the short term, that kind of mollycoddling won’t enable my beloved nephew to develop the concealment skills he may someday needs to become a special forces soldier. The enemy isn’t going to pretend not to spot him in order to prolong the fun of the game, are they?

And here’s the great thing – by playing hide and seek for a prolonged period, and giving his parents a break, I made myself seem like a Good Uncle. Onlookers may have concluded that I was heroically sacrificing my free time to bring a smile to a child’s face. Not so. I genuinely enjoyed my triumphant return to a game I’m sure I haven’t played since my age measured in single digits. It was fun. Really, really, fun.

Outside of organised sports and overly-involved videogames, we adults rarely allow ourselves to enjoy games the way we did when we were children. The tedious minutiae of everyday life tend to get in the way of more important things like getting really good at power shots on the handball court, or building the most excellent sandcastle ever.

Playing games with children is a license to return to those idyllic days after years of pretending to grow up. We are having kids later in life than we used to, which is a pity, because I imagine once upon a time we used to transition seamlessly from playing games ourselves to playing games with our children.

Well okay, the reduction in teen parenthood is probably a net positive social development. But spending a decade or more without regularly playing games is nevertheless a regrettable byproduct of our relative delay in reproducing. Society’s rules say that we can’t play games unless we’re doing it with kids. But with my nephew around, I can invent pointless yet excellent games like the one where I pretend to be an angry troll and chase after him as though we were on Twitter and he was a B-grade celebrity. (Being a troll is the ideal role for me – curiously, the grumpiness seems to come naturally.) What’s more, having a small child at hand to amuse permits you to spend hours playing in a playground without appearing to have a major psychological problem.

So next time you hear a parent complaining about having to stay home with their child, I suggest you be sparing in your sympathy. Because they’re probably building a pillow fort, watching cartoons and eating ice-cream, and goodness knows that’s a better offer than many of the so-called ‘grown-up’ nights out I’ve had recently.