A first taste of heartbreak for my young son…

They spent a lot of time and money erecting a fancy new playground in the park beside our house during lockdown. It’s mostly made from pale, brushed wood, which gives it the wholesome, expensive feel of those little, half-finished trains they sell in fancy kids’ shops. These are really gifts for parents because children never like them as much as the cheap, plastic ones you could have bought by the dozen for the same price.

Luckily, all the kids seem to like this playground just fine, even though it’s less of a Day-Glo riot of fun and frolics and more like a dignified set of serene sculptures, erected in memory of the person who invented Jenga.

All the kids, that is, except my son. He prefers the cluster of trees and bushes right beside it, a little forest he finds much more fascinating. It was also here that, last week, his heart broke.

My son had been hitting some leaves with sticks when another boy his age entered beside him. ‘Ampilance!’ my son said, gesturing toward the ambulance knitted on to his visitor’s jumper, receiving a blank stare. This seemed sufficient for a rapid acceleration toward friendship, so my son took the next logical step. ‘Play hide and seek?’ he proffered, arms outstretched. ‘No!’ replied his new companion, quite forcefully, before promptly running off.

My son stood mute. First puzzled, then crestfallen. I rushed to console him as he began crying, his head facing the ground like a scolded pup.

It’s an odd thing to witness such a concentrated stab of pain hitting someone who’s not yet developed the emotional calluses necessary to compute it. It shouldn’t surprise me that my son’s relationship with emotion is a bit brand new. This is, after all, a person who cheers when ambulances go past.

When you spend enough time with a toddler, your calluses fall away, too, as if some deep well of childish innocence is pumped directly to your adult brain. In practice this means you may also find yourself cheering when emergency service vehicles fly past.

I explained that the boy didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, and sometimes people just don’t want to play at the same time you do. And, in any case, I’d be happy to play hide and seek with him, if he wanted? He regarded this offer with the polite contempt it probably deserved and dawdled by the sculpture park playground, sniffling as he regarded its neatly carved curves.

I shouldn’t have worried. He played only for a few minutes before another child ran into his beloved forest. ‘Hide and seek!’ my son shouted, all pain forgotten. The joy of the spotless mind is that pain, too, is short-lived. He hit the deck, sirens blazing. Abandoning the pale wood, he soldiered straight back out to the leaves and dirt with outstretched arms.