London - Once a week Mabel has a play date with the boy from next door. She’s nearly five and he’s nearly six. He’s an only child and Mabel is the youngest of four.
Frankly, he’s taking his life into his hands with this boisterous veteran of sibling rough and tumble, and often returns home looking like he’s had a riotous night out with Miley Cyrus.
But a good time is had by all because, after more than a decade of parenting, I’ve finally got the measure of the dreaded play date.
I’m familiar with the unwritten rules of this unpredictable and unruly situation: only one child in the loo at a time, no one allowed in an adult’s or older sibling’s bedroom, and pasta is the only thing on the menu, whatever your food fad diktats. If you stick to that, then everything works out okay in the end.
I’ve only just reached play-date nirvana, mind you, after encountering all manner of ghastly toddler habits and hell-raising along the way.
There was the little girl who used to routinely empty all my children’s clothes drawers every time she came round; the four-year-old who pooped behind the curtain; the boy who licked everything and everyone; the twins I’m convinced will be bare-knuckle fighting champions one day; the kid who screamed so loudly in terror when he saw our dog I thought there was a dinosaur in the garden; the boy who turned on all the taps and left them running; the ‘clean-eating’ youngster who went bonkers after secretly scoffing his first ever lolly (we now call him the Chupa Chup chaser); and, of course, the siblings who Sellotaped the smallest child into the toy box and sent him down a flight of stairs (okay, hands up, that was my children).
I now know when to intervene and when to turn a blind eye during the inevitable squabbles.
I finally understand the etiquette of admonishing another mother’s child for naughty behaviour and I am used to wiping a bottom I didn’t give birth to.
It gets easier, which is what they say about everything to do with parenting, isn’t it? Well almost everything, as I discovered this weekend. There are some things that I’m now told get harder: say hello to the teenage play date.
On a Friday or Saturday night my 13-year-old will usually arrive home with many teenage girls. They tumble into the house, all long-limbed and long-haired, and tangled together like grapevines.
They go into my eldest’s bedroom, switch on both the music and the TV, and lounge around on the bed, like curled-up, lazy cats, while chatting so loudly I suspect neighbours in the next street can hear them. They only emerge for pizza and then take over our front room for some more lounging.
While I love having such cheery, messy youngsters in our house, obviously I am under strict instructions not to talk to them, as that would be too embarrassing.
But this weekend something new happened on the virgin landscape of the teenage play date scene.
It was only when I saw a pair of trainers placed neatly next to each other by the front door, instead of thrown carelessly down the hall in the manner of every adolescent girl I have ever met, that I began to suspect something else had been admitted to the cult. It turned out we had a teenage boy in the house.
What are the rules for a mixed-sex squad these days? I couldn’t work out if he was a friend, or more than a friend.
All I knew is that at one point during the evening the boy and one of the girls disappeared together into my eldest’s room - alone.
As soon as I discovered this, I knocked on the door before going in and stated that ‘no one boy and no one girl’ could be left alone in a room together with the door shut, and sent them downstairs.
Was this the right thing to do? I’m not sure, because while I’ve no doubt that whatever was going on behind the bedroom door before I arrived was innocent, how was I to know?
When it comes to teen play dates you seem to have so little control, but so much responsibility. It makes me nervous being in charge of other people’s youngsters.
When I talked to a mom of teenage boys later she agreed that I did the right thing, but I still felt like a rotten killjoy with an overtly suspicious mind.
It makes me long for the return of the bare-knuckle twins and the Chupa Chup chaser. They were far easier to deal with.
Lorraine Candy is editor-in-chief of Elle magazine.