Can we do that? Can I try that? Can I go with them? Can I have a go at that, this once?
On holiday strange things happen. New opportunities. Chance meetings. Bizarre moments. Confusing decisions. Odd questions.
We were in a Devon village during their annual festival. It was coming to the end of the weekend. One of the final events was the pasty eating competition. The announcer asked for volunteers. My son was keen. He likes pasties. He likes competitions. He has a big appetite. He also hates an audience. I was intrigued. I talked him through what I thought was about to happen. Did he understand that a few hundred people would gather to watch him eat a pasty; competitively? Did he understand that he would be up against adults? I did go through the potential disasters in my own mind. What if he burst into tears? Would he be scarred for life by the humiliation? What if he lost, would he awkwardly huff on stage? What if he won, would this be the gateway to a career of competitive eating?
I did what any father should do before taking such a momentous decision. I turned to my wife and asked, “Am I mad to let him do this?” I think the trauma of what happened next has erased her reply from my memory.
I sent my son to check that children were allowed to compete. I secretly hoped that they weren’t. As a true coward, I wanted someone else to make the decision for me. Children were allowed. Rats! He entered the competition.
We waited. He was called to the stage. He sat down at the table. Next to him were some of the largest men I have ever seen in my life. The only thing that stopped me removing him at that moment (apart from the growing audience who would have watched me realise the full extent of my mistake) was the presence of one other child on the stage. I see that it is fairly pathetic to justify a decision with, “Well if another parent is equally stupid, I feel better about this.”
It was when the pasties were placed on the table that I realized I had not fully understood the situation. They were at least four times larger than any pasty I have ever seen in my life. The pasty in front of my son was comparable in size to his entire body, certainly larger than his head.
The eating began.
To my great relief, he ate surprisingly calmly. I know it is a strange moment to be proud of his table manners, but that was at least a small mercy. He slowed down quite quickly. He also seemed to be enjoying the audience’s reaction and the compere’s attention. I’m not sure if I will ever see him perform a song, dance or drama on stage, but I have seen him on stage once, enjoying himself. That really is the full list of redeeming features of the situation.
At least one of the men seemed to have spent too much of that day in the pub. Unfortunately it was one of these men who appeared to be the most serious about winning the competition. It did become very ugly. It was bad enough to be part of the baying crowd watching this particular drama unfold, without having my own son sitting a few feet away from it. It all felt quite medieval.
The new problem was that this public parenting fail would only end when one of the massive men won the competition. And all of them had slowed down. It was clear from their expressions that all were hoping that someone else would win. What if no one won? Would my son be sat there nibbling at his pasty until nightfall? The actual outcome was worse in many ways. There was an eventual winner, but let’s just say that I would have excused him from the competition long before that point.
My son stepped off the stage. He was allowed to leave with the remains of the pasty (which he had to carry with both hands). He was pleased with himself. I had survived a bad decision. So had he.
I was reflecting on this particular incident as I recently read a helpful blog that outlined the difference between assertive, permissive and authoritarian parenting styles. It helpfully illustrates these using a picture of a sheep in a field, in the wild and in a tight cage. We all place boundaries for our children in slightly different places. This incident would point to my boundaries being placed a little on the ‘wild side’. But perhaps, given that my son seemed to quite enjoy the experience, that two families shared the leftovers for their lunch and that the compere did not publicly draw attention to my parenting decision, it was just another ‘learning opportunity’ (as much for me as my son). The bewildering journey of learning to be a parent continues. And perhaps on holiday it happens a little quicker.