It happened when I least expected it. We were at a small indoor playground at the local mall we frequent. We had just finished lunch. I had groceries to grab. Atticus was due for a nap but he had been hankering for the playground, so there we were.

“Ten minutes,” I say to Arddun, mentally timing for 15 to allow for some grace. “Yes Mummy,” is the automatic response. Arddun is now old enough to enjoy the playground but not crave it. She’s really there to watch her little brother. It’s what she’s proud to do.

I settle down on the Parents bench facing the playground to plan the rest of my day on the fly. About five minutes pass.

“Mummy…” she returns. “They just laughed at me.”

“What happened?”

“I fell down the stairs… and they just laughed at me.”

“Who did?”

“Those girls.” She points behind her, but I can’t see who she’s referring to, because they’re buried in the back.

My instant gut-feel is that Arddun might be taking things too personally once again. It’s the down side of a tender heart — it doesn’t take much to wound her feelings. The same girl who chooses to befriend That Difficult Child in the room is also the same girl who feels things keenly and can be quick to find offence when she’s tired and her resilience is low.

“Maybe they laughed because they thought you were being silly?” I try.

“No I wasn’t.”

“But maybe they didn’t understand?”

I can tell she doesn’t agree with my guesswork, but she ventures back in nonetheless once I say she has another five minutes left.

Barely two minutes passes before she returns.

“Mummy,” she tells me, eyes wide open and serious.

“Yes?”

“They called me a beach.”

I catch my breath. What do I do, what do I do? Arddun stares at me waiting. Her face is one of puzzlement pinched with hurt. You don’t have to have a potty mouth yourself — or even understand the words — to know when you’ve just been slagged off, even at age 5. Arddun knows she had just been dealt a nasty zinger. She did the right thing – she didn’t get into a slinging match. But boy, do I want to take those feral kids aside and….

There were 4 other sets of parents or carers at the playground of varying ethnicities, and all of their noses were buried in their phones. And even after my elementary powers of elimination (not girls, can’t talk yet, wrong proximity), I still couldn’t work out which parent belonged to the offenders.

“Let’s go,” is the first concrete thought to leave my mouth.

“But I still have some minutes,” Arddun pleads. “I promise I won’t go near them again.”

And so she goes back in. And I sit back down and feel… lost. Defeated. Disloyal. The truth is, I have no game plan. I was going to march in and… what? Even if I’d found the two girls, the fact is I didn’t hear them say it. And Atticus is already rubbing his eyes, and time is running out for groceries because I’m mulling over this for seven whole minutes, and NONE of the other parents have looked up from their phones yet.

But it bugs me and bugs me and eventually I go into the playground.

“Arddun, which girls called you a beach?”

“I don’t know. Look at me!” and she does a small stunt down the slide.

“Which ones?” I ask again later.

She points them out, and I immediately know which mum it is. And my heart sinks. It’s the tough-as-nails one with the scary nails, the one in the tracky dacks, and the scowl, and the don’t-f*ck-with-me stare that one time she looked up from her phone. The one who looks like she knows how to fight dirty.

The one who looks like she would have way more colourful words than just Beach, and would probably know JUST the right buttons to trigger mine.

And I’ll admit that I judge her right then and there, make a calculation, and decide that the odds are against me. This isn’t worth the fight. I am going to have this “my kid said this, or yeah your kid is a liar!” she-said-she-said. There’s a good chance that Arddun is going to feel even worse by the end of it.

Or she could see that her mother has her corner, and doesn’t back down from bullies. There is that.

But then there’s the other very real possibility that my Mother Bear will emerge and I will open my mouth in anger, and then teach my daughter even worse lessons than the one she’s getting now from my inertia and cowardice.

And while I’m literally in analysis paralysis, the mother collects her girls and they all leave. And I stand and walk towards that mother with half-formed words in my mouth, and she shoots me her don’t-f*ck-with-me-today look and it works. I stop. They walk away.

And I feel awful.

Arddun comes up to me. “You know,” she says, 5 going on 15, “Those girls were not very nice to me.”

“I know honey,” I sigh. I am so disappointed in myself. I give her a very fierce hug.

“You did great.” I tell her. “They were mean to you. They said those awful things. Don’t ever call anyone a beach, okay?” I’m not about to enlighten her on the actual B word. Enough innocence lost for one day.

“I won’t.”

“You return meanness with kindness. You continue to do that, alright? You did great.”

I wish I can say the same for me.

Until now, I wonder why I didn’t do what I usually do in an altercation that needs adult arbitration – which is to go in and confront all the children and ascertain what is going on before working it out with the other parent. I think a big chunk of it was the fact that the rest of the parents were engaged with their phones and approaching any of them felt like a huge intrusion on my part. And a lot of it was just me, imagining the worst and not wanting to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Maybe The Other Mother would have been mortified and more than willing to rein her children in. And her scowl was a result of a headache. I don’t know why I was so hesitant when I’m usually forthright and bold, but I suspect I’ll still be kicking myself in days to come.

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