When I was about eight years old my mum had a good friend, Marianne, who would quite often come to visit at weekends. Every time she visited, she would bring with her Sophie, her nine year old daughter. For my mum and Marianne this was the perfect arrangement. They got to spend the day drinking coffee and gossiping, guilt free, safe in the knowledge that Sophie and I were outside in the garden, enjoying some kind of wholesome, imaginative game.
Except we weren't.
Sophie was enjoying herself, (as far as I know anyway), but I was definitely not. Sophie was one of those children that even I, as an eight year old, clearly recognised as pretentious, whiny and annoying. For Sophie, any game was a great game, so long as it was played exactly by her rules, with her as the main character, normally a feeble Princess, being held prisoner by an ugly, evil troll. (Me).
I'm pretty sure my mum knew how much I loathed Sophie, but, as I have learnt as a parent, one of the benefits of being the grown up is that you get to pretend to ignore the fact that two children clearly hate each other, and insist that they 'go and find something fun to do in the garden for a bit'. A 'bit' normally means a good hour, or at least as long as it takes to polish off a pot full of coffee and half a packet of chocolate hobnobs.
The sad fact of the matter nowadays is that children seem to feel it's much more within their rights to do annoying things like express opinions.
When I was eight, I'm pretty sure I just did as I was told, (definitely not just me having a rose tinted view of the past), and skulked off to play in the garden with Sophie. Belle however, my youngest daughter, herself now eight, won't have any of it.
"So who exactly is coming?" she'll ask, eyeing me suspiciously, every time I announce friends are coming to visit.
"Well," I'll answer, adopting a deliberately casual, blasé air, "just a few of you friends, Grace and Emma probably."
"Who else?" she'll ask, eyebrow raised, not convinced by my nonchalance.
"Oh, I don't know really," I'll say, as I wander off into the next room, "maybe Arabella."
Arabella is the six year old daughter of a very good friend of mine, who Belle unfortunately happens to find intolerable. It's not that she's a horrible child. Intense might be a good word.
"Nooooo!" Belle will wail, her body sagging and her arms swinging angrily by her sides, Kevin and Perry style, "but she'll want to play with me!"
"Well yes, that's kind of the point," I'll reply, "It'll be fun!"
My forced jollity clearly doesn't wash. "No it won't!" Belle will yell, stamping off to her bedroom to sob dramatically into her pillow for ten minutes, as is her want in such obviously traumatic situations.
And it won't of course. I know it, and Belle knows it, and, most importantly, Belle knows I know it, which is why Arabella's visits normally end up with a bribe, of the 'play nicely for a couple of hours and I'll give you a pound' variety. Is this wrong? Is it reasonable to pay your kids to play with children they don't like, just to avoid a confrontation with a friend?
I'm pretty sure it's not teaching her any valuable lessons, but at least it keeps the children out of our hair for a while, which in my opinion is a pound well spent.
Now all this bribery and corruption would probably be fine, if my friend was in on my mum's whole 'off you go to play in the garden' bluff, but unfortunately she seems to be under the illusion than Belle and Arabella are the best of friends. Either that or she is in denial so deep it's covering her eyes.
How exactly are you supposed to tackle this issue? It's surely only a matter of time before she spots one of Belle's withering looks as she follows Arabella up to her bedroom, or before she catches Belle rolling her eyes meaningfully at me as Arabella insists on yet another game of mummies and babies, and what will I do then? I can hardly say 'oh yes, I'm sorry, we both actually find your child highly irritating, and I have to compensate Belle in cash every time you visit.'
So convinced is she that our daughters are destined to be BFFs, that she has recently started suggesting sleepovers. "Arabella is soooo excited about having a sleepover with Belle," she'll enthuse, "we must organise a date for that."
Yes, we must. Excellent. I'll get my chequebook.
Be honest, do you force friends on your children?