As a stay-at-home Dad, I went into the curious world of the playgroup hoping that my boys could develop their social skills and learn to interact with their peers. I swiftly learnt that I needed to develop my social skills and learn to interact with my peers.
Much of what follows will be obvious to the non-introvert, but even the social virtuoso can be stumped by the unfamiliar etiquette of the playgroup - where men are in the minority, often a minority of one.
These are some hard-earned pieces of wisdom especially for Dads, which I mostly failed to figure out for ages, and which I wish someone had told me at the outset.
Socialising with the Mums.
Christ, I was bad at this - but I improved. It's a skill that can be learnt. If, like me, the last time you approached a woman without being introduced was in a nightclub a decade earlier - and maybe that's how you ultimately ended up in this whole fatherhood mess in the first place - then it can be daunting to go up to the Mums in the playgroup and say "Hi, my name is..." etc.
I use the nightclub analogy advisedly because you can easily get hung up by the fear that your approach may be perceived as some kind of chat up. In reality though, this is paranoia and you have to blank it out. It's 10am in a Methodist church. Some of us have sick on us. No one is in that kind of mood.
Don't be shy.
Where I live, there is a local playgroup legend about a gruff stay-at-home Dad who would come along to the playgroups with his son. He would take a seat and wait. If, after ten minutes, no one had spoken to him, he would bellow, "Somebody bloody talk to me!"
While I am NOT advocating this approach, it can be necessary to take hold of the situation and step out of your comfort zone. Assert your right to be here and have a chat. Ask a Mum about her child. Keep it simple: how old is the child? Compliment abilities, but never appearances (creepy) and remember it's better to mistake a boy for a girl than a girl for a boy - if in doubt, it's "she".
Do it sooner rather than later, too. It's easier to approach people in your first week than to sit quietly for a couple of weeks and then suddenly metamorphose from 'quiet bloke' to 'chatty bloke'. If, like me, you miss this window of opportunity, do not despair. Take the slower route to 'alright-when-you-get-to-know-him bloke'. Never neglect the basics of human interaction: nod, smile and say 'hello'.
Get in with the Grans. A Gran can be a social lifeline in the playgroup situation. They can be more approachable and forthcoming than Mums, and a bit of politeness and gentlemanly conduct will win you a powerful ally in a Gran. They often know a great deal of useful information about local schools, admissions processes and things of this nature. Plus a chat with a Gran may become a chat involving you, the Gran plus a couple of the Mums and then boom - you're part of the social circle, congratulations!
Handling your kid.
No one is watching you and giving you marks. If your main concern as you attend to your child is how it reflects on you and your parenting skills, you make both yourself and the sprog miserable. It took me ages to figure this out. Keep a loose rein and only intervene if your child looks like harming another.
In this regard, you do have to keep a keen eye out. If your kid is carjacking the Little Tyke Coupe, nicking all the pink wafers or beating a pre-toddler around the head with a battery-less Speak-and-Spell while you are checking your emails, you'll struggle to maintain your popularity.
Handling other people's kids.
On one occassion an unfamiliar little girl of about two years old walked up to me and flopped down in my lap as I sat cross-legged on carpet. I was entirely unprepared and found myself leaning back with my hands in the air and a terrified expression on my face like a simpleton farmer in a Western bank-robbery.
What I should have done was scan the room for the child's mother and offered her a good humoured shrug, to which she would have most likely gestured her assurance, or come over with a smile to fetch the child away. But I freaked out like a prat. Let my hindsight be your guide. Nobody wants to live in a world where all men are potentially predatory monsters that cannot be trusted around children, so let's not behave as though we do.
Having said that, I would never go out of my way to make physical contact with a stranger's child except when that child was in peril. With the children of acquaintances, you just have to use your judgement, but I wouldn't nowadays draw back from a child that reached out to me in a playgroup.
In most of the playgroups there is time at the end set aside for the singing of children's songs. The singing, in my experience, is initiated by female group organisers and is always just that bit too high-pitched for comfort. The Dad, in this situation, has two options; go octave down or go full BeeGee.
Always go octave down. Never go BeeGee. Be aware though, that you will be the only person singing in this lower register, so you have to own it. If you're worried about sounding silly, then you should know that half-hearted singing sounds sillier than just totally going for it. This is true even if you are tone-deaf. Just go for it. Show them who you are.
I hope all this has been helpful to the novice adult male playgroup attendee. It's all too easy to sit on your own looking grumpy, or to occupy yourself by shadowing your child's every move in an effort to appear busy. I've done both of these things. But the real value in the playgroup experience for the parent is what the Mums have known all along - it's a bit of adult conversation in a day which might otherwise pass in a blur of cbeebies, tantrums, sudocream and excreta. For the sake of your sanity, get involved.