"Why my kids can't play at your house."

Dear Friend,

I like you, I really do. I think we have similar values and tastes. We care about the environment, gender equality and free education.

We’re not career-driven or materialistic. We like discussing politics and going out for drinks. Basically, we’re both middle-aged, middle class hippies. Our parenting styles align in many ways too. We cook snacks rather than buy processed junk. We have strict screen-time limits. We’re kind but firm. We try to be involved in the school community.

So I like you, I do. And I like your kids, too. They seem nice. They don’t brag about having the latest toys and devices. They’re well mannered. And they play well with my kids. The whole situation seems almost perfect.

But when you try to organise a playdate I feel sick, and I make up an excuse so I can decline your invitation. You must think I’m incredibly busy! “Oh, going away for the weekend, sorry!” I say. “No good this arvo – dentist appointment after school.” I lie because my kids can never go to your place for a play.

Because I don’t like your husband.

I did like him, initially. When we first met I thought he seemed like a nice enough bloke. He’d come to pick up your eldest daughter from our house. He was friendly, and we’d engaged in a bit of small talk while we’d waited for the kids to finish their game.

The next time we crossed paths, however, he did something that didn’t sit well with me. I was doing the school pickup, standing in my usual spot near the front gate. Your husband was there too, but he didn’t see me. When the bell rang our girls came out together and walked straight up to him. I was about ten metres away, so I couldn’t hear their conversation, but I saw your husband tickle my daughter under her chin.

Kids with technology istock
“I saw your husband tickle my daughter under her chin.” Image via iStock.

I know; it’s such a tiny thing: a chin tickle, in a public place, with plenty of adults standing nearby. Your husband didn’t know I was watching, but he knew he wasn’t alone. What he did was in no way secret or devious. In fact, my concern almost felt excessive – a silly over-reaction. So I didn’t say anything.

But then it happened again. Your husband came to collect your eldest daughter from my daughter’s eighth birthday party. We stood near the front door for a moment, saying our goodbyes, and then he suddenly picked my daughter up, kissed her on the forehead, put her down and tickled her armpits. It was a “birthday kiss”, he said.

I didn’t like this. Not at all. Not one bit. Didn’t he know the rules? Didn’t he understand what was appropriate and what wasn’t?

When it comes to physical contact with children, there are definitely different standards for men and women. Granted, it’s not exactly fair, but that’s just how it is. I think most men realise what they can and can’t do; fathers even more so.

But, again, I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. What your husband did wasn’t illegal. It didn’t even make my daughter feel uncomfortable. The only person his behaviour affected was me. In hindsight I think perhaps I should have commented – just in a casual “hey, that’s not on” sort of way – but at the time I couldn’t process the situation quickly enough.

Afterwards I talked to my daughter about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. I told her that if anybody makes her feel uncomfortable or upset or scared she should tell me (or another trusted adult). I asked her how she’d felt when your husband had lifted her up. She shrugged. “Fine,” she said.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Your husband might be the loveliest, most innocent man in the world. He might be so innocent, in fact, that he’s completely unaware of how his actions may be construed. So I can’t send you this letter and I can’t tell you why I won’t let my kids go over to your place. I feel as though we might slowly drift apart. I don’t want that to happen, but ultimately the safety of my children is more important to me than our friendship.

I will never tell you that your husband’s behaviour concerns me. And I’m not going to announce it in the school playground, or on social media, or anywhere else.

I hope I’m wrong about him, I really do. But, just in case my instincts are spot on, my children are never going to your house to play. Ever.

Yours sincerely, J

Jean Flynn was one of the short-listed writers on MWN and HarperCollinsPublishing’s 2015 Writers’ Competition.