Annabelle Hickson: A Day in the Country
A CHILD-FREE NIGHT OUT PROVES TO BE A WELCOME VALIDATION OF SENSIBLE PARENTING FOR ANNABELLE HICKSON.
THE BABYSITTER LOOKED like she desperately wanted to choose ‘flight’ from the ‘fight or flight’ options of her instincts, but given she had 54 children in her charge, she could do nothing but freeze. It was dark and cold outside, and to anyone peering through the misted-up windows, the classroom at Bonshaw Public School would have resembled an evacuation centre after a mysterious natural disaster had wiped out almost all of the population over 12 years of age — a world in which only hungry children, a frazzled babysitter and her gobsmacked boyfriend were left behind. It was Bonshaw’s annual Trivia Night — a fundraiser for the tiny school with 11 students, of which two are my children — in the hall across the road. One of the many things going for the event was that you could leave your kids with a babysitter at the school for $5 a child. There would be spag bol and movies for the little ones, leaving the parents to have fun across the road with not a single port-a-cot in sight. Families came from hundreds of kilometres away. Even parents who weren’t going to the trivia night thought it was a good idea, with one even trying to sneak in their child — possibly children — with the maxed-out babysitter. (“A cuckoo in the nest!” gasped a family friend in delight.) I can’t say exactly how the night turned out for the kids, but when I dropped my own children off, it looked like for some it might have been harrowing. The babysitter was muttering to the oven in disbelief, repeating, “It just won’t heat up the food.” Her boyfriend was rocking a screaming baby in a pram with impressive focus. I don’t know how much experience he had with small babies, but he was certainly giving it a good go. Wide-eyed three-year-olds were wandering between groups of older kids colouring in, clutching bits of fabric for comfort. A 12-year-old was caring for an upset two-year-old, who’d been inconsolable for some time and didn’t look like she was giving up soon. And, amid all this chaos, the overwhelming majority of kids were hanging out and having a blast. I remember Nikki Gemmell talking about ‘lighthouse parenting’, as opposed to the tiger and helicopter mode, in her column for The Weekend Australian Magazine last year. “There’s a new level of mollycoddling in local playgrounds that didn’t exist when we were growing up,” wrote Gemmell. “After much trial and error, I’ve settled on the ‘lighthouse parenting’ style as the most effective… That is, you’re a beacon of stability to guide those little boats out to sea away from rocky shores, but you’re leaving them to find their own way into a safe harbour. That may involve risk and failure and disappointment and hurt, but it’s all a part of growing up.” I felt more like a captain jumping ship than a lighthouse as I walked over to the trivia night, leaving the babysitter with the cold dinner and the rumbling of tiny tummies growing louder. But I’m grateful this school and community encourages lighthouse parenting, rather than helicopter overkill. Yes, there could have been another babysitter, but the kids were safe, if not all happy, and the grown-ups had fun.
“I FELT MORE LIKE SHIP A CAPTAIN JUMPING THAN A LIGHTHOUSE AS I WALKED OVER TO THE TRIVIA NIGHT.”
The classroom at Bonshaw Public School, a tiny school on the NSW/ Queensland border.