What would Isaiah Berlin have made of the soft play centre?by Sam Leith / June 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
The scene in Little Dinosaurs was an ugly one. The scene in Little Dinosaurs, to be fair, is always a pretty ugly one: it’s a “soft-play” centre—a well-padded indoor-adventure playground cum climbing frame through which north London’s most energetic under-sixes bound and romp and shriek while their dispirited parents sip milky coffees and listen out for the siren-wail of minor injury.
Ordinarily, such shouting as there is is directed at members of the pre-school community. But on this occasion, it was mother-to-mother, and the vehemence of the altercation was enough to blow spume off the top of my cappuccino. Mother A had witnessed Mother B’s four-year-old socking her two-year-old on the jaw at the top of the slide; and Mother B had, unfortunately, witnessed Mother A telling the four-year-old exactly what would happen if he did it again.
“How dare you shout at my son?”
“He hit my boy!”
“It’s not your place to tell him off!”
“If you can’t control his behaviour someone’s going to have to!”
And so on. There was not, in this exchange, even the slightest hint of compromise or conciliation. Mother B was absolutely outraged that Mother A had presumed to discipline (or, as she clearly thought, bully) her kid; and Mother A took the view that if someone else’s pet thug is going to punch your child you are entitled to issue a mild corrective. Obviously there’s a world of moral greyscale when it comes to the nature of said corrective, and its appropriate level of mildness. But the row seemed to dramatise one of the cruxes of modern parenting.
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Isaiah Berlin’s useful popularisation of the difference between positive and negative freedoms is relevant. As it’s sometimes expressed, your right to swing your arm ends where it meets my chin. In this case it is subject to an extra layer of complication: your child’s right to swing his arm ends where it meets my child’s chin. The problem is, the moral agency of the child is subcontracted to his parent: it’s your responsibility to keep your child from hitting my child. But if you fail to discharge that duty, does your child’s negative liberty (freedom from being told off by other grown-ups) trump my positive liberty to do what I deem necessary to…