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Kids are fucking scary, and other lessons from working on school holiday programmes

What happens when your little darlings are spending the day at a holiday programme? They lie, they tell your secrets, they hurt themselves and others, says Thom Adams – and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

For almost the entirety of my ‘big kid’ life, I’ve worked on school holiday programmes. For two weeks, four times a year, I’ve organised and led daily schedules to keep your kids entertained while you gallivant off to do things like ‘work’ and ‘other things’. As anyone in this line of work will tell you, it’s hugely rewarding, but also massively draining both physically and mentally. I’ve often described my brain afterwards as being similar to a heavily used soccer field after a rainy day. Still functional, but a slippery mess.

This is not Thom but it could be Thom.

This is not Thom but it could be Thom.

Spending that much time with kids, it’s only natural that you get a different insight into them. You learn things about kids that most people either don’t know, or don’t want to acknowledge. Unless you’re a parent. Then you know all of this shit. And more. You know the truth. You’ve stared into the abyss that is a child’s soul and you’ve seen the monster stare back. But for those of you who don’t have kids, or who have kids that haven’t reached that certain level of interaction yet, here are a few things to understand:

Lesson 1: Kids tell us all about you

Kids tell holiday programme staff a lot of things about their parents. They don’t tell us things like what they do for a living. Most of them don’t know. They just know the general direction that they work and that it always makes them late (to kids, being the last one to be picked up is ‘late’). No, the things they tell us are things that you’d probably rather they didn’t. Honestly, we’re not so happy about it either.

I’ve learned all sorts of things about parents that I really had no interest in knowing. Schedules, hobbies, even trips to New Plymouth to collect ‘seeds’ (that one was from my next-door neighbour’s kid), everything gets offered up with absolutely zero solicitation from me. They’ll tell you anything and sometimes kids are harsh. One child in particular came up to me one day and said the following:

“My mum’s got a big tummy.”

“Oh! Is she having a baby?”

“No.”

I don’t even think we were talking about tummies in the first place.

I remember walking with one group, and a group of animals somewhere started kicking up a massive racket. Of course, I got asked what why they were doing it and I told them that they do it if they get startled or scared. Then one girl chimed in with her opinion, “And maybe sometimes it’s because they just can’t take it anymore!”. That’s you, parent. Mum or dad, that was your daughter doing an impression of you. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say, but just be aware that your kid is a ticking time-parrot ready to repeat things you say to people they’ve only known for an hour.

Lesson 2: Kids lie

I mean this in the nicest way. Take this exchange for example:

“Where’s your raincoat?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Did your mum put it in your bag?”

“No.”

“Did you check?”

“Yes.”

“Well, check again please.”

Kid returns with jacket.

Now you could argue that I should let children feel like adults take them seriously, and trust them. However, notice here that at no point did I call the child out as the dirty liar that they are. I merely questioned their version of events to the point that they knew it was better to go and actually get the jacket than continue with my line of questioning. This is important stuff! When that kid ultimately goes to jail for tax fraud, it’ll be better for them if they tell their lawyer the truth rather than have their lies picked apart by the prosecution.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes a kid is quite happy to go out in the pouring rain without the jacket that they know they have. I’ve seen it happen. Several times. This also applies to water bottles, lunch, and important medications.

Many of you will be unsurprised with this lesson and to those people I say, ‘Lesson 2 applies to Lesson 1’.

Lesson 3: Kids are accident prone

Like Lesson 2, this is a bit of a ‘no duh’ and I hear you! But what most of us fail to realise is just how accident prone kids are. I swear you could suspend one in a cushioned anti-gravity chamber and they’d still find a way to graze their knee or shatter their skull. On one particular occasion I watched as a running kid turned a corner, only to have his bottom half continue on in the previous direction. It was the closest thing to ‘human drifting’ I have ever seen. I can imagine it happening in a future Fast and the Furious movie, with the kid eventually growing up to be Vin Diesel (not Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who we all know has always had perfect control of his body).

Holiday programme staff know this. We know this because we’re the ones that have to fill out the reports when little Alice rolls down a hill and somehow kicks herself in the face. It makes us hyper-aware of potential hazards. We’re basically in ‘defensive driving’ mode non-stop and even that’s not enough. I’ve seen two kids running down a hill with a staff member calling out for them to slow down. The first one took it a step further and stopped. The second one failed to maintain a safe following distance and ran into his friend, smacking his nose on the back of the first kid’s head and making it bleed.

It’s a tricky balance, making sure the kids are able to take risks and have fun, while also not forcing everyone to stop what they’re doing because someone fell off a rock. That’s why my first response technique is as follows:

“Ooh, hey mate, are you bleeding?”

“No.”

“Cool! Let’s go then!”

It works. If the injury isn’t major, they’ll walk it off within seconds. If it is, then at least I know if they’re bleeding or not.

Speaking of blood.

Lesson 4: Kids are fucking scary

We like to think that the imagination of a child is filled with wonders. That’s true. A more accurate statement though would be ‘the imagination of a child is filled with wonders, many of them blood soaked’. As a holiday programme educator, I’m quite happy to act out a whole story where I end up being the villain, stealing some precious artifact only to be caught by what can only be described as a roiling mass of children. It’s fun. I laugh, they laugh, and then that one kid in the background shouts out “Let’s skin him and wear him like a cloak!”. This is usually followed by a few “Yeah!”s before they try to take me down. Luckily kids brought up in the digital age are unlikely to carry Bowie knives or possess the necessary knowledge to correctly prepare a carcass. Still, it’s a bit off-putting.

This same strange tendency towards the feral also seems to come out as soon as you do anything related to hut building. I remember taking a group of kids out to learn how to make bivouacs as part of a ‘Survival’ day. The intent was to teach them life skills. Things that could help them if they ever got lost tramping or, as uni students, do what I did one year and say “I reckon we can just bushwhack through from Karori to Brooklyn.” without any solid understanding of the topography of Wellington and the presence of an eco-sanctuary between the two suburbs. Don’t worry, my drunken navigation skills looped me back to Karori within one hour.

But back to hut building. You can imagine my consternation when almost immediately upon entering the bush, the previously happy-go-lucky kids descended into what can only be described as a Lord of the Flies type situation. Sticks became weapons, mud became warpaint, teams became fiercely territorial tribes and let me tell you, if I hadn’t been such a reasonable diplomat between the groups, they’d be coming for you next. Their time spent navigating the overgrown site behind our building changed them. They no longer cared for the audacity of peace, but rather wished for the swift conquest of all the lands accessible by their tiny marching feet.

I’ve seen this happen over and over again. The minute you switch to an activity involving chasing, survival, or anything with sticks, you unlock that dark core of violence that dwells in every child’s heart. Parents know it’s there. That’s why we try to stop our kids watching violent television. It’s not that we’re afraid of the kids being traumatised. We’re afraid of them getting ideas.

You might think that these lessons I’m sharing show that I don’t hold kids in particularly high esteem, which is completely wrong. Kids are great. They’re hilarious, they’re sweet, and they present a totally unfiltered way to experience the world. They’re also bleeding, bloodthirsty blabbermouths who will tell you that the sky is made of butter if it means they don’t have to get that raincoat.

Still better than most adults though.

Thom Adams is a science educator and parent-time comedian. A gigantic nature and politics geek, he’s instilling the virtues of making accurate animal sounds in his daughter who insist on calling giraffes cows to mess with him.

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