A troop of little boys in catholic school uniforms marched into the gym. I’m not someone who usually goes goo-goo for little kids or anything like that (if anything, I’m actually kind of afraid of them), but even I had to admit that these kids were pretty cute. They’d come straight from school to celebrate Patrick’s 9th birthday.
The party started off normally enough. I helped the first few kids into their harnesses and met my coworker, Colin the Lifeguard. I guessed Colin was somewhere in his 40s. He had the characteristic tan skin and bleach-blond hair of someone who’s spent a lot of time at the beach, and he wore a necklace with three fangs dangling from it (before Colin, these fangs had belonged to a sea lion).
Things went downhill when Colin asked everyone to listen up while he went over the safety rules for the gym. On cue, the adorable little boys began running, screaming, and attempting to strangle each other with balloons. Someone found the light switch and started flipping it on and off, creating a strobe effect. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a night club for catholic school-going demons. While Colin attempted to control the situation, the kids’ parents looked on with pleasant smiles, but did little to help restore order. It was at this moment that I realized why my mom had signed me up for activities in my youth. I’d always thought that she wanted me to get exercise, make some friends, and maybe learn how to dribble a ball around a field. Watching the chaos and the way it had become our responsibility to contain it, I realized the true purpose of activities like climbing, soccer, ballet, etc.: to give parents a reprieve from their children (with perhaps the distant secondary goal of getting their kids into an elite institution for higher learning). I had to admit that, were these my kids, I’d probably end up killing them if I didn’t have people like me to look after them a couple hours every day.
When the kids weren’t climbing with Colin or me, they were wrestling on the floor and climbing higher than they were allowed to without a rope. The worst offender in this category was Thor, Patrick’s older brother (I’m very interested in what changed for the parents between child 1 and child 2), who is on the non-competitive climbing team at the gym and thinks he’s god’s gift to the sport of climbing. He was unmoved by explanations that I would lose my job if he didn’t come down, and enjoyed striking provocative poses while on the wall.
At every opportunity, Patrick reminded us in his best outdoor voice that it was his birthday, which roughly translated to “I get to do whatever the f— I want.” One of the better behaved kids at the party, a kid with blond curly hair and glasses, informed me that he was a boy scout. As a boy scout, he took great interest in the knot I used to tie him in. He asked me to show him how it worked, after which, he insisted on tying himself in. This would have made my life easier had he actually been able to execute the knot. Untying was something he could manage on his own, a service he then insisted on providing to all his friends. Every time a kid came off the wall, the boy scout would rush over and start untying the kid’s knot, completely undeterred by his friend’s shoves.
Colin was, admirably, trying to teach the boys a string of commands to check safety systems before climbing. When this inevitably failed, he resorted to scare tactics, describing the importance of safety systems on a multipitch trad climb in Joshua Tree. The boys, entirely unfamiliar with the concepts of Joshua Tree, multipitch, and trad, remained unmoved. When they finally took a break for pizza and cake, Colin joked about putting cyanide in the pizza.
My second party that day, which I worked with a former parkour artist, was a birthday for 7-year-old girls. They were infinitely calmer and better at following directions than the boys. I vowed that, if I ended up having kids, they would all be girls.
After working a few birthdays, I’ve made some observations. One I call “the rule of birthdays,” which is that the birthday kid is almost always the best climber. Unlike most of their peers, they usually have some previous experience. The other kids fall into two categories: the ones that intuitively get it and the ones that don’t. Some kids, no matter how many times you remind them that the legs are stronger than the arms, and all they need to do is stand up to reach the next hold, just can’t internalize it. There’s actually a third fairly rare category, the kids who don’t want to climb at all. These kids usually spend most of the party glued to their parents’ sides. The party I was working had one girl in this category, Coco, a roundish blond with a mom in an all denim designer outfit and leopard print flats.
Periodically, Coco’s mom would bring her over to me, announcing that Coco was ready to climb. As soon as I approached her with the rope, Coco would begin to cry. At one point, we got as far as tying her in. Her mom led her over to the wall. Coco wanted to climb while holding her mom’s hand. Once the mother made it clear that she had no intention of going up the wall in her “fancy shoes,” Coco dissolved into tears again. Her mom knelt so their eyes were level and in a raised whisper said, “This is embarrassing. I don’t care if you climb or not, but we’re at someone else’s birthday party. You can’t just sit here crying.” Coco continued to cry. I stood there, reflecting on how I had no idea what the right answer was for this parenting dilemma. Do you let the kid walk away and give up, even though they’re fully capable of getting up the wall? Is that teaching them to throw in the towel too soon? Do you make them go up the wall while sobbing? That seems kind of cold. You want them to feel like you have their back.
As Coco’s mom continued to try to coax her daughter onto the wall, I looked at the two of them. They were a mismatched pair. While Coco was blond and a little chubby, her mom was a classic west Los Angeles mother–honey highlights in artificially straightened hair, skin bronzed to perfection, a huge diamond on a hand topped with black talons. Her face appeared hard rather than old. I glanced around the gym. All the party moms were thin, toned, and tan. Their little 7-year-old daughters were all different shapes and sizes, styled according to their imaginations rather than images they’d seen in TV and magazines. Looking at their moms, I saw what the future held for these girls. I wondered what each would have to do to her body to make it fit into the same mold as her mom’s.
Maybe I’d rather have boys. I’m not sure I could raise girls in west LA in good conscience.