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Ball Pit Psychologist

A few years ago, I binged on the The Up Series documentaries. If you don’t know what they are, OhMyJebus get ready to spend a day on the couch, transfixed by the grand and cruel mystery that is the process of aging.

Here’s a description of the films, stolen from professor Wikipedia:

“The Up Series is a series of documentary films that have followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. So far the documentary has had eight episodes spanning 49 years (one episode every seven years). Every seven years, the director, Michael Apted, films material from those of the fourteen who choose to participate. The premise of the film was taken from the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

The last film made was 56 Up, so you can watch those kids’ lives from age 7 to 56! It’s like that movie Boyhood, but real. It’s brilliant and heartbreaking, and skillfully examines what role class and privilege plays in a person’s life pursuits. It also asks the question: “Do people really change?”

As I watched their baby fat morph to middle-age slack with impossible speed, it made me contemplate my own mortality and whether I’ve changed all that much since I was a kid.

Mostly, it made me think of ball pits.

My first part time job was working at A Kid’s Place, which is basically a poor man’s Discovery Zone (RIP DZ, we didn’t deserve you). I was 16 and trying to save enough money to go see the Dave Matthews Band live (the most embarrassing sentence I’ve ever typed.) I spent most of my days at A Kid’s Place (of my two weeks working there before I was fired for “laziness and insubordination” UGH WHATEVER I’M WAY DIFFERENT NOW) staring through the mesh netting and out the large windows to the Cici’s pizza across the street, willing myself to forget Jonathan Waldrop and how he didn’t love me, while children pummeled me with brightly colored balls.

If you are a person who doesn’t have children or has never worked around them, you might assume a ball pit is a sanctuary of playful joy and innocence. Something like this:

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If you have kids, or god forbid, have worked as a “ball pit supervisor” like me, you know it is actually more like this:

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Shit gets real in the ball pit.

That colorful, no-rules, mini-hunger-games arena attracts all types of kids, from the gentlest flower to the most maniacal Marquis de Sade. I saw (and smelled) it all. And after just a few days “supervising” that Lord of the Flies nightmare, I became convinced I could tell what kind of adults those little terrorists would become based on their behavior in the balls.

So now, inspired by the motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” I give you slightly altered, updated version:

Give me a child in a ball pit, and I will give you the asshole adult. Which one were you?

  • The secret pee-er. Did you know a ball pit is full of pee? It is. I never did the studies to prove it, but I hypothesize a ball pit is 70% pee. You might think that cute little kid smiling in the corner is taking a break from the game of “who can throw the ball the hardest directly in to Cynthia’s eye from a point blank range,” but she is not. She has subtly removed her pants and is working very hard at peeing out more urine than you thought could be contained in a 40 pound body, all while maintaining eye contact with you. She will grow up to work in event planning, shoplift from boutiques, and whisper “All Lives Matter” when encountering a protest.
  • The rule-enforcer/fascist. This little jerk walks in like he owns the place, even though he doesn’t even know the birthday girl. His favorite stocking stuffer he got last Christmas is a whistle that he wears around his neck at all times (this guy’s parents are the worst because they got their budding authoritarian a goddamn whistle as a way to punish the world). He revels in his afternoons of laying down the law, screeching “YOU CAN’T DO THAT,” and “YOU’RE OUTTA THE GAME,” and “EVERYONE HAS TO SIT DOWN FOR THREE MINUTES, NO TALKING.” He physically escorts kids to timeout corners, and he already has deep permanent frown lines. He will grow up to be a front desk security guard who, even though he sees you enter the building every day, will not let you in the morning you forget your ID badge. Or maybe he’s a politician who thinks women who have abortions (he’s trying to pass a bill to make them illegal, duh) should be forced to hold funerals for their non-babies. He likes to be dominated in bed.
  • The kid who’s already over it. I feel deep sympathy for this little one. There is a moment when this 5 year old looks down at the (undoubtedly) urine covered, low-grade plastic ball in her hand and thinks, “what’s the point?” She pats her little brother on the back, envious of his blissful ignorance, and walks slowly out of the mesh to join the adults bored on the sidelines. She will spend the next 15 years in near constant existential crisis, experimenting with as many religions as she does sexualities, all while feeling nothing. She will be the one to tell all the other kids that there is no Santa Clause, “of course there isn’t. Everything we know is a lie.” Boys will chase her, weak in the presence of her world-weariness and boney-shouldered shrugs, but she will only see them as momentary distractions from the banality of life. She will become addicted to and then give up smoking, alcohol, and hard core drugs by the age of 26. She will become an artist, drinking colored soy milk and then vomiting it up on canvass. She will experience a brief period of fame when Prince Harry buys ones of her “paintings” and falls head over heels in love with her. On the eve of their royal wedding, she will disappear without warning into a quiet life in a tiny house commune in Montana.
  • The Hero. You would like to find fault with this little champion, but damn it, you just can’t. She wears a different superhero t-shirt everyday, and most of them even have capes. Grass stains cover her patched jeans, and she laughs with total abandon as she jumps from the towering squishy square cushions and lands directly in the middle of the fray. She makes friends with the kid who is standing all alone and probably has some kind of learning disability. She’s neither rude nor kind to the ball pit supervisor, she’s too busy living her best life to be bothered. On Halloween, she dresses as Amelia Earheart and looks badass in a bomber jacket. She becomes Michelle Obama.
  • The preteen who is honestly too old for this. You shouldn’t put money on exactly how old this “kid” is, but his approximate age is Too-The-Fuck-Old. He’s got a little mustache and you’re pretty sure you’ve seen him smoking outside of the junior high. When the Kids Place front desk attendant asks him how old he is (’cause there is an age limit, sir), he says “working my way to 10,” with a little wink. He doesn’t seem like a total perv, but he’s not not creepy. He mostly practices throwing balls a little too hard at the large cushioned pyramid in the center of the pit (he’s being recruited for college baseball already). In his mid-twenties, he will still attend high school parties and get a 17 year old pregnant. He will never move out of his hometown and constantly refer to Europe as “so gay.” After three failed marriages and 8 kids, he will insist he’s found “the one” and marry a 21 year old who’s a friend of his oldest daughter. He is Mel Gibson sans tuxedo.

Obviously, this is an abbreviated list, but I’m guessing you could sort yourself into at least one of these primary colored categories. And don’t just say you’re the Little Hero, we wouldn’t all be in Gryffindor.

I went to that Dave Matthews band concert, by the way. I cringe to think what category of permanent asshole that makes me.

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