January 25, 2020

‘If you concentrate on your breathing,’ said a little voice at my elbow as I made my way round Bigtown’s parkrun this morning, ‘then you won’t feel like giving up.’

Looking down at the little girl who was about to overtake me, it occurred to me that, while up until then I had been feeling quite good about my run,  clearly I was giving off the air of someone who needed some encouragement and advice.

‘And as you go down hill, the important thing is to make sure your heel hits the ground first,’ she added.

‘I have to slow down on the downhill bits to protect my knees,’ I said, ‘so you’d probably better go on ahead.’

We wished each other luck for the rest of the run and she powered off to find another middle-aged adult to completely demoralise in the nicest possible way, and I mused that, while childsplaining can be annoying to the middle-aged runner, she’s probably got a good 80 years (if society doesn’t change) of mansplaining to look forward to so I was glad she was so confidently, if obliviously, sharing her knowledge while she could.

I was a terrible childsplainer myself, being a bookish child who took a while to grasp that adults don’t like being corrected by precocious brats (my housemistress at boarding school never forgave me for ruining her anecdote about her cat being called Diogenes because it had climbed into a biscuit barrel as a kitten by pointing out that actually Diogenes had never lived in a barrel, he had just said that one ought to be able to). I was full of the joys of learning and genuinely thought that sharing all my fascinating knowledge was a generous act. It took me into my early adult years to learn to gauge people’s reactions and start to check whether they in fact knew anything about the subject I’d just read an interesting article on before expounding on it at some length.

And this, indeed, is the real issue with those who never grow out of childsplaining, be they men or not. We’ve all mounted our hobby horses from time to time – it’s human nature to want to share the thing we find most compelling (never, but never, ask me about cycling policy if you’re in a rush to get away). On average, to generalise wildly, women get socialised to take up less air time, or at least check occasionally that the person they’re talking to is interested in what they’re saying (and indeed didn’t actually write the article that they’re banging on about). On average, to generalise even more wildly, men don’t. Sometimes men react to accusations of mansplaining as if we’re asking them not to explain anything, even if we ask, but it’s not sharing knowledge that’s the problem – it’s doing so, and continuing to do so, regardless of whether that explanation is wanted or not.*

Unless of course you’re ten, and you’re full of the joys of running, and you just want all the adults around you to share them too. In which case, carry on, little running girl, until you get it beaten out of you by the lesser joys of growing up.

* I will confess now that I’m still not perfect at this myself. But I do at least get embarrassed when I catch myself doing it.