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Battlefield Playground

June 16th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  12 Comments

“Ought we to have foreseen the outburst of anger and resentment which her conduct, and thus our conduct, called forth?” –Mario and the Magician, Thomas Mann, 1929

It was, perhaps, a mistake to go to the playground on my first full day back in the country.

In the previous two weeks I’d become accustomed to seeing children do their dangerous work–laughing, skipping, teasing, mucking around in mud, hunting lizards–with only the barest supervision. I’d seen the children of Chechens, Adjars, Mingrelians, Anatolians and White Turks all survive this neglect. I never saw a single knee pad nor elbow pad nor bike helmet nor (more regrettably) car seat. I saw children up late and asleep under trees. I saw little boys playing tag in a Pankisi refugee center, I saw little girls playing pattycake on the steps of Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque. I never thought, Why are their parents not walking closer to them? or How will they control/protect this child?

Clearly I am not cut out for Upper West Side playgrounds, then. Consider all the rules I somehow violated when I took my kids to a playground in Central Park.

First, I sat too far away. I did this to avoid interacting with the mothers whom I had somehow sensed would find me distasteful. I found a perfect bench. It was on the far side of the fenced-in playground, in the sun, empty. All the others, the half-dozen mothers and nannies, sat clustered on benches ten feet away from the play structures.

I could still see all the children at play, including my own. But I did not have to smell them at that distance. And I didn’t have to be involved in the ruckus of children playing with children. It’s not abnormal for an adult to have a break from the shrieking and crazytalk. I love it for most of the day, but a pause is fine. And no child’s play was ever helped by having their parent or caretaker staring directly into it at close range.

So I sat on the far, far end. I tilted my head back and took in some sun. When I looked back again, my children were still there. I closed my eyes and took a breath of summer, which feels so different in New York, and when I opened them a few seconds later, my children were still there.

My second problem was that I did not rush to assist my children in playing. My five-year-old daughter came and asked to be helped up onto the monkey bars so she could play alone. I asked her why she didn’t want to play with the others, and she said that the older children had assigned her the role of one of the Bad Guys, and that she wanted to be the Good Guy. And without a prod from me, she said she would just ask if she can be a Good Guy. And then she ran back into the fray, and didn’t need me any more.

But I couldn’t help but look at the other bench. I could sense their suspicions. There were long stretches–up to 30 seconds even–where my children were hidden from view by a tree trunk or a jungle gym. And I didn’t pace, stalk, or call my children back to me. I thought that perhaps, in this well-kept playground that is entirely fenced in and where the only flooring is rubber mat, my children might survive.

I should say that I don’t want to make this about gender. As far I know, Chechens came in equal genders before the war and then after the war there were more women than men and I still admire their sensibilities. And there are many American women, including my wife on most days, who have a finely balanced sense of non-interference. But it is about gender, in that I was feeling quite like the distant father, and not minding the feeling, playing it in my head as a virtue that the mothers would never understand.

All this perceived suspicion finally came to a head when I noticed one of the mothers pointing at my 3-year-old son. He was playing in a pack of 5-7 year olds, all of them armed with thin sticks, running around. My son had some sort of wrist action involved as well, a slight side-to-side. This woman started following him around, asking where his parents were. My daughter, God love her, was nearby and tried to accept responsibility for the child. But the woman wanted an adult and was clearly not going to stop, so I stood up to walk over there.

What I couldn’t do, however, because of my jetlag and my generally sour impression of her and of all her ambient stress, was pretend that I wanted to hear whatever she had to say. But she said it anyway:

her: “Your son is swinging that stick around.”

me: silence

her: “He could hit somebody’s eye”

me: silence

her: “The eyes. The EYES.” (now pointing at her own eye, interpreting my silence for imbecility).

me: “He’s three. Every other kid here is five. He can’t even reach their eyes.”

her: “He can, too. It’s not safe.”

And so it went for a short while. I, sadly for this story, relented. I felt all the angry, uninjured eyes of the nannies and mothers and other controlniks staring at me and my boy, who is, after all, just a boy. So I told him he could take the stick home and play with it there and he seemed fine with that. He went back to playing with the bigger kids.

I should mention that my son is not new to this. He swung some sort of rubber tube around a few weeks ago and scratched his cornea (that healed on its own, thankfully). In the playground, after I took his stick away, he hit a five-year-old in the stomach and on the forehead, while playing Bad Guy. That five year old wanted his mother to make arrangements after the contact, so he told her and she told me and I told Nico that he shouldn’t hit anyone. And I do know that the moment Nico hits an older kid who doesn’t happen to be a bitchass mama’s boy, he will get hit much harder than he ever thought possible, and that will also be okay. It’s a good lesson to learn at some point.

I’m saying all this because I’m not pretending that it’s impossible that he might have hit someone with his stick. I’m saying it’s pretty damned unlikely that it would be something serious. And it’s possible that I set myself up for all of this trouble with my pre-corked resentment of the other adults. The only thing I know for certain is that kids will be fine if you just let them be kids, and I am pretty sure we are all suffering here from some enormous mind-disease when it comes to raising and protecting and coaxing and coaching and appeasing and controlling our kids. It’s intolerance toward the very nature of being a child. It’s stress that children don’t need, never asked for, and will never benefit from.


  1. Tim says:

    June 16th, 2011at 11:41 am(#)

    Yup. Take this to read at the playground today; you’ll enjoy it: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1969/12/how-to-land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/

    Also, there is a special place in heaven for moms and caregivers who don’t automatically give the cold shoulder/stink eye/evil vibes to dads who happen to be at the playground with their kids between 9-5 on a weekday.

  2. esa says:

    June 16th, 2011at 12:14 pm(#)

    could not agree with you more. all that controlling is actually harmful and detrimental to the normal balanced psyche of a human being, and works against resiliency.

    try to have a warm place in your heart for those mothers though- they are living through fear- what a terrible state of mind to be occupying.

  3. Lori says:

    June 16th, 2011at 12:42 pm(#)

    Ditto the Atlantic article that Tim posted. Perfect timing for your post!

  4. SCOTTSTEV says:

    June 16th, 2011at 2:06 pm(#)

    I would have taken the stick away as well. Though I agree with you on letting kids play freely and independently, playgrounds are becoming a zone where the best manners are required. I’m not sure where you could find adult-free space in the city, but my general neighborhood is full of unsupervised children.

  5. dadwagon says:

    June 16th, 2011at 8:58 pm(#)

    @scottstev very well, then. I will ship my child–and his stick–down to Richmond and let him do unsupervised things. The city life is for caged animals.

  6. dadwagon says:

    June 16th, 2011at 8:59 pm(#)

    @Lori, Tim: really great article. I’m starting to see more and more cogent, persuasive calls for sanity. And, of course, they have data to back them up, which should appeal to even the most research-happy, nervous among us.

  7. dadwagon says:

    June 16th, 2011at 9:00 pm(#)

    @Esa — Fair point about the mothers. And I should add that I stray into those moments of fear myself (of course) and it’s not fun, but somehow unavoidable…

  8. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    June 16th, 2011at 11:07 pm(#)

    Wait, the big kids had sticks too, but only the little kid was a problem?

    My son-in-law is shocked when my daughter tells him about the amount of freedom she had as a child. She says he thinks she was feral . . . but really, she was just allowed to wander around and play in the neighborhood after school.

  9. Carly says:

    June 17th, 2011at 10:14 pm(#)

    Stick stink-eye often comes from other parents who will then happily spend $50 on a homemade wooden toy rather like, uh, a stick. And then they start trying to tell you your kid shouldn’t eat dirt or run.

  10. karen says:

    June 24th, 2011at 1:17 am(#)

    When I found myself parenting by default (ie. miserably repeating the same shit my parents visited upon me with my kids) I got my ass to a parenting class. At the risk of being ridiculed, it was quite an eye opener.

    About halfway through the 10 week course, sibling rivalry was scheduled to be discussed and explored. That very day my two year old bit my 7 month old. THERE WERE TEETH MARKS.

    I attended this class, armed with this information. When the instructor introduced the idea of non-interference as a way of nipping the worst of the rivalry in the bud. The idea behind this was that both victim and perp are making unique bids for a parent’s attention. The question to ask: is there blood?!

    I was horrified. I was disgusted. Surely they weren’t serious. One of these was an innocent baby!!! I even insulted the teacher, the proud parent of a SINGLE 2 year old. What did she know.

    And yet. I was pretty determined to have an open mind. So I took the theory home and occasionally tried it out. Well … whadyaknow. Asking, is there blood, even 5 years later, is really really effective! I also let them work out most of their own problems in the parks.

    But the sticks? Um … I prefer they drop the sticks. Because it is all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.

    But then personally, I would have approached your kid, and any other brandishing a pointy whatever, and told them to put the sticks down. And then I would have gone and hung out with you. But I never did particularly well with the mommy sets anyway. So then you’d be stuck with me and your lovely summer’s reverie would be over. Cuz that’s how I roll. Ask Matt.


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