This past weekend, Jean, Sasha, and I made a courageous trip out to our local playground, two whole blocks away. Jean and I were tired, it was hot out, and while we wanted Sasha to get some running and playing in, we weren’t about to participate. Instead, we sat on a bench in the shade and watched as Sasha climbed ladders, slid down slides, and paid a surprising amount of attention to a year-old baby named Bea and her parents. She walked around with Bea, and ran and played and made sure to talk to Bea’s parents—she was performing for them, really, and checking in to see if they were watching.
As I observed this slightly weird dynamic—what did these parents think of this strange kid giving them so much attention?—I was reminded of a post I wrote almost exactly a year ago, in which I was on the other side of the line:
I’m out somewhere, with or without Sasha and Jean, and some child chooses me as a play pal, the adult who’s going to help build a castle out of blocks at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum or play catch in Prospect Park. I don’t mind this, exactly, but it’s disconcerting, and I’m trying to understand why.
On one level, of course, I wonder: Well, why me? Why not your own parents, kid? And then I look around and don’t see the parents, or see them (or the nanny) doing something else, on the phone or whatever, and it’s clear why I’m chosen: I’m available. Also, I’m pretty good at playing. I can be silly, I’m happy to jump and run and roll around, I can still sort of get myself into that frame of mind that seems irrational and erratic to adults but utterly natural to children.
Still I can’t shake this feeling that it’s weird to play with someone else’s kids. I don’t know what the ground rules are: Am I seen as an actual adult, or just a bigger kid? What responsibility do I have for the child? I try to remember my own childhood: Did I approach other, unknown adults to play?
Today, I think I understand this much better. Beyond our being exhausted the other day, we also wanted Sasha to learn to play on her own, to approach and speak to and make friends with other people, both big and small, without our chaperoning her through the process. Independence, I think it’s called.
Bea’s parents may have been wondering, Why us? Why not your own parents, kid? But in a year or two, when they start encouraging Bea to go off and develop her own social dynamics, they’ll get it, just as I get it now. Insight!*
*I promise: No more of this insight bullshit for a while, okay?