Thursday, August 12, 2010

On the Playground

I had trouble getting my head around things this week, so here’s a story from just before we moved out of Cincinnati.

Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.
- From the movie Finding Nemo

I took Pip and Polly to a playground a couple of weeks ago. The one we went to is in a great spot, set up on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River on one side and the local general aviation airport (i.e. private and corporate planes) on the other. The playground itself is set back off the bluff about fifty yards in a pocket underneath some large oak trees. It’s a nice playground because it’s not that big and all those trees create plenty of shade on a hot day. As an added bonus, the park is a bit tricky to get to, so it tends to be less busy than some of the others nearby.

We met some friends up there for a playdate. The kids are the same age as Pip and Polly and, they all enjoy following each other up, down, and around the playground equipment. Slides are a particular favorite for Pip. He can do the slide route over and over and over until he finally wears a hole right through his shorts.

This day it had rained the night before, and we were trying to determine the best way to dry the slide so that Pip et al could get rolling. I went back to my backpack to see if I had left any hand towels in there from a previous playground trip when I noticed the appearance in quick succession of about eight to ten SUVs and minivans. Within five minutes we were engulfed in a wave of children spewing forth from what seemed like every direction. Some preschool had decided to do a summertime ‘meet-and-greet’ at the park that morning and every parent there had brought multiple children with them. Suddenly there were kids all over the place, flooding the playground equipment and running around with the frenetic energy of ants after someone kicks over an anthill.

Pip was not pleased with this development at all. He likes focused play that is generally free of interruptions or distractions. He does not like a chaotic environment unless he is the one creating it. Whenever there is a lot going on around him, his inclination is to back out of the way, to seek out a spot of relative calm from which he can take a measure of things. In the past this spot has often been right between my knees. If things felt crazy, he would just swing in between my legs and hang out there until he found a zone of comfort or a satisfactory way to venture out beyond my shadow.

This day, that option was not available. The week before Polly had taken the training wheels off and started walking on her own. Up to that point I had always carried her around a playground in our backpack while Pip played. But now that she was walking on her own, it was time for her to get into the playground action as well. Unlike Pip, Polly does not mind crowds. She just dives in and goes about her business as if there was no one there at all. This day her business was attempting to climb up anything she could get two hands on. This forced me to follow her around very closely so that I could help her navigate the various steps and ladders while also keeping her from turning the wrong direction and falling on her head from a couple of feet up.

My unavailability left Pip confused. One second he wanted me to stay with him and the next second he was asking me where Polly was going. With all the chaos and the constant challenge of keeping track of Polly, Pip’s whole understanding of what a playground morning was supposed to be was upended. This new world as it was left him jumpy, uncertain, and slightly manic.

And then came a moment I had long dreaded while never fully appreciating how complicated it was going to be.

One of the pieces of playground equipment on this playground is a little single person spinner. It consists of a small circular platform set about a foot above the ground with a vertical pole coming up through the middle. The whole apparatus is mounted on a rotating joint that allows it to spin freely. During a moment of calm, Pip sat down on this platform to take a drink of water. I bent down to get Polly something out of my backpack about ten feet away. While rummaging around in there, I heard the voice of an annoyed little girl say “Get up.” I looked up to see this four-year-old girl standing over Pip with her hands on her hips. “Get up” she demanded once again. Pip looked over to me in confusion. This is not how we interact at home nor is it how we have taught Pip to interact with other kids. So, he was looking for me to intervene, for me to politely tell this little brat to wait her turn. He had no idea how else to respond to the aggressive entitlement of this little girl. But I couldn’t. This wasn’t my child, and the only words in my mind at that moment were not suitable to be used with children. As such, I was frozen in place as Pip stumbled up from the platform mumbling pitifully “I wasn’t done with my turn…” As soon as he slunk away, the little girl promptly sat down on the spinner looking slightly disappointed that Pip didn’t put up more of a fight.

The whole experience left me feeling pretty shaken. On the drive home I replayed everything a couple of times in my mind, and I realized two things:

First, I can’t always protect the kids from that kind of indignity. The world has its ugly moments. They are unavoidable, and my kids will have to figure out how to deal with them. I had known this logically but until that moment I had not known it experientially. There is no teacher like experience.

Second, I have not done a good job preparing the kids to handle such moments. It’s something of a double bind because the experience that they need to learn to handle is the very experience from which I am trying to shield them. There’s no reason to knowingly subject kids to barbarity, however small, just to ‘toughen them up’. But I do need to give them some tools to try out when such a situation arises again. Pip had no possible strategies to draw upon except walking away from things and, while that is an effective strategy in many instances, in this case it felt like a huge failure. He should have had an opportunity to defend himself and his place on that spinner.

Later that afternoon, Pip and I talked about the incident with the spinner and what he might do in future situations like that one. I told him that it was okay to say no to that little girl and then politely tell her to wait her turn. I’m not sure that he really understood what I was trying to tell him. The real lesson of the day – that Daddy can’t always intervene to create fairness in the world - was still too present in his mind. But I didn’t know what else to do. I guess the best I can hope for is that he’ll remember that the next time something like this happens to him.

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