Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Playground Politics

I don't really feel like I can label myself as a parent. 
I'm not an Attachment parent. I'm certainly not a Playful parent, and absolutely not a Helicopter parent. I do lean towards being a Free Range parent at times. I'm not a Mama Bear or Tiger Mom. I guess I can describe myself as a This-World-Is-Big-Scary-And-Demanding-And-You-Need-To-Start-Practicing-Now parent. I encourage taking on responsibility as a member of the household. ("No, it's your lunchbox. My hands are already full. YOU can carry it into the house.") I encourage trying to solve problems independently first before requiring parental mediation. ("Did you ask her to share the markers with you? No? Then go ask.") I kiss boo-boos, but don't allow them to become the end of the world. ("Oh, that's quite a scrape, I bet it hurts! Did that happen because you were running downhill in flip-flops again? Yeah, maybe you won't do that next time.") So I'm not all over my kids at the playground. They generally behave well enough for me to keep my distance, and I make sure they're in my sightline, even if that is too far off for me to actually hear what they're saying.

Urban playgrounds are a wonderful place to practice maneuvering in our big scary world. There are kids of different ages, races, languages, socio-economic backgrounds, and parenting philosophies. Boston has some truly world-class playgrounds, and in the summer, some of them have great fountains and water features. We met up with friends at one of our local sprinkler playgrounds on Monday. And experienced a unique parenting "opportunity." 

HeyMama, MeToo, and their best friend Rockstar were playing in the water with 3 buckets we brought along. We moms and Rockstar's baby sister were sitting in the shade, a good 30+yards from where the girls were at that moment. MeToo came running up to me. Something was up. She told me that someone else took one of the buckets, and wouldn't give it back. I looked over, and sure enough, a little boy had one of the buckets. "Did you ask him to give it back?" (The standard question.) "No." (The standard answer.) "Go tell him nicely that you brought the bucket, and you'd like to have it back." MeToo ran off. Now, I'm willing to step in as needed, but I want the girls to learn to use their words for negotiating these situations. When they're in good moods, they can be quite successful with one another, and especially with other friends. They use the word "please". They really do ask nicely. They suggest sharing, turn-taking, or trading, depending on the appropriateness in the situation. It's a delight to watch. When it works. 

Well, I watched MeToo run back to the boy. I watched her try to ask for the bucket back. I watched the boy drink water from the bucket. Then spit it in her face. She moved back. He spit again. She ran. He chased her, spitting water at her as she tried to escape. The words were not going to work today, no matter what she said. Now, I want my girls to be independent. But I also want them to EXPECT words to work. And have the expectation of justice. So I knew that it was time to actually get involved. I hauled my pregnant butt off the ground and met up with MeToo, who was pretty upset. I coached her on how to try again. I held her hand and walked up to the little boy. She tried talking to him. He ignored her. So I tapped him on the shoulder. He ignored me. He had a friend with him, who did notice me and talk to me. "She said 'please', " he told me over and over, referring to MeToo. Because even he knew that asking nicely and saying "please" actually deserved a response. I tapped the perpetrator on the shoulder again. I kindly asked him to give the bucket back. And refrain from spitting. He sulked. He gave it back. And ran off. 

A mom standing nearby commented that she and a few other moms had been watching the whole situation go down. They were wondering if they should intervene. The girls had put the bucket down, so he reasonably picked it up to play with. But his aggression made it too difficult to get back. The moms who noticed the situation were not the moms responsible for the boy. I noticed the situation from over 30 yards away. I was physically confronting the boy, even touching him by tapping him on the shoulder. But no adult responsible for him appeared. If I found another parent addressing my child, I'd be sprinting my giant belly across that playground. Especially if any physical touching occurred. I'd be more concerned about whatever my child had done wrong than what that parent was saying, but I'd be all over that. I was surprised that no one showed up.

I recently read an article written by the mother of a frequent perpetrator:
She described an afternoon at the playground with her son, who has behavior issues, including violent outbursts. She described the "bullying" parents who came to report to her about the aggression inflicted upon their kids by her 6 year old son.

My first "real" job out of college was teaching at a school for children with autism and severe behavior disorders. I have seen truly violent and explosive kids. I have helped restrain them until we could ensure the safety of the other kids in the class. I have witnessed the heartache, frustration, and exhaustion of their parents. I have seen the mountains that these parents have tried to move to help their children. So I definitely had some sympathy for the mother writing the article. But only some.

The problem is, there are too many children at playgrounds who aggress NOT because they have a psychological disorder, but because they have parents who aren't supervising them adequately. I wasn't going to make a big deal out of MeToo getting water spit at her by the little boy. ("Oh you poor poor thing! What did that nasty little boy do to you?" - heck NO!) But I also wasn't going to allow her to be a quiet victim, either. It's hard to know why other kids hit or spit just by watching them from a distance. Do they have a diagnosis? Or are they just punks?

At my teaching job, when we took the kids out into the environment, we took the utmost care to ensure that the outbursts of the kids could not affect other children in the community. Our students needed the chance to learn to behave appropriately, but not at the expense of other kids' safety. 

I agree with the author mom who described the approach of the other parents as harassing and unhelpful. If I saw a child hit my girls on the playground, I'd be right there in that moment. I'd first try to coach them through a confrontation. "You hit me and that hurt me. Please don't hit me again." I'd encourage the other child to talk through it. Or maybe even apologize. And if the other child didn't, I'd ask him/her to point out their parent. Or start yelling "Whose kid is this?!" until they showed up. Then I'd go ask them to help orchestrate the confrontation between the children. Tattling 30 minutes after the event is pointless. The kids have moved on. Parents need to, as well. But aggressive children, including the one in the article, need the chance to hear about the harm that they're causing. They also need the chance to make amends, like we have to do in the grown-up world. They need the chance to receive forgiveness. They can help teach our other children about what it is to lose one's temper and feel really sorry about it. We all do it at some point. We need to practice giving and receiving forgiveness for it. 

I'm sorry that the boy in the article with the behavior problem didn't get that chance. And I'm sorry that the boy at our playground didn't really get that chance, either. And I'm sorry that the author of the article sees herself as a victim. Because she's absolutely not.

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