Old School at a New Park
I tend not to apply labels to my parenting style. There simply isn’t a singular label that fits. And I have no interest in adhering dogmatically or unyieldingly to an approach for something as important as, ya know, child rearing. But I have an undoubted ‘old school’ streak when it comes to certain things, particularly when it comes to playgrounds. Playgrounds offer children invaluable opportunities to engage in “raw” social interactions… those which are (ideally) less structured, less reliant on adults, and with a physical setup that allows for healthy risk taking in a variety of contexts. Unfortunately, this approach isn’t very popular at the moment, often putting me at odds with other parents and sometimes causing frictions when these differences bump up against each other.
But recently I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a new park where all gathered — at least on this particular day — seemed to adhere to a similar mindset. As we approached the play structure, Mayo (3 years, 4 months) saw a couple of slightly older boys (I later learned were 7 and almost 5) playing baseball. He made a beeline for their game and just up and assumed a position in the field. No words were exchanged, either between the boys or their mom and myself. I followed Little Marcus Allen to the swings (his favorite) located probably 50 yards from where the boys were playing. As I pushed LMA, I watched as Mayo chased the ball each time the older boy (Michael) hit it, sometimes tussling with the younger boy (Nick) in their shared pursuit. Each time, both boys popped up, sometimes grumping that they weren’t the one to successfully retrieve it, but always excitedly returning to their spot in the “field”. At one point, I made a nominal effort to involve myself in supervising the game, calling out, “Mayo, make sure your playing safely and kindly,” if only to communicate to the other parent that I knew his name and was capable of forming sentences. After one more prolonged tussle, she approached the boys from her vantage point — a stone wall off to the side — and encouraged Nick to play safely. I came closer and asked if everything was okay. She explained that Nick could sometimes be very physical. I shared that Mayo was the same and he loved to mix it up. We realized we were both worried our own child was the “rough” one and laughed at each boy having finally met his match.
I finally extracted LMA from the swings and the four boys proceeded to attack the climbing structure. Michael and Nick — two rough-and-tumble boys not unlike my own — were remarkably mindful and sweet with Mayo and LMA, particularly the latter. It was clear they had experience playing with younger children and understood how to accommodate them. Two more children wandered over, a brother and sister pair. The little girl, who looked about 2, immediately took me by the hand and led me to the climber, eager to show me how she went across the bridge. She got about halfway across, spotted LMA and his pacifier, 1 nabbed it from his mouth, and popped it into her own. Her mother ran over horrified, discouraging the girl and reminding her that she no longer uses a paci. My hunch is the girl recently weened off it and this might have been her first sighting of one since. Her actions were not malicious in the least… her facial expression seemed to say, “Oh! I remember those! I like those!” The mother apologized to me and I assured her it was no problem. She made several more attempts over the course of our time there and each time either me or her mom discouraged, the latter never taking issue with my involvement in the process.
We hung for about 40 minutes. At one point, LMA made his way over to an adjacent basketball court where two tweens 2 were playing absent any obvious adult supervision. They paused their game as he ran onto the court and replied to my apologies with a smile and a simple, “No problem.” The kids played well and even when they didn’t… when those inevitable but minor frictions that arise anytime you put small people 3 in contact with one another… they worked it out quickly and moved on. The extent of any active parenting that I saw was me helping LMA down the big slide, Nick’s mom telling him to keep out of a dust patch because of his asthma, and the little girl’s (I didn’t catch her name) mom trying to derail her pacifier grabs. Otherwise, we let the kids be kids. And guess what? It worked! It was such a relief to find a space where this approach was embraced, at this by this particular constellation of parents. No one was hovering, no one was stressing stranger danger, no one was insisting that children keep to themselves, no one was overreacting to every minor bump in the road.
Why does this experience feel so foreign? Is it the exception only in my particular neck of the woods and still commonplace elsewhere? This is how I remember growing up, but is nostalgia playing tricks on me? Was this your experiences? How do you all approach time in the park with little ones, especially when that experience is shared with unfamiliar families?
Image by George Eastman House