Bullying the playground

imageBullies: They’re not just for kids anymore.

We’ve all seen the sitcom episodes or even heard tales of parents bullying each other on the playground. It’s a tough and tight space, and not just for the kids. After all, that’s my kid that just got pushed on the ground by your kid. Then there’s the intrinsic competition that inevitably creeps in… my kid can climb those stairs better than his. And let’s not even get into the special circle of hell reserved for debates about high-fructose corn syrup and gluten. Parents can’t even agree on whether or not spanking is okay. The sandbox can be a tricky place for the adults as well as the kids.

And since becoming a stay-at-home/work-at-home feminist, I’ve had many encounters with the playground crowd. Early on I tried joining different “mommy groups” and ventured on to Meetup to try and find other progressive, feminist parents to hang with by the monkey bars. But it was a non-starter. Half a dozen playdates and group-meets later, I have found that there aren’t that many moms at the playground like me. I guess I’m just an eclectic mix of pragmatic (yoga pants and running shoes) and feminist (no, gender does not matter at the toddler age). I know there are other feminist parents out there, but maybe they work or don’t live on my side of town or whatever. And that’s okay… until there’s a problem with another, less liberal, parent on the playground.

Let’s take what happened today: My daughter and I went down the park for a pre-nap run-around.

At 20 months, my daughter is in full-on toddler mode and she loves the park. And since she takes after her father, she is also very tall, sometimes a head and shoulders taller than other kids her age or even ones a little older. Because of her height, she’s a lot more comfortable with her body and can attempt some things that other kids her age can’t (because, for instance, their legs aren’t long enough or they can’t reach high enough). This is a mixed blessing, of course. I don’t have to hunch over when I walk hand-in-hand with my toddler. But I also have to keep her from taking risks that are a bit out of her developmental range without the benefit of a few more months of language skills that many kids have by the time they are her height. (How I envied the mom at the park today who could say to her 2.5-year-old, “Let’s try something else.” and the response was, “Okay, mama.”) My daughter’s language skills are coming, but they are all but eclipsed by her physical skills.

My guiding philosophy with playtime is that it is a time for kids to develop skills and learn about risk, which is a lasting benefit from my years as a nanny. This is not necessarily fun or easy as the parent, as we want to protect our kids from falling down or having disappointments. But it’s how they grow. I do my best not to hover but to be a heartbeat away if necessary.

Unfortunately, I have found — sometimes the hard way, like today — that my brand of parenting at the playground is pretty unpopular. It’s almost routine for me to hear a gasp here or there as I let my daughter climb higher than other kids or don’t immediately rush over the moment she trips (often she gets right back up as if nothing has happened, and that’s a good thing). Now, I’m not talking about letting her do things that I know would be dangerous or to not help her if she has hurt herself. I’m talking about normal bumps and measured risk. Let’s be real: Everything on the playground could be dangerous. You can’t remove all risk or all danger, especially when you add in multiple kids and other variables. But that’s part of what the playground is for — an opportunity for kids to learn how to use their bodies and to grow skills and brainpower. But, inevitably, someone disapproves — “Oh my!”… “Is that your kid?”… “Are you gonna…” — of how far I let my daughter run without me right on top of her or how much I’m willing to let her try using her body on the jungle gym.

Today was by far the worst example of this. We went to a park in my neighborhood and there were a few other kids — conveniently, all right around my daughter’s age — playing. At this park there is one main jungle gym that has a few different slides, a climbing tunnel and something that I refer to as a metal high-beam/metal rope-bridge. At about 3.5 feet off the ground, it’s a metal beam that goes between two slides. (I have a good sense of how high it is because my daughter just clears under it.) Spaced evenly along it are level foot-steps (they are kind of like steps but don’t go up and down) and along both sides there is a series of metal bars that resemble a rope-bridge shape. So there are lots of hand-hold places at lots of heights all along the way and the steps are even and flat, so it’s not that challenging. The only challenge of it is that it is off the ground. To be fair, my husband does not like this thing and will not let our daughter play on it. But I do. She takes to it like water! She hits every step and doesn’t struggle at all, since her legs are more than long enough to reach. Plus, I stand next to her with  my hands out the whole time, because something like that does warrant a bit of helicopter parenting. (I told you, I’m not a barbarian about it.) And frankly, she’s taken headers jumping off the couch (which is not that much closer to the ground) that are probably worse considering our flooring is not nearly as padded as the playground mats.

So, when it comes to this beam thing, I decided to let her do it when I could be sure that (1) she could physically do it with minimal help; (2) she understood that this was an activity that must have an adult present (which she does because she always waits for me); (3) that letting her do it a couple of times gets it out of her mind and she goes on to less risky activities that are more fun for both of us. Plus, she enjoys it.

But today, we were seriously bullied by a couple of grandparents out with their three-year-old granddaughter. Now, this kid hit my kid. This kid pushed my kid. This kid got mad at my kid when she was in the tunnel. And on and on. But I tried to help my daughter deal with the situation, because it’s going to happen in life. I tried to steer her away from where that girl was playing. And we tried to just do our own thing. But this playground just has the one big piece of equipment and these two girls are roughly the same size, so they want to do similar things and are also trying to figure out how to play with other kids. This couple was especially full of nervous clucks for me. In fact, at first it was just the grandmother in the playground and then she went and got the grandfather to basically regulate my parenting! Don’t believe me?

So, the platform to step off onto the high beam thing is the same as the platform to enter the tunnel and a small slide. The girls were climbing the stairs up to the platform and then had a three-way choice: tunnel, slide, or high-beam. As the adult, you can’t be on all three sides but the grandfather decided to camp out right at the high-beam side. So, when his grandkid bullied my daughter away from the tunnel and she was uninterested with the slide for the umpteenth time, she turned to go on the high beam. And since there was an adult there (this grandfather), she just went right for it. I mean, to her, there’s an adult so it’s all good. Now, I move around to the high beam opening and am right there, but not fast enough before this man pushes my daughter backwards back on to the platform! Gently, yes. But pushed, yes!

“That’s not for you,” he says.

Excuse me? Did you just push my kid?

I’m trying to get in to this tight space where the high beam opening is and he is blocking me with his body. He even has his arms up to block my daughter, who’s trying to put her foot out again, and in doing this is now blocking me from reaching my daughter completely. In basketball this would be getting boxed out, which for my non-basketball loving readers means that someone has positioned their body to maximize blocking you at every possible point. I was boxed out from my daughter by a bullying grandpa! Now I’m pissed and worried because my daughter does not understand what is happening and she’s stepping out onto the high beam without anyone actually helping her! I finally had to physically push the man out of the way to get a hold of my daughter and then ask him to move out of my way so I could help her across. Fuck him and his judging attitude! But also fuck him for pushing my daughter and telling her that using her body was not for her!

And let me just say that the only time my daughter came anywhere near hurting herself today was when that man got between me and my kid but was paying more attention to scolding me (isn’t this a bit advanced for kids their age? I mean, my granddaughter isn’t coordinated enough to do it and she’s older…) than actually making sure my daughter was safe. Needless to say we left pretty quickly after that.

I enjoy taking my daughter to the park and I’m not going to stop just because of some judgmental parents/grandparents. But bullies really do take the joy out of the experience. And, let’s face it, they are also potentially taking the joy out of the experience (not to mention some safety) for the kids.