The first time I took my toddler son to the playground, I wiggled my toes in the sand and looked around, feeling amused and delighted to be revisiting a place that, twenty-five years earlier, had been a near-daily part of my life. The sun was shining, my baby boy was beautiful, and all seemed right with the world. I handed my son the shiny new bucket and shovel I?d purchased just for the occasion, and as I did, two older boys threw a baseball across the sandbox and beaned my son squarely in the head.
On another occasion, a four-year-old spontaneously decided that my precious infant was his archrival, and proceeded to terrorize him in front of indifferent parents. When I suggested to the boy that his roughness was inappropriate, he looked me in the eye and shouted, ?Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!?
What was the right thing to do in these situations? Maybe a seasoned playground professional would consider these mishaps fairly standard, but to me, a new parent, they shocked me out of my illusion that the sandbox was all swings and giggles. The last time I was here, my only responsibilities were to dig, climb, and slide. Now, I would be called upon to monitor, surveil and adjudicate.
The kids weren?t even my biggest fear. I was more intimidated by the prospect of dealing with other parents. So my strategy was to try not to interact with them at all. In the case of the four-year-old terrorist, I tried to arrange my son in visual range of the other boy?s parents, so when their little hellcat naturally followed, they would witness his misbehavior and put an immediate, outraged halt to it ? or so I hoped. What actually happened was that they continued on with their conversation, oblivious to the fact that their child was attempting his own mini-re-enactment of the Jerry Springer Show. So I just grabbed my son in frustration and left. As I trudged away, vexed and grumbling, with my bewildered son in my arms, I felt as if I were an exile, traversing the sands of a hostile foreign land. And its king was a preschooler.
On the occasion when the baseball bullseyed my darling toddler?s velvety noggin, I reacted straight from the gut; I grabbed the ball from the sand and shrieked, ?YOU STUPID SHITS!? as I fast-pitched the offending plaything out of the park and into the parking lot. Cy Young would have been impressed, but judging by the looks on their faces when they whirled around to stare at me, the other parents weren?t.
My two basic problems boiled down to this: I didn?t know how to deal with other people?s kids, and I was scared to deal with other kids? parents. I feared that any reprimand to a child on the playground would result in the kid ignoring me and/or the parents swooping in to condemn me for overstepping the boundaries in a tirade of how dare you try to tell my child what to do. And this terrified me, because at the time I was so new at the parenting game I was barely sure I had the right to tell my own child what to do. Based on what some of these kids could dish out, I didn?t want to see what response I ?d get from their parents when I informed them that their progeny deserved to be sent to juvenile lockdown.
Eventually, however, I came to realize that parents generally respect other parents when they?re acting in the interest of protecting their offspring. It?s the most basic law of the parenting jungle: protect your young. Of course, you?ll avoid conflict if you can protect your young in a manner that doesn?t threaten anyone else?s ? like, for example, by throwing their ball into the parking lot. Looking back, I can see that might not have been the ideal strategy. Maybe today I would throw it into my purse.
Family therapist Suzanne Lopez advises parents that the best strategy is to abandon the separatist approach. If your child is being victimized, Lopez explains, a parent should treat the offender as they would an errant sibling. ?A lot of people make the distinction of ?that?s not my kid,? but the best way is to treat every child is as if they were your own. Address the child in a firm, loving and respectful manner, and remain connected to yourself as an authority figure, even when the child is not yours. If you?re really clear in a grounded way, children respond, believe me.?
In other words, don?t hesitate to play the ?I?m the adult, you?re the kid? card, even with someone else?s kid ? in a respectful way. It works surprisingly well at stopping a lot of little ankle-biters in their tracks.
If things get to the point where you need to bring a problem to the attention of another parent, Lopez warns that approaching another parent with ?You need to stop this behavior!? will only meet with resistance.?It?s more productive to phrase your request as an appeal for help in improving the situation for both children,? she says.
So, instead of, say, ?Would you get that goddamned little brat of yours stop stealing my kid?s bucket?? maybe try, ?Would your daughter like to ask my son to share his bucket? I?m sure they?d have fun playing with it together.? At least you?ll draw the parent?s attention to the situation.
Of course, if you just want to get rid of someone, there?s my personal favorite strategy: making up a lie. I?ve gotten pesky kids out of my path by wandering by the parents and casually saying, ?I think your daughter just said she wanted to you to push her on the swing.? No parent wants to be judged as inattentive, so this strategy will typically result in mom and dad falling all over themselves to show off how many books on attachment parenting they?ve read.
However, there may be situations in which the parent?s response doesn?t satisfy you. Whatever the case, it?s important to prevent an escalation of the
conflict, which means being as tactful as possible. Even if you?ve arrived at the conclusion that the parent is a total asshole, it?s important to bear in mind that your child is probably watching, and will grow up to emulate the way you deal with conflict. Screaming, rude parents wind up with screaming, rude kids.
If all else fails, there may be situations in which leaving really is the best option, like when the conflict comes down to basic philosophical differences. That?s why politics, for example, should be an off-limits subject for the sandbox sidelines, or whatever topic might be one of your own personal trigger points. The time I heard the mother of a preschooler tell a group of young teens practicing skateboard tricks that they ?shouldn?t be doing that in front of such young children,? I let myself get drawn into the conflict, and the situation quickly degenerated into a showdown: ?Skateboarding is not a crime!? I shouted. She fought back: ?They?re setting a bad example for my four-year-old!?
There was no settling this debate, so I chose to leave before things got any uglier. Sometimes, you just have to walk away and remember that tomorrow is another playground day.