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Playground Etiquette Part I - Shades of High School

 Maddie and I have been hitting the playground regularly since late spring and I can honestly say it’s an amazingly complex place to hang out. Having become, if not a pro, at least a seasoned veteran of the Urban Jungle Gym, I thought I’d pass on what I’ve learned; I’ve also culled tips and comments from my mommy focus group, and hopefully all this will make your initial forays into the playground a little easier to handle.

When my wallet was stolen recently at our local playground, I knew someone on the scene had taken it. Irrefutable fact. So I stood in the middle of the play area and announced – loudly – that someone had stolen my wallet, that I’d like it back, and that other parents needed to be on their guard. A few moms came over to offer sympathy and advice, but no wallet showed up. I headed home to call the police.

The next day my friend Ingrid told me that after I left, one of the mommies approached her as a recognizable friend of mine, and proceeded to harangue my friend for my speech. She said some of the mommies didn’t appreciate how I accused them of stealing my wallet. Ingrid, who’s a fiery Latina, said, “Excuse me? You find out someone’s the victim of a crime, and all you can think of is yourself?”

Later on I tracked the mommy down and confronted her in a very nice way. I asked her if she really believed that I was accusing her personally of stealing my wallet; she said no. This to me says that she chose to hear what I said in the worst possible way, knowing it wasn’t correct. But I am struggling to serve God in all situations, and I dug deep and saw how it may have hurt her, s

I apologized if my poor choice of words (she suggested I should have said, “My wallet’s been stolen” rather than the more inflammatory “Someone stole my wallet”) made her feel bad or look wrong in front of her child. She suggested that, next time I’m the victim of a robbery, I should choose my words more carefully and said I’d have had many more mommies helping me if I did.

I went home and wanted to cry. When I first started strolling past the park this spring, steeling up my nerve to drop in and start swinging, I saw all these mommies and daddies standing around chatting and they looked so confident, so comfortable. I couldn’t figure out how I’d 1) break through the stranger barrier, and 2) ever fool them into thinking I knew what I was doing.

Guess what? Every other mommy is just as scared and insecure as you are.

The truth is, the playground is high school gym class all over, and whether you’re in Nebraska or California or New York City, you’ll find the same players on every patch of asphalt.

First you’ve got the Natural Competitors. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dodge ball, rope climbing, agility drills, whatever, they’ve got to do it, do it better than you– and make sure you see it. On the playground, here’s what this looks like:

You are pushing your child in the swing. Your child looks bored, so you start clapping your hands. The mommy next to you springs into action, singing the ABC’s to her child. The next mommy down the line also sings the ABC’s.

In French.

Or it’s verbal: “How old is your child?” “10 months.” “Really? And she’s not walking yet? My girl was running by 9 months. Well, I’m sure yours is fine.”

My advice: don’t get sucked in. It’s tempting, but not worth it.

Then you’ve got the Serious Athletes. They’ll give you unasked-for tips on improving your running time, tell you why drinking pickle juice before playing soccer is the way to go, and so on. As mommies, they’ll sidle up to you as you slide your daughter’s Lovey into her grateful arms and hand you a Xeroxed article explaining how babies raised with Loveys have a lower IQ and can’t get into Ivy League schools. They’ll notice you giving your daughter a bottle, and will stare intently at its contents, trying to determine if it’s breastmilk, and ok, or formula, thus earning you a “friendly” lecture. They’ll offer all sorts of helpful advice on preventing tantrums, the use of pacifiers, how your baby’s not dressed weather-appropriately, snack selection, and more. You get the picture. I encourage you to smile politely and thank them for their intentions. If I disagree with their opinions, I’m not going to lie and say, “What a good idea!” but I’ll try to avoid a debate as that’s part of the “fun” for them and is nonproductive for me.

Next are the Slackers – the people in gym class because they have to be, who hate it and plan on doing as little as possible to get through the semester. You can recognize these people easily – moms or nannies on cell phones while their charge is running around with a sharp stick near their eye, dads pushing a miserable baby in a swing while reading the entire paper, and worse. I’ve seen caregivers strap a two-year-old into a stroller and sit with the child in the park like that for over an hour. Too lazy to watch and follow the child around, the nanny’s following Mommy’s instructions that Baby get to the park every day. These people break my heart, largely because the children are sometimes dangerously neglected. I encourage you to resist the urge to lecture the caregiver; it will fall on deaf ears. Obviously, that goes out the window when a child runs unchecked into a street. Which I have witnessed.

And finally, there are the rest of us – the regular girls who aren’t particularly athletic or gifted, but are willing to give it a try because we know exercise is good for us and we might even have fun. Believe me, you are just as much of an “expert” mom on that playground as anyone else out there, and for every Serious Athlete who makes you feel like a bad mom, there’s a Slacker who makes you look like Super Mom in comparison. We’re all a bit of each at different times; you can’t help but measure your child’s height against the girl standing next to her, or have days when you want to zone out while your child runs around. But by and large, you’ll find parents who are looking for other adults to talk to, commiserate with, learn from as their kids play. Learn to recognize the people I’ve described, take them with a grain of salt, and you’ll be fine.

Keep your head in the game, and realize it’s just gym class. But better, because you don’t have to wear those awful shorts.

Next week, we’ll talk about some practical guidelines for playground navigation. 


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