Parenting in public has shifted quite a bit since my oldest two were young. Some of it has to do with technology and I think a lot of it has to do with how approved parenting styles and techniques have transitioned over the course of the past two decades.
Once upon a time, parents would take their children to the public playground and either sit or stand around watching their children play and interact with one another while socializing with other parents. Keeping an eye on their children and monitoring their behavior and actions toward other kids, encouraging them to share space, play nice, and be safe in their play.
Now, we all seem to stick to ourselves, or only interact with the other adults in our group. With the exception of the very tiny and young children, many of the children are left to fend for themselves and interact in some kind of Lord of the Flies, self-managed playground interaction. Often, the adults, including myself, have our heads bent looking at the screen of a handheld, technological device, multi-tasking during our children’s play time.
This realization has been creeping up on me for about a month or so and was simmering in my subconcious since last Summer.
At the beginning of March I’d finally gotten a bus pass and decided we would make the trip to visit the church of my heart, in an adjoining city to the South of where we live. My spirit and soul were dry and thirsty. I was longing to hang out and fellowship with people I miss being around and engaging in worship and getting some good insight and teaching from the pulpit. This place is my Cheers, the place you want to go where everybody knows your name and is happy to see you walk through the door. In my case, not everybody knows my name anymore, since I’m an infrequent and inconsistent visitor, but enough people do and it is good.
An hour trip on four different transit vehicles, we arrived to discover a change in staffing had necessitated a reorganization of the Children’s Ministry and Adult classes, so we had an hour before service to just sit and have coffee, chat and catch up with some folks. Afterward, there was a potluck I hadn’t known about and we were blessed to be able to have good food and good company. Luna had a really great time, running around like crazy with all the other kids and when conflicts arose, we parents who had been socializing, each took responsibility for our own children’s behavior management. It was almost comical at one point because Luna had decided to force her way into the “fort” some of the slightly older kids had built so she could play with them. She thought it was hilarious to Godzilla her way in and just kept repeating the action, despite the protestations and requests of the other kids.
At this point, let me say that Luna has shown some signs of borderline social/emotional adaptation and developmental delays. I’m not sure if it’s because of our family circumstances and the things we’ve dealt with or if there is something organic in her development. It is something we’ve been working with the local school district and the teachers and staff at her nursery program to monitor and work with. There have been a lot of improvements, but she’s somewhat single-minded and can be oppositional/defiant in a very happy and sweet way. When she gets around a lot of new kids, it can be quite the adjustment for them and for her.
So, when the little girl who is about two years older came crying to our table, where I had been engaged in conversation with her mom and several others, about how Luna was continuing to destroy their fort, I made sure I pulled Luna aside and made her look at the little girl and her tears and talked to her about the connection between her actions, that she was enjoying, were hurting the feelings of the other girl and breaking personal bubble boundaries. Since we have watched our share of Ni Hao Kai Lan and many other shows that teach about relationships, feelings, and social interactions, we have a foundation and language where she understands these concepts a whole lot more than I ever did growing up.
The other mother wanted to teach her daughter to be less of a drama queen and learn to be more accepting and tolerant of younger kids and such. However, I felt it was important to not allow Luna to be a miniature bully, just because she was younger. I wanted her to understand that it is important to understand how our choices affect other people, to pay attention and recognize when our enjoyment is causing pain to others, and to realize that when that happens we need to adjust our choices.
It all turned out well and the girls are friendly when they see each other. The other mother and I have a mutual appreciation and respect for what we want our children to learn and how we each handled the situation.
This is a major contrast to what we experienced the following week and earlier this week when we went to the indoor play parks that are in the local malls.
The first incident was at a play park on a Saturday afternoon at a very busy mall with what felt like huge crowds of kids of all ages and sizes engaged in a variety of physical play inside an enclosure with several play structures to climb, crawl, and slide on, through, and down. Creeping and crawling infants and toddlers with their parents were interspersed with toddlers, preschoolers, and older kids. Several boys approximately 6 – 10 years of age were running and jumping as though it was a Parkour course and there began to be a trend where several kids would crowd through the tree slide and pile up at the base of the slide, one on top of another.
Luna thought this was great and hilarious fun and began throwing herself into the pile and trying to get others to pile on her.
As I continued to watch the increasingly frenetic activity, I realized that many parents were not watching their kids or interacting with them in any way. Some seemed to be taking an opportunity to lay their heads back and nap. Others were very busy socializing within their group. The rest were mostly looking at phones and tablets or just sitting with glazed over looks on their faces. It seemed the only parents who were paying attention were those of us with children under five.
As I saw the Parkourers racing around and tumbling over the obstacles, which included a lot of little ones, I became quite concerned that someone would get hurt. So, I identified the leader of the pack and called him over, scanning the sidelines to see if a parent might get concerned I was calling this child over to me. I cautioned him about paying attention to the little kids and requested he tone down the more dangerous stunts because it might tempt the little ones to follow suit and get themselves hurt. I repeated this a couple of different times. I did the same thing when I saw the piling up starting to get dangerous and out of hand.
One of the other parents of a little thanked be for being willing to speak up and take action. Not once, did any parent on the sidelines with the children I spoke to call their child over to find out what I had said or approch me to find out why I was speaking to their child.
The second incident was earlier this week when we went to a less populated mall with a smaller play park geared to the smaller and younger children. Here, Luna was one of the “bigger” kids and I continually monitored her actions and corrected her behavior, telling her to pay attention to the littler kids and to share space and take turns. One or two of the other parents would do the same. About halfway through our time there, some school age children and their parents entered. Mind you, the posted rules state that no child over 44″ tall was to be playing in the play area, however, it was evident that not many parents were concerned about adhering to this rule if they had bothered to familiarize themselves with the rules at all. One girl, who may have been early elementary school age, gained Luna’s attention and Luna started trying to engage with her and the friend she was playing with.
Fairly quickly, Luna went into pretend play mode where she became a doggy and only maneuvered on her hands and knees and communicated with high yipping sounds. This is something she does when she feels the need for attention and/or she is feeling out of her element and overwhelmed with too many unfamiliar people. At one point this little girl got a little frustrated by Luna’s behavior and rolled her eyes, while tipping her head to the side and looking over her shoulder, as if to say, “Catch a load of this weird little kid being stupid.”
I could have been projecting over that interpretation. However, I’ve seen that same look throughout my life when others were making fun of me when I was a child, when discounting and dismissing someone else’s concerns, ideas and opinions, and amongst family members interacting with one another. It’s something we learn do do by being around the non-verbal communication, which it has been said is 90% of how we communicate.
I watched this girl go around to others and point toward Luna, which reinforced my assessment of her attitude and the overall situation. So, I politely called her over and explained that Luna was only 4 years old and this is her way of playing and interacting. I told her that it was normal and acceptable behavior and that there was nothing wrong with it. She seemed to understand or at least get the idea I wanted her to stop looking at my daughter in that way and pointing her out to others.
I do think that I saw her go to her dad and tell him about what had happened. However, he didn’t seek me out to find out from me what had transpired.
Our children need us to be more conscious of their pretend play and how they interact with other children. They need us to teach and guide them in how to treat others in healthy and constructive ways, in the moment things happen. They need to know that we are willing to speak up and help protect and defend them when confronted with bewildering, hurtful, and overwhelming situations.
It’s okay to have your digital device with you and do whatever it is you are doing. It’s acceptable to engage in adult conversation with your co-parent, family, and friends who accompany you on these kinds of outings with your child. Just remember to consistently and regularly look and observe what is happening in your child’s world, engaging and encouraging them in safely and compassionately interacting with other children.