How Smartphones Saved My Playground

The New York Times Complaint Box coughs up another rant about parents neglecting their kids in favor of their tech toys. This time, it’s about playgrounds.

Yes, playgrounds have become the new home office for a lot of working parents. They’re a place where you can, with relative safety, ignore your happy, busy child for an hour while checking your e-mail.

I, for one, am not complaining about the change.

As a mom, I always hated the playground. Don’t get me wrong, I like pushing my kid on the swings for hours on end as much as the next mama, and I build a mean sandcastle. I’ve even been known to follow my toddler down a twisty slide on occasion.

What got me was the parents. Playgrounds are full of parents. They’re lurking at every picnic table and behind every climbing structure, just waiting to spring out and strike up a conversation. Maybe they want to brag about their babywearing prowess, and compare notes on carriers. Maybe they spot me breastfeeding my toddler and want to offer up a long, apologetic soliloquy about why breastfeeding just wasn’t an option with their child.

Some of these conversations are enlightening, but more often they feel like a subtle game of one-upmanship. Who’s the best mom? The Most Attached Parent?

Worse, there’s the Looks. When the Good Mothers are hovering over their tiny angels, cheering on each heroic rung their child crosses on the monkey bars, I’m sitting in the shade with a book. It’s not that I don’t like to play with my kids. It’s that I honestly think they’re better off being allowed to play on their own.

That’s not simply an excuse for lazy parenting: there’s a mountain of research demonstrating that young children thrive best when they’re given long periods of unstructured play without adult interference. Try telling that to the quietly disapproving parents kneeling in the sandbox with their kids, though.

Being the only mom sitting down on the playground, letting my kids wander practically unsupervised 20 feet away, was a pretty lonely road.

Then came smartphones.

I noticed the change gradually. People just weren’t looking at me so much anymore. I’d be pushing my daughter on the swings, or letting her plays pirates under a slide while I looked at my magazine, and no one seemed to care.

Parents stopped asking nosy questions about my own parenting style, or oversharing about their educational philosophies and potty training woes. No one even gave me a stern look for wiping my kids’ nose on the edge of my T-shirt when I forgot to bring tissues to the park.

Had my kids just gotten older? Was I hanging out at better playgrounds? Was the cultural gestalt finally tilting back in the direction of mothers minding their own business and just accepting differences in parenting styles?

I didn’t know. Then, I noticed what the parents were doing instead. They weren’t more focused on their own little darlings, or just quietly minding their business. They were looking at their phones.

Suddenly, everyone from the slouchy stay-at-home dad to the mom in the powersuit by the swingset had the Internet in their pocket. And they all had better things to do than police my parenting.

I haven’t been treated to a playground parenting lecture in months. No one has conspicuously shown off their toddler’s ability to recite the species of 17 different mammals in alphabetical order, or snobbishly deigned to offer me a tissue when they see me smearing muddy kid snot on my jeans.

They’re in their own worlds, and they’re welcome to stay there. It gives me space to enjoy the playground with my kids on our terms. Which, since I’ve joined the smartphone wielding masses, include checking my e-mail while the kids dig their way towards China in the sandbox alone.

Photo: yago1

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