Dealing with other kids at the playground -- and their parents.

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 Playground Pointers:

Watch closely. Many playground problems arise out of a simple lack of supervision, and most toddlers can’ t yet stick up for themselves. BUT…

Don’t hover. The playground is rich with potential learning experiences that hovering might quash.

Encourage sharing and taking turns. Make sure your child waits for a turn on the swings and slides and also gives others a chance to play.

If you can’t bear to risk having a toy lost, then don’t bring it, but don’t squander a wonderful opportunity to teach about sharing by refusing to bring anything.

You can’t reasonably tell small kids not to touch each other’s toys, but packing up will be easier if your child’s initials are on her 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.