Mastering Playground Politics
The playground is a great place, but when there's a battle of the wills or a run-in with another kid, how do you rectify the situation so you can all get back to fun?
The Great Toy Swap
When you’re at the park, what do you do if another child walks off with your son’s bucket of sand toys? Is it OK to change your daughter into dry clothes at the pool? What about sharing snacks with other kids? For parents venturing to the park for the first time, these situations can be a source of indecision and stress, but if handled correctly, they’re really no big deal.
With all the trouble you go through to cart your children’s sand toys, pool noodles, arm floaties, and whatnot around, it’s only normal that you’d like to come home with most of your gear. Well, forget it. In a kid’s mind, one of the best parts of going to a park, pool, or friend’s house to play is getting to investigate and use someone else’s new and interesting stuff while ignoring all the wonderful doo-dads that his or her parents carefully selected and spent good money to buy.
On top of that, it’s pretty much an unspoken rule that kids share their toys at the pool and playground. The chances are high that your child will one day come home with someone else’s shovel, and your sand sifter will wind up in a stranger’s garage. It’s just toy swapping karma, so get on board with it.
However, if your little one is scooping happily in the sandbox and another kid attempts to leave the area with your toys, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Honey, that’s Ethan’s bucket and he’d love to share it with you, but let’s keep it in the sandbox.” If your suggestion falls on deaf ears, gently remove the toy from the culprit’s hands and say, “I’m sorry sweetie; that stays here.” Then tuck it behind you for a while until everyone’s distracted and playing again, at which point you can surreptitiously toss it back into the group.
Putting your child’s initials on all your stuff with a permanent marker also helps when it’s time to go and you’re attempting to collect your things … which happen to look exactly like everyone else’s because everyone in town bought the same bucket of plastic toys at Target.
What About Snacks?
Just as someone else’s toys are much more appealing than one’s own, the same goes for another kid’s snack. Children who gag at the sight of dried fruit or a granola bar will eat creamed spinach if another child seems to be enjoying it. While swapping snacks is normal among friends and playgroups, it can be dicey when an unknown child asks you for a cookie. A good way to avoid the situation is to only allow your child to eat at the picnic table, rather than eat in front of other kids in line for the slide. But if you’re approached by a child who asks for a couple of goldfish crackers, a safe response is something like, “Of course you can have some. Just ask your Mommy if it’s OK.” That way the mom knows what Junior is eating and you won’t be guilty of triggering a goldfish cracker allergy attack (I’m kidding of course, but these days you can’t be too sure!) or messing up someone’s low-carb toddler diet. Besides, once a child goes off to ask his mother’s permission, it’s a pretty safe bet that his mother will tell him to quit mooching off strangers and to eat his own food.
The Bare Necessities
While handing out food is acceptable with Mom’s permission, there are a few items that you should never feel shy about borrowing or giving to another parent: water, sunscreen, wipes, Band-Aids, and swim diapers. These things are vital to the health and safety of kids, and most parents carry plenty of them, so it’s no big deal to lend a hand. In fact, most parents would prefer to give away a swim diaper than have another child contaminating the pool with a dirty one. As for sunscreen, bandages, and wipes … they cost pennies and everyone understands that you can run out or be caught without them, so just ask the nearest person for help when you’re stuck. They’ve most likely been in the same situation themselves and will be happy to repay the kindness that someone performed for them in their hour of need.
The Naked Truth
Everyone’s got their own standards of decency. On one side of the spectrum, there are the super-shy moms who can’t bring themselves to nurse in public, while on the other side, you’ve got the body-beautiful, earthy moms who find all naked bodies a work of art. Most parents fall somewhere in the middle, but almost all fall prey to parental vanity, thinking that our babies-in-the-buff are precious and adorable without realizing that those juicy little rumps might make someone else feel slightly uncomfortable.
After an informal poll of parents at the local pool, the consensus seems to be as follows:
- It’s OK to change an infant’s diaper at the pool, but no one wants to see or smell a giant three-year-old’s poop being cleaned up, so take toddlers to the restroom.
- Publicly stripping a child under age three to put into dry clothes is fine, as long as it’s done quickly and the child isn’t allowed to run around without pants. However, most moms said that if you can have a friend hold up a towel during this process, no one will be the wiser and everyone will go home happy.
Believe it or not, the problem with nude children at the pool isn’t with other parents—they’re used to naked kids running amok at home after every bath and diaper change—the problem is with other kids and folks without children. Any kind of nudity can be very disconcerting for body-conscious teenagers and can bring up a host of difficult questions from curious younger children who may have never seen a naked girl or boy. Older folks who may have grown up in a less let-it-all-hang-out society can also get annoyed, especially if there are changing rooms available nearby.
If you do decide to strip your child at a public pool, remember to never allow a naked child in the pool, since doing so would violate about a million public health laws!
Keeping The Peace
Taking more than one child to a wide-open public space means dividing your attention between one who wants to play on the swings and another who’s running off toward the slide. Unless you tie the children together, it’s inevitable that you will lose sight of one of them at some point and must rely on the goodwill and good sense of other parents to pick up your little one if she falls down or correct her if she acts up. We’re naturally protective of our children and it can really raise a mama’s hackles to hear another adult admonish our kid for throwing sand or cutting in line, but think of it this way—if another parent actually summons the nerve and effort to correct your child for a misbehavior, thereby risking the wrath of an overly sensitive mama, you can all but guarantee that the correction was well deserved. Since you didn’t see the situation occur, your only response should be, “Thank you for taking care of that. I really appreciate it.”
By the same token, never hesitate to put an end to bad behavior occurring under your nose. If you’re in the pool restroom and you see two older girls smoking in the stall next to you, by all means rap on the door and say, “Girls, we both know this isn’t the place for that. Please go outside.” Likewise, if a child slaps your munchkin at the park, go right ahead and say, “That is not how we behave! Where is your mother?” If she’s gone AWOL, reply, “You need to sit over there until she comes back and we can talk about this.” When the mom returns, simply tell her, “There was a bit of a skirmish over the dump truck, so I separated the children to keep the peace.” In most cases, his mother will thank you and tell her child to play nicely.
If there are bigger kids playing roughly in a designated toddler area, say something along the lines of, “Hey guys, this is a baby play area, so please be careful of the little ones.” The embarrassment of being called out in a “baby area” might send a few big kids packing, and your no nonsense tone should keep the others in line for a while.
However you decide to handle a situation, avoid being shrill and accusatory. Like lions watching antelope, kids of all ages can spot weakness in a heartbeat, so keep your voice calm and your tone matter of fact. You’re the grown-up, you said so, end of story.
Do Unto Others
Navigating playground politics is pretty simple if you keep the Golden Rule in mind: Treat other parents and children the way you’d like to be treated, and you really can’t go wrong. “Doing unto others” will keep the fun going for everyone and may even teach your children how to handle every day social situations with the grace and panache you demonstrate in front of them.
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