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The Complicated Field of Playground Politics

I’ve heard it before from parents with children older than ours — the playground is a lethal, social minefield for children, full of horrible bullies who want nothing more than to take your precious angel down. Take them down.

These parental tales of playground politics all seemed like a bit of dramatic overkill, actually.

Until last week.

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Our son was enrolled in a local park district day camp the next town over. He is 5, already a bit anxious about starting kindergarten in a few weeks, and did not know any of the other kiddos, who ranged in age from 5-8. Did I mention he is small for his age and getting a wee (pun intended) bit self-conscious about his size?

One day after camp on a beautiful day, he asked to hang out afterwards and play on the equipment. “Sure,” I said. I love to watch him play and realize that every summer he conquers new and different equipment. It's such an affirmation of childhood.

Within a few minutes, in the midst of a dozen or more kiddos scuttling about, I heard the repeated shout, “No one said you could play with us!” It took a few moments to realize that that admonishment was being leveled at my boy.

What the what? Did that punk just tell my boy he was not welcome?! But, but, but, was that boy, that taunting, mean boy not familiar with Vivian Paley’s mantra of early childhood education, “You can’t say you can’t play!” Where was this child’s mother or father? Where was the teacher that surely failed to teach him this most golden of playground rules?

Yes, it is safe to say I was having a reaction.

Parenthood is complicated. Playgrounds can be complicated, too, it turns out.

But I played it cool, as that is precisely what my boy was doing. He happily kept running around, doing his own thing. It was only then that I realized that my son had been playing on his own anyway. When the other boy approached and shouted at him, my son would just run along, shouting behind him, “I’m not playing that anyway!”

Cool.

Flashback to a few weeks earlier in the summer when on a playdate with a former classmate, it was my son who had been the taunter. How soon we forget!

In that situation, my son was thrilled to be reunited with his closest playmate from his first year of pre-school who had himself transitioned to kindergarten last year. They’ve managed to stay close, probably because me and the other mom so enjoyed one another’s company.

On that day, I had to intervene when my son became irate and started to yell at another little boy that wanted to play with my son and his friend. Sure enough, a boy, my boy, who knew better, was not following the golden rule of the playground as he loudly and repeatedly told the younger boy he was not welcome to play.

Sigh. Parenthood is complicated. Playgrounds can be complicated, too, it turns out.

In the end, I did intervene. In the end, I know that my son is not a bully or mean or prone to taunting.

The truth is that he missed his friend so completely and felt territorial when the youngster (or interloper, if you are a 5-year-old boy) wanted to play along (or cut in, if you are a 5-year-old boy). I get it. Empathy is one of the best tools we have available to us as parents.

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Things ended well in both situations, playground politics aside. While my son struggled to share his time with an old friend, he relented and enjoyed their time together. And that boy who told my son he was not welcome sought him out when his other friends left. “Want to play?” he asked my boy.

And they did.

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