Taking my very active 5- and 7-year-olds to the park is starting to drive me crazy. I feel like I'm constantlynegotiating sand toys, going the right way on the slide, and general "sharing with others." It's moreexhausting for me than my kids, and those guys are the ones running laps around the play structure. How badis it if I never take my kids to the park again? For all of us?
—Playtime Is Over
Dear Playtime Is Over,
Dig if you will the picture (with apologies to Prince):
You, sitting on a bench with a book in hand—a long novel. You have 25 pages left. The bench is one that sits on the periphery of your local playground. Although you've stacked stuff on it many times before—the sand toys, scooters and helmets, reusable grocery bag (likely Trader Joe's) teeming with snacks, backup outfits, sunscreen, the four stuffed animals your daughter begged to bring and promised to carry (but soon after reneged on that pledge) and other crap—you haven't actually sat on it much. In this tableau, however, it's just you (seated—I can't stress that enough), the book and two little kid backpacks. The kids, who carried the packs in, are out there in the playground scrum, entertaining themselves. You finish the book in this sitting.
Take a moment now, if needed, to compose yourself after that intoxicating meditation. When I was in France trying to get a handle on what they do as parents that's so different from the average mom in my neighborhood, I spent a lot of time at playgrounds. In fact, had I been anywhere but France, people might have thought I was a creep sitting and watching ... sans les enfants. Over there, nobody noticed. I looked like any other mom—except that I was probably paying more attention to the scene on the jungle gym—French moms don't play audience for every last twirl.
Playgrounds are for children, not parents.
A huge part of reforming the exhausting dynamic of me following in my kids' wakes to diffuse any strife or discomfort was seeing that it didn't have to be that way. I started to realize that my daughters weren't inherently needy and whiny—I was just letting them be that way, perhaps subconsciously even encouraging them to be so.
Then there was that five seconds of video footage. Let me explain: One pivotal day, my youngest begged for me to be "the monster," a job that entails chasing her around and atop the playground equipment. We did this a lot. My other daughter wanted me to jump rope with her—mind you, this was all before I really knew how to say "no." To end the grumbles, I let my oldest play photographer, handing over the digital camera (requisite at all times in the purse of a helicopter mother) while I appeased the other one. Little did I know, she'd found the video setting and documented exactly what I looked like out there, running around like a boob, desperate for my children's approval. The scene was monstrous, all right. And I sure hadn't seen anything like that in France. Delete.
So, I ended it with a lecture—not a discussion. I sat my girls down and told them that we'd been doing the playground all wrong and that, from now on, there was a non-negotiable etiquette to be followed, including:
Whatever you want at the playground, you bring yourself. If you don't bring it home, I will—and then I'll donate it to the Salvation Army
Playgrounds are for children, not parents
If you can't get along with each other, we will go home
If you want to show me a cool trick on the bars, slide, swings, etc., I will watch once (so you may want to spend time practicing before the debut)
You are always welcome to come sit with me, but not to whine. If you want to whine, we will go home (yes, going home is an important idea here)
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a novel to finish.