Sunday, May 29, 2011

Playground or Battleground?

I took Sophia to the playground up by my mother’s house. She lives in a town where: 1) many mothers do not have to and choose not to work; and, 2) many other families have two parents who work very high powered, high paying jobs and have full time nannies. So, that’s who the playground was packed with on this gorgeous, sunny day—mothers with their children, nannies with their charges. Many of the mothers (but not all) clustered in conversation or on cell phones, some of the nannies commiserating with each other or also on cell phones.

Wanting to give Sophie more independence, I sat off to the side, observing, while she tried to make a friend. She approached girl number one, who was filling a bucket with damp sand “Can I help you?” Sophie asked.

The girl whipped her long hair around, “No! I don’t need any help.” Sophie turned to me, looking stricken. I motioned for her to come over. “Now, that wasn’t very polite of her,” I said, “but she doesn’t want someone to help her right now. Look around for someone who seems friendly, someone who smiles or would like for you to help and go ask them to play.” Then I caught myself. “On second thought. Don’t ask. Just join in.”

I believe for years I was making a critical error in teaching kids with disabilities to make social overtures by asking peers to play. When a child asks, “Can I play with you?” she places the power in the other child’s hand, and what child passes on an opportunity to wield power? Asking establishes hierarchy. It says “I am in the one down position from you.” It gives the opportunity to reject. But, after observing children, a confident child will just join in or suggest ideas that excite the other children.

Sophie went up to a slightly older girl and added a shovel full of sand to the child’s castle. The girl said, “Hey! Don’t step in my moat!”

To which Sophie replied, “Okay.” And suddenly, they were playing together.

It wasn’t long before a boy about three years of age came careering over and jumped on their sand castle. The girl was mildly upset and yelled at the boy, who wandered off. Remaining just close enough to observe when the castle would be ready for another wrecking. The older girl and Sophie rebuilt and the boy came over again, and stopped on the castle. This time, the girl ran over to his mother, who was mid-conversation with a friend, she turned in the direction of the girl, and loomed over her. “He stomped on my castle! Two times!” The girl cried, exasperated.

Still standing, the mother angled her body towards her child. In the most bored of voices she said, “Henry, come here.” Henry dragged his feet over to where his mother was standing and looked away, towards the rest of the activity on the playground. His mother was looking over his head, staring at some spot in the distance in the opposite direction. Anyone who looked at them would not know that they were in conversation. She continued in her couldn’t-be-bothered tone, “Henry. It’s not nice to stomp on other people’s sand castles. Tell mommy you’ll never do it again.”

“I’ll never do it again,” Henry parroted.

“Now go play,” waved the mother, turning back to her friends and drawing her cell phone out of her pocket.

At this point, Sophie and I had begun to play together. We had built a castle of our own, for me, the queen. She stuck a flag in it, and was trying to find a suitable dragon to guard the castle when you-know-who showed up.


My reaction was automatic. It was the same reaction I would have given Sophie, had she done this twice before and promised me she wouldn’t do it again. It was the same reaction I would have given my students, back when I was a teacher.

With a tone, I said, “Excuse me!”

His mother snapped out of her cellular stupor and came over. “What did he do? Did he just kick her?” The way she asked indicated that this was a distinct possibility.

“No, no. Nothing like that. He just destroyed her sand castle.”

“Oh, well from the way that you YELLED at him, I thought he had hurt her.”

“No, he didn’t physically harm her.”

“Look. If you have a problem with my child, you come to me,” she barked. As if I was supposed to know who, in this sea of mothers, was his.

Then she leaned over to Henry and said, “What that woman did is WRONG. NO ONE has the right to yell at you.” And she continued on in this way, talking about how awful a human being I was, dragging him off.

Of course, she said nothing about his role in the interaction. His behavior. From what I could tell she just reinforced, 1) it is okay to damage other people’s property; 2) if I tell you not to do something, you don’t have to listen; 3) other adults have no authority over you; 4) I will defend your honor, even if you have done something naughty.

Interestingly, after his mother talked to him, Henry approached me. He looked at me in earnest and, though his speech was difficult to understand, I believe he was trying to make reparations. I was kneeled down to his level and in the process of listening to what he had to say, when his mother came marching over again, and yanked him away by the arm, “Do NOT talk to THAT woman.”

Well, fine. I knew better than to argue. Sophie and I moved to another section of the sandbox and continued to play together.

Still, I felt rattled by the experience and couldn’t help but replay it in my mind over and over again. Had it been Sophie, I would WANT someone to reprimand her. In fact, just moments earlier, Sophie was seated next to another child on a wide metal slide. She was banging on it with her feet, which she had once enjoyed doing with a friend before. But this boy was disturbed by it. He asked her not to. Then she smirked and did it again. At which point, I jumped in and said if she did it again, she was coming off the slide. And she stopped. It wasn’t that I thought banging on the slide was inherently a bad thing to do, but it was bothering this other kid, and knowing that, Sophie still did it. Not nice.

It is my opinion that at this age, kids don’t have the skills to work out their difficulty with each other. There will be plenty of time for “work it out on your own,” after they learn how to do just that. But having that expectation, without giving them the tools to be successful, just leads to conflict. Oh, there are some kids who intuitively know what to do and say, but from my observations of the playground, that seems to be the exception, not the rule.

It’s a fine line between hovering and educating for success, fostering a socially skilled child now, so I don’t have to deal with the repercussions of a rude, bullying or entitled child later. But I'd like to err on the side of caution.

The way I see it, the playground is preparation for life.

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