There is something irresistibly magnetic about the playground outside Sophie’s preschool. It’s not just Sophie. I can hear each child as they cross the threshold out into parking lot, begging, “Can I pleeeeese go on the playground? Just for eight minutes?”
They have learned to ask for small and unusual amounts of time, the way the homeless might ask you for 13 cents, so you wind up giving a dollar.
I am weak. Each day I give the dollar when I go to pick her up.
Sophie knows all the angles:
“But look! [Insert name of her best-friend-of-the day] is there! Oh pleeeeeese?”
“Everyone else is on the playground, why can’t I go?”
“I barely got any time on the monkey bars today.”
I really really try not to operate from a place of guilt. But sometimes, okay most days, I fail. Only the rain deters us.
We pass through the clanging metal gate, Sophie bolts to join her friends and I join the other parents who have been suckered into their 8 minutes on the playground. We stand there sweating, in heels and sweaters that kept us warm in our air-conditioned offices that afternoon.
Sophie is swinging from the money bars, “Watch this!” she calls skipping to every other bar, her tiny tan biceps popping out all over the place. I watch. “Watch this!” she calls again, as she does each time she makes another pass over the bars, “This time gripping the long bars on the outsides, shifting inch-by-inch, her legs swinging madly from side to side, like a pendulum. I watch. Sophie and her friends have discovered a thousand ways to traverse this flat metal ladder. Their hands are calloused. Their bodies are wiry and compact—the envy of even the fittest among us, who run miles and miles each week and still cannot attain what they do in pleasure and play.
Another child hops onto the monkey bars on the opposite side.
At this stage, I prefer to let Sophie handle the majority of her own playground negotiations. But, with other parents around, I feel a particular obligation to make sure that Sophie is taking turns, and not bogarting the monkey bars, as she is wont to do.
“Let, Anastasia have a turn,” I tell Sophie.
“Okay, Mom,” she said, swings across two bars (To defy me? To taunt Anastasia? Because she wants to?) and hops down.
“Can I have my snack?”
I pull out the handful of goldfish she has persuaded me to bring out onto the playground. Instantly Anastasia is at her side.
“Sophie?” she says with the lisp of a younger child, “can I have some?”
Sophie crinkles the bag and pulls it closer to her.
“Sophie,” I warn, “ask her mother if it is okay, and if so, share a few with Anastasia.”
“No. It’s my snack.” Begin scene.
“It is not nice to be eating in front of someone and keeping it all to yourself. You can spare a few.”
“It’s okay,” the other mother says, “we’re about to go have dinner.” She is trying to smooth things over. But I have asked Sophie to do this thing and she is unyielding, so now I’ve dug my heels in too.
“She can share a couple,” I say.
Meanwhile, Sophie is scarfing down as many gold fish as she possibly can. Her mouth is full, and slivers of orange cracker, shoot through the air as she announces, “I’m almost done.”
“Give her one. NOW.” I am using my I-Mean-Business voice.
Sophie ceremoniously takes a bite of her second-to-last goldfish and hands Anastasia the other half.
“Sophie! That’s not what I meant!” Now I’m pissed.
“What? I’m sharing like you said mom.”
“That is not sharing. No one wants a half-eaten goldfish straight from your mouth.”
And as I am uttering these words, she takes the very last goldfish and pops it into her glutted maw.
“Okay, Soph. Since you can’t be generous with your friend, I’m not feeling terribly generous myself. It’s time to go home.”
“Yep. It’s time.”
“I did share! You saw me share!”
I am hearing the words “disengage” in my head, but it’s overridden my need to teach this kid a lesson.
“That was not sharing. How would you like it if you asked to share a snack with me, I took a bite out of it any only gave you an itty-bitty piece.”
“But it was MINE!” Sophia wailed.
Platitudes are one of several educational strategies Sophie’s school employs to foster emotional intelligence. “Sharing is caring,” is one such saying that is drilled into the children by their teachers. At home, during play dates, I hear it tossed back and forth between Sophie and her preschool pals as a weapon. It is the warning, the reminder that comes before a righteous reclaiming of an item, “Leah, sharing is caring [grab marker].” And, of course Sophia uses it when it works to her advantage. “Sharing is caring,” she informs me, when I have a delicious chunk of homemade granola in my hands. “Sharing is caring,” she reminds me when she wants me to hand over a bowl of popcorn during a movie. But when it comes to Sophie being generous with what she’s got, Sharing is excruciating.
At least it is right now.