At the playground (ya know?) MAY 19 2009
Apologies to those of you who descend upon this site for the current and interesting; I'm interrupting for a little personal blogging and parental advice interlude. Something happened to Ollie and me earlier today and I'm still upset about it for reasons that are unclear, so I needed to get this off my chest.
I took off work a little early today to take Ollie to the playground. We'd been there about 15 or 20 minutes and he was happy playing in his favorite plastic car. Another little boy, probably about 2.5 to 3 years old, came up to him in the car and after standing there for a moment, slapped him in the face. Now, I've seen enough accidental toddler flailing to know that this wasn't it. And then he slapped him again...pretty hard. I could see Ollie drawing back, shocked and perhaps getting ready to cry. As I moved over to Ollie to intervene, the kid slapped him again and was rearing back to do it again. I grabbed his hand, said, "hey!" and moved him away from Ollie a bit.
Now, this is normal playground stuff. Usually the hitting isn't so weirdly premeditated, but whatever...they're too small to hurt one another unless there are shovels or sharp sticks involved. Usually you just let the kids figure it out themselves but not when one kid is just slapping the other one just for the hell of it. And in that case, the parents usually move in, settle things down, one kid apologizes to the other, everyone rolls their eyes -- kids! -- and everything's fine. It's not about discipline, it's about teaching kids how to deal with these situations through sheer repetition.
So, I'd moved the kid away from Ollie, just a foot or so...I didn't yank him away or anything. (I wouldn't even have touched him if Ollie hadn't been trapped in his car...I couldn't just get Ollie out of the situation easily.) I repeated "hey..." and started in on the standard toddler anti-violence speech that leads to an apology, blah blah blah. The kid smiles at me like the cat who swallowed the canary and starts to run off. I took hold of his arm again so that I could finish making the peace. (Sort-of side note: We looked at a bunch of preschools for Ollie, which are not so much schools as they are organized social mixers for pre-K kids. Many of the schools stressed conflict resolution for the "twos and threes"...getting the kids playing well together and helping them work though their problems with each other is important. That's pretty much what I was trying to do here.)
Then this kid's mom finally appears. She yanks her kid away from me and says, "hey, what are you doing?"
"Your kid was slapping mine. I was trying to..."
"I know that. I saw."
A bit stunned by that, I tried again. "Ok, I was just trying..."
She goes right to eleven. "How dare you! You were going to hit my child!"
My eyes and mouth are wide as this point. "What?!"
"You were going to hit him! You're an adult, much bigger than him, you shouldn't be hitting little boys!"
We went back and forth like this for a bit and I finally just said, "Ok, whatever. Listen, lady. I didn't hit your kid and I wasn't going to hit your kid. Period." She eyed me suspiciously and moved away with her son. Ollie and I left shortly afterwards; I was pretty upset and just wanted to get the hell out of there.
On the walk home, I felt sick to my stomach. For one, I was shocked by the woman's reaction to her child's misbehavior. And then that she thought that I was going to hit her kid. Had she pressed the point, it could have gotten ugly...she could have called the police to have me arrested. For performing normal playground toddler intervention kiss-and-make-up! Then I started thinking that maybe I had been too rough with her son without realizing it. That really made me feel ill. It occurred to me while talking to my wife after the fact that maybe I should have let the kid walk away after he smiled at me... perhaps I have the right to protect my kid from abuse but I shouldn't attempt to "parent" the other child in any way.
So, I guess my question for the more experienced parents in the crowd is: what's the etiquette here? Am I being naïve in thinking that the playground is a collective parenting situation when it comes to this sort of thing? Or is touching or parenting another person's child, no matter how slightly or what the intent, strictly off limits in this overprotective and litigious society? (Just to anticipate a common question -- If your roles were reversed, would you be comfortable with someone parenting Ollie in that situation? -- I'd say yes, if Ollie was slapping some other kid around, absolutely...break it up, make the peace, and move on.) I know you weren't there and this is just one side of the story, but I'd be grateful to hear your thoughts, either in the comments or via email. Thanks.