It was getting late—a little chilly and a little dark. But they had asked with such earnestness, and we all needed a little fresh air on our faces. So I said yes to a playground run at 5 PM on an early November evening in New England. And in a wink we were off.
The playground was blissfully all ours for about fifteen minutes. My sons played, ran, and did what they needed to do after a full day of being cooped up in the house. Things were going so well as to engage my maternal magnanimity; I was just about to suggest a post-playground dinner and movie.
But then the atmosphere changed. Decidedly. Two, then three, then a dozen children hopped the fence of the playground. They took over the equipment, yelled—at times at each other and then at no one in particular—and hurled expletives the likes of which even I don’t use, wouldn’t use. They were destructive, knocking over equipment, flexing their muscles, and, most notably, flying solo. They oldest was, perhaps, twelve, the youngest no more than six.
My children moved to another part of the playground minutes into their arrival. They did it effortlessly, I would argue almost instinctively. And though they could see me and I them, they asked me to leave the area where I was sitting and come over to where they were playing.
I stood in the middle of the playground—my children on my right, the other group of children on my left. And I was struck by the two worlds on display. On my left was a vision of my childhood—all manner of lack of supervision, socially unsettling behaviors to the uninitiated, posturing in the extreme. On my right were little boys—certainly not angels but the product of a very different experience, starting with a parent who was present.
My children said nothing and played heartily, but I could see they were aware, could hear the vocabulary lesson coming from across the way. But they never flinched; and despite the very audible and unnerving commentary flying through the shared air, I opted not to leave.
It would have been very easy to scurry away, to scoop up my children and save them, at least for this moment, from having to listen to and, yes, learn the lessons being proffered. But I didn’t. I stood still amidst the chaos. I let it play out. No one was in danger, and I thought better they should hear this vulgar vitriol with me nearby—let them see how to respond, how not to respond, then, later, how to make sense of it all. That was the parent in me, the adult.
The child in me stayed for a very different reason—for the familiarity this scene imparted, for the strange sadness it elicited, for the opportunity to allow my adult self to see exactly who I was when I knew no better, to see the theater of my own youth.
When we got in the car, Oscar, my nine-year-old, said, “Mom, those kids were really using some bad words. They were swearing.”
I immediately became defensive, thinking the next statement from my son, a young man who has enjoyed and is enjoying a very comfortable childhood, was going to be of the judgmental variety. So, I cut him off and said, “They were. But that doesn’t make them any less than you, you know.” I would have wagged my finger, I suspect, had I not been driving.
He then said, more gently than I knew a nine-year-old was capable of being, “I know, Mom. They just don’t know. They’re only doing what they know.”
And I thought about the wisdom of his words—about how we all are only doing what we know, that is until an intervening influence steps in and shows us another way of doing, another way of being.
My sons do not want for influences, do not want for direction. They don’t have to wait; they don’t have to hope. The red carpet is rolled out for them; they just have to choose to walk it. The path of our playground companions on that day is different. It was mine and has hurdles and thorns my own children will never know.
I took my sons out to dinner that night—nothing fancy, naturally—paper placemats and crayons upon arrival, but a treat nonetheless. And as much as I tried to be present for my children, at that moment and in that place, my mind was with the dozen children I left behind, the children who weren’t going out to dinner, who, if they were as much like my young self as I suspect, might not even have dinner unless they make it themselves.
Oscar asked me, as he doodled a tic-tac-toe game on his placement, what I was thinking about.
But instead of telling him, I picked up a crayon and put my “x” on his grid. His story is different from mine, and he had heard enough of mine for one day.