Playground politics

I was witness to an unexpected standoff for child liberation earlier, and one which feels important to share.

We’d been in Hackney for less than an hour, and Orson was feeling the call of the local playground – more specifically the climbing-web slide combo that ticks all his controlled risk -taking adventure boxes when we’re in London.

When he got there, a child was already sat at the top of the slide. Once he’d climbed up the web to take his place in the queue, the child was still there – along with one other. The child on the slide seemed to have no intention of moving. He sat there, chatting, and holding on tight.

The three children exchanged ages – 5, 5 and 6, and fears – heights. Orson scampered down at one point to check in, and hurried back to offer his advice about how to move beyond the fear: ‘Just calm down, and breathe’.

By this point it seemed to me that the child on the slide was quite enjoying his position of power, and the other two children in the triad were intrigued by this new turn of events. They’d clambered up the web with one objective in mind, but seemed quite satisfied by the way things had turned out – the three of them, balancing bodies, desires and emotions, and deep in negotiation.

I was watching Orson closely, wary that for him frustration often becomes physical, and impressed by the composure he was embodying. I was watching the child on the slide’s parent too, a father. He was close enough, but not too close. Checking in from time to time, and checking his phone in between.

And then out of nowhere another father appeared. He strode up, seeking out the parent of the child who was failing to comply with the rules of the playground. The father of the child on the slide kept his cool, said that everything seemed fine and he was happy for the kids to work it out for themselves. The other father was not cool with this at all, and said that any decent parent would force their child away from the slide so that things could continue as they should. The father of the child on the slide was not willing to force him to do anything, and said so.

Things got heated for a while after this, with the other father swearing and shaming and generally seeking affirmation for his position that compliance with the unspoken rules of the playground was far superior to a child’s need for autonomy. The father of the child on the slide was rattled, but maintained his calm. And then he mentioned me.

“She’s not bothered, and her child is there. What’s your problem?”

I was not in easy speaking distance, but I moved closer when I heard this. And I (loudly) told the father of the child on the slide that I was super impressed with the negotiation skills I’d been observing between our children, and grateful for the respect he had shown for his child’s autonomy.

The other father didn’t seem to appreciate this, and found a stump near the fence to retreat to. A few minutes later the three children, who had been blissfully ignorant of the exchange below, worked it all out, and each took their turn on the slide.

There was so much in his position that bothered me: the dehumanisation of someone else’s child, the disconnect from his own daughter who at no point was distressed by the situation, the ease with which he laid into another father in the park with no hint of compassion or understanding.

And yet what I take away with me most strongly is the resolve of the parent of the child on the slide. It would have been way easier in the moment for him to have bowed to the expectations of other parents, to have forced his child into compliance and anaesthetised that pain with the knowledge that at least he wasn’t being judged by his peers.

I celebrate him for standing up for his child.

And I invite us all to do the same.

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