The playground is not just where kids run, shriek, climb, knock each other down, and accidentally run over somebody’s fingers with the Little Tikes baby coupe. It’s also a battlefield for parental styles; a floor for the awkward dance of release and restraint of our kids around others.
Bringing Up Bébé, since 2013, has been a book du jour of ways-parents-get-it-wrong-in-America (and Canada, we’ve resigned). According to Pamela Druckerman, the kids go to the playground, and the mommies employ a laissez-faire approach by relaxing on a park bench in their high heels together to visit. The mommies do not go onto the playground.
I need not describe the opposite – the mom that non-stop hops up from that park bench as if it’s hot with a wire, calling her child by name again and again not to ‘go over there’, and cheering ‘yay!’ when their kid reaches the other side of the monkey bars – while carrying them across. These are sometimes the same parents that are ‘no-touch’; refereeing all interaction between their kids and others on the playground. They are horrified and apologetic if their kid touches another kid’s face, or pats them a little too hard on the arm. They’ll say something like, “Parker, be nice!” and laugh nervously with the other parent.
I fall somewhere in the middle. My rules are: as long as no one is crying, there is no touching of genitals, and there is no exchange of body fluids (kissing on the mouth, picking someone else’s nose and eating it) pretty much all is fair game.
Let kids touch each other.
I can already feel the heat of the mommy-blogger rebuttal: Why your kid shouldn’t touch mine: And why if you do, I’ll f-n cut you. Of course my child does not have special developmental or cognitive considerations, a history of receiving abusive or unhealthy physical contact, or an immunocompromising medical condition. He is current on his vaccinations, and my corner of the world is not going through a serious outbreak of communicable illness. Insert other special considerations here.
But haven’t you noticed toddlers and babies crave physical contact with each other? They like to pat, squeeze, cuddle, and yes, push each other down. A lot of times, toddlers get right back up and keep on toddling after the group, or their older siblings. How many times have we seen that?
But if older children get pushed down (and adults for that matter), now then there’s blood. Because we have learned from our parents and society that being pushed down or touched roughly is a personal attack and highly offensive.
I wish I could tell other parents, sometimes, it’s okay. My 14 month-old has been walking for nearly 4 months, and now runs. He can hold his own, and often seeks out older toddlers and kids on the playground. At home he is exposed to lots of wrastling. We roll him on the carpet until he giggles, tickle and bounce him on the bed, swing him over our shoulders, and even turn him upside down while he shrieks with delight. He is by all definitions a rough-and-tumble little boy.
So I can see the confusion in his eyes when another child reaches out to touch or pat him above the waist, and the parent quickly whisks the little one’s hands away with a gentle scold and a nervous laugh directed at me.
I find this scenario delicate to navigate. I would love to say something – and sometimes I do – something like, “It’s okay. J loves other kids. He likes to be touchy-feely too, so it’s okay if Harper is with him.” But the big issue in this case is that telling the other parents what my child (and by extension myself) is comfortable with may sound like I am giving my opinion on what they should decide is acceptable behaviour in their child. I could also be undermining that sacred authority they have with their child, by telling them in front of their own child that a behaviour they have just said is not okay, is okay with me.
No one wants to see anymore of these grim Collapse of Parenting-type news stories, but a lot of it is sadly true. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist who wrote an article for the Washington Post in 2015, says kids are losing what is called their proprioceptive abilities – which means the expertise to control and perceive their own bodies in the environment. When we became teenagers our proprioceptive skills were not at their hottest – with our legs and bodies getting longer every day, until things eventually settled out and we got used to our new adult physicality. But interestingly, because young children are becoming more and more reined in these days – less climbing tress, exploring, manual labour, and most of all, less permission to touch other kids – they are losing their ability to gauge appropriate touch. Instead of touching someone in tag (which does require sophisticated skill because you are running at the same time), Angela has observed some kids clumsily whacking each other across the back – which leads to crying, the recess supervisor having to mediate, and the eventual ban of tag on the playground by the school.
Throw in the general message we give kids who encounter difficult peer situations today, and things go downhill really fast. Previous generations said, “Yes he hit you, but you’re tough. No big deal. Dust yourself off and keep playing” (which could invalidate emotional hurt that should be addressed). But we say something just as bad; “Yes, he did hurt you! Hitting is very bad, and it is understandable that you no longer want to play tag! Let’s go tell an adult” (which undermines the kid’s ability to cope with challenge independently and their emotional resilience). Instead of discussing them as two children learning how to touch, or not touch, appropriately as they grow up, one is now labelled the aggressor, and one the victim, and it becomes a serious health and social issue.
Babies and toddlers with limited verbal skills have their own built-in language of consent, and they use it with less hesitation than we do: back off if I cry or push you away; proceed if I reciprocate. I think us adults read into their interactions too much, confusing that look of raised eyebrows for alarm, instead of novel interest or curiosity in another person their size.
We almost need a code word. To tell other parents, “it’s okay, I don’t mind if your three year-old just got down and hugged my child, whom he just met.” Like ‘roughhouse’ followed by a wink, or something. But less obnoxious.
For the record, your kid can touch my kid. At the McDonald’s play yard, the park, or at the daycare drop-off. Your little one can hug, squeeze, and even enthusiastically pat my child on the head. He may be little, but in his own way, he can permit or deny physical contact as he is comfortable with, and I will be present in the room in case he needs help. Just no fingers in the mouth.