Playground mishap triggers clash of parental philosophies

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

It was midafternoon on a cold December day, and the suburban playground was full of bundled-up kindergartners recently sprung from school.

Mothers stood at a distance, chatting in groups and keeping a close eye on the children. All but one of the women belonged to nature's most vigilant species, the first-time mother. The sole exception was (and is) a friend of mine, a battle-hardened mother of three.

"Keep your hat on, mister!" one mother scolded a boy in the throng, from a distance.

"But I'm hot!"

"It's cold out here," she reminded him, and turned to her companions. "Honestly, it's so hard at this time of year."

"Oh, I know," put in another. "We're already losing mittens!"

"And socks."

"And -- "

A terrible scream ripped through the air. A girl in a scarlet snow jacket had come tumbling down the slide and was sitting in a heap at the bottom, sobbing.

Every mother leapt forward (even the battle-hardened one, whose daughter it happened to be).

"Oh my God!" cried one of the mothers. The women crowded around the child, who was almost roaring in her anguish.

Immediately the girl's mother understood what had happened.

"It's broken!" the child wailed.

"Broken!" the word rippled through the other mothers. A child falling down, a child wailing -- it was a broken child! Was it an arm? A leg? A wrist?

"It's her toy," said the girl's mother, "Her light-up wand. Ugh, I knew it was a bad idea to bring it to the park."

"Aaaaaghahahh!" screamed the child, or words to that effect. She pointed at the clear plastic wand, which had a star on the end and which had moments before been able to flash colors like a disco ball.

"Hey, hey, it's OK. We may be able to fix it," the girl's mother was beginning to say when, to her amazement, one of the other women knelt down in front of the bellowing child and began speaking in low, throbbing tones.

"Your mom is going to get you another light-up wand," this person said. "I know exactly where she can buy it. I'll wait here with you as long as it takes. She can go right now."

Under this soothing barrage, the child's teary face became still. Hope passed across her little brow.

"Wait a minute, I don't think that's going to be necessary," said the girl's mother.

"It's OK," another woman said reassuringly, "We'll be here for at least another forty-five minutes. The traffic shouldn't be bad yet if you want to go now."

"I'm not getting in the car and driving to the store," the child's mother said incredulously, "to replace a broken toy."

Another ripple ran through the group of women, this time marking disapproval.

The face of the child on the ground began to crumple.

"Sweetheart," said the villain, "I am not driving to the store. Look, it's just snapped in one place. I bet we can fix this wand right up, and -- "

It was all too much for the child: disaster, reprieve, and now, apparently, more disaster. "Waaaahhhh!" she cried.

"I really am happy to wait," said the irritating Samaritan.

"No," said my friend, more sharply than was ideal. "Thank you, but no. This little one needs a snack and a nap. We'll tape the wand together again and maybe it'll work -- and maybe it won't -- and we'll get on with life."

"I just think children shouldn't have to feel so much pain at this age," the other mother said, apologetically.

My friend felt a strange rush of sympathy for the woman. Of course no one likes seeing her child unhappy, but really -- pain? Toys break. A broken toy is a bummer. Bummers occur.

"I don't think it's my job to prevent my children from experiencing hardship," she said gently, and pedagogically. "It's my job to help them learn how to handle it."

"Well, I guess," the first-time mother said. But my friend could tell that she wasn't persuaded.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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