On Sunday morning we met our neighbors and their kids at a local playground. It was a blustery, cold morning, but the kids collectively seemed overjoyed to be outside, climbing and running around busily, like little motorized creatures set loose in a maze of metal and plastic and wood chips. There were one or two other families there, but no one with kids as old as L. Because the playground was relatively deserted, L. was enjoying himself immensely, which was so wonderful to see. At one point he came over to me and said, in a surprised sort of tone,
"I'm having a fun time."
This always tugs my heart a little, how sometimes having a good time surprises L. But it was clear he was having fun, and doing what he loves to do at playgrounds these days, which is to climb up the tops of all the enclosed curvy slides, and clamber over the top of the monkey bars, and engage in lots of numerous non-comformist interpretations of how the play equipment should be used. He's a loud kid at the playground, giddy with the thrill of climbing, happy to be out in the open air, sometimes shouting strange out-of-context lines from Star Wars at the top of his lungs.
Standing there yesterday I was reminded of something that happened to me at another playground recently, something I had actually forgotten about--shelved away--probably because it had irritated me so very much. I told my neighbor/friend--one mom to another, in the way we parents swap tales of parenting gaffes and horrors, needing re-affirmation, or support, or just shared outrage.
Two weeks ago I took the kids to another playground on a different sort of day, sunny and warm. There were lots of kids playing, and lots of parents milling around, too. I was by myself, though, and keeping a close eye on both kids. L. was busy climbing along the top of one of the covered slides, Spiderman-like, and I was watching him, ready to step in but again, like yesterday, enjoying watching L. enjoy himself.
Then someone stepped into my line of sight. A parent. Another playground mom. She looked from L. to me and then said to me, sharply:
"You know, you shouldn't let your son climb on top of the slides. He's setting a bad example for the younger children here."
I stared at her blankly, derailed by her tone.
"I've got my eye on him," I told her, an answer which I know side-stepped the point she thought she as making. She left it at that, though, but as she walked away she threw this parting comment over her shoulder:
"He should learn to follow the rules."
I seethed inside, thinking too late of a million different snappy and clever responses to her comment. I felt as if the ground under me had been rocked, my sense of myself as a parent shaken and dirtied, somehow.
Of course there are rules we must teach our children to follow when at the playground. Universal rules about not pushing, taking turns at the slide, using good language, not running in front of moving swings, not talking to strangers, not leaving the playground property, not sitting at the bottom of the slide if people are waiting to go down from the top.
But then there are the slightly ridiculous and nonsensical rules that parents seem compelled to enforce, just because; like the don't-walk-up-the-slide rule. One time, a few years ago, out of a sense of obligation, I made a feeble attempt to stop L. from doing that very thing, and he looked at me.
"Why not?" He asked. And I didn't have a good reason, I really didn't. Walking up the slide IS fun, and for some kids, arguably more fun than the cheap thrill you get when you slide down.
I don't mind when other parents look out for my own kids on the playground. I will always be grateful for the mom who, one day, stopped T. from falling off the monkey bars. And a part of me does concede that maybe that mom from two weeks ago was a little right, maybe some day when her back is turned her young son, inspired by my older son, might try the same acrobatics, fall, and it will be my fault. But I have become, over the years, wired to be hyper-sensitive about all the arbitrary-seeming rules and regulations out there that so many people try to foist onto L. all day long, every day, turning his moments into hard and painful ones, robbing him of joy.
For L. will always be the kid who operates outside the rules--not every rule (in this same way he has a deep respect for certain rules), but for the rules that limit him, that quash his spirit, that threaten what makes him feel safe and good.
L. will always be the kid who is moved by the wind and the sun and the air to shout and yell at the sky, no matter who is watching. He will never be the kid who slides down the slide because he ought to, or who doesn't climb the wrong side of the monkey bars simply because he shouldn't.
And for this, I am deeply and eternally grateful.