My six-year-old, Katie, has been a reluctant big sister. She was excited when Lizzie was born, eager to teach her cartwheels and snowball fights. But that enthusiasm has waned. Katie now understands what most moms and dads learn on day three: babies are not fun. They are cute; they smell like lavender. But they cannot ice skate, they are lousy at Monopoly, and they always cheat at freeze tag. With increasing frequency, Katie has opted to play alone rather than engage her little sister. Yesterday, though, something changed. Katie taught Lizzie how to climb up a slide.
It started as a "Mommy, rescue me!" moment. Katie was pretending to be in peril at the top of a bank of slides in our neighborhood park. As I ascertained whether Katie was actually in danger, Lizzie clambered up. "Katie, okay?" she asked. Lizzie took two steps forward, lost her balance, and slid down the slide on her belly. Katie followed, smushing her sister in the head. "Lizzie, now I have to help you," Katie announced. They began a Laurel and Hardy-worthy ascent. Katie pushed, then pulled her sister. She tried hoisting Lizzie by her diaper, her shoes, and her armpit. They laughed and tumbled, laughed and tumbled, until Katie hooked her feet to the top of the slide and allowed Lizzie to ascend using her sister's head, back, and bum as a human staircase. As Lizzie reached the top, she said, "Ta-da!" and promptly slid back down with her sister. They flopped at the bottom in a giggling heap.
Throughout, I kept at arm's distance, making sure neither child pitched over the edge. I looked around for a smiling adult, anyone really, to help me celebrate this moment. That's when I noticed the trouble.
The park held seven other adults. There were familiar faces -- a texting nanny, a dad on a cell phone, a woman pushing a stroller and drinking a Starbuck's. There were a few newcomers, too -- a sexy grandma in jeans and purple heels, a nervous couple following a little girl with a penchant for eating wood chips, a lady training two Rottweiler puppies. No one made eye contact. I thought it was my hygiene; I'd just been jogging. But I soon realized it was not just my appearance that was off-putting. It was my judgment. I was ...dangerous.
A little boy in a green dinosaur shirt mounted the bottom of an adjacent slide. He was immediately reprimanded: "No! That's not the way to go up." Dinosaur boy jumped off the slide. Yet another child was instructed: "Never ever hang on that. It's not safe." The caregiver gestured to the bar just above the slide, whose only purpose, as far as I could tell, was to help children launch themselves down the slide. That is how both of my girls used it. Two other adults were micromanaging the monkey bars. "Stay to the left. Now swing your legs like this." And sexy grandma was over at the swings. "Yes, I couldn't believe it," she said. "That little girl was standing up right here." My own daughter had been standing on a nearby swing moments earlier. Was she talking about us?
I flipped back through our recent activities: Katie on top of the monkey bars with other children passing hand over hand below; Katie standing on the swing; both girls climbing up the slide. We were pariahs.
But why? I am all for decorum, and as much in favor of avoiding head-on collisions as the next parent. With a bus full of children, or a single crowded slide, I agree that a North-South flow is best for all. But when there are three slides in a row? On a playground shared by seven children, two of whom are mine? Is it really such a bad thing to commandeer a single slide for the upward bound?
So long as they are not bullying or taunting or damaging anything, why should I forbid my kids from climbing as high as they are able? What better place to start taking risks in life than a playground covered in wood chips? Sure, they fall sometimes. They have had their share of scrapes and bruises. But I love that my girls have band-aids on their knees and keep on running. When life knocks them down, which it will sometimes, I know they will rally.
As a child, I remember biking with my sister to the local elementary school. We spent hours twirling on the merry-go-round, holding one another hostage on the teeter totters, and yes, perfecting the art of running up an old metal slide, the kind with only a 2-inch lip separating us from the concrete below. All of this despite the fact that I was not a bold child. I was afraid of bumble bees, white vans, and unmelted cheese. But on the playground I was brave. I perfected jumping double-dutch there, and I learned to land a monkey bar back flip we called a "penny drop." My parents understood the park for what it was: a place for children to explore and be adventurous.
The park is different now. It's a coffee bar, a WiFi zone, a place to see and be seen. Children might as well be encased in bubble wrap. Standing there yesterday, between a woman disinfecting the slide with antibacterial wipes and another who said, "No you may NOT take your shoes off," I reminded myself that parenting is all about preferences; there are many different ways to raise great kids. But for now, I will have to get used to being the dangerous one. Because my girls will keep climbing no matter who tries to bring them down.