Hear Ye, Hear Ye

October 14, 2010 at 9:02 pm 15 comments

I think it’s time for a town meeting.

We’ve been going to the park a lot lately because our neighborhood one has gotten a recent makeover. It wasn’t poplar before, a basic slide, some swings, but now there are things that spin, climbers shaped like animals, a towering spider’s web contraption, and the crowd has grown. At any given hour there are tons of kids, from toddlers to teens, and of course parents.

The people watcher in me loves it. My kids nearly plunge to their death several times a day because my eyes are riveted to the various outfits and social exchanges. My nose loves it too. As the fall sun warms the afternoon the wood chips, four feet deep under our feet, let out a sweet hamstery scent.

But the part I want to talk about is park etiquette and how it results in torture for us all. Yesterday we brought our metal water bottle, and a lunch box. We’ve fashioned a long ribbon to the water bottle to make it over-the-arm slingable and for some reason it’s become the main attraction for the twelve months and under set. They are like crows, drawn to shiny treasure, and they want nothing more than to haul that thing around, like a baby doll or a puppy. But park manners dictate that any time a grubby hand reaches for the water bottle or the also irresistible polka-dot lunch box, a mother follows closely behind to say: Ah, ah, ah. That’s not yours. Put that back.

And the toddler returns, again and again. Moms become frustrated, kids become inconsolable. It is sad.

Twice I went over yesterday to say that it was perfectly fine with us if the water bottle became a play thing and that we would just locate it anew each time we wanted a drink. But the thing is, in that situation, I was the weird one, the one acting out of turn, breaking the rules of park etiquette.

But the rules are ridiculous! I hate them.

Parents spend their entire time at the park saying: Nooo! That’s not yours. That’s hers. Yours is over here. Here’s yours. And the kid spends their entire time at the park being shunted away from their primary interest for no apparently logical reason. And the galling part is that when they do finally clutch the toy or sippy cup that is supposedly theirs, if another child approaches and reaches for that item, parents have the unbelievable nerve to say: Let him have it. You have to share! SHARE.

This kind of thing drives me bonkers.

Are you kidding me? Do we really want to emphasize “yours” and “mine” that strongly? I don’t mean to get too metaphysical or anything , but if you think about it nothing is really “ours”, “yours” or “mine”. We say: my chair, when we happen to sit down for a minute. We say: my parking spot, even though we know very well that it isn’t. We say it all the time when really everything is so transient, so temporary, and so quickly passed on when it isn’t of use anymore. And maybe as adults we can all understand that when we say “mine” we are really indicating that we are using it for the moment, that we don’t really own that parking spot or that chair, but kids are literal. When we tell them something is theirs, they believe us. At least until we yank it away from them and give it to someone else in the name of sharing. Then they just think we are mean, or confusing, or both.

(Later we wonder why our society is so greedy. Why everyone seems to only care about themselves. Why everyone hoards more than they need. Why they eat more than their bodies want. Why the more everyone gets, the more they want, and the less they share.)

So hear ye, hear ye.

My official proposals for the revision of park etiquette are:

1. Let’s switch to a different style of language.

That’s the swing that little girl is using right now, do you want to swing on this one? The snacks we brought are over here, those are the snacks that little boy is eating. No more “yours”, “his”, “not yours” etc.

2. Bring to the park only the objects you are willing to share communally.

Explain to your children that if they bring something, others may want to pick it up, play with it, and everyone has decided that that’s alright.

3. Do not punish your children on behalf of others.

I know this sounds weird but I hate it when a child picks up something that we brought and the mother asks the child to put it back and the child doesn’t and then the mother yanks his arm and makes him put it back and makes him cry and then makes him apologize to me, and the kid looks at me like I did this to him. Let’s first find out if picking up an object is okay with the owner, or not. If not, let’s take our time explaining the situation to our child, perhaps in private, always gently and informatively. And then if we feel an apology is necessary let’s make that apology ourselves.

4. Tell the truth and believe each other.

If I say: It’s fine if your daughter drags the water bottle we brought around the park, believe me. If it isn’t okay with me then the responsibility lies in my hands to say so: Well we keep losing track of those dang bottles and forgetting them so I would really prefer to leave it in the stroller.

5. Let’s stop worrying about politeness.

We all know that we are all good people. We all know that nobody is purposely intending to offend. Let’s just let the kids play, pick stuff up, put it back, smile at each other in a Don’t they always love other kids’ sippy cups more than their own? kind of way, and relax.


In any case, I won’t think you are rude, even if your child picks up “my” sweater and leaves it on the slide. But I will think you’re an asshole if you mistreat her for playing with it.

More on “mine“, manners, social awkwardness.

Nathan’s take on sharing, here.

Entry filed under: parenting principles, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , .

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amy McGregor  |  October 14, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    One of the worst park experiences I’ve ever had was immediately following a conversation with one of the neatest little boys I’d ever met. He was trying to catch a bird on the tree behind us- much too far away for me to actually be concerned about the bird’s safety- and he was telling me that he has been trying to catch a bird since he was two. When I asked him what he would do with the bird if he caught it he said, “I dunno- maybe eat it.” I was in love with this child!! Then his mother screamed- I mean SCREAMED at him from across the park to “GET OVER HERE!!!!!” He jumped down off of the bench that we were conversing on, ran over to her, ran directly back over to me after a quick scolding, and apologized to me- though it was obvious that neither he nor I knew what he was apologizing for. He ran away so quickly, completely humiliated, that I had to yell after him “it’s okay sweetie- you didn’t DO anything wrong!” I didn’t even get to tell him how much I enjoyed talking to him. It was so awful. That incident traumatized me- I needed to share it.


  • 2. Joanna Smetanka  |  October 14, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    I was at that very park today, and we packed a box full o’ food and beverages. And, yep, a young little chap wanted our food and water too. I told the mom that when we bring food/drink to the park, we consider it communal, and that I didn’t mind at all if he wanted a meatball. So, she let him have a meatball, sparing us all frustration, disappointment, sadness, and awkwardness. I was happy it worked out that way, but it doesn’t always.

  • 3. jessie stevens hess  |  October 15, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I think I could type the day away with weird and wild tales from the park. My mama friends and I used joke about publishing a park
    etiquette handbook chalked full of stories and the complex unspoken and often confounding social mores that seem to prevail.

    Thank you for putting some good thoughts down on “paper”.

  • 4. martha  |  October 15, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    for some reason this post completely cracked me up. maybe a sign that a week of little sleep has finally loosened me up appropriately. the new playground, the beloved leashed water bottle, the rigorous negating that happens as if by method, almost like a parody of itself? i guess i’m prone to seeing a lot like a funny sitcom or movie or something, ?

    • 5. nataliechristensen  |  October 15, 2010 at 8:18 pm

      i guess finding it funny might be easier on the heart/soul than finding it infuriating or plain ridiculous. Well, maybe ridiculous is funny. Ludicrous? Maybe it’s all ludicrous.

  • 6. kris laroche  |  October 15, 2010 at 7:09 pm


  • 7. Jennifer  |  October 15, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Thank you, once again for reading my mind and giving me actual words to use in actual situations. I, too, have struggled with this issue. I believe in the “conservation of park toys”, in that sometimes you come home with one more than you arrived with, sometimes one fewer. But it all evens out in the end, and they’re just THINGS at the end of the day. But when not every parent and kid at the park thinks like you (or even if your own kid is having a hard time with the issue), it is nice to have a fall back line to use. I like the line, “The snacks we brought are over here, those are the snacks that little boy is eating.”
    Yay for real-life strategies!

    On a related issue, what, if anything, should I do about the fact that my little guy (2 y.o.) is always the one getting things ripped out of his hands, or shoved out of the way at the park? He’s pretty shy and reserved, but really wants to connect with other little people. I mostly just let the kids work it out, but that usually means that my little one is left out, waiting for his “turn”. I know they’re only 2 and 3 and 4, so I guess time will help my guy. It just hurts my heart when he looks over at me like, “hey mom, what’s up with that?”.

    • 8. nataliechristensen  |  October 15, 2010 at 8:29 pm

      I definitely feel fine poking my nose into “kid” business. I find myself saying:
      “It looks like she wasn’t done using that. She set it down for a second but meant to pick it right back up. Will you give the shovel back to her?”
      “Echo was hoping to have a turn with this slide (swing, whatever). When you get to the bottom will you step aside so she can go down?”
      ” It looks like Echo didn’t like it when you moved past her to get to the top. Will you be willing to wait while kids climb the ladder? That way everyone will feel safe.”
      “Echo seems interested in staying where she is but when you swing that bucket we get covered in sand. Will you step a ways that way to swing that so that we can still play here?”
      ” I think all of the kids would like a turn with this toy. Will you make sure to notice if someone else is already waiting before you get on?”

      (And I only step in after checking with Echo about her degree of concern. If she doesn’t mind whatever action is taking place I don’t say a word.)

      Information coupled with a request, always directed straight to the child in question. I like what these phrases model for my girl, both in the actual language and also in that they show that her mama is looking out for her while caring for other kids’ fun/interests as well.

      • 9. martha  |  October 21, 2010 at 11:25 am

        This list of phrases made a lot of sense to me. I’ve been thinking about it over the past several days, and about how we *are* out in the world, where we often go, and where we often find things seem to operate differently. There’s a part of me that wants to get to some point (maybe vainly), of embracing, or at least simply accepting the differences, instead of getting into them with some energy of mine (rejecting, abhorring, condemning, etc.). I don’t want to seem rejecting/judging to myself, to my child, or to others. And, I don’t want to try (or even really want) to change other people. I want to enjoy whatever I can to enjoy, and let the others be, as they are. But, is it possible? If you ever think about in a similar way, would you share what goes on for you? I would listen.

      • 10. nataliechristensen  |  October 22, 2010 at 7:50 am

        Hi Martha,
        Yes I go back and forth on this too. For the most part I just want to live life and accept others no matter what they are doing (from other parents at the park to my own parents). Changing others isn’t something I’m actually that drawn too, mostly because I like to succeed, at least a little bit, at the things I attempt! Also, I don’t think I have the “Save the World” thing, I might just be too self focused, too lazy, too interested in quality of life, I’m not sure. But sometimes the common sense aspect of it all really gets to me. I see parenting that DOESN’T WORK, that is confusing and plain doesn’t make any sense. I hate things that don’t make sense. When my irritation about this boils over I blog about it, or talk to Kris and Nathan, not really in the hopes that others will change but mostly in the hopes that I will feel better. That being said, I have started to say things at the park. I don’t like the sensation of being complicit when I smile at parenting that is atrocious or even mildly damaging. I don’t preach but I don’t just go along with it either. Again, this is so that I feel better, so that I am true to myself. I use simple statements and if the mother/father is interested in knowing what the heck I’m talking about they can ask. If not, at least I have maintained my integrity.
        The phrases are: “Oh, yeah, we don’t really do the “good girl, good job” thing so that’s why she might be looking at you funny.”
        “Your son is welcome to play with that. The mine/yours idea is pretty ridiculous anyway. Everything we brought is for everyone to use.”
        And empathy of course. In the world of “say sorry” and blame, plain empathy instead for all participants, is revolutionary by itself.
        Not sure if it’s the “right” thing to do, or if that helps you, but that’s where I am with this issue at the moment.
        Warmly, Natalie

  • 11. Jessi  |  October 16, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you for speaking your mind about park etiquette. There are many of us out there who feel the same way.

    It has always been of great interest to me to observe other peoples park behavior.
    The park i frequent is of course the Dog Park, but there are still many of the same types of odd (in my opinion) issues that come to light there for many people.
    I too share in the idea that if I bring it to the park it might wind up going home with someone else, being eaten by someone else, or at the very least being played with for a while by someone else. My dog isn’t huge on toys unless they squeak which means that every other dog is also hearing the high pitched sound and excited by it. My dog responds better when I use a treat as a reward or incentive for listening to what I’m asking him to do. All the other dogs at the park also listen better to what I’m asking him to do when I’ve got treats in my hand.

    What surprises me is the way that other owners act at the park. I go there full well knowing I’ll be jumped on, dirtied, licked, followed, watched, and interacted with. I know that my dog will have those same experiences and more when we go there. It’s interesting to me to witness other owners NOT expecting those things to happen and then appearing shocked when they do.

    I can’t stand owners who yell at their dogs because they wont listen or aren’t 100% focused on them. People who themselves become embarrassed because of something that their dog did; they are dogs, they behave like dogs, they will always behave like dogs – and trust me, it’s never done to intentionally embarrass you, it’s done because they are dogs.

    I hate it when people gawk over dogs humping. this only tells me that you have some latent sexual issues you aren’t dealing with because you are seeing it as a sexual act instead of a dominating/pack-order act (which is what it is). I can’t stand it when people bring their dogs to the park and then don’t allow them the freedom to run around, demanding that their full attention stay on the owner, and expect that they will stay right by their side. It’s a dog park, there are a myriad number of new smells, new dogs, new people, new trees to pee on – why did you bring them if not to allow them the opportunity to experience new environments?

    I wish that there were classes for owners about their behavior. I would like to tell the owner who screamed at their dog for jumping up that they don’t listen any better when you shout at them. I would like to tell the woman who beat her dog with a leash for playing with my dog (playing nicely I might add) that she is only turning her dog into a more aggressive creature by being aggressive towards it, AND why would you go to a dog park if you don’t want your dog to interact with other dogs? I would like to ask her how she would feel if someone larger than her beat her with a leash every time she tried to talk to someone else, tried to hug someone else, or laughed with someone else. This same person had initially taken out after my dog and a friend of mines dog for attempting to play with hers. When we both came rushing over to stop her she started lashing out at her own dog. She seemed to think they were fighting and that being violent herself would curb her own dogs violent behavior. ????

    I wish I could tell people that I don’t mind their dogs following me around because I bring treats. I don’t mind giving their dog a treat as long as it’s not going to have something they are allergic to in it. I don’t mind it when their dogs pick on mine, play with mine, wrestle with mine, chase mine or hump mine. I also am not going to get all up in arms about my dog behaving this way with others unless someone is getting hurt. This is typical, healthy dog behavior. I would be concerned if he wasn’t running wildly, playing well with others, and more interested in the new pee smell then in my random requests. I expect my dog to be a dog, and that way I am able to appropriately interact with him. I keep a watchful eye but allow him the freedom to explore, run, play, etc. I take responsibility for keeping track of where he is because I know that he is busy experiencing his surroundings. I don’t get so distracted on my phone or in my conversation that I blame him for not keeping track of where I am or what I am doing. He is there to play, I am there to facilitate his playing in a good way.

    I have found that when I don’t try to keep him by my side, or call him to follow me as often, that he chooses to do those thing on his own because he wants to. He wants to know where I am just as much as I want to know where he is, he will come check in for a second to make sure I’m still around and then dash off to go play again. This seems very nice for me because I’m not calling him every 20 seconds, I’m not frustrated that he wont come to me every 20 seconds when I call, and I’m not training him to not respond. I’m letting him have the freedom to be a dog and he’s showing me that he does like me because he will leave the play group to come see where I’m at or check that I’m still there. This has meant a lot of freedom for us both.

    I’d like to tell people that it’s okay for their dogs to get dirty, if they’d not like their car to be dirty leave an old towel in the trunk. It’s perfectly normal for my dog to get picked on sometimes and for your dog to get picked on sometimes. Dogs do this as a way to know how to interact with one another, if you don’t allow this to happen they wont develop appropriate social skills. Some dogs are on top, some dogs are on bottom, and they are much more direct about figuring out who is which to get it out of the way and know how to be around one another. As long as they aren’t hurting one another this is perfectly healthy social behavior.

    Dogs pee, dogs sniff, dogs dig, dogs jump, dogs follow their noses to treats, dogs run with wild abandon when they are happy, dogs swim, dogs roll (especially in smelly things), dogs enjoy being social, dogs will always like someone else’s treat over yours, and dogs learn quickly (whether it’s something you want them to learn or not). So for heavens sake, if you are going to take them to the park make sure to check your expectations at the gate. So long as they are not hurting anyone or getting hurt themselves let them have a little room to be dogs.
    – Plan your time wisely so that you are not be pressured to round them up after 15 minutes of being there.
    – plan your activity wisely by bringing a towel or two to wipe them off at the car before loading them up if you want your car to be clean. Even better use a dog crate with a few towels in the bottom for their rides in the car, this not only keeps your car clean, it keeps them from getting into things, and it keeps them safe.
    – Know your dog. If they respond better to treats in a public setting and are going to follow someone else around as a result, bring a few of your own treats to reinforce that you are someone they can get goodies from as well.
    – Understand that if you bring a toy to the park others will want to play with it as well. Dogs enjoy toys more that are shared with others, wanted by others, and played with by others. If it is damageable – don’t bring it. If it is expensive keep track of it but allow that sometimes you get to the car and your dog has a toy you did not bring, sometimes you get to the car and your dog doesn’t have the toy you did bring. Such is life.
    – Let them play, let them run, let them be dogs. I promise you’ll be happier and so will they if you do.

  • 12. alyssa  |  October 17, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    I often feel so awkward and tongue tied at the park…I honestly don’t know what to say when babies/kids/toddlers start interacting. Just having some things to say, as you just described, is so helpful to me.

  • 13. Kate  |  October 18, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    At a playgroup we go to, there was a new lady last week, who kept insisting that her 2 year old daughter share or she would pack everything up and go home. The little girl was happily working out how train track pieces go together, and a baby came up and tried to grab one, which she moved out of his reach. I guess the Mum was nervous in front of new people, but the funny thing was that the little girl looked at her mum, and packed up the tracks, and went and sat near her bag at the table. It was almost as if instinctively she knew that she wouldn’t be able to manage sharing, didn’t want to submit herself to being packed off, so acted in a preemptive way to avoid a conflict. The playgroup leader simply handed her some paper and crayons and she started drawing, and all was well. The mother then went on to apologise and explain that her daughter was selfish and had not had enough interaction with kids her own age, we tried to explain that we were not phazed, and this idea of sharing was silly anyway. My 3 year old often takes toys from the other younger ones because he wants to use them, not out of meaness, he just isn’t big enough to take that into consideration, and the mother will just say “xxx” is playing with that Sam, which is a non judgemental, simple statement of fact. It never causes a tantrum or stress, I have a feeling this lady won’t come back, which is sad. Playground etiquette drives me mad too, everyone is so scared of germs that we can’t touch anything, and the pointless comments like “great digging” “great work on the slide” “great climbing” drive me crazy.
    The concept of mine/yours/share is exactly what I was thinking the other day. From a childs’ point of view, it must seem like it always means don’t touch others but give them yours. We live in a very contradictory world, and it takes children to point that out to us sometimes!

    • 14. nataliechristensen  |  October 18, 2010 at 9:35 pm

      “The concept of mine/yours/share is exactly what I was thinking the other day. From a childs’ point of view, it must seem like it always means don’t touch others but give them yours.” Oh man! I couldn’t agree more.

      That’s a sad story about the new mom at play group. I think you’re right, she’ll probably gravitate toward a play group that shares the “share or we’ll leave philosophy” but I hope, hope, hope that she doesn’t. It would be wonderful for her to stay with you guys and see a different way of being.

  • 15. martha  |  October 22, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Hi Natalie. Thank you. That was helpful. I wrote yesterday on the heels of having been at another family’s home, and feeling again that sensation of discordance or disequilibrium or ?? what is it? with the approach towards the little people. so i just kept on addressing my son as i usually do, and i even addressed the other family’s 3 yr old that way, even though her mother was addressing her in the more common/predictable/familiar/what is it? way. and we often do it that way. and we speak up about good boy, good sliding, etc. comments, but not bc our son responds differently to them. Anyway, thanks again. I appreciate the conversation and your responsiveness.


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