Confronting a Man at the Playground
While at a playground this weekend a man talked to my 3-year-old son in a way that upset me and I had to do something about it. I thought carefully about what was true for me, then walked over and told him.
Earlier that evening I observed this man enthusiastically playing with an 18-month-old boy we’ll call JJ. He wasn’t the dad, maybe a friend or an uncle. He took little JJ down the big slide multiple times. At one point the boy’s dad walked over and stood at the bottom of the slide. The man decided JJ should go down on his own. “3-2-1 GO!”, but JJ shook his head and asked for one of them to go down with him. After failing to convince JJ it would be fun, the man pretended to go down with him and at the last minute, sent the boy down solo.
I’ve been there. I’m a former “slide-pusher” myself. It may even be motivated by good intention. We want to push our children to face their fears and build courage. But at a certain point, a child is simply not able or willing to try something. Respecting this is also good. It gives them a feeling of autonomy and control over their own life.
I’ve given up on slide pushing and now wait (not easy) until the kid wants to go down. My son was formerly hesitant about the big slide, but now rips down it like it’s going out of style. He was ready when he was ready. He probably feels proud of himself and doesn’t have to worry about pleasing me on this front. That is good.
Now for the incident. It’s 5pm and my son is tired. He’s playing on this thing that spins you around. It’s small. Two kids can spin on it, but kids often spin one at a time. JJ walks over to the spinner and wants a turn. The man is walking away to sit down with his friends when he notices JJ and my son about to get into some classic toddler conflict.
He asks my son, “Will you share the spinner with JJ?”
My son shakes his head.
“C’mon, both of you can do it. It’ll be so fun!”
My son refuses again. “No.”
Then the dude says, “You have to share!” and when my son still refuses he starts loudly repeating his message, “Share! SHARE!”.
My son breaks down crying and runs over to me.
My wife was sitting on the bench near the friends and overheard him say to them as he sat down, “That kid’s a jerk.”
If you have some paternal energy and feel like you’re about to flip your shit, so was I.
I had just finished reading the chapter in Jordan Peterson’s excellent book, 12 Rules of Life, called “Tell the Truth (or at least don’t lie).” He stresses the importance of telling the truth to yourself and the world. He gave some examples of times when it was uncomfortable, but had great benefits. When you decide to say something honest, his advice is to be concise, direct, and clear. Go slow and choose the words carefully.
I was upset by the way the man spoke to my son. That was it. That was my truth.
As a big fan of non-violent communication, I tried to perceive what the man was feeling in that moment. He was probably frustrated, because toddlers are frustrating, especially when trying to teach them to share. That was also true.
As we were leaving the park, I decided it was time to speak. I walked over and sat next to him. He was in front of four other adults so my heart was pumping.
I said, “Hey brother, I know that toddlers can be frustrating, but I was upset by the way you spoke to my son by the spinner thing.”
He responded, “Sorry about that. I was just trying to get him to share with our little JJ. Sorry about that.”
I said thanks and we left.
I am proud of myself. It was nerve-racking to do, but I had to do something and telling the truth seemed like a good option. Maybe he will learn something from that experience, but it was mostly for me. I want to practice that kind of thing. Maybe there’ll be a time where it’s harder to speak up, but even more necessary.
Let me add this. The next day I was filled with anxiety. I kept wondering if I would run into that dude on the street. I was surprised by this. As I reflected on it, it seemed similar to my experiences in jr. high when other kids treated me poorly. There was a terrible feeling of powerlessness I felt then. If someone picked on me, I had no recourse. I wasn’t the fighting type, being a tattle-tail wasn’t cool, and I couldn’t chose not to be around them. Somehow this experience brought me back to those days. Who knows…
It did suck having to deal with all of this. It was an emotionally rigorous day and a half. But I got to practice telling the truth. Maybe next time it’ll be easier.