Playground Rejection Is Not Just For Kids
One of the best things about being three years old is that everyone is your friend. My kid runs up to another kid on the playground and says “Hey, wanna slide?” and they’re off to have adventures, even if they never see each other again after that day. Kids that age like pretty much all the same things and believe in the Truth of Childhood: Climb it if it can be climbed, always run as fast as you can, and anything can be a pirate ship. They don’t know enough about the world yet to judge or condemn or turn their noses up at kids who want to join in so everyone gets to play. It’s beautiful and pure and I wish I was three years old again on a daily basis.
Or at least that was the world Evan lived in until this week. My heart is breaking a little all over again just thinking about it.
We’ve made a habit of visiting the park in the evenings, so Mommy can get some exercise, the kids can run their wiggles out and we can all enjoy as much sunlight as possible before it starts getting dark at 5 pm. There are two playgrounds at this particular park – a bigger one meant for older kids and a tot lot meant for littles. Caroline has no preference – as long as it has a swing, she’s happy. The big playground was crowded on Wednesday, so we took a stroll around the lake to the smaller park for some low-key fun.
When we got there, the situation looked perfect. There were two little girls – probably 5 and 6 – on the playscape. Evan ran off to join them and I put Caroline in a swing for a marathon pushing session. A few minutes later Evan can running back, looking a little upset.
“That little girl said I can’t slide, Mommy!”
“It’s OK honey,” I reassured him, “You’re allowed to slide if you want to. Just be nice to your friends and use kind words and remember you’re not the boss of them, OK?”
“OK Mommy!” he said and ran back to try again with kind words and a gentle voice. My boy is really good at using his kind words and gentle voice.
But I forgot the magic age of insta-friendships doesn’t last that long and by kindergarten little girls don’t always want to play with little boys, especially if they already have a girl friend to play with. Despite his best efforts, Evan was rebuked again and told he wasn’t allowed to play. “Go away, boy!” I heard from across the playground, and my heart sank knowing what I was going to hear next. My sweet little ginger, his offer of friendship crushes like a leaf under a pink Dora shoe, burst into tears and ran into my arms.
As I reassured him it wasn’t his fault – he was still a good boy, a nice friend, he had done everything right but sometimes people don’t want to play with us – I got a lump in my own throat. Oh how I know that feeling! I am overflowing with empathy when it comes to rejection and being left out and worrying that everyone is hanging out doing fun stuff without telling you. Even as I was telling Evan it was OK to cry but he shouldn’t let those mean girls affect his self worth – in the most toddler-friendly words I could think of – I realized I have never, ever been able to take my own advice.
Right now I can fake it, because my words to him are more powerful than my emotional reaction or my words to myself when I don’t think he’s listening. But the gravity of helping to shape my children’s entire emotional life if overwhelming. I miss the days when the only kid-related problems were whether or not they were sleeping through the night or if I was a bad mother for not cutting their grapes in half. I’ll take the baby stage back in a second rather than deal with the drama and heartbreak of my children’s friendships and unfriendships and fake friendships. I can’t even deal with my own friendships without chewing my nails into little stubs of worry and self-doubt. What if they don’t want to play with me?
So for now I just hug my boy and tell him he’s kind and good and beautiful and I adore him. I dry his tears and help him climb the jungle gym and cheer for his upsidedown sliding antics so he has the confidence to keep being himself. And I hope and pray he always feels that way, whether he’s 3 or 33.