Monday, August 3, 2015

The Sorriest Playground

One of our favorite things to do with our children is what we've dubbed, The Playground Crawl. We love to explore new cities by going on a little tour of their playgrounds and hopping from place to place with random stops for coffees for the adults and ice cream for everyone. We've happily toured Stockholm and Lyon in this manner and were looking forward to discovering the plentiful playgrounds of Hoboken. We had only a few days to share between Hoboken, NJ and Manhattan before we flew back to Stockholm at the end of our vacation and we figured a scenic Playground Crawl of Hoboken's finest play spaces was the best way to finish up our vacation.

Hoboken has some of the most scenic playgrounds I have ever seen. It is such a family friendly city, in close commuting distance to NYC, and the playgrounds were top notch. There were spongy recycled tire shreds/sneaker rubber used as a soft crash pad that replaced dirt in most areas, the play equipment was new and in good condition and the views were incredible. Most playgrounds had a nice smattering of shade provided by beautifully tall trees and they all had a water feature of some sort to help the children cool off a bit and splash around. I did a quick survey and determined that neither of my children would ever be able to hurt themselves in this environment and settled on a nearby bench to finally relax and enjoy my coffee.

And that's when I first heard it..."Sorry!"

It was the first, but certainly not the last, unnecessary apology I heard that morning. Once you start hearing something, your ears seek it out and you just can't stop hearing it.

Calvin took a liking to a little girl about a year younger - and wanted to bring her all of the playground "treasures" that he discovered during his archeological digs. He brought her shovels, pieces of broken plastic, a plastic fireman's helmet - basically anything that he thought was super cool and fun, he gifted to her with generosity. She received each one and with each gift her mother looked at me and said, "Sorry - is it OK that she takes it? I know these are his..."

"Umm, yeah. Please don't rebuff his playground gifts! He just wants to play with her."

Later, the same mom was actively engaging with both her child and Calvin so I turned my attention away again - possibly I looked at Lucy, I don't remember and I heard it again. "Sorry - is it OK that he plays with this shovel? I don't know if you want him to play with it."

"Yes, it's OK. He can play."

THIS IS WHY WE ARE HERE. AT THE PLAYGROUND. TO PLAAAAYYYY. Please, just let him play. Also, please don't apologize to me when I have not indicated there was any issue needing an apology.

Am I crazy? Is this culture shock? What is happening here?? I know that Swedes don't apologize much and you very rarely hear a "förlåt" or "ursäkta mig" unless someone runs into you, so I'll admit that I have gotten a little accustomed to NOT being constantly apologized to. Even still, I think this might have been a bit excessive - even for my American-born apologetic ears. Why is everyone apologizing?

I mentioned this to Uncle Bob and he just brushed it off that Swedish parents play differently with their children than these parents. Well, that's for certain. No Swedish parent ever apologized to me for playing with my child or for handing him a shovel.

I noticed other odd parental behavior too - behavior that was trying too hard to keep things perfect and resulted in constant stopping and redirecting play. One child shoveled sand onto the slide and the mother ran to the slide to sweep it off. She scolded her child, took the shovel away and then sat back down on the bench. What was wrong with shoveling sand onto the slide? I didn't see any issue. It seemed to be almost excessive politeness to the detriment of play. Children don't play like adults. They don't keep things neat and tidy. They fling sand everywhere but this is a playground with sand, so it's appropriate to do so here. This wasn't even a case of correcting the flinging of sand into another child's face - that's not nice - this was sand on a slide. From my perspective, that was fine. Let your child play and before you leave, put things back as they were.

At another playground, a little girl swatted at Lucy - resulting in many Lucy tears. I cringed as the mother of the little girl - less than 2 years old - badgered her into apologizing to Lucy.  For no less than 3 excruciatingly long minutes, it became clear that Marcie wasn't ever going to say she was sorry. Children that age don't understand apologies - or at least this child didn't. The exasperated mother looked at me and said, "Well, Mommy is really sorry."

I appreciate that the mother was sorry but that's not what is most important, in my mind. It might've been time better spent to quickly address the transgression, provide a brief apology and redirect to more appropriate, non-hitting behavior, rather than try to force an apology out of an unwilling child. It's not all about "being sorry" - children need to understand the why. She was so focused on the apology that by the time we disengaged, I don't think the little girl even remembered what had happened.

At each playground, I heard parents (mothers really) apologizing for their child's play - not their child's misbehavior - saying "sorry..." constantly. It was shockingly noticeable to me and it dawned on me that I have never been to an American playground with children at this interactive-play age. Calvin was 9 months old when we moved - he wasn't at playground age yet.

I haven't before interacted with the myriad of helicopter parents, free-range parents, the-always-prepared-parent, the hoverer, and the laid-back-drink-my-coffee-and-check-Twitter parent. (There are more types of parents, I know, but those were who I saw that day). Sweden has mostly free-range parents so I've become accustomed to the laid-back, non-interference style of parenting.

This was my first time really seeing all of the various parenting styles clashing at once. From a sociological standpoint, it was fascinating, but from my own personal perspective, it wasn't relaxing.

This very hands-on and engaged style was new to me and demanded my constant attention. It made me wonder if I shouldn't be apologizing more often for my own children's behavior. Were we stressing others by letting our children play on the other side of the playground? Were we missing potentially offensive play behavior? Is sand on the slide really such a horrible offense?

Sorry, but I'm not sorry. I can't change my parenting style to ramp up to the expectations of other parents. I won't apologize for my children's play that doesn't negatively affect anyone or anything. I will not apologize for my child acting like a child and playing in a safely enclosed area on the designated play structures. I will not apologize for handing another child a shovel and I will not apologize for interacting with another child who is playing with my child.

Some might say it is wrong to complain about people being "too nice" or "they are just apologizing, Lisa, so what? How is it wrong for people to apologize to you?" but that's not what bothered me. What bothered me was that my "home" country felt very foreign and weird. People's behavior was unpredictable and I didn't understand the social norms. I should feel comfortable and "at home" in the US, right? But I didn't feel that way at all. The clash of our parenting styles at the playground was just a symbol for how different we have become in our short time away. It was illuminating for us to experience this - we have integrated into Swedish society more than we ever imagined. How we parent our children is just one way in which we have stitched ourselves into the fabric of society.

Hoboken has some of the most beautiful playgrounds that are conveniently located amongst delicious coffee shops, pastries and taco trucks. They are clean, safe and have incredible views of NYC. It seems like the perfect place to raise a family if you work in the city and gives you that inner-city feel while still remaining hip AND safe - a unique combination. We really enjoyed our playground crawl and we would love to return again another time. Perhaps I need to perfect a dismissive wave with a smile so that I don't need to constantly get up off of the bench next time. Might that work?


  1. Fascinating! I have wondered if some of the amazing things you do with your children reflect Swedish parenting or if you would have done the same in Atlanta or elsewhere in the US. Wandering in the woods, letting Calvin pick up and swat things with sticks, dumping sand on the slide!!! Shocking things like that! : ) It all looks like great play to me.. Sadly, I suspect that this is another reflection of the value that Sweden puts on parenting, something not at all reflected in the American workplace and culture. How many young American parents find the time and energy to take their children out to the woods, or even to playgrounds? Have a playground right outside the door?
    I love the way you parent. Please don't stop! And I suggest that you work on this piece a bit and submit it to Parenting Magazine.
    You have now experienced just one of the many reasons more than one of the "older" generation has commented that we miss you a lot, but don't think you'd be very happy at "home.". The list of benefits seems to be longer than the obvious... extended parenting leave, great maternity benefits, wonderful local transit systems hence lessened need for a car, education benefits almost from birth, etc etc.Sad reflection on the great USA. .

    And yes, work on that dismissive wave! Perfect solution! .

    Very much love, and pride in your parenting, Grandma

    1. Grandma, I'm convinced that there are American parents out there who are more free range than hoverers but sadly, the art of play has been left behind due to the safety and reassurance that is provided by structured, scheduled play. "Nobody can steal my kid if he is inside playing video games" - nope, you're right. An empty playground IS a dangerous one. Children need each other to activate their imaginations, work out how to share toys, and to learn new skills like rope tying and skipping. They all learn this from their peers and that is simply cannot be recreated by a parent. I don't care how active you are as a parent, nothing can replace the imagination and energy that your children's peers have.

  2. Amen, sister. If you ever move back to the states, come and live near us in LA. I have a feeling we'd get along very well :-)

    1. I'm not sure LA is on our list. Maybe move to Sweden? :-) There are pockets of "us" around, I know it!


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