A Game of Chicken

The boys and I hit up a fast food place yesterday. After eating, I took Joshua into the play area to let him work off some energy. Little did I know that I would be stuck there for most of an hour operating a make-shift day care operation.

We had the place to ourselves for about five or ten minutes before a mom came in with her son, Brody, age 3-ish. She took his shoes off, and then… left. She went to place an order, and then just sat down to eat, kind of in view of the play area, kind of not, and she didn’t cast a whole lot of looks in our direction. So, despite me wanting to leave with the boys to get on with our day, I felt trapped by responsibility for a child I’d only met minutes ago and whose last name I did not know. I told myself that, if I left, at least he’d be in his mom’s kind-of-line-of-sight and probably ok. Just as I’d motivated myself to leave, another mom came in with her two girls and did the same thing. Shoes off, exit stage left. I was now supervising five children, only two of which shared any of my DNA. This happened once more, though this mom at least sat directly outside the play area in plain view of her kid (who, if I’m being judgey and snarky, looked like she spent a lot of time at this particular fast food restaurant). So, with a total of six children now under my care, I was essentially an unpaid day care worker.

I’d love to think that this sort of parenting is atypical, that parents actually do want to interact with their children and not let a complete stranger watch their children without so much as a “thank you” or even a look of acknowledgement. But I see it so very often that I just can’t deny it any longer. Play areas at restaurants are pretty bad for this; those at the mall are even worse, and have been for some time to judge by the “Please do not leave children unattended” signs which have begun to bleach in the sunlight that filters through the skylights at our local mall. This isn’t to say that I hover over Joshua while he plays; I sit and watch while he explores and plays on his own. I’m writing about this because the pendulum swing between helicopter parenting and parenting-by-play-place is quite a long one, and on plain view just about anywhere there’s a twisty slide.

In a previous generation, in times of yore, children roamed their neighborhoods alone or in small packs, unaccompanied by parents or any other adults. In my own somewhat old-fashioned neighborhood as I was growing up, this was still the case. I would ride my bike by myself, walk to a friend’s house, or just poke around the woods with only a “Be back by ___” from my parents. I was in middle school before I realized that this was not commonplace, and by high school, I realized that it was downright rare. By adulthood, I realized that the same actions in most other places would probably result in me hopping into a stranger’s panel van with the promise of free candy.

Some oversight is needed, of course. Parents don’t have to double-date with their kids*, but plopping them down with a scruffy-looking dude** in a Chick-Fil-A play place without a second thought ought to, at least, give them a second thought. How detached from parenting do you have to be to just hope for the best that a stranger will not only not kidnap your child, but actually make sure your child doesn’t break a femur on the sit-and-spin? I don’t care about Brody, and if he did break his leg apart, only a moral imperative would motivate me to do anything more than look to see if his mom saw the incident over her bowl of chicken salad***.

I cannot put myself in any kind of mindset where I would be worry-free about leaving Joshua or Jack with somebody who looks like, well, me at a playground of any sort. The presumption is vast, naive, and quite dangerous. Brody was rather attached to me after our short time together. It would have taken almost no convincing to get him to leave with me. Whether he was just grateful for some attention or actually having fun with me, I can’t say, but a worse brand of human being takes Brody and leaves a note written with letters cut out of magazines****.

One of parenting’s greatest, ugliest joys is judging other parents. I’m sure that plenty of eyes roll and whispers get whispered about my parenting, and I’m fine with that. It’s a given. It’s a highly subjective, purely personal, and truly individualized thing, parenting. Every kid and every parent makes every kid-parent relationship unique. But surely, surely we as parents can agree on certain things. Feeding shellfish to an infant is a bad idea. Letting your pre-schooler play with guns is unwise. TVs are not babysitters any more than strangers in public places or private eateries ought to go on this list, and yet, it seems it can’t quite break in. Call me judgey. It’s true. I have no shame about that. If you’re letting someone else do your parenting for you when you have an opportunity to do some parenting, yes, I judge you guilty of being a crap-tastic parent. Fear my judgement!

 

*I saw a middle school-aged couple out on such an evening with one of their sets of parents. I cannot begin to imagine how awkward that evening was for everyone involved.

**That would be me.

***Seriously, why are you at the Chick-Fil-A if you’re eating chicken salad?

****This idea amuses me. The amount of time involved, not to mention the cost of magazine subscriptions, is large.

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