A couple of weeks ago we took the kids to a local amusement park, where I had two back-to-back experiences that left me asking the question, “When did we become so afraid of other peoples children?” Since then, I have been tossing this question around my head like the load of whites which I have washed three times since Friday (laundry that I STILL forgot to transfer to the drier this morning, damnit). Before I opine on why I think that we have lost our village, I will first describe the incidents that caused me to ask the question in the first place.
Local readers are likely familiar with Happy Hollow (the amusement park and zoo geared toward small children in our neighborhood) – and if you are familiar with Happy Hollow, then you probably know about the crooked house – and if you know about the crooked house, then you know about the tube slide that transfers children (and playful adults) from the second floor to the ground level. Of course, I am using the word transfer diplomatically. The sunflower yellow tube slide is decidedly quaint juxtaposed against the Victorian architecture of the crooked house. At first glance, it is the most unassuming slide in the entire park! But as most families discover, it is actually an aeronautical rocket booster that is just shy of breaking the space/time continuum.
Every time, and I mean every time we visit the park, I sit in bewildered horror (ok, it is actually more like psychotic delight) as kids and dooped adults sling-shot down the tube slide, before rock-skipping 5-6 times across the slivery tanbark pond at the bottom. Someone with an entrepreneurial spirit and an iPhone could easily take first place in an upcoming episode of Americas Funniest Home Videos, based on crooked house slide footage alone! And why, god, why, is there ALWAYS at least one family who cannot resist the urge to launch their 9-12month old baby down the thing? What could possibly go wrong, they must ask themselves? Ummm, it’s a god damned baby, not a pilot trying to prove their ability to withstand G-forces! There should be a disclaimer at the top which reads, “must have prior centrifuge experience to ride this slide.” This is a slide that turns babies into men and women, and men and women into babies. As a spectator, it is well worth the price of admission, I assure you.
To be clear, this is not an indictment against the park in any way. We absolutely love and happily support Happy Hollow. We are there almost every weekend, and I will be truly sad when our kids out-age it. And lord knows, I would slip into full protest regalia and hit the streets, if there were even a whisper of making modifications to that amazing slide.
Ok, less tangent, more story…
We had just finished the zoo portion of our usual tour de la hollow. The kids were heading to the top of the crooked house, while we made our way to the viewing area at the bottom of the slide. Craig and I were stationed stage left and stage right respectively, in anticipation of what was sure to be an entertaining slide-show. However, instead of the usual dose of pure parental entertainment, I was left gobsmacked by the unwillingness of other adults to participate in the social construct of the village that it takes to raise children, sometimes.
First up was an absolutely adorable little girl, who couldn’t be more than four years old. For anonymity-sake, we will call her Velocity. I could hear Velocity’s mum from the top of the slide assuring her that it would be a grand time and that she would meet her at the bottom for a hug and a commemorative photo. It is an odd feeling baring witness to a child’s final moments of complete and utter parental trust. You can almost taste its sugary sweetness.
Three, two, one, blastoff!
Out shoots Miss Velocity, in a manor that was true to her fake name. With an exactly zero chance of sticking the landing, she skidded, face-first, before coming to a complete stop. There were no less than eight parents standing around this child, mind you. And every single one of us knew that it would take a minimum of 45 seconds for the guilt ridden parents to find their way back down the stairs to their shocked and dirtied child – because lord knows that even the sounds of their kids wails couldn’t move them to save themselves 29 seconds with ride down the hell-chute. I mean, we all love our children, but hurling myself down a black hole to Bruiseville isn’t going to help anyone. I was arguably the farthest adult in the pack, yet I was the only one to offer any help. I ran over, picked her up, and started excavating the wood chips from inside and around her mouth. Then, to the perceived horror of the crowd, I gave her a hug and told her it would be ok. Why am I the only one helping this kid, I thought? How have we become so afraid to step in as proxy for each other? Dude, where is Velocity’s village?
I suspect that it may boil down, in some part, to the loss of community / or the village we used to attribute to the business of raising children – and if we drill down even further, to a general sense of fear. When we set aside the 24/7 entertainment porn coverage of daily tragedies in this country and consider the actual data on crime and violence, we learn that we are living in the safest period in American history. It has literally never been a better idea to kick our kids out the front door to play. Yet the thought of letting our kids explore the world in absence of child proof gates, fences and barriers, leads parents to examine every worst case scenario imaginable! The things that we are afraid of have very little, if any actual data to back it up. I mean, if we take a second to get over our own self-importance and really think about it, nobody actually wants our damned kids. Not even the straight A students, or the ones who go to bed without any objections! We think nothing of strapping our kids into 70 mile per/hr tin cans every day, but lament over 10mins of playing in our front yard without being under the watchful eye of Sauron. The overwhelming majority of actual monsters aren’t strangers at all – they are people we know and trust!I don’t know when we started to go wrong, but I fear that the consequences of childhood experiences that are devoid of unstructured, adult-free, adventure (and occasional trouble) will seriously and negatively impact their abilities to lead joyous, fulfilling, and independent lives.
You may be wondering what the hell this has to do with the concept of the village. A lot, I suspect. Part of the reason our parents let us wander the neighborhood so freely was because they had confidence that other adults would intervene if they were in trouble, or needed help, or were acting like assholes. It is also probable that they weren’t entirely sober, but I digress (and no judgement).
Which is a great segue into my second story from the crooked house that day: assholes. Children are no different from any other random groups of people. You’ve got some kind ones, some cute ones, some smart ones, some hella funny ones, and one or two assholes. Two, in this particular case.
Not five minutes after Velocity’s unexpected high-fiber wood chip lunch, I had a front row seat at another baffling example of adults who were completely unwilling to take reasonable action in the name of the village. Two twin boys came traipsing around the corner, who were about Wrenn’s age (4). I will call them Vader and Chucky, even though it is highly likely that those are their actual names. Immediately, they began gathering armfuls of tanbark and dirt and throwing them up the slide just as other children were rocketing down. When you hit a three inch puddle of tanbark doing mach 3, you’re going to have a bad time (hello, sliver butt!). All eight of the surrounding adults looked at each other to see if anyone would lay claim to the little scamps – but either they were too embarrassed, or they were not present. So I pulled up my villager boot-straps, and stepped up to the plate. “Hey guys”, I said politely. “No more throwing the bark onto the slide, ok?” I remembered what it felt like to have a villager reprimand me as a kid, so I was careful to be friendly. I figured that I had squashed the issue, and returned to my post.
However, Vader and Chucky were not phased by strange adults and their demands. Instead of stopping, they upped their game and began throwing handfuls of dirt and bark onto the children as they came down the slide. Maybe they didn’t hear me, I thought – or perhaps they didn’t speak English, i reasoned. I scanned the area again for signs of a parent before approaching them again. “Hey, guys – knock it off. NO MORE throwing dirt at kids coming down the slide. Do you hear me?”
My hand to god, they both looked at me completely amused, pointed at my face, and laughed maniacally before bending down to grab two more handfuls of dirt-bark and running away. I was half bewildered at the kids reactions, and half shocked at the secret fantasy scenario playing in the movie of my mind. The one where I carry them in a football hold (one under each arm) and promptly toss them out the Happy Hollow gates to the sound of a standing ovation behind me.
Only, they hadn’t left. They had merely climbed the back stairwell to the top of the slide and launched their nastygrams down the slide for the next unsuspecting child to scrape through. When they came back down (via the stairs instead of the slide) to grab more dirt, a woman came up to me and whispered, “you’re doing great.” The sentiment, although supportive, only succeeded in circling my mind back to my original question of when did we become so afraid of other peoples children? Granted, Vader and Chucky were in a class of naughtiness that I had never before experienced (classholes, ha!) – but we collectively had a couple hundred years of experience and age against them, so come on! Use your big girl voice!
Admittedly, I had lost my cool at this point. Given that this was the third round of reprimanding someone else’s children, followed by laughter and ignorance, I was about three seconds from sinking to their level (terrible, I know). Sensing the embarrassment and imminent jail time, Craig stepped between me and the twins and asked diplomatically, “should we take the kids to brush the goats?” Even though I was red hot, I knew he was right. As turned to leave, I saw a woman sitting alone at table across from the crooked house. It was Chucky and Vader’s mother. I can’t explain how I knew that this was the woman who had spent the last four years of her life catering to every demand, I just knew in the way that only a mother can. She was nose deep into her ipad and completely oblivious to angry crowd still watching her kids throw dirt on others, and my secret fantasy of ejecting them from the park (the crowd goes wild!).
Later on, I mention the mom to Craig. Why didn’t I approach her, he asks? I tell him because I suddenly was struck with the thought that perhaps she needed that time alone. Maybe she knows they’re assholes, and maybe she figured there would be one villager in the crowd to step in and try to get them under control. I imagined how shitty I would feel if I explained what had happened and she started crying. So I said nothing. Of course, it is absolutely possible (likely, even) that she would have chewed my ass out for speaking to her precious little poopsies.
Regardless of what this mother’s reaction would have been, I am standing firm in my belief that we need to bring back the village. Even if we don’t get it 100% right 100% of the time, at least we would be acting as a community. Besides the benefits of helping raise the next generation of independent adults with the ability to think critically, the village mentality also helps parents realize that they aren’t alone. Parenting is hard, but it is less hard when you know that your village has your back. Even if you are too afraid to stand up to a four year old jackhole, for the love of god, please run over and pick up the next Velocity that you watch yard sale all over the playground. Show her that she has a village/community who will help dust her off. And then take that same sentiment and apply it to every single person you meet. That’s what villagers do.