I just finished reading “The Playground Trap,” an article that I found myself agreeing with though I didn't necessarily want to. (It's a fascinating article and well worth your time!)
In “The Playground Trap,” the author writes about America’s diverse spaces for children and adults and how this can lead to profound loneliness. We are either with our children, in spaces that are designed with children in mind or without them in spaces where they are not welcome. Our lives are very divided, and generally the child-friendly places are not inherently friendly to people without children.
I keep wondering if there is an easy solution. We’re so busy, trying to maximize our time and be as efficient as possible. This is probably why we tell ourselves that playgrounds are furthering the gross motor development of our children when in reality, we just want a safe place for them to run off their energy. This is why I feel such an urgency to use my time well when I have a few hours child-free. We worship efficiency.
What if part of the solution is relinquishing efficiency itself?
When I was a little girl, we spent time visiting relatives. In the rural Appalachian mountains where my mom grew up, she had tons of scattered relatives. To be honest, I still don’t know how some of the people we visited were related to us.
What I do remember is riding in my grandmother’s blue car to houses that always felt a little stuffy, a little brown. We would sit while my grandmother visited. I’m not really sure what we did. Sometimes we were offered ice pops, and my brother would use his youngest child wiles to get more while my sister and I gave him disapproving looks. Maybe we took our books and read. Other times, the older relative would have something that fascinated children. Sometimes they just told us stories.
Do people still visit in living rooms? Do children still spend much time with the elderly?
What do we lose by keeping our kids out of these living rooms—these places where time may stop, stories will get told, and it may feel boring but in an important way??
These older adults shaped how I thought about myself. In a way only older people can be, they were inherently approving of children and told us so. They wanted to befriend us. Even during my most awkward phases, these adults and their approval assured me that I was normal with compliments I still remember over a decade later. This adoration of children was not merited--we didn't do anything to deserve it--it was just a natural outpouring of a culture that valued children as people. It continues to shape and humble me.
Old age can seem boring. Sitting in the too-warm living rooms of the older people while they tell a repetitive story can feel stifling. But I would hate for our children to miss out on this sort of visiting, the lost art of storytelling, the lost art of friendship with people so different from ourselves.
With the Internet, has come the feeling of being in a virtual living room all the time with conversation you can control with a click away. Each word is currency because space is valuable. There aren’t the same long pauses, unnecessary anecdotes. You can just click away from such things.
And this does make us more efficient—at least at first. Sometimes it allows us to digest hundreds of opinions in a short amount of time. It may encourage us to be tolerant as we see multiple viewpoints and can seemingly walk in several people’s shoes within minutes.
But what’s often missing is the feeling of kinship that can be cultivated only in physical presence. We especially miss a whole group of people that are often absent from the online debate—the elderly. And when they’re missing, we’ve lost collective knowledge that is hard to quantify.
But these living room visits may be part of the answer to our culture’s loneliness—the divide between children and adults. Maybe those occasional moments of boredom are a small price to pay for a friend, a story, a reassurance that though you are but a child, you are a human, too.
I saw this when my husband’s grandparents came to meet our kids for the first time this year. There was a beautiful mix of adult conversation peppered with comments on what our little boys were doing. There was a slowness—a lack of urgency, which often seems to bring out the best in children. We weren’t necessarily playing with them, but we also weren’t ignoring them—a blend that seems to result in enjoyable playtime for them. Plus there were a few little gifts—some old-fashioned books, a couple of stuffed-animals, and some new trucks.
Sometimes we’re so busy just talking to our kids or trying to have adult conversations with them around, and it can feel equally frustrating and mind-numbing. But during agenda-less visits that include them, we’re teaching our kids how to relate.
We talk about socializing our preschoolers, and this usually means some library story time or a few days a week at a program. And these programs are wonderful. They are also focused solely on activities for children.
So what about socializing them to be part of real conversations? What about visits to our own older relatives or people down the street—times to learn how adults interact with one another and with children in places that aren’t exclusively child-friendly?
I have tended to hesitate in taking my children to visit. But when we do go to visit, I’m always so filled up. I see that they can behave well, I feel that same warm, unabashed adoration of older adults, and I feel profoundly grateful for living room spaces where loneliness is truly abated for a short time.