Late September, after lunch out with Andy and his friend, Mark, I took all three kids to Tower Park on a beautiful, blue-sky, fall day.
All three children were in good spirits—we were having a great day.
Sophie even attempted, what she calls, the “bouncy” bridge—she was being so brave.
We had been out of the house for quite some time, and Owen and James were hungry. So I moved their stroller to the center of the playground, where there is a nice gazebo, offering benches and shade. I pulled out cold bottles of breast milk and hoped they wouldn’t be particular about the temperature.
Sophie, in the meantime, ran happily—everywhere. She climbed stairs, walked across platforms, went down slides, climbed up ladders and called to me from various parts of the playground. It’s the first time I’ve let her go, just let her play, without following her everywhere. I worried when she disappeared into a tunnel and didn’t come out immediately. I worried when I stopped watching her to wipe a mouth, shake a toy, fetch a burp cloth. I worried when I couldn’t immediately spot her when I looked back up. But I knew I had to let her go. I knew, if the four of us were ever going to do anything fun outside of the home, I needed to let her grow up a bit. We both needed to be brave.
Tower Park has many play sets—some big, some small. Sophie had fallen in love with a smaller, simpler one, and she was having a blast climbing its ladder and going down its curvy, plastic slide. By this time James and Owen had pretty much finished their bottles. Owen was in his carrier, in the double Snap N’ Go stroller my friend Tari graciously lent to me. I was holding James and watching Sophie go up the ladder and down the slide, over and over again.
James cried out and I went to fetch his bottle. When I looked back up I didn’t see Sophie but I knew she was on the ladder. I also saw two boys sitting at the top of the play set, by the ladder, in front of the slide. I waited and waited for Sophie’s head to pop up—it never did.
She only recently learned how to climb ladders. I didn’t like the idea of her just standing on one and I feared she may have gotten stuck.
“Sophie?” I yelled.
There were two other moms standing under the gazebo, talking. I didn’t want to take the time to put James back in his car seat and take both boys over to the play set. So I left Owen where he was and carried James over to the play set, all the while trying to do the impossible—keep an eye on both Sophie and Owen, and shielding James from the sun.
And then, I heard Sophie’s voice.
“Come on, guys. Let me up. Please? Come on, guys. Let me up.”
I have no idea where she learned or heard the phrase “come on, guys.” But hearing her say it, hearing her plead like that, broke my heart.
There she stood, halfway up the ladder, begging the two boys—who, I’d guess, were about five years old—to let her up so she could go down the slide. They were determined, though, to not let her pass and had positioned themselves as such so she could go no further.
I wish I could say I talked to the boys, explained to them that Sophie was younger than they were, that what they were doing wasn’t nice. I wish I insisted they move so Sophie could have gone down that slide. I wish I knew that it was OK—and right—for me to say something even though they weren’t my kids.
But I didn’t.
“Sophie, are those boys not letting you up?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Well, that’s not very nice. Let’s go to a different play set—a bigger, better play set.”
The two boys held their ground, smiling.
And that’s when she started to cry.
I pulled her away from the play set, as best I could while also holding James, anxious to get back to Owen. As I talked up the play set we were going to the boys started laughing.
And then one yelled, “Losers!”
We simply kept walking. We lost. They won.
I know Sophie will probably never remember this incident. But I always will. I’ll always regret not saying something to those boys, who only learned that they were able to get away with being mean. I’ll always regret not saying something to their moms, who I know saw what was happening (they were the two women under the gazebo with me) and did nothing about it. I’ll always regret not standing up for my daughter.
At 2-1/2, she stood up for herself, as best she could. Before I came along, she wasn’t crying. She wasn’t yelling—at the boys or for me to help her. She was simply asking the boys to move.
And they didn’t. They were bullies.
The day ended well, with Sophie happy on a bouncing bumblebee. And I suppose that’s all that matters. I told Andy. He was at work. He later told me he was so mad he stood up and paced. I told my mom. Having spent hundreds of hours on playgrounds as a kindergarten teacher, she gave me the (future) confidence to say something to children who aren’t mine and to stand up for my own children (and myself).
So I guess I consider it another notch on my very long lessons-learned-from-mistakes parenting stick. It’s just that, too often, I fear I’m learning lessons at the expense of my kids. I hope I do better next time. I hope my kids are never the ones doing the bullying. If they are, I hope I say something, unlike the moms who ignored the situation that beautiful September day. And I hope when being bullied, my children will stand up for themselves, as Sophie did, and that I’ll, in the future, stand up for them, too—when wanted and necessary.
A couple weeks later, at the dinner table, Andy and I were talking about the playground with Sophie. She brought up the boys, the boys who wouldn’t let her down the slide. I told her, next time, I’d say something. Andy said he would, too.
“And Tucker will bark at them!” she said.
“Yes,” we laughed. “Tucker will bark at them.”
“And Mia will meow at them!” she said.
“Yes,” we laughed. “Mia will meow at them.”
We’ll all stand up for each other.
“When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson