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Empathy in the Park

Empathy in the Park

Ever since having kids, playground politics has been a hot topic of conversation amongst friends. There is so much happening on so many levels in such a small space. Interactions between kids, between grownups and kids, adults conversing, and most humorously, but sometimes painfully, interactions with inanimate objects.

Toss in a national pandemic and everyone’s different comfort levels, and you have enough material for a doctoral thesis.

Last Monday, a neighbor and I met up for a park playdate with our 3-year-old daughters. It was the perfect setup: she and I would get to catch up, and our daughters, Audrey and M would play together. It seemed like a win/win.

Unfortunately, the playdate ended abruptly when M, angry at her mother for not pushing her on the swing, hit her. My friend grabbed M’s hand and said, “We don’t hit and you need to apologize!” M wouldn’t apologize, and my friend took her hand and pulled her kicking and screaming to the car.

This situation left both Audrey and I a little stunned, disappointed and kinda sad. Audrey looked up at me and all I could think of to say was, “It looks like your friend was having a hard time here at the playground, so her mom took her home.” We looked around for other kids to play with and here’s what we saw:

1. A visibly upset 5-year-old girl running away from her mom yelling that she didn’t want to be at soccer camp and wanted to go home. The mom was chasing her and telling her she had to go to camp.

2. A 4-year-old girl clutching the leg of what I assumed to be the nanny, while she wailed, “I miss Mommy and Daddy!” The nanny looked very uncomfortable and took out her phone and started scrolling through it. Occasionally she would say to the girl, “Stop crying!”

Damnit—was last night a full moon or something?!
These were absolutely not the options we were looking for as playdates.

As I stood there wondering what to do, the sobs and cries permeated my soul. These kids (and their caretakers) were in so much relational pain. There is another way I kept thinking. And every fiber of my being was telling me to do something.

Initially, I was hesitant to approach the mother and daughter duo; I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. However, now in hindsight, “stepping on toes” to offer help and support doesn’t sound that bad. (See Postscript at the end of this article.)

So we turned to the girl and the nanny, and I took Audrey’s hand and said: “That girl looks really sad. Let’s go see if we can help.”

We walked up to her, I got down to her eye level and said “Hi, you seem really sad, is there anything we can do to help?” She continued wailing and clutching the nanny’s leg tighter. The nanny looked at me apologetically and just shrugged. She then said “I’m Mimi and this is Sloane (names changed for privacy) and she misses her parents. She’s really worked up, and I can’t get her to calm down once she starts up.”

I introduced myself and Audrey, and I said to Sloane: “I hear you really miss your parents. I’m imagining you spent all weekend with them—maybe you even did something fun for Father’s Day, and now they’re at work and you’re feeling sad they aren’t here. Audrey’s dada is at work, and I know she misses him too.” Sloane finally looked up and in-between bated breaths said, “Yeeeahhh.”

I wish I could say Sloane stopped crying then, but she was pretty “worked up” and she continued to sob. I nodded and said “I can see you’re really upset. It’s all right to cry. I cry when I’m upset too.” With the acknowledgment of her pain, Sloane began to soften a bit. I asked her if she liked drawing and showed her our sparkle chalk, and let her know that when she was ready, Audrey and I would love to draw with her.

Mere minutes after Audrey and I started drawing on the sidewalk, Sloane joined us. She even asked Audrey if she wanted some of her puff star snacks. The nanny looked at me and mouthed a gracious, “THANK YOU!”

With Audrey and Sloane playing together and gleefully snacking on puffs, I was on a roll and determined to see if I could support the other little girl.

I looked around and saw her under a slide hugging her knees and crying. Her mother was nowhere to be seen. With my heart aching for her, I beelined over, sat down and introduced myself. I got her to open up a little bit, and I gave her as much empathy as I could, but she kept anxiously looking for her mom to return, and was having trouble connecting with me. I let her know she was welcome to do chalk drawings with us, and if she needed help, we’d be there.

As Audrey, Sloane and I were drawing, I saw the other girl’s mom return to her. I couldn’t decipher what they were saying, but they were both shouting at each other.

With lunch time and nap time fast approaching and HALT on my mind (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired), we packed up and headed home.

I mourned the missed opportunity for connection and support for the other girl, but I was really proud Audrey and I connected with Sloane. Toddlers absolutely can turn on a dime.

The next time you see a child melting down (basically the next time you visit a grocery store, mall or park) I invite you to check in with yourself and see how approaching to offer support feels. Does it feel worse than doing nothing?

Postscripts from Christine and Jean ~ ~
Approaching anyone whose nervous system has been stimulated must be done with care and discretion. Claire felt comfortable talking to the child with the nanny because she sensed they both welcomed some support. She also had her daughter by her side which gave her some friendly credibility. 

Approaching a child whose parents are nowhere to be seen is what many responsible parents do. Also keep in mind that you’re the stranger approaching a child and most children now have been duly cautioned by their parents, “Do not talk to strangers.” 

If you do choose to approach, keep a considerable distance from the child and say something like, “We’ll wait over here with you until your mom comes back. And proceed to offer empathy/understanding/validation for the child’s emotions, “You seem to be feeling pretty sad right now and you’re worried about being at soccer camp, right?”

If you see a parent and child having an altercation, it might be best to approach after things have calmed down a bit and give the parent some empathy for their stress in this situation, or parenting in general. In some cases, this can start a conversation about various options available in conversations with our children.

If you approach a parent whose nervous system is reacting in flight/flight, this may just redirect their upset to you. Most importantly, approach to connect with a non-judgmental heart, be open and compassionate, and drop any agenda to fix or educate.

Jean recommends The Yes Brain—Cultivating Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child by Dan Seigel and Tina Bryson. She found it very informative about brains in both parents and children and how we can better communicate with presence and compassion.

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