Parenting and Playground Diplomacy

  • 1
  • March 14, 2014

Parenting and Playground Diplomacy

Recently, I’ve had some serious realizations and reality checks about my responsibilities as a parent. Around the time my daughter reached the age of one, she was really beginning to gain more of her own independence. I was so proud of her! She was walking, and starting to say things and express her own opinions and preferences. Her personality has always been evident to me, but around this time she really began to shine/blossom into herself, and you could see her excitement about the world with her newfound ability to explore and learn about her surroundings more fully. This was also about the time that she really started interacting more with other children out in public.

There was one day in particular that it all started to sink in for me, what it really meant to be a parent. We were at our local playground, and there was a woman there with six children, ranging in ages from about 11 years old down to an infant. Obviously, she couldn’t keep her eyes on each of them at all times as they spun whirlwinds up and down the slides, scurrying across the jungle gym. She had to trust that the older children would look out for the younger ones and be good role models. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case. I watched as the older kids knocked the younger ones out of the way so they could get down the slide first, intent on their goal and squealing with glee as they flew over the humps and bumps in the slide, a dazed toddler in their wake. By the time the younger child could pull themselves up to try to get to the slide again, another round of bigger kids came blasting through again.

Simmer. Stir. Repeat. It’s kind of a parable for life.


On the other side of the fence, a softball coach barked orders at a group of tween girls. I was struck by his harsh criticisms of a rather callow young girl, her hair swept back in a messy ponytail, dirt on her white pants and flushed cheeks from embarrassment.

It was about this time that it really sunk in that my role as a parent was not only to love my child unconditionally, but to do my best to prepare her for navigating the difficult situations and relationships that would arise during her life. It was my job to lay the groundwork for her to be able to negotiate her needs and advocate for herself as well as learn how to compromise and work with other groups of people. Helping her to prepare her for dealing with future harsh softball coaches, difficult, uncompromising supervisors, and potentially controlling, manipulative love interests started now.

I plopped down in the sand with my daughter trying to take it all in. How was I going to do this? I hadn’t completely figured it out myself yet either. Each new relationship is still a new learning experience of figuring out my own boundaries and compromises. I would have to deal with those harsh softball coaches later. For now, I would focus on navigating the playground dynamics.

Here are my quick and dirty tactics for helping your child through some of the rowdy conflicts of the playground whenever another child’s parent might not be around. If parents of all of the children are present, these playground battles usually get resolved fairly quickly.


Step 1: Get your own emotions in check: It can be really difficult to see another unsupervised child plow over your barely toddling toddler without a glance back over their shoulder, so take a deep breath. All of the children are on the playground to have fun and use up some of their pent up energy.

Step 2: See if the children work it out on their own: This doesn’t always happen, especially if there is a large power differential between children, such as a large age gap, but if the two children are relatively equal in age, wait a moment before swooping in to save the day to see if the children seem to be upset. It’s possible you’re more upset than they are. They may simply continue playing together happily. In which case, it’s fine. They’ve worked it out and compromised on their own.


Step 3: Let’s presume they didn’t work it out on their own: You may need to step in and explain to the child that it’s not okay to (fill in the blank with inappropriate behavior) and give very brief explanation why. Speak clearly, kindly and firmly. You can say something like, “It’s not okay to push. He/She is much smaller than you are.”

Step 4: Suggest they take turns: Many kids are used to hearing this from a young age and will concede to taking turns as the fairest approach to a disagreement, with varying levels of patience for following through. It seems most toddler disagreements are over a desire to possess a certain object or space. “Child A, Child B was playing with this toy first. He/She will share it with you after he/she finishes. Can you find something else to play with until it’s your turn?” You may need to be very specific about how long each turn is depending on the children and the situation.


Step 5: If the other child continues to be aggressive, remove your child from the situation: Ultimately, your child’s safety is the most important thing, and see if you can redirect them to another part of the playground.

Step 6: If your child is the aggressor: First follow the above steps. If these attempts at civility don’t work, remove your child from the situation so they don’t hurt someone else and so they know their behavior is not acceptable. Depending on the situation, it may be time to leave the playground completely.

There may be more serious situations in which your child may be in actual danger. If this is the case, cut through any attempts at diplomacy and skip straight to number five. Remove your child from the situation immediately. Trust your instincts, mamas! And happy play-grounding!


Katie Herlihy makes her nest with her bright and beautiful daughter and beloved mate and confidant in Berkeley, California among stacks of books, piles of laundry, dirty dishes, plumes of rose-scented incense and a plethora of art and craft projects. She enjoys writing, making jewelry, taking road trips and reading murder mysteries.

*All photos courtesy of Phalinn Ooi via Flickr under Creative Commons License.

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