Saturday, June 03, 2006

Playground Politics

I was digging around in my writing file and realized that this has been sitting around, waiting for editing and attention for TWO YEARS. Yikes. Anyone have ideas about how to pull it together? It is all over the place right now.

Playground Politics

I spent a month back in the U.S. recently, and a good part of that month was spent soaking up the culture hovered over the train table in the Barnes and Noble children’s section. We have approximately a million trains and tracks and home, and devote our mornings to making cooler tracks than the day before, complete with tunnels and bridges and construction dangers, but somehow our homemade creations are never as fascinating as the beaten down tracks they have at the bookstore. Anyhow, one day when we arrived another little boy had already staked his claim to all the trains and was absorbed in a multicar collision. Aiden sidled up to me and complained that there were no trains for him to play with, so I suggested to him that he go up to the boy and say, “Hi, I’m Aiden, I’m 4 years old. May I have some trains to play with?” Before he could make his move, however the other boy’s mother intervened and, taking some trains from him, said, “Billy, this is Aiden, let’s give him some trains to play with too.”

So Aiden was happy, but I was not. I wanted Aiden to actually have to do the work of going up to the boy and saying the words himself – of working out the problem on his own. Instead, the whole scene played out between us mothers like a couple of ventriloquists. Although we didn’t speak to each other at all, we managed to manipulate the situation into something textbook-worthy.

This whole incident made me think about playground politics. In the U.S. – at least in the mostly affluent suburbs that I have parented in – a trip to the park will bring you face to face with a gaggle of little children, parents in tow. The children are playing and the parents (mostly mothers) are performing complex “interventions and facilitations” (in Judith Warner’s words: "What that lady is saying is, she would really prefer you not empty your bucket of sand over her little boy's head. Is that okay with you, honey?").

In Seoul, a trip to the playground will reveal many children and few adults. And the adults who are around are usually not intervening much. Instead, the kids are managing themselves quite well. When we first arrived here I spent a lot of time wondering at the ways in which the older children would manage the younger ones here. The older ones, climbing over the top of a jungle gym in a way clearly not intended by the creators, turn away a younger child, telling him that it’s too dangerous. Older kids settle disputes, retrieve balls, and in the shallow swimming areas near the river where we live, take Aiden by the hand and help him overcome his fear of the water. I see kids as young as 3 in the playground without a responsible adult, playing happily in the sand.

Without adults in the picture, the kids manage quite well. But this is more than a matter of the absence of adults – these kids take directions from each other because they’re used to taking directions from older people in general, and giving directions to younger ones.

Perhaps the angriest I’ve ever been was on the playground in Saline, Michigan when an older boy pushed Aiden forcefully down the slide because he was in the way. I dried Aiden’s tears but didn’t say anything to the boy. The boy’s mother showed up 5 minutes too late and asked, “Did my son do that?” I answered somewhat stiffly in the affirmative, thinking “Now she’ll watch him better.” 10 minutes later the same scene played out, down to the mother arriving 5 minutes too late. Still I said nothing to the boy.

Perhaps I am on the extreme side of nonconfrontational, but I think to a great extent people in the U.S. are hesitant to direct others’ kids, and even more hesitant to suggest to another parent that he or she is doing something wrong.

On the other hand, here, people are full of advice. The small act of boarding a bus or subway is to invite comments – on the same day, people will tell me that my child is not wearing enough clothes, is wearing too many clothes, should attend church more, shouldn’t do taekwondo at such a young age, and shouldn’t cry when he falls down. (the same day will see people fixing my hair, brushing lint off my clothes, and pointing out that I have gained weight or have a pimple on my face.) My American self feels invaded and offended by such comments – who are these people to say such things to me, to presume to know better than I? Do they think I’m stupid? In the U.S., even if you thought someone was stupid you wouldn’t tell a complete stranger how to dress her kid.

Just as in the playground I’m often the only mother I see accompanying her child to school. From the age of 5 or 6, it seems, kids walk with their friends to school, taekwondo, hakwon, etc. Their parents trust that others will keep an eye on them, and these others do. Delivery men warn them to stop fooling around on the bridge. Old men tell a young boy to stop picking his nose. A middle aged woman tells a high school kid not to throw away his trash on the ground. And the kids, at least for the moment, listen. There are many eyes on the street here, and many mouths too. There is a sense of social responsibility, which produces the comments I find annoying and offensive but also provides a greater sense of safety.

As much as I hate being told what to do, I appreciate the feeling of safety that is produced by the free advice. And more than that, I appreciate how these small interactions with different people shape Aiden’s sense of community and responsibility. On our walks each day, the 수위아저씨들 all say hello, and Aiden’s favorite one gives him candy, and we bring him sweet potatoes. The delivery men on their scooters bow and wave, we run into Aiden’s school friends on their way to different places with their parents, grandparents, brothers or sisters. The river that we cross each day is a gathering place for people of all ages, some exercising, some talking, some going one place or another, some working, some rude, some kind. Some recognize us as Americans and stop us to tell us about their children in New York or their trip to the U.S. Sometimes Aiden is crying about something and others stop to ask him what’s the matter, to help him. We notice how people help each other out, make room for each other on the path, or sometimes how people are mean and discourteous. For my little boy who watches everything and learns from every interaction, it’s a time to see the variety of people out in the world, all the different kinds of work and play they partake in, and a time to learn how to respect and treat all those people.

Growing up in the U.S. I think I took orders from my parents (whom I lost respect for at the developmentally appropriate age of 13 or so) and my teachers, and pretty much nobody else. I wasn’t accountable, in any tangible way, to anybody else. As a child, I was very shy and particularly fearful of interacting with strangers. Shuttled from place to place my by parents, I was largely sheltered from talking to or interacting with others until I started to drive. And the interactions I did have were mostly consumer interactions, divided spatially by a cash register or checkout surface and speeded along by the lines of customers and largely scripted process of buying.

Although in many ways Korean society has larger class differences than American society I interact here with people from all social classes far more that I do in the U.S. The nature of the apartment complex-centered life here creates a kind of small village where people know each other. People like the “security guard/all purpose man” who work at each apartment complex don’t have great jobs – two guards alternate 24-hour shifts so there’s always someone on duty, and I’m sure the pay is low and they get limited social respect. But those two guards interact with the residents here in so many important ways, from directing traffic and helping people with parking, to taking care of garbage and recycling, keeping the grounds around the apartment, handling packages and deliveries and arranging for repairs. We treat these guards with respect because of these everyday small intimacies and dependencies. In the same way, the deliverymen who work for the fruit sellers, the woman at the video store on the corner, the convenience store clerk and city repair men recognize us and say hi.

Kids here get used to interacting with adults of all varieties from a much younger age and develop, I think, a better sense than I did that they live in a society of all kinds of people and that they are accountable to those others, strangers or not, and that little interactions matter.

Because little interactions do matter. Seoul has changed a lot in the last decade since I’ve been coming here. People are still friendly but not as friendly as they used to be, they give up seats in the bus and the subway for the elderly or the pregnant, but not as regularly as the used to. People are focused on their busy lives and are as often as not inconsiderate. Generational differences in particular create all sorts of strange assumptions and behaviors.

But throughout our day we get a chance to define and model the kinds of behaviors we want to practice, the ways in which we think we should interact with people. It’s not in school but out in the world that children learn how to talk to others, how to respect others, how to be considerate and observant, how to watch people, how to speak for themselves and ask for what they want.

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