As a guy writing for a website best known for ruining movies with science, turning bands in D&D alignment charts, and meticulously breaking down similarities in video games, I’m sure you have a mental image of me in your head. Paul Walker smile. Vin Diesel charm. The Rock physique. All rolled into one unstoppable cheat code of a man. And look, I’m not going to stop you from thinking that. But I have a confession: I actually suffer from tremendous social anxiety, I’m a stammering mess around strangers, and my superpower is being super afraid of interacting with children who aren’t my own.

So imagine how I felt when, at a regular checkup this past summer, the doctor said my three-year-old son needed to go outside and play for at least an hour every day. Fortunately, I live in a pretty dense area of Chicago, surrounded by at least five public playgrounds within reasonable walking distance. Unfortunately, other people go to these playgrounds. That’s where the social anxiety kicks in.

Since my main goal with this column is to help other parents be less afraid of everything than I was/am, I’ve developed a sort of taxonomy of parents based on almost no science. Hope this helps:

The Parent Who Is Already Your Friend

Who They Are/What They Do: 

If you can help it, have kids at the same time as people you’re already friends with. It’s an absolute godsend to have 1) friends you can commiserate with and 2) other children you can make your child play with. My wife’s best friend had twins six months after my son was born, her husband has a similar freelance-artist-stay-at-home-dad lifestyle as me, and they live like three blocks from us. I cannot stress enough how important it is to try to replicate this situation exactly. Especially during a pandemic, Christ, I don’t know how we would’ve survived without having our quarantine pod friends up the street. If you can’t engineer these exact conditions … IDK, man. Good luck.

twin babies

mgeejnr/pixabay

Lesser-Known Tip: Have twins, and give one to a friend. Never tell the kids the truth.

In all seriousness, it is great to have someone you already know at the playground with you. If you’re stay-at-home, it’s easy—just find an agreed-upon time and go. If you work a typical 9-5, meeting up with your Friends With Kids can be a weekend thing. It’s tougher to coordinate if you work retail or in the service industry, but those jobs (in my experience) usually give you random weekdays off, meaning fewer crowds wherever you go.

It’s good for children’s development to have people they regularly run around with before starting school; they're almost like training wheels for interacting with classmates. It’s also good for you to maintain some sanity and strengthen some friendship bonds. “A” and I have been pretty decent friends going on like nine years now, but getting our kids together once a week has brought us closer together in really pleasant ways. We get to hang out and talk about projects we’re working on while watching our kids grow up. Cultivating whatever version of that you can find in your own life is very worth doing.

How To Approach Them: 

The saccharine cheeriness of the last paragraph aside, remember that this article is about being at the playground. There are still other parents you don’t know, who are therefore terrifying. Cling to your friend-parent tightly. They’re a life ring protecting you from a sea of unknown interactions. 

fist bum

pxfuel

Together, you can fight off any approaching stranger.

The Parent Who Might Become Your Friend

Who They Are/What They Do: 

This is the person whose schedule seems to sync up with yours. Somehow, you always end up at the playground at similar times. Maybe your kids have taken an interest in each other. Gradually, you start exchanging “hellos” and a few “how are yous.” 

For me, there was a perfectly pleasant woman with a kid slightly older than mine (maybe six months older, if I had to guess). The kid would always run over to my kid and try to engage him. He was a super excited, outgoing little scamp. My poor pandemic child is on the shy side thanks to spending half his life in lockdown, but he warms up to people in time. By day three or four of seeing this same kid, they were really hitting it off. The mom and I eventually started talking a bit. I don’t know if we were ever going to get to the point of exchanging phone numbers and setting up playdates, but at one point I did say something like, “We’ll be back, same time tomorrow.” 

man on swing

StockSnap/Pixabay

"So, uh, if you're sick of me, you know when not to come." 

Bummer, though: they vanished more thoroughly than Keyser Soze. Who knows why—maybe the kid started a new summer camp, maybe they found another playground they liked better—it really doesn’t matter. These playground meetings are a lot like stumbling into a conversation at a bar or on a plane. If a friendship develops, rad. If not, don’t bother thinking about it again until you need an anecdote for a column you’re writing. 

How To Approach Them: 

Organically. If someone’s friendly, be friendly back. If not, so what? The only laws of the playground, at least the one I usually go to, is that it’s for kids 12 and under, it closes at 7, and you can’t drink booze there. Seriously, that’s all the sign says. You’re not forced to talk to anyone. But again, if you kinda end up talking and the kids are getting along, it’s not a bad thing to open yourself up to new friends. Even if, like me, that possibility terrifies you. 

beer on bench

3282700/Pixabay

Drinking would help, but that's not allowed.

Jokes from earlier aside, I’m kinda curious how that relationship would’ve developed if we kept seeing them. It’s hard to envision ever getting to the point of inviting them over for cookouts or whatever, but it was fun seeing my son start to develop a new friend. Having kids from all walks of life interact is the real benefit of public playgrounds, or at least it should be. Plus, getting to know your neighbors and building community is a good thing.

The Parent Who Only Says “Hi”

Who They Are/What They Do: 

Okay, enough community-building. Let’s be real; this is the second-best archetype on this list. This is the parent who gives you a “hey” or a “how’s it going” if you happen to walk near each other, then never looks at you again for the duration of your time on the playground. Could be a parent who just wants to keep their head down and make sure their kid doesn’t break their neck (hi!); could be a parent who has a thorough plan for playground time involving snack/water breaks and is too focused on the schedule to notice you (lol, not me); could be a parent who has an especially energetic child and no time to pay attention to anything else (hi again!). 

The important thing is, this parent is focusing on the important thing: their own kid. That’s all you’re there to do, too. Sometimes, you just gotta watch your toddler climb jungle gyms, race down slides, and soar on swings without finding out if that dad over there is named Steve, Mark, or Optimus Prime. 

dad son playground

stocksnap

If you must call him something, call him "Dad," like his kid does.

This feeling may be a product of where I live. A quick google reveals I have over 56,000 neighbors, which both feels about right and also impossible-to-comprehend high. I imagine smaller communities become more familiar more easily. But most other parents and kids I see on the playground, I’m never going to see again. So why make small talk if neither of us has to? What are we going to learn about each other in the next 45 minutes? “Oh, you work at that building I’ve passed by before, cool! I used to work in a different building a few blocks away, ever seen it?” Who cares! My kid couldn’t climb that ladder last week, and now he’s scampering over it like American Ninja Warrior! That’s both cool and terrifying! I don’t give a shit about Steve/Mark/Optimus' job!

How To Approach Them: 

Say “hey” or “how’s it going.” Maybe wave. I guarantee neither of you will be sitting on your deathbeds 50 years from now talking about how you regret only waving to that one dad in the polo shirt that one time when your now-60-year-old kid was three. It’s okay.

man polo shirt

pxhere

"And that dad's name? His name was Mark."
–Of all things that never happened, this story is the most boring

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The Parent Who Is Clearly Managing Other People’s Children

Who They Are/What They Do: 

These are people who might not even be parents of the tiny ones they’re shepherding. They may be parents who also have nieces/nephews, they may be part of a playgroup, they may be running an actual childcare center. They arrive with 4-6 little urchins of various ages, laser focus, and the biggest diaper bag you’ve ever seen in your life (I don’t know what’s in there, but my guess is 60% snacks and 40% clothes changes). They command enough respect that they can sit on the bench and control their brood, whereas you, a novice parent, have to follow your kid around and make sure he doesn’t get kicked by someone on the swingset.

These people, to me, are witches and wizards. It’s like they got Professor X’s mind control powers and Nightcrawler’s teleportation powers, the way they can manage all of those kids at once. When “A” and I take our kids to the playground, we’re outnumbered three-on-two, but come on. That’s manageable. That’s a penalty kill in hockey. Six-on-one??! There’s no way that’s possible without supernatural intervention. And they always seem to have perfectly timed schedules! Everyone takes snack breaks, sitting politely at a table or on a bench, eating apple slices and cheese sticks chased by juice boxes. 

cheese sticks snack

Like_the_Grand_Canyon/Flickr

How do they do it? And can they make some snacks for me next?

In short, these are the types of caregivers who are really bad for your self-esteem if you have any insecurities about your parenting skills. 

How To Approach Them: 

Don’t. Leave them the hell alone. You are the Parent Who Only Says Hi here. They have enough on their plate. You’re only getting in their way. Even if one of their kids starts to engage your kid, chances are you’ll be talking to that kid more than their caretaker. You’re basically drafted into making sure that kid doesn’t fall off the slide or whatever. Frankly, it’s the least you can do.

kid on slide

Michelle_Raponi/Pixabay

Don't even inform the parent of your heroics. Just vanish into the mist. 

The Oblivious Parent

Who They Are/What They Do: 

This is the parent sitting on the bench, buried in their phone. Not casually checking their phone, really scrolling through it. Maybe typing emails or texts, maybe playing Pokémon Go, still, in 2021. They’re not noticing the children in their charge picking at the wild mushrooms next to where the playground lip starts. They’re not noticing the children in their charge running up the slide while other kids patiently wait for a turn that isn’t materializing. They’re not noticing the children in their charge creeping closer towards the fence that’s 20 feet from a highway. And all this time, you’re standing there with a lifetime of “see something, say something” PSAs playing in your head.

But here’s the thing about The Oblivious Parent: unless you’ve unwittingly wandered into the pilot episode of a True Detective season, you’re probably fine not doing anything. That parent seems oblivious because they have different boundaries for their kids than you for yours. All those examples I listed? I’ve actually seen them. The kids were a couple of years older than mine, and all of them either did the right thing of their own volition or took minimal chiding from their parents to do the right thing. In all three of those situations, I would have been awkward or rude if I said anything. 

woman on phone

Mircea Iancu/stockvault

Everyone ignores their kid at home. Some are just brave enough to do it in public.

This, of course, is not to say the oblivious parent from our proverbial pilot for True Detective doesn’t exist. Shitty parents are out there, and non-shitty parents who lose track of their kids are out there. In fact, being either one of those parents only takes about ten seconds of your time if you’re not careful. What I’m saying is don’t assume any parent you see is a shitty parent unless they’re really giving off red flags. Have some faith in your neighbors. 

How To Approach Them: 

The most important thing here is not judging. Picture yourself on the other side: you got caught up responding to a work email for like 30 seconds, and some parent came up to you, dragging your crying child by the arm, saying, “I caught him picking at wild mushrooms.” Your initial response might be gratitude, but it might also be indignation or embarrassment (that you mask with indignation). “How dare you grab my child?” you say with the cadence of a righteously angry Joan Harris while having the insecurities of a Season 1 Peggy Olson. 

wild mushrooms

piqsels

"Picking mushrooms? Oh no, what's next, looking at clouds and frolicking?!"

But then again, what if they are a seriously negligent parent? That’s a really hard judgment to make, but in my experience, one you really have to know before you leap to. It’s important to remember that everyone is going through something; everyone is living their own lives. Just because don’t trust my three-year-old to not leap off a jungle gym and into a pair of broken legs doesn’t mean others are wrong for trusting their three-year-olds to remain safe. Unless you witness some truly heinous shit, it’s best to let other parents parent the way they parent. You never want to be the slapper from NBC’s The Slap:

Starring Slapary Quinto

If it seems like this entry (and column) is full of a bunch of contradictory advice, that’s because people and situations are complicated. Yeah, this is a whole column stereotyping parents on the playground, but the truth is, you kinda just have to learn to adjust on the fly. The terrifying thing is that you have to also teach your kid how to adjust on the fly while also interacting with other parents and kids learning the same thing. Up top, I said I wanted to help other parents be less afraid of everything than I was/am. Sorry, “less afraid” doesn’t mean “unafraid.” And much like how your kid keeps getting better and better at climbing those weird little rock-climbing walls like some sort of miniature Tom Cruise, so too will you get better at interacting with other parents.

If you can’t find Chris Corlew on a playground, you can find him on Twitter. He also reads poems and writes songs.

Top image: pxfuel

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