Friday, April 5, 2013

What Would You Do: An Encounter At The Playground

So I had some free time on a lovely Saturday morning a few weeks ago. I wasn't on call, and I had no major errands to do. Babygirl was due for her nap, so I left her with her dad, and took Babyboy out in the jogger stroller, to the playground.

The playground is very large, with a baseball field, a grassy stretch, and several sets of gym equipment, slides, swings, and a sandbox. Babyboy always aims right for the sandbox.

There was a dad there, with two kids, a boy about 4 years old, and a toddler girl. The boy was doing his own thing, digging under the swings, and the dad was following the toddler around. We didn't interact really, except when Babyboy ran over and grabbed one of the boy's shovels and took it back to the sandbox. The boy didn't seem to notice; I apologised; and the dad nodded that that was fine.

I was sort of playing with Babyboy and sort of spacing out for awhile. It was a clear, sunny day. I heard the Dad say something like, "Son, your sister needs a diaper change, so I'm going to go do that, alright?" I figured he must have brought a diaper bag.

Some time later, I idly turned towards where they had all been, and there was only the boy, still digging under the swings. The dad was off in the distance, carrying the toddler girl,  probably a good football field's length of distance away. I watched as he kept going, down the road, up the stairs to a house, inside, and shut the door. He never even looked back.

Now, this is a big playground, with parallel fences on two sides, and parallel roads on two sides. The road entrances are not gated, they are open to traffic. One of the roads is heavily traveled. It would never occur to me in a million years to leave any age child unattended there.

Though the little boy didn't seem worried that his dad had taken off, he did suddenly seem to notice us. He saw me watching him and smiled. I felt terrible for him, being left alone like that. I felt responsible. I smiled back and called over to him: "Hey, want to play in the sandbox too?"

He got up and ran to us, happily, and both boys dug in the sand, not really interacting. Then he hopped up and ran to the slide, and went down a few times, running around it and giggling. Babyboy was taken by this. Babyboy doesn't seem to like slides much, but is fascinated when other people go down them. The kid kept running around and Babyboy watched.

I thought about this dad leaving his kid alone in the playground. He didn't even ask me if I was willing/ able to watch his kid for a few minutes. What if he had? I would have said yes, but I would have felt a bit put out. We weren't planning on staying there forever. Also, he didn't even know aything about me. He didn't know I was a responsible physician. I could be a kidnapper. Or just irresponsible, and leave the kid totally alone.

I thought all of this, and wondered if I would say anything when (and if) the dad ever got back.

Then, after a total of about ten minutes, the dad reappeared at the far edge of the playground, with the daughter. But they didn't come right back to where they had been. They dawdled way on the other side, while she toddled around on the grassy area.

Meantime I was kind of annoyed. Babyboy and the abandoned boy were sort of digging in tandem. Babyboy kept grabbing things from him though, and he was getting feisty. I kind of needed the dad to moderate.

As soon as he came close enough I planned to pack it up. He did walk over, calling to his son that it was time to go.

I didn't say anything.

What would you do?


  1. wow! no idea how I would respond. That is just so crazy!

  2. I would have said the following: "I just thought you should know that while you were gone, this guy with a ponytail and a trench coat came up to your son. He offered him some ice cream which was in the back of his truck and your son said sure. I thought maybe he knew the guy. Anyway, they were gone about ten minutes. And when your son walked back here, he had something dribbling out of the corner of his mouth. It sort of looked like it might have been ice cream because it was white. Anyway, just thought you should know!"

  3. Ewww. Gross and disturbing to the above comment.

    That is practically unbelievable. I would like to think I'd say something ("I was going to leave, but I didn't want to leave your son here all alone---its definitely not a safe place for a child to be without his parent") but truly I'm a chicken and I'd probably just stare slack-jawed as you did. The only other thought I had was that perhaps the kid was older than he looks? But how old should a kid be before you leave them completely unattended in a public place, even if near your home? I've seen 7-8 year olds at nearby parks on their on, but never 4-6 year olds.

  4. That's so uncomfortable. It sounds like he wasn't expecting you to hang around but I wouldn't have left the kid alone either. I might have made a comment to the dad but assume he'd just get defensive so not sure.

  5. I'm guessing, since the kid wasn't upset, that he's learned to stay by himself in this familiar park for 10-15 minutes at a time, and that the kid probably prefers that to having to go back home for the diaper change. He didn't leave the park or behave badly, so they've probably practiced this. Parents have to decide what's reasonable for their kids, and it's not the same for all kids/parents. And US middle-class parents are on the overprotective end of the spectrum, so maybe this guy was on the other end, but his kid seemed happy, right?

    1. I feel the same as you. Personally I am on the over protective spectrum, but I respect other's parenting styles.

  6. Even if they had practiced this, social conventions would dictate that he explained this to the other adult in the situation, so she didn't feel somewhat trapped in the situation, as I definitely would have. I do find that I do things with Kid2 that I would never have dreamed of with Kid1. But they are different kids. Maybe if I had a playground practically in my backyard I would feel more comfortable leaving a younger child there IF we spent lots of time there and developed many rules.

    Leaving the scene with any child at least in the single digits, even if for only 10-15 minutes (hope he could see his son through the window!!!), places a public burden on other adults in the area. He should have checked in with you.

    As a mother who is an avid reader with a wild imagination, while I agree Lala said an eww thing, my mind definitely goes there, in times of distress. "I'm sending my 7 year old into a bathroom by himself because he is way too old to want to go with me, long been able to read the sign on the door, and what the hell is lurking in there." I was just in a convenient store in Shamrock, TX on the way to a Spring Break trip and my son failed to tell me he might be doing something that required more than a couple of minutes. I shifted and stressed and started pacing in the candy isle after a few minutes and finally asked a teenager headed in there if he would just check on my son. Who came out briefly after, and was fine. But still. Ack.

    I might have said something to the dad like, "Whew! I'm glad you are back. I was worried when I didn't see you and needed to leave a few minutes ago. I didn't want to leave your son here by himself, and wasn't sure where you went or how long you would be gone." At least this would have communicated to him that while he may have some nonverbal agreement with his young child (and we are being optimistic here, realizing he could also have just been dumping care onto you and not communicating anything to his young child), it creates an uncomfortable situation for adults who aren't in on the plan.

  7. I would've asked the boy if he and his father usually did this. Kids can be pretty honest.

    Then I'd walk him to his house, knock on the door, and explain that I was leaving and it seemed unsafe to leave a child without supervision. I'd do it with a smile, but inside I'd be seething.

    Once in a museum a woman left her baby (crawling stage) in a toddler play area where I was sitting with my girls. She literally put the kid down and walked away out of sight. After staring for a few minutes in disbelief, I waved over a museum worker and he picked the child up and took over- calling for assistance on his radio to find the mom. I didn't even make eye contact with the mother so how could she have assumed I'd take over watching her kid? I was very obviously not an employee there. Craziness...

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  10. I don't have a kid yet but I would definitely be frozen in place if I were in that case. I mean, I wouldn't know what to say once that happened to me. Anyway, we should be as attentive as possible in being with our kids on playgrounds.

  11. This is where you wonder about calling the cops and child protective services. My husband left the kids in the car for 40 min while he went in to the store one fall morning, and someone called the cops on him. DCS and the cops investigated, and luckily dismissed the case, but there was the threat of a "child neglect" felony charge looming over our heads for a while, and that was scary! What this dad did was completely unacceptable!!!

  12. This is where you wonder about calling the cops and child protective services. My husband left the kids in the car for 40 min while he went in to the store one fall morning, and someone called the cops on him. DCS and the cops investigated, and luckily dismissed the case, but there was the threat of a "child neglect" felony charge looming over our heads for a while, and that was scary! What this dad did was completely unacceptable!!!

  13. Wow - I feel really on the fringe here. I think I might just have been impressed! I love reading about how parenting rules have varied over time in the US and have experienced 1st hand a bit of how they vary internationally, and one of the most striking things that's clearly very atypical about our current society is the extent to which we think 4-6 year olds can't be trusted to do much for themselves (and that society can't be trusted to let them do so safely). I guess it's hard for me to know how I would have felt if I were actually there, but... at the very least, reading it here, it's certainly not a slam dunk that I would have been horrified.

    The idea that I would need to explain what I was doing to other parents if I were to do something like this myself hadn't occurred to me, either. Again, perhaps it would have if I were actually to do so - but I'm not sure. I do let my 3yo walk separately from me as we cross the park, often, on a parallel trail that's only about 15 feet away but raised and separated by some bushes - she's only out of my sight for seconds at a time when we do this, but I'm sure it's not obvious to others there that I can see her almost the entire time, and I've wondered if it weirds people out. She's SO proud when she does it. I've also let her walk to the top of a hill at the other end of a big grassy field while I was pushing her brother on a baby swing, with the rule that she must stay in sight - chatting all the while with the other mothers about how hard it is to tolerate our own anxiety with things like that but how good it is for our kids. If they were horrified noone else let on, at least.

    Anyways - interesting topic.


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