Shadowing my daughter at the park, a metaphor coalesced in my mind. I watched her flit from one thing to the next, becoming angry then pleased with the contradictory demands she made of me. “Daddy, pick me up! Put me down! Push me on the swing! I want to get down!” Huffing and foot stomping ensued when things didn’t happen immediately as she’d imagined them in her head.
The metaphor? A video game. Namely, she was a character in a video game — her game, and the park was her round/level/quest — take your pick. She was a ghost in the machine — a surrogate — while her real body sat in front of the TV with the controller. A controller that no one else was allowed to touch.
But she wasn’t so much as playing the game as she was mindlessly smashing buttons then jumping with glee as her character reacted on the screen. Endorphins and mayhem. She was toddler Mario, or Luigi, running through the Mushroom Kingdom, busting up bricks and stomping on animated mushrooms.
Endorphins, mayhem, and destruction but without warp pipes and goombas.
Mario Bros isn’t the right game for this metaphor, actually. The Legend of Zelda is more apt and she was child Link navigating the fantastical world of Hyrule, finding magical items and generally terrorizing chickens. (Yes, we’ve gone deep into the weeds of 80’s and 90’s console games.)
Except my kid was no hero and the park was exponentially more mundane and dangerous than a magical gaming world. Here, her intrepid adventuring came at my expense. (Preventing my toddler from killing herself is somewhat akin to the continue function, right?)
As the parent/bystander, we aren’t necessarily not participating in the game, per se, we’re just not allowed to play as much. We’re the one patiently waiting for the friend to relinquish the controller so we can have a turn.
No, that’s not quite right for this metaphor. Parents are like Link’s little fairy friend, Navi, who gives Link advice, but just as the person controlling Link tends to ignore Navi, so too does the toddler.
Unless they have an “owie”.
A video game newbie, the toddler checks anything and everything, in case there’s something to be discovered, and you, the trusty guide, must follow along. Curiosity is queen and no item can be left untouched. Kids need to do it all while simultaneously wanting and not wanting your help. You need to be there, but go away. “Where are you daddy? No, baby does it (toddlers will refer to themselves in the 3rd person)! Help me!”
I realize she can’t help the manic game play. The outside world is full of potential discovery for her. Actions and requests are repeated ad nauseam. It’s like that part of the game you keep having to redo until muscle memory kicks in. It’s a repetitive process but must be endured.
Any excursion has us traipsing through a magical place where experience points and abilities can be gained. Interesting things can and will be discovered. Trees, dogs, people, discarded food, etc. all become possible, high value in-game objects that connect to parent and child in different ways.
For parents, things are (potentially) dangerous obstacles, germ factories, or just annoyances.
For her, clearly none of that. Look! A dog! Oh, a squirrel! There’s a leaf! A cracker on the ground — yum!
Of course, no parent is alone in navigating the game. Potential battles with in-game characters and beasts are a given. A poorly navigated adventure through the park could bring you face to face with a nasty dog, a surly squirrel, a nanny, some other toddler and their toy, nosy granny, mean-face mother, or a pile of poop.
Nannies aren’t much of a concern, as they’re usually too busy with their cellphones. Mean-face mother, also busy with her cell phone, only represents an existential conflict to other parent players, Oh, and look! Our intrepid adventurer has discovered some other toddler’s toy. Well, we should encourage our toddlers to interact with in-game objects, animals (with permission), and certainly other players, but I personally like to avoid other parent players, unless absolutely necessary.
As most of you experienced parent players know, toddlers don’t yet understand that many in-game objects, like Sara’s toy over there, are not theirs. At this age, language is a newly acquired skill and still lacking in all decorum. The toddler will have no problem offending another toddler’s innate possessiveness with abrasive words like ‘mine’, ‘no’, and ‘go away’. Some advanced toddlers might even claim that, “That’s mine, dammit!”
Toddlers, who are incapable of heeding these warnings, often have in-game battles.
In-game battles often employ several other new skill sets: the run away option, the chase option, the highly effective slap/push option, and the less effective shrill scream option. Unfortunately, these battle options invariably trigger the fight or flight response of all other players within the general vicinity.
This is when parent players, who up to this point have kept polite social distances from each other, must step out of their respective pensive bubbles and get involved. These kinds of conflicts don’t usually become full-on battles, as most parents have learned to diffuse battle royals, but things can escalate.
Mean-face mother or nosy granny could decide to use their dark magic: unsolicited parenting advice/criticism.
At this point, parents may use two of their own acquired skills: run away or battle. Running away saves you from total engagement but it isn’t very fun and may leave a reasonable parent frustrated. And let’s be honest, haven’t you been waiting for the opportunity to get more involved in the game? I certainly have.
I can’t claim to know what works best when parents engage in battle at the playground, but I like to employ some relatively new skills and magics that I’ve learned. The “drawn out and disinterested stare that could either be boredom looking for sympathy or barely contained Hulk rage” tends to work well. It has effectively curbed foul magic in the past, and I’ve supplemented it with “magical beard armor”, which increases scariness. (Magical beard armor isn’t an item most moms can acquire, but that’s not necessarily true for nosy granny.)
Of course, if these two options don’t work, there is always a last resort: rude verbal dismissal and expletive bomb. This option usually discourages a more protracted battle between parents, but if it doesn’t, the expletive bomb will halt almost any “unsolicited advice in its tracks.
It may also get you shunned from that particular park as well.
Alas, even for us hardcore gamers, we have to attend to necessary biological needs and so have to back away from active play. Same for our toddlers, who are still refusing to relinquish the controller.
So, we exit the magical park realm and head home to a far less exciting part of the game: lunchtime/ nap time. It’s a part of the game where parents get to guess what foods the toddler will eat instead of throwing on the floor. After which, we try to get them to sleep for a few hours so we can recharge our sanity meter for the next round.
If you geeked out on this one, read on: