Playground Parenting: Encouragers, Tolerators, and Refusers

There are three kinds of parents here at Discovery Playground, with its rock climbing wall, splash pad, and gigantic sand pit: Encouragers, Tolerators, and Refusers. I've seen them all in the last few weeks, and the ample amount of time we've spent here has given me plenty of time to observe these creatures as they play out their parenting tactics here in the park.

The first group, the Encouragers, are by far my most favorite group; it's a fairly biased opinon, however, since I count myself among them. Encouragers are good at two things: playing with their children, and encouraging explorative play, and letting their children play without them, letting them explore the park with an entirely minimal amount of supervision. Encouragers are often found on the opposite side of the park from their children, although you can tell they know exactly where each child can be found. Should they lose sight, Encouragers will go on excursions, often stopping to praise their kids for the fun things they've found to do. Encouragers can also be found frolicking on the splash pad or digging tunnels in the sand pit. Their children may or may not be with them when they do this.

The second group, the Tolerators, can sometimes be mistaken for Encouragers, because they tend to give their children a little space still, and they still let them play with everything--even if that means letting them get wet or dirty. The biggest difference is plain on their faces, though-- they really don't want a wet or dirty child. But they also don't want to deny their child the fun they're obviously having. So they tolerate it, but their tolerance wears out quickly. For this reason, you'll find Tolerators slightly closer to their children, usually only a few paces from arm's reach, ready to grab a child who has gotten too dirty or wet, encouraging them to move on to something less...messy. Like how about the slides? I understand Tolerators, and I think that some of them are Encouragers at heart. Maybe this particular day, though, they have to meet someone for lunch or go to the grocery store. And maybe they don't want to do that with a wet child with sand in his diaper. I get it.

The third group, however, I don't think I'll ever understand. Refusers are people who should never have brought their child to the park in the first place, because they are so obviously uncomfortable with being there. Refusers lead their children through the park, gently pulling them past anything they don't want to get in to (which is usually everything). Case in point: I just saw a mom walking her son around the park, holding on to his collar. When he reached to open the gate to the sand pit, she quickly turned him, and told him the sand pit was closed and he couldn't go in. Next, she gingerly coaxed him around the splash pad and on to the other side of the park. True Refuser style often includes little white lies such as "that part of the park is closed," or "it's time for the park to close now." I actually saw one mom bring her little girl in, walk her around the park with her nose up, telling the daughter not to touch anything, and then leave 5 minutes later. Seriously. Why did you come here? It's like they're punishing their children, bringing them to a Museum of Childhood to show them all the things they're not allowed to do.

It's interesting to watch the dynamics of families at this park, and the way each type of parenting style affects the play of their kids. I think that this particular type of park is a perfect place to observe such interactions, since it was made specifically as a place to explore. The different types of playground parents are really just different parenting styles being acted out in the park. Some of us think that kids should be kids, even when that's a little (or a lot) messy. Others think they should constantly be steering their children in the "right" (clean, dry, non-dangerous) direction. There are, of course, benefits to both angles, and the "best" parenting techniques are probably a combination of the two extremes (although even the Tolerators don't seem to have it just right, because they just look so uncomfortable with their children's freedom).

I'll never be a Refuser ('cause if I'm in that bad of a mood, we just won't drive to the park), and sometimes I might be a little bit of a Tolerator. At the end of the day, though, when I take my children to any park, I try to let them be in charge. They so rarely get that opportunity, and the amazing, fun things they discover when you let them loose is worth sandy diapers and wet shorts any day.


TKW said...

What kind of moron brings their kid to a park like that and prevents them from getting dirty? Take them to high tea or something, not a park!

Corinne said...

I absolutely love this! You're so right on the three types, I've seen them all :) I like to think I'm an encourager most of the time... but occasionally the tolerator steps forward.

Heather said...

Did you see this article in the New Yorker? ( I wanna go to that park.

AmandaRaeShelton said...

I agree with TKW. I have been to this park with Post Mommy and the parents that don't let there kids play with anything are annoying. We even saw a park "watchdog" tell one of her boys not to put his toy truck in the water. Why the hell not? It can't get stuck in there. Maybe he just wants to see what happens when the water turns back on... a lesson in physics if you will ;) Half the time when I take my kids, I don't even have a towel or extra clothes, but they can still get wet and dirty if they want. I would consider myself less of an encourager than Post Mommy, but she helps suppress the tolerator in me.

Rudri said...

I like the way you breakdown the types. I think adults sometimes forget that being a kid means getting dirty and having fun - that is exactly what purpose a park serves. I am with TKW - take them to high tea if they can't let their kids enjoy the park.