On the Outskirts of the Playground
I watched him as he stood off on the side of the blacktop, watching the other kids playing football. My son, the oldest of my three children, who was so much like me at that age that I cringed inside.
He shuffled his feet and swung himself around the pole of the playground equipment, just to make it look like he was happily playing on his own. He looked up at the football players so often, though, that I knew he wanted to be in there with them. The bigger kids. The same grade as he, but older than his June birthday. And a little bit bigger and more solidly built than his 4’2″, 43-pound frame.
My heart broke into a thousand tiny pieces seeing him off on his own while his friends played. I silently shouted to him across the playground, “Go!!! Just jump in and play with them!” I urged him with as much mommy telepathy as I could muster, wishing I could magically give him instant confidence.
He hadn’t been teased. He hadn’t been told he couldn’t play. He was just too timid, shy, or scared to join in.
He was always this way, even as an infant. When I’d get together with other moms so we could enjoy some adult conversation, he was the quietest one of the bunch. He was never a screamer, never clingy, but never a loud, laughing, boisterous kid, either. I used to count my lucky stars that he was so even-keeled. He slept through the night at twelve weeks. He didn’t cry over his stolen pacifier at six months old.
As he got older, my sweet, quiet baby grew to be a serious, contemplative toddler. Sure, he’d smile around the house, but when out in public, he always watched instead of getting in the middle of the action.
Here we were, seven years later, and my baby hadn’t changed. Most comfortable on the outskirts, taking it all in. He’s slow to warm up to people, and as a result is often left out.
I once voiced my worries to my husband that he seemed sad or insecure. My husband told me, “He’s fine. You just don’t get him. Not everyone is as outgoing as you.”
The thing is, I’m not as outgoing as me, either. I remember being exactly where my son stood now, on the outskirts, wanting to be part of the fun. I battled with insecurities and just wished someone would ask me to play. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to swallow the ever-present doubts and join in conversations or activities that interest me. But that shy 7-year-old is still there in my mind, with her niggling worries that I’m just not good enough.
I’ve noticed from conversations with other moms that our biggest worries for our children often stem from memories of our own hardships while growing up. Our kids are mirror images of us, their parents. They look just like we did, learn our mannerisms, and even playback our own voices. Seeing miniature versions of ourselves is one of parenting’s greatest gifts. Yet we view it as a curse if it reminds of being teased for those traits.
All we want for our children is their happiness. When we witness their fears, their sadness, or their insecurities, we ache to stomp them out and replace them with permanent reassurances of their worth. It’s the cruel joke of life that the hardest lessons can’t be taught, though. They have to be learned, and often as the result of pain or missed opportunities.
My own mom often tells me, “A mother is only ever as happy as her unhappiest child.” As much as I wish these playground moments were the hardest we’ll endure, I know much tougher battles are ahead. And I know that it will never end. For as long as I am alive, I’ll worry and I’ll hurt for my children.
When I see my son missing out on the fun, I’m thrown into a 30-year time warp wishing I could scream out to that shy little girl of my past who is reflected back to me in my own timid son to just join in. I want to tell both of them to stop worrying so much about what other people think and just let yourself be a kid and have fun.
Of course, I don’t scream across the playground. If I’m near enough to say something quietly without “making a scene,” I’ll do that. More often that not, it’s on the way home, with my arm around his shoulders that I remind him that all kids want to be included, but that playground games don’t come with invitations.
“Sometimes, throughout life,” I tell him, “you just have to walk in and start playing.”