I was talking to a friend of mine today about Maya and Ben’s experiences with other children at the pool in Indiana, and she had a lot to say about the matter, having been raised in a rural area of southern New Jersey. (Yes, there are rural areas in New Jersey – the nickname “The Garden State” is not some sort of twisted joke.)
As to the unfriendly, aggressive nature of the kids’ encounters at the Ceraland pool, her take on it was that the kids who go to that pool are probably there every day all summer. She’s right about that, as the lifeguards were on a first name basis with a large percentage of the children. They are, then, the ‘group’ of kids at the pool. My kids come in and are outsiders. Outsiders are treated with suspicion and it is my friends’ opinion that kids who grow up in the city have a confidence and give off a ‘vibe’ that other kids can detect. In a pack mentality this kind of confidence would be viewed as a threat, and the response to a threat is attack.
I asked why the same thing does not happen in public places in New York, and before she even opened her mouth I knew the answer. In New York when you go to a playground, even if you are there every day, there is no set group who shows up. Kids don’t have one exclusive clique of friends. Even schooled children have their school friends, building friends, neighborhood friends, maybe church or synagogue friends, etc. They are used to dealing with kids they don’t know and maybe will never see again. There is no pack mentality because there is no static group. Even the group of kids we meet with each week, as we did today, is fluid. People come and go and new kids are welcomed rather than treated as a threat. It’s not something we have to work at, because that’s just the way it is here.
A secondary issue is that in places like Columbus, Indiana or south Jersey, the people who are middle income or above have their own pools, their own elaborate playsets or their private clubs. Public spaces, then, are mostly for the lower incomes, eschewed by the ‘haves’. New people, or outsiders are thereby treated with even more suspicion – a kind of ‘what do they think they’re doing here?’ In New York City, however, public spaces are used by members of all social strata. We’ve been in playgrounds with Kate Winslet and her kids, playing right alongside children who live in the nearby housing projects. My kids have played impromptu games of tag and hide and seek with groups of children whose parents ranged from kitchen laborers who spoke little or no English to high-powered CEO’s who pay their nannies exorbitant sums. When Maya was 3 years old she spent a couple of hours at CMOM (Children’s Museum of Manhattan, which is basically a large indoor playground for the 5 and under set) playing with Hugh Jackman’s son Oscar, while Mr. Jackman and his wife sat on the floor with the rest of us parents, pretending that the fake post office was the most exciting thing we’d seen in years.
I’m name dropping here to make a point. There are many wonderful things about spending time in the country, on the farm. Interacting with the kids at the pool or playground is not necessarily one of them, and that’s a shame. Please know that I am not saying there is never a bossy kid at our playgrounds, or that mean things never happen or that all the kids are completely accepting. But this usually manifests more as indifference rather than overt aggression.
New York is a big city, but small in population compared to the rest of the country as a whole. Is the pack, or attack mentality prevalent in all of rural America? If you are reading this from somewhere outside of NYC, I’d love your thoughts and observations about your own community in this regard.