The past few times we've gone to our local playground it's been swarming with middle school aged kids. Of course they are in the area that is specifically for toddlers and pre-schoolers, so as they climb up and down the pint-sized jungle gyms and hog the swings and jump over the little kids this has lead to a certain amount of conflict between us and them.
Typically it seems to go like this way; it's an average nice day and the toddlers are doing their thing in the tot lot. Then the local middle school gets out and they start to swarm into the playground, so far so good. It's their playground too.
Soon, though, in fact inevitably, they start to filter into the tot lot despite there being a gate that separates it from the rest of the playground. They know they shouldn't be there, but they really don't care. Many of them, in fact, probably played in this very same tot lot when they were kids. Soon they are swarming on the big fake rock, running up and down the jungle gym, sliding down the slides, gossiping, and cursing too. They are being, in short, typical middle schoolers but it's way too much for the little kids to handle.
I see big kids jumping over little kids, the gate starts to swing open fast, the gate gets left open, allowing little kids (who's nannies are inevitably on the phone) to escape. I see big kid feet within inches of little kid faces. Soon the Brooklyn Baby Momma and I are having a conversation about how to get rid of these kids.
It's not like they have nowhere to go. They actually have the entire rest of the playground for themselves, including an entire other, and larger, jungle gym. They just like the taboo feeling of being in the little kid area, and having it for themselves.
By now we've confronted groups of older kids about two or three times. This is invariably what happens.
We see a group of kids dominating the jungle gym, climbing over our kid to the get to the top, and using foul language. After a while of this, and seeing other parents do very little, for the most part, we decide it would make sense to talk to these kids. So we explain that this is a tot lot and not for them, that they have other areas to play.
Invariably they agree with us. Time after time I've heard kids tell me that they know there are other areas for them, and that they know this area is for little kids. But, there's no real harm to just letting them do their thing here, they're not hurting anyone, they're being careful, what's the big deal?
In other words they do the same thing people always do when they get nailed doing something they know they should not be doing: they say it's different for them than for other people who are breaking the rules, the rules don't really apply to them in this case and why are we being like this to them?
Sometimes it gets a little more heated from there, as we persist in telling them that, no, in fact it's not okay and we don't want to make exceptions for them, especially as they were the kids that we just saw a few minutes ago climbing over our toddler to get to the top of the jungle gym and we heard them using bad language.
In lieu of a pointless argument with a gaggle of extremely defensive middle schoolers (because they quickly and inevitably go into shutdown mode and refuse to see that their actions could accidentally hurt a little kid) we have to get the security guard.
He's an older guy named Joe, and he radiates a security guard authority that makes the kids snap to right away. He goes over to the tot lot and you can immediately see the kids become crestfallen, "here comes The Man." That Joe is older, frailer and smaller than I am, for example, means nothing. They respect him, me? Not so much. Me, I'm just some generic white guy dad. Randi they respect much more, as she can use her TEACHER VOICE, but it's just so much easier to get Joe and stay out of it.
A couple of days ago, as Joe marched a group of middle school aged boys out of the tot lot, I saw one boy look at us, with anger seething in his eyes and he said to me that ultimate middle school put-d0wn, "Snitch!" At one time, way back when, this might have hurt my feelings, when I was in middle school, I guess. But now that I'm almost 38 and have a kid to worry about I can only laugh and remember.
But now we're the parents who snitch on the kids. So we're now obligated to do it each and every time they overdo it in the tot lot, which happens all the time.
But what is it about middle schoolers that makes it so easy to feel irritated with them? It's such a strange time in life. The kids are definitely out of their little, cute, cuddly phase, yet they still want to do little kid things. They aren't high schoolers yet, who are off doing their own thing, for better or worse. (In NYC this is too often for the worse.)
I actually understand why these kids are so defensive. For the boys they have suddenly become painfully aware of the opposite sex, at precisely the moment when the opposite sex has become even more painfully unaware of them, or so it seemed so many years ago. Your friends become your whole world, and acceptance means everything. Pushing boundaries and defying authority becomes more and more important. At the same time you become more sensitive to everything.
I will never forget the hurt of being excluded from a birthday party in seventh grade, for someone who lived up my block. From my window I watched kids, in some cases my own friends, walk up my own block and past my window, but I couldn't go. You know why? Because in seventh grade you're finally allowed to choose your own friends, and aren't obligated to invite all the kids you were forced to hang out with when you were toddlers and pre-schoolers. In other words, your parents can't set your social calendar anymore. It's liberating and terrifying.
At the same time you start to resent the way certain authority figures still put the squish on you whenever they feel like it, and they still don't treat you any different than when you were a little, little kid. That's probably why the kids seemed, in part, so hurt when Joe has to crack down on them.
The question then becomes when does it end? It ends, for the kids we see, when they go to high school and they become too old to go back to their old playground. By then they might even be tool old to "play" anyway, which is kind of sad in it's way.
As for now I've realized the best thing I can do is probably let Joe do all the heavy lifting and make it as little about us versus them as possible. The middle schoolers can be rude, crude and annoying but hopefully it's just a phase. Right, it's just a phase?