On Parisian Playgrounds

One of the most frustrating things about living in a 3rd culture (meaning not mine or my husband's) is not knowing the rules. Sure, I've absorbed plenty of rules and codes regarding appropriate behavior at dinner parties and other gatherings with French people, but now that I have a child, I find myself back at square one.

Take playgrounds, for example. There's a definite etiquette for both parents and children on the playgrounds here, but I'll be damned if I know exactly what it is. Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure I'm not following it.

Like most toddlers, Leroy Klaus always wants to play with other kids' toys. I don’t care when other children want to play with LK’s toys (as long as they aren’t snatching them from him while he’s playing with them), and if another child picks up one of LK’s toys and plays with it while we’re on the playground, I barely notice. I keep a periodic eye on it to make sure it doesn’t end up in the back of someone’s stroller or broken into pieces, but otherwise – who cares? I figure an unused toy is basically community property at a playground.

Now, when LK wants to play with someone else’s toy that’s just lying around the playground, this is what I usually do: (i) I figure out to whom the toy belongs;(ii) I make some kind of eye contact or gesture that suggests asking permission to play with the toy, or if the parents/guardian are within speaking distance, I ask (iii) I keep a close eye on LK while he plays with it to make sure he doesn’t abuse it, (iv) when LK is finished playing with it, I make sure the toy is placed back exactly where we found it, or if we found it in the middle of the playground, I give it directly to the parent/guardian, and (v) I make sure that LK immediately relinquishes the toy if the kid to whom it belongs wants it back.

Sensible, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. I’ve gotten different reactions from this method.

Most of the time, it’s fine, particularly during on weekdays. On weekdays, the nanny-parent ratio on the playground is 5:1. Nannies don’t care who plays with their charges’ toys, and are respectful when their charges play with the toys of others. And if there’s a stay-at-home mom on the scene (we’re in France, it’s almost always a mom), she’s generally pretty cool too. But parents on the weekends….well, many of the parents here genuinely seem to believe that children should only play with their own toys. I wish someone would correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s really how it seems.

Like today, for example. LK spies a little plastic tricycle behind a bench, and immediately makes a bee-line towards it. Now, to me, the fact that the trike is behind the bench, i.e., where it is less likely to be noticed, seems very deliberate. So, I distract LK and lead him away. Everything’s fine for a half-hour or so, but eventually he remembers the trike and returns to it. But he’s not trying to ride it or move it, so I let him stand beside it, and watch him exam it lovingly with one finger.

I look around, trying to make eye contact with the owner of the trike, but I can’t tell to whom it belongs. But again, I figure, he’s not moving it or trying to ride it, no other kid is claiming it, so no matter.

After about 5 mins or so, LK decides to sit on the trike. I try half-heartedly to discourage him, reminding him that’s not his, but as I haven’t yet figured out whom it belongs to I’m still thinking no harm done. But I’m vaguely uncomfortable. Eventually, a man wanders over and picks up a bunch of sandbox toys that are on the bench. He glances at LK on the trike -- but he doesn’t look at me. I force him to make eye-contact with me by saying, “Excusez-nous” (excuse us) and he responds, “Ce n’est pas grave” (no big deal). But he didn’t smile as he said it. He didn’t look particularly annoyed or hostile, but he didn’t smile.

Now, in the U.S., smiling or not smiling means so much –but in Paris, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. As a rule, the French aren’t big smilers. They often just don’t see the need for it with strangers, as they see it as frivolous. But I am an American, and I need to see a smile to feel truly at ease in such a situation.

Soon, LK starts to try to ride the trike, but he’s unable to work the pedals so he shuffles it between his legs. I limit him to moving up and down the length of the bench, but that only works for a little while. As he breaks free of the bench, I call out to the owner-parent – who is sitting nearby on the edge of the sandpit – Is this okay with you? with an air of being ready to wrest the trike away from LK if need be. He glances at his daughter who is busy playing in the sand, and then nods, sort of half-shrugging. Still not smiling.

I follow LK closely as he shuffles around the playground. After about 10 minutes or so, the little girl to whom the trike belongs rushes over. I say – oh, are you ready to play with your bike? She turns away from me, shyly. I go over to LK to pry him away from the trike, and, of course, he starts screaming I’m murdering him. As I carry my shrieking, struggling bundle of love away, I try to make eye contact with the father to thank him. But he doesn’t look at me as I pass, even though LK is wailing like an air raid siren and we were nearly close enough to brush elbows.

I really don’t know what to make of this whole thing. Was I wrong to let him play with the trike when it was, I think, deliberately placed behind the bench? Should I have interpreted the father’s unsmilingness as reluctant acquiescence? Was the father kind of an ass? Or was he just being normal, maybe even courteous, by a French person’s standards?

This has happened several times before. I remember once LK was playing another child’s truck and the parents absolutely refused to make eye-contact with me the entire time. When LK was finished playing and toddled off, I said “merci” and the parents never even looked up. Dawg was right there with me and we just exchanged baffled glances, then spent the walk home pondering who had been the rude couple in the eyes of the French: us or them.

I guess it doesn’t really matter. I just follow my own conscious, and teach LK the manners that I want to instill in him -- i.e., share your toys.

What really bothers me is this: I don’t even know if my playground etiquette is appropriate on an American playground. I assume so, but I don’t know. LK hasn’t been of playground age for very long, and the last time we were in the U.S. it was too cold to play outside. When I dwell on the fact that I don’t even know how things like this work in my own country, I start feeling kind of homesick and lost. If I don’t know the right thing to do in the U.S. nor the right thing to do in France, then where do I belong? And if I don’t know where I belong, then how will I help my son to know where he belongs?


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