Awkward Playground Confrontations: Learning to Share.

If you have ever been to a playground where a significant number of toddlers are present, you’ll understand the sheer volume of noise, snacks, snotty noses, and toys. 30 toddlers and kindergarteners sharing 3000 square feet makes for a lovely scene.

Such was the scene today at Julius Kahn playground here in San Francisco. It’s in the Presidio, a lovely former military encampment in the far turned enormous park. And Julius Kahn playground sits directly across the street from gleaming modern and historic properties each worth millions. And the sweeping view of standing eucalyptus and fir groves next to hilly fields keeps parents inspired and happy as they chase their tinies and mind their boo boos.

It was my first time, today, and I was pleased to watch Silas, our two year old, play as Kaile spent some time with friends playing tennis. I am terrible at tennis, you see. I didn’t get a picture of the scene at Julius Kahn, but here’s a little picture from another park of the star/villain of today’s story.


Silas had been playing with some other toddlers in the dirt as I watched from a little way off. I was standing in the shade to keep the hot sun off Maelin’s head. Maelin is our almost-six month old. He was struggling and crying, so I was attempting to assuage his hiccup difficulties while keeping an eye on his older brother.

Suddenly a tall man appeared. “Excuse me, could you tell your son to give my son his toy back? He snatched it away from my son, and I can’t believe my son was so gracious about it, but he needs his toy back,” he asked/instructed me. He was a decade older, easily, and much taller than me. “Uh oh,” I managed, hoping he heard me over the crying infant on my chest.

I came over and instructed Silas to return the toy. Maelin’s screams forced me to pause my admonishment, and I planned to redouble my efforts in helping this gentleman in his crusade to heroically rescue his son from Silas’s plundering. To be fair to Silas, it was an awesome toy. I mean, I would play with this toy, pictured below. And I’m almost thirty.


Soon, Maelin was quiet. But Silas still had the toy, this deliciously intricate yellow crane truck. I looked up and saw the man glaring down at Silas, who appeared to be utilizing the crane truck for extensive sand mining operations. His son had started playing with the group of boys nearby who had access to a small fleet of vehicles. They also appeared to be in the sand mining business from what I could make out.

And then it happened.

The man swooped in and wrenched the toy from Silas’s hand. Ok ok, I’m overstating it a little, but he took the crane truck quite swiftly and returned it to his son, who may or may not have leveraged it for his sand mining operations.

Silas looked up at the man, perplexed. But he wasn’t as perplexed as me. I was aghast. Anytime parents bring their toddlers’ toys to a playground, they must expect either to share or to ward off a host of interested persons under three feet tall. These interested persons are all learning what it means to share, to learn the latent toxicity of the term “mine.”

I stopped myself from confronting the man, pausing to reflect briefly on my motives and to assess possible positive outcomes. Nothing good seemed likely to come from the conversation that I imagine would have gone something like this:

Ben: “Man, did you really just rip that toy out of my son’s hand?”

Guy: “Man, did you really just let your toddler steal my son’s toy?”

Ben: “He’s two years old, and I’m working on getting him to ask before using other people’s stuff.”

Guy: “He ought to know better.”

Ben: “Maybe your son could try sharing.”

Guy: “It’s his toy!”

Ben: “…”

I couldn’t get past that hypothetical dialogue in my head, so I observed the situation as it stood, allowing my anger to fade into sadness.

It was painful to watch Silas hang his head and wander off to another group of more accepting kids who let him load their little dump trucks with sand. He wasn’t wanted; he was cast out. In the car ride home, he mentioned it: “crane not mine,” he fumbled in his toddler fashion. Of all the events of the day, he remembered that one in particular; he remembered the feeling of having messed up and being very firmly scolded for it-and from a man much older than his own dad. Taller too. And, I’m guessing, wealthier, but who knows, can’t judge by the Patagonia shirt.

Sure, go ahead, hit me with that capitalist jargon from John Locke about the foundations of Western civilization and the right to private property. That’s great. But call me crazy, I want Silas and Maelin to share. Goodness, I want to get better at sharing my own resources. Our playground policy is essentially that Silas must share any toys he takes; and I have to at least hope that other kids-and parents!-to be gracious with the toys Silas wants to use. Only one other time ever have I seen such closed fistedness from another parent [and it was much milder].

If it’s too difficult to share a crane truck, I fancy it’ll be hard to share school snacks too in a couple years, or compare study notes in ten. It’ll be hard to be generous with time and money when he’s 40. It might be hard, even, to be generous with complements.

I’m taking this to the extreme because I have this belief that if we coach our kids well during the early years, the difficult lessons will soak into their little souls.

There’s a biblical Proverb that distills the concept:

Teach a child to choose the right path, and when he is older, he will remain upon it. Proverbs 22:6

I actually put serious faith into this idea. And I do it somewhat selfishly, for I do not want to live in a world where kids never learn to share. Too many of the problems in our country seem to stem from an inability to share. Like, I mean, immigration, health care, jobs, little things like that.

For now, I’m forced to just remind Silas to ask before he borrows toys and still hope for a little grace when he doesn’t. I can hope other parents coach their kids to share even when it might feel like the end of the world, but I can’t make them. And occasionally, I might have to swallow the legion counterarguments raging in my soul and just watch as my son has a truck taken from him by a tall, upper middle class white man who refuses to coach his son to share.

If you read my blog ever, you might have noticed that I rarely “get it right.” Most of the time I find myself writing about blunders I’ve made, failures and mistakes that I learn from. If there was a blunder on my part, it was in failing to coach Silas strongly enough in making sure to ask and say please before using another person’s toy.

But I’m not backing down on the other aspects of today’s events. I will continue to insist that Silas shares toys that he brings to the playground. Because, selfishly, I want Silas and all the other toddlers to grow up having learned to share. I really don’t think parents like the gentleman today need to reinforce their child’s concept of “mine.”

Selfishness comes pretty naturally to most of us, in my experience.

But so can selflessness. It feels good to give away your time without the expectation of something in return, to let go of material resources so someone else might flourish. Imagine a world where this genuinely was the norm, and I imagine it’s a place where you’d like to live.

Me too.

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