Inside Riverside Park, along the West Side of Manhattan, there is an out-of-the way little place named the Classic Playground. Like most things with “Classic” in their names, it is what was formerly, in bygone times, simply known as the thing itself: a playground. To walk into it, as a middle-aged parent, is to experience familiarity as uncanniness. There are seesaws, made of long, heavy planks; there are metal slides; there is the metal framework of a real jungle gym. This was everyday, everywhere play equipment 30 or 40 years ago, and your children have never seen it.
We found the playground a few years ago, by accident. Because it was so roomy and under-trafficked, we decided to use it for a birthday party. The party went well, but I kept having brief flashes of terror as 21st century elementary-schoolers went at the 20th century equipment. One end of the seesaw would go whamming down with the power of lumber and gravity, and then that moment arm would go whizzing up again, missing someone’s face by a few inches. The children had no respect for how dangerous it was.
This is not an argument about whether it is better or worse, overall, that today’s children grow up playing on plastic-treaded climbers over thick rubber mats. Kids still have the capacity to be daring or idiotic, and I have the ER plastic-surgeon bills to prove it. But the issue is what happens when kids who’ve been raised in an injury-proofed world encounter older realities. You can’t just turn them loose and expect them to understand the rules of rough-and-tumble living.
Where the cultures collide, you get results like the letter Slate published in yesterday’s Dear Prudence column. It was an ideal advice-column letter, the kind where the letter-writer thinks they are describing a problem they have with someone else, while in fact indicting themself. If it was a plant, it was a plant by someone with an exquisitely tuned sense of theme.
The trouble, as misunderstood by the letter-writer, is caused by a neighbor who “is withdrawn, is reclusive, and hates children,” but who lives in a “friendly, family-oriented neighborhood.” This neighbor, the letter-writer explains, has been repeatedly “saying horrible things” to the writer’s seven-year-old child—”from telling him that there is no Santa Claus to a detailed description of the crimes of serial killers to an explanation of how animals are butchered for meat.”
What the letter writer seems unable to grasp, as Daniel Mallory “Prudence” Ortberg points out, is that the neighbor “doesn’t want your son to knock on his front door or to play in his yard, and you should make sure that your son doesn’t.” This is the seesaw end flying past a tender, ignorant chin. It is the literal definition of “boundary issues”: If you aspire to a way of life where your children enjoy the old-fashioned freedom to roam, you had better make sure they also have an old-fashioned clue about where not to roam.