Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
This week's question is from a local parent who's unsure how to properly deal with obnoxious teenagers and their irresponsible parents.
Last weekend I was at the local playground with my 4-year old, just maxing and relaxing and cooling ourselves in the sprinkler, when suddenly, this pack of pre-teens descended and started terrorizing all the little kids with water balloons and water AK-47s and this water grenade launcher thing. I looked around and they seemed to be accompanied by some parents, but they were totally unsupervised.
After watching a few toddlers catch balloons right to the face, I grabbed my kid and beat a retreat from those monsters, but not before shooting the absentee parents some death looks on the way out. Was this the right way to handle the situation?
Helicopter Mom on the UWS
A native New Yorker responds:
Dear Helicopter Mom,
Water AK-47s! Shit is like Benghazi on the Upper West Side! The city should probably enact some kind of ban on heavy water weaponry on playgrounds, like you're not allowed to tote anything larger than a small water pistol. It's surprising Bloomberg never got around to that.
You see a lot of shitty parenting behavior living in NYC: parents on the train zoning out on their phones while their kids scream at each other, or doing nothing while their kids create a public menace in the parks. Most of the time, the best thing to do is exactly what you did: move yourself or your kid away from the commotion and silently swear at the parents for being so checked-out. There are, however, some situations in which a stronger response is called for. Let's discuss them!
Dobkin & Son (Courtesy Jake Dobkin Private Collection)
Just the other day I was down at the pebble beach in Brooklyn Bridge Park, closely supervising my 4-year old as he tossed rocks into the East River. It's one of those spots that always puts me on edge, thinking about the super-hepatitis germs from the water that he's probably putting right in his mouth, or his tendency to immediately drown the second I glance at my phone (just to check the time!).
But by far the worst part about it is the other kids, throwing rocks. No matter how far you put yourself from the other people down there, some kid pretty much immediately hurls a rock straight at your head. You wouldn't think a small rock tossed by a small kid would hurt so much, but some of these children have surprisingly strong arms.
Anyway, this time a large wedding party was on the beach taking pictures, leaving the five or six kids they had with them (all in formal wedding attire) to wander around throwing stones. Just then, a large school of geese passed about ten feet from the shore, and just as my son points and says "look, Daddy, a mommy goose and her geeselings", one of the wedding kids throws a handful of stones right at the birds. The other kids laugh and start copying him, and within five seconds the geese are getting pelted in a shower of stones.
This was at the other end of the beach, so I couldn't run over without abandoning my own responsibilities, and while I'm perseverating on an appropriate response, one of the tourists ladies sitting on the steps stood up, and yelled, "Hey, what the fuck are you doing with those rocks?" That immediately caused the kids to stop, and sheepishly back away, but none of the parents who were with them even noticed what happened.
I think the tourist lady did the right thing: she intervened loudly when she saw what was going on, but didn't make a federal case out of it by chasing the kids down the beach or screaming at their parents. But someone had to intervene, because the right of those kids to act wild ended at the point where they were endangering innocent animals, just as it would have if they were putting other humans at risk.
Let me suggest a four stage system to respond to these situations, if you ever find yourself in one:
1) Glare at the parents. Most parents are very attuned to their environment, as they're on high alert for danger, and they also don't want their kids to grow up to be psychopathic monsters, so they'll quickly intervene and force the kid to stop or apologize for whatever nonsense they were getting up to. If the parents don't respond to an obvious look, or if they aren't on the scene, they are bad parents, and responsibility falls to you as a thoughtful adult.
2) Shout, in your loudest, most authoritarian voice, something along the lines of "Hey, cut that out!" Most kids are scared of adults and loud noises, and they'll generally run away. If they don't, you're dealing with some hardened youthful offenders, and you need to step your shit up. I know some ferocious moms who can take out a transgressive child all the way on the other side of a playground with a single loud "STOP THAT!"
3) Physically place yourself between the perps and their prey, without touching either of them. This takes some nerve, and you might get hit with a toy truck between the eyes, but it will generally de-escalate the situation. If the kids are having a knife fight, though, you probably shouldn't do this and should just call 911.
4) If all else is failed, you have a choice. You can physically stop the kid who is throwing the water balloons or slapping the smaller child, or you can pick up the victim and move them to a safer place. This is a very dicey move! You know that lousy parent who was fine with her kid terrorizing the playground is going to start shouting "pedophile!" the second you restrain her kid's hand from smashing another child's face. This is especially true if you are a guy!
Sometimes that's a risk you just have to take, though; civilized society requires that we prevent innocents from being harmed, and sometimes you're the only person there to take responsibility. Rise to the occasion!
N.B.: If it's just a few water balloons and a little rough-housing, you might want to cool it and let things play out: playgrounds are a good place for kids to learn how to take care of themselves. The Buddhists say "don't bring things to a painful point"; that basically means that in these and all situations, make sure you are the one de-escalating the conflict, not making it worse.
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