When We Give Our Kids Too Much, And Not Enough
The bounce house palace is hidden in a flat array of hangar-like industrial lots just off the Parkway. You might not even know it was there if not for the goofy red and yellow shingle announcing "Bounce Palace!" in lopsided writing against a backdrop of grey drizzle. Both kids are asleep in their carseats, necks kinked and mouths open, when we pull in ahead of our 11:30 session. We pre-booked tickets because a bounce palace next to a post office and printer shop and assortment of dubious technology outfitters ("Revotek" "DigiPlak") in an industrial lot is not something you can just waltz into on a Saturday. The booking system required us to buy "child passes" for our children who would be bouncing ("Bouncers"), and "adult passes" for us to accompany them in ("Parents"), because it is compulsory to accompany your child as they experience maximum fun. So, $16.95 pp to wear socks into the palatial expanse of red and yellow vinyl. All up, we've dropped about $50 on the experience, plus gas. It comes highly recommended by a friend also bringing her child, which is to say it was not our idea to come.
Shortly before we arrive, our friend texts that she will not be bringing her child after all, due to a disqualifying surplus of Time Out points, so we unclip the kids from their jumpseats, let them stretch their arms with eyes closed, trying to wake. "Where are we?" Asks my 3-year-old daughter, Scout, as her 1-and-a-half-year-old brother blinks at the rain on the window. "We're at the Bounce Palace!" I tell her. "Are we going to see Jamie?" "... Jamie couldn't come, but you still get to go bouncing!"
Inside, after watching a compulsory introductory video, after surrendering our belongings to cubbies, we find ourselves at the base of a 20-foot bounce castle that billows and trembles and issues an ominous pneumatic blarp above my children's heads. A short ramp leads to a door of black netting, beyond which are bollards that children throw themselves onto, hearts raging, and, beyond that, a near-vertical rope ladder leading up to twin slides on either side of the castle. The bollard-hosting foyer, as it were, doubles as a basketball court, with hoops over the doorway, the hard heads of children bouncing around with regulation basketballs as parents snap photos through the mesh, then allow their attention to drift back to Twitter. They do not seem excited to be here in the kingdom of max bounce. Beyond the castle are giant inflatable slides that touch the roof, and gauntlets into which you feed your child, hoping they will emerge at the other end. Everywhere, children stomp and wail and knock each other over. "I'm scared!" says Scout, who clings to me for the first 20 minutes of her 60-minute session.
These are weekends in 2018, in the "suburbs" of New York City, as it were. Parents plan these visits ahead of time, maximizing the amount of fun you can jam into the Saturday pre-nap, or the post-swim lesson hollow. On a Saturday, especially, the parents of children ages 0 to 10 schedule activities like supervised bouncing, or trips to crowded children's museums, or petting zoos, or interactive musical classes to enrich, to entertain, to foster, to give mom a moment of peace. I only see the Saturday exploits because on weekdays I'm at work, having dropped my kids at daycare at 8 a.m., where I retreat down the stoop of a Brooklyn row house waving back at my kids who stand at the window, their eyes just above sill-height, calling out my name. But the practice of scheduling, locating programs, allowing your child to learn and explore and ~experience~ goes on every day. I see it in the calls on the mom listserv for anyone who knows of a bilingual nanny share, anyone who wants to snap up this person's beloved nanny with a masters in Russian literature who has been re-released to the marketplace, and in reviews of the coveted musical theater program for 1-year-olds, the weekday forest school, and, ongoing throughout the year, the discussion about which daycare and which pre-K program and which elementary school we will all send our kids to.
A friend enlisted a consultant to navigate the Brooklyn pre-K application process: the post-script is 1) her son got into their "dream" school, and 2) they moved interstate a year later. "Just go with your true ranking," advised another friend of the applications process. At a happy hour, one mom explained to another why test scores aren't a good indicator of a school's quality. "Oh, interesting," replied the second, clutching a stemless wine glass with the pads of her fingers, "I just assumed that PS[XXX] was bad because everyone on Facebook said it was." Yet another friend, who works for a rah-rah private high school, said she has fielded calls from expectant mothers wanting to apply for their unborn children.
It is common in my part of the world to have your child take the gifted and talented test, which expands your options and lets you hop past all the other 3-year-old plebes to a school uniquely suited to your prodigy. It is widely understood that passing the gifted and talented test is a matter of coaching them to pass it. As a result, selective programs are rarely representative of the city. "If you're an NYU professor," observes my friend, "I don't think you need to worry about getting your child into the best school in New York. Like, they're going to be okay. Why take that spot from a family who actually needs it?"
A piece of it is economic insecurity — those of us idiots still relying on salary or wages for our income know that the social compact has long since evaporated and it is every child for themselves — but for the home-owners and equity-havers among us, it is partly the illusion of choice, the why-not of it. This school is French-immersion, that one is a performing arts magnet, this one hits the sweet spot of diversity (some black and brown children, but not so many your white kid is a minority). And then there are the home schoolers and un-schoolers ("The more we trust them, the more trustworthy they become," writes Ben Hewitt in Outside magazine of his decision to unschool his two sons on their farm in northern Vermont. "This may sound patronizingly obvious, yet I cannot help but notice the starring role that institutionalized education — with its inherent risk aversion — plays in expunging these qualities."). We research the options and choose the best school because, well, we definitely don't want to institutionalize our children.
Part of it, Margaret Hagerman told The Atlantic's Joe Pinsker, is that parents with privilege can't see how it compounds with every choice they make, every time they research a neighborhood before buying a house to make sure the schools are good, every time they align with other privileged parents to sort a carpool: "Some of these parents are also people who believe strongly in the importance of diversity and multiculturalism and who want to resist racial inequality. And these two things are sort of at odds with one another. These affluent white parents are in a position where they can set up their kids’ lives so that they’re better than other kids’ lives." "Only some parents know the rules of the game, or have time to play," writes Dana Goldstein in the New York Times.
We are unique in not having enrolled our toddlers in any kind of enrichment activity — no gymnastics, no music class, no soccer. Dragging our feet on the schools thing is just part of our overall posture of resignation: plenty is bad in this world, but our kids will be fine. Still, for the noncompetition we pose, I see my kids elbowed out of the way at every caterpillar petting exhibit, sharp-eyed children occupying the sprinkler they want to touch at the splash pad, see the regulars at the bounce palace, along with their parents, have transformed the shed into a fiefdom.
I'm not sure what Scout needs in a school. Many of her friends started pre-K this year, but she will spend another year in daycare, now an upperclassman at 3-years-old, hopefully not too bored by the activities directed at her 1-year-old classmates, including her brother, whose repertoire of clearly articulated words is still limited largely to foods ("banana," "apple," "cheese") and body parts ("belly," "bum," clear as day). No one there speaks Spanish. They do a lot of coloring of stencils printed from an alphabet workbook designed in 1978. She loves art. She'll spend an hour creating a convoluted abstract design on a notecard, filling every piece of white space with shapes in different colors, blending markers, drawing the beginnings of egg people, then coloring over them with something more complex and inscrutable. She can write her name. She loves her teachers.
One of the other local daycares has a miniature grand piano. Not because anyone is under the illusion that 2-year-olds are being taught the rudimentary beginnings of Bach; it's an idea, a signpost, a reminder when you are at work for hours while your pre-verbal toddler roams around a stranger's house that they are getting something special. Parents have always been bent on doing more for their child, doing their best, creating their own rubric of whatever it is the system isn't providing (see: boarding schools, The Wolfpack, the "High Kindergarten" detailed in Slouching Toward Bethlehem). It's hard to do less, hard to recommend a negative. Go to the local school, do nothing on a Saturday, choose a daycare because it's directly across the street and the people who run it seem loving and won't mind when you show up at drop-off in pajama pants. It's hard not to press your elbows back against someone else's. "I think it is all right," wrote Didion, "only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing and why."
The mega-wave surfer Laird Hamilton dropped out of school as a teen, refused to compete in regular surfing competitions, has spent his life trying, essentially, to carve out the needless shit and spend more time surfing in lonelier water, further out to sea. The documentary of his life is interspersed with footage of him diving deep underneath monster waves out by distant atolls. Down there, waves the size of motels just roll over the top of him. He has worked to build his lung capacity so he can stay down there longer. His mother, who in the old days we referred to as a ~free spirit~, underwent experimental therapy in 1964 as an expectant mother, reported Outside in 1994, at a San Francisco hospital that used a bathysphere to suction the pregnant belly outward and create more space for the fetus during childbirth. I wonder what the equivalent of creating space for your child is, in 2018.
Emerging from the bounce house after the whistle announces our time is over, we retrieve our socks from the cubbies last, watch as families rush on to the next thing. We get back on the parkway, past petting farms and private academies and children's hair salons with taxicab chairs affronting televisions, and head to Grandma's. I parent even more lazily there with relatives around to help supervise. My 20-month-old son climbs into the doll stroller then cries out that he is stuck. I lift him out and he immediately climbs back in, slotting his gigantic legs through the little pink windows. "Ahhhh!" he cries. I pull him out. "I'm not sure what you're trying to do," I say and he giggles. I lay back on the couch and wait for him to do it again.
Driving home to Brooklyn at bedtime, Scout should be sleeping but keeps her eyes on the window, pointing out every subway station and playground we pass. "I see a playground!" she announces. Ten blocks later: "I see a playground!"
I see cramped play spaces on a busy road, too much concrete, but it is all fun to her. They are all good playgrounds, all good for playing. All just fine for locating whatever it is children are looking for.