Recently I recalled a funny “When I’m a parent I’ll never . . .” moment I had with my husband long before we had children. We were walking in our neighborhood and I saw one of those super fancy jungle-gym, playground apparatuses in someone’s backyard. You know the ones? Not the ones made of steel pipes like I had growing up, but the ones made of solid wood with a clubhouse on the top, swings on the bottom, and a rock climbing wall? Yeah, that one.
I said to my husband, “I’ll never spend that much money on something like that! What a waste for something they’ll only use a little while. Just take them to the public park for crying out loud!” (Now if you were sitting next to me right now you’d hear me laughing out loud!)
Let’s fast forward to a year and a half ago when my oldest little girl, EG, was two. We went to the public park one day to play (because we do not have a play set in the backyard), but fear rose up in me. EG loves people big and walks right up to anyone. She was on the other side of the playground and as I walked around to see where she was I saw she was talking to an adult woman. As I approached I heard her telling the woman her name. What?! My heart sank. Even though she was only two I’m the cautious type. I had an elementary version of the stranger-danger talk with her a few weeks prior, and I told her never to tell strangers her name. And there she was, giving her short life story to a stranger.
Soon after my husband walked in the door that evening I announced to him, “It would be soooo nice to have one of those play sets in our backyard! Just think of all the fun EG would have! Maybe we should look into that?”
We never got a play set for the backyard which brings me to this past weekend.
We went to the public park again – just EG and now her little sister, ME, who just turned one. We’ve been back many times since that day when she was two, but on the way I felt compelled to reiterate my safety rules to make myself feel better. Even at three years old she’s not real good at remembering safety.
Over the past few years my daughter hasn’t changed much. She walked up to every child regardless of their age, gender, or race. When she saw a new person walk up she said, “Mommy, a new friend’s coming to play with me!” It made me smile big.
But the biggest smile came when a little girl walked up using a special walker. She looked like she had cerebral palsy. Despite not having ever seen a child use a walker, EG went right up to the little girl and talked and played with her as the little girl’s grandmothers helped her.
That day I fell in love with public parks. I realized that even though there’s nothing wrong with having play sets in your backyard – they’re super convenient for both kids and parents, they’re safe, and they’re fun – there’s something that backyard play sets can’t give children – the opportunity to love other people and learn from other people they may not otherwise ever meet.
It’s interesting because I’m blessed in a way that if I want to I can shield my children from a lot. Not everything. I’m not delusional enough to think that. But for a little while at least I can shield them from the harshness of the world.
I can shield them from homelessness, poverty, orphanages, racism, disabilities, and injustices. And there’s a place for children to be shielded based on their age and needs.
But I don’t want my girls to be shielded so much that they get the impression that this world is heaven because soon enough they will learn that there’s no way it can be. I want them to grow to feel, in an age-appropriate way, the tension between heaven and earth – what Paul says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:21, 23).
When they feel this tension they see the world’s need, and their need, for a Savior. They see the brokenness universal sin has caused and they see their own sin.
I also want to give them the opportunity to love the way Jesus loves. I want my girls to practice loving people who are different from they are. Jesus went out of His way to relate to people who were different from Himself. I want my girls to do the same.
As our world becomes more isolated with online living instead of real life living, we, as moms, will have to be intentional and even strategic in how we give our girls opportunities to practice love. Public parks are one place to start.
How about you? Are you a public park person?
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