Jul 5, 2010

It Takes a Village--To Ignore the Ice Cream Truck

One of the best things about our Brooklyn neighborhood is Underwood Playground--a full city-block of great play equipment, shady areas, a separate sprinkler area, and even an enclosed mini-'meadow' place where kids can play in the grass, dig, and romp in a way that has nothing to do with concrete.

I love that I can show up with any combination of children at any time and find friends/make friends...or just let the kids stretch their legs.

You find out a lot about other parents in the playground. I'm a major bench-sitter. People think I've chosen to give my children all sorts of independence, but really I'm lazy and I just like sitting. I admire the moms and dads who agree to play monster, or who invent elaborate and comical ways to push their kids in a swing. How energetic they are! I'm bored by the spotter-parents, the ones who are always underneath their kids, acting nervous and jittery whenever junior's up too high. How humorless they seem!

Another major test involves the ice cream truck and the icee man. At first I prided myself on being one of the moms who enjoyed these things. I grew up on a dead-end street and ice cream trucks were nonexistent. Part of me still finds it magical that a little bus full of ice cream rolls through Brooklyn. I mean, that's pretty great, right? Plus I decided that I'm annoyed by the kinds of people who make hay out of being annoyed by the ice cream truck. 'Can you believe some of our neighbors have tried to report the ice cream man for coming on our street late at night?' I'd hiss. How could someone admit to being such a Grinch? They'd totally be the villain in the movie about the neighborhood.

There were always a few hold-outs. The moms pushing baby carrots and granola bars on their children, while everyone else swarmed, lemming-like, to the curb at the sound of the Entertainer music or the bicycle-horn of the icee man's cart. Poor kids, I'd think...as I'd shell out more money for my brood.

One summer a soy ice cream truck rolled around, manned by a rastafarian guy. The granola folks got off their benches for that one, but there were rumors about drugs and we never ended up seeing the guy again.

It's important to mention that my two older children were always reasonable kids. While they enjoyed being kids who could get treats from those trucks, they also understood it when I said 'no,'--whether that no was based on my having no money with me, or a reminder that they'd had/or were going to have some other kind of treat that day. But my youngest? Not so easy this way. She's the queen of instant gratification--whatever suggestion passes through her mind becomes a desperate need within minutes--if it's not fulfilled within seconds of it occurring to her, she collapses noisily and dramatically. It can ruin everybody's afternoon. So when the weather started to turn towards summer about a month ago, now that she can't be distracted as easily as she could last summer, I started to get worried about the ice cream trucks-to-be.

Easy, my friend Ingrid said, when I said 'what are we going to do about the ice cream truck all summer?'--'just say 'only on Fridays.''

Only on Fridays? Okay. Let's do it only on Fridays.

Is today Friday Mommy? my youngest would ask as she biked to school in the morning.

Nope, I'd say. Friday's in two days.

Okay. So I get ice cream in two days, right Mommy?


Perfect! Keith, neighborhood dad suddenly visible in the playground those days to help with a brand new baby, pointed out that it was the same theory behind the rat experiment involving randomly assigned rewards versus predictable rewards. Apparently the rats who were given treats at random were anxiety-filled beasts, who spent their days frantically pressing buttons. The rats whose rewards were doled out in predictable chunks were calm and relaxed. He was dead right. By giving in every now and then, but never in a predictable way, I'd created an anxiety filled beast. Poor thing.

No more frantic anxiety-filled afternoons, but rather, four year olds at peace with the fact that the rewards would come, just only on Fridays. Dozing quietly in the corner of their cages, in their nests of shredded newspaper, I mean...playing happily on the swings, in the tunnel, playing bumper cars on the slide...

Now I should mention here that it rained for about four Fridays in a row, so our poor kids hung in there week after week with no Friday ice cream. Because the rule is designed to help with the temptation of having the ice cream jingle repeated a thousand times several yards away from us, there's no real hard and fast rule about having cold treats at other times during the week. Of course the Friday rule is open to interpretation and the decisions we make when we're not all clustered together in the park are up to us. On a recent Thursday, for example, we all decided to cave. The heat was excessive, and several of the children weren't going to be in town the following day. But it was a firm trade-off. Yes today, but no tomorrow. And the kids managed it well. But the best thing is that the tension that used to arise whenever the sick-honk of the icee cart approached, where some of us would give in immediately, and others would cringe and bristle as they prepared their defenses for their own soon-to-be disappointed children, is gone. We're all more relaxed now.

We're now approaching July and I'm ultra-impressed with this whole system. I spend a lot of time wishing I'd known about it eight years ago, but am mostly glad to know about it now. There was one Tuesday afternoon where she just about broke down, begging for it. But I held firm, stressed how much fun Friday would be, and we haven't had a repeat of that. I've always known that psycho-mumbo jumbo about giving kids limits, and how they thrive with boundaries and all that but all parenting advice seems to be preachy and mired in denying them things and I tire of it quickly. Something about those poor little rats really drives the whole thing home.

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