We were vacationing in Orlando and Cat was needing some familiar food and unstructured play time. So I followed my GPS to the closest McDonald’s with a playground. When we walked inside, I immediately noticed that I was getting some strange looks. I glanced around and realized that we were the only people of our skin color in this busy restaurant. Interesting. I acknowledged and then let go of my vague discomfort and walked to the back of the line. As I waited, I thought about my white privilege, and how this experience of feeling like the odd one out is fairly unique to me, but is something that folks in minority groups deal with all the time.
Cat was apparently oblivious of the mild tension I was experiencing, and did her best to charm and make friends with everybody she saw, as she does everywhere we go.
We got our food and headed back to the play area. There were three teenagers, maybe fifteen years old, lounging on the play equipment. Headphones, blended coffee drinks, and plenty of indications that these kids were from a very different culture from my own. Cat ate about a half of a chicken nugget and ran to the play equipment to check it out. She immediately began to talk to the teens and attempt to engage them in play.
I toyed with the idea of telling her to leave them alone, but decided against it. They were physically on the play equipment. I was pretty sure there was a sign somewhere telling them that the play equipment is for little kids – if they didn’t want to interact with a 4 year old, there was a whole lot of other restaurant they could move to. They attempted a few very mild intimidation tactics in an apparent attempt to scare this bold little girl away. One of them said “Do you know you’re talking to a ‘N-Word’?” She was fascinated. She slowly and clearly repeated the ‘N-word’ back to him, a question in her voice. “Wait..No!” he said. “That’s a bad word – you’re not supposed to say it!” I spoke up at that point and pointed out that she had probably never heard that word before, and had no way of understanding the complex social rules behind it, and that she certainly was not trying to be racist or offensive. This was clearly a very interesting thought to all three of the teenagers.
At that point, one of the boys decided to physically move away, but instead of moving away from the play area, he bounded up further into the play equipment. Cat was delighted. Chase games are her favorite. She immediately jumped up and went after him. The other two laughed and whooped in delight. “She’s chasing you!” This was clearly not a reaction they expected. So the four year old and 15 year old began a delightful game of chase and hide-and-seek. Cat was beyond thrilled – getting big kids to play with her is one of her very favorite things. The boy managed to hide very effectively a few times, and Cat would lose track of him completely. In those moments, one of the other two would gleefully point out his hiding place to her.
The two of them engaged in this friendly game of chase / hide and seek for about 15 minutes, at which point the other two teenagers gave up resisting and joined in. All four of them chased, climbed, giggled, and charged around the play equipment for another 30 minutes solid. Everybody was clearly having an absolutely fantastic time, including me, watching and laughing from the side. They all were clearly cautious about Cat’s safety, and expressed serious concern the one time she tripped and fell. She did her best to play like they did, and they gamely assisted her and lifted her up when she couldn’t reach things. They continued this active, happy play until the big kids were completely out of breath and exhausted. I started hearing comments like “I haven’t played like this since my brother was her age!”
Eventually the teenagers all came and sat down near my table, and we joked together about the apparently endless energy of little kids. I sincerely thanked them for their patience and willingness to play with Cat, and they proudly told me all about their young nieces and nephews and how they knew how to play with little kids.
Sometimes I find myself worrying about Cat and socialization. She’s an only child, and she’s homeschooled. So called ‘common sense’ tells me that I’m setting her up to be a social misfit. But the research on this topic tells another story. It would take a lot for me to sign her up for a program that would reduce opportunities like the one we had today. A random lunch stop in an unfamiliar city allowed Cat and I to connect and make friends with kids from an entirely different culture, race and age group. I can’t do much to solve the major problems in my society and world, but I can allow Cat to connect with the shared humanity that lies behind the broad diversity in our world, so I will continue to do so at every opportunity.