As we go for our evening walk, I watch my oldest son searching.
He is looking for the perfect stick.
It needs to be perfect.
It has to be.
Because he will remember everything about his stick, every detail, every notch, and every knick.
When he is done with his adventure, captaining a ship or exploring a distant planet, that stick will come home to join his collection of other essential sticks.
He loves sticks.
He will always find one, no matter where we go. Walks, hikes, the softball field, visiting a friend—and they will all be unique.
I inevitably see the other adults’ disapproving glances on the playground when I encourage or allow him to play with sticks.
Is there a policy I don’t know about in which sticks are considered dangerous weapons? Because I have had more than one confrontation with a parent on the playground about my son playing with sticks.
The most notable playground stick experience ended with an older woman threatening to call the cops on me.
At the time, my oldest son was just nine years old but was still a staggering 4-foot, 10-inches and 101 pounds He has a gorgeous mop of curly hair, my husband’s blue eyes, and my nose and lips. But he was huge, even bigger now, and adults started to perceive him as intimidating, especially when they compared them to the average-sized or smaller children on the playground. His size, autism, and (whether I liked it or not) his color began making him a threat.
But he would never intentionally hurt anyone. He just loves all things outside. He likes most typical boy things then and now. He loves to get dirty, build, explore, and run.
But that’s not what most adults see. They see a large, imposing, darker-skinned boy with a weapon on the playground, and he is instantly dangerous.
That day the incident happened, we had gone to the park with friends. It usually went well for my oldest because there was a built-in playgroup. He knew the children, and it lessened his anxiety. The kids went zooming off as soon as their feet hit the ground. I surveyed the playground as I often did, looking for potential issues. There were two other families there, a younger mom with smaller children, and what looked like a grandmother, who I assumed was in charge of the other kids who looked to be around my group’s age. I found a seat at a picnic table just to the side of the playground, close enough to see and hear, but not close enough to intrude on their play.
We were at the park for less than 30 minutes when it happened.
My oldest came over to me with a look on his face. I knew the look, and my hair stood on end. Did he misunderstand something? Was he hurt? Did someone hurt his feelings or exclude him?
I said, “What’s wrong, Bubba?” He told me nothing, as he usually did. Feelings were hard for him. Explaining was hard. But I persisted. He finally said to me that the older woman had told him he couldn’t play with sticks on the playground because he would hurt someone.
I was furious. LIVID. How dare she tell MY child what he could and couldn’t do!?
I said loudly enough for her to hear, “You can play with whatever you want. You aren’t hurting anyone, and you love sticks. You go have fun.” He nervously went off to play but didn’t pick up another stick for a while. When he had forgotten her harsh words to him, he found his way to another stick and began to play.
She immediately went over to the playground fence line to reprimand him again; I didn’t give her a chance.
I said, “Excuse me, please don’t tell my son what he can and can’t do. He isn’t doing anything wrong. He is playing with a stick.”
She responded, “He could hurt someone, and you would know that if you were paying attention to your kids instead of having your face in your phone.”
I saw red.
I could feel the heat rising to my face.
I angrily replied, “My kids are old enough to play on their own. Not that I have to explain anything to you! They aren’t your kids, and it’s not your job to parent them!”
She said, “It is my job if they are bigger and are going to hurt my children.”
There it was . . . his size. It was always my son’s size. Little did she know, he was probably the same age as all of the other kids, despite his size.
I was done.
I called all of my kids and told them it was time to leave.
She couldn’t let it go.
She followed after me as we attempted to leave the park and said, “Good. I’m glad you’re leaving. Now everyone can be safe on the playground.”
Now, let me tell you before you continue reading . . . this was NOT my finest parenting moment.
Almost nothing will cause me to behave in the following way, with a few exceptions, one of the exceptions being someone making derogatory statements about my children, family, or friends. That is an excellent way to see another side of me, one with ZERO self-control or military bearing.
I turned to her and said, “My son is autistic. He loves sticks. He wasn’t hurting anyone. Why don’t you stop being a nosy B!@ch and worry about your kids, and leave me and mine alone.”
I turned and began to walk away again.
The next thing that came out of her mouth has stayed with me for three years.
She said, “Well, that explains a lot, and with a mother like you and a mouth like that, no wonder he acts that way. Why don’t you learn to control him!”
I lost it.
“Excuse me! What the **** did you just say to me!? Did you just tell me to control my son!? Like he’s a dog!? What the **** is wrong with you!?”
At this point, she decided to threaten me with calling the cops because of course, why wouldn’t you threaten someone with calling the cops . . . over a stick . . . on the playground.
I was immediately brought back to reality. I backed away, got into the car with all of the kids, and left.
When things calmed down later, my son sadly and curiously asked, “Why was that woman so angry at me for playing with sticks.” He didn’t understand.
I don’t remember the answer I gave him. I know it was something reassuring, clear, and concise but also caring and loving. And even now, three years later, I don’t understand why that woman was so angry. I can’t explain it. It was a stick.
I want to tell you that that was the last experience we ever had with an adult trying to parent my child on the playground for using sticks . . . but it wasn’t.
Less than two weeks later, it happened again with a younger mom at a different park. I just got better at holding my temper. Somehow now, to parents on the playground, a stick might as well be a knife or a firearm.
But there is just something about sticks. I remember them with fondness, and I don’t think it is a 1980s thing. But I could be wrong.
I believe nature draws you in. If there is a stick on our walks or hikes, my kids will find it, and they will inevitably argue over it. They will eventually settle on what to do with it. It becomes a hiking stick, sword, lightsaber, or wand. I have stopped wincing at the thought of the injuries that could happen because they are careful, and they are also making memories. Playing, imagining, problem-solving, and working together. I’m willing to let my children take a few risks for the sake of learning and sheer enjoyment.
So, YES, I will continue to let my kids play with sticks. There is acceptance, imagination, dirt, puddles, and STICKS in the playground of my dreams.