Carolyn Hax: Neighborhood green space pits gardeners against parents

Carolyn Hax
Columnist May 24

Dear Carolyn: My neighborhood has one small traffic island on a busy street to calm traffic and prevent accidents. Our town maintains traffic islands as public green space with the help of community volunteer gardeners.

Several homes surrounding the island have been incubating a new batch of children. About eight of them are now finally allowed to play outside their yards and have taken to playing on the island, climbing its small trees, sword-playing, and using it as a meeting place/pirate ship/castle etc.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

One neighbor who has been doing the gardening discovered that a lot of the plants had been trampled, tree branches broken — it was a mess — and posted a sign saying it was not a playground. Then a parent posted over the sign a response saying that the children have to play somewhere. I detected the implication that we might be too old to understand the needs of their young children.

These are half-million-dollar homes and all of them have yards. Granted, this small island is a public space, but it is not a playground.

Given the damage and the fact that no parents are visibly supervising their children out on the street, and none of these homeowners pitches in to keep the island up (or thanks the invisible few that do), we are confused as to whether to continue doing this civic beautification task. Beyond the maintenance situation, it’s a pedestrian accident waiting to happen.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

I’m not comfortable taking a Darwinian approach to settling this matter, but I don’t see these parents creating a teachable moment for their children so then harmony with the Earth will reign, either.

What am I not seeing here? I love children and I get them. I’m not some crabby old person who is telling children to get off my lawn. I’ve raised two boys, so I understand the work involved in riding herd on active children while not stifling them.

Kid Zone

You’re not a get-off-my-lawn person, but the poster of the original sign sure sounds like one.

It’s unfortunate, too, because that huffy, arm’s-length, get-off-my-lawn-you-unwashed-vermin implication may have cost your neighborhood its best chance to find some kind of cooperative solution to this problem: actually talking to each other, nicely.

As in, door-to-door: “Hey — I was wondering if we gardeners could meet with all parents about the island. Just so we can all enjoy the space. I’ll host.”

Setting that tone will be a lot harder now that a gardener basically declared war — again, in the most craven way possible, without eye contact or ownership — and one of the parents replied, “Okay, let’s go.”

But that doesn’t mean inclusiveness and cooperation are impossible. It just means that you (since you’re the one asking) need to be extra, extra careful to set an example of flexibility and calm.

That chiefly means not digging in (uhhh!) on the current preference for foliage over families. If the plantings aren’t kid-hardy, then maybe it’s time for tougher plantings instead of tougher boundaries for the kids.

Yes, I can hear the great sucking in of breath over kids’ crossing a busy street to play and/or not respecting flowerbeds. The only relevant opinions on safety, though, are of the people who live, drive, plant and reproduce there — and the relevant opinions on landscaping are everyone’s, not just the volunteers’.

So, talk. Warn the gardeners, though, that they vie for the last word at their peril. With community property, you all have equal say, but with kids, the parents get the last word, so who’s rightest, safest, greenest, volunteeriest, or best validated by property values is trumped by the parents’ prerogative. If they want their kids to play on the island, there’s not much you can do about it but complain your way to a rift.

Or, again, show some village leadership. Express your fears of an accident; enlist all parties to work toward mutual, inclusive goals; kumbaya your way toward a safe, durable place to play that’s also kempt and green.

Assure any obstructionists that, as it happens, when neighborhoods are both lively and well-tended, their value tends to spike.

To my fellow childless women, via Carolyn:

I know most us have suffered the annoyances of someone asking (some would say nagging) when we would have children. I’m here to report that it can actually get worse.

My gynecologist asks me at every annual appointment if I’m going to try to get pregnant this year. This time, she took it a step further by lecturing me in the middle of my exam. “You know, most women’s fertility really starts to drop by age 35.” I noted I’m not even 30. “Well, most women want multiple children” — all as she has her hands in incredibly intimate parts of my body.

So, the next time Grandma Smith prods you on having a baby, just remember: It really could be worse.

Anonymous

It can also get better: You can change doctors. I hope you do, and say why.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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