Here I am: sitting at a play date. Let’s say this play date is at a park, where the sun is shining and the kids are giggling. No flies on the snacks, no sand has been thrown. The moms are quiet but for all outward appearances, content. In this slice of domestic bliss, it suddenly occurs to me to bring up oil fracking.
If you’re in a playgroup, you’ve probably picked up the social cues dictating proper momversations. The list of acceptable topics usually includes baby-related accessories, stages, and products. If you’re really close, you might even get to complain about your partner or bring up an unconventional parenting choice you’ve made. At that point, you’ve reached the outer limits of polite momversation.
This unspoken code of politeness runs deep. Having moved around a bit and having tried various playgroups for the “right fit,” I’ve been a member of at least six playgroups in the past five years. The hallowed code of small talk pervaded each one. Members show up for their first play date from exotic places I’ve never been, like China or Iowa, already under solemn oath to stay away from issues-related conversations.
During my first year as a playgroup attendee, I resolved to adhere myself to the Code of Polite Momversation, despite my low tolerance for small talk and a high need for discussing the big stuff. After all, someone was letting my kid slobber on their kid’s toys. When I had reached my limit of diaper-brand debates I could simply space out at shapes in a stucco wall (that piece looks like a gnu!) or mentally obsess over lyrics I don’t understand (what the hell is a sponji reggae?)
After that first year, I moved across the country and joined playgroup #2. At this point, I was done with The Code of Polite Momversation. Don’t get me wrong: I understand how reassuring typical momversations can be. As the first of my friends to have a kid, I understand why moms use play dates to hash out common childrearing topics. I just didn’t have much more to say about those things. I felt like my choices were to quit playgroups and raise my kids in a domestic black hole or to initiate conversations I was interested in.
I gravitate toward the socio-political side of everything. It’s like the morning sunshine coming through the window telling me it is time to live again. I felt like for all those early play date years, I was toting my kids around while leaving my core at home. A feeling of injustice was building within me: why do we commune for years in this homogenized, simplified way?
However, the more I learned about my fellow mothers, the more I felt certain of the following two things:
First, many of the moms in these groups are looking for more than kid-interaction. Playgroup-member profiles on Meetup are rife with statements like “I want to make friends” or “We’re new in town and trying to meet other families.” Sure, some moms attend play dates solely so their kids learn other kids aren’t for eating. For many of us, though, we are looking for a real relationship with women in a common stage of life. I don’t think I’m the only person who can’t build deeper connections on a foundation of traditional momversation.
Second, the women in these groups are fascinating and intelligent with thrilling pockets of opinion and expertise. Most — not all, but most — are excited to discuss or even politely debate topics which matter deeply to them. In fact, I soon realized I wasn’t the only one dying to break that code of polite conversation.
So how did we get to this place where issue-related conversations in kid-settings are so taboo? To me, I see concern over mom-judgment combined with a polarized socio-political culture, all leading to hypersensitivity toward making anyone feel uncomfortable or different. Our kids are safe to talk about because we have them in common, and most of us have the decency to accept the different paths up Mount Motherhood.
Why shouldn’t we just quit while we’re socially ahead? Why not leave play dates as neutral zones? Personally, I see problems with that on two levels. On the individual level, I can’t see spending the potentially isolating first years of parenthood avoiding those topics if they are personally important. On a larger “who are we as a people” level, I feel avoiding those conversations plunges us deeper into the problems of socio-political polarization, contempt for difference, and inexperience with civil debate.
In the unique camaraderie of a group of parents together with their kids, the stage is set for real understanding between different viewpoints.
In fact, play dates seem like the perfect ground for adults to hash out potentially touchy ideas. Let’s review the average political experience of a person. Overall, people tend to have similar political and social lives as their family, partner, or long-term friends. Selective use of a polarized media allows us to reinforce our previous views. Overtly political grounds like protests, rallies and debates are rife with inflammatory and divisive rhetoric. In the unique camaraderie of a group of parents together with their kids, the stage is set for real understanding between different viewpoints.
When I’ve breached touchy subjects at play dates, the results have been amazing: people talk, no one gets overtly angry, and we usually learn something. Much like the no-drama policy here on the Offbeat Empire, the presence of our children plus the presence of a group of diverse individuals creates a new unspoken code: Try to find a way to understand the other person, and keep your cool. I don’t want to start morphing into a misty-eyed preacher, but perhaps what the modern world needs is this ability to civilly engage in a group discussion about the issues that really piss. us. off. Perhaps even more than that, we need our kids to see two adults disagree while maintaining an air of support and amity.
Some may ask, what about my right to end your issues-related banter? The glorious thing about conversations is they are easily killed by disinterest. If you don’t care about oil fracking, I get it. I’ve got a lifetime supply of mysterious song lyrics saved up for such tough times, and it’s always only a few moments until there’s sand in someone’s eyes.