One of my favourite things about our neighbourhood is the Sunday morning farmers' market. We show up some time after ten, the kids get chocolate croissants, we get coffee, we sit on the grass, friends appear, kids run around, we chat, it's nice. I buy some vegetables, usually.
The children all like to climb two trees nearby - one in particular is sturdy and child-friendly, branches low enough to the ground for a tall five-year-old to boost themself up, spread wide enough to hold four or more at once. They play monkeys, and baby birds, and jungle animals, and every now and then a parent is called over to put up or take down a smaller child and be drawn into the game.
Yesterday morning was just the same.
"Where's Dash?" B asked me.
"In the tree," I said, waving vaguely in that direction, where I could see a flash of blue Superman t-shirt between the green leaves.
A few minutes later Dash and his friend came back to us. The friend was looking upset and as she sat on her mother's lap and began to cry, I asked Dash what had happened, afraid she'd hurt herself.
"She's a bit unhappy because a lady told us to get out of the tree," he told me.
"The lady over there."
"Why? Were you doing something wrong?"
"No, we were just in the tree."
My friend (also a mom of tree-climbers) and I went over to see what was what. The children all came with us, six of them, all a little unsure and wondering what was going to happen. We told them that they were allowed climb in the tree, because all their parents said they could. We told them it wasn't against the law. We put those who wanted to climb back up in the tree.
The elderly lady approached us, looking disapproving. We thanked her for her concern. We said that we allowed our children to climb the tree, that they were doing it no harm, that they played here every week.
She told us they shouldn't, that they were damaging the tree. We said they weren't. They all know not to put their weight on branches that are too slim to bear it. It was a face-off, it really was.
"Make them come down, or I'll... I'll call the police," she wavered, beginning to rummage in her fanny pack for a phone.
"Okay, " we said. "Call them."
We stood there putting one child and another up and down according to their whims, as she ambled away and then back, and then took up sentry duty sitting on a nearby rock. She glowered. The children were a little worried and kept telling us she was still there. "That's okay," we said. "You're allowed be in the tree."
A few minutes later, when most of the kids had tired of the tree and run off to play hide and seek, a police car rolled up and came to a halt in that corner of the parking lot. The lady began to talk to the officer. As I approached from the other side, I heard him say "...it's not illegal..."
He looked over at me enquiringly.
"Thank you," I said. "We just wanted to confirm that it's not illegal for children to climb trees."
"It's not," he said, and I gave him a little thumbs up and a smile.
There was just one four-year-old still in the tree at the time. Then the officer leaned out of his window and asked his mother to take him down, because of "citizen complaints." So she did, because we are all good law-abiding citizens who do what the police tell us, even when we were abiding by the laws the whole time.
We were pretty disappointed in that. The policeman probably took the path of least resistance, and decided that appeasing a cantankerous old lady by removing a child from a tree was the easiest thing to do.
But it leaves us in limbo and with unanswered questions from our children. If it's not illegal, why should they have to stop doing it? Why should the cantankerous old lady win? Should we just take our children to a purpose-built playground structure if they want to climb so badly? But what if we want to enjoy the market at the same time?
And I feel bad for the old lady, who may be many years away from remembering how much fun it is to climb a tree, or even how it's nice to watch your children climb trees instead of playing computer games; who might feel that a tree like that, in a public place, is a treasure that must be protected from little limbs and weighing-down torsos, from children who are little more than vandals and their parents who are jumped-up rebellious teenagers in her eyes.
And I admit that there was a little thrill there, in standing up to an old lady. We tried to be as respectful as we could while letting her know we disagreed and felt she was overstepping the line. We tried to model - what? good rebellion? - for our children. We tried to show our children that we were the grownups who knew the right thing to do, that they could always trust us to be their moral compasses even when others who saw themselves as authority figures might have different messages.
Climbing trees is more complicated than you might think.
To be clear, I don't want to make the old lady the villain of the piece. She has her opinions, and one of them is that our children shouldn't be climbing that tree. Like the Lorax, she speaks for the trees. And I don't blame the policeman, really, for asking us to get the kids down. His job is to keep the peace, and he probably knows that old ladies with nothing much else to do all day are more likely to disturb his peace than busy families who can just head on elsewhere.
It's just a funny story, really, about the day the police came to tell the children not to climb a tree.
That said, we'll all be back there next weekend, I think, and if the kids want to climb the tree, we'll be letting them.
Labels: Ethical dilemmas, neighbourhood, Parenting