Monkey what?

August 04,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

T. had a playdate yesterday with J., her best-friend-forever from preschool. When J.'s mom called to set it up, she suggested we meet at a new popular inflatable place in town. I hesitated, because I've had past experience with another popular inflatable place and just thinking about inflatables makes me want to crawl into a corner with my hands over my head. But it was hot yesterday and I was curious about this new, much hyped-up, fun play place. And T. loves inflatables and her friend J., so I didn't have the heart to suggest something else.

The big hook with this place is that it boasts free WiFi and televisions, and lots of cafe-like seating--so parents can order from the snack bar AND catch up on their emails  at the same time. They can sit back and watch TV, or read and sip a drink, while their children run amok among giant slides and rubber bolsters. You and your child get paper bracelets with matching numbers, and a bored-looking college kid keeps watch at the door to make sure no one decides to leave their child in the monkey bounce, and skip out with someone else's instead.

Sounds like fun, right?

But the reason why inflatable places make me want to run and hide is because of things like this:

We hadn't been in there more than five minutes when T. and J. decided they would head into the inflatable of all inflatables: a gigantic obstacle course that ends in a most exciting slide. T. however, has developed slide phobia this summer. She used to throw herself down slides of all kinds, paying little heed to how curvy they were, or how much time it would take to reach the bottom. But this summer she climbs to the top of the playground ladders and freezes at the top, suddenly too aware of the slip and the rush down to the bottom. I was worried about this yesterday and, sure enough, she made it up the rubbery wall at the end of the obstacle course and then froze at the top. This resulted in a an instant backlog of little eager and impatient people who wanted to go down the slide right now, thank you very much. I waved at T. and tried to coach her down the slide, shouting words of encouragement up at her tiny face, poised at the top. I could tell she was just making up her mind to go, when suddenly, from across the span of yellow and red rubber, a mom shouted at me from the other side of the inflatable.

"Is that YOUR child?" she hollered, a little too forcefully, I thought, while holding her cell phone just inches from her ear.

"Yes, it is," I replied.

"Could you get her out of there? My child wants to go down and is really upset now and doesn't know what to do."

"Um, okay," I replied, and I made my way around to the entrance of the inflatable, kicking off my flip-flops. A bored-looking college student regarded me coolly.

"You can't go in there without socks," she said drily, snapping her gum at me.

"I just need to help my daughter," I told her and then, before she could snap her gum again, I took a deep breath, and dove in. I squeezed through the rubbery bolsters at the entrance, shimmied up the plastic "rock wall" with impossibly small and slippery footholds (how DO kids climb up these with socks on?), slid down one small slide, up another wall, elbowed past a handful of kids waiting to go down the popular slide ("Hey! No cutting in line!") until I was able to grab T. and bring her back down to safety. And if you think it's hard being a grownup and going into an inflatable, try coming out the wrong way.

On our way back to J. and J.'s mom, we passed the mom who had shouted at me. She was seated at a small cafe table, nursing a massive Starbucks, her cell phone reunited to her ear once more.

I also don't like inflatable places because too many times things like this happen:

J.'s mom and I are watching J. and T. roll around in the bouncy house when we see a three-year-old boy get mowed down by an older kid, who has lurched into him. The three-year-old bursts into tears and we look around for a parent. None appears. J.'s mom goes in, braving her life, really, and dodges bouncing kids while she tries to help the three-year-old out of the bouncy house. Still no parent appears. Finally, after we've consoled the boy and checked to make sure he's not hurt, and asked after his parents, a mom appears and absentmindedly takes the boy by the hand and leads him away, without a backward glance.

I don't like those inflatable places because I looked around on Sunday and saw lots of parents: parents with iPods and books and cell phones and laptops. I also saw parents hovering near their kids, and helping them out, and keeping them safe. But places like that give some parents a false sense of security, and a misguided impression that they can abdicate the responsibility they have to be with their kids at places like that, and their obligation to parent them there, just as they would at any playground or other public place.

I get uncomfortable at places like that because I just don't trust my child's safety or well-being to the gum-snapping attendants, or the sleepy young guy at the exit, or the paper bracelets (T.'s fell off somewhere and I had to take her to the desk for a new one), or even to some other parent my child doesn't even know.

And also, while I'm not too old to build sandcastles or pillow forts or make play-doh or be a dinosaur named Maya, I think, at almost 39, I am too old to squeeze myself through two giant rubber bolsters.