How Not to Let Your Small Child Pee in a Public Park

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer Gabe Roth tells us more about the perils of letting your preschooler pee in the park.

NY Parks cop who busted my three-year-old for peeing in the grass at a picnic: Thanks for the early lesson in the authoritarian personality!

— Gabriel Roth (@gabrielroth) May 28, 2014

Gabe! So what happened here?

We were at Brooklyn Bridge Park, at a picnic to celebrate the end of my daughter’s first year of preschool. It was about six in the evening, just starting to cool off after one of the first hot days of the summer. There were maybe 40 parents and teachers sitting on blankets eating hummus and maybe 25 kids running around on the grass. At the bottom of the field, behind a wire fence, was the East River, and beyond that the skyline.

They held a similar picnic in the same field at the start of the school year, so this was one of those time-lapse events that let you mark how your kid has changed. (Her school is really good at staging these things.) I was standing on the grass watching my daughter wrestle with two of her friends from the Yellow Room, getting to see a part of her life that’s usually outside my field of vision. And then she stopped wrestling and walked up to me and said “I have to do a pee.” (This was a good moment because she was demonstrating competence and maturity, and thus publicly validating my parenting work.)

I swiftly reviewed the options. There’s a restroom at the top of the park, maybe a five-minute walk if I carry her. Can she hold it in for five minutes? Maybe. Will the restroom be disgusting? I think this one is OK, but I’m not 100 percent sure. Do I want to miss 10 minutes of this precious golden hour with her friends in the park in front of the skyline? Not really.

The field is bordered by shrubbery on all sides, but there’s a little gap in the shrubbery where the field connects to a path, and this little gap is grassy and somewhat secluded. So I picked her up and carried her there, saying, “We’re going to do a pee right over here!” I set her down and pulled down her shorts and underpants, and she squatted down, and I held her under her armpits and helped her lean back far enough that she wouldn’t pee all over her underpants, and then she started peeing.

While she was peeing I became aware of a car rolling slowly by on the path, about three feet from us, emblazoned with the livery of the New York City Park Enforcement Patrol. I wasn’t really worried, because what could be more blameless and innocent than a three-year-old girl urinating on some grass? She finished peeing, and I stood her up and pulled up her underpants and shorts, and she started back toward her friends. I was turning to follow her when a voice from the car called “Sir!” in that way cops have.

He was a white guy in his forties or fifties with very short grey hair, not smiling. I remember him looking like the late character actor James Rebhorn, but I suspect my memory has cast Rebhorn in the role because he played so many unsmiling authority figures rather than for any physical resemblance. I picked up my daughter and turned toward the car with her wrapped around my upper body like a koala.

“Do you know that’s illegal?” the cop asked me.

So how did you respond? Did things get heated?

The stereotypical thing to say here would be, “When I was a young hothead I would have gotten in his face and given him attitude, whereas now I am older and more even-tempered so I apologized to him in a respectful manner.” The truth is kind of the opposite: When I was younger I was very easily intimidated by authority and would have immediately done everything I could to mollify the guy, whereas now I am old enough to have the courage of my convictions, so I really wanted to say something entirely appropriate like Are you serious? What the fuck is wrong with you?

Fortunately, I was able to recognize that saying the appropriate thing would have bad consequences, so I said, “No, I didn’t realize that. I’m very sorry.” I said it in the tone of voice of someone who is not in any way sorry but who is saying the words of an apology to avoid getting in trouble. I was amazed at how insincere my apology sounded.

In a situation like this, you’re always thinking about what kind of emotional interactions you’re modeling for your kid. I didn’t want to model belligerence, but I didn’t want to model craven submissiveness either. My own father was great in this kind of situation and would have displayed a calm, unwavering dignity that I can rarely manage. I ended up modeling transparent insincerity, which I guess will be part of how she sees me from here on out.

The cop looked at me for a long time, coldly, then said, “There are bathrooms up there.”

“OK, I’ll use them next time,” I said in the same unconvincing tone. He kept looking at me for a while — me holding my daughter, neither of us smiling at all — and then he rolled slowly away.

As I set her down, my daughter asked me, “Why did the policeman say that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. And then she ran off to play with her friends.

Lesson learned (if any)?

There wasn’t much of a lesson, just a reminder that some of the people who choose to go into police work are power-tripping assholes, and that in my experience this is especially true of pseudo-cops like NYC Park Enforcement Patrol officers.

(I should say here that my daughter and I are white, and as such we have the luxury of not having to encounter this kind of cop as often as some people do. Also, yes, #NotAllCops. Whatever.)

When you’re a parent of young kids, you take up a bit more room in the world. It’s inevitable. If the bus has to wait while I fold the stroller and make sure she doesn’t drop her Elmo or spill her milk box or pee all over my hand, I realize that I’m slowing everybody down. Some people smile at us indulgently, but most people are just trying to get to work on time, they’re not in the mood to be charmed by me and my kid. I get it. I’m folding the stroller as fast as I can. It’s fine, it’s New York, we’re all in it together.

But when you’re a park cop, and you’re confronted by a fucking preschool picnic, and instead of a foot patrol you’re doing that slow-drive-around-the-park thing that isolates you and makes everyone uneasy because you’re driving a car on a pedestrian footpath, and you decide to get in my face about letting my three-year-old daughter pee on the grass . . . what is that? What has gone wrong in your relationship to the world?

Just one more thing . . .

In one of my kid’s books, there’s a gorilla named Gorilla Bananas who steals some bananas, and Sergeant Murphy puts him in prison “until he learns that it is wrong to steal from others.” Every time I read those words to her, I feel bad that I’m lying to her about what a brutal nightmare our criminal justice system is. So maybe this incident will stick with her enough to give her a vague feeling of apprehensiveness about the police without tarnishing her overall sense of joy and wonder and trust in the benevolent nature of the adult world. That’s my hope, anyway.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.