Talking to Dads at the Playground Is Hard for a Reason

There are two types of playground dads: the ones that want to talk and the ones that don’t. I’ve been both and always run into the same problem: other dads.

by Adam Bulger

I regretted wearing my favorite shirt when the dad stepped up to the swings. The shirt sported a picture of Gizmo, the main gremlin from the movie Gremlins, cut from a vintage pillowcase and stitched on it. It was a conversation starter at a moment when I wanted to avoid conversation.

Before the swings, my daughter and I trudged through a muddy nature hike, ate fast food, hit up an ice cream truck, talked through our disappointment that the ice cream truck had no Hello, Kitty popsicles, used a port-a-potty, argued over toys and shows, sprinted over baseball fields, and used paper towels and a water fountain to wipe away sticky popsicle sugar resin from our sweaty hands and faces.

At the swings, I’d planned to push my daughter a minimal number of times before letting her propel herself. My eye was on a shady bench that looked like the perfect spot to sprawl on while I texted my wife. But my attention-hungry shirt was once inviting conversation.

This dad seemed pretty cool, I guess. He had stylish clothes and a sleeve of tattoos. We were both wearing aviator shades. If we’d met a bar or a party, we’d no doubt be fast friends, bonding over TV on The Radio deep cuts or the deranged beauty of the Nicolas Cage movie Mandy. But we weren’t at a party. We were on a playground, a graveyard for grown-up conversation.

There are two types of playground dads: the ones that want to talk and the ones that don’t. I’ve been both and always run into the same problem: other dads.

Now that my daughter’s old enough to navigate slides, ladders, swings, and bridges without an adult riding tandem, playground trips are opportunities to shut down and stare at my phone for a few minutes in silence. Unfortunately, that rare moment of Warren Zevon-esque splendid isolation is too often cut off when a playground dad strikes up some idle conversation. I’ll be friendly, but I’m really thinking about the Twitter thread I was scrolling through before chatty daddy approached.

I know that choosing a smartphone over human interaction isn’t my best look. But I’m a reporter. Interviews are a big part of my job. Talking feels like work sometimes, especially when I’ve spent hours negotiating over screen time and toy purchases with an extraordinarily stubborn and articulate preschooler.

I understand the dads who need to talk. I’ve been there. In fact, I’ve been there a lot. It’s really fun to spend a day alone with kids. Time seems suspended. You get a glimpse into a child’s perspective as they discover the world and it’s magical. You feel lucky. Maybe blessed. It’s a unique joy, especially for first-time dads, and you want to share it. And, frankly, you’re apt to feel starved for adult conversation following long discussions about how trees grow and why the bathroom at McDonald’s is better than the port-a-potty at the park.

Sometimes you can’t help jabber-jawing at the playground dads because you feel like they should relate to the moment you’re living. When they don’t have the enthusiasm you think the conversation merits, it’s confusing and deflating.

That disappointment can be avoided by realizing playground dads are like reality television contestants: most didn’t come here to make friends. They came so their kids could make friends — or at least have fun or burn off enough energy to drop off quicker at bedtime.

When you talk to playground dads, their mind is never entirely in the conversation. Their attention is as divided as food in a bento box. As they talk weather and sports, they’re wondering where their kid is and if they’re climbing up the slide again. They’re assessing how compatible your kid is with theirs. They’re taking stock of their snacks and mapping out nearby bathrooms and water fountains. They’re thinking about when they should wrap up the playground trip.

I’ve made some great friends with fellow parents but those friendships never started on a playground. I don’t think any of the conversations I’ve had with dads on playgrounds have ever amounted to anything, in fact. I’ve never exchanged contact information, made a plan or learned anything useful. They’ve always been single serving friendships, to borrow a clever phrase from Fight Club. I’ve stood near playground dad and talked about kids, weather, our homes or childcare. Once or twice we broadly talked about work but rarely get into detail about it.

More than anything else, the impermanence of these relationships gets me down. I know other people see small talk as a good in and of itself. But for me, if it doesn’t go somewhere or build to something it’s hard to see a point.

In the end, I didn’t end up talking very long to the dad on the swings. One of my daughter’s friends ran into the playground. She chased after him and I chatted with his mom on a bench. Our kids got along, as they always had before and, I believe, will continue to do. The sun started to set a short time after and we headed home. When got to the car, I noticed my phone was dead. Couldn’t have timed it better, honestly.