Let them play!
She was sitting under the play structure, busily playing with and directing the play of the small boy beside her. “Is that ice cream? Yum! I love ice cream! Do you like ice cream? What flavour is it? Should we put some chocolate chips on our ice cream? These little rocks, they can be the chocolate chips!”
The small boy was happily involved in the deliciously imaginative play. They made pies and soup, then back to ice cream. They stirred and built, ‘tasted’ and cooked. And all the time her words swirled round and round.
He was probably two. She was probably 32.
Three of my four children eventually joined her. They formed a circle of delight around this adult, who bathed them all with the loving beam of her full attention.
So why was I so damned annoyed?
At first I scolded myself. She’s not doing anything wrong. She’s enjoying herself, they’re enjoying themselves. The negativity, the (yes, I confess my darker side here) the outright hostility I was feeling was unworthy. It was pure ego.
I felt uncomfortable. She was making me feel like I should be doing something. But, wait. She was “making” me? Really? She wasn’t doing anything she hand’t been doing before I arrived. In her heart of hearts, was she judging me for my lack of interaction? Was she feeling superior to me, and pitying my poor, neglected charges? Why would I make that assumption?
Even if you figure the answer is “Hell yes, she was”, the fact of the matter was that she wasn’t doing or saying anything to or about me whatsoever. Any assumptions I’m making about her motivations are just that — assumptions.
I get tired of people projecting assumptions and motivations on other people, and then reacting negatively to their own projections. This happens all the time. A mother talks with pride of her child’s particular accomplishment, and the mother beside her, whose child has yet to do whatever it is, reacts with angry defensiveness. “She thinks her child is so superior. God, I hate this damned parental competitiveness!” Um, who’s being competitive here? Really?
People who get all offended over imagined affronts annoy the heck out of me. I didn’t want to be one of the people whose real problem is their own thin skin. If my annoyance was nothing other than ego, I just needed to get over it. Let it go, get over myself. So I didn’t intervene to pull my kids away.
Mind you, I didn’t let any implicit pressure provoke me to go over there and start playing with them, either. Because, really, once in a while I like playing with them, but I’m surely not going to do it all.morning.long, and I sure as hell am not going to start because I think someone I’ve never met before might be judging me for not playing with them. That would be adolescent silly. I don’t do peer pressure any more.
But, goodness, I was annoyed. So, in the spirit of all those mindfulness books I’ve been reading, I noted the annoyance without trying to do anything with it. And then the wheels start turning.
I usually find playing with the children boring. I know that, and I’m fine with that, because I also believe play is the child’s work, not mine.
Ah. And now, as my children continued to stand in an enthralled ring around the young mother, it started to come together for me.
My children had been happily playing a game, several games, all morning. They’d been running hither and yon, up ladders and down slides, happily occupied with each other the the opportunities of the play structure. Now they were standing still and talking. Nothing wrong with that. They often play that way, too.
But now they were playing a game of someone else’s devising. Nothing wrong with that, either. It’s good for them to learn the social give and take of initiating, then following, throwing ideas out, cooperating with someone else’s ideas.
Except there’s a power imbalance when one of the players is an adult. This was not a game amongst peers. This was five children vying for the attention and approval of a single adult. Now, she was managing the play well … but make no mistakes, she was managing it.
And that’s okay for a while. That’s good, as an occasional enrichment/enhancement of the children’s typical level of play.
But all the time? For the entire 90 minutes I was there, her little boy was not allowed to play by himself for one single minute. Until my children joined him, his only company was his mother. When my children joined in, they were not joining him, anyway, they were joining his mother. She was the attraction, not him, and not the game he was playing.
How will this boy learn to manage the playground? To manage social interactions without a protective, buffering, facilitating adult?
Furthermore, the play was all of one type: imaginative and verbal. They sat in one spot and played one game for an hour and a half. Perfectly good form of play, and one all children need to master, but what of charging around like mad, noisy fiends? What of learning to climb ladders and climbing walls, to scramble onto, and jump off, a rock?
When will this child learn to see a task through, from beginning to end, without constant input, probing, encouragement, and praise? He’ll accomplish his mommy-led tasks well, no doubt, but what of autonomy? Of pride in a job well done, with only the reward of the job done well
Involving yourself with a child’s play to achieve a specific goal, to help them over a particular social or emotional bump, to enrich things a little … that’s good parenting. But to play with them every waking minute? Contrary to popular opinion, that’s not good parenting. And in the long run, it’s bad for the children.
So this morning I let the children stand and chat with the mother for a few minutes, and then I called them away. We wandered to another play area, and there they resumed their former style of playing: running, climbing, calling to each other, sometimes stopping to chat and pretend, sometimes tearing around for the sheer joy of being physical.
All this without a single instruction, piece of encouragement, question or direction from me.