Monday, February 25, 2013

Playground Pariah?

Used with permission of Microsoft.
The other day I took Henry to the public library. I figured I could get him hooked on a new Dr. Seuss book and perhaps save myself from the agonizing 45,273rd reading of "Green Eggs and Ham." (Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-Am.)

Henry, of course, had his own ideas, which mostly included crawling and toddling around, re-shelving books (because he's so "helpful") and babbling loudly to other toddlers also helpfully rearranging the library.

At one point, he became oddly fixated on grabbing another little boy's pacifier out of his mouth. I say oddly because Henry hasn't used a pacifier since he was about six months old. That the boy was probably closer to 18 months -- definitely bigger than my petite 14-month-old -- did not deter him.

At first I intervened, grabbing Henry's hands and saying firmly the pacifier wasn't his. He would not, however, be swayed from his goal. To defend himself, the little boy took the pacifier out of his mouth and hid it behind his back, swatting Henry's hands away. Finally, he pushed Henry down and walked away.

Henry didn't seem to mind; after all, he hadn't had far to fall. He briefly babbled with two little girls before returning for his prize. Once again, the little boy tried to keep the pacifier out of reach; when that failed, he pushed Henry down again. And Henry went away.

I've seen this sort of scenario play out again and again on the playground and at the dreaded Babies and Beer. Unless a child is much bigger or about to hurt Henry -- or vice versa -- I rarely intervene. The way I see it, kids learn from one another's reactions, not from mommy's admonitions.

But in Brooklyn, it seems like a parent's sole purpose is to keep children from touching others and being touched. Simply letting children play? That's crazy-talk. If your child takes a toy and you don't return it immediately and soliloquize on sharing for all to hear, you're a playground pariah.

Yeah, I tell Henry to share and all that. But if he takes a toy from another child, odds are someone else will take that toy from him. And so it goes. I don't get too worked up. Maybe I have the luxury of being calm because I have a mild-mannered child who is neither fazed if someone takes his toy nor wont to hit or bite to get it back. All I know is, none of it seems as urgent to me as it appears it is to others.

Truthfully, I, too, fall prey to the suffocating unwritten rules. I redirect Henry to another part of the playground if he seems to be too interested in one child. Who wants to be a playground pariah? Indeed, part of the reason I sat back and let the library episode unfold was because there was a babysitter with the other boy, and she didn't seem to think it was so bad. In fact, we both laughed as the two little wills battled it out.

Don't get me wrong. If Henry started being aggressive, I would definitely step in. And if another child was hurting him, I would also intervene.

But harmless playground socialization -- 'I want that block,' 'Give me your leaf,' 'If you take my pacifier I'll push you down' -- well, that's how they learn, isn't it? In my mind, it's better to teach Henry to fend for himself a bit than do everything for him.

Which is just the topic of an excellent article a friend of mine shared on Facebook recently, "Three Huge Mistakes We Make Leading Kids... And How to Correct Them," by Tim Elmore. One of the three mistakes is "rescuing too easily." In our quest to make the world wonderful, just marvelous, for our precious offspring, we send them the wrong message.
Sooner or later, they know “someone will rescue me.” If I fail or “act out,” an adult will smooth things over and remove any consequences for my misconduct. Once again, this isn’t even remotely close to how the world works. It actually disables our kids.
I could not agree more.

Henry only had to be pushed twice before he got the message. How long do you think it would have taken if I had grabbed his hands away every time?

It's hard to watch your kid get pushed down, even when you know he was the instigator. But it's a microcosm of conflict he will experience in the real world. And later, the consequences are more striking.

Am I crazy? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the line between interfering and not.