Monday, June 17, 2013

Yeah, Well My Kid Didn't Get That Memo

A good friend of mine gave me the book The Emotional Life of the Toddler by Alicia F. Lieberman, Ph.D. when I got pregnant. I trust her judgment, so I started reading it several months ago.

I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of parenting books. I find them contrived and contradictory at best. This book, written in 1993, explains the basis for attachment parenting. While it is interesting and sometimes helpful in explaining tantrums and such, the level of psychobabble is slightly too high for me.

For example, this gem on page 27:
It is generally accepted that girls wish they had a penis and express this wish in many overt and covert ways.
Really? Is that actually still generally accepted?

But here's what really got me. Right in the beginning, on page 11, she references a British study from 1972 entitled "Attachment Parenting Out of Doors":
A British investigator tape-recorded 15-minute descriptions of individual toddlers' behavior as they moved about a London park while the mother remained seated on a bench or on the grass. The results showed that, with few exceptions, the toddlers seemed to determine their own boundaries and stayed within about 200 feet from their mother. (emphasis is mine)
She then goes on to describe how "this perimeter happened to coincide with the mother's own judgement of what constituted a safe distance."
The mothers did not retrieve their children if they remained within this boundary, but did so if the toddlers strayed beyond it. However, nearly 70 percent of the children never went far enough to warrant retrieval. (emphasis is mine)

Yeah, Well My Kid Didn't Get That Memo

The first time I put Henry down and let him run free in Fort Greene park, he ran down the path and never looked back. At first, I didn't move, certain he would turn around at some point. But no... wait... no.

Nope, he just kept running, even after I started running after him and calling his name. I assure you he went well past the imaginary 200 feet boundary. In fact, he ended up "talking" to a group of high school students out for their gym class run.

Lieberman says that between 12 and 18 months of age, 
[e]xhilaration is a key mood.... The toddler loves to run off again and again, only to squeal in delight on being pursued and scooped up by the mother.
I've had several opportunities to test these assertions, and the same scenario plays out every time. As soon as I put my son down in any open space, he runs straight away from me. He doesn't stop. He doesn't look back.

He's not trying to be chased. He's trying to get away.

His reasons for escaping are hardly nefarious. Recent expeditions have included:
  • An obsession with a muddy tunnel in Prospect Park
  • A desire to beg food from other picnic-goers
  • An all-consuming need to play with another child's personal fluffy animal toy dog

What's more, he will not be deterred or distracted. If I manage to redirect his attention for 20 minutes -- not a small feat, I might add -- as soon as I put him down again he will run straight for the same tunnel, blanket or dog he was pursuing in the first place.

In fact, only one thing has ever halted him in his path: music. A couple of weekends ago during an escape toward the muddy tunnel, he happened upon a man on a bench playing Grateful Dead songs on his banjo. Transfixed, my little boy momentarily forgot his need to get muddy in the tunnel. I will have to use this to my advantage next time....

You better get back to Tennessee, Jed.

What About the Parents?

It occurred to me that the 200-foot circumference inside which a 1972 parent would be comfortable letting his or her child roam does not really seem to apply in 2013, at least in Brooklyn. I don't know if it even would have applied in 1993, but I can't be sure.

I've written before about helicopter parenting and being a playground pariah. I'm trying hard to avoid the urge -- and, in some cases, the peer pressure -- to suffocate the happiness out of my child with a protective bubble of fear.

Based on the general hovering and specific criticism I've seen and heard on the playground, I am convinced this half of the British study is also null and void, at least as far as modern-day parenting is concerned.

I'm curious about your experience. Does either side of the assertion make sense to you? Is my son a rare exception? Is Brooklyn a hotbed of hovering? Or is the study outdated?