Letting out the leash

This morning at the park, I decided to implement some of the French parenting styles that have been occupying my thoughts of late.  (See last post if you’re not up to date.)

After the first ten minutes, I realized I was hovering over the toddler.  I was following him around the playground, urging him to try out various toys and suggesting what activities he might enjoy.  Most of the time he ignored my advice and did his own thing.

Then I started listening to myself.  I found I was narrating his play, adding sound effects like “Wheee!” as he came down the slide, and praising him whenever he completed something, “Good boy!  Great job!  Yay!”

I realized with a jolt that I was acting precisely like the stereotypical American turbo-parent, as described by Pamela Druckerman in “Bringing Up Bébe.”  She describes a stark dichotomy between American and French playgrounds, in which the former have parents running after their kids, narrating the whole play date, while the latter are a notorious free-for-all, with minimal parental interference.

I decided to experiment and plunked myself down on a bench with the baby in my arms.  From my vantage point, I could see the whole playground.  My son didn’t even notice I was gone.  Periods of aimless wandering were interspersed with minutes of intensely active play, followed by more wandering, and I was amazed to see that the wandering didn’t concern him one bit!  He was simply checking things out.  He had a few falls, visited with some strangers, asked someone else to push him on the swing, and never looked around once for Mommy.

I, on the other hand, had to glue my butt in place to keep from running after him.  I began to observe other parents.  One dad never strayed more than a couple feet behind his son, even following him down the slide.  Another mom kept asking repeatedly, “Go on the swing!  Let’s try the swing.  Don’t you want to swing?”  The kid was utterly disinterested.  One parent walked around with a bag of food, suggesting snack time to her kid, who couldn’t care less.

Conclusion of my mini social experiment?  It was actually quite nice to sit on the sidelines and observe.  I think I’ll do it more often.  What’s your approach to managing your kid(s) at the playground?

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9 thoughts on “Letting out the leash

  1. Yep, I do exactly this … I just leave him to play as he likes. I keep my eyes on him but nothing else. If he asks for help I try to encourage him to do things alone but if he insists I go and help him. He is much more peaceful, and indepedant than other kids that their mother says do not this, oh you falled down, or say “sorry” without leting the kids resolve the problem etc.
    Here in London we use a lot the stroller as we walk a lot. Many mothers force the children to seat in the stroller, I do not. I let him walk with me, or even push the stroller himself as much as he wants and I am waiting for his reaction when he gets tired. Then he just go and seats in the stroller by himself. Other mothers tell me that my son looks more peaceful and I look less stressed than they are.

  2. I loved reading “Bringing up Bebe.” I didn’t necessarily agree with everything in it, but it does make you think about what you do on a daily basis. I was at the park the other day and observed a dad following around his 3-year-old, talking to her in “baby-talk” the whole time, narrating her play. It was so annoying to watch, which made me think about what I do. After reading “Bringing up Bebe” I have tried to stay on the sidelines more, and only step in when asked to or if I think there is a potential situation happening. It is so difficult not to hover though, isn’t it?

  3. Don’t have kids but grew up as the eldest in a VERY large extended family so have been around/watched over kids from the time I was less than 10 and should have a default babysitting award 😀
    Personally I think with things like playgrounds and all (and often in other things as well) it’s best to keep a distance and respond if the child asks for help (like swing pushing) or if he/she gets hurt or such.
    Mostly I feel that keeping a certain distance and letting the child wander and all (as you noted already) allows the child to question, explore, assess and try things out themselves instead of being told to, promotes an aspect of self-sufficiency and reliance (while also being aware/learning that they are being watched out for in case they fail) and sense of freedom/independance which will be good for the child in the long run to be a potentially more open-minded and inquisitive person.
    Of course there are no guarantees but to an extent I think my assessment is true. Adapting yourself to practices that work for you, that’s usually the best because each child is different and you never know for sure what works and what doesnt. Your toddler might be more independant minded while the still-baby may not turn out so and may like to have mommy around? right?
    Cheers.

  4. Hi Katherine:
    There has got to be a happy medium here somewhere. I am all for letting kids play, but with my infant (he’s 2 now! craziness!) he’s just not co-ordinated enough most of the time to be completely hands off when we’re visiting parks. He’s had more than his fair share of falls and still gets distracted while climbing – I’ve caught him on a number of occasions. So, yes, for him I am still a hover-parent because of safety.
    I like the idea of kids playing with other kids without adults right there to ‘script’ or interfere, however, it is surprising how awful preschoolers can be to eachother when their parents aren’t paying attention. I do find it tiresome to be the only parent ‘in there’ with the kids and having to mediate about turn taking, or not hitting, even potty mouth(!), etcetera while the parents chat happily on a bench, blissfully unaware of what is happening or worse are fully aware but notice another parent taking care of things and can’t be bothered to get up.
    its also frustrating to be the only parent at the swings and having multiple other children ask you for a push. I am there for my child, not so other parents can get some free babysitting while they have a break!
    end rant. Thanks for listening.
    Just my thoughts!

    1. Hi Deb,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I totally agree with you that it’s not fair when parents are completely laissez-faire about their kids at the park and leave the actual ‘parenting’ up to others. While I usually don’t mind giving other kids a push on the swing, I also don’t like doing it for any prolonged period of time. And I will admit that the reason I didn’t get up to help A. was because I was nursing the baby – and then I always appreciate some help from other parents!
      A. is only just getting to the age where he can be left to wander, and he’s almost 3. Previously, it was impossible. He needed constant hovering in order to survive infancy up to this point! So yes, a balance must be struck between fostering their independence and making sure they’re safe.

      1. I agree there has to be a happy medium. I usually sit on a bench and just watch the kids play this year (last year, when they were 2, I would hover when they did certain things for safety reasons as well). Just recently I was knitting on a bench while the twins played on a busy playground and a ~4 yr old boy came over and began interrogating me. At first I thought “oh, what a curious and outgoing boy” but then I started to wonder at his tone because it was quite condescending for a youngster towards an adult. When he started jabbing at items in my purse with a stick I asked him nicely to stop. He responded “you’re a punk!” and kept doing it. Through this whole interaction his parents were engrossed in conversation with other parents and didn’t even notice his behaviour. Eventually I had to pack up my things and move. So, I would say, some parents should be a LITTLE more aware of what their kids are doing and take opportunities like the one I just described to educate their kids about appropriate behaviour towards strangers.

  5. I used to hover and now I sit. Other parents give me ‘looks’ as if I’m a bad parent who is abandoning her children, but the kids don’t need me to play. I even had another dad PICK Kira up after she fell off the equipment and run her over to me!!! Hahahaha, I brushed the sand off her hands, asked her if she was okay, and then sent her on her way. I’ve been trying to let them explore things on their own. 😀

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