Monday, February 15, 2010

A voice against 'benign neglect...'

I've recently come across this timely article (having just finished, and been rather impressed by, Playful Parenting), and I've been trying to figure out what I object to, precisely, with the synapses left available to me.

Because I agree with much of the premise: I do think that kids benefit from adults being role models, and that kiddie games don't really demonstrate adult behavior, as well finding the WEIRD classification ("Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic") very funny and apt. I think there is a bit of a hole in that adults in WEIRD nations spend a good deal of their own time playing (reading, computer, TV), leaving kids in WEIRD nations to reasonably expect that play to be with them.

But I think, fundamentally, it comes down to a couple of suppositions that I don't agree with:

The article seems to assume that a child's creativity is hampered by an adult's interaction, which I find to be completely untrue in my family.

One of Jeremiah's favorite modes of play is to be the 'storyteller' (with props) and having a slightly interactive audience serves to make his stories more elaborate and engaging (really; who *enjoys* keeping their stories to themselves?). This role can only be satisfactorily performed by an adult or child old enough to be patient and accommodating. A younger child (like his one year old brother) will merely break the set, and a peer will likely want to add to the story or object to her role in a way that hinders the 'creator.'

One might reasonably ask (as I have asked myself, time, and time again): Is it in his best interest to let him be the mastermind of this kind of play, as his future friends will not likely be tolerant of it. Doesn't it set him up to always expect control?

I don't think so. I think letting him have control of his stories helps to satisfy a need that would otherwise have him raging at his brother for knocking over a tower of blocks, or storming off a playground in tears because nobody wanted to listen to the game that he wanted to play. If he has a need for control (which is fairly indisputable to me) giving him directorial authority over his stories seems like the ideal forum, as well as one of the very last of his 'things' that I could reasonably expect him to share.

The second supposition that I object to seems to be: The only need kids alleviate through play (with their parents) is boredom.

It smacks to me of the (erroneous) belief that babies only *need* to nurse for hunger, and that feeding at other times (comfort, to sleep, etc) is optional. And following that model, yes, those times become more 'optional' as babies get older and have more resources available to them, but denying them to a newborn does not eliminate the need for comfort and security, though the baby, unfortunately, may stop asking.

Laurence Cohen (the author of Playful Parenting) suggests that play is how kids communicate (rather than sitting down and chatting or venting over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer). I imagine that if your teenage daughter approached with a grave face and wanted to have a serious conversation, you would find yourself highly available -- a rare opportunity to (re)connect with a child exposed to dangers like drugs and sex.

But there is less time for the five year old son who wants to play with 'guns' again, though he may be struggling with ideas of death or violence that he has been exposed to in passing, but can't possibly understand without some guidance (nor do we *want* him to assemble a version of guidance from Saturday morning cartoons and GTA -- both of these being examples of the highly lauded 'entertaining himself').

The idea that kids only play to escape boredom does not stand up to scrutiny. It creates something of a singularity between toddler and teenage years where kids have no pressing fears or anxieties, accept discipline without question (because they understand it perfectly), associate with their peers without conflict (including bullying), and never come across any information that is beyond their scope to interpret or apply.

If we can accept that a kindergartner might seek to play out a problem rather than request a formal discussion, the same must be true of our first through third graders, who have more resources (TV, movies, books, and peers with equally limited information) available to cobble together half-baked interpretations. By fourth through sixth grade, kids may be transitioning to talk rather than play, but are parents still a valued resource?

I don't suggest that we are obligated to play with our children every moment. I am not some kind of saint to refrains from sticking in a movie so that she can type on her blog, or finds *all* (or even most) of her childrens play highly engaging. I turn Jeremiah down, and beg off regularly, for reasons practical and selfish, without much regret. But I see danger in assuming that denying him play is doing him any kind of a favor.

He learns nothing better in isolation than in company, and I don't want him stop seeking my company out of a fear or expectation of rejection (what parent would?). I begin to work against our relationship when I allow myself to believe that making him play alone is for his own benefit, and relationship is the core of my parenting. Meeting my kids where they are, and accepting that less is not justified or desirable, but sometimes the best I can do. And for now, Jeremiah is at play.

1 comment:

  1. I love this one! It is about balance rather than rationalising, isn't it?

    I wonder, too, if people who talk about how parents do it in 'other countries' open their perspective enough to realise that kids in those other countries don't play on their own. There are usually many people in the house, whether adult or children of mixed ages. I find that when there are plenty of adults to watch, my kids don't seek my attention nearly as much.