G2 was on a play date recently. As the children ran around the playground, burning off their restless energies, the mothers gathered in various corners making conversation while we kept one eye on the kids to make sure they were playing nicely. Aside from a couple of skirmishes, from time to time that required some adult intervention to resolve, all was going quite well.
Until all the children jumped onto one boy and formed a human pile-up.
Concerned about the boy who was at the bottom of the pile, one other mother and I called the other children off. They all got up, and the boy at the bottom of the pile bounced back up and ran away gleefully while the rest of the children gave me a look. I was too confused to process the meaning of that look until one child spoke up. In an accusing tone, she explained that they were playing “cops and robbers” and I had just let the robber go free. I was still standing there like a guppy out of water when they all ran off to continue their game.
I’ve been thinking about that incident ever since… Did I overstep the boundaries? Didn’t I just stop a potentially disastrous event from happening? Wasn’t it a good thing that I stepped in before that boy at the bottom of the pile got hurt? The children didn’t see it that way. Neither did the boy at the bottom of the pile. As far as they could see, everyone was having fun until I got involved and ruined it. Well, perhaps the boy at the bottom of the pile didn’t mind – it meant that he got to escape from the “cops” and run away again.
It seems awful to say “stay back until someone gets hurt or something gets wrecked” but how are children going to learn their checks and balances if we never let them make a mistake? Isn’t that the reason we encourage them to have play dates – so they can learn social skills and figure out when they’ve gone too far? Isn’t it part of the process for them to learn empathy and feel remorse when they hurt someone? After they have a chance to experience the flood of emotions that come with the experience, we can step in and help them figure out how to make things right again with an effective apology.
Of course, I’m not advocating that we stand by and do nothing if the kids have a scuffle, and it’s clear someone is going to get pushed out into the middle the road in front of an on-coming car. But that doesn’t mean we should jump in to rescue every situation before it is allowed to come to a conclusion. Negative experiences are as important for whole child development as the positive ones. Mistakes are opportunities for learning that we are robbing our children when we intervene too early.
Additionally, it is difficult for young children to learn from abstract ideas. In the above incident, I doubt the children would have taken away the lesson that the boy at the bottom of the pile could have gotten hurt. There’s also a good chance that he wouldn’t have gotten hurt even if I had let the scenario play out. Maybe the boy would have called out, “I give up!” The children would have deemed the game “won” and selected a new “robber” to continue. I didn’t give the children a chance to show that they might have had the situation in hand – that they might have known when to stop.
The problem, I believe, goes back to the whole “parenting with a growth mindset” issue I wrote about previously. We’re trying so hard to be “good” parents (not a bad thing, mind you) that we have gone too far. We forget that an important part of being a parent is knowing when to step back and do nothing. When we try to “parent to perfection” and discourage our children from making mistakes – regardless of whether it involves school work or social conflicts – it’s not healthy for our children’s development.