Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pay Attention to Them and Leave Them Alone

It was a rare hot day in San Francisco and I happily rode my bike to Julius Kahn playground in the Presidio, where a bench with a stunning view of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge awaited me. Writing alone in my home, it felt refreshing to once more hear the sound of children’s voices as they climbed the bars and swung on swings. But off to the side, the coach was yelling at the kids in soccer practice, so I peeked over to investigate. And there I saw a team in official garb with a few dozen parents on the sidelines watching the game. A pleasant enough scene except for one thing.

The kids were four years old.

I had just talked in my recent workshop about the loss of free play in childhood today and its consequences and here it was before me. Not that it was terrible—the parents weren’t screaming at the kids with veins popping, the coach wasn’t shouting too loud and the kids seemed happy enough to be kicking a ball around the grass on a beautiful sunny day. But still. In my own childhood a mere—hmm, I guess it’s not a “mere” half-a century ago!—well, a mere little while ago, the neighborhood kids and  I ran around free and footloose in the 200 acre park one block from my house. All our games—from tag to hide-and-seek to baseball and football, were kid-organized and kid-run. No parents EVER came to watch them.

And on those hot summer nights when everyone was on their front porches or back yards, the kids did kid things and the adults did adult things. And occasionally, at a company picnic or some such event, the two worlds might join—kids against grown-ups in softball or mixed teams. That was always great fun.

But mostly the two worlds were only loosely intersecting circles. This was clearly understood by everyone. No kid wanted to hang out and play games with adults and be their best friend. Grown-ups were weird! They just talked and talked, drank horrible tasting drinks, smoked those nasty cigarettes, paid bills and did other boring stuff. We wanted them to feed us and drive us places and do our laundry and things like that, but having them come watch us play and be our best friend was the farthest thing from our minds. And theirs!

Well, as we know, despite the glory and glamour of kids playing freely, don’t count me as a member of the 50’s Nostalgia Team. Parenting was different, for sure, and there were some good things about it. But there were some really terrible ones as well. Modern parenting has its own problems, but there is also much to commend. As always, I’m looking for some middle path that takes into account a sense of proportion.

What struck me at the 4-year old soccer game was that kids needed to run around and kick balls, but at that age, they don’t need a coach or a cheering section. They just need open space that’s reasonably safe and something to kick or throw or draw hopscotch lines with, hands and voices to play clapping games, feet to run and hide. Not a lot to ask.

In the worst of modern-day parenting, it feels like we leave kids alone when we should be engaged with them and pay too much attention to them when we should leave them alone. We let them eat meals alone or in front of TV, put screens in their bedrooms and let them disappear into their glow, pick them up at school and let them plug their ears with I-Pods while we talk on our cell phone. And then when we pay attention to them, we hover over them in the “helicopter Mom” syndrome, the “be-your-best-friend Dad” syndrome, organizing all their time, checking to see if they’ve ticked off our list, cheering for them at the 4-year old soccer game.

There are plenty of wonderful ways for adults to pay attention to kids and they’re worth repeating here. Eat dinners together and converse. Cook dinners together and clean up together. Garden. Walk in the woods. Identify plants. Walk in the city neighborhoods. Play music and sing songs. Dance. Talk in the car or while walking or biking home after school.  Play cards and board games. Throw a ball in the back yard (or soccer in the hall of the house with an old cloth ball—one of my favorites with my two kids, though my wife was always less than pleased!). Take time out to watch them when they have something to show you—the tower of blocks they built, the drawing they did, the play they made up with their friends. Read to them every night. Have them read to you. Tell stories. You know the list.

And then leave them alone. When they’re bored, tell them “Good! Now something interesting will happen. Just wait and you’ll find it. But don’t you dare put in that video!” Make sure they have some art material, a couple of Orff xylophones and drums, a cardboard box and a few good books and let them go at it. Something interesting will definitely happen.

In one of many excellent books on the subject, The Power of Play, David Elkind tells a story of a teacher talking to the kids about imaginative play and feeling their puzzled looks. “You know, “ she said, “like when I was little, I used to put on a cape and run around pretending I was Wonder Woman. ” One of the first-graders said, “But we don’t know how to do that!”

That little story struck terror in my soul. Could that be true? Could kids who are constantly entertained by appliances and corralled into organized sports and lessons be losing the capacity to entertain themselves, to sit and dream, to let their imagination roam free? Think about it. 

PS After posting this, my daughter (Kerala Taylor her married name) alerted me to a Blog she had just written on play. Well worth a read! Go to:


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