Friday, January 18, 2013

Not the New Kids

We had the most gorgeous January weekend I can ever remember:  temperatures in the mid-70s by the afternoon both days, where we're usually somewhere near freezing.  Naturally, we made plans to be outside as much as possible.  On Sunday, we took an urban hike on a trail through our city that we'd never tried before, and it was great fun to explore things we'd only seen from the car in passing.   We'll walk this trail again, since it has a brontosaurus and two playgrounds.

My children are 10 and 5, and we started our family on the later side.  My grandparents on both sides, who greatly influenced me and the way I was brought up, were all Edwardian.  The family in which I was raised had and has a far different approach to life than what seems to be the norm these days.   The parents of children my daughter's age tend to be a good 15-20 years younger than we are; the age difference was not as great when my son was little, but the generation gap is really obvious now.  

I notice this in different ways, and it hit me again on the playground this Sunday.  Our children ran ahead of us on the trail to a grand-looking play structure, and in no time were up near the top, sliding down the slides, using the swings, and exploring.  We, the middle-aged parents, sat on the bench right next to the play area and enjoyed being able to talk for a little bit while they played.

Not too long after we got there, another family with similar-aged children arrived.  Mom and Dad jumped on the play equipment with them, chasing the kids around, helping them up the ladders, no more than an arm's-length away.  An adult acquaintance approached and interrupted their play.  The children hung around the parents, tugging at their sleeves.  My outgoing daughter asked the little boy near her age to come and play, and he declined, telling her he was waiting for his dad to come back.

I observe this at every playground we visit, and I see it very differently from these younger parents:  for me, the playground is a child's space.  I think it's fine for a parent to guide a toddler through an advanced play structure; no one wants a little one to fall off or out.  But once a child has his or her bearings, I firmly believe that it's time for the parent to take a seat and let the child explore the space, make friends with the other children, and not feel in any way obligated to "follow the leader" in the shape of an adult while in a safe play area.   I'm happy to push a little person on the swing, but once she's ready, she needs to learn to push herself.

Plenty of books are out there discouraging "helicopter parenting," so the experts must have noticed how aberrant and ultimately damaging the constant hovering is for children, who need to be working hard at becoming independent, competent individuals.  I do not have any recollection of either of my parents being part of my play space.  I remember us reading together, cooking together, taking walks and bike rides, but in creative play, that was my time to be my own independent self.  I grew up spending most of the daylight hours in summer engrossed in play with my neighborhood friends, and adults were hazy shadows inside in the air conditioning.

I'm more of a rocket parent than a helicopter parent.  My philosophy is to spend great time and care preparing for the launch sequence, and then to stand back and have some faith that everything we've done will be successful.  My children may make some mistakes, but then they get the opportunity to grow and learn from them.  I am certain there are younger parents out there who take the long view and don't overtake their children, but it seems to be common and very peer-encouraged in the twenty-something parent cohort these days.

Boundaries help to create healthy relationships. We have a strong mutual sense of where one person stops and the other starts.  I firmly believe in beginning as we mean to go on, and for us, that's encouraging independence and differentiating between parents and children.

Just for fun and to digitally high-five someone else out there who really gets it, Lynn Harris offers an excellent annotated list of books that make us non-helicopters more than a wee bit uncomfortable:  The Helicopter Parent's Reading List   Any of those look familiar to you?  It's interesting that Ms. Harris gathers all the children's books that have made me uncomfortable.  The Giving Tree is a tale of co-dependence, where the taker kills the giver in the end.  Yikes.

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