I had just settled into one of the few remaining not-sticky seats at the mall’s play place when the curtain pulled back on act one of a familiar drama. My son, Macklin, was headed straight for the S.S. West Acres boat, occupied by a gaggle of slightly older, slightly bossy girls. They saw him coming, telepathically agreed on a plan and executed it ruthlessly. Boys, Mack immediately learned, were not welcome aboard this ship.
I sat back and watched, as I feel Mack can benefit from a challenge, even a bit of adversity. Our dog, Lucy, just rolls over and plays dead, and the biggest challenge I serve up is making the boy take off his own shoes. So, a little confrontation on the playground is good real-world experience and I like to let the action play out a bit before I intervene.
The girls’ moms, however, were quick to act. As soon as the all-female crew started wagging their “No, no, no. Not in my house!” fingers at Mack, preventing him from climbing on to join the imaginary voyage, the moms were on their feet, marching over to explain that the boat is not theirs and everyone is welcome.
It’s a great message, and I sympathize with the moms’ desire to make sure their kids aren’t the ones to ruin the party. It’s embarrassing when your child hits, screams, poops on the floor, etc. in public. But it’s also what kids do, and I think it’s an important part of learning how to live and function within a group of others.
As Mack is not in regular daycare but home with me during the days, these opportunities are a valuable part of his development. So I sit back and let him experience what happens when his peers treat him differently. Obviously, if a situation escalates, I step in to protect, redirect or divert (parenting a toddler is a lot like fighting a flood). Yet I give him and his potential new friends the chance to work things through on their own.
And it’s hard. It’s hard to watch your son get mildly bullied. For the girls’ moms, it’s just as hard to sit and watch your child be the bully. I appreciate the goal of getting everyone to play nice, but I think we often act out of our own discomfort and do a disservice to our kids who are simply learning how to play.
I offer a pact to my fellow toddler parents: sit still for a second longer. Give our kids the chance to surprise us. Give them a chance to work together, to find another way, to learn what it feels like to feel. We’ll be doing the same thing, as we allow ourselves to experience our own new emotions. The thing about raising kids is we parents are learning right alongside them, whether we care to admit it or not. So, parents… do we have a deal?