Ask a Mama: Playground Manners

AS0000114FD07 Children, in park and adventure playground

I have a lively 2-year-old and a 4-year-old and my parenting style is pretty relaxed. I’ve noticed when we are at the park most of the parents are hovering close to their kids, helping them to take turns, managing the sharing of sandbox toys, and making sure things are fair between all the kids. I think kids need to work it out themselves—which is what we do at home as much as possible. My approach is to wait and see what happens before interfering, but I have gotten some dirty looks from other moms for not jumping in and taking action. I don’t want to be the ‘bad’ mom, but I disagree with the hovering approach. How do you handle this?

I love this question, but it is complicated. I think the larger question is how do I stay true to my parenting without alienating myself and my children when others operate differently? When my four kids were young 20 years ago there was a more collective approach to allowing children free rein in working it out themselves. Today when you are the lone wolf who tolerates a little friction on the playground, it puts you in a different, and sometimes divided position.

But I want to emphasize that parents are responsible for teaching their children appropriate social behavior and the playground is one of the best settings for this, particularly for very young kids. In my essay about happy childhoods I mentioned when one of my siblings or I got into trouble my parents would ask what happened? How do you fix it? It is called accountability and it is a precious resource to possess. When a playground conflict escalates from a minor complaint to a real skirmish between young children, it is wise for an adult to step in without taking sides and ask something close to those questions without judgment. This can help develop strong social skills. Often the conflict just needs communication between the kids (“What rules do you guys want to come up with?”)

IMG_3975Parents of spirited, strong willed kids need to be more attentive and give more guidance at the playground. These kids must learn their behavior can be alienating and hurt feelings. Far better to learn this earlier than later–when they are in fifth grade for example and wondering why they don’t have friends. It is a parent’s job to save them from this with early direction for inappropriate behavior.  Then as children grow older and more competent socially it is equally important to step aside and let them work it out to use those developing skills without adult interference.

You can be true to your parenting by explaining to the kids before playground time that some children do not want to share and that’s okay, that’s life. Daddy doesn’t like to share his computer sometimes, right? At the park, talk to other parents about how they feel about letting kids work it out, particularly if you see strong personalities in the sandbox. Sometimes all it takes is permission from another parent to give kids a little more time to resolve the issues at ground level, because the bottomline is, the more kids can figure it out themselves, the stronger the lesson.


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