We went to a local kids play place today to get out of the heat, and I found myself observing the interactions around me as a scientist. The controlling, hovering, helicoptering, swooping in, rescuing, and commanding to "share!" was almost overwhelming.
Let me start by saying that I'm a pretty laid back parent when it comes to playtime and social interactions. I know my kids will work out whatever they need to and will look to me for help should they require it. Peanut usually needs a lot of help in social situations, and I'm glad to provide it but I don't like to push her, nor do I like to let her sink. I'm a fan of noticing what is going on, commenting on it "gosh it looks like that is a pretty heavy truck. That would hurt if it hit someone." and allowing the kids to think through their next steps. Sometimes they reconsider, sometimes they don't, but I think giving them that chance is imperative if I want them to learn. I believe children learn through experience and exploration, and that often adults thwart that exploration by trying to "teach". I have found over the years that asking questions of small children ("what does the duck say?", "where is the letter B?") usually results in said child moving on to something else. I also see kids do the same when an adult shows them the "right way" to use a toy - the child is no longer interested.
So today was really eye opening for me. I must have said "no really, he's fine" six or seven times in response to moms trying to keep their kids from coming anywhere close to Pumpkin. He's almost one year old and can fend for himself pretty well. He also deals with his big sister on a daily basis. He can easily handle your 16 month old putting a soft toy close to his head. Watching a child pick up a toy and start to check it out, and almost immediately have the mom show up with all of the "correct parts" that go with the item to show how it all works together was almost too much for me. When did it become necessary to follow the directions all the time? So what if the kids puts the duck into the ball tower? Will the world end because the car is driving down the slide instead of in the parking garage? I don't think so. And I think the kids are learning so much more about how things work, how things fit, and creativity when they are allowed to explore.
I did open my mouth once, when a mom was constantly saying "no", "don't", "stop" to everything her little guy was trying to do. He was an active fellow and she had another tiny baby, so I know she is tired and busy and just trying to keep everyone safe. I said that what I had found to work was saying what the kids could do with the toy - "bounce the ball", "crayons go on the paper", etc. - instead of "no" all the time because when they heard it too much it lost it's power. I also shared that really, I just let the kids be kids and do whatever they want to do unless it looks like someone will actually get hurt. She then revealed to me that what bothered her the most were the glares of the other moms. She's right. I don't really notice them (if they are there - I haven't the foggiest) because I don't care. I'm really OK with the way I parent and never look to the "public" for validation or feedback really. Lots of people do seek out that feedback, and when the world expects one year olds to share, and kids to play correctly with toys, then yeah - they will glare when you let your child be a child. So I said - people are really judgemental when it is not their kid, you've just got to let it slide.
So next time you see a a mom and her child in a tough spot, give some sage advice, a warm smile, a knowing look, or some other offer of understanding or support. If you find yourself scowling or muttering, assuming the parent is incompetent or lazy, or that the kid is just out of control, consider that kids are kids and they are learning how to understand and work with this world. We have extraordinarily high expectations for children's (and parents) behavior. Developmentally we shouldn't expect true sharing until about 4. Why do we push this with really little kids? I'm sure it is at least partly trickle down from the need to have our kids reading a writing well before they are ready to do so and having kindergartners doing first grade work... We are really creating some stressed out children with all this pushing. And consider that the mom is probably pretty tired and it is hard to think clearly when you are exhausted. Why we expect her to handle all of it without breaking a sweat is really beyond me.
The best thing we adults can do is help kids explore, create, and negotiate their emotions and social interactions without squelching their curiosity. Think about what the adults in your life did or could have done to make that happen. And then do it for your kids and all of the children you meet.