Dad’s World with Jonathan deBurca Butler

JUST before Christmas, an interesting piece written by child therapist Angela Hanscom popped up in the Washington Post.

She opened her article with an anecdote. She explained how during one of her sessions — she specialises in outdoor play — a little boy was trying to make his way into an imaginary tepee that a group of girls had created. They wouldn’t let him in and effectively built a wall around the little tent. After much screaming and counter screaming, he saw a gap and nipped in to grab the ‘jewels’ they were protecting. He scarpered but instead of letting him away with it, the would-be squaws pursued him. They hassled him so much that he eventually relented and reluctantly handed the precious gems back. He then went away and sat on his own by a tree.

After a few minutes one of the more caring girls went and sat beside him. Initially, the boy stayed put but after a little cajoling he accepted the girl’s hand of friendship and went back to play. Throughout the whole exercise the children were being observed by their parents. Anscom noted that when the boy was initially rejected by the girls the parents’ first inclination was to intervene; to put themselves between the children and say ‘come on kids let little Bobby play’. Anscom asked them to wait and see how the episode played out. Her reason?

We, the adults of the (Western) World, are messing our kids up by not letting them mess up. And we’re doing so, she says, because we want to control them. And we want to do it all the time.

We should, says Anscom, leave them alone and let them play together, preferably outside and if possible away from us. They must evolve, she says, develop their own interpretations and figure out how to deal with each other without the constant ‘shaping’ that well-intentioned parents seem keen to put on them.

Hands up I’m guilty. I used to be pretty good... I think. I’d let the boys play together no problem but then the fighting began and even though I had listened to an experienced parent telling me “if there’s no blood let boys at it,” I’ve found myself intervening much more lately. And I think I’m probably overdoing it because now they’re coming to me to resolve disputes, and worse to tell on each other, instead of sorting it out themselves.

“Just leave him alone,” “Share,” “Get off him,” “Don’t bite him,” “Stop hitting him with Hulk,” “Put down that briquette” are sentences that are all too familiar to my inner don’t-o-meter. In fact, the warnings have become so routine that I think my jaw is beginning to get really annoyed with me.

Why do we do it? Is it guilt? Perhaps those of us who are in relationships where both parents are working feel that we have to constantly tell our kids what to do or ‘shape’ our kids because we get so little time around them and much of it centres on the basic stuff — getting them up, getting them dressed, feeding them, bathing them, getting them to bed. In the back of our minds we know that there are ‘others’, who are not genetically attached to them, who have as much or more influence over them and therefore we overcompensate. Perhaps it is genuine concern but, then, why didn’t my parents have that? They accepted that I was going to bump my head, scratch my knee, fall off things and get into arguments with kids my age but somewhere along the line that culture disappeared or at least (let me tone the drama down a little) we wait a little longer now before letting them off the leash.

Maybe the clicky-clicky-instant-info age has worn our patience down so much that we just can’t wait to see how our children might turn out. We are in such a rush to get them to the place they are ‘meant’ to be that we will not let them find that place themselves.

Most parents feel they are not doing enough but it’s likely we are actually doing far too much.


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