There was an interesting piece on The Huffington Post last month, about how American parents might have it all wrong. In “Have American Parents Got It All Backwards?” Christine Gross-Loh wondered if parents in Europe and Asia might not have a better strategies for raising healthy kids who are, in the author’s words, “self-reliant, self-assured, successful children.”
Gross-Loh outlines several ways in which parents in other countries might be doing this better than American parents, but one in particular stood out to me: “We need to let three-year-olds climb trees and five-year-olds use knives.” In short, Gross-Loh argues, our children will only learn a healthy sense of safety if we allow them the freedom to take risks and possibly hurt themselves. This rings true for me. As a kid my dad told my younger brother not to play with my Swiss Army Knife, but it wasn’t till my brother slashed his hand open that he learned to leave the knife alone.
Here in Brooklyn, I see parents not only interfering when they feel their child is making an unsafe move, but also whenever there is a conflict between two children. On Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, there are two toy stores on the same block that put train tables out on the sidewalk. They draw kids, little boys in particular, like dropped french fries attract pigeons. The tables stand at the perfect height for tots, their tops covered with wooden tracks and buildings, and strewn with a smattering of train cars and engines.
Of course, parents huddle around the tables as well, one eye trained on their smart phones and the other on the little ones. At the slightest hint of conflict — “Hey! I was using that train!” — parents jump into the fray, chastising, refereeing, and breaking up any fights before they happen.
As the parent of a kid who used to pummel, scratch, and pull the hair of even his best friends, let alone strangers, I can understand this impulse. No one wants to see two little kids going at it, rolling around on the slate beating one another bloody. (Well, most people don’t want to see this, usually.) But what I’ve noticed is that even when fights aren’t physical, when the conflicts are purely verbal, parents step in.
Over the weekend, for example, my wife and I were both standing nearby while our four-year-old son Felix played. As soon as one of the other kids dropped his MetroNorth trains, my son grabbed it. “Give that back!” the kid yelled.
Felix instantly shot me a look. You know the kind: an “I’m being naughty” look.
You should give that back,” I told him.
He wasn’t using it,” Felix said.
He just put it down for a moment, it’s not nice to take it.”
But then I noticed that the kid had stopped complaining about the train; he had found another one and moved on, so I let it drop. Why ride my son for no reason? So he had made a jerk move. If the other kid didn’t care, then why keep up? Just out of some abstract sense of justice? I’m no playground superhero, or sidewalk vigilante. Let that other kid cry for his parents if he wanted help.
Later, when an older girl yanked one of my son’s trains away, my wife wondered if she should step in, but Felix didn’t seem to mind that the girl had taken his train at all — he had just grabbed another one from the pile. If he did care, he would say something. (Or else whack her.)
Throughout the morning, as we continued to the park for a party, my wife and I witnessed countless minor altercations between Felix and other kids, some where he was the aggressor, and others where he was aggressed upon. But seeing no violence, we stayed out of it. How else will kids learn to solve conflicts if parents always get involved? Especially if no one’s getting hurt, isn’t better just to take a back seat and let them figure out how to do it on their own?
Sometimes, taking a more relaxed approach is better, not just for you, but for your kids.