The bouncy house on a rainy Saturday afternoon is a bit like shopping on Black Friday. Moms and dads everywhere, trying to grab, guide, hover, bargain and plead — except here, it has nothing to do with a flat screen TV.
When my kids asked to go to the bouncy house recently, I reluctantly agreed. (I’m just going to be honest; I hate the bouncy house.) The moment I walked in the door, I noticed there were at least two adults to every kid. All this place needs is a liquor license and they would have themselves a gold mine, I thought.
I soon found myself fascinated by all the interactions taking place; not by the kids, but by the adults. Many times I had to stop myself from screaming, “Let the kids play by themselves!” I kept quiet, of course; but I couldn’t help but wonder to myself: Why can’t the adults get out of the way?
This is probably where I should mention that I always bring my laptop with me, just in case the urge to write strikes. On this particular day, I was actually working on an article about the pressure that high school students face when trying to choose their classes. The message being: Parents — take a step back and let your child decide their own path.
As I was frantically typing away, my son came over and slammed my screen down.
“Mom, there is a kid in there being really mean to everyone, so I decided I needed to teach him a lesson,” he said. (To which I immediately thought to myself, Oh this ought to be good.)
You see, my son is a bit of a sensitive soul. He avoids conflict whenever possible and cries if you look at him wrong. But not today. Finding myself a bit fascinated by his comment, I asked him to elaborate on his dilemma.
“Mom, he was taking the ball out of everyone’s hands and that is not okay,” he continued. “So I took one look at him and took the ball back.” Still waiting for the punch line, I said, “… And then what?”
Right then, I could see he was having some kind of a lightbulb moment. “I better get back in there and make sure he is not bossing everyone around,” he told me.
And off he went.
As my son took off in hot pursuit to enforce some old school vigilante justice, a nearby mom leaned over and said to me, “Aren’t you going to go in there and help him?”
Admittedly, this caught me off guard. I fumbled a bit for the right words and finally said to her: “No, as a matter of fact I’m not. He has everything taken care of and I have faith in his ability to handle the situation.”
This both shocked and upset her. “That’s not very good parenting; how can you feel right about sitting here while he goes back in there, what if he gets hurt?”
To be honest, for a moment there was a small part of me that hoped he would get hurt. That would provide yet one more opportunity for him to learn how to navigate life on his own.
When I was a kid many years ago, we called this “playground justice.” There were no parents around to hover and make sure that our ball didn’t get stolen. No moms to facilitate a long, drawn-out conversation about the niceties of sharing. And certainly no kids thinking that every injustice done to them needs to have an adult intervention in order to be solved.
No, we just took care of it and moved on.
Sure, I will be the first to admit that some of the ways we chose to handle these situations were not the best, but we had to use our critical thinking skills to work on the problem. We had to attempt to solve it ourselves before asking for help.
I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the reason kids have difficulties solving their own problems and navigating life. Is this why we have high school seniors who have to text their parents in the middle of class to ask what topic they should write about in AP English? Does this contribute to the reasons that college students end up back home after one semester? When the going gets tough, they panic and call for us.
Our good intentions of “doing” is robbing them of the opportunity to develop self-efficacy; the belief in their abilities to complete a task, reach goals, and manage a situation. They need to believe in their abilities — not in their parents’ abilities to help do those things for them.
Play is the first real developmental “work” children are supposed to do — and we need to get out of kids’ way as they do it. Self-efficacy is built by kids doing the work and seeing that success came from effort. It is built in large part by the repeated trial-and-error opportunities afforded by childhood. It is practiced by the continued effort to work out the conflicts in the bouncy house.
While I was packing up after the most entertaining 90 minutes I have had in a very long time, I noticed a mom pushing her toddler in one of those Little Tikes cars. As she was turning him around in circles, something his own feet were more than capable of doing, they suddenly stopped. She looked down and said, “Oh, you figured out how to put your foot down.”
Amen, I thought to myself; we need to teach them to put their own foot down. Show them that we are here for them to lean on, but tell them that they must begin to stand — alone — on their own two feet.
So whatever happened with my son and the boy that he was trying to teach a lesson to? They ended up sitting side-by-side, going down the slide together, over and over and over again.
Funny how things like these work themselves out, when the adults just get out of the way.