Today was one of the first days nice enough to spend mostly outdoors in awhile. (Well, there might have been other days for someone not 9 months pregnant but considering the fact that I am in that state I haven’t been willing to venture outside of the world of central A/C much lately. But today was gorgeous, even if you do happen to be 9 months pregnant, which I am. Have I mentioned that enough lately, by the way?)
We spent the day at the park. H. and I like to call our style of parenting “benign neglect”. For us this means that I’m the Mommy on the bench reading a book instead of the one playing in the sand with the kids. I tend to think of the park as a nice break for all of us, me included. I watch the boys but don’t interfere in disagreements with other kids (or with each other) unless it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve found that almost always they work it out on their own without me. I don’t really suggest things for them to do, I believe that part of childhood is just that totally unstructured time of playing in the dirt. And I let them do things that might look dangerous. I don’t let them do anything really dangerous but I’m willing to let them climb higher than I’m comfortable with or try things that I think are too hard for them. David especially has always been quite a climber and does things on his own that I have to keep myself from stepping in and rescuing him. But he’s amazingly adept and confident with anything physical and I think that part of the reason is that we’ve let him do a lot.
Today we were at the park for 4 hours. Mostly of digging and playing in the dirt. There was also a pack of boys that John hooked up with that created a huge mountain of dirt and proceeded to crash every truck they could find into. They all thought this was about the funniest thing they had ever seen. Maybe even funnier than saying the word poop over and over again, although it would be a close race between the two in this group, I’m sure.
I had a book to read but I also had a lot of time to engage in another favorite activity of mine, people watching. I try not to judge other people’s parenting skills when I don’t really know them. I know I’ve had enough days where I’m tired and the boys are pushing every button or just being flat-out disobedient and I’ve snapped at them in public. Or where I’ve just been grumpy and seemed like a mean Mommy to someone just seeing me for a few minutes. And my kids have certainly been the ones running wild or throwing sand or not sharing enough times for me to know that you can’t really judge other people’s kids either if you are seeing them only one time.
But today, I overheard two instances of the same parenting strategy that really baffled me. Both times the kids were not obeying their parents at all. These weren’t two year olds, one was a 6 yr old (he later was playing with John and told him his age) and the other boys were roughly 8 or 9. The 6 yr old was with his Dad who was trying to get him to stop playing in the mud and getting dirty. (In my opinion this is a futile exercise with boys, it’s like moths to a flame. ) The Dad was pretty ineffective, the boy pretty much ignored him and kept playing and even turned on a water hose to make more mud. Finally, the Dad pulled out his discipline trump card.
The other boys were with what looked to be grandparents, although I’m not sure. They were rolling trucks down the roofs of some playhouses. This was a bigger deal as littler kids were playing on the other side and there was a chance they were going to hit someone. The grandparents kept telling them to stop and appealing to them that someone was going to get hurt. But they kept doing it. Finally, one truck hit John who was playing there (I was about to intervene myself right before this happened as this was going beyond my whole benign neglect thing.) Luckily he wasn’t hurt and the incident was what seemed to spur the grandfather to more extreme action.
And what did both caregivers use as their discipline method….they pulled out their cell phones and threatened to call the “park police” if their boys didn’t stop what they were doing (playing in the mud or rolling the trucks). In both cases I have to admit it worked. The first boy seemed to really believe that there were park police that were going to come and arrest him. I’m not sure about the second boys. I think they knew it was an empty threat but I think they also knew they had gone a little too far when John got hit and so they stopped.
What baffles me about this is that parents seem to have to involve some other “authority” to get their kids to listen to them. What happened to not doing it because your Dad said not to do it, no matter what the police say. I see this a lot at work. It’s really common for a parent to turn to me during the physical exam and say in an overly sweet and unnatural voice “Doctor, am I right in thinking that it’s really important for Johnny to not watch too much television?” (Or exchange any other behavior they want to see change….wear a bike helmet, eat green vegetables, go to bed on time, do your homework, etc.) I know as a pediatrician part of my job is “anticipatory guidance” (although that’s a whole other post sometime) but I always feel like asking them “Do you really think that if I say they shouldn’t watch TV than they will stop? And if they do stop for me who sees them a few times a year but not for you who is supposed to be their parent than isn’t there something wrong with that?” I don’t say that of course. I’m not stupid. But that’s what I’m thinking.
I get that kids might have some respect for authority that isn’t their parents, especially as they get older. But I always feel slightly uncomfortable being put into this role in this way. And there is no way to give a natural answer that a kid will actually respect to these kinds of questions. It just makes us all look kind of silly and I doubt really influences the kid’s habits or behaviors. In the same way, I think kids whose parents use empty threats about “the police” are going to wise up pretty soon to the fact that those are just empty threats. And then they’ll be stuck right back where they started.