Playground Politics

As I sat indoors this past season in some of the coldest weather we'd seen in many winters, with my children bored and irritable, full of energy with no place to expend it, I longed for the warmer days of spring and summer when I could set them loose on the playground. Now the opportunity is here, and I've breathed a sigh of relief. But as any parent can attest, the playground brings its own challenges. At times the politics on the playground rival those of the Capital in Washington. Is it o.k. for your child to play with someone else's shovel and pail if the other child isn't around? Can another child ride your child's bike if your child is playing on the jungle gym? What must the other parents be thinking about your child...he's so argumentative today? How do you handle a new friend's aggressive child when you don't want to offend the friend? These questions are tough, and each individual playground is different in its politics. In my opinion, however, the most important question is: Can you survive the politics and maintain your child's self esteem?

The playground is a place where our children's self-esteem flourishes. A place where social challenges are met, dealt with, and overcome. It is an arena where our children can thrive in the format where they function best -- play. In their play, they can try on new personas and different types of interactions and relationships under the guise of "pretend". They can stretch and challenge themselves physically, reaching just a little beyond their current capabilities. In short, the playground provides a valuable opportunity for our children to learn, to grow and to develop.

In order for our children to get the most out of their play experience, it is important that we, as adults, do not succumb to the playground politics at the expense of our children. Frequently, however, we do buckle under, because we feel embarrassed by our children's behavior, or confused about how we ourselves should behave. Sometimes we (rightly or wrongly) believe that "everyone is looking at us". When embarrassed, we have a tendency to undermine our children in front of others in order to "save face" or "explain" their (or our own) behavior. Yet when we do this, we sacrifice our children's self-esteem, and rob them of the opportunity to take full advantage of the enriching environment that the playground can provide.

Because many times we feel more affinity for other adults than we do children we often say or do things which rob our children of the excitement of childhood. Sometimes we say things in jest, as when, the other day, my daughter and I were with another mother and daughter at a street fair. The girls wanted to "win a fish". Jokingly, I said with a sarcastic tone of voice, "Oh great...a fish is just what we need to add to the two cats and two gerbils." After my daughter had won the fish) I teased her, saying "Your Dad is going to kill us when we bring that home." On our way home, I noticed my daughter looking apprehensive. When I asked her about it, she inquired seriously "Is Dad going to be mad when we bring the fish home?" In my desire to connect on an adult level with the other mother, I had inadvertently trampled over my daughter's feelings of excitement and pride in winning the fish. In reality, I was just as pleased to have a fish in the house, and thrilled to see my daughter so excited. Although I might have successfully connected with the other mother, I did so at my daughter's expense.

Another common playground mistake parents make involves the messages we inadvertently send to our children when speaking about them to other adults. For example, a child I know was looking at a very large dog on the playground. Her mother nervously stood close by because the dog was much bigger than her daughter. As the owner of the dog kept looking at her, the mother began to feel embarrassed that she was the only mother watching her child. In an effort to relieve her embarrassment, she offered the following explanation: "I just want to make sure she doesn't hurt the dog." As the words came out of her mouth, she realized that the underlying message she was sending her child was that she expected her daughter to hurt the dog -- which was completely contradictory to her true feelings.

Another common problem occurs when parents want to seem "on top of" situations which "might" occur. For example, one father saw another parent looking apprehensively at his son who was playing in the sandbox with a shovel. The other parent's child was close by, and in an effort to stem a possible disaster, the father said "Be careful! Don't throw sand!" Of course, this resulted in his son immediately throwing sand. When we say "Be careful" and/or any sentence beginning with the word "Don't", the message to the child is "I expect you to..." (Otherwise why would we feel the need to tell them NOT to?) In fact, many people believe children don't even hear the word "don't", they just hear "throw the sand". If the father was truly concerned, it would be far more motivating to say "I like how careful you're being with the sand."

Another instance where we sometimes diminish our child's self-esteem is when our children interact with other children. Very often when there is a conflict, we automatically discipline our own child . When we take the other child's side, we are, in essence, telling our child loud and clear that we are not her ally. That's not to say that if our child throws sand in another child's eyes, she shouldn't be disciplined. But very often we don't see exactly what happened on the playground, yet we still side with the other child. Likewise, when we see another child act aggressively towards our child, we sometimes explain away the other child's behavior by making excuses or even by asking our child what he did to provoke the conflict. To preserve our children's self-esteem it is important that we approach BOTH children during a conflict, acknowledge the feelings of both, and attempt to help the children arrive at a solution without seeming to take sides.

So when you're on the playground with your child, remember that play is her primary learning tool. Rather than succumb to playground politics and allow your feelings to drive your actions, keep these important points in mind:

* Your relationship with your child is far more important than any other relationship. Are you attempting to connect with another adult at the expense of your child's feelings? If you talk or joke about your child or his actions to another adult in his presence, you're ultimately going to hurt the parent/child relationship. It's also important to avoid sarcasm. It blocks communication and diminishes the child's self-esteem.

* Are you being driven by your feelings? Think before you act. While it may FEEL as though another parent is "looking at you" it's important not to act out of embarrassment. When you act upon your feelings without thinking them through first, you're liable to say and do things that humiliate your child. Saving your own feelings ISN'T worth it in the long run. Remember: Being a parent takes courage.

* If you need to discipline your child, do so in a quiet, firm voice and speak directly to her, not about her. Discipline should be about teaching your child to behave appropriately, not about hurting her feelings in front of others.

* Avoid explanations to other adults which might convey negative expectations to or about your child. Very often the words "Don't" and "Be careful" achieve the exact opposite of what we intend. Show confidence instead by saying things like "I like the way you..." and "I know you'll be able to..."

With these tips in mind, enjoy the warm weather, the playground, and most of all, enjoy your children.