Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On Staying Out Of The Way

I had intended to write about a different parenting topic this week, but I've got a situation on my mind, and it's pushing posts of a more generalized nature out of my head. So I must give in and mull this issue out some here on the ol' blog.

One of my general parenting principles can be pretty well summed up by the statement: "Stay out of their way unless they really need me." I'm sometimes tempted to call myself a laissez-faire parent, but I think this implies that I'm less involved in helping my kids than I actually am. But I'm as close to laissez-faire as I know how to be, I think. When faced with any given parenting situation, I try to remember to ask myself "Do I really need to handle this, or is it something he should handle?" Many times, if I'm not sure if my intervention is necessary, I'll make myself sit back and observe before saying or doing anything.

Sean is now officially "cruising" around the furniture and tumbling off of the stairs (so far just two). It's somewhat easier--though never easy--now that I'm on my third kid, to let the baby take his lumps. I suspect this is primarily because I've done it before. Go, Experience! I know from the other guinea pigs based on past experience that no long-term harm will come to him when he wipes out after letting go of the ottoman, and I know that he will learn about Mr. Gravity and also that Mommy will come and snuggle him up until he feels better. Good lessons. So I don't feel the need to rescue him from every bump and bruise.

But it's difficult to resist the urge to protect him from his hurts. So why do I put us both through our own misery? Because he needs to have firsthand knowledge of reality. Sometimes, this knowledge is happy, like experiencing the feeling of a pleasantly full belly. Sometimes it's sad, such as receiving a bump on the head. But the best way to learn about reality is to be in it. (Not to be misunderstood, I of course do not purposely put him in dangerous situations: I'm talking about reasonable, run-of-the-mill risks like hang-gliding, construction work, international banking pulling up on furniture and opening cabinet doors right into his own face.)

Now of course this post is not really about Sean. It's about Ryan, the kid upon whom most of my mistakes will probably always be made, simply because he is the First, and each new stage for him is new to me, too. Don't feel too bad for him--he's the only kid around here who gets an allowance! It all evens out, this birth order thing--today he gets allowance and taekwondo, but one day, he'll turn 40 and his siblings will point and laugh at him. (Full disclosure, I'm a First who fully expects pointing and laughing from my sibs when I turn 40.)

Ryan is maybe about to experience some painful rejection from a friend, which is partly his own doing. See, Mr. Ryan is the super-imaginative type and always seems to think up cool games and convince other kids to play them. Until a few months ago, none of the other kids has had too much of a problem with this set up. Sure, someone might have objected to a particular plan, but they'd often just get bored and go do something else.

Lately though, one of his best friends hasn't really wanted to play with Ryan and it's because he's really tired of being bossed to death every time he would like some input into the game. I can't say I really blame him. So this friend hasn't been around too much lately, because he isn't having fun with Ryan anymore (there are some other factors, including the fact that the boys just have diverging interests at the moment).

Unfortunately, his friend's mom (who is a friend of mine) never mentioned this to us--it was up to me to bring it up, to confirm my suspicions. And A. is not the kind of kid who speaks up when there is an issue, which exacerbates the issue (there's a possible post: When Parenting Styles Clash!). So I'm not really certain how long Ryan's friend has been feeling this way. But it's definitely a problem.

We've talked about this with Ryan. We've explained that A. would like a say in how the games are played, how this is really only fair. We've discussed what it feels like to be bossed (and Ryan is definitely not a fan of that!). We've brainstormed ways to include A. in the game-planning, practicing words and techniques. We've talked about how we would like our guests to feel welcome in our house, and one way to do that is to let them contribute to the game on occasion.

Some ideas we've come up with are:

  • A. could choose the first game and then Ryan could choose the second.
  • Ryan can say things like "What do you think about that idea, A.?"or
  • "Do you have an idea?"or
  • "What would you like to play today?"
We've also talked about how to handle it when the boys have disagreements: If you have a problem you can't solve, come and get me and I'll help you guys work it out. (How this is done exactly was the original idea for my post this week, so I hope to get to that soon.)

Nearly every day, Ryan begs me to invite A. over to our house, and I take this opportunity to remind him of the things we've talked about, to practice some of the words we've come up with. The boys play together about once or twice a week lately (which is up from a couple of months ago when I think this issue was really starting to crop up). We have had successful playdates--where I have helped Ryan remember to include A. and/or helped the boys work through some of their disagreements. We have had not-so-good playdates, including a disastrous one that ended with both boys in tears.

I suspect that this is just one of those things that has to run its course, to work itself out over time. As much as I've tried to help Ryan "get it" and as clearly as I can see the hurt coming, no amount of talking this over with Brendan and me is going to help him understand what's going to happen as well as . . . just letting it happen.

Ryan is already bewildered that his friend is reluctant to play. Because of course Ryan's games are the super-funnest ever and what's wrong with this kid anyway for not wanting to play them? I do think he's trying to understand what we're trying to help him see; but I must also wonder if some of this is a bit too abstract for him to grasp. This problem would be easily resolved if Ryan were really, truly capable of empathy. I believe he's getting there, but he's still a kid.

So I asked myself "Do I really need to solve this problem?" And the answer is no. As much as I'd love to fix it, I know that I can't. And I can't really rescue him from these lumps and bumps (should his friend really decide to drop him). I'm doing what I can, helping him identify the problem and think of solution strategies, but other than that, there's no substitution for experience. As I said, really, this whole thing could blow over on its own, as both boys get past whatever Things they've got going on (until the next one!).

But if the hurt comes, I'll be here to snuggle him up until he feels a little better.


Rachel said...

How old is Ryan? He sounds a lot like my oldest. I wonder if it's a first-born thing? It sounds to me like you're doing as much as you can, and should. As usual! Great post!

Rational Jenn said...

Hi Rachel! I meant to put in my kids' ages and forgot. Anyway, Ryan will be 7 next month, Morgan will turn 4 in a couple of weeks, and of course, there's that old baby who is almost 9 months.

It could be a first-born thing--I was certainly a BLT (bossy little thing) myself. In fact, my nickname was "Lucy" after the Peanuts character. So it could be a First Thing, or a personality thing (Ryan is just like me in so many ways).

Or a developmental stage. His friend A. is 6 months younger than Ryan, and to be completely truthful, exhibits many of the same symptoms himself (he's also a First).

Ryan is a STRONG personality and A. is not, and I think years of A. deferring to Ryan are suddenly catching up. We'll see what happens!

Amy said...

Wow. That's harder than letting a baby or toddler take a physical fall.

Anonymous said...

At the freerange kids blog, I first discovered the concept of "junk playgrounds" or, as they are sometimes called, adventure playgrounds.

Basically a Danish architect noticed that local children were more interested in playing with the discarded materials at a construction site than with his carefully designed playground equipment. So he pioneered the idea of a playground with nothing but boards and peices of tin and tools and old tires where kids could just build and play. The idea is very popular in Europe and Japan, but never caught on in the U.S. because of lawsuit fears.

Anyway, the lady who rbought the idea to England said she faced some initial skepticism from people concerned children would get hurt in such playgrounds. Her response was "Better and broken arm than a broken spirit."