Saturday, September 16, 2006

community parenting and the un-parented

Amy has always spent lots of time with groups of kids. My mum's group (bless each and every member) has been a fixture from the earliest days and 'community parenting' has come relatively easily to us all. We've tag teamed on swing pushing, on breaking up brawls, on providing snacks and cuddles and drawing boundaries. While I think we would all agree that we don't all parent the same, we've all been more or less happy to accept a level of caring for each others kids and withdrawing for a breather while someone else does the job.

Being a community parenter has taught me that no kids are perfect and no kids are pure evil, they are just all very different. They have different skills and understandings, different ways of approaching things, different tools for getting what they want and different blindsides. It's also taught me that as a parent you have to pull back at a certain point from intervening if you want them to establish their own identity and develop their capacity to be social. There is very rarely someone in the absolute right and someone in the absolute wrong. Sometimes it's hard to watch kids in conflict, but stepping in isn't always a good idea in the long term.

But I remember our first encounter with a mass of kids we didn't know. A winter's morning in an indoor play centre raised in me some unfamiliar emotions. Firstly there were kids lacking not just in discipline, but in a parent to discipline them. They were happy to crash down slides on top of much younger kids, push someone out of their way and generally bully their way all over the place. Their mothers were somewhere over in a gaggle sipping lattes. Similarly there was another breed of seemingly parentless children, the ones who clung to any attendant adult like glue, who chatted tirelessly, who asked constant questions, who were desperate for attention.

What felt strange to me about those encounters was my immediate and instinctive emotional response. I wanted to tell the bullies off and I wanted to escape being a surrogate parent to the attention seekers. I was angry with the mothers for ignoring their kids, even while I understood the myriad of perfectly valid reasons why it might be so. How easily I understood the need for escape from parenting, the need to leave children to independent play, the need to let kids learn to negotiate the world on their own terms. But when my kid was one of the littlest I was forced to do the job their parents should have been doing for them. Telling them to go find friends to play with, telling them to watch out for others.

So this morning we went off to 'traffic school', a play ground set up like a functioning road system. It has traffic lights and stop signs, round abouts and pedestrian crossings, and the kids ride around on their bikes learning about road rules. Only the vast majority of kids do no learning it all. Their parents let them free and then sit down to read the paper or chat to friends while their kids ride willy nilly around crashing into each other. Clearly many of these kids had no grasp or the rules whatsoever and had no way of learning. Some of the kids were significantly older than others and sped around on racers, ignoring traffic lights and signs, terrorising the younger kids.

I am not by nature a cop, and I am not by nature a parent who wants a tight leash. Kids learning to ride bikes on roads make mistakes and have crashes, and for all the biffo I saw there was no blood, no real hurt. And there was a lot of fun being had and no need to get too serious about it all, and I did some paper reading too. But it struck me as really unfortunate that the 'school' part of traffic school was left eating dust for most kids. As I naively tried to explain all the signs and rules to Amy as we went through the course, kids rushed past, all over the road, running lights, ignoring right of way and no one was letting them know it wasn't all right.

Amy's first bingle led to a flood of tears, not from hurt, but from the realisation that following the rules wasn't going to keep her safe. It shattered her confidence in her ability to follow the rules herself and made her fearful of the rogue element. And though she didn't articulate it I am sure she was also aware that there was patently no consequence for bad behaviour, not even a follow up lesson. I felt like snapping a few of the worst offenders, mostly older kids who should have known better by their age, but I also wanted to know what their parents thought about what their kids were doing.

And as we drove home, Amy extrapolated the days lessons to the road in general. She saw herself as very vulnerable to the cars that might squash her, even if it is by accident. To a large extent her realisations were all too familiar to me, and reflect the beginning of a cognitive chain that leads to more adult perceptions. How my place (and safety) in the world is not determined by my actions alone, why there are rules and why they don't always succeed in holding back chaos, why some people never learn the rules and how they sometimes seem to get all the breaks. But I hope she'll also learn that mostly the rules are worth it, and mostly they work, and mostly when people do the wrong things it's because there are things they never learned, or because they are still learning and we all make mistakes. I hope she'll get back on her bike and keep on peddling.

And me? I'll go on trying to negotiate these weird share parent spaces. Trying not to protect Amy too much, trying to help her understand why thing happen the way they do. Trying not to get myself into a conflict with some other parent who takes offence at the way I'm talking to their child, trying not to scowl at parents I think should be doing their job differently. Trying not to be world cop and most definitely trying not to judge people whose attitudes and parenting styles are different to mine.


Anonymous shula said...

Whew! Beautifully said.

5:46 pm  
Anonymous Lizette said...

I hear you...

3:07 pm  
Anonymous rebecca said...

More than once I have found myself biting my tongue at the playground! And I am never holding a soy latte(cause the rule at our playground is no food or beverages within the fence. HA)

I really like this idea of a "washing line"

9:52 pm  
Anonymous Jo said...

I am going to use a bad word that is not liked in our house for this one. I HATE indoor playcentres with a passion! For the very reasons you have outlines above.

11:03 pm  
Anonymous Ali said...

I hear you on the un-parented, but as the mother of a nearly 6 yo boy I have also come across the over-parenting phenomenon.

This occurred in a playground where we were having a great time running, jumping and climbing. I was playing with my kids - when a woman said to my son - 'Don't you think that's a bit dangerous?'. The activity in question was jumping off a roundabout (not near or on any other children).

Was it dangerous? I didn't think so - part of the joys of being a child is testing your own physical boundaries and in my book as long as you aren't endangering others, that's a perfectly legitimate activity. In her book it was obviously something she would not permit her daughters to do (fine by me), so I said sweetly to her 'Boys! Bet you're glad you have girls' - code for 'back off woman, my kids, my rules'. Sadly, she didn't understand my point and continued to berate my son for his activities.

I could have understood her interference had I not been standing right there supervising, or had my boy been endangering any other kids but I really resented her snotty attitude. She obviously assumed he was un-parented, rather than differently parented. I felt judged, uncomfortable to the point of leaving the playground and later very angry with myself for not having stood up to her superior attitude.

I think one of the most important lessons we can teach our kids is that there are lots of different ideas about 'the rules'. That one set does not fit all people and all circumstances and to embrace the shades of grey that life is full of, rather than trying to paint their worlds black and white.

(Sorry for the long rant - good to get it off my chest!)

3:19 am  
Blogger sooz said...

Ali, yep I've seen the other end of the spectrum too. I hold my tongue exactly because I'd prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to playing cop! I guess my base line is I only step in when I there is imminant danger, and even then I'd sooner withdraw my child from the situation that tell another kid off if I could. But gee isn't it a hard balance to get right?

2:09 pm  
Anonymous Alison said...

I have no problem telling another child off if I have made an effort to suggest an alternative form of action with the children, in the hope the parent is nearby and will take it into their hands that someone else is stepping in to ease a situation. If another child is behaving in a way that I consider to be bullying, aggressive, or dangerous, I will step in and I have told other children off. It is only fair to my child that he learns appropriatness of behaviour, subtelty of voice and instruction, and boundaries from me as his guardian.

I also believe in letting children PLAY. And if that means my child hurts themselves, or falls off something, or goes beyond his physical limitations, that isn't always a bad thing. I know my child's limits, I know what he can and can't do, and I am always there watching him and assessing the situation. I am never on top of him. And for that he is physically strong, coordinated, and has a confidence in his abilities to master, and achieve different activities. Nobody has a right to tell you what your child can and can't do when you are right there watching them. It may not be what they would do for their child, but Ali, you keep letting your children live!

10:27 pm  

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