Saturday, December 19, 2015

Let 'em play, ref!

I read an article recently about the importance of standing back and letting kids figure out disputes amongst themselves.

In theory, I like this idea very much. In practice, I have a hard time employing it, simply because it's just so irresistible to jump in and tell them exactly what they should do, which they would never have come to themselves, surely.

It's not that I have a good track record for solving disputes among children, I don't. It's probably about the same as that of the general population. Perhaps that's why it was with keen eyes and ears that I returned to the idea of standing back and letting them figure it out for themselves.

The article reminded me of a birthday party for one of my son's friends who was turning 5. The party was at a house with a yard and a large hammock, the latter of which became the focal point of the party early on. There were four or five children on it at any time, with more waiting impatiently to clamber on  at the first hint that a spot might become available (or sooner).

The rides grew more raucous and the hammock swung back and forth recklessly, sometimes teetering on the edge of collapse or flipping over. I would lean forward, back straight as I anticipated that this was the swing, this was the instant when a smaller child in the front would roll forward and out of the hammock at just the wrong time, but it didn't happen. It was hard not to say anything, but the kids were having a great time, no-one had hurt themselves, and I didn't want to be "that" parent, so... I bit my lip. But still I continued watching anxiously, determined not to give up my post.

When it got to the point where there were so many children, so much pushing and rabble-rousing, with even one or two kids around the sides who were now crying softly as they had never gotten a turn at all - well, I felt myself ready to interject.

But then along came Sevilla, the oldest in the bunch by 2 years. She strode confidently to the front, patting the heads of the smallest children as she passed and giving them a smile. "Hey, hey, hey!" she said. "What's going on here? You guys have to get into a line."

Some kids turned towards her, faces only, then began the first small steps of getting into a line, but overall there wasn't much movement. She moved to the other side of the hammock, facing the crowd. "Do you want me to push you?" she asked briskly, motioning to the hammock - she meant they could sit in the hammock, and she would push them higher and faster than they had been going before.

They shuffled excitedly, yes, they would like to be pushed by this large older girl. "Then you have to get in line," she said. "Come on, you guys off now," she said to the five kids on the hammock currently, who were reluctant to give up their spots. "It's someone else's turn."

I tensed, wondering if they would listen to her. They didn't have to - she had no authority there, and Caden was one of the kids on the hammock. All it would take was one shout from him to turn the crowd against her, rendering her powerless. I had been watching him so far, and knew he was feeling rowdy. I readied myself for his inevitable protest.

Instead they all listened, and clambered off the seat. Five more kids got on - well, six really, but she shooed the extra swinger away, telling them she could only take five and they would have to wait their turn. The child shyly returned to the line.

She ran that line for the next 10-20 minutes, me watching all the time. There were a few instances where it started getting hairy, but she always pulled through. There was one moment when a bunch of kids got impatient, trying to get on the hammock en masse when it wasn't their turn, and she told them that two of them would have to wait for the next round. When none of them budged (it was at that moment that I expected her to say "fine. Then I'm not doing this anymore" because that's something I would have done), she said "Ok. Whoever gets off now, you get double the amount of time in the swing the next time." She quickly had takers. She made her deals, then shuffled the extra two folks off the hammock and back into the line.

Genius. She didn't learn this from me, any of it.

I was so proud watching her. And it happened again tonight.

Sevilla had wanted to see a movie and her brother had agreed, but when his friend came over he was no longer interested, and only wanted to stay with his buddy at home and play.

I felt bad for Sevilla. She didn't have a friend at the playdate so I had promised to take them to the movie she wanted, but now her brother wanted out of the deal. I didn't want to force anyone to go, but backing out seemed patently unfair. I implored Caden and his friend to reconsider.

"Come on. You know you'll enjoy the movie when you get there, let's just go." I said, but the boys kept pushing back. It was raining outside. It was getting dark. They felt less and less like it with every moment that went by. I was frustrated, and my next step would be insisting.

Sevy moved in swiftly. "Hey Sammy, did I ever show you the magic trick with the paperclip?"

Sammy shook his head no, he had never seen the magic trick. He and Sevilla had both taken a magic class at school, so she knew magic was his bag.

"It's really cool," she said nonchalantly, like it was no big deal. "I'll show you in the car. Let's go." She got up to get her shoes.

I waited, tense as before. This almost seemed to obvious. Would they see through her scheme? Or was she once again a genius?

The boys followed, the promise of a new magic trick dancing in their minds. Once in the car, the topic changed to music. "I'll let you guys pick the first song," Sevilla said.

This was big. When we drive in the car, the kids take turns saying what song we listen to, and the battle to be the one to get the first turn is hard-fought. The boys, drunk with power, fretted about what song to pick and thought nothing about why she was doing them the favor (it was to stop them from realizing we were about to drive to a movie they had been protesting minutes before, of course, but we didn't need them knowing that).

"Actually, I'll give you four songs," she said confidently. They rejoiced, pondering which songs they would pick, not once stopping to why she was suddenly empowered to be the giver of such choices.

Caden paused for a minute. "Ok," he said hesitantly. "But you have to get four songs on the way back. That's only fair."

Sevilla looked at him, trying to assess his game. Then she shrugged, realizing he was just being nice. "Ok," she said.

I smiled in the front seat. My kids were trying to out-nice each other, and everyone was happy. They had come to a resolution by themselves and learned something in the process.

I can't say I will stay out of it every time from now on, but I will try much harder.

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