Do you ever find yourself coaching your child while they play? In and of itself, it's not an unreasonable act. It feels perfectly normal to stand next to the slide and tell your kid, "Go slowly. Let the little boy go by. Be careful." But when you have twenty parents standing over twenty children in one playground, step back a little and listen. See if it doesn't sound a little weird.
AwesomeCloud and I were the first ones to arrive at the playground this morning. Soon a mom and her two-year-old daughter joined us. It was the most natural thing in the world to coach Cloud, "Don't push the baby. Wait your turn. Watch out you don't kick her when you do that. Gently, now."
"Oh, don't worry," the other mom assured me. "He's fine."
Yeah, he's just friendly and competitive at the same time. Which is a great way to be when he's playing with boys his own age and energy level.
Fortunately, as the playground filled up, AwesomeCloud's potential playmates diversified. He ended up latching onto a group of three other boys, two four years old and one three years old. The two older boys began competing with each other, jumping off a part of the playground structure that was about three feet off the ground and had a kind of ladder thing for toddlers attached to it.
I started exclaiming "Nice jump!" to them after they had landed.
AwesomeCloud and the other three-year-old boy wanted to join in too. They couldn't jump down that far, but they could climb up. And there was a lower landing right next to that spot that they could jump off. So they started taking turns jumping off the lower landing and getting in the bigger boys' way.
"Great jump!" I'd say to one or another or the next boy in rapid succession. "A bit of a wobbly landing there. Good one! A little more practice and you'll get it. Good landing! Good one! There you go! Swing jump, woohoo! Whoa, nice running jump!"
The boys ate it up. They glanced expectantly at me before and after every jump or climb, their eyes shining. I stood there with a coffee mug in one hand and a sippy cup in the other and shouted out encouragement.
Joey, Kieran, Theo, and Cloud.* I'd already met Kieran's granddad on the other side of the playground; he was definitely the type to park himself on the nearest bench and gruffly coach his grandson's play. At first, at the same time I was saying, "Great jump!" he'd bark out, "Kieran, don't jump!" Kieran, don't do this. Kieran, don't do that.
Joey's father, or possibly grandfather, was on the same bench with a coffee and a newspaper. His coaching was just as gruff. "Joey, watch out for that little boy," he coached, while the little boy's Mama said to Joey, "Oooh, nice dodge, and, jump! Good one!"
Theo's mom was more of a classic micromanager, being concerned about injury, or risk of injury, or suggestion of risk of injury. I think that parents of pale children are more cautious, although that may be a prejudice on my part. Or maybe, when the very sun can injure your child, you justifiably have more to worry about. Anyhow, Theo obviously didn't want to be fragile, and took some wild jumps off the low end and some careless risks up the toddler ladder, and his mother was at a distinct disadvantage because she was on the wrong side of the structure, attempting to coach him through the bars and not getting very much of his attention.
Instead, he was all about listening to me as I shouted gratifying praise at his antics.
None of the parents said anything to me about thwarting their efforts to get their kids to be careful. So I kept doing it. The boys were just being boys, and amid the chorus of parents coaching, it struck me that boys at play was a beautiful thing. Like a couple of warblers among grackles. I was disappointed that none of the other parents were moved to utter something positive to their children, but as the two dads/granddads gradually gave up, and Theo's mom stopped trying so hard, I tried to say enough positive things for all of us.
Of course, there was one inevitable moment when Joey bumped into Theo and all the other grownups caught their hearts in their throats. But Theo, possibly empowered by his inclusion in some real boys' play, caught himself with his hands and stood proudly back up. The kids endured a little verbal scolding, and that was it.
When Cloud and I left, Theo's mom said goodbye to us.
I don't want Cloud to become careless to the point of being a danger to himself or others. I want him to be aware and considerate. I want him to learn the physics of hurling his body around on playground equipment. It seems to me that the best way to accomplish that is not to ride him all the time, but to gently remind him to be aware and then let him experience real play with real kids. Let him learn by doing. And a little positive reinforcement won't hurt. I don't want him to feel like he's under the microscope every time I accompany him to the playground.
Incidentally... at some point Theo said to his mom, "I'm having lots of fun!"
"You're having lots of fun?" his mom repeated, as if it weren't a phrase her child used every day.
And maybe it wasn't.
*Not their real names, but close enough.