Friday, July 24, 2009

Playground Hierarchy

Originally posted at the former Chicago Moms Blog on July 24, 2009

Playground Hierarchy

Be nice. Share. Be friends. Say you're sorry.

Our children have these phrases repeated to them DAILY. If we must work so hard to pound an idea into their minds, might there be some validity in the thought that this natural "pecking order" is not only natural, but a healthy part of the maturing process? Without having the chance to "be nice" or mean on our own, or share or hog, how does a child develop the backbone that is required to survive as an adult?

I distinctly recall my first chance to be a hero. My sister, only 2 years younger than I but always substantially shorter than her peers, was at the playground in the church yard behind our home. Only 5 or 6 years old at the time, she was also one of the youngest children in the gang of kids that ruled our block. Her choices for friends were usually those that were not only older than she was, but also physically bigger, as well. I watched from my yard as she was repeatedly pushed down by our "friends" over what was surely a typical childhood fight. The emotions that swirled through my 8 year old body can easily resurface in my 33 year old one at just the thought of that scene from long ago.

Furious and indignant that ANYone (other than myself) would push my little sister down and make her cry, I stomped across the field, shouting that they leave her alone. Not even phased at my shouts and threats, they finally said,

"Who's gonna make us?"


And, with that, I pulled back and threw my very first (and last) punch.

I knocked that little twerp right to the ground where she landed on the sand beside my crying sister.

"Hit her back, Suzie!" yelled her father from their yard where he had apparently witnessed part of the situation.

Thankfully, the stunned Suzie backed off and ran home, leaving me to face down the other girl, one of my "best" friends. She simply shrugged and walked away, leaving me to take my sister's hand and walk her back home. The adrenaline still rushing through my scrawny body, I was petrified to tell my mom what had happened, but knew I had to before Suzie's dad came over with his own version. Instead of the punishment I thought I would receive, my mom proudly hugged me for defending my sister. For standing up for what was right. She clued me in to my first real life lesson: standing up for yourself and for those who can't help themselves feels good.

If we had been fully supervised, as children generally are today, the situation would have gone a totally different direction. Not only would my sister not have been pushed more than once, I also wouldn't have had a chance to prove my devotion to her. If the moms had been monitoring all of our activities, then the children would have been forced to "be friends" with each other.

I don't believe that monitoring our kids is a bad idea. If anything, having parents nearby helps kids remember that they DO need to be nice to each other. And if they can't "be nice" then to go home and do something else until they CAN be nice. However, I also believe that too much interference is doing a huge disservice to our children. Without the opportunity to choose to be mean or nice, to defend someone or to stand aside and watch, our kids are deprived of the character building skills that all of us from different generations take for granted. Most kids that come to my yard are actually shocked when another child is unkind to them! Running up to my back door, they indignantly spout off all of the injustices that they perceive happened to them. Expecting me to march out and solve the problem, these children are generally open-mouthed when I tell them (after making sure that no one was truly physically HURT) to figure it out themselves.

It doesn't take long. They either figure it out or find someone else to play with. But they always come back. And with a greater understanding of what it takes to get along in a group. Hopefully, an ability that will grow with them throughout the rest of their lives...

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