I was at the park this afternoon with my neighbor’s four year old granddaughter, Abby. My own grandchildren are in Denver, so I often borrow some to enjoy! It had rained and everything was pretty soaked. But, it was only a short walk and we cut through the grass. “I like the sound my feet make,” Abby said. “Squidgy, squidgy, squidgy!”
The play equipment was wet and there were many puddles. But, we wore our rubber boots and nylon jackets and had dry clothes waiting at home.
Although the sun had reappeared, only a few children were there, so very little waiting for turns at an otherwise busy playground. We splashed in every puddle and went down all five slides, with wet bottoms to prove it. Abby giggled as she glided over the pockets of pooled water on the wavy slide.
We went over to the swings to dry off some, when a blue Jeep pulled up and parked. Mom and Dad got out and unbuckled their little boy from his booster seat. Full of excitement and anticipation, he just wiggled all over. Dad held his hand as he stepped out of the car. It was then I noticed he was wearing a white sweat suit and white sneakers. I let out an audible exhale and anxiously waited to see what was about to unfold.
Mom announced she would check out the play equipment to see if it was wet. Dad and son waited by the car. By now, the little boy (probably the same age as Abby) was vigorously pulling on Dad and begging to get going.
Mom stepped around the puddles and patted the slides and swings. She looked over at Dad and shook her head. They began walking towards her. “It’s all wet over here. He can’t go on any of this stuff. He’ll get filthy.” This bad news was met with an immediate falling out and tears. The little boy went limp and down on his knees in the grass. Dad brought him back up and scolded for dirtying his pants. Then, the attempts at consoling began, but neither Mom nor Dad were having any luck, even with promises to come back tomorrow. Abby bounced off her swing and over to where they were standing. Squidgy, squidgy, squidgy. “He can play with me,” she offered. “Please! Can I just play?” he quivered.
At wits end, Dad gave up the best he had. “Hey Buddy, Would you feel better if we just went and got a Giddy Meal at McFastfood’s right now?” After a few more deep sobs, the child settled on the new option. They all got back into the car and I watched his sad little face looking back as they drove away.
It was apparent that two things had just happened here, as a result of what I like to call, “misguided parenting.”
These parents had brought their little boy to a park after a day and a half of rain, wearing a white outfit, knowing full well there was a good chance there was no chance of him playing there.
In order to get out of the completely preventable predicament that resulted, they chose to reinforce an unhealthy mindset that, if repeated enough times, would persist for this child throughout his life… if you are unhappy, you can always eat.
Please, just let me play!
I thought back to teaching preschool, when children’s play was often interrupted by misguided parenting. For some parents, dressing up their children to come to school became a trend. It was a competition of sorts. And, all of this was squeezing the life out of exploration, curiosity, and sensory play. Mom or Dad’s apparent obsession with “staying clean” was often transferred to their child, who became traumatized in messy situations.
Please! Just let me play!
Going to the nature preserve was another opportunity for misguided parenting. Regardless of reminders, we would always have to provide shoes or pants or shirts for a couple children who came in a dress or expensive jeans or sandals.
The day before the hike, in our circle time chat, we explained our trip to the children and what we would be doing. I told them about the benches they would see along the trail, but these were reserved for grandmas, not any of us.
Inviting the moms on these hikes was usually a challenge, until they understood our philosophy. The first time along, we could expect sandals or heels, and capri pants or skirts, making our two mile trek a bit problematic. They would start complaining after only a short while and a few decided that a rest on one of the benches was a good idea. They were quickly reminded by the children about the “grandma rule” and we moved on.
Some of these adults had never taken a hike or enjoyed the woods themselves, let alone with their children. Stepping off the trail or touching things was not well accepted. And, when a log was rolled over to expose a variety of interesting creatures, they scattered back ten feet, wanting no part of it… some admonishing, “Don’t touch that!” or “Don’t step in that!”
Please! Just let me play!
Once we got down to the pond, a whole new set of worries arose- getting wet, getting muddy, catching frogs and picking up snails. A couple experienced children immediately shed their shoes and socks and others followed suit. A couple moms did, too, while the rest needed consolation, encouragement to calm down, and to be shown the supply of towels and hand sanitizer we brought along.
As teachers of young children, the best we can do is model our own exuberance for play and discovery and provide opportunities for parents to experience it themselves. And, it never hurts to explain how important it is for children to engage in messy activities, using all their senses. This is exactly how a preschooler learns best.
So, leave the special clothes and shoes at home and dress your child so he can get into things at school and be happy doing so.
And, stop worrying. All of those rich experiences are forging new and critical connections in his brain- connections that will never happen looking out a car window in a white sweat suit.