I just finished a kid’s book titled Return of the Twelves. It’s about a set of wooden soldiers once owned by Branwell Bronte and his sisters. The soldiers are alive and the little boy who finds them watches over them as one of their Genii (plural for genius).
When you’re a child small things are so appealing; this is why the sandtray is the most popular (and powerful) toy in my whole office. You can make a whole world in there and most of the kids take intense pride in how “real” they can make it look. The setting up — place each thing exactly where it ought to go next to the exact thing it should stand besides — is very nearly more fun than playing with it afterwards. Do you remember doing that? Setting your toys up and then gazing at them with satisfaction? Most of the kids who come to my office like to take pictures of their set up sandtray on their parents’ phone so they can take it home and share it with other family members. I usually take pictures, too, and make them part of my case notes.
Anyway, reading Return of the Twelve made me think about the other books like that and I came up with an incomplete list.
Which others do you remember?
As I replied to Helen’s comment on this post, I don’t like to play with my kids. I like to play with other people’s kids in a structured, time-limited way such as the therapeutic hour because mostly what I’m doing is observing; with my own kids I’m counting down the minutes until I can go read my book. I don’t mind occasional (emphasis on occasional) board games, puzzles, building or other task-oriented play but despite loving to play-pretend as a child, I never really liked to play-pretend with my kids. Oh sure, I’d attend a tea party now and then or “babysit” a doll so they could finish up an adventure but those times were rare, as my kids themselves will tell you.
Their dad is great at it. He’ll get down on the floor and move the little guys around and make the little guys talk to the other little guys but me, I’d rather stay over here with my book, thanks.
I may be lousy at playing but I’m great at talking. Give me a deep discussion or a quick conversation and I’m there. Ask me about sex, drugs, rock and roll and religion and I’m up for it. That’s how I parent — I’m about talking.
Their dad is less great at that. Go ahead, ask him something potentially controversial and watch him change the subject so fast that you’ll be discussing the weather without even realizing how well he’s deflected your question. But he’s got that playing thing down.
My husband is great at some things and I’m great at other things. And you, you’re great at things, too, just not all the things because none of us is great at all the things.
I know a lot of parents feel guilty because they don’t like to play (or paint or cook or whatever) with their kids and I want you to know that I am a licensed expert on this parenting stuff as well as an advocate for less guilt, more joy parenting and I absolve you. You are absolved.
Now your kids still need to play but that doesn’t mean that they need to play with you all of the time. If you like to play then go for it. Do it lots. If not? That’s fine, too.
There are lots of parents who don’t like crafty things (me, I’m raising my hand again) or messy things like fingerpaint or playdough (these I can do). That’s fine. You can farm that stuff out. You can sign them up for a great preschool where they’ll get lots of messy play time or you can look to the library for crafts or you can check out the rec center to see if they offer sewing classes for middle schoolers. You can enlist friends and relatives or ask if anyone knows someone willing to come teach your child archery or Minecraft for cash or barter. You can ask your neighbors if their fourteen year old will come over and talk Pokemon with your obsessed 5-year old while you cook dinner so you can listen to a not-safe-for-children podcast instead.
And you don’t have to play with your kids, or at least not as much as they’d like you to. You will probably have to play some. You will probably have to sip some imaginary coffee they make you or run around the backyard fighting bad guys a little bit but you can say no. You can be not into playing and super into other stuff.
It takes a village, this parenting thing, and the village can cover the things you don’t like to do so that you can really really really enjoy spending time with your child doing the things that you both like.
One of the things I really like about working with other people’s kids is that they are other people’s kids. When I’m playing with my child clients, it’s very easy to hang back and be observant and to feel invested in their play without fighting any urge to “help.” With my own children, it’s hard not to take advantage of so-called “learning opportunities.” It’s hard not to push a little bit — “What if we added this curved block there?” But I know from my time working with other people’s kids that hanging back and watching creates more opportunity for learning and growth than butting in ever can.
It’s hard not to be a help but well intentioned helping can often be a hindrance.
I notice this when children are opening new toys. Grown ups often start unpacking the items more quickly or they’ll grab the instructions and start to read them out loud. New toys are exciting even for adults! But if we can stand back and let the child come to his exploration in his own sweet time then he will have the chance to make the toy his own. He will get to try things that don’t work before discovering things that do, which is a great big part of learning.
If you are like me and often impatient with your child’s play, try sitting on your hands and watching next time.
- Watch your child put the puzzle piece in the wrong place, discover the wrongness and then try something else.
- If you would like to participate, describe what you see once you know your child has seen it, too, “Huh, that puzzle piece is blue and that space has mostly green around it.”
- Resist the urge to head off mistakes.
- Wait to be invited or ask, “You seem like you’re getting frustrated, can I help?” If they say no, believe them.
- Do the bare minimum of help once your presence is welcomed and be prepared to step back again when your child wants to take the lead once more.
- Allow your child to do things “wrong” because there really is no wrong (as long as people are safe). (It’s a good reason to buy sturdy toys — they need to be able to stand up to rigorous inspection, especially when children are younger.)
- If your child is used to you taking the lead prepare for some push back. If she gets angry because you are not showing her how to do it, model exploring. Let her correct you when she watches you do something that may not work.
Even though I am comfortable watching other people’s children struggle until they figure it out or ask for my help, I sometimes have to take a break from watching my own children get frustrated with a K’nex model or art project. I want you to know this because sometimes parents will watch me with their kids in my office and they’ll tell me they feel guilty. But it’s much harder with your own children! The dynamics are so different!
(You know what’s really hard for me? Stickers! The stickers that kids are supposed to put on the plastic cars or dollhouse furniture. I feel very stressed watching my kids trying to get them on right!)
So when it comes to my own children, I’ll make an excuse (“I’m just going to get a drink of water”) or find something else to do (“I’ll just be over here sorting the mail so holler if you need anything”). I sometimes have to steel myself for the tears I know are coming because there is value in frustration and learning to manage it even though what I’d really like to do is head it off and avoid it (and sometimes that’s appropriate — you know your child best!). But as frustration tolerance improves so will our children’s abilities as architects of their own experiences.
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My favorite illustrator for Ramona is Louis Darling, who drew this
Parenting is infinitely easier if you remember what it was like to be little yourself. If you can remember the frustrations, the fears and the satisfactions of childhood then you will know what it is that your child is experiencing now.
If your memory is foggy or if you had a childhood that doesn’t offer you much in the way of inspiration, you can always turn to Beverly Cleary.
I loved the books when I was a kid and I still love them today because when I read them I am immediately transported to what it is to be a child and to be afraid of ghostly gorillas who might be able to flatten themselves and squeeze through cracks in the walls. Or to feel like a cozy little bunny just by putting on flannel pajamas. Or to worry that my teacher doesn’t like me and to be too anxious about it to tell my mom.
Beverly Cleary takes children very seriously. Her books are funny but never poke fun. Her children are smart but not brilliant and special but absolutely ordinary. They are like the children we were then and the children our kids are today.
Sometimes I ask parents to read them and they actually do (often they don’t because they think I’m kidding — I’m not) and I promise you that they enjoy them. They also learn from them. They remember that being a kid isn’t easy and that sometimes what we don’t understand from an adult point of view makes perfect sense to a child.
I will leave you with an excerpt from Ramona the Brave. I have a lot of favorite scenes in the Ramona books and one of them is this description of Ramona’s game, Brick Factory, that she plays with Howie, the boy down the street. I think it’s such a wonderful and accurate portrayal of child’s play, of how it’s essential and true, how it serves a purpose for the children not recognized by older kids or adults, the concentration and the work of it. Next time you’re asking your child for the third time that night to put down her Legos and come to dinner, think about this passage and remember how very serious and how very absorbing the work of play is for kids. Your understanding won’t make her come to dinner any faster but it might make you a little less frustrated.
Ramona ran out to meet Howie, who was trudging down Klickitat Street pulling his little red wagon full of old bricks, the very best kind for playing Brick Factory, because they were old and broken with the corners crumbled away. “Where did you get them?” asked Ramona, who knew how scarce old bricks were in their neighborhood.
“At my grandmother’s,” said Howie. “A bulldozer was smashing some old houses so somebody could build a shopping center, and the man told me I could pick up the broken bricks.”
“Let’s get started,” said Ramona, running to the garage and returning with two big rocks she and Howie used in playing Brick Factory, a simple but satisfying game. Each grasped a rock in both hands and with it pounded a brick into pieces and the pieces into smithereens. The pounding was hard, tiring work. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then they reduced the smithereens to dust. Crunch, crunch, crunch. They were no longer six-year-olds. They were the strongest people in the world. They were giants.
When the driveway was thick with red dust, Ramona dragged out the hose and pretended that a terrible flood was washing away the Brick Factory in a stream of red mud. “Run, Howie! Run before it gets you!” screamed Ramona. She was mighty Ramona, brave and strong. Howie’s sneakers left red footprints, but he did not really run away. He only ran to the next driveway and back. Then the two began the game all over again. Howie’s short blond hair turned rusty red. Ramona’s brown hair only looked dingy.
Ramona as a hipster. Well, she is growing up in Portland.
Ramona, who was usually impatient with Howie because he always took his time and refused to get excited, found him an excellent Brick Factory player. He was strong, and his pounding was hard and steady. They met each day on the Quimby’s driveway to play their game. Their arms and shoulders ached. They had Band-Aids on their blisters, but they pounded on.
Mrs. Quimby decided that when Ramona was playing Brick Factory she was staying out of trouble. However, she did ask several times why the game could not be played on Howie’s driveway once in a while. Howie always explained that his mother had a headache or that his little sister Willa Jean was taking a nap.
“That is the dumbest game in the world,” said [big sister] Beezus, who spent her time playing jacks with Mary Jane when she was not reading. “Why do you call your game Brick Factory? You aren’t making bricks. You’re wrecking them.”
“We just do,” said Ramona, who left rusty footprints on the kitchen floor, rusty fingerprints on the doors, and rusty streaks in the bathtub. Picky-picky spent a lot of time washing brick dust off his paws. Mrs. Quimby had to wash separate loads of Ramona’s clothes in the washing machine to prevent them from staining the rest of the laundry.
Did you have an imaginary friend growing up? About 48% of us did. Imaginary friends are usually part of our lives between the ages of 3 to 9. A small percentage of us carry them on into later years and some of us continue on with them into adulthood, although by then we call it writing fiction.
Those invisible playmates help children understand, explore and tolerate the world. When asked, kids say that they like playing with these friends because they can count on them always being there. An imaginary friend can show up at the most convenient times — when you need someone to stand in as a hero or a villain, when you are scared in your room at night, when you need a scapegoat for the mess you’ve made or when you need someone to talk to about your troubles.
All kinds of children create these playmates. According to UK researcher Karen Majors (and note that link opens up a PDF), there is little commonality between those who have imaginary friends beyond an active imagination. Children with mental health issues or Asperger syndrome or Down Syndrome have them but so do typically developing kids. If your child instructs you to please move one seat over so you don’t sit on an invisible race car driver at breakfast, there’s no cause for alarm. If anything an imaginary friend is a sign that your child has the internal resources to create helpful ways to cope with the challenges of growing up.
It’s OK if parents go along with the game and buckle an invisible friend into the car or tuck them into bed the same as one might a teddy bear or beloved doll. Likewise it’s all right to sometimes be too busy to do these things.
Like the teddy bear or doll, children will naturally let go of their friends eventually and learn to manage without their continual presence. Parents don’t need to discourage them since children will naturally let go when they’re ready.