Sunday, January 8, 2012

New Year's Resolution: Let Them Play (and Eat Cake)

Before we moved to France, I had lots of illusions about what parenting would be like here. Kids wouldn't be so scheduled and micro-managed; each and every Saturday wouldn't be slavishly devoted to soccer. Kids wouldn't spend their afternoons strapped in the back of a minivan shuttling between swimming, karate and piano.

Parents would be OK with kids learning to read at six or even seven. They wouldn't wring their hands over what exactly was going on every minute of their kids' preschool day. Were they spending enough time learning letters? Numbers? Were "preliteracy" skills being emphasized? Were they following a schedule? Was there enough structure to their days?

These were worries that preoccupied me (and almost every other mom I knew) in our Boston area town. Even though my kids were barely three and five, much of our "free time" was spent on scheduled activities -- getting to them, participating in them, and rushing home from them. It took me a while to stop and ask myself why, exactly, where we doing all this?

If I was honest with myself, I would have admitted that the kids didn't really like it all that much. They were often far happier spreading their toys out on our playroom floor or chasing each other around our neighbor's house next door.

As I look back on our happiest times in Boston, I recall winter hours building snowmen and forts, summers in the backyard with friends splashing in the inflatable pool and afternoons inside shaking toy maracas and tambourines. Memories of Music Together, Mini-Gym and the like just don't come close.

When we moved, I felt ready to try another way.

Since our arrival in France nearly a year ago, I've learned that yes, there are certainly many differences here but when it comes to scheduling, programming and over-managing our kids' lives, the French are as guilty as we are.

French children don't attend school on Wednesdays, a time-honored tradition that dates back decades. But for most French kids, it's the busiest day of the week. Schedules are packed with lessons and classes, the most important of which is often English. The activities are undoubtedly different (my son's school offers chess and mime). But many are the same: dance for girls, soccer ("le foot") for boys. Almost none of my kids' French friends are ever free just to play on a Wednesday.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for encouraging kids to learn, to explore what excites them and find outlets to develop their passions.

But I'm also in favor of just letting them play. Is there anything as magical as the games children create when given time and space to let their minds wander? The more I get out of their way, the better my kids play and the more creative they get. A game of "mom and baby" morphs into hide n' seek which soon becomes pirates or knights or "Batman and Poison Ivy."

Yesterday, we spent more than an hour in a little park tucked away in the 15th arrondissement. We were in the neighborhood to do errands and the kids needed to burn off some energy. The park was simple, just one slide and a few benches under the barren trees. But to my kids, it might as well have been Disneyland. That one slide was all they needed for an afternoon of fun. They must have climbed it a hundred times, their scarves becoming "crocodiles" that chased them as they slid through an imaginary swamp. It was something to see.

When I let them be, they learn how to work out their differences, share, take turns and explore their imaginations. The more I meddle, the more they fight and bicker. Quite simply, they learn to love each other more when I'm not hovering about.

As they get older, extra-curricular activities will matter more. Learning new skills and developing their abilities will be important and appropriate. But for now, while my little people are still so young, I'm making a simple parenting resolution: Get out of their way and simply let them play.

7 Comments:

At January 9, 2012 at 1:12 AM , Blogger ElleMura said...

Great post. My mom is a child therapist and I'm already wary of the over-scheduling I hear awaits my now-16 month old (because she's wary of it too). It's encouraging to read your positive experiences letting your kids just be kids. I'll keep this in mind as I try to do the same back in Boston.

 
At January 9, 2012 at 10:26 AM , Blogger Paige said...

Hi Elle - I'm reading more and more lately about the dangers of the over-scheduling and also of "over-parenting." There was a great piece in the Globe Magazine a on it a couple of weeks ago. We lived in Arlington, MA before moving here and while it's an amazing community of parents and families, there's definitely A LOT of over-parenting going on. I am no exception but *trying* to reform my ways to instill independence in my kids. Thanks for your comments!

 
At January 9, 2012 at 12:00 PM , OpenID winstonschen said...

Great post, Paige. I'm continuously amazed at the stories that our 4-year-old and 6-year-old make up when they play. On a long train ride, they played with two little bags of liquid soup for more than an hour, pretending they're one thing or another, and making up stories about what the characters do. Free play makes them think creatively.
With that said, it's a balance. When they free play, they bring what they learn from "active" parenting, which becomes the raw material for their stories.

 
At January 10, 2012 at 10:12 AM , Blogger labergerebasque said...

i never let my kids play with anything that had batteries. Firm rule. And they played outdoors everyday, no matter how cold (bundled up , of course!) for at least half an hour. No TV on a school night so, of course they made a bee-line for TV Friday afternoons where we had a TV picnic at night. Their imagination thrived and they were excellent students.
They are now successful, thriving adults who want to apply the same "rules" to their children :)

 
At January 11, 2012 at 5:00 PM , Blogger Macsmail said...

Great thoughts! I had read the article in the Boston Globe and loved reading your post as well.
I have a 3 year old and 2 year old and I am constantly amazed at the criticism we receive for not having them in a lot of scheduled activities. We have chosen to keep our 3 year old at home for now and enjoy our time with him. According to many of our acquaintances he has very little chance of growing up to be a productive adult since he is not attending preschool at age 3. Slight exaggeration but you get my meaning. I enjoy watching my children play together during the day, it is a precious time that will be gone all to soon. I think some parents that have their children so scheduled may one day regret the lack of time they got to actually spend with their children.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

~Melanie

 
At January 14, 2012 at 12:16 AM , Blogger ElleMura said...

I was thinking about this post and wondering - don't most French women work outside of the home? How would their kids be able to just play on Wednesdays - wouldn't they need scheduled activities or some other childcare arrangement? Curious...

 
At January 14, 2012 at 1:35 PM , Blogger Paige said...

Hi Elle - Yes, you make a very good point. Most French mothers do work outside the home (as do most American mothers although that number is declining for many reasons) and there is definitely a need to keep kids occupied on Wednesdays. However, most of the French parents I know (who form my "sample" if you will) are either currently home with their kids or are working part-time. Frankly, I don't notice a big difference in schedules between kids with a stay-at-home parent or those whose parents are both working. Both groups are equally busy! That said, having no school on Wednesdays does pose a huge challenge to working parents and I certainly don't mean to judge them negatively for filling their kids' days with enriching activities in their absence! The topic of work and parenting (and how it's different here vs the US) is something I think about a lot; I'm going to put it on my list of future blog topics.

Thank you again for your thoughtful comments!

 

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