Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Leave them to it

The weather has been beautiful for about a week now, climbing sometimes even into the low 70s. That means taking Ulysses to the playgrounds and parks for the first time since last fall, and it means more opportunities to see adults interacting with their children and grandchildren.

And once again, nearly every encounter makes me cringe.

Am I just judgmental, and a kook? Am I so far outside the mainstream in my thinking? Or is there some validity to my point of view?

It feels like what I'm hoping for is so basic, something that should be the norm rather than the hoped-for exception: big people letting their little ones be themselves. Not attempting at every moment to bend them to some purpose. Meeting them where they are, rather than steadily working to bring them somewhere else.

I've even come to dread when grown-ups arrive with their kids at the playground, because the time from their arrival to the first thing that ties me in knots inside is, inevitably, so blasted short.

I went to the Northland playground last week with U after work. There were three people there, two women -- perhaps they were a mother and her grown daughter -- and a little girl (who, it turned out, was born two days after U). The girl (dressed in regulation little-girl-pink shoes, frilled jeans, and a striped shirt whose colors included pink) went up on the gym again and again, sometimes going down the spiral slide and sometimes down one of the twin straight slides.

The women never went up on the gym once -- I've come to expect that. They stood on the ground offering a torrent of coaching, cajoling, instruction, correction.

"Go up the steps! Keep going! OK, now go down! Down! Go down now! Go down the slide! No, the other one! Well, OK, you can go down that one. Put your feet out in front of you. No, not like that! Out in front. Wait, stop! That's right." Not for an instant, when she was on the equipment, did she get space to explore and be, just be. To think about what she liked and didn't like up there, to decide where she wanted to turn. Of course, she did ultimately decide which way to turn, but the currents in and against which she swam were strong. And loud! As she grows, as she's better able she to understand what her big people are saying, the current will only swell.

Every time the kid got to the top of a slide, the exhortations to put her feet out in front of her came in a steady hail. Sure enough, I noticed, she truly didn't sit down properly at first, but she would kneel or otherwise seat herself so that her legs would be all a-tangle if she were to start sliding that way.

Ulysses got atop the straight slide, and he stood at the top, starting his slide from there. He tumbled! Because of the super-duper safety design, though, he was safe. But I was chagrined. The little girl's mother, who stayed on the ground near the top of the slide, caught him and helped straighten out his postion, so that he slid comfortably the rest of the way down. Maybe there was something to this direction thing.

The second time U used the slide, he tumbled again, trying to start his slide from a standing start in the same way as before. The girl's mother was elsewhere, and I didn't catch him, either. He bumped onto his bottom roughly on his way down. Oops. So that's why they keep telling that girl how to sit, I thought. It seemed like a good idea just then.

The third time, Ulysses seated himself carefully at the top of the slide, his feet straight out in front of him. From then on, no tangled feet -- that day or since, come to think of it.

My point, in case it doesn't speak loudly enough for itself:

Repeatedly being told where you should put your feet in order to slide the way you're told to slide

is not as good as

Having the opportunity to find out where you want to put your feet in order to slide the way you want to slide.


Later on, a young, slim, fashionable woman showed up with a one-year-old (my est.) and a big dog. Tying the dog to the stroller and taking out the kid, she tells him, "Now be careful and don't get dirty, because you've already had your bath. Stay clean! You've had your bath already, so don't get dirty." All right now, be sure to stay clean!" Repetition and all.

I couldn't keep quiet through all that. I laughed good-naturedly and said, "Good luck with that." She smiled, too. Success -- I made friendly contact with one of the big people!

I was trying not to be disingenuous, to really be coming from that I'm-on-your-side kidding place. Trying.

But my inclination was to have said, instead, "What a heavy trip to lay on that kid! Either forget about the bath and let him be himself at the playground, or else don't come to the park! What did you give him a bath for, anyway? You put those two things together that don't go together -- bath and trip to playground. If it doesn't work, it's your doing, not his."

The baby, just learning to walk, climbed the steps, eager and happy. So eager, he reached a foot way over to a higher step, and then couldn't progress right away, because his legs were spread so far apart.

I remember U working out that sort of thing last summer. Struggling, sometimes rooted to one spot for many seconds before dropping to his knees, or inching his feet to where they needed to be, or grabbing a handrail, or taking my hand for extra balance, or whatever other solution he devised. Sometimes he would finally turn to me, reaching up with a hand, signaling he wanted help, his face sometimes tilting up to me, but more often still pointed, intent, toward his goal. I would give help instantly, meting out the level of assistance I thought he wanted, careful not to overstep my invitation.

"If you put this foot here closer to the step, you'll be able to go up easier. Here, move it closer. Like this, look. Move it closer -- ergh." The woman was hovering close above her baby, moving his feet for him. The baby was struggling against it.

What's going on? Are Americans so determined to get to the top of the stairs that they can't imagine any instance where the process of climbing the stairs trumps getting to the top of the stairs?

The kid is going to learn how to walk. He's going to climb stairs. What's the hurry? Is it so difficult to see -- anyone can climb stairs. The same cannot be said of problem solving.

It doesn't seem like such a big deal to us, climbing stairs. I think that's because we don't remember learning to do it. It is a big deal. And when each stair comes up to about your kneecap -- that would be a big deal even for you, even today. (That's what I tell people who comment on what a fuss U seems to be making, huffing and puffing and grunting gleefully, while he's hauling himself up the five flights of stairs from the lower level to the lobby of the Princeton Club where we go swimming on Saturday mornings.)

Learning to do it yourself, figuring out the nuances that make it work and not work. Realizing that when your lower foot is closer to the step, you can pull yourself up that step more easily. Piecing together the principles of physics that are at play. This is something that noone can give a child. It is something the child desperately wants. And all the big person has to do is this: leave them to it.

That's the phrase I've been casting about for. What I keep hoping against hope to find, and being dismayed over and over again when I don't: adults who respect what little kids are up to, and are willing -- are bold enough -- to leave them to it.