Mark was at the park with his 5-year-old daughter, Anna. It was a bright, warm sunny day and they were having fun together. Anna was telling her father how to play the game and he was enjoying letting her lead the play. The chased each other, went down the slides, played on the swings and imagined they were butterflies.
When it came time to leave, Mark gave a warning that they would need to leave in a few minutes, but when it came time, the father was ready to go but Anna was not. She wanted to keep playing because it was so much fun!
The father kept it light-hearted and agreed to a few more minutes but then it would really be time to leave. A few minutes later, Anna was still not ready.
Mark suggested that they play more at home. Anna said no. Mark asked if she wanted a snack that was in the car. Anna didn’t want that snack, she wanted to stop for ice cream. The father said it was fine to get ice cream, but it was time to go. The child kept playing. Mark then started to get annoyed and a little angry. He loved playing with his daughter but hated it when she wouldn’t listen. He tried redirecting her and getting her to walk to the car with him. He tried to offer something else she might like. He tried to hold her hand and pull her gently to the car but she refused.
He might get angry and yell or threaten to take away a toy or privilege. He might give up and sit on a bench until she is ready to go. Either way, she is still in charge.
Children need parents to let them lead sometimes, especially during play. It allows the child’s world to open up for a period of time and discover new ways of being. It allows them a chance to pretend being in charge and to see how that feels. Children need room to explore and play and experience new things and they need their parents to give them the space to do that.
However, children also need to have a sense that parents are in charge. It makes them feel safe and secure knowing that even though they get to lead sometimes, the parent will make the difficult decisions and stick to it.
When we find ourselves trying to talk our child into something, it may be time to re-evaluate if we need to take charge a little sooner and a little firmer, which helps us be kinder parents in the end. Getting impatient while we ineffectively try to set a boundary will often result in the child feeling confused and the parent feeling frustrated.
If it is time to leave a playground, or get to work or to school, parents must be willing to firmly and kindly help children transition from one activity to the next. It should be a part of the everyday routine of being together. No rewards or punishments required. Just a calm, no-nonsense here’s-how-it’s-going-to-be. It’s time to get socks and shoes on. It’s time to walk to the car. Please get your backpack. I see you need help today in putting on your coat. It’s hard to leave when you are having some much fun but it’s time to go for today.
Being Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind means that you can enjoy and support lots of moments of your child’s independence but it also means that you will be willing to actively be in charge when it’s necessary. A child who is struggling with transitions or limits needs a firm, kind parent who will follow through; this offers the child an experience of security, structure and safety.