I’ve given glimpses of issues I’ve had with parenting style over the years, but I’ve never fully delved into what our parenting style looks like because, well, there’s just so much out there on parenting right now and the last thing I want to do is to add to the competition, the “Mommy Wars,” and the drama. But there is something important going on with parenting: a fight about how much freedom to give our children, how much supervision, how much assistance, and how much structure. And I have strong opinions on this, so I will share them here. But please know that this is my own opinion, my own style, and I try very hard not to judge others based on such personal choices as parenting style. Ours is one way of parenting, and I respect that there are many wonderful successful ways that are very different from ours!
As my boys grow older, their physicality and their abilities grow as well. And the way we have raised them, from day one, has been very open and trusting with that physicality. I was not the mom to run over to my baby immediately when he fell down; instead, I waited for his response and more often than not, after a mutual smile back and forth to encourage and reassure, he would rise again and go about playing. I was not the mom to hover over a two-year-old Milo as he learned to climb on play structures at the playground in Washington, DC (yes, he fell hard once, and got some scratches on his face; he also learned to be very careful on that structure and was okay after a good long hug from his mama).
Our three boys can elicit a lot of attention at the local playgrounds; they arrive and immediately take off their shoes (and sometimes their shirts if it’s hot), and run off to climb every which way on the equipment. This includes climbing up slides instead of only sliding down them (oh, the scandal!), climbing on the outside of equipment, and shimmying their way up to the top of the swing set when others are not swinging. It includes hanging upside down like bats from the monkey bars and standing up on big saucer swings, learning to balance their weight by swaying hard back and forth until they are nearly flying. It includes swinging all the swings in different directions and then running an obstacle course between them, dodging the swings as they run by each one to avoid being hit by them. They play hard, and they can handle it.
This is not to say that we allow our boys to overrun others’ rights when at the playground. They are expected to respect the way others play, to take turns, and to be understanding of the rules others may have. If, for instance, a kid is about to slide down the slide, our kids are not allowed to run up it at the same time. But I do not say things like, “We must ONLY go down the slide and up the stairs,” or “We must always wear our shoes when we are outdoors.”
And those are two very controversial things around St. Louis playgrounds, apparently!
Let me paint the picture.
I take all three boys to a playground nice and early, and we are the first to arrive. It’s shoes and shirts off right away and then they run off to climb and pretend and play. After about 20 minutes, a father and his 5-year-old son arrive by bike at the playground. I greet them and go back to watching the boys and occasionally climbing and spinning and chasing them. But I start to feel a tension that is palpable with the father. He is watching my boys nervously, and commenting on their lack of shoes to his little boy, perhaps foreseeing that his little boy will want to take his shoes off as well (it’s one of those soft-surface grounds that nearly all playground floors consist of these days). “Oh my! Those boys’ feet are very dirty! They aren’t wearing their shoes, are they?” he comments to his little boy (who is, by the way, playing with his bike helmet on). Sure enough, the boy tries to take his shoes off and his father reminds him that they wear their shoes outdoors because that is the rule.
But then, the little boy asks, “But why?” And I kid you not, the dad tells him “Because it’s what you’re supposed to do.” Hm. Is it?
And then, Milo is swinging on a giant saucer swing, standing up, shifting his weight back and forth and going higher and higher, the wind whipping his hair, a giant proud smile on his face. The little boy in the helmet is playing elsewhere, but the dad comments to no one in particular, “That is really dangerous. That is just not how that equipment is supposed to be used.” I smile at him to let him know that I hear him and I’m aware of what my child is doing, and that I approve. It’s almost comical at this point, but I try to brush off the feeling that my hackles are beginning to raise. I don’t want to engage, because clearly we have very different parenting styles, and that is alright. I am responsible for my kids’ safety, and if they are not putting his son in danger or disrespecting him, I am comfortable with the way they are playing. I do not owe him an explanation, but realize I would be happy to engage in an intelligent conversation about my parenting choices if he would like to talk about it.
The comments go on and eventually I, very warmly and very openly, fill him in on the shoeless thing. I say, “Yes, we let our boys go barefoot a lot because it’s very good for their neurological development (citing this article and a brief overview of these reasons). “As long as there is no broken glass around, I’m happy to let them explore without shoes.” End of discussion.
While I don’t mind being questioned or judged from time to time about the way I parent (and in fact have come to expect it), what I don’t care for is the assumption that I am a lazy parent because I give my kids extra independence at the playground. The fact is, I read a lot and have thought a lot about what I believe is the best way to raise my boys. The fact is, I am watching, engaged, and aware. The fact is, I completely disagree with some of the parenting choices other moms and dads may be making (for instance, never letting their toddler try to climb up something and instead always lifting them up to the top), but I would never give them dirty looks or make disrespectful comments to them or others within earshot about those choices. I would not make disparaging remarks to my children about it either; “Oh my, that little boy is not even allowed to climb up the 5-foot plastic rock wall by himself… poor kid! And his dad won’t let him take his shoes off!” I mean, can you even imagine?!!
Let’s start assuming that parents have thought about it. That they want the best for their children. That maybe they have researched things and have reasons for parenting the way they parent. One of the most enlightening conversations I had recently was with a very protective mother. We were just chatting and not judging each other, and come to find out, her husband is a transplant doctor who comes home every day with sad stories about accidents involving little children: drownings and car accidents and just horrible things. A lightbulb clicked. Oh! I thought, of course she is protective. Of course!
Let’s meet each other with understanding, let’s assume the best. We’ll all be better for it.