Power Down the Helicopters: Why Parenting from the Sidelines is Good for Your Kids

Why parents need to take a step backWhy parents need to take a step backI used to hate the snow.

No, I am not immune to the mysterious beauty of snowfall. And yes, shoveling makes for an invigorating start to the morning, sledding's a rush of fun, and I love how a blizzard muffles the near-constant drone of New York City's bustle and traffic. But honestly, I'd trade these pleasures for mild days, a floor clean of salt-encrust piles of snowmelt, and dry socks. Guess I'm just a hot, passionate man of the tropics at heart!

I'm coming to change my tune though, not because I've taken up cross country skiing or snowshoeing - winter sports, and all the expensive Gore-Tex-lined gear they require, don't appeal - but because my son loves playing in the snow. And I don't mean with me. By himself.

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For a kid who demands a lot of attention - he wants Mommy or Daddy involved even when playing with his most treasured toys - snow provides a rare opportunity for independence. Red of cheek and, since he refuses to wear gloves, hand, Felix frolics in the snow alone, impervious to the cold. Trudging around our pocket-sized backyard, moving piles of snow from place to place, plopping himself on top of a flower pot to spin around while singing made-up ditties, he's as happy as can be in a world of his own. It's almost like the sky has dropped a load of sand over the land - he plays with the same autonomy on beach outings to Coney Island.

Seeing him out there, my initial thought is joy - here is the pure, unbound playful spirit of childhood. The hours that disappear in pretend, the tasks of no great significance that feel vital: the snowman making and Matchbox trucks clearing roads through the drifts. And then follows a feeling of concern. Is he too cold out there? Why won't he put on gloves? Should I make sure he doesn't have to use the bathroom? Is he being careful with the plants in the garden? Does he need anything?

Practicing some parenting self-control, I don't bother him. And good thing, I think, as an interesting article by Jay Griffiths, "The Politics of Play," in the recent issue of Orion Magazine suggests that my son's play in the snow is laying the groundwork for self-sufficient independence as an adult. As Griffiths writes:

Self-regulation may be taught by fairy tales or by society, but, interestingly, children learn it naturally in one particular form of play: unscheduled, timeless, unstructured play in make-believe worlds. During this imaginative play, children talk to themselves in what psychologists call "private speech," planning and thinking aloud, practicing self-regulation, controlling their emotions and behavior. This is not just a matter of "good behavior" but of autonomous thinking, the thought of artists, creators, and politically independent adults thinking for themselves, uncontrolled.

I've already written about how my son's independent spirit sometimes doesn't fit when he's forced to conform to a group, such as in a class situation. And I've certainly seen instances - almost daily - when he becomes frustrated with me because I'm not playing in just quite the way that he wishes. Out in the snow, on the other hand, like on the beach, I've never seen him lose his temper, scream and cry, be violent, or do any of the other negative behaviors I associate with him feeling stymied, confused, or repressed.

As "The Politics of Play" suggests - and I recommend that all parents check it out for themselves - I should be looking for opportunities to encourage this kind of play, whether it be at the playground or around the house, whenever. And I should curb that impulse to monitor, to command by way of cajoling, to stymie his independence with unnecessary reminders about eating or safety, comments that sound caring but which carry an undertone of control - as if I know his physical needs more than he does. As if he needs me in order to be ok.

So I've come to love the snow. A little late this year, since with spring on the horizon it may be gone for awhile. Even if it does snow again, you still won't find my out there, rolling around in the cold. I'll be near the window, with a cup of coffee in my hand, watching my kid be a kid, beautiful and happy, without me.

Though I might pop out to throw a snowball or two.

- By Brian Gresko
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