Picture the scene:
Several 5 year olds are playing in the park. One of them thinks a toy/ball/whatever of his/hers has been unfairly taken by another. He/she starts to hit/attack the would-be thief. The parents are clustered at the edge of the play area, talking and laughing. The noise level from the group of children elevates and one parent looks around at the children screaming at each other. Her eyebrow goes up and she remarks that the kids are going at each other. Another parent, puffed up with his brand of wisdom says, "Let the kids work it out."
So, I decided that this parent, we'll call him Jim, needs to learn a lesson. He needs to be the victim of his own "wisdom." Let's go back to last night, to scene two: It's 3 A.M. and Jim and his wife are sleeping. The doorbell rings. The police are at the door and they walk in right past him. They ignore his requests for information and proceed to search his house. He is pretty upset, frightened, and confused at this point. Next, they arrest him. He gets to the police station where his plea, "I want to speak to a lawyer," is met with, "No, sir. You have to work it out."
Not the same situation?
Wrong! It most certainly IS the same situation: Two people who don't have a clue how to resolve a difficulty are left helpless, with no assistance, no advice, no TOOLS. One is 5 and needs adult guidance and one is 50 and needs legal guidance. No difference at all! Now, if the 50 year old were arguing with his friend about his video game and the two were rather angry at each other, then I agree, his wife would not be appropriate to interfere. That would be a good case of, "let them work it out." Two adults who ought to know how to resolve a simple dispute. The difference in that scenario and the two that I describe above is that in the playground case and the arrest case, the people involved, one 5 and one 50 were in over their heads. That's why they needed guidance. That's what parenting really is. It seems apparent to me and for the life of me, I can't figure out why the adults don't see that.
Maybe a good parenting question is: When to help and when to leave them alone? A better formulation would be: How do you know when the child/person should know what to do so you should leave him/her alone and how do you know when that person is in over his or her head? Here is an answer in five parts:
1. You, the parent, are responsible for teaching all social behavior the first time.
2. You then are responsible to coach the child on future occurrences of that kind of behavior as a way to prod his memory as to the original coaching idea.
3. As the child grows older and occurrences of this situation come up again, it is your job to wean yourself of helping/coaching so as to give more and more responsibility to the child for (a)recognizing the problem; (b)remembering that he once did have answers to it from the initial teaching and subsequent coaching; (c)correctly applying what he learned in the past to the present situation.
4. A point comes when it is actually good for the child to experience the (painful) outcome of his choices because he has already been coached numerous times and sometimes he must experience Life directly in order to learn.
5. It is always possible for you, the parent, to re-evaluate the rate at which you are either jumping in with the coaching too quickly or not quickly enough and change the level of help you are giving at any one time. As long as you re-evaluate this regularly, you are in a win-win situation. Even screwing up leads to a win, because the re-evaluation teaches you something and it allows your child to learn from the situation—and from your re-evaluation itself.
Let's make the above rules concrete. Go back to the playground. The mother who cocked an eyebrow at the mess, let's call her Amanda, turns to Jim and says, "That's ridiculous. They don't know how to work it out themselves—other than fighting, and that's not a smart choice in my book." She proceeds over to the children, gets down at eye level, speaks quietly, and addresses the group with, "What's going on here?" Her voice is not blaming, just fact-finding. Little Nicole's arms are crossed and her chest is puffed out. Pointing at Jennifer, she says aggressively, "I had the ball and she took it! She just took it out of my arms! Make her give it back!"
Looking at Jennifer, Amanda (Nicole's mom) asks: "Is that your version of things?" Heaving with righteous indignation, Jennifer replies: "That's how they do it on tv! That's the way to play football! They knock each other down for the ball! Or they take it somehow." Amanda was a little stumped here, because, like me, she knows nothing about football. Sometimes parents have to be creative. "Is that what you were playing, Jennifer, football?" "Yes!" came the reply. Turning to Nicole, she asks, "Did you know you were playing football?" "Well..." Apparently, Nicole is not sure. To Jennifer, she asks, "Did you gals agree on the RULES before you started?" Now, Jennifer is looking at the ground. She is confused. She thought she did. To Nicole: "What are the rules for football?" Nicole shrugs. "Well, girls," Amanda concludes, "when you play a sport, you have to agree on the rules before you start. Okay?"
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