One of the most difficult things that I have had to learn as a parent is to allow Elisabeth to direct our play*. I see a lot of parents struggle with this: the letting go of their child so that she can do her own thing. It is so hard. But in my continued reading of family therapist Jesper Juul’s inspired book _The Competent Child_, I’ve learned that it is absolutely essential to allow our child to exercise free will.
For me, allowing your child to exercise free will starts with taking her seriously. Which sounds a little wacky, I know It’s easy to not take a child seriously. They are small, not as strong as an adult and sometimes can’t even verbalize their own wants and needs. But really aren’t these are all the more reasons why we need to take our children seriously? It’s all too easy to just pick him up and move him where you want to, right? When you take your child seriously, though, you try to understand “the situation” from their perspective and value what they are doing or trying to do. So, in Music Together class for example, I can go get Elisabeth when she wanders off toward the bathroom instead of playing with her maraca OR I can allow her to do that, just sit there and notice what she is doing.
So, reason #1 to not pick up your child and just move them: it’s not sustainable long-term. At some point they will be large enough to fight you or at least make moving them physically difficult and likely embarrassing for both of you. But perhaps most importantly, reason #2 why moving them isn’t the best action to take is that when you allow your child the freedom to make their own choices, you teach them that their own wants/needs/feelings/experiences are valid. In doing so, you show your child that you take them seriously.
When I think about what I want my daughter to know above else, I come back to one key point. One of which is that she will always know that she is important: that she counts. Even if I or someone else doesn’t like her ideas or agree with her words. Even if she speaks loudly or doesn’t talk at all. She counts, no matter what. Her feelings are valid. And I can say “you can do anything you set your mind to,” (as my mother told me) or “you never have to compromise your beliefs,” or “no matter what, I’ll always love you,” but if my actions don’t back up those laudable statements, then what good are they? And, yes, she’s a little young to hear those exact words right now but she hears other reassuring words that validate her sense of self so it’s still important to back those words up with actions.
There’s also an usually invisible pleasure to be found in allowing child-directed play in that we give ourself “the bloom of the present moment,”. I love that quote and found it while reading Christian McEwen’s _World Enough and Time_. McEwen talks about time with children as a way to slow ourselves down and be guided more by fascination, as children are, than schedules. It’s a lovely sentiment. Fortunately it’s one that those of us who have small children can actually dip into when we allow child-directed play.
I am one of the most impatient people that I know and that absolutely carries over into my parenting although I work really hard to tamp it. So, I often find it difficult to just allow Elisabeth to do whatever her big heart desires. What that often looks like in real time is much back and forth of her handing off puzzle pieces and me reading each one aloud. As always (or so it seems), this is exactly where I think we’re supposed to be. Me helping the learning instead of directing it.
What do you think? Do you allow child-directed play and if so, what does this look like on a daily basis as a parent?
*within safety, of course.