Trusting Kids (More on Play and Problems at Park Day)

Dear Reader,

I am reading a new book, Free to Learn by Peter Gray. I am sure I will post more on it. So far I am only in the first chapter. The author is discussing how kids play in hunter-gatherer societies with the aim of showing how we do not allow our kids enough free play time and are therefore making them absolutely crazy and anxiety ridden. While I do not share his evolutionary perspective and so do not necessarily think that what hunter-gatherers do should be the standard for our society, it is very interesting.

One of the main points he makes is that adults in these societies not only allow children many hours of free play all day (perhaps even all day for free play) but that they trust their children. They will, for example, let their children play with real tools and weapons with only a few exceptions (poisoned tipped arrows, for example). Now I do wonder about some statistics which Gray doesn’t mention (at least as far as I have read) like how many kids die or are injured through accidents in these societies. But the whole thing does make me wonder if we are just not trusting our children enough. And it is easy to say that we have good reasons not to trust but I do tend to think these things become self-fulfilling prophecies too. Kids know when we don’t trust them and act accordingly whereas having faith in someone can help raise them to a higher level.

Which brings me to a recent park day incident. I seem to post about these  a lot and I don’t want you to think that our local homeschool park days are trouble-ridden. Mostly they are pretty peaceful enterprises. But there is a crowd of boys of a certain age which seems to generate issues. Or not. That is part of the problem. Other moms keep saying there are issues when I am usually oblivious to what is going on or if I know I prefer to let them work it out on their own.

But to get back to my example, recently we were at a local pond so the boys were playing in the water. When I hear that perennial question, “Are you okay with what they are doing?” Now, I had no clue what they were doing. When I looked, I saw only one of my boys playing. He was on the back, piggyback style, of an older and quite a bigger boy whom he knows pretty well. There were other boys in the water playing too, but my immediate concern was only for my own since I figure I have no authority over the others. So I said, “All I see is S on J’s back.” This did not bother me since the other boy was much bigger than mine and I figured if my son was bothering him, then he would have the ability to deal with it. But apparently, the boys were trying to push each other under water and this was a problem for some. Added to that, they were calling the game “drown” or some variation on that.

Now, on one hand, I can see why this would raise flags for grown-ups. On the other, I really don’t think the boys had any intention of hurting each other. There was no malice involved as far as I know. No boy was being singled out either. And perhaps this is just how boys play. I remember my big brother holding me under water repeatedly until I would kick him so much he would let me up. My son who was participating tells me they were not holding each other under, only trying to push each other under, and that they were also doing other things like squirting each other with water guns and dumping buckets of water on heads.

So I guess while I do see the inherent danger in the situation if they had taken it too far, I also wonder if we should just have trusted our boys. If hunter-gatherers trust their kids to play with real weapons (all but the poisoned ones), why can’t we trust ours to rough house in a pond? And how will they learn the limits if they never get to play out the scenarios because we keep interfering? One of Gray’s points is that in play kids get to work things out for themselves and that they have to learn to keep everyone happy or they lose playmates. When we step in, we break the cycle and keep them from learning the self-control they need.

I do think though that this book has helped me discover one of the underlying problems our park day does have — we have too many boys of a certain age, between 8 and 12. Gray points out  a number of times that hunter-gatherers, because they were small communities, had a range of children who played together and that the older ones were naturally gentler with the younger and this helped them all learn to play appropriately.  I see this at our church which is small. Though the oldest child is 13, the youngest ones they play with are 1 or 2. And because there is such a range, the older ones do seem to naturally know how to be gentler with the little ones. It affects their whole play. At park day, in contrast, because there are more kids, this same group of boys of like age ends up playing together. Though there are younger kids they could play with, there are enough kids that they don’t have to and they seem to gravitate to the boys of their own age. But this does nothing to mute their more violent instincts. It is not even that they need older kids to teach them how to play; it is enough to have younger kids in the mix whose very presence causes them to change how they play.

I end up with some mixed feelings. I would love to have the kind of situation at park day where kids of different ages play together and we can trust them completely. But I can’t force my children to play with certain kids and not others. And I can’t select who is there. Some kids may be coming from situations in which they are used to more rough, competitive play, even bullying-like scenarios, and it is a different thing to trust my child and to trust all the kids he chooses to play with. So I suppose some supervision is good. But I also tend to think my fellow moms step in too early and short-circuit what should be a learning process for our kids.



3 responses to this post.

  1. […] which we need to get back into. One thing we have done consistently is homeschool park days. Though I have written in the past about some of the problems that have arisen at park days, they are about one of the best things in […]


  2. Have you read Free Range Kids? I haven’t yet, but I’ve enjoyed some articles from the web site. It seems to be close to this same topic. I agree that we should trust our children a good bit more than many parents do.


    • I haven’t though it has been recommended to me. Free to Learn which I have reviewed is perhaps a similar book. It is about how we learn through play.


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