One of our local drop-in play centres recently purchased a bunch of new toys, including a
noisy and annoying fancy “Jumperoo” for the many babies who use the facility. Since the playroom is open to children aged newborn through eight, the Jumperoo has a prominent sticker on its side, indicating that it is only intended for babies up to nine months old and 25 lbs.
When we visited the playroom yesterday, a father dozed in the corner (I hope his wife isn’t a blog reader, hahaha :)) while his two preschool aged children played. The daughter was seated in the Jumperoo, legs stretched out on the floor in front of her. As she bounced around, the whole apparatus creaked under her enormous (by baby standards) weight, while the elastic straps and steel tubes strained with forces they were clearly never designed to withstand.
A while later, her younger brother began to fuss that he, too, wanted a turn in this device. As Dozy Dad dutifully arose to mediate the dispute, J politely pointed out to him that the toy was not intended to be used by older children, as per the sticker on its side. Dad feigned surprise at this revelation, and then found himself at a crossroads, torn between the social pressure to prevent his too-large children from (ab)using this baby entertainment device, the desire to exercise fairness between his children, and the longing to avoid the potential meltdown that could ensue should his son be denied an opportunity to play with the toy.
So what did he do?
First, he walked over to his children, and said to the daughter, “You have to get out now. I just found out that this toy is only for babies.” (+1 point)
Then, he carefully removed the seat of the Jumperoo and put it aside. He lifted his undeniably non-baby son into the resulting hole so that the son could stand and play with all the noisy-blinky things, without causing any further damage to the toy. Genius, right?
I applaud the father for his creativity and quick thinking, but while this solution would at first appear to satisfy everyone’s needs, I believe that this father did his children a disservice by altering the toy to capitulate to his son’s desire to use it.
The toy didn’t belong to them, and the owner (the play centre) had stipulated guidelines for its use. By skirting the rules to appease his son, the father taught his children that their desires come above everyone else’s needs; thus planting the early seeds of entitlement.
But what his children did learn is not nearly as important as all of the lessons they didn’t learn; the long-term virtues that were cast aside at the expense of short-term conflict avoidance:
1. How to accept responsibility for a mistake, and to apologize to those who may have been impacted. His children could have learned so much from a simple, “Daddy made a mistake. This toy is only for babies, not big kids, so we can’t use it anymore. I’m sorry.”
2. That life is not always fair. Doubtless the father was feeling guilty because his daughter had had the opportunity to play with the toy, and his son hadn’t. Parents spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring precisely equal distribution of the proverbial pie among their children, yet in real life — even in childhood — there will always be somebody who has a bigger slice of pie, an even better dessert, more toys, and fewer rules by which to abide. It’s our job to prepare our children for the world, and the real world is full of inequities.
3. That we can experience disappointment… and carry on. When we deny children the opportunity to experience and overcome small disappointments, we inhibit the development of resilience — a critical contributor to happiness and success. Shielding our children from all of life’s hardships only tells them that we do not believe they are capable and competent enough to handle adversity. The process of overcoming disappointment with the guidance and empathy of a trusted adult builds self-confidence and hones the critical problem-solving skills a child will need throughout his life. “I understand you are disappointed. You really wanted to play with this toy, and now you can’t. Let’s see if we can find another fun toy to play with together.”
I tell this story, not to cast judgement upon an obviously exhausted parent who was just trying to keep everybody happy, but to illustrate that parenting often involves enduring a series of short-term conflicts, with the long-term view towards raising happy, confident and successful children. By continuing to reflect on our own actions, and those of other parents we observe, we can develop reflexive responses that guide our children towards our long-term objectives in a loving but firm way.
If you were in this father’s position, how might you have handled the situation?