A five-year-old boy playfully grabs a cell phone—not from his parent but out of the hand of a dad chatting with him and a few other boys before school. Laughing, the boy runs a few feet away, pressing the phone buttons. “Bring it back, please,” the father says calmly. The child clutches the phone, giggling. His non-compliance generates a more serious tone. “I’m a dad and you have to listen to me with respect when I talk,” he says firmly but still smiling. The boy immediately hands over the phone, and they return to their conversation.
I was impressed by this dad’s steady response. It would have been tempting to lecture on the dangers of breaking the phone. However, this dad judged, I think correctly, that the boy had got-ten his message and needed reassurance that the warmth between them hadn’t evaporated. Being a parent inevitably involves getting to know our children’s friends—an occasionally tricky but ultimately gratifying adventure.
In the past, adults felt free to discipline other people’s children when they misbehaved. We live in more enlightened times when people want to establish a trusting relationship with children even when that involves setting limits. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel protective when another child yells at our child or takes her toy. At a park or other public place, common courtesy says we should wait for the other child’s parent to step in and correct the behavior. But sometimes people are distracted from what their child is doing or don’t appear to see it as a problem. Recently at Walnut Creek’s Civic Park, I observed how courteously parents handled potentially injurious situations by stating neutral limits to a group of children involved in play. “No sand throwing.” “Be careful of the baby!”
The key to success in situations like these is to reframe our protective instincts into a broader perspective. What do both children need in order to communicate with each other or play together side by side? We want to acknowledge feelings and help with problem solving. Can we find another sand bucket? How about taking turns? Taking the stance that our child is right can prevent her from learning to experiment with how to get along. In general, we want children to feel equipped to communicate with all kinds of other children, and if we always intervene in social situations, they never get the chance. Taking the stance that our child is right can prevent her from learning to experiment with how to get along. Children need a neutral adult to support their play and coach them in negotiating with one another.
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It’s a gift to help our children develop the ability to host other children at home. Make a plan with your child ahead of time about what toys he wants to share and what rules would be important to follow. When children visit, think of yourself as forming a relationship with them, noting their interests and abilities. It’s best to engage visiting children in active activities rather than video games or TV viewing, which may be controversial with other parents.
Engaging with your children’s friends will help you develop important skills for helping young
people feel comfortable at your house during their adolescent years when they need a safe place to socialize. Remember adults from your childhood who made you feel comfortable talking with them or going places with their families. Young people need encouraging adults in their lives who offer a variety of perspectives so they don’t draw all of their influence from peers.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of forming ongoing friendships with other people’s children is the surprising process of watching them grow. The most rambunctious child often becomes the most insightful and responsible adult, offering you new insights on the world. The quiet child may transform into an accomplished performer who makes your spirits soar. Getting to know lots of children gives us a glimpse into the future and the awareness that their bodies might be small but their spirits are vast from the time they are young.
Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.