Peacekeeping, playdates, a puzzle piece and the politics of it all. Written for Working Mom magazine.
I watch from a calculated distance as two boys cunningly sit on the jigsaw pieces a girl we have over is looking for to complete the puzzle she painstakingly worked on. I confess I would ordinarily be half-amused. Except I can’t be. This is my home and those are my boys.
Welcome to my world. I am a mother of twin toddler boys. Hand in hand with this responsibility comes an occasional stint as human jungle gym, wrestling referee, toy police and peacekeeper. With every stone left unturned, every detail sorted out, I certainly used to be the classic role model for faultless preparation. And then the boys arrived - completely unplanned.
As I watch them with the I SPY jumbo floor puzzle pieces scrunched in between their behinds and the colored floor mats, I realize I have no plan. More importantly, am I expected to have one?
Welcome to the world of playdates. The playdate is something many children (mine included) look forward to. There is no question socialization is a huge and important part of any youngster’s early childhood development. What better way for children to learn and have the chance to share toys with friends than the playdate. Thrust into their own mini social circle, they have the opportunity to be both hosts and guests, learn to compromise, take turns and even resolve conflicts.
But you all know what they say about the best laid plans. Sometimes that carefully planned playdate is anything but playful. Just how involved should we be? When should we back off and when should we jump right in?
As in most situations, particularly those involving at least two little people, it is inevitable that conflicts will arise. Let them work things out on their own.
As parents, we are there to equip them with the necessary tools to solve their problems. We are not their problem solvers. "Children teach each other friendship through play," says Michael Thompson, PhD, coauthor of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Worlds of Children. "If you're micromanaging the kids, it's not play-it's an adult-run activity."
“Playdates are a great opportunity for your preschooler to learn social skills,” explains Myrna Shure, developmental psychologist and educator, “ but they require plenty of patience and conscientiousness on your part to run smoothly. When your child yanks a toy car away from his playmate, resist the urge to lecture, take the truck away, give him a time-out, or send his visitor home. Negative approaches such as these might curb the behavior for the moment, but since you're doing all the thinking and the enforcing, your preschooler learns nothing about how to get along in the future. Take a positive approach, one that encourages him to think for himself and sets the stage for problem solving in the future.”
SCENARIO #1: “I WANT MY TOY BACK. MINE! MINE! MINE!”
If I had a peso for every time I heard “That’s MINE” on a playdate I would have one impressive coin collection. What to do? Take one step back. Keep a careful eye and a keen ear but don’t jump right in at the slightest hint of tension. This will help send a clear message that you trust your child to settle matters into his/her own hands.
If this doesn’t work take half a step forward. Suggest other toys they might like but ultimately let them decide on how the toy should be shared. This is also an opportune time to create a diversion and bring out the time-tested favorites. We can always count on bubbles, markers and stickers to unstick sticky situations.
SCENARIO #2: ‘IT KEEPS FALLING DOWN!”
Are the two playmates and your daughter having trouble assembling the dollhouse or stacking up the Dado cubes? Take 2 steps back. Resist the temptation to come right in and set it up for them. With enough practice they will get it eventually, fine tune their motor skills and learn to tolerate frustration in the process.
SCENARIO #3: “NO NOT LIKE THAT. I WANT TO BE FIRST”
Confused and conflicted on how the Pinoy Domino game should be played and who should go first? Take 3 steps back. Afford them the space they need. Allow them to experiment, negotiate, and make up their own rules.
There are, of course, instances when we need to be more than spectators. If you notice your toddler is becoming aggressive and angry words are being exchanged do not waste time and step in. Discuss with everyone in the playgroup and help them process where all that irritability is coming from.
“Children in this age group have difficulty in understanding anyone’s perspective other than their own. Everything and everyone in their environment is ‘mine.’” “Understand that he’s not going to be willing to share toys or wait for his turn, and be prepared to intervene,” says Patricia Robertson, coordinator at Seneca College’s School of Early Childhood Education. When to intervene? Robertson suggests parents step in when your toddler is hurting another child, your toddler is getting hurt or your toddler is damaging toys, furniture or other things.
SCENARIO #1 : ‘HE HIT ME! HE BIT ME!”
When your toddler inflicts harm on another or when the playdate turns into a battle, this is time to step in. Remove the toy that is causing the tension, and sit down with your child and help him understand someone is hurt because of his actions. This is also a good time to give the group firm advice. Explain to each of them that hurting, grabbing, and sinking their teeth into each other are definite no-nos. When the playdate is over, discuss with him again about the importance of being kind and thoughtful towards others and teach him there is always a better way to get what he wants.
If the toddler that swings the first punch is someone else’s child should we correct him? “Two simple rules: Never tell another parent how she should raise her child, and never discipline a child who's not your own. Parents have their own way of addressing their child's behavior, says Marilyn Segal, developmental psychologist, “and though you may wish wholeheartedly that the other parent would rein in her child more firmly, it's not your call.”
SCENARIO #2 “WHAT DO WE DO NOW?”
When boredom suddenly sets in bring out the craft, baking or art project you prepared just in case. Might be a good time for snacks as well. Gather all the little ones in your kitchen and make snack time part of the fun. Shaping their own sandwiches with cookie cutters, watching the popcorn pop in the microwave and adding their own toppings over the yogurt are always sure hits.
SCENARIO # 3 “I HATE YOU. YOU’RE A *&%^%$#!”
Sometimes conflicts escalate into verbal confrontations where angry and inappropriate words are exchanged. For starters don’t attempt to solve things with equally hurtful words. Monkey see, monkey do. Maintain a picture of calm yet be firm. "Marco, I can't let you do that to Enzo. I’m sorry but we cannot use words like that around here." Explain that those words are not acceptable. See if the kids can come up with a compromise. If all else fails, separate the children for a while or introduce a new activity.
It took a lot for me not to step in. Realizing she couldn’t finish her puzzle, our guest, Little Miss Sunshine peacefully walked over to a corner of the room to play with a new toy that caught her fancy. Thankfully, Mr. Crafty and Mr. Wily found a new distraction as well. Minutes later she discovers the missing pieces, puts in the puzzle’s finishing touches and all three gather to admire her masterpiece.
As I watch and breathe a sigh of relief, I realize that it is not only the little ones that gain from these dates. I just learned a thing or two or three. Sometimes the biggest lessons we learn come from the littlest people.