Over the years, I have come across many families who have just one child. Needless to say, there is much focus on bringing up this child in the ‘right way’. Considering there’s so much literature around, the parents literally wrestle with the information, pondering each decision with much gravity and plenty of research. I know, for I’m one of them.
While this is commendable, and I doff my hats off to such involved parents, there is an angle to this that disturbs me.
With such single-minded focus on bringing up their only child in the most perfect way possible, the parents often forget who they are dealing with: JUST A CHILD!
Very often, the conversation is so adult even though the topic might be something of interest to the child. The manner of interaction is not child-like, it is very mature and there is a lot of stress on being logical and rational about everything. The child begins to resemble a mini-adult, and the parents glow with pride when the child makes adult-like remarks or exhibits adult-like behaviour in dealing with something. (By this, I mean mature behaviour, not A-rated as in the movies :))
I too was in the danger of heading down this very same path. Luckily for me, Lil D is a very social person, and made some good friends. As I interacted with the parents of these friends, I realized how wrong I was to “demand” maturity (and Lil D is pretty darned mature for her age!). As one mother put it: Childhood is the best part of their lives, and it will never come back; it is upto us to build happy memories for them to look back fondly on.
The way children interact with their peers is very different. They are on par with them, so the dynamics are completely different. Their hidden personality traits come out very well. One child who appears to be very shy is actually an excellent leader. She shines when the kids play together. I can give plenty of examples where the peer-to-peer interactions tell me far more about my child than my own interaction with her.
I remember one incident where the girls were playing in our house, and one of them was having some trouble with the others. The conflict resolution techniques the group came up with were simply astounding! It was worthy of an MBA class, imho. (I was sitting in another room and kind of eavesdropping, if you really want to know :D)
This kind of interaction is completely lost when parents become “friends” of their children. Though this is great to a certain extent, the danger is that very few of us can really shed our adulthood and become a child while playing. This kind of “playing” is contaminated with our messages that we deliver constantly and unconsciously, even though we try our level best to become a child again.
We are good as guides, but we really need to let go of the assumption that we are the world’s greatest teachers. The playground is far more potent, and the lessons learnt there are not easily forgotten. They are also true real-world lessons, and will come in handy as your child grows up, and you are lesser and lesser in the picture.
So what I have to say to parents with single children is this:
* Allow your child to find and interact with children of their own age. This is never easy, and it will take many hits and misses before he/she can make good friends. But be patient, and allow your child to make the decision. In extreme cases, I guess parental intervention is absolutely necessary, but from what I’ve seen, by and large, these things get sorted out soon enough.
* Allow your child to make mistakes. Be there for them when they come to you for support and advice. But don’t shadow them constantly, interfere with every interaction they have with their friends, and foist your own judgements on them (especially about their friends).
* Allow your child to resolve conflicts. Give them choices that they can exercise if confronted with the situation that threatens a conflict. It may not be resolved in the way you thought it ought to be resolved, but hey, that’s life! Grow up! 🙂
* Allow your child to be just a child. Let them spill things (help/teach them to clean up), let them roll in the mud or splash in puddles (helps build immunity :D), let them run around with no agenda and no “goal” to be accomplished…basically don’t sweat the small stuff. The sky won’t fall on your head if your child hasn’t eaten at the right time or slept at the right time or hasn’t worn the “right” shoes once in a way.
* Allow yourself to have no expectations. We’ve all read enough books and attended enough training sessions where the importance of setting goals, and working step-by-step to accomplish them is dinned into our heads. Your child does not need to accomplish something with every action he/she does. It need not head towards a concrete goal. Children are learning all the time. Understand and appreciate what they are learning, rather than imposing a learning schedule on them. You will be surprised at the things they learn in just one hour of play with their friends. Politics, diplomacy, conflict resolution, attention to detail, how to navigate roadblocks…these are all vital life-skill lessons that they will never get by sitting in a classroom or getting A+ grades in all their subjects.
We are living in a world that is progressing towards more isolation. It is important that our children learn social skills by being allowed to make friends, and being allowed to just play with their friends. They (and you) learn how to handle peer pressure too in the bargain.
It is ironic that I should feel like writing this, because I’m pretty unsocial myself. But I’ve seen the huge difference between children who are always out playing with friends, and the ones who spend most of the time with their parents. From what I’ve observed, the self-confidence the former group has in dealing with all sorts of situations is somewhat higher compared to the latter group. It’s basically practical knowledge vs. theoretical knowledge.
So take the time to gently move your single child into making good friends with other children. Children with siblings who are far apart in age also need this sort of environment to grow into themselves.
Well, now that I’ve got this off my chest, let me go and check on Lil D and her friends 😉
[ FYI, the play they’re putting up has ballooned dramatically, featuring a swimming pool, a ghost, and renditions of songs from The Sound of Music! Perhaps I should consider selling tickets? 😀 ]