I was delighted to stumble onto this piece written in “The Washington Post” from a year ago about and by Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, titled “Why adults have to stop trying so darn hard to control how children play.” Through a thoughtful anecdote, the piece highlights the benefits of letting children resolve conflict organically and independently, with adults observing but not intervening (unless necessary for the children’s safety). Although it is almost cringeworthy to read about the escalating conflict Hanscom shares, the anxiety I suspect she felt supervising the situation is not unfamiliar to me on the playground as a mother of young children. Yet, by allowing the children to work through their play and conflict, she sees that true empathy is taught.
Empathy, or “kindness” as we refer to it in our home, is something we speak of frequently with our children, and yet, in support of Hanscom’s observations, I almost never see it when I lecture my children about it. Rather, I see that empathy creep in when I least expect it. When I let the natural consequences and emotions of their decisions be thoroughly experienced and explored. When one of them is bitingly mean to the other, but something tells me to just sit back or life’s challenges prevent me from helping. It is in those moments that I see them feel their own mean words or actions and volunteer a solution that genuinely addresses the wrongdoing. Or equally important, when they stand up for themselves in a way that protects them better than I ever could.
Hanscom is an advocate for such free play because she believes it gives the kids the practice they need to develop important life skills like those discussed above. It was a nice reminder to me that although there may be moments that are hard to watch, it is necessary to let our children enjoy unrestricted play, even when it becomes more contentious than seems comfortable.