The last time Elliot and I went to the playground, my heart broke a little.
I have lamented in this forum before about my guilt regarding Elliot’s lack of a built-in playmate – a brother or a sister. This is especially true as he gets older. He wants someone else to play with; Mama and Daddy are just not as fun as other kids.
On our most recent playground trip, Elliot immediately sought out a buddy. He found another boy and two girls who were playing some sort of game that involved running, hiding and yelling. When Elliot approached and asked, “Hey, can I play with you?” they darted away, screaming, “No, we don’t want you in our game.” I could hear the boy telling the girls, “Hurry, run away from him!”
Elliot moped toward the tire climb, probably his favorite part of this particular playground, and sat on the top tire, elbows on knees, face in hands. He clearly got his feelings hurt, and seeing his dejectednesss made my heart ache for him.
I walked toward him and said, “It’s OK, buddy. If those kids don’t want to play with you, then they are being rude. I’m sure you can find someone else to play with.” He jumped up, seemingly undeterred, and took off to find another playmate. I’m not sure if the original threesome he tried to befriend heard me call them rude and felt badly, but they quickly changed their tune, offering to let Elliot join them for a friendly game of “Bank Robbers.” Great.
I watched Elliot run, approach other children and say, “Give me your money!” He dashed back to the boy who seemed to be leading the imaginary thievery, and they discussed their next plan of attack. Although I wanted to put a stop to Elliot’s participation in this “game,” I let him play. It went on only for a few minutes until he decided he wanted me to push him on the tire swing, away from the main playground structure where money was being stolen. Whew!
While I pushed, I questioned, “What game were you playing with those kids?”
“Robbing banks,” he said.
“Do you know what the means?”
“No,” Elliot answered.
“It means you are pretending to steal money from banks. That’s not nice. You wouldn’t like it if someone took something from you, would you?”
“No,” he said again.
While I didn’t suggest to Elliot that he couldn’t play with the pretend bank robbers, I did try to help him understand that stealing is not allowed – ever. After the tire swinging concluded, Elliot went back to his cohorts, who were surrounded by their moms at that particular moment, and announced rather loudly, “My mom said I’m not allowed to play that game anymore! Robbing banks is not nice.”
I was a bit mortified, mostly because the children’s mothers heard Elliot’s proclamation. Nobody really seemed to mind though, so the youngsters just decided to run around haphazardly and play without any sort of plan – or imagination.
I felt badly about this whole playground experience for two reasons: 1) Seeing and hearing those kids originally dismiss Elliot really affected me, way more than it did him, I’m sure. 2) Implying that the bank robber game was inappropriate made me wonder if I squelched their imaginative play altogether.
I know this was not the last time other children will hurt Elliot’s feelings. Like all mothers, I want to protect him from those hurt feelings. I know that’s not realistic, however, and even those instances provide opportunities for us to encourage and edify Elliot.
Speaking of being protective, when – if ever – is it OK to step in and end imaginative play, just because I consider it negative or inappropriate? That’s essentially what I did with the playground bank robbing game, right?
My Elliot’s current favorite thing is playing superheroes. He loves Spiderman, Ironman and pretty much all the other Marvel characters. When he has imaginary “battles,” there are good guys and bad guys, and someone inevitably ends up getting “killed.” I read an interesting column about children being punished for playing superheroes on the school playground.
For me, it all boils down to wanting to protect Elliot from evil. That’s part of our job as parents though. We have to protect them from the bad while teaching them how to avoid it when we’re not there. But, life is all about balance. We also have to allow them to make mistakes and, yes, even get their feelings hurt.
Originally published on ovparent.com.