On a recent beautiful autumn morning (I'm writing from Tasmania, Australia), my wife and I took our daughter, Charlotte, on an outing to the park. There were half a dozen other kids there, all scrambling over the fort and slide together.
Kids being kids, they weren't sure which way was more fun to use the slide—heading up or heading down—so there was quite a bottleneck. One father decided to shout at his young boy in order to clear the slide for others.
After our daughter clapped and squealed her way down the slide, she toddled off to climb the fort again. A young boy with a patch over one eye stopped us, clearly enamored with the idea of being a swashbuckling pirate, and wanting us to share the fun.
A time to dream
Until Charlotte came into my life and showed me the way back, I'd forgotten what it was like to be a kid with a vivid imagination. Charlotte's "lessons" demonstrate how she: puts a plastic banana to her ear like a telephone and says "Hello...Nana?", crams all her dollys into a cardboard box and rocks them off to sleep, and talks to the characters on the pages of her books—especially the birds, "tweet, tweet, tweet."
Each day her body grows, and with it her imagination. I love seeing that development. I also love knowing that there is a fleeting time in this complicated world when a child's mind is completely free to indulge in any fancy, where innocence prevails, and where there are no responsibilities, the few exceptions being: not repeating anything that hurts you, sharing your toys with friends when they visit, being kind to others, and sitting still and eating at least part of a meal three times a day.
Heaven knows, this is a short period in life—surely it is a time to be cherished?
Plan a careful response
As a relatively new parent, I am well aware of the multitude of behaviors a child must learn with a parent's guidance, and I realize how overwhelming this education can seem to both parent and child. It is embarrassing to watch your child snatch a toy from a friend or have a tantrum in public. It is disappointing to see your child hit another child, and it's distressing to think your child might be rude to visitors or teachers. The first time something like that happens you don't even think your child is capable of the behavior, and you are shocked into doing something, anything, in response.
But, very much like training a dog, just doing something without a clear plan can backfire.
I can only imagine how our pirate friend felt when his father came storming over, demanding,
"Are you being a good pirate, or a bad pirate?"
"A good pirate"
"Really? Are you really being a good pirate?"
"If you're being a bad pirate, I'll have to smack you in front of all these people."
[Pirate bursts into tears]
I don't know this for a fact, but there is a very good chance that our pirate friend learned that using your imagination and attempting to include others in your game is not a very safe thing to do—it could lead to being smacked in front of everyone!
How is a three- or four-year-old child supposed to see that his father really just wanted to ensure that the pirate was being polite to adults and nice to other children? (If that was the point his father was making—I'm a dad, too, but I 'm not sure I understand his goal or his manner!)
My assurance that he was, indeed, being a "good pirate" would have only confused the child more. The small pirate might think:
"I thought I was being good, and that man thought I was being good, but daddy is angry, so what did I do wrong? Maybe I shouldn't be a pirate anymore."
A chance to build confidence
Even if I were a much grumpier, meaner dad, I would hate knowing that my child stopped developing his imagination because of something I did. I would hate knowing that my child was not confident around other people because of something I did.
How quickly does a child learn to moderate himself around other people because he is not confident in himself? How far does this learning generalize to other situations, like putting up a hand (or not) when he knows the answer in class?
Rather than depress myself by worrying about the effects of disciplinary techniques I know I don't want to use, I ask myself this question, and share it here with you if you are interested:
How many chances do you get to make a positive impression on your child in these brief, formative years?