Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Digger in the playground - on respect for design and letting go

I have a new-found respect for playground design. Not just the overall functionality and range of stuff, of the design and placement of the benches – all of which is so much better and more varied than what I grew up with.

No… I am beginning to see just how much thought went into the actual design.

It’s obvious. I just hadn't quite appreciated how clever it all is before. For instance the wonderful climbing frames of ropes are set a specific distance at ground level. You’ve simply got to be say 120cm before you can climb into the higher and more challenging part of the frame. The ropes there are set much closer, so they are easier to manoeuvre.

I try my hardest to give Digger free reigns at the playground. And now this stand back approach pays dividend: I can actually have a few conversations with the usual suspect parents there. Like yesterday, chatting away, and sudden I saw my son peeking up at the top of a huge ship. He had mastered a steep tricky climb up the side of it. On his own.

Since Digger arrived, I have tried to stand back, but stay close. Sorry mum, but one of the real yokes I carry from my childhood is her shriek followed by some quick tempo’ed chant of ‘be careful, careful, careful, gentle, come back, that’s too high, come down, get out, WATCH OUT, be careful, careful, you might slip, oh you will slip, oh careful, you’re slipping’ etc.

For me there is only one message in this. I hear : 'I don't trust you.'

I heard: 'I don't trust you to know what you are capable of'. 

And it never failed to unsettle me. I got nervous, and then, yes, I might have slipped. Which I might not otherwise have done, had I not absorbed my mother’s fear. Genuine fear. But it was hers to hold. Not mine. I almost get angry now if she does the same to Digger. Usually it is in situations where I have calculated the risk (as much as I ever can), and I have reached my own verdict that Digger knows what he is doing. No need to interfere. In fact just the opposite. I need to show that I trust him and his abilities.

But she is not alone of course in this approach. I hear this from so many other parents, carers and passers by. They shriek and raise their arms, they may even grab hold of Digger, and remove him. I have yet to come up with a sentence where I can tell them – politely – that I am still in charge, but most importantly that Digger is completely competent, to make his own mistakes.

In fact I want Digger to fall, trip, bang his knees etc. I’d much rather he does that now, from 40cm height than from 4m high up.

Moreover,  I am convinced that his physical confidence is also psychological confidence. And with a sidewards-glance at some recent research from University of Cambridge amongst others, his joy of exploring what he is physically capable of will stand him well in school. Free-play is by some hailed to be a good measure for academic success. I feel that Digger’s true confidence is also key in his sense of self, and that is paramount to me, as his mum.

I asked two of my friends - whose kids stand out to me particular good at head stands, football and climbing - what it is they do when their kids do things that may seem dangerous. How they as parents manage not to transfer their anxiety onto their kids?  Independently they both answered: ‘Sometimes you just have to look away.’ It’s a great answer.

Another thing I tell myself if I am in doubt is: ‘If he dares, so do I.’

All this within reason of course.

I do step in sometimes, if necessary. Invariably that is when he is worked up, overtired, geared up etc. Then I need to calm him down. Often touch is enough to bring him down a notch or two. But sometimes the only option is leaving the activity/space. This is especially if there are spats with other children – more on this another time….

If Digger fall – and he often does – I’ve got to be there for the aftermath. Ready with a big soothing cuddle, lots of kisses – if he indicates that’s what’s needed. But more often than not just acknowledging I saw what happened seems to be enough for him. He seeks eye contact, to see if I noticed. I might wince and say ‘Outch! Are you ok?’ and that seems to do the trick. 

I’ve recently started carrying a small set of first aid with me. Some antiseptic wipes and Band-Aids sort of thing. So far I’ve used them on other kids in the playground.

At night when we bath him, we check him over for bruises and grazes. And there are many. The majority on his lower legs. He leads a hard life. But we hope to ease it with a bit of cream and cuddles. There certainly seems to be no stopping him.

I’m really proud of him for all his physical energy and bravery. And I know he knows his limits, many of them anyway. For instance, he will be careful, if I don’t interject. And if I say ‘Digger, that is too high. That really makes me nervous. You could get seriously hurt if you fall. Can you please come down again?’ He will. Depending on my own emotional state, I will have made him nervous or even scared by saying so. In these situations I then have created something where I might need to step in and help him down. 1-0 to mum on freaking out. Usually I help by talking through how to get down. Cause he probably lost his nerve too. 

Digger seems only to get into sticky situations like that if I have helped him up over a barrier that he was too small to tackle himself. Herein lies my new-found respect. Who ever designed all this was way ahead of parents, well of me anyway.

The lesson I take from the playground designer is this: Don’t help you kid up past the point they can get to themselves. If you do, be prepared for the consequences.

And what has this got to do with adoption? Everything. First and foremost I can see Digger self-esteem growing when he masters a new skill. I hope this will feed into a sound sense of self. It is curious and very obvious that he still seems to prefer me nearby. Somewhere within reach. I still can't just sit down with a book. Although I am working on it.

I try so hard to set boundaries that he can handle. It’s not easy, but it is getting easier, to nestle into that mental parenting space of letting go on a background of mutual trust. If I can't quite find the trust in me/him, I rest it all on the designer of the playground equipment. They seem to know what they were doing.