Living in Europe, it’s difficult not to reexamine the way you think about many things. Everyday offers up some new challenge to many a long-held belief. Certainly I anticipated this, but I was not expecting that my sojourn into another culture would change the way I thought about parenting. How was I to guess that the neighborhood playgrounds would prove to be as much a learning experience for me as for my children?
In Germany, nearly every neighborhood has a playground. They may vary in size, popularity and equipment, they may be near the main roads, in the center of the parks, or in local the Biergartens, but they are there. They are usually within walking distance from every neighborhood. We have had no less than three within walking distance of our German homes.
European playgrounds are a child’s dream. These aren’t the sterile safe swings and slides you’ll find in the US. Oh no, these are the playgrounds the parents of America see in their nightmares. The playground down the street from our house had everything a child needed to perform death-defying acts of bravery. It was enough to make a mother’s heart stop – or to make children’s hearts soar. The playgrounds aren’t divided by age appropriate equipment. It is all there – for the child to decide. On our first trips there, I absolutely refused to allow the children to play on it. They were only 18 months & 3 years old after all. But the thing is, they wanted to try it. So slowly, I began to let them do things. First I hovered. Then I stood close by and observed. And so it went for the first part of our journey. The children played and I became their professional spotter. Always there to catch them when they fell.
In the article 7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors That Keep Children From Growing Into Leaders – Forbes , the first two points mentioned in the article are let your child take risks, and don’t immediately come to their rescue. I agree, and I learned how to do this on the playground.
When I first arrived in Europe, my thoughts always turned to the potential for danger and who is liable if there is an accident. It didn’t matter if it was a museum, a neighbor’s house, or the neighborhood pool, my thoughts were the same. “Someone is going to get hurt and then there will be trouble”.
These playgrounds were no different. Someone was going to get hurt. But the children didn’t see that. What they saw were their peers having fun on this massive playground that their mother didn’t want them on. That was when I really saw this fundamental difference in beliefs. Here you are truly responsible for your own actions, and the consequences of those actions. So slowly, I learned to let go. I stopped hovering. I stopped spotting. I let them experiment. I encouraged them when they were stuck, held my breath, and anticipated their successes.
Very few of the playgrounds in the US offer equipment that truly tests the children. We fear lawsuits. The equipment is safe, clearly labeled to ensure age appropriate use, easily mastered, and just plain boring. Following my children’s lead, I have become a connoisseur of playgrounds. All across Europe these playgrounds offer the children unique challenges. Most of the equipment is of a sort that I have never seen in the States. Today, I don’t see the prospect for danger lurking around every corner. Instead, I see children playing, enjoying themselves, testing themselves, and proving themselves. For the most part, the parents are present, but they don’t hover. The children are allowed to explore. And they do. They challenge themselves, and they test their limits.
The idea of allowing children to take responsibility for their actions seemed revolutionary to me, but it is one that I see over and over here. On the playgrounds, at the pools, and at the school recesses the children are allowed more freedom in play. Self-confidence may not be the only thing that children gain from this freedom. A school in New Zealand is looking at the correlation between playground rules and bullying. ( New Zealand Schools Ditch Playground Rules, See Less Bullying Among Children – International Business Times )
I believe that by allowing my children to explore, to succeed and fail on their own, they are learning to take responsibility for their own actions. They gain more self-confidence when they finally master that scary, difficult, high, piece of equipment on their own than they will from all the safe play with hovering parents. Self-mastery and exploration are great confidence boosters. By creating places where children can never fail, we have created an environment in which they can never succeed. How can you savor success if you have not first realized what it means to fail? I have seen my children overcome their fears and beam with pride as they tackled something that they were previously too scared to do. How else are they to learn perseverance in times of trouble?