Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

Respect or Overindulgent


Parenting, Playful Advice

I often wonder; what is the difference between spoiling a child and honoring their reality? Where does respect end and overindulgence begin? If Carly doesn’t like something on her plate, should we insist she eat it? Does respecting her necessarily imply that we should prepare Mac & Cheese every night because that is what she says she likes and therefore wants? When she says ‘no’ to getting ready for bed should we wait until she is ready or become indignant; “How dare you talk to me that way. I say it is time for bed!”

Some say childhood tantrums are normal. I have never seen any of my children lash out in a flailing tantrum. What am I doing wrong? Am I spoiling my children? Am I overindulgent? Does being child-centered mean the little darlings can do whatever they want? What are boundaries and why do we need them? For their own good, of course. Safety aside, for their ‘good’ or ours?

There are several important challenges here. The first is treating children as we would treat any special guest in our homes, with care and respect, while respecting my adult needs with the same care and respect. Why is this a challenge? It is a challenge because the adult-parent and the child live in different realities. Adults don’t understand how embedded the child is in their activity of the moment. Like being in a dream, they are completely involved; physically, emotionally and mentally. The word is entrained. We come along and say, wake up, stop that dream and dream this instead. How would you like to be treated that way? You would fuss too, that is, unless the new dream-activity is more inviting than the old. Ah, here is where the real challenge is. Realizing the power of entrainment, at least up to age six or seven, our challenge is to weave a story-spell that entices the child-of-the-dream into the next adventure, like taking off her clothes and jumping in the tub, what I call the Pied Piper effect.

We can say that development is the ever-expanding ability to act creatively in the world in ways that meet our developmental needs and interests. What we call child’s play is how this happens. Therefore, play is all the child wants to do, play being the adult word for learning and development. It would help if that is what we say. Building a mountain of pillows, running as fast as you can and jumping is the act of learning and development. Sure, it looks like fun – and it is. That is what real learning and development looks and feels like. Adulterated adults have been so conditioned that they think conditioning, with its rewards and punishments, is how learning and development take place. “How dare you talk to me that way. I say it is time for bed!” That’s conditioning.

Alas, conditioned adults were, and very early, conditioned out of nature’s design for optimum learning and performance, what we in the trade call original or authentic play. Most adults don’t really remember what play-is-learning feels like, so they are not very good at inviting and encouraging play-based learning and development. When adulterated adults feel important lessons are needed, they most often turn to conditioning, with its authority and implicit punishments and rewards. And here we introduce the ‘reality’ split that is the real source of conflict. The authority-adult demands that the child stop their play-dream and do what they are told. Of course, the child protests and the battle escalates.

Knowing all this, and like a good storyteller, we foreshadow what is coming next. “Oh, what fun it will be to see how high the bubbles will be in the tub. I’m the bubble monster.” And we run around the house three times on the way to the bath, laughing and dropping socks and shirts along the way. Too much trouble, you say. Ok, have it your way. Rip the child-of-the-dream out of their dream. Politely or redely demand that they do what they are told and when they resist grow more insistent. This doesn’t work, so raise the implied threat. You are the authority after all. Feel your frustration bubble inside. The little darling still resists. Conflict builds. Now the shouting. Then the tantrum and tears. And repeat this a million times a day. Which is more trouble; conditioning or play, laughter or tears?

Realizing that play is learning helps. And play involves, even in its most simple forms, story, an inner vision of some possibility worthy of experiencing and exploring. Being human, this inner vision glows as words, symbols and metaphors. From eighteen months forward this is the key and catalyst. As developmental magicians parents encourage optimum learning and development in children by weaving story-spells and then by giving energy to the spell by encouraging the dream; “I’m the bubble monster…,” and away we go. A story well told is usually all it takes, off to the next adventure whatever that needs to be for you and the child; placing groceries in the cart, taking out the trash, picking up the mess from the last story-dream before we slip into another. It is the child’s job to play and it is our job to encourage and expand that play with our stories. Story isn’t some special time when we read a book. Story is all the time. With story we play our way through the day, as nature intends. When in doubt, make up a story. ‘Gee, I wonder that those two peas on the plate are thinking about?’

PS. Being overindulgent isn’t being a storyteller. Next time.

Michael Mendizza