"Smart, audacious and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear." - Jennifer Jason Leigh

Leave Them Kids Alone

It was a gorgeous, clear Southern California morning. An easter egg hunt had just commenced. Life was good.

Except…

My son wasn’t looking for the eggs.  He was fascinated by the cat door to our friend’s house or maybe he was fascinated by the cat. From where I was standing, I couldn’t quite tell what had struck his fancy. Whatever the case, he wasn’t looking for eggs like the other kids. And our dear friend, who’d been so lovely to set the whole thing up, didn’t want him to miss out on the fun. So he said,

“Hudson! There are no eggs there…come and look over here.”

Hudson stayed where he was. And continued to do whatever it was that he was doing.

Intervening gently I said, “Are you interested in the little door, Hudson? Do you see the cat?”

I was trying to show our friend that he had found something of interest to him, it may not be on the agenda, but he was enjoying himself. Everything was okay. I was on it.

Our friend didn’t quite get what I was indirectly trying to say and told Hudson once again that there were no eggs by him and that the hunt was over yonder. He even went over to him to steer him in the right direction.

I steeled myself.

Hudson slowly turned around and crumpled. Tears streamed down his face.

He said he wanted to go home. Over and over again. I took this to mean that he wasn’t feeling welcome here as he was, that being someone who was looking at a cat door and not for eggs.

I carried him over to a quiet area and acknowledged what he was saying.

“You want to go home Hudson. You were looking at something and weren’t ready to look for eggs, is that right?”

Our friend finally understood what happened and apologized to Hudson. Which was so lovely of him to do. Usually people just explain to me how they didn’t do anything wrong. Not that it’s about right and wrong…

Anyway, Hudson continued to cry for a while. I held him and I went over what happened a couple of more times.  ”You want to go home….You loved looking at the door. You weren’t ready for the hunt…” etc.

Then the crying stopped. He felt understood and the feelings were out of his body. He saw an egg and off he went. He showed it to our friend. No hard feelings!

My point?

There is no need to replace their agenda with ours.

I totally understand that our friend didn’t want him to miss out on the experience. On the fun! That he didn’t want all of the eggs to be gone. He meant so well. And what he had told Hudson  was seemingly so helpful. And yet, it wasn’t. It was really a form of controlling him and invalidating his experience. His interests.

Hudson may have wondered why he was being told to do something other than what he was doing.

Why, he may have wondered, was looking for an egg better than looking at a cat?

Good question!

I have to say I was proud that he’s someone who knows what his interests are, that he isn’t swayed by others and doesn’t feel pressure to conform.

If you don’t accept me for who I am, I want to go home! Of course he wanted to be there, but he wanted to be accepted for who he was.

Hudson is, as Alfie Kohn might say, “intrinsically” motivated.

The eggs could wait, he’d found something that was fascinating and he was pursuing it!

And if he had missed the egg hunt, we could have hidden some more eggs.

We had the resources and the time.

We all mean so well.And yet we control kids all the time. In the most benign ways.  And most kids, I fear, have become immune to it. They’re used to being told what to do and when to do it.

I hope Hudson can hold onto himself…as painful as it may be sometimes.

It’ll be worth it.

30 Responses to “Leave Them Kids Alone”

  1. someKids says:

    that day in school, your son would not get check for the box
    ~plays well with others

    why we humans need to feel the need to conform is a basic function, one that, if broken, leads to change.

  2. Andy says:

    As a dad-to-be, coming this summer, I’ve started reading all sorts of literature (and blogs!) on parenting, since “unprepared” would be an understatement for how I feel going in to this.

    One thing I’m having a very hard time grasping is the balance between respect for your child and his interests, and teaching an awareness that the world won’t necessarily conform to those interests.

    In your post, you would have let your son play with the cat door at the expense of missing the easter egg hunt, which I get. The part I don’t get is that you would have hid more eggs later. In my mind, his looking at the cat door is a choice he’s making instead of hunting eggs. What do you say when he later realizes he HAS missed the hunt? I’m tempted to think, “Sorry, buddy. The hunt is over and everyone is going inside. You can stay out here and play by yourself, or come in with us, but the eggs are gone.”

    • Jennifer says:

      Andy! Congratulations. I’m so happy for your unborn child to have a dad that is actively trying to educate himself before he or she is born. Most are profoundly ill-equipped to be parents (I was!) and don’t do anything about it. You are so wise to prepare yourself.

      My first and biggest recommendation is to buy YOUR SELF-CONFIDENT BABY by MAGDA GERBER.

      Secondly, you are right to say the world won’t always “conform to a child’s interests” but i believe strongly that there is not need to create false situations to teach them that lesson. It will happen enough as it is. They will have to get in the car when they’d prefer to stay home. They may have to go to school when they don’t want to. Go anywhere. their food is chosen for them. so many things that there are plenty of opportunities to say this is how it is and to then empathize with them that you know how hard it is. the attitude of, “sorry bum, that’s how it is” is very hurtful to a child. something like “you really want to stay home and finish playing with your blocks. you’ve been working on that building all morning and you don’t want to go….” makes it so much easier for the child because they feel heard, understood and that their parent is on their side and isn’t out to teach lessons. working with children is so much kinder, humane and ultimately more effective (children become more cooperative when they are treated with respect and compassion) than doing to them (if you don’t get in the car i will…..take away your toy or yell or hit you etc.)

      furthermore, my child may not have given a shit about the hunt. and if he did and we couldn’t stay longer i’d say “you were watching the door and the cat during the egg hunt…you missed it. you feel sad about that….” etc. just empathize. name and empathize. if he cried….i’d let him. and comfort him.

      but since i have ALL DAY LONG TO DO NOTHING OTHER THAN BE WITH MY KIDS AND OUR FRIENDS WERE HAPPY TO HAVE US THERE ALL DAY TOO we had plenty of time to do hunt after hunt after hunt after hunt. the kids could get in on the hiding and everything evolves in an organic way…nothing preconceived. it’s their time! when i can follow my child’s lead, i do! when I can’t, i explain why and empathize.

      is this helpful???

    • Jennifer says:

      also andy,

      i think this is an important Magda Gerber quote re: babies that i believe in deeply:

      “A child should have a child’s life and not be an appendage of an adult’s life. Children should have their own age-appropriate experiences. Few adults adapt to a child’s life—her size, temperament, and timing. Many expect children to adapt to adult life. This is very difficult for children to do. Children can adapt to anything, but it isn’t in their best interest.”

      — MAGDA GERBER —

  3. Tracy says:

    My 3 1/2 yr old daughter is a huge Disney fan and has an annual passport. (I’m sure some would tell me not to let her go, but let’s put that aside for a second.)
    It was after reading your blog that I stopped asking, “Did you see Minnie Mouse today?” and started asking, “So what did you do today?” Even though I thought I knew the answer. The answers I got were not what I expected at all, but the conversation was a whole lot more engaging for my daughter.

    • Jennifer says:

      you’re onto something tracy! thank you for sharing.

      in my own experience (and of course all kids are different!) if i ask my kids too general of a question like “how was school today?”, i get more of a generic answer but if i can specify it a bit with something like, “oh today was library, did gail read any new books?” then i’ll get a much richer answer.

      xoo

  4. Laura says:

    Hi, loved this scenario. Could you give me some advice about dealing with 2 kids. A lot of the unconditional parenting stuff I read seems perfectly do-able with 1 child, but my husband and I really struggle applying it to 2 boys. In a similar scenario to yours one child would always be keeping the other waiting; or conversely one child would always be wanting to move the other along. If there’s only 1 of me, how can I let each of them do things at their own pace? Thanks for the article though. Even if I can’t always apply these things I appreciate being reminded of the concepts behind the practice so I can try to find ways of working them into our lives.

    • Jennifer says:

      Hi Laura,

      Yes! Two is certainly more challenging than one. For me, I discovered “unconditional parenting” when i was struggling with two and actually found it to be the life save i was looking for.

      i don’t think this example is idea because my son was PERFECTLY happy to do his own thing and so was my daughter….it’s just that my friend who had planned the hunt was trying to change what he was doing. My daughter didn’t have to wait for him. He knew the hunt was on and he was choosing not to participate yet as he’d found something else of interest to him. If when it was over and there were no eggs left and he was upset, i would have empathized with him then….and then problem solved with him.

      but i do get it that one might be ready to leave the house and the other isn’t…that’s certainly a challenge.

      first is to lead with empathy.

      to the child who wants to leave: You really want to get going don’t you? Your brother isn’t ready and that’s frustrating you isn’t it.

      to the other child: You’re not ready to go. You really want to finish your puzzle. Is that right? I see your sister is ready.

      to both of them: does anyone have an ideas of how to solve this problem?

      perhaps the one that wants to go would offer to help finish the puzze.

      maybe the one who wants to stay is worried his puzzle will never get finished. “would putting it on the table with a sign “do not touch.” help? then we can finish as soon as we get home”

      etc.

      every situation and child is different.

      first observe. then lead with empathy. when the situation is understood by all, engage them in problem solving.

      HELPFUL at all? if you have a specific situation, please let me know and i’d be happy to walk through it with you laura.

      best,
      jennifer

  5. T. L. says:

    I mostly agree with the aforementioned “critique” of that scenario. I’m sure each scenario dictates its own response based upon the circumstances. However, there will come a time when children will realize that they will have to “get used to being told what to do and when to do it.” This is called life, aka reality. I believe in allowing kids to be kids but some kids are in for a rude awakening when they start high school, college or get a job (if there are any) and their teacher or boss tells them what to do and when to do it.

    We need to look further than our proverbial parenting noses! ; )

    • Jennifer says:

      HI T.L.

      My aim is to always be the most humane and considerate to my children, and to anyone, in the moment. I try to do what is most “right”, most compassionate, most understanding right now, not because it will make them a more kind, compassionate, understanding, confident person (though i do hope for that) but BECAUSE IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

      People who are used to being treated with respect will ultimately be treated with more respect because that is what they inspire in others and they won’t settle for less. They will speak up for themselves (respectfully) and they will be drawn to employers who value them. and partners, lovers, friends who value them.

      If a child is disrespected, they will not think much of themselves and their own opinions and will just do what will make others happy. And they will lose themselves.

      I would never harm someone now to prepare them for future harm. I couldn’t live with myself.

      Thank you for reading.

      I hope this clarifies my point of view.

      Jennifer

      • Natalie says:

        To be honest, I was wondering the same things as Andy and T.L. and your responses were insightful and I agree. How you are treated as a child certainly affects you as an adult, and I can speak from experience from that because I grew up just wanting to please others. I don’t want the same for my son.

        • Jennifer says:

          I’m so glad the answers resonated. Personally, I was curious how Andy took what I said. Usually, in the blog world, you don’t hear back re: an answer or a comment and so I’m often left wondering if I made any sense of if my pov penetrated. I’m so gratified to hear that with you, in this particular case, that it did!

          Best,
          Jennifer

  6. Amy says:

    I really try to do this with my son. We stop and look at things he finds interesting on our walks together. I try to validate his interests instead of insisting on my own. If you think about it, we often do this not just to our kids, but the other people in our lives as well. We just assume that their priorities should match with ours. I have to say that I’m impressed by not just you but your friend as well. He obviously had enough respect for your son that when he recognized his error, he acknowledged it not just to you but to the person he had hurt. What an awesome thing! So many people think that all that is required is to apologize to the parent. But apologizing to a child validates their needs, and teaches them appropriate ways to handle their own mistakes. I really believe that when interacting with children, it’s not just our mistakes that count, but how we handle those mistakes. That friend (errors and all) sounds like a gem!

    • Jennifer says:

      Yes Amy! My friend was very magnanimous and sincere in his apology. I was grateful. And I too was sorry that he even had to apologize because he meant so well. But alas, it was the right thing to do. Apologizing to children is so important. I know I make mistakes ALL THE TIME and i do apologize to my kids. I think beyond being the right thing to do, which is the most important of course, it helps normalize apologies as well. And hopefully won’t make them so hard for them in the future. “Oh, I made a mistake. I’ll apologize for it.”

      Yes our friend is a true gift to us on many many levels. We are blessed.

      I appreciate your very astute comments and thank you for taking the time to share them.

      Jennifer

  7. Paula says:

    How do you “guide” a child through being teased? I try to hold back sometimes, but it is hard when you see that your child is anxious about it, and also not wanting to go to school…she is about 4 years old…

    • Jennifer says:

      paula! i’m heartbroken to read this news about your child. i think it is very important to get the teacher involved. can you please tell me more about the teasing.

      • Paula says:

        She is in a preschool/daycare and her class has 3-6 year olds. The older kids call her a baby, babycrier – and she takes it quite to heart, because she is quite focused on wanting to be bigger like them. I am not sure if this would be a big deal for all children, but it seems to detract her from wanting to go to school. I think there is some separation anxiety as well…

        • Jennifer says:

          paula,

          does she cry when you leave and then they add more pain by calling her names?

          i would talk to your daughter, the children and the teacher. i’ll call your daughter Sadie

          “Sadie is crying because she misses her mom. It’s hard to sometimes to leave your mom. Have you ever missed your mom? Crying is a natural and important way of releasing emotions or getting them out of our bodies because they our feelings are stuck inside of us we dont’ feel good. People cry at all ages. Mommies and Daddies cry too.”

          I’d have a serious, private talk with the teacher about the problem and see if they are willing and more importantly equipped to help. some are, some are not. if not, you need to educate them and hope they are responsive. if not, i fear it is not a safe environment for your daughter to be in — emotionally speaking.

          • Samantha Gale says:

            Thank you for this response! As someone who was teased terribly as a child, I can vouch for how important it is to have supportive adults and friends to help you.

  8. ram says:

    except* accept* I know it is only grammar, but it really changes the meaning of the sentence.

  9. ashley says:

    I absolutely love this. I commend you for letting Hudson be his own little person and acknowledging that even though hes young, hes still a person with feelings and wants. I have no doubt that this little boy will grow up and feel confident with who he is and in control of his own body/feelings/future.

    • Jennifer says:

      thank you ashley. the only disheartening thing is how uncommon my response is. respecting children, alas, is not only a big challenge for our culture but sadly it’s not on most people’s radar. i appreciate your support of the piece and you taking the time to write in. welcome!

      • ashley says:

        So very true. I think it must be because it’s how we’re taught yk? However, we can choose to break the mold and do differently (better) by our children.

        Thank you for the welcome. A friend showed me this read; glad to have found this site :D

  10. This is one the things I am finding most difficult to consistently put into practice as a parent. It makes perfect sense, it just permeates everything. I am getting better for sure, but have so far to do.

    Thanks so much for this post, and all of your work.

    • Jennifer says:

      Hey Muddy Boots,

      Thanks for sharing on your page. I’m glad you found me!

      I think reflecting on why we have the impulse to control our children is an important step. Can you remember feeling the need to perform or please as a child?

      Awareness is the first step. So hard to be mindful, I know. But sometimes i think things can just click and you’re like, hey wait, what he’s doing is none of my damn business.

      that’s the hope anyway!

      also, while i hestitate to say this, i know you are, as you said “hardcore AP”. i’m not. i didn’t practice ap though i am a practictioner of RIE and Unconditional Parenting and one of the gifts of RIE has been that from a very young age, I trust in my child’s own competence. once we’d truly connected i’d let them play on their own in their safe play spaces. and watching them choose what they wanted to play with for as long as they wanted is what i believe help me understand that my interfering with their play and their interests was actually rude. Magda Gerber’s work help me understand that i could truly connect with my children during all care giving times and in a sense that fills up their emotional gas tanks so that they can then play freely…even with me in the next room. as i understand it, that’s not an AP practice, but it has been life altering for me and has led me to progressive education etc.

      all the best,
      jennifer

  11. I experienced this *big time* at our town Easter egg hunt this year. It was the first time we’d gone to it, and I wasn’t prepared for the number of parents who would make it a competitive sport. My sons got many fewer eggs than the other kids, but they were so proud of them and had done it all on their own. This post has inspired me to do something smaller with friends next year, where we can allow the children to explore and discover at their own pace.

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