Stop Telling Kids to Stop

free play
My students playing freely with baking soda and colored vinegar. I made only one rule (“Don’t eat anything”), and the only kid who broke never made that mistake again!

It’s the Week of the Young Child! (Actually, it’s the week before the Week of the Young Child, but my young child keeps waking up every forty-five minutes at night and I can’t read dates right, so we’re going to celebrate early.) Yesterday I wrote about playing with infants. Today I’m talking about playing in general, and how boring and restrictive we adults are about it. 

“Don’t walk in the mud!”

“Don’t go near that road.”

“Don’t touch it!”

“Don’t put it in your mouth!”

Caregivers talk almost exclusively in imperative commands. I’ve seen parents hover over their kids, controlling every blink, twitch, and word with some form of negative commentary:

“Hold the door open for her! God. Do not walk in that dirt — DO NOT WALK IN THAT DIRT. I don’t want that in my house. Get out of there right now. Go to the passenger side door, she’s backing out. Stop it, you two; get in. Now! Stop! Stop it! Why are you acting like this?!”

I’ve been that teacher who micromanages every bit of fun that kids have:

“Keep your hands to yourself, Casey; there’s no wrestling at school. No, we don’t stand on that bench, you might fall off and hurt yourself. No, you may not walk up the slide. Get out of the way so Rachel can — Rachel! Feet first down the slide! Put down the snow, Malia, no, ew, don’t eat it, that’s yucky. Friends, get off the ice! Nobody is allowed to play near the ice, remember?”

No, don’t, stop.

We say these things to our children over and over again, even if no real danger is present or harm is done.

It’s often born out of a fear of healthy risk, a disinclination to clean up messes, and, for me especially, a fear of what other people think. Will people think I’m a lax parent if I let my toddler try on a purse while shopping? Will people think I’m a lax teacher if I let kids talk in the bathroom? Is that lady judging my parenting because my son accidentally let a door slam in her face? Will parents think less of me if they see kids pushing each other in the Cozy Coupe car under my watch?

Instead of putting the children’s needs first — their needs to play and explore freely without constantly bumping into a barrier of no, stop, don’t — caregivers often put their own desires first — the desire to look competent and authoritative to others, the desire to not clean up another mess. But it’s emotionally exhausting and ineffective for caregivers to uphold detailed, endless rules that unnecessarily restrict kids. It just breeds power plays and frustration on both ends.

For everyone’s sanity, here are some suggestions to curb this micromanaging tendency:

Create yes spacesA “yes space” in RIE theory is an area with no hazards — a place where, theoretically, your child could explore unsupervised without risk to herself or other objects. It’s a place where caregivers could have no conceivable reason to say “no” to anything their child wants to pull out or play with.

Even if you don’t have a special room or gated area for a “yes space,” put on the onus on you to take away hazards instead of requiring a young child to stymie their curiosity. Put away items, lock cabinets, or move your child to safer area so that they hear “no, don’t touch!” less often. Why create an unnecessary power struggle when you can simply take away the temptation?

Get comfortable with risk. Kids learn through risk. They learn about themselves, their competencies and shortcomings, and the world around them, its hazards and helps. If we constantly police what kids can do under our supervision, they won’t be safe and smart when outside of our supervision.

As an example, I try to let kids walk down the steps of our school’s changing station on their own, even though it’s a bit tricky for younger, uncoordinated kids. I stand right there, ready to catch them if they fall, but I don’t hold their hand unless they request it. Sometimes they trip a bit and risk falling, but those near-falls teach them how to navigate stairs of all sorts on their own. Those children are less likely to do reckless things, since they’ve experienced the risk of nearly falling flat on their face. It’s the kids who get lifted down from the changing table or who always have an adult helping them down who do far more dangerous things (like nearly throwing themselves off the stairs expecting me to catch them!).

Be realistic about harm. Kids will fall, trip, and run into things no matter how many rules we enact or how many times we yell, “Don’t run! Watch where you’re going!” They will get hurt, and there will be scrapes, bruises, and bloody noses. That’s just the nature of childhood.

We have a soft gym at my preschool, and kids love to roll down this ramp on large balls. Some teachers are uncomfortable with this and want the kids to only slide on their bottoms. You know how many kids have injured themselves rolling down the ramp on balls? Zero. And how many kids have hurt themselves merely sliding down the ramp? Plenty.

Besides, kids often ignore adults’ pleas to stop if the risk is minuscule or the request is silly. When I was a kid, I lived on a quiet street in the suburbs. All the neighborhood kids congregated in and around this street to play hockey and ride bikes. We’d been doing this for years when one day, a police officer spotted us riding our bikes back and forth across the street, in and out of our driveways. “That is too dangerous,” he cautioned us. “You could get hit by a car. I don’t want to see any of you doing that again.”

From that day on, we obediently made sure no police officers were nearby before we started up our bike rides.

Even kids as tiny as toddlers will continue to take a risk if they don’t understand the real danger behind it, which is why it’s important to reserve our no, don’t, stop for clear dangers. Otherwise, our no, don’t put the dishwasher pod in your mouth will seem as over-reactionary as no, don’t eat the snow. (We all tasted snow as kids. And leaves. And grass. And our mom’s weird-tasting wood coasters.)

Unless the activity causes intentional injury (e.g., one student slinging balls into other kids’ faces) or a potential for a huge injury (e.g., playing by a busy road), just calm down.

Let children measure their own level of safety. It’s true, kids make dumb decisions. But it’s also true that in certain circumstances kids can evaluate and express when they feel hurt or in danger better than their caretakers. I’m losing count of how many times I’ve pulled two kids apart on the playground, expecting howls of pain, and found both the tackler and the tackled laughing hysterically.

“Ian,” I’ll chastise the offender. “We do not tackle our friends at school. You could have hurt Ryan really badly!”

And then as soon as I turn around, Ryan, that poor, helpless victim, tackles Ian back, still laughing uncontrollably.

For some reason, many kids find it funny to punch, tackle, push, wrestle, and throw balls at each other. Don’t you remember doing things as a kid that just sound horrific now as an adult? I rough housed with my dad, getting tossed on my head and finding it the funniest thing ever. I repeatedly crawled through this huge bushy plant with leaves that gave you millions of paper cuts. I wound up our tire swing and spun around until I was dizzy enough to puke — multiple times.

Every kid tolerates things differently, and we do children a disservice to decide what they can tolerate or not. I’ve determined that my job as a teacher is not to enforce my view of what’s tolerable or not, but to enforce what they view as tolerable or not.

We teach our kids to speak up for themselves: “I don’t like that,” I hear them say all the time to each other, from being called a “buckethead” or getting tackled to the ground. I uphold children’s “I don’t like that.”

If I see Ian going in to tackle Alexa, for instance, I’ll throw myself between the two because I know how much Alexa hates playing rough. If Ryan decides he’s had enough of the tackle game and Ian’s not letting up, I pull Ian off and say, “Ryan told you he doesn’t like that. You need to listen to friends’ words when they tell you they don’t like something.”

Just don’t be a stick in the mud, okay? Really, what’s the harm in your child walking through some damp dirt in the parking lot? Worst case scenario, he gets dirt on your car floor, which is already covered in Cheerio dust and road salt. What’s so bad about kids wrestling each other? Worst case scenario, someone gets hurt, and the game stops. What’s the worst that can happen if you let kids climb up the slide?

I’ll tell you. They can step on their dress, slip, and slam their chin into the landing, resulting in an ER trip and stitches. But did that stop me from climbing up the slide? You bet it didn’t.

And if busting my chin open didn’t stop me from doing something fun, you shouldn’t stop kids from being kids.

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