I observed some fascinating behavior today at a library story time. Before the story began, the kids were all running around, playing with different toys in what is clearly a wonderful and beloved play room. Since this was at about 11:30 am on a Tuesday, most of these kids were under four years old. And perhaps because many of the parents were strangers to each other, there seemed to be a lot of concern about making sure their children were polite to one another. I try so hard not to judge parents, but this really gets me. Three-year-old children are not quiet, they do not sit still for more than thirty seconds and telling them to “Be a good sharer” doesn’t help them one bit.
Figuring out how to negotiate the use of the pink vacuum cleaner is part of play. It’s how kids learn conflict resolution. When you step in to immediately arrange for nice, neat turns, you take all the critical thinking/problem solving out of the situation. How do I know this? Because as soon as another child tries to take away the toy your kid is using, he looks around for you. That is a learned behavior. Why does he need you to solve this problem? It’s a simple choice: give up the toy or refuse to give up the toy. He knows that. He should be able to make that call on his own. If screaming erupts or violence seems about to break out, by all means, ask the kids what’s going on. But do try to help them resolve their conflicts, rather than swooping in and doing it for them. Does no one notice that swooping in does nothing to decrease the number of conflicts between children? It doesn’t remove conflict. It just makes your child less capable of dealing with it.
I see two valid reasons to interrupt play during an activity like this one. Reason #1: To teach manners. “Your friends can’t hear the story when you play with that loud toy. I need you to either sit and listen to the story or find something quiet to play with until it’s over.” It’s not ok to let your kid play the drums while other kids are trying to listen. And it’s rude to the adult. They will understand that, and it’s important for them to learn when certain activities are and are not appropriate.
Fortunately, I was hanging out with a mom who only interrupted the play to point out that her daughter might miss something. This is Reason #2. Your child might be distracted by something and then disappointed when they find out that they have missed the story they were looking forward to hearing. “The story is starting!” or “Do you want to sing with us?” give a kid the opportunity to make a choice. They love that. They hate missing out. The key to this, by the way, is letting your kid actually make her own choice. If she says “No” and walks away, please do not ask her if she is sure. If she changes her mind, she will let you know. But I don’t know any preschooler or toddler who is unsure. They might change their minds every thirty seconds, but when they want something, they definitely want it. When they don’t, they definitely don’t. “Are you suuuuuure you don’t want to listen to the story?” really means “I want you to sit here and listen to this story.” Even if you think it’s for your kid’s benefit, you are really just being passive aggressive. That’s annoying. And kids don’t understand it.
Please. Unless safety is an issue, step away from the child.