An hour or two into the 11-hour drive from Ohio to Wisconsin for my wife’s family reunion, I turned down the radio and asked for the attention of my children. They were just tucking into a fast-food road meal, which I knew would keep them quiet while I laid down a new rule for the upcoming weekend. I’d been thinking about it for a while and waiting for an opportune moment to have the conversation. I found it on the highway and adjusted the volume of my voice so I could be head over the crinkling of food packaging.
“Boys, you’ll be playing with a lot of cousins this weekend you haven’t seen in a while,” I began. “If you’re playing and you have a fight or disagreement, I want you to figure it out on your own.”
They offered quiet “okays” around mouthfuls of chicken nuggets. But I wanted to make sure I was being clear. I explained that if they came to me to solve a conflict, I would remind them it was their responsibility and send them back to the fray. I would not, under any circumstances, intervene in a fight. Oh, and neither would their mother.
“Right, dear?” I asked glancing over at my wife in the passenger seat.
She shot me a skeptical look. “Right,” she said.
There was quiet from the backseat until my older son, the 7-year-old, broke the silence. “But, Poppa, what if it isn’t so simple?” he asked, sounding like some nervous mob soldier wondering what to do if a shakedown went sideways. I stifled a grin.
“Just figure it out,” I said.
Some 8 hours later we had reached our destination on the shores of Lake Michigan and nothing more had been said about the new rule. I hoped they had internalized my direction. I was cautiously optimistic.
An important point here is that my children, the 7-year-old and 5-year-old both, are pretty aggressive leaders. At least they are in their heads. When they play in groups their catchphrase is “C’mon guys!” What happens next is usually dependent on whether the other children c’mon or not. If they meet with resistance, my boys will filibuster. Sometimes their impassioned pleas result in the wearing down of their peers. Sometimes their peers react more aggressively. Many times the upshot is a child coming to me in tears saying that another kid is being mean, followed by an awkward huddle where I’m asking a troop of skin-kneed elementary school kids if they can just get along.
That’s just what happens during the average trip to the playground. But that’s not where we were. The circumstances of the family reunion were a bit more intense. Not only were we sharing a suite with cousins who had a 4-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter of their own, my boys would be thrust daily into a squad of a dozen distantly related kids whom they barely knew but were expected to get along with. Again — cautiously optimistic.
The first foray into the kid-havoc was in the hotel pool, and my kids seemed to play just fine with their peers. But, then again, I was very close. Given that they aren’t the best swimmers, they were never too far from me. The conflicts (which pool noodle or kickboard was best) were minimal and easily solved. It might have helped that they had a gorilla of a father slumped nearby in a deck chair. Still, I was pleasantly surprised that intervention was unnecessary.
That changed later that night. Me, my wife, and our suite-mates had decided that three of our four children would share a bed. This was a practical measure that allowed them to be shut in their own room while the adults talked into the night. But the practical upshot was two older cousins ostracising the 5-year-old. A door would slam and he would come into the kitchenette weeping the hot tears of the exiled. We could not bear to tell him to solve the problem on his own. Not only was he smaller and weaker, but it was two against one. I hadn’t thought what might happen if they were outnumbered.
Optimism deflated, I proceeded with caution.
The next day was the reunion proper and my wife’s entire family gathered in a park close to the hotel. There were swings, a merry-go-round from the mid-’70s, and a play structure that looked about 20 years old and featured a disconcerting tangle of caution tape at its center. The children were overjoyed, clumping immediately on the merry-go-round until they were flung off into the day where they engaged in chases marked by cacophonous, indefinable yelling.
For the parents’ part, we drank beer, waiting for the kids to spin off the playground in tears, or come asking for food or soda. Over the course of the day, children did find their parents. There were several minor injuries, a few hurt feelings, and a meltdown. But none of them came from, or were a result of, my boys.
In fact, we saw them so rarely, my wife and I would occasionally grasp each other and scan the park in panic, in case they’d wandered away or been abducted. No. They were just playing. And they were getting along. In fact, they got along the entire day.
At the end of the day, my boys had made new friends. In fact, my oldest had made plans to establish a pen-pal correspondence with a second cousin. And in the many hours they’d run and climbed and shouted “C’mon guys!” never once did they seek out their parents.
I had an 11-hour drive back home to think about why that might be. It’s not because they didn’t have any frustration. They did. In my occasional playground scans, I’d witnessed the occasionally exasperated foot stomp, some arm-tugging here and gesticulation there. But somehow they’d done what I’d asked and “figured it out.”
I did try to question them about how this turn of events happened, but being 5 and 7, they gave me only shrugs and “I dunno.”
But I think I do know. In our day-to-day life, my wife and I rarely give our boys the explicit autonomy to solve problems on their own. Instead, they most often receive an implicit understanding of independence as my wife and I leave them to their own devices so we can get our own shit done. But we’re still very much available to be a sounding board and step in to solve conflicts.
This time, we’d been very clear that we would not be available. And I think we all understood it as an act of trust that they could find solutions on their own. Buried in my 7-year-old’s question: “What if it isn’t so simple,” was an understanding that it probably would be simple. That “what if” was a powerful signal, because we only tend to ask what ifs when we’re pondering events outside the status quo. I think, in this case, my boys understood that most likely, things would go down simply.
I understand that, for my children, play is a learning opportunity. And one of the biggest things a kid can learn, on a slightly used Wisconsin playground, say, is problem-solving. For too long I’d been solving those problems. When I gave them permission to solve themselves they rose to the challenge.
And that’s the place we’ll occupy from now on, as we cruise to the next playground or playdate. “Remember,” I’ll tell my boys. “Figure it out.”
And they will.