Should I Send My Kids Outside to Play?

Q. You've said in your lectures and columns that parents should send children outside to play and entertain themselves. While I agree in principle, I have two problems with your advice. First, there are communities where the threat of abduction is too real for children to be safe out-of-doors. Second, even in a safe neighborhood, it wouldn't be responsible for parents to send preschool children out to play by themselves. My husband, however, thinks otherwise. He feels it's perfectly OK for our children, ages 5 and 4, to play outside most of the day. He fails to appreciate, therefore, why I'm so frazzled by the time he gets home from work. How about it?

A. How about it? You mean, which one of you is right? Well, since you've invited me to get involved in a marital conflict, I'd have to say you both are. You're right that safety - whether the issue is the neighborhood or the child's age - is a consideration in deciding where to send a child to play. In a sense, however, your husband is also right. It's not so much a matter of sending the kids outside as it is a matter of not putting yourself in their service.

Perhaps a clarification of what I've said is in order. When I was a child, my mother - a single parent for most of the first seven years of my life - believed, as did most parents of her generation, that God made the great outdoors for children. Weather permitting, that's where she expected me to be, and if the weather did not permit, she refused to entertain me. Since she also refused to allow a television in the home, that meant I was expected to entertain myself, which I did. This facet of my upbringing fostered an independent and resourceful spirit and forced me to accept responsibility for myself. In addition, I respected my mother more because she limited the extent to which she would do for me.

It's the concept, not where you send the children to play, that counts. The important thing is that parents - and female parents in particular - control their relationships with their children, that they limit their children's access to them, that they not put themselves at their children's beck and call. This generation of mothers is having difficulty with this, the problem being that women have been encouraged to believe that they are good mothers to the extent they give of themselves to their children, regardless of how old their kids are. As a consequence, many women fail to adequately define their boundaries to their children. In fact, many women have no boundaries at all where their children are concerned. They mistakenly feel that to send their children away from them, especially if the children are not happy with being sent, is tantamount to rejection and will result in damaged self-esteem.

But self-esteem accrues as a child learns to stand on his own two feet, as opposed to his mother's. By the time a child is 3, this process - which is the process of emancipation - should be actively unfolding. You don't feel comfortable sending your 4-year-old outside to play? Fine, send him to his room. You don't feel it's safe for your 5-year-old to be out and about in your neighborhood? Fine, send him outside with strict instructions to play in the backyard. You can supervise your children adequately without getting involved with them, without catering to them. Let them know that you're more than just their mother, that you have interests outside of seeing to their care, that you have boundaries.

They may not always like it, but they'll thank you for it someday. Can you wait?

Copyright 1991, John K. Rosemond

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