He’s building a tower out of Duplo. Maybe it’s a crane, or a “London Bridge” or maybe a bus. It stands tall and has taken considerable time and effort. I’ve been watching. Watching and smiling. He looks back at me from time to time and smiles back. He’s enjoying himself – so far. There’s a problem. I see it, but he doesn’t. There’s a flaw, a weakness an imbalance. It’s going to fall, and soon.
My inner control-freak wants to intervene. I could fix the problem I could reinforce his structure, I could re-direct his hand. I could buttress the tower. I could hold it up for him. So many things I could do to help, to make sure the tower works. To fix it.
I could keep watching, like I have been, and let the tower fall. Let his work collapse so he has to start again. Leave him to get frustrated and angry. Leave him to wail in disappointment. Leave him to learn.
Both choices come from a place of love. I turn inside to find the answer, and I find it in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Star Trek was escapism for me. Pure and simple. Watching the Starship Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) sail through the void of space, communicating with aliens, resolving diplomatic impasses and solving scientific mysteries. I loved the plot lines, loved the booming voice of Sir Patrick Stewart, loved its unapologetically optimistic view of the future and I loved the moral dilemmas that the crew faced in every episode. Well almost every episode… Some episodes sucked.
And then there was the Prime Directive. The law that banned interference with less developed cultures, even to “help” them.
“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy … and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” (Jean-luc Picard, Symbiosis)
Yes. Disastrous. Okay, maybe overblown. Maybe it’s melodramatic, ST:TNG was a bit of a space opera, but the concept is something worth considering before I jump in and fix that tower.
What’s the end game here? Do I want my son to build the biggest best most magnificent tower ever? Do I want to ensure he never gets angry or hurt or frustrated? Do I want him to only have fun and never experience disappointment?
Or do I want him to learn how balance, gravity, forces and mechanics work? Do I want him to learn the limits of his structures, his blocks and himself? Do I want him to explore experiment? Do I want him to learn that towers fall down, and you have to build them again? Do I want him to learn that if a tower falls the world doesn’t end and the world keeps turning?
The urge to protect our children is strong, one of the strongest impulses you’ll ever feel. Babies. They put things in their mouths, they can’t sit or even hold their head up, they can’t move to get away from danger, they can’t even control when they poo. All they can do is cry, it’s their first, last and only line of defence in the face of any danger, and they rely on adults to get them out of it.
But they grow. They grow fast. Faster than we realise. Faster than they realise, suddenly they crawl, climb, walk, talk, eat, play, sing… And they learn. It’s not always easy to learn, and it can be a frustrating process when you are still so small and the world is still so big. But they do learn, sometimes because of us and sometimes in spite of us.
So, Picard in my head, I let him go on. He surprises me and gets another two pieces onto his tower before, as expected, it topples. The blocks clatter. He screams. It’s that high-pitched yell that he brings forth every so often. He sweeps his hand over wreckage, scattering more blocks everywhere and he looks at me with tears welling.
“Oh well!” I say in a cheery voice, hoping to help him move on. “Do you want to try again?”. Seconds pass, and so does the tempest of fury. They pass quickly if you don’t let yourself get caught up in them. I help gather up the pieces and he starts again. He checks back on me every so often, but he’s mostly content to get on with it himself.
It falls again, he pushed a piece down too hard and the structure underneath breaks. More tears, more anger. It is not easy to watch. The urge to help him is growing in me, but I fight it still. I keep my hands off, let him build his own tower and watch as it falls a third time. He comes to me, passes me blocks. Wants me to get involved, so I do. I’ve waited for him to ask for me, and he did eventually.
How many times have I interfered? How many times have I fixed that tower? Or finished the puzzle? Or put the fork and knife the right way around in his hands? How many times have I grumbled at him for spilling a drink or making a mess? How many times was it really necessary?
Of course it doesn’t pay to simply be hands-off. It’s not an excuse to check your phone constantly while your baby plays around you. There’s a difference between respecting your child’s play and ignoring them. And there are plenty of occasions where parents need to jump in. When a child is in danger, when they get too far away, when they get up too high, when something they’re standing on is going to break. If he is hurting another child, yelling at his sister, throwing things at his sister, trying to lift his sister, pushing his sister over, yelling at his sister again…. (you get the picture).
Hard and fast rules quickly fall apart when you’re faced with the reality of parenting. It’s intuitive, it’s judgement calls, it’s all in that grey area. Kind of like in Star Trek. The Prime Directive is violated all the time, it’s part of where the drama of the show comes from. And as parents we intervene all the time, often when we don’t really need to. I just hope that by being mindful of it I can keep that inner-control freak of mine in check.
This post was, in part, inspired by a program called Watch, Wait, Wonder – something we learned about at the O’Connell Family Centre. It’s worth a look.