I remember the first time I noticed it.
We are at Disney World, enjoying the annual membership we saved up to purchase for our year in Orlando.
Family after family walked along, pushing their rented double stroller filled with weary children far beyond the age of being carted along by equally weary parents. It was the “trip of a lifetime,” or so explained the parents.
Sleepy, exhausted, and often crying kids: in strollers, in the hands of adults half dragging them toward the next ride, begging to be done for the day. “Can’t we just go back to the hotel?” they pleaded. The parents’ response always sounded something similar to:
“Come on! This is fun! We still have so much more to see! This is our only chance!”
I get it. I do. Most people aren’t in our situation. They don’t have the luxury of living in Orlando, enjoying a job that leaves them with evenings and weekends full but with days free to take our (then) all preschool aged kids to explore “the most magical place on earth.” After a few hours, we were ready to return home, knowing our passes could and would be used many times again. For many families, however, this was a trip of a lifetime. And they made sure to let their kids know it. Over and over.
This a photo from a recent trip to the zoo. We hadn’t been there in more than three years and our kids were so excited, especially about the mud kitchen. We were disappointed when it appeared as if the play area had been closed. To our delight, we saw that it had only been moved and improved.
Fast forward four years and our family found ourselves in North Carolina for a year of furlough. Wanting our kids to enjoy the amenities of America, we purchased a zoo membership (yea for places that have family membership and don’t define family as “two parents and two children”!) It was a 45 minute drive from our home, but still, it was worth it.
In this particular zoo was a little treasure: a children’s play area. I don’t mean a playground (though there is one of those in another part of the park). No, this was something entirely different. It was a huge, fenced-in area filled with all sorts of imagination- and curiosity- filled things. There were sticks and ropes and random pieces of fabric. There were shovels and rakes and burlap sacks. There was a mud kitchen, overflowing with pots and pans just waiting for a child to “bake” a beautiful pie.
Our children loved it. One one occasion, I am pretty sure we spent more time in the play area than we did seeing the animals. Our kids built teepees, made mud cakes and casseroles, and pretended to be carpenters, monkeys, and the next winner of Cupcake Wars.
I remember watching them, the rising pregnancy nausea threatening to steal my enjoyment, and thinking, “This is it. This is what childhood is for.”
As we sat there, sun hot against our backs, we heard variations of the same conversation outside the gates:
“Mom! Can we go play in there? I want to play!”
“No. We’re at the zoo. We’re here to see the animals.”
“But just for a little bit?”
“No! Let’s go!”
Family after family walked past, sweaty kids being pulled by parents along, disappointed little faces pointed in our direction, longing to be with the blond-headed crew enjoying the massive space all to themselves.
Jason and I looked at one another with a knowing glance: It’s Disney all over again. “No, kids. You can’t play. You can’t rest. You’re having fun, remember? We have things to see and places to go! We have an agenda!”
“You’ll get dirty!”
“You can play with sticks at home.”
“There is a nice playground by the concession stand.”
With mud-covered children, sun-kissed cheeks glistening with sweat colored brown by the dirt, we reluctantly gathered our things as the zoo closed its gates for the day. Half the animals went unseen, a lonely section of map unused. But our children’s curiosities were satisfied and their little souls filled.
Oh parents, let them be kids.
This I plead.
However, this pleading to “let them be kids,” is in reference to a child’s curiosity, wonder, and inhibition, all of which come naturally to children. I do not in any way mean “let kids be kids” in the sense of allowing childish and selfish behaviors that also come naturally. The former helps children gain a greater view of God and how He has revealed Himself in Creation. It awakens their senses, forming neural pathways for sensory stimulation and integration, imagination, and awe of God. The latter furthers the sinful notion that children are the center of the universe (or at least the home) and their behaviors should be overlooked or excused by the turned head of parents who don’t want to “squelch their personality” or simply don’t know what else to do.
Clearly, this is a topic in desperate need of wisdom, discernment, education, and encouragement. When do we push kids to keep going even though they are tired? When do we slow down and enjoy the benefits of the proverbial encouragement to “stop and smell the roses?” How do we balance parent’s desire, children’s wills, and invested time and money?
What about safety? Do we allow kids to play unattended? Should we let them climb trees? What if they get hurt? Will they ruin their clothes if they play in the mud? Will they make a mess of the house with their glitter, glue, and playdough?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I struggle with this issue at times along with every other parent. When to push? When to let go? When to worry? When to encourage? When to say yes? When to say, “not now?”
However, even in the midst of own questioning, I do want to share some thoughts and guiding principles we have used in our family. We’ve made mistakes and we’ve enjoyed successes, but for the most part, these principles and ideals have served us well.
I hope to give you some examples specific to our family as well as some questions for you to consider as you lead and guide your own children.