Of Hand Washing, Snow Forts and Homeruns: Child’s Play is Hard Work!

Published on July 11, 2012 by

Happy kids on ocean beach having fun

It was once common to think of children as ‘miniature adults;’ that is, children were believed to have similar needs, views, and potentials as adults, perhaps only in more limited quantities.  The enlightened view that children experience life in a different way than adults is a relatively recent phenomenon (i.e., the 20th century) and one which is still, at worst, widely resisted and, at best, hard for many adults to deal with.

Take, for instance, the example of a father who asks Tommy to wash his hands and come to dinner.  After a couple of minutes have passed and Tommy has not come to the kitchen table, dad shouts, ‘Tommy, come for dinner!”

“I’m washing my hands!” Tommy hollers back.  After another (eternal) minute with no sign of Tommy, dad rises from the table, heaves a big sigh (now the rest of the family knows his irritation is official), and heads for the bathroom.  He observes Tommy playing in the water, completely engrossed in the task.  Exasperated, dad grabs a towel, barely brushes his son’s hands against it, and herds him to the kitchen.

In contrast to adults, children tend to value the means of a task more than the ends.  In other words, whereas children are easily taken in by the process, adults are more likely to focus on the product.  This interest in the journey rather than the destination stems from the child’s curiosity about and exuberance for the wide spectrum of experiences life offers.  I see the child’s means orientation as a highly desirable one; however, this is not to say that children should not be taught to follow through on tasks (or Tommy will never eat).  Indeed, perhaps largely for adaptive reasons (i.e., for survival, efficient use of time, organization of society, etc.), adults learn to focus on task completion, on the end goal itself.

Naturally, spending too much time at either extreme (means or ends) is unhealthy, for if a child becomes too engrossed in catching the frog hopping about the pond, she could fall in and possibly drown; likewise, a child running after a ball must not run in to the street without considering the possibly dangerous ‘end.’  On the other hand, an adult who is ‘too busy’ to play in the rain or make an ant farm with his child is truly living a stoic existence.

Most adults would do well to try and focus more on the ‘means’ of life, since the ‘ends’ seem to be our default modus operandi.  I know I struggle to enter (and remain in) my children’s world on a consistent basis.  I remember one winter several years ago when I was teaching a Parenting Skills class and gave myself and the participants what seemed like a simple assignment.  Each of us was to pick a time and activity in which we would put forth an out-of-the-ordinary effort to fully engross ourselves in our child’s world, if only for 10-15 minutes.  I decided to try my experiment with my son, Benjamin, who was six at the time.  He expressed an interest in building a snow fort, and as I pulled on my gloves and boots, I kept muttering to myself, “Means, means, means.  Fun, fun, fun.”  I had forgotten how hard it was to be like a child and have fun.

All went well as we began our work…err, fun.  There was plenty of snow and it packed well, so I envisioned quite a fortress.  That was my first ‘ends’ thought; my second followed shortly after when I caught Ben playing in the snow (a.k.a., having fun) instead of working on the fort.  I couldn’t help it…it just slipped out.  “Ben, you’re not working on the fort.”  My fatherly intent was to redirect him to where the real fun was, fun that I had methodically and carefully planned.  Realizing my error, I quickly reversed myself and followed Ben’s lead, playing in the snow with him.

It wasn’t long, though, before I stumbled once again.  The walls of the fort were nearly complete when I observed Ben carving out holes in the walls where he could place his plastic army men.  What followed was my coup de gras.  “Ben, snow forts don’t have holes in them,” (after all, I was the adult; I know how real snow forts are made).  This one experience taught me just how far I’d come from my carefree days of childhood.  I was embarrassed that I was directing my son on how to play and have fun, rather than flexibly, spontaneously, and imaginatively joining in with him.

I believe parents generally try to impose structure (read: ends ) upon their children, and this is certainly appropriate much of the time.  However, if anything, I believe concerned parents do too much of this.  Even Little League baseball coaches are guilty.  This past summer, I observed five-and-six-year old boys and girls clamor at their T-ball coach to pitch the ball to them rather than having them hit it off the tee.  The children seemed interested in the challenge and fun of trying to hit a moving ball, “just like the big kids.”  Their coach resisted on several logical counts, then tried to coax them out of their request by pointing out that they probably wouldn’t get as many homeruns from a pitched ball as from hitting the ball off the tee.  To his surprise, the kids in unison replied, “So?”  To me this was a prime example of how the adult saw the end (home runs) whereas the kids saw the means (trying to hit a moving ball) as most desirable.

            Becoming childlike certainly has multiple meanings, and the innocence, vivaciousness, and exuberance with which children approach their experiences is undoubtedly one of them.  We adults would do well to ‘stop and smell the roses,’ to enjoy the simplicities of life as they come to us.  We can join with our children in paying attention to the means of tasks and activities (but beware of having fun!).  Entering the world of our children is crucial (but yes, frustratingly fun) to helping them enjoy life to its fullest.  And, who knows…perhaps we’ll spark some dormant exuberance in ourselves in the process.  Notice how you can make the water trickle off your fingers faster, then slower, then faster…how it can drop off the ends of two fingers, not three…and watch what happens when you add soap (or better yet, dirt) to the mix!

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

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