Friday, April 3, 2009

Let Them Play!

I hate to point fingers, but it saddens me deeply that we as Park Slope Parents are too guilt-ridden with our own productivity to let our children play, to teach them how.

My son's sweet pre-school teacher last year looked deeply stressed as she sat across from me at the little round table, our adult derrieres hanging over the sides of tiny plastic chairs, to deliver a report on four-year-old Oscar.

"I just want you to know," she said, biting her fingernails tensely, "that we are just looking at social skills and play, not academics." It was clear she figured a good offense was the best defense, she'd come out with it as to head off the hepped up, grade-focused parents right at the first pass. I was happy, others not so much.

I loved the cute school, where the kids went to each other's houses for "home visits," watched chickens hatch out of eggs in incubators and went swimming and to see plays and puppet shows. These things, I thought, were exactly age appropriate. They learned to play with one another, they learned the routine of going to the same place every day without their parents, they began to learn how to learn. Letters and numbers were introduced, but not hammered home so as to worry their wee brains. It was perfect. But some people weren't satisfied: their children weren't learning to read or write or do math. Weren't they falling behind?!? One woman, an editor, told me proudly that her son, who couldn't read yet, was "well past picture books..." In pre-school, I always thought? Isn't there plenty of time for that?

The pressure that we put on our kids is only a symptom of the pressure we put on ourselves. I gave out a gold star this rainy Spring morning to a woman, a Park Slope mom, who said she recently felt like putting on her Facebook status: "I feel bitter, jealous and fat..."

She is an accomplished person, an Ivy League graduate, a published writer. But it is not enough. She doesn't have a new book deal and the thrill of getting the first one published has worn thin. She acknowledged that her perspective is often glass-half-empty, but that is what we're all primed for, isn't it? Even though we are so lucky, us Park Slope Housewives (a moniker my lovely friend Dave uses often in mocking), we judge ourselves harshly for all that we're not doing. It starts early nowadays, in pre-school, that playing is not enough, only productivity need be rewarded. If Oprah is up and down like a yo yo, what of the rest of us? How much more productive could she be? It tells us something, the drug addictions and weight fluctuations of the rich and famous, Angelina Jolie and Madonna's constant acquisition of new babies: we don't know how to be happy at play.

Retirees are often at a loss, for they feel useless after a long productive career that distracted them from looking at themselves, at what they really enjoy or at what really makes them feel good. I chatted about this idea yesterday with a lovely man, a local building manager and sometime leader of male consciousness-building workshops, who works hard to connect with others, with himself, even though he admits that doing so is scary.

He gratefully accepted his big gold star for trying with a huge smile. "Oh my, I got a star today, how awesome!" he said. I saw him later coming toward me on 7th Ave., his gold star glittering on his hand in the afternoon sun. "The star has made me happy all day," he said. "I feel like I'm five again!" Hopefully, our kids will be able to look back on five in the same way we can if we're lucky, as a happy, carefree, fully unproductive time, a time when we weren't judged on skills, just on smiles, and for trying.

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