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On the sidelines

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Watching my children acquire new skills requires far more patience than I ever anticipated. As a parent, guiding my children along the correct path, either verbally or by example, is easier for me than standing back and watching them prove themselves. Yet, as my children grow, I’ve come to believe that simple observation, with fewer instructions on my part, might actually be more beneficial.

My tendency can be to “hover” and obsess over the minutia of a particular process, however many of our Czech friends, Radek included, take a more hands-off approach. For example, when there’s a dispute over a toy among toddlers, our Czech friends will commonly say, “Let them work it out.” While I agree this method is effective at times, I also believe that stepping into the middle of a squabble and modeling good behavior can be the right solution, particularly if the kids are young. I know many of our Czech friends think I’m uptight (probably an understatement), but it does take all my self-control just to keep my mouth shut at times.

I remember one holiday weekend we spent with some Czech families at a cottage in the Jizersky Mountains. Since we were there for several days, the children had brought playthings from home. During breakfast one morning the oldest boy got out his Lego set and Anna Lee started to build with him. When Oliver cried that he wanted to play too, I leaned over to the pair and said, “Would you let Oli have some Legos, too, please?” “No,” the boy said, politely, but firmly. “They’re my toys, and so I get to decide who plays with them. She can, but he can’t.” His mother, who had turned her head at the ruckus, just shrugged when she heard her son’s explanation and went back to her coffee. Oliver protested, but before I knew it he found other entertainment and the moment passed. Although my natural inclination is to make my own children share their toys in a group setting, I couldn’t argue with the boy’s reasoning. I admired his gumption, even if I might not let my own kids get away with saying the same thing.

In our current neighborhood, children are allowed to run freely from garden to garden after school, but it is generally understood although there may be an adult on the premises there is no guarantee of supervision. Still, when we have a yard full of children at our house, it’s all I can do not to leap out the front window when I hear the squawking of a dispute or an outcry of displeasure. I know my kids need to learn to account for themselves, but when I am the only responsible adult around I can barely stand the pressure of stepping aside to let them learn. Yet I’ve also come to learn that when there’s genuine danger, even Oliver is mature enough to come and get my help.

A while back, Babička bought Anna Lee and Oliver a movie called Lucie postrach ulice (Lucie, the Menace of the Street), filmed in 1983. It illustrates the mishaps of a six-year-old girl who is allowed to stay at home on her own during the last week of summer holiday while her parents are at work. The movie illustrates how innocent, but unlucky, Lucie interacts with a gang of slightly older neighborhood kids and learns a few of a life’s lessons, without coming to any real harm. The movie is generally reflective of the attitudes at the time. While I’m not advocating such extreme hands-off parenting, the movie helped me put into perspective the benefit of standing back and to let my children make their own way.

These days, children are often subject to more supervision and scrutiny than in years past, yet the tendency to let Czech children be independent still seems socially ingrained. It is common for school-age children to travel to and from school on foot or using public transportation. When I pass a school around lunch time or early afternoon, it’s normal to see small groups of children out on the sidewalks eating snacks or walking unsupervised to their afterschool activities. During the fall, a girl of nine disappeared while walking home from school in the Troja neighborhood of Prague, an incident which was so outside the norm that it made national headlines for weeks. The girl was never found and the tragedy of her disappearance shook the city, yet it has been viewed more as a freak tragedy than a warning for parents to take heed and become more vigilant.

My children are still too young to go to and from school by themselves, but I did let Anna Lee recently attend an afterschool activity with an older friend. Anna had been thrilled and I knew it was a good exercise for both of us. Fostering independence comes early in the Czech social system. From the moment children enter Czech preschool, they are expected to play an active role in their own development, especially with regard to mastering simple life skills. In general, as a parent you can’t expect much feedback from teachers regarding day-to-day behavior. Instead teachers usually talk directly to the children.

Just a few weeks ago however, I got clear signal that I needed to let my over-involved nature take a back seat. Oliver’s preschool teacher greeted me at the classroom door one morning to tell me, “Oliver needs to practice getting himself dressed.” She explained that Oliver has a tendency to throw up his own hands and wait for a teacher to undress or dress him whenever they go outside. This was unacceptable, and according to his teacher, Oliver was the only student in his class of 24 three-and-four year olds who didn’t dress himself. I completely understood the teacher’s frustration since Oliver’s bad dressing habits had created a fair amount of stress in my own life, that is until I’d just given up prodding him and began to dress him myself. The only thought that ran through my mind was why had Oliver’s teacher waited until the end of January to let me know that Oliver was lacking this basic skill. I had mistakenly assumed he dressed himself fine at school and only gave me trouble at home. I finally reasoned she’d tried working with Oliver directly and telling me was a last resort. Since then, it’s been hard keeping my hands off Oliver, particularly when we’re pressed for time. We’ve even been late for one of Anna’s activities because he took too long dressing himself. Hopeful he is gaining self-sufficiency through increased practice now.

On a recent family holiday to the Lipno ski resort, I got to live any parent’s dream. Standing along the side of the kids’ ski park, I watched as my children displayed their various degrees of skiing prowess. While Anna whizzed down the slope, her skis in perfect parallel, Oliver managed to keep his balance and stay upright for his one-hour lesson. I know in few years they’ll both be better skiers than I am, and I’m pleased that it’ll be just one area of their lives they’ll have the chance to give me some pointers. Standing on the sidelines never felt so good.

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