Parents Over Playdates: Kids, Adults and Emotional Development
The natural order of things when it comes to the world of a child has always been that parents (or another substitute “big person” part of the child’s life) are in the lead of all things. The parent scripts the tone of the child’s existence, they chart the course, they shield, adjust, and calibrate. This is what a parent’s role is meant to be in the life of a child. When done successfully, it paves the way for development to proceed exactly as nature intended, and the child gets to grow in the very best way possible.
Today, healthy childhood development is being derailed by parents’ tendency to overly rely on other children—rather than themselves—to entertain and occupy their kids. Child development specialists have been warning of this trend in a myriad of ways for many years now. And you can look no further than the proliferation of anxiety, performance-oriented culture, bullying on the playground and social media, and the oft-heard cry of parents and teachers that “kids these days are impossible,” to witness the impact of excessive peer orientation.
When a child spends too much time, especially un-/under-supervised, in the presence of their peers, the intended dynamic of the parent-child relationship is hijacked. Rather than looking to the parent as their North Star, the child’s focus shifts to their more constant companions: peers. And since children are not meant to grow up other children, things can get very challenging indeed.
Historically speaking, this is a rather new dynamic for children to confront in their most formative years. Our ancestors raised their young in the context of the home and village, where adults were ever-present and in the lead. There was, of course, a need for that from a safety perspective, but intuitive wisdom highlighted how adult stewardship ensured that a child’s best interests were tended to.
The transition from this kind of existence aligned with the advent of formal education. Designed as a means of “enlightening” the no-longer-hunting-and-gathering masses with more academic matters, the education system was not designed with the needs of child development in mind. The transition from this kind of existence aligned with the advent of formal education. Gone were the days of a child being tended to by their parents or a trusted adult from the village, and it became the norm to group children together in same-age cohorts where they were shepherded at arm’s length by trained adults whose mission it was to have the child learn academic skills, with the idea that this would eventually prepare them for religious life or the work force.
From this, a shift in focus naturally evolved from championing a child’s natural developmental emergence and progression to one that became focused merely on outcomes. The goals of development became things that correlated with “school readiness” and parents soon discovered that children fit into this prescribed mold better if training for the requisite skills began at a young age, with social skills being highly prized. Thus the birth of the playdate, the invention of the 3-year-old birthday party bonanza with a gaggle of friends, and the never-ending list of extracurricular activities, all designed to ensure the child kept pace with their same-aged peer groupings. And in the service of artificially imposed developmental goals originally designed to serve adults and economics grew a cultural phenomenon that assured us—nay, insisted—that kids need socialization.
At the time of writing, we are a year into the global pandemic of Covid-19 and one of the most frequently asked questions that has come to me from parents, literally hundreds of times over, birthed out of concerns for the ramifications of lockdowns and physical distancing restrictions has been: “What are the long-term effects of no peer-related socialization on my child?” I have really good news for you: No matter the age of your child, the decreased socialization will not have any kind of deleterious impact on your child in the long-term. Global pandemic-induced or otherwise. Here’s why.
Your children receive the template for relationships from you. In the context of this first, most intimate relationship, your child learns about empathy, based on how empathic you are to their feelings and needs. They learn about unconditionality, based on how free-flowing your love is for them. They learn about reciprocity, based on how you consistently respond to their bids—a process developmental psychologists call “serve and return.” They learn about gratitude based on how you bathe them in your own appreciation. They learn about love, self-worth, and who it is that they are in this great big world, all from you and the manner in which you interact with them daily.
With this template securely in place, somewhere around 24 months of age your child will begin slowly and tentatively generalizing the application of this template to other relationships. But they still need your consistent reinforcement during the formative years. Once they reach adulthood, this template that you provided and maintained will in turn create for them how they “do” relationships as their own grown-up self, including intimate relationships with romantic partners, professional colleagues, and friends.
That template needs to be shaped by input and guidance from an emotionally mature, centered, present, and capable adult—not by a child or children in their peer group. And yet, if we are turning our child’s face into the peer vortex via “socialization,” the result will be a template mapped out by those who, of course, are just as unprepared to do so as your own child. The problem with children taking the lead in development is that they—yes, even your own children—are egocentric by design. They are wired to see the world only from their perspective—a reality that only slowly begins to melt away in the early adolescent years when they can begin to see things more clearly both through their own eyes and through the perspectives of others.
Imagine what it would be like to be raised by an egocentric child. Their needs and viewpoint would reign supreme, and in turn, you would learn from that example to only be concerned with self, and to only value your own opinions, likes and dislikes, to the exclusion of all others (even a future partner). With this in mind, it is no surprise perhaps, that in our peer-oriented culture children now grow up to become 60 percent more likely to face divorce, and somewhere between 20–33 percent more likely to be clinically diagnosed with symptoms of anxiety. Kids will always do best if they are broadly grounded in the safekeeping of the parent-child relationship until late adolescence, rather than being marinated in the challenging culture of peer-to-peer interaction from early life onward. We are a social species after all, meant to exist in the context of relationship but those relationships need to work for us and not against us, and we need our big people—not other little people—to provide the template.
Show Me the Way
Kids know they need adults to answer their needs and questions. They know this right down to the level of their cells. Everything about child development, from the very first moments of life, drives this reality. When the big person steps in and steps up with swagger and consistency and capably takes the lead, the child can emotionally be at rest know that their path to self-emergence is in place. And from this place of rest the child can then direct all of their energy at a robust development of self since they’re not busy pursuing the basic security, acceptance, and guidance they need first and foremost.
When trusted adults are not present and available, the child must work at having their needs met—emotionally and otherwise—and will seek out others to fill that role if necessary. The natural order of things will then be disrupted and the child will grow in the shadow of this. They will get loud and big and “impossible” in order to secure the meeting of their needs. This has the effect of placing the child prematurely in the driver’s seat of life, relegating them to a future of perpetual emotional immaturity.
Very simply and clearly, it is far better to ensure your child has much exposure to adults and limited or very directly supervised exposure to peers, commensurate with the child’s age and stage. From the first years to earliest adolescence, aim for safe, caring, and trusted adults to feature very prominently and predominantly in your child’s social exposures.
Once the child is emotionally developed enough to hang onto their real selves whilst in the context of peer exposure, then it becomes appropriate for this to gradually increase as they move ever closer to the true independence of adulthood.
Limiting exposure to peers and ensuring a capable adult is supervising closely when in the company of other children establishes that a child’s heart is cared for. The adult takes responsibility for righting the wrong doings, wherever initiated, rather than placing this job on an unsophisticated child. The adult steps in to shield when hurts get too big and strives to intervene and ensure that the child’s road is only as bumpy as is safe and necessary.
From this place our children fully mature. They get to grow up with the template of true, unconditional, present love fully available to them. It is fine for peers to feature as a very distant second in this, but not to be front and centre. Let yourself ease up on all of those expectations: it’s okay if your child is the “weird” one for now, or the only one who seems to have a parent tagging along closely behind. I promise you, the long-term payoff for not playing into societal norms is extraordinary. By being your child’s North Star, they will get to reap the benefits years from now in being the well-adjusted, happy one who is living the life that nature had in mind for them.