Sunday, August 19, 2012

Challenge and Conflict in Play

It's 7:30 in the morning and my two older boys have already been awake and painting wooden creatures for half an hour. The boys furrow their brows with intent stares at their brightly colored dragon and scorpion as they silently paint with the utmost care and detail. They are creating. Not watching TV, not fighting, not being bored from the days of summer that blend into each other. I am delighted and inspired by my children's immediate excitement to wake up in the morning and paint, to be creative. I wish them a life time of creativity and to support that, I sit beside them and ask them about their creatures. I set aside my suggestions or approval and just ask them about what they are up to. They describe a whole world for their creature and what they can and cannot do in defense and attacking complete with sound effects. I notice that even in their creativity my boys are creating challenge and conflict.

Later after breakfast, two of them play a board game and it is short lived. The 7 year old gets furious that the 3 year old wants to be banker, which is preposterous because the three year old can't add. The 7 year old tries to explain this to him, by challenging him with math facts and the 3 year old ends up screaming and throwing the money in his face. The 7 year old is smug that he won this battle even though the 3 year old storms off and he has no one to play with. Meanwhile, the nine year old plays his legos silently in his room, his challenge is on a galactic scale. He is building a new space ship to overthrow the warlords of his Star Wars galaxy. If anyone comes in his room and bothers him their will be a full scale attack, so we leave him to his plotting and engineering.
The banker issue gets resolved when Bronson wanders back into Bodee's territory, and Bodee who was probably bored with playing alone, welcomes him back and they decide to split up the money and both be their own bankers. They play a new sort of game which involves both of them winning lots of free money.

Later in the afternoon, they suddenly scatter in all directions to play hide and seek and have a short squabble over the rules. I listen for them to work it out and I hear the humanity of their struggle. Someone found someone and then they joined together to go find the other person. When the last one was found by the second one, he objects to the first one using the second one for help. "Not fair!"
My survival instinct was to jump in and ask them to play "Nice Nice."

I realized in that moment, even though I have an instinct and ability to quell the storm, that there was no reason for me to intervene. Boys create challenge, conflict and struggle as part of their play. That IS Nice, or FUN for them. The challenge and conflict is the whole point. Someone chases someone and the other runs. They wrastle, argue or fight off a bad guy, which could be any one of the unsuspecting brothers, and none of it means anything that I, as a female, imagines. It doesn't mean that they don't care and love each other when they are yelling at eachother. It doesn't mean that they are hurt when they are crying. It doesn't even mean that they won't be best friends or good brothers if they scream I hate you. I make that up. They may make that up too, but in most cases, within a minute or two, they are back to playing "Chase the puppy" or "Kill the dragon" from under their pile of sofa pillows without a second thought. It doesn't mean anything to them, it's all part of the game. Boys create challenge and conflict in their play because that is what is fun for them.

It is not fun for Moms, and that's why so many of us feel crazy and exhausted after refereeing for even a few hours of boys playing together. Moms and females have a natural drive for connection, nurturing and safety, so even hearing boys fight threatens our sense of survival. That may be why so many Moms get their kids out of the house to sports and activities...keep 'em busy so they won't fight. The thing is, whatever activity they do, they crave challenge and conflict, if it's in sports, theater or music even, their is the challenge to win, complete something new and the conflict they face is from failure if they don't. We could instead find peace in their challenges and conflict.

Boy are, in fact little men. And the DNA of men has not changed for 10,000 years. Their natural instinct is to play at struggle and conflict so that they may succeed in war and protect us, protect their mother and wives and children. Protect the village. So when they are fighting like wolves over a laundry basket they want to use to push each other around in on the floor, I can instead hear the gears in their brains learning how to negotiate world peace. As they argue over play money, I can listen for the conflict as their growth and development into responsible men who can provide for their family. I can see their struggle to build a tower that keeps toppling, not as something I must intervene to fix, but as a time to observe or inquire what other creative solution they might try and be triumphant in building a city. As challenging as it may be to set aside my natural instinct to intervene, calm and fix things for my boys, I am much more interested in creating a space where my boys are self sustaining and confident. In being present to what I am committed to creating, I find that the less I do in parenting boys during the free play of summer, the more they learn and grow.
The result is that,rather then shushed or shamed, they get the space to expand and to be celebrated.

Zen Honeycutt

I have a understanding of boys that brings me peace and wonder after Allison Armstrong's programs about Understanding Men at I highly recommend her programs..

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