– Let the leaders of tomorrow start learning to lead themselves today. –
Recently, I was talking with my wife about our son’s playtime, whether we would allow him play outside in the sand and grass or if we should keep him indoors instead. There are more than a few articles on the benefits children derive from playing in “natural” surroundings, but the most convincing evidence for me concerning this issue is my personal experience. I also believe it’s really up to our son if he wants to play outside or inside the house.
Initially, we pampered our son, never wanting him to cry or get hurt, or touch anything “dirty,” always carrying him in our arms so he doesn’t play on the floor and pick strange things to put in his mouth. But as the days go, we are learning to be less controlling and more guiding. He crawls where he wants but we stop him when he is perhaps stretching his saliva covered fingers towards a switch or socket; he picks, scratches, licks just about anything that catches his curiosity but we watch to see if he may swallow it or if it’s been on the floor too long; and he often hurts himself while climbing up or pulling down large objects around the house, yet we give him a hand when he tries to climb the next minute after a bout of crying. We do these strange things because if we don’t, he will still attempt them when we’re not looking and may cause more grievous harm to himself.
I was quite fortunate to spend some of the time growing up in my hometown, and to have parents who didn’t really place very strict restrictions on my play habits. They enforced discipline but also gave us enough room to explore and be ourselves. That time spent in my village exposed me to quite some risks but taught me more lessons.
I remember racing to the stream on very uneven and slippery red sand; I ultimately became good in track events, representing my house at inter-house sports for 100 meters and relay races. I recall playing with what I think was some sort of sea weed at the banks of the river, and even drinking the cool river water, where we often went to do laundry and bathe (some others chose the river for less sanitary things and I will not describe such activities, but if you have been to a river in the village you may have an idea of what goes on there). I’m sure I developed a stronger immune system by being exposed to certain germs and bacteria early on, as my body learned how to defend itself. There exists research to support exposing a person to certain harmful organisms to help their bodies develop the ability to fight another more harmful organism.
I was also known to use dried tree branches as swords and spears and guns in wildly imaginative “action films” I usually starred in as the only character, or drive around with my brothers in my dad’s dusty old car sitting in the garage, making engine and gear change sounds with my mouth. Today, I have written, edited and proofed a few screenplays, been successfully involved in the theater with some acclaim, and have even landed some honestly minor roles on TV. In short, had I not played hard, played rough, or played with almost everything, I may not posses a wild imagination and strong creativity today.
I have scars, hidden and visible, from some hair-raising escapades, one of which was me somersaulting off the top of those old metal slides that had barrels at the top with a ladder to access it and the slide from the barrel down to the ground. After watching too many movies like 7 Lucky Kids, I attempted this crazy feat and landed on my neck! I faintly remember the shock and the pain, and the hysteria of my mom late into the evening that day. I also played Street Fighter in real life, and thinking I was Ryu, attempted a shoryuken across an open freshly dug pit. I landed inside the pit on my right arm and almost missed out writing my primary 6 exam because the teacher thought I would hide “expo” in the POP cast on my arm.
I have fallen from trees many times, sustained many many wounds, fractures, and bruises along the way, but most of all, I learned. I learned what my limits were, physically and otherwise, I developed an active imagination and wild creativity, I learned self-control but I also learned to be daring. I dare say, I learned more outdoors playing, fighting, exploring with my brothers and friends than I did in classrooms under teachers who yelled, smacked and tried to force the book into my head. I learned more in books I read on my own than in school books, I discovered more about the world through my own curiosity than what I was told by adults. Had I lived a sheltered, structured, protected, regimented life, I believe I may have lost most of my personality before I reached my teenage years. Had my parents not been a bit liberal for their generation, I may have developed psychological and self-esteem issues, and not been positioned to be valuable to the society today.
With my heart in mouth, I’ve witnessed my son fall off the bed numerous times while he’s trying to see what’s at the edge, drop heavy objects on his fingers while trying to lift them, get scalded by the hot water in his flask as he tries to get a feel of this curious looking liquid that has steam floating off it, get his foot stuck between the cushions and roll off the chair trying to get himself free, but as he grows I can see he is slowly learning what things are dangerous, yet he doesn’t completely keep away from them, he just approaches them with more caution and measured movement. He’s learning from experience! And with little to no input from his parents sometimes.
So, what’s the lesson here? As children, we’re filled with immense curiosity and energy; keeping such a bundle of excitement indoors, or forcing it to sit still, or “pin” it’s lips, or do what you say exactly how you say it when you say it may just smother that child’s ability to approach the world boldly and confidently, unafraid and unashamed to reveal their personality and speak their mind. In an attempt to protect children, well-meaning adults often raise automatons, robots, or puppets who only know how to do what they’re told and are afraid to do anything risky or different from the norm.
When a child grows up without facing the dangers of the outside world on her own, or when he is raised to always do ONLY what adults tell him to, how then do you expect the same child to take calculated risks as an adult to perhaps start a business? Or have the confidence and initiative to share his problem solving idea with a superior at work? Or compete effectively against peers from other cultures that are raised to be independent, self-sufficient, inquisitive, and daring?
The next time you hush a little boy up for singing too loudly, stop and consider if you’re drowning out the voice of the next Timi Dakolo. Before you yell at your daughter to stop running because she’s a girl or because she’ll fall down, remember that Blessing Okagbare is a celebrated athlete who made a name for herself, her family and country through running. Adults don’t have all the answers, we make mistakes too; look at the economic situation and see how adults who are supposed to be “experts” are still struggling to get us out of this mess.
So leave that child to be a child. Let her jump, skip, shout, read, ask questions, fall down, go out with friends, travel for holidays to visit relatives, question and even challenge you. Don’t take it personal, don’t be hard on the young one, they’re only learning their limits, discovering the boundaries of life, and making mistakes and failing just as you an adult does. They’ll learn from those mistakes, they’ll get better after the errors, but only if you make them see that it’s okay, instead of beating them up or talking them down for being human, and being children. You don’t want your twenty-something year old newly graduated son waiting for you to tell him what jobs to apply for or how to go out and hustle, or worse, expecting you to still feed and clothe him, because you chose all his schools, what course he studied, and basically ran his life for him since childhood.
Be a watchful guardian and patient counsellor, rather than a controlling dictator and harsh critic. Raise your child to have a say and be in control of their life because they need their mistakes more than you need their obedience and compliance.