When did play get so nice?

While watching a program on snow monkeys, I was fascinated by how their young played. There was hitting, pushing, punching, among other aggressive behavior, yet it was clear that there was nothing malicious going on. They were just children having fun.

The behavior of those young monkeys immediately came to mind, during a recent trip to the playground, as I watched my son engage in rather aggressive play with another boy. The boy, who was about four years old, made the first move by giving my son what looked like a forceful shove. Being the sometimes overprotective first-time mom that I am, my first thought was to go discipline the kid, but when I saw my son laughing, obviously unharmed, and excited to have a willing playmate, I decided not to intervene.

I could tell my son loved the challenge of playing with an older kid, who inspired my son to take on new risks, and grow more confident. Only once did I have to step in when the play got too rough. I knew that these kids were not looking to hurt one another, they were just playing.

I realize that human children are not monkeys, though it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference, and social norms dictate certain behavior, but maybe there’s a case for just letting kids be kids. I can’t tell you how many times I hear the phrase “be nice” uttered around children. I’m guilty of it too. At any given moment, there is always at least two or three parents hovering over a group of children at the playground, ready to pounce. I too have been this parent, and still am sometimes.

I wonder if our children would be better off without all these adult-imposed rules and interference. Of course, there are times and places when adults need to step in, and I don’t advocate letting children do whatever they want whenever they want. I believe there is a balance between providing children the structure they need and the freedom they crave.

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