First of all, the playground in question this week was not a piddling Chik-fil-A tunnel slide, but rather the five-story labyrinthine structure at Plaza Fiesta in Fort Mill, SC. There’s no question it is the largest playground little Curly Fries has ever seen, because it’s the largest playground that I have ever seen. Its tunnels and ramps were large enough to accommodate me (mostly), and numerous paths, slides, ladders, and tunnels. As the website boasts, it is over 5,000 square feet. The picture attached barely does it justice.
We went this past weekend for a playdate with my coworkers. Curly Fries was the youngest and only girl among her five playmates, whom she’d never met before. Since it was also a weekend afternoon and many other families had the same idea as we did, the playground was filled with loud kids running and climbing and sliding and playing. So of course she wanted a parent to accompany her inside this loud and colorful wonderland.
I took the first shift. Cognizant of her hesitancy to join five kids on a tiny fast-food playground a week prior, I took the lead this time. I asked her what she wanted to see, then I led her there: three large slides side by side. We climbed up the padded ramp together, her steps tentative and slow as dozens of kids sped past us impatiently. We slid down two of the slides together, side by side. They were much faster than either of us was expecting, and she immediately wanted to go again. We went down together in the same slide, her in my lap. The third time, she went down first and then I went down. The fourth time I told her to go without me, and she did. Slowly and shyly, but she did it on her own.
After that I felt comfortable letting her explore the structure without me. All of it is covered with thick, strong netting, so kids can always look out and locate parents (or other kids or whatever). I reassured her I would follow wherever she went, and she could always look down and find me. She wasn’t entirely convinced that this was a desirable arrangement, but I encouraged her that she could do it. She found a rope ladder at a fifteen-degree incline. “Climb up there and wave to me,” I told her. She started up, hands and feet like a monkey. A slow, unsteady, shy monkey. “You can do it, baby,” I called to her from the ground. Other older kids flew by her, running up hands-free, falling over each other to pass this slow moving car in the right lane. Every few steps she would stop and look back over to me. “Keep going, you can do it,” I’d shout.
It took her nearly ten minutes, but she made it. “You did it!” I hollered, clapping my hands. Her face broke out in a triumphant smile and she started clapping, too. I can’t even describe to you how proud I was.
“I go over here now!” she yelled at me, and then she was off.
Confidently, she ran around and explored, every so often looking down through the netting to find me and wave to me. Now, at this point she was playing exclusively on the second level of the structure (there were at least five, maybe six levels). This level is maybe seven feet off the ground. Then she found another ramp and gestured to me that she wanted to climb it. “Go for it!” I called back. Up she went, on just her two feet. When she made it to the top she went off on more exploring, looking down at me for visual support.
At some point, however, she got lost, disoriented, and frightened. She stopped in an antechamber, looking around for where to go next. There were several options, but they must have suddenly turned foreboding. All the time, other children sailed past her, whooping and shouting gleefully. It became clear she was in distress, and the rowdy fun of the other kids only increased her anxiety. She began to look for me, frantic.
“I’m right here, honey!” I called up to her. She had to come to the netting in order to look down and find me. She stood hesitantly, looking around her. “What’s wrong?” I called.
“I want to come down,” she said, pitifully and only just loud enough that I could understand her. And then she made that face that parents of older toddlers are no doubt familiar with, but which I had never seen on my child before: she was about to cry, but trying not to.
I’ve never seen her do this before and it nearly crushed my heart. I see my child cry all the time; it mostly doesn’t bother me. We parents learn the taxonomy of our children’s cries, and we know the ones that need attention and the ones that need to be starved of attention. Even the cries that most desperately require my parental care – those cries borne from sudden, unexpected pain; the cries of feeling abandoned and lost – don’t provoke me the way that this new expression did. She was afraid and wanted to be somewhere else, but something within her was attempting to contain her natural desire to burst into tears. Her eyes were wide and fearful as she tried to blink away the moisture gathering in them. The edges of her mouth were drawn down and her lips puckered together with a slight tremble. I have never seen her hold in a cry and it was devastating.
There’s a picture my parents have of me at roughly my daughter’s age, dressed up for a preschool play. I’m wearing a green felt frog cap and trying desperately not to cry. The expression on my face in that picture is the exact same expression Curly Fries had up on the third level of Plaza Fiesta’s playground. I still recall what I felt during that preschool play. I can remember sitting in a chair in the auditorium, knowing my parents were present but sitting many rows away. I knew I was supposed to stand up in front of people at one point and sing, but I didn’t want to; I wanted to be with my parents, who were tantalizingly close but out of reach. To deepen the difficult emotional space, I knew that no one else around me was feeling the same sense of urgency that I was. My parents didn’t feel the same concern for me that I was feeling. (They took a picture of me looking like that, for God’s sake! Why couldn’t they just come and rescue me?) But I was apparently old enough to experience that lack of surrounding social sympathy not in anxiety and heightened fear, but as embarrassment. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel anxious and afraid. My peers weren’t feeling that way (that I remember). My parents weren’t mirroring the same concern. So in addition to my fear, I also felt shame.
Now, let me be clear: no one was shaming me. No adult was purposefully subjecting me to an experience they intended to be disorienting and painful for me. My parents weren’t being cruel in leaving me alone, even though they obviously recognized my distress enough to capture it on film. I recognized Curly Fries’ predicament on this massive jungle gym precisely because I have a distinct memory from my own childhood of being in a similar situation. And I’d like to think that seeing myself so clearly helped inform my decision not to rush through the ramps and nettings to rescue her, but rather to guide her down on her own.
Developmentally, this is a significant milestone for her. Erikson’s stages of childhood development at this age are characterized by an “Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt” stage and an “Initiative vs. Guilt” stage. Between the ages of one and three, children begin to gain sensorimotor control over their bodies; they can walk and manipulate objects with their hands and, hopefully, begin to potty-train. They are discovering that they are autonomous creatures in the world who can exert a certain amount of will. But associated with this comes shame and doubt: the continued realizations that they are not quite as “big” or powerful as the adults in their lives. They begin to walk, but they still sometimes fall down. They start to potty-train, but they still have accidents. The shame children feel at this age is not so much an outwardly imposed shaming, but rather a feeling of vulnerability and exposure. This sense of exposure is heightened with each new measure of autonomy gained. Every time your child successfully uses the potty, it only increases the sense of shame and failure when they have accidents in their pants.
Around the time children turn three, they have usually gained a full sense of embodiment. They have “grown together” (as Erikson calls it), living in their own skin a bit more confidently and unconsciously. At this stage, “autonomy” becomes “initiative”: they are able to plan out the ways they wish to assert their individual will in the world. They become more self-directed in their play; they become more vocal in their acts of defiance; they venture out more readily in exploring their environment. Their acts of autonomy are, in short, more active and less reactive. As in the previous stage, however, the limit to this is that their continuing vulnerabilities stay exposed: despite their initiative, they are still not as powerful and autonomous as the adults surrounding them. However, the new dimension here, which Erikson calls “guilt,” is that when a child takes an initiative that fails, she feels responsible. If shame is the feeling of being publicly exposed at not having as much autonomy as everyone else, then guilt is the feeling of being publicly exposed for trying to have more autonomy but failing.
What does all this theory have to do with Curly Fries getting turned around on a playground? When I saw that look on her face – the look of wanting to cry but trying not to, the same look I had on my face when dressing up like a frog in a preschool play – I not only connected viscerally to my own experience of childhood development, I recognized that my daughter had moved into the next developmental stage. My little girl is no longer just a struggling autonomous creature, she is now an initiator. The inner experience that goes with this is a newfound sense of responsibility for her own actions. She took the initiative to venture up to the third level; she is the one who decided where to go and play. So when she realized she suddenly felt lost and afraid, she knew instinctively that it was her decision that got her there.
(One could argue that I, as a preschooler in a play, did not take the initiative to be a frog in front of everyone, and that would be more about autonomy than initiative. However, I contend that my emotional sense was more of guilt than of shame because I felt myself to be failing in claiming an initiative that was socially expected of me instead of simply having less physical autonomy in the world than everyone else.)
Her response, therefore, was different than simple shame over a limit of her autonomy. If that had been the case, she would have cried without reservation. But instead she held back her tears, for she knew that it was her own initiative that got her up there. Basically, it was her own fault for being where she was, and crying would be an admitting failure. Telling me she wanted to come down was the opposite of an admission of failure: it was her attempt to reclaim her own initiative.
So as a parent, witnessing this remarkable new phase in her development, understanding in that moment that she was attempting to hold her ego together by containing her guilt at playing too far up the jungle gym, I did what I could do to empower her to claim her initiative: I told her to come down.
The nearest exit was a large “stairwell,” the stairs being alternating half circles about three feet below each other. To get to them, she had to climb through a hold in a large thick net, and then jump down onto each descending half-circle. I pointed out the pathway to her, but she was hesitant. She’d only used ramps and ladders to ascend and in her slightly panicked state was uncertain about these untried semi-circle stairs. She seemed too paralyzed to backtrack to previous routes, or at least to leave my direct eyesight. “Come down this way, baby,” I coaxed her. I had to instruct her in ever specific step: “Okay, now put your feet down to that step. Good! Now drop down, honey. You can do it!”
It was a slow and tense descent. Several other children tried to make take the same trail in their hurried playfulness, only to stop and then reroute when it became clear that there was some kind of traffic accident up ahead. On each step, she would reach to me. “Just a little further, baby,” I’d soothe her.
When she finally made it down, she reached out to me, but held back from fully embracing me. The relief in her expression was palpable. The tearfulness seemed to be gone, her eyes dry and her lips no longer quivering. I could see her trying to shake off the shame of her panic, awkwardly pretending as if the previous ten minutes hadn’t happened. I played along, of course; after a quick piece of praise for making it down on her own, I hastily asked where she wanted to play next.
Clearly, I did a lot of the work for her, telling her how to get down and coaching her the whole way. But I didn’t rescue her. Each step was her own, and the relief she felt at the bottom of the stairs for coming down on her own helped her manage and contain her feelings of guilt at having overreached. Of course, I had to manage my own anxiety in not rushing to her aid, climbing up those stairs myself to grab her and safely whisk her away. Hard as this was, it was better for her ego development. This is the same reason, I’m sure, that my parents didn’t rescue me from my little frog song in preschool; it gave me a chance to take more initiative, even if I was afraid and uncertain. As I wrote last week, there is an unbelievably precious gift our children give us in allowing us to travel backwards in time and love ourselves more fully than we were previously capable. My daughter did that for me yet again on another playground this weekend. This time, however, I saw in deeper and fuller detail the ways in which I – and, indeed, all of us – struggle to grow and develop. It’s frightening and overwhelming and rewarding all at once. I can also feel now a deeper sense of the compassion my parents no doubt felt for me every time they looked at that pitiful picture of me trying not to cry in my frog hat. I didn’t get a picture of Curly Fries three levels up, but I will never forget the mental picture of her sweet little face trying so dreadfully not to cry.
Play is serious business, folks. It’s where our children learn to freely engage the world, and it’s the safest place for them to fail. I’ve grown beyond the need to distinguish my initiative from guilt into a completely different level of development. Erikson characterized this stage as “Generativity vs. Stagnation,” and clearly my need to blog every week illustrates my work in this regard. But I am still playing. My need to generate and prevent my own stagnation is its own form of play, and there are moments when I, too, feel the fear of overreaching and failing. But I have the strength within – and from without, too, in those who love and support me – to find a new way when I feel paralyzed or lost. I’m thrilled that I can help my child take the initiative to find her way in the world; it’s my own way to rediscover playfulness in the world. I’ll try to take it with me everywhere I go: to work, to my community, to my friends and family. It’s a place worth finding.