A few days ago, during the afternoon, I took my son for some shopping nearby. Before we left home, I told him where we were going and that I was looking forward to the two of us doing some things together. We had two clear destinations: shopping and then a trip to the playground.

About an hour after we left home, we got to the playground. I told him to play nice and let him take over the place. On the way, though, I told him about our evening schedule, when, after getting home, we’d cook together, he’d play a little while longer, drink his milk and then I’d read him a story of his choice. I emphasized how much I was looking forward to that evening and that, in order to have time for everything, we’d leave the park when the phone alarm would ring – a useful signal for me, especially, so that I wouldn’t lose track of time.

Because it was already late and raining, we chose the indoor playground at the mall. I sat aside and watched him play, I watched him pondering about what ride he’d choose next, playing with two other kids, running, jumping on the trampoline – everything I would have done if I were him.

And then it was about time to go home. Not just us, but the other kids as well. So I started to prepare him for it. I took advantage of a break he took while he was coloring and reminded him of the alarm and about everything it meant: that we were about to spend a wonderful evening at home, playing and doing many other interesting things together. We had another 15 minutes of play left. Every once in a while, I’d let him know, while he was passing me by: “10 more minutes to playtime!”, “Yay! 9 more minutes of playtime,” and so on.

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Right next to me, another mom and dad were also getting ready to go home. Their little boy was maybe half a year older than my son, around 3 and a half years old. Their kid, just like mine, was equally excited about being there.

When the parents decided it was time to go, the kid, who was “just visiting” them for a drink of water, was taken by surprise. It wasn’t surprising then that his first reaction was “No! I won’t go! I want to stay longer!” And that’s how it began.

The child wanted to go back to his game, but his dad was holding his hand. Dad’s arguments: “we need to go eat dinner,” “it’s dark outside,” “you’ve played enough”, “we’ll come back another time” didn’t exactly convince him. The little boy wanted to play, his dad wanted to leave.

So dad chose the following approach: “Mom, I’ll hold him, you’ll get him dressed and ready to go!” And that was when the real conflict started. Screaming, crying, squirming. Dad was determined, but so was the kid. Eventually, embarrassed by the fact that there were other parents there as well, dad gave in and, in order to put an end to the conflict, he chose the fastest approach: “You want to play? Ok, go play!”

But his kid’s reaction wasn’t the one he was expecting. The boy kept crying and screaming, he pulled his hand free from his father and ran to his mom, asking her to hold him. “I’m never ever taking you to the playground again! You spoiled, obnoxious kid!” – was dad’s final reply.

I don’t know what happened after this episode, because it was time for us to go. I wasn’t expecting that we’d actually go the second the alarm sounded, but we left the playground 10 minutes later, cheerful, in a good mood, and ready for some more fun activities. Obviously, things don’t always go this smooth, but it’s a situation I accept.

Why did the little boy keep crying even after he was allowed to keep playing?

This tense situation between the parents and the child originated when the boy wasn’t prepared for the imminent departure. Just like us, kids need time to end their play, to feel like they rode the slide as many times as they wanted, to say goodbye and to mentally transition from play to what comes next: departure.

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Dad explained to the child why they had to go, but in the state the child had entered, he’d blocked any message.

The child’s frustration grew even worse when dad decided to use force in order to control a behavior. The child wasn’t treated with respect and understanding. He had no alternatives, and he wasn’t allowed to feel like he could make a decision concerning his own play schedule. There was no communication between parent and child; the decision was forced upon him. And the language dad had used was also a part of the problem. 

Eventually, the child insisted to be picked up by mom, instead of returning to the playground, because dad had embarrassed him in front of the other children.

Just like we, the adults, involuntarily became witnesses to that scene, so did the kids. Through the way that the parent chose to force his will upon the child, to control him through force, he humiliated the child. And, instead of returning to the place where he wanted so badly to be, he chose his mother’s arms, the safest place in the world.

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