The advertisement is meant to give us a warm feeling all over. Dad and child are snuggled up in a backyard tent. Are they telling ghost stories? Are they up late sorting out the day’s adventures or imagining what the next day will bring? Are they talking about the meaning of life? Nope. They’re watching a cartoon movie on a tablet! Come on!
Certainly, sharing a movie now and then is okay, especially if it is truly a time of sharing. Snuggling on the couch while watching a favorite show can provide both parent and child with important contact and down time. But when this kind of togetherness happens more than active interaction, our children miss out. Parents are children’s role models and instructors as well as their source of love and security. When a parent is engaged with them in many ways throughout the day, young children develop the foundation of social and language skills that will follow them throughout their lives. Cartoons, however delightful, are no substitute.
Time in a backyard tent is a wonderful metaphor for an important component of parenting – uninterrupted one-on-one attention. When a parent chats about what is important to the child, answers a child’s compelling questions about life, and tells stories about when he was young, a child learns more than information. He also learns that his questions are important enough to answer and that he is someone worth talking to. Time with a parent that is free of stress and that is all about him is critically important to the child’s sense of worth.
Good conversation is also essential for the development of language. As a toddler, children learn labels for people and things (mama, cat, juice) and basic actions (go, stop, play). In the preschool and early elementary years, children learn the give and take of real conversation – but only if the big people actually talk with them. Genuine conversation with adults (as opposed to orders or one-word responses) gives them new words and new concepts. They learn, both by listening and by trying, how to explain things in more detail. They learn how to wait and listen when another person is speaking. They learn how to follow up one question with another to get more information. This doesn’t happen just by watching cartoon characters talk. It happens by being engaged in a meaningful dialogue with someone who cares enough to listen to their awkward, and sometimes very funny, efforts to tell us something that is important to them.
Children love stories. Stories introduce them to other ways of being in the world. Reading stories and even watching cartoons can introduce our children to different ways to get along with others and to solve problems. Equally important, though, are the stories a child makes up for himself. When a parent lets the child take the lead in creating a story, the child is freed to fully use his imagination. When the parent resists the temptation to take over or to correct the story, the child gets to try out different alternatives and to sort for himself what does and doesn’t make a kind of sense. When the parent only encourages, not criticizes, how the child develops a story, the child learns to value the process of creating.
Preschoolers and kindergarteners are expanding their world from the safety of the familiar to the uncertainty of the unknown. A tent in the backyard is a wonderful example of how to provide a new experience with the support of a loving parent. Being outside in the dark, away from the familiar bed and the familiar sounds of home, can be terrifying (which is why many kids who think they want to sleep outside alone end up back in their own beds by midnight). But with a parent sleeping beside him, the same experience becomes an adventure.
Make no mistake: The backyard campout isn’t about sleeping. It’s about developing the self-confidence to try something new. It’s about mastering the discomfort that comes with being in an unfamiliar place. It’s about first tolerating, then enjoying unfamiliar smells, sounds, and feelings. The presence of a trusted adult makes it all possible.
Being cuddled and held by a parent who loves him is the precursor for everything family is all about. It provides the template for holding and being held by a mate. It’s a rehearsal for loving contact with his own future child. It bonds child and parent through the child’s growing years into adulthood and then into the parents’ senior years. Direct contact, eye-to-eye and skin-to-skin, can’t be accomplished with a movie, however wonderful the animation may be. Snuggling down in the coziness of a tent or under a blanket and talking about the universe feeds the hunger of body as well as of mind.
Quiet time without the stimulation of screens is important to the developing child. Yes, electronics are here to stay. Children need to be comfortable with computers, tablets and cell phones if they are to be in step with their peers and able to access all that is available thanks to the Internet. But kids also need to learn how to use their own imaginations and how to be comfortable with their own company without external stimulation. It’s up to us as parents to provide the opportunity to develop their capacity to imagine, to create, and to interact successfully with others. For that, there is no substitute for our time and attention.
For all these reasons, time in a “tent” with a parent who loves him is essential to the growing child. So put up that tent in the backyard if you have one or build a fort out of the sofa cushions. Burrow together under the covers or camp out under the kitchen table. Then just let imagination and stories and conversation happen. Such times nurture your child’s development and foster a delicious closeness and warmth between you. That’s the sweetness of parenting.