by John Hoffman
Knowing when to back off is an important Dad skill
I love a lot of things about spring. But what I love best is that people come out of
hibernation. When the weather gets warmer you see people outdoors more often,
especially kids. I can still remember the heady feeling of spring when I was a kid. I could
go outside without a heavy coat, wearing my sneakers. I didn’t have to put a lot of effort
into staying warm. I felt lighter and full of energy.
I was reminded of this the other day during a visit to a relative and her new baby. Last
fall, Meghan*, her 12-year-old son Zach* and her new partner Sean* had moved to a new
neighbourhood where city planners had wisely included some green space in the plan. As I looked out Meghan’s back window and exclaimed about how nice the pond and wooded area looked, she started talking about how much time her son Zach* had been spending outdoors in the last two weeks. In their previous neighbourhood the kids were always on their devices, she said. “But the kids around here are always outside,” she said.
Zach and his buddies have been spending a ton of time in the green space. They used shovels and rakes to construct some jumps for their bikes. Recently they went over to a
nearby construction site and talked the workers into giving them some scrap building
materials, which they used to make a fort. One of the boys had a birthday a couple of
weeks ago and one present he asked for was a tarpaulin (I love it!). They used the tarp to
make the roof of their fort.
This is all great stuff. Kids outside being active, creative and happy; creating all sorts of
positive energy for themselves. But this blog is not about the virtues of outdoor play,
although I could go on about that. There’s a dad angle to this story that illustrates an
important, but sometimes tricky, aspect of fatherhood.
Meghan told me a story about how Sean, who is Zach’s stepdad, went with the lads one
day to check out the fort. They were really proud of their construction and wanted to
show it off. Sean was curious and wanted to see what they’d done and, as a dad, he likely
wanted to check the situation out for safety.
Sean liked the fort, but he also thought it was a little bit untogether. He could see how it
could be improved. Sean is a teacher, so giving kids ideas about how to do things better
comes naturally to him. But, – and this is the part I like – he kept his advice to himself.
Later he told Meghan, “It was hard to keep my mouth shut because I kept seeing ways
they could have made their fort better. But I didn’t want to interfere because it was their
I think this was a great call. Kids need to have their own things that adults don’t interfere
with, especially as they get older. So much of what children do these days is structured; adults are often involved as teachers, supervisors, coaches and, in some cases,
participants. But kids need to have aspects of their lives where they are in charge (within
reason, of course); where they choose what to do and how to do it. Not only do they learn
from the thinking, planning and decision-making that go with being “in charge”, it also
gives them a sense of their own power and control over their lives. That’s important.
Learning how to run your own life is one of the most important tasks of growing up.
Free play is one of the best ways for kids to get practice in being in charge of little parts
of their lives. Outdoor play in places like kid-built forts is particularly good because
adults are least likely to be in kids’ hair — giving directions, correcting and doing the
planning. I’m not saying parents shouldn’t supervise and, at times, correct. I’m just
saying that kids need their own “things” and their own “spaces” where they can learn
how to be themselves.
Making the thousands of little decisions about when to step in and supervise and when to stay out of your child’s way is one of the trickiest parts of being a father. And honestly,
there is only one way to figure out how to do it right – trial and error. Letting kids build
forts and organize their own play spaces is a good way to practice that trial and error, just as it is a great way for kids to practice being responsible for themselves.
(* not their real names)