Quarantine taught me that allowing your kids to make a few decisions goes a long way—especially when we’re all feeling powerless.

By Katie Arnold-Ratliff
June 08, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy of Katie Arnold-Ratliff

Like many parents in the early days of spring’s lockdown, I went hard on “activities.” Ben, my 2-year-old, bounced from painting to pipe cleaners, Magna-Tiles towers to Slinky staircase runs, before cooling down with enough YouTube yoga to leave him permanently pretzeled. He needs stimulation, the Chicken Little in my brain screeched, he needs structure! Without day care’s enrichment and steadying rhythm, I feared Ben would—what? Regress to infancy? Turn feral? I wasn’t exactly sure. I just knew that if I didn’t jam our days with delight, something bad would happen.

I think, now, I was hoping to keep him from noticing that life had imploded. Shockingly, this failed. “Cool school?” he’d ask. (Our name for day care.) “Animows?” he’d venture less and less hopefully. (That means zoo.) Turns out, no amount of craft supplies can erase the horror of being thrust into a bizarro universe where the tent poles of your days cease to exist. Ben became newly ornery: more power struggles, more self-defeating refusals. Like all of us, he was pissed that he had to  stay home. Losing your agency is wildly uncomfortable, itchy down to the soul.

Most days, though, he’d take a neighborhood walk with Dada. “Where do you go?” I asked once. “Wherever he wants—I let him decide,” my husband said. That often meant weird, wending circles, but so what? Ben would return invigorated, chipper. I saw where I’d gone wrong. Ben didn’t want to be clobbered with brain-building fun—he wanted to have an iota of control during a wildly out-of-control time.

So I eased off on scheduling and let him lead. We’d head to his room, and he’d suggest “rolling” (logrolling about the room while shouting “Whoa!”) or “drums” (tapping pencils on all available surfaces). He’d tell me what he wanted, and unless it endangered his safety or broke a law, most of the time I said yes.

I couldn’t give him his schoolmates or the penguin habitat or the twisty playground slide. But I could give him something just as precious: the knowledge that he gets a say.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's July 2020 issue as “Let Them Steer.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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