My son does not enjoy the neighbourhood park. There’s something about it—the boisterousness, but no, more than even that, the high-decibel, high-stakes, dog-eat-dog play of unsupervised four- and five-year-olds—that leaves him terrified. He consciously avoids that corner of our world, choosing instead to cycle solo and converse with adult joggers.
Not too long ago, someone had asked me, ‘Doesn’t it worry you that your son refuses to play with other kids in the park? Especially since he isn’t even schooled?’
I admit, it did worry me. It worried me that my son did not have a vast circle of preschoolers to jostle with in the sand pit. It worried me that he seemed to eschew the image sold to me by television shows—of little boys engaged in amiable play with other little boys. It worried me that he spent his day with voluble grown-ups instead of with fellow four-year-olds.
It worried me. Yes.
Until I realised that my son, with instincts that were yet to get corrupted or eroded, sensed something I had failed to—that in this season of his life he needed, not the company of peers, but responsible, loving adults he felt deeply attached to.
It is this that psychologist Ashleigh Warner, a shining light in my parenting journey, dwells on in her podcasts. As a culture, she says, we seem to have mislaid a vital truth—that kids under seven (or even nine, if highly sensitive) don’t perceive play with peers as synonymous with ease and lightness; rather, play with other children is cause for stress.
And, really, if we consider it, Warner’s contention does make sense. A young child, by his very neurological makeup, is yet to know maturity. He has low impulse control, is egocentric, and is denied the power of emotional regulation. Now place this child, saddled with an unpredictable inner world and the most rudimentary of self-care tools, in the company of another similarly encumbered child, and without a primary caregiver. How is he to negotiate the next moment, and the one after, and after—when his beloved toy is snatched away, for instance, or when his swing is pushed (and he doesn’t want it pushed), or when he is told— ‘Go away. You’re bad.’
What is he to do when what he values is encroached upon, when what he desires is thwarted, and when what he longs to hear—words of acceptance and unconditional regard and love—is denied? And when, worst of all, his brain, his miracle but as yet growing brain, is unable to offer him the anchors that we, as adults, can sometimes depend on—the ability to factor in another’s need, or to empathise, or to feel deeply without reacting.
In such a situation, the child, according to psychologist Gordon Neufeld, is bound to sink into a state of frustration and alarm. These are feelings, so alive, that they spill in all directions; so fierce that they outlive the moment and assert themselves through the day. If the child is unable to access healing tears, his feelings will manifest themselves as aggression or compel his heart to set up impregnable walls.
It is why, if we observe playgrounds closely, particularly those denied a mixed age cohort, we witness energy that is almost frantic, wild, alongside pockets of deep withdrawal. It is what we see during recess hour too. Or in playschools. Or anywhere where young children are left for too long in each other’s company without parental bolstering.
It took me a long time to understand that the myth sold to me of ruddy-cheeked little kids engaged in sanguine or chortle-ful play without parental presence was just that—a myth. Much like the myth of peaceful isolated sleep in childhood, or of the voluntary absorption of letters through phonics, or of peaceful family dining in restaurants, the toddler quiet on a highchair.
And once I understood this—that the tropes I had relied on during my initial parental journey were no better than fairytales—it made me feel less perturbed when my son chose to play with three- or four- or five-year-olds only in brief spells (and while ensuring a parent was close). It made me feel less concerned when, for the most part, he sought the company of my grown-up friends and relatives, or of significantly older teens. It even made sense—that until such time that he felt more in command of himself, and better able to hold his own needs while honouring the desires of others, he’d choose those who had the capacity to tread softly; who could make space for his emerging self without feeling threatened and slighted.
It's one of my reasons for sidestepping formal schooling. Because, until he’s older, my son—like most other children—doesn’t need a constant accumulation of alarm and frustration through daily enforced peer interaction. What he needs is true play and the rest it brings. And yes, he needs a pair of loving, familiar arms.
Dharini Bhaskar is the author of These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light. She is working on her next novel and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org