Play and (Don’t) Walk Away

MaxandRubyBack in my mainstream days, I was an avid fan of the nanny shows. There were several on at the time, and they all boasted the same thing – that by using their techniques even the most wild of children could be tamed, that houses filled with chaos and bad behavior could be transformed into  “Leave it to Beaver” abodes filled with calm, smiling parents, respectful, obedient children, and nothing but smooth sailing ahead.

Three years into unschooling, I find so much wrong with those nanny shows that I think it’s best for both of us if I don’t even get started.

But there is one technique I learned from the nannies that is disturbingly echoed in another television show – and this show is targeted at our children. The show is called Max and Ruby, and the technique is known as “play and walk away.”

Now those of you who know Max and Ruby are probably wondering why I’m picking on such a seemingly innocent children’s program. After all, there’s so much worse out there. What about violent cartoons, you wonder, or the the one with the kid on the skateboard who’s about one prank away from juvie? And you’re right. There are plenty of other shows I could be writing about. The thing about Max and Ruby is that it’s so goody-goody that some of its less-than-helpful messages just slide right on by.

And I’m here to call those bunnies out.

If you’re not familiar with the show, it features a brother-sister duo of the rabbit persuasion: Ruby, the older sister, and her younger brother, Max, a chubby bunny in overalls with a penchant for one-word sentences. Their parents appear to be missing in action, and Ruby spends much of her time taking care of Max.

I have to admit, there are times Ruby puts me to shame. Her patience with Max’s antics, her commendable ability NOT to yell at Max no matter what he’s up to (and he’s a busy little bunny, let me tell you), and her persistently optimistic belief that with each new episode things will all work out in the end are all qualities to which I aspire.

But today, I discovered a chink in Ruby’s parenting perfection, and she clearly learned it from the nanny shows…the infamous “play and walk away” maneuver.

The technique is simple: get kids engaged in something, spend a few minutes with them, then head off to do your own thing. If you’ve set it up right, you should be able to get in a nice chunk of “you-time” before they even notice you’re gone.

Guess what. Despite what the nanny shows claim, this technique doesn’t work. And thanks to Ruby, I’ve figured out why.

In today’s episode, Ruby is busy practicing the piano. Max keeps coming in, interrupting with his one-word monologue: “Firetruck!” Ruby skillfully executes the “play and walk away” technique not once, not twice, but three times, redirecting Max to one tantalizing activity after another. And while Max seems willing enough to take a stab at it, as soon as Ruby walks away, Max is right back at that piano with his single-word mantra: “Firetruck!” In the end, Ruby discovers Max’s toy fire engine has somehow ended up inside the piano, and she retrieves it just as Max wanders back in, covered in mud, to point and exclaim happily, “Firetruck!”

Can you see what I’m getting at? “Play and walk away” is all about disconnect. It’s all about keeping your kid busy enough not to notice that you’ve just vacated the premises – mentally, if not physically.

That’s not to say that parents need to be engaged with their children every second of the day, nor should they feel guilty about capitalizing on those stints when everybody’s busy, everybody’s happy, and a shot at a kid-free bathroom break seems an actual possibility. We all do that. It’s healthy – for everyone involved. But it shouldn’t be our default mode. And for unschoolers, it must not be how we spend the majority of our days.

No, the problem with “play and walk away” is its unspoken agenda, which is basically this: “I’m not really suggesting this activity because I have any interest in being with you, nor am I offering it because I think it might bring you joy or support your unique passions. The truth is, I have a need to disconnect from you and I figure maybe this way, you’ll be fooled into thinking the opposite.” It’s underhanded, and well, just not nice.

My daughter Maggie’s super-into Max and Ruby these days, and today we indulged in two episodes, which contained six little vignettes. Time after time, Ruby’s default mode was to distract and disconnect. And suddenly I realized that this hidden agenda was mainly at fault for Max’s many shenanigans. Because when Ruby was busy trying to get Max to play so she could walk away, what she wasn’t busy doing was listening. In every story, the root of the problem is that Ruby has no clue what Max is trying to tell her, because she doesn’t take the time to connect with him and figure it out. What a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding!

Today, I realized that Ruby’s not the only one putting me to shame. So is Max, with his patience for Ruby’s constant disconnecting, his commendable ability NOT to yell at her, “you idiot, could you listen to me for one second?” and his persistently optimistic belief that one of these times, she’ll finally get it.

You see, Max is everychild. They all want what Max wants: to be heard, to be understood, to be valued and to be connected. Too many times, we allow the Ruby within us to trump that simple desire. After all, there’s laundry to be done, meals to be made, floors to be swept…the list is endless. I personally could spend the entire day “play and walk away”-ing and still not finish half of what’s on my list.

But here’s the thing: one day, Max will give up. One day, he’ll stop pursuing Ruby, stop trying to re-establish that connection. He will accept disconnect as the norm. Is anything on Ruby’s to-do list important enough to justify that, I wonder? Is anything on mine?

Sure, take the breaks where you can get them. Recharge when you can. But always remember, to a child, it means everything when – sometimes –  we play and don’t walk away.

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