The most annoying Grandma in the world

Happened to be staying at our condo resort in Napili Bay last month. No matter where she was or what she (or her 18-month-ish grandson) was doing, her mouth did not stop moving. I first encountered her at the pool, where the soundtrack went something like this:

“Oh look, daddy’s swimming!…swim daddy swim, kick, kick kick!…do you want to swim? We’ll swim after a snack…just like daddy’s swimming…see him swimming in the pool?…there’s the pool…look at the water in the pool….daddy’s swimming in the water in the pool!…let’s have some yogurt…strawberry yogurt…yum, yummy yogurt, strawberry yogurt…spoon, we eat yogurt with a spoon..mmm mmm mmm…look at the birdie by the pool, look there’s a birdie…birdies fly!…” and on and on….and on she went. And everywhere I saw them (beach, grass, restaurant, lanai) a similar scene was playing out.

After half an hour or so of this ceaseless running commentary, I was screaming on the inside for her to shut the fuck up (and I swear, I swear that the poor shell-shocked, overstimulated kid was too).

In a serendipitous twist, this all went down while I was reading Bringing Up Bebe, and within a day or two I stumbled across a section that described exactly what I kept seeing this woman doing (and have seen lots of other parents do to a lesser extent)  – but previously lacked the terminology to describe: narrated play.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“…I’m stunned by what I see at a playground in New York City. It’s a special toddler area with a low-rise slide and some bouncy animals, separated from the rest of the park by a high metal gate. The playground is designed for toddlers to safely climb around and fall. A few nannies are sitting French-style on benches around the perimeter, chatting and watching their charges play.

Then a white, upper-middle-class mother walks in with her toddler. She follows him around the miniature equipment, while keeping up a nonstop monologue. “Do you want to go on the froggy, Caleb? Do you want to go on the swing?”

Caleb ignores these questions. He evidently plans to just bumble around. But his mother tracks him, continuing to narrate his every move. “You’re stepping, Caleb!” she says at one point.

I assume that Caleb just landed a particularly zealous mother. But then the next upper-middle-class woman walks through the gate, pushing a blond toddler in a black T-shirt. She immediately begins narrating all of her child’s actions too. When the boy wanders over to the gate to stare out at the lawn, the mother evidently decides this isn’t stimulating enough. She rushes over and holds him upside down.

“You’re upside down!” she shouts. Moments later, she lifts up her shirt to offer the boy a nip of milk. “We came to the park! We came to the park!” she chirps while he’s drinking.

This scene keeps repeating itself with other moms and their kids. After about an hour I can predict with total accuracy whether a mother is going to do this “narrated play” simply by the price of her handbag. What’s most surprising to me is that these mothers aren’t ashamed of how batty they sound. They’re not whispering their commentaries, they’re broadcasting them.

When I describe this scene to Michel Cohen, the French pediatrician in New York, he knows immediately what I’m talking about. He says these mothers are speaking loudly to flaunt what good parents they are. The practice of narrated play is so common that Cohen included a section in his parenting book called Stimulation, which essentially tells mothers to cut it out. “Periods of playing and laughing should alternate naturally with periods of peace and quiet,” Cohen writes. “You don’t have to talk, sing or entertain constantly.”

Whatever your view on whether this intensive supervision is good for kids, it seems to make child care less pleasant for mothers [footnote to a 2009 study]. Just watching it is exhausting…”

Exhausting indeed. Does it make child care less pleasant for mothers? It completely would for me, and it’s absolutely obnoxious from a bystander’s perspective…so why was she doing it? I’m not convinced that there is an upper middle class tendency or that it’s to flaunt what good parents they are…it seems like they might be doing it just because they think they’re supposed to. Like it’s a way of confirming that they are actively involved, squeezing every “teachable moment” into their kid’s day and being present (perhaps so they don’t end up being publicly skewered à la that ridiculously judgy and guilt-inducing Dear Mom on the iPhone thing that exploded all over my Facebook newsfeed a couple years ago.)

My main objection (other than how annoying it is to people around you) is that it feels like it steps all over the kid’s play time. It’s invasive. Doesn’t your kid deserve a little space to just be, without having to be the subject of a (very boring) documentary?

Play, by definition, is activity that is self-chosen, self-directed and done for no reward other than its own pleasure. But of course, there are other long-term rewards (that the kids aren’t aware of) as they learn to explore, observe, discover, interact with the natural and social world and “make believe”. Until we adults ruin it by trying to verbalize, intellectualize and ascribe meaning. My mom used to say that play is a child’s job. I think that’s true, but I’d also argue that they don’t need a manager, performance review or agenda in order to be successful.

It’s so sad to me that letting your kids play freely without butting in is so rare nowadays that we had to invent special terms for it – like “free range parenting” or “self-directed playtime”. It’s even sadder when it starts in baby or toddlerhood. And sadder still when it interferes with my peaceful Maui pool time when I’m pregnant and can’t even make a fun drinking game of it.

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