Why I Dislike Guardian-Accompanied Playgroups

When we first moved to Hong Kong, it was a rude-awakening to discover that daycares are not popular. Many working parents have grandparents or live-in nannies (they’re extremely affordable in Asia) for childcare, so guardian-accompanied playgroups are more prevalent for non-school aged children. They were a regressive step for the Dumpling because she has attended a drop-off since she was six months old back in the U.S. As we waited for a spot to open at an unaccompanied program, however, accompanied playgroups were our only immediate options at the time.

The one we joined was typical. For two hours, one to three days a week, parents or caregivers bond with their toddlers through engaging, educational activities, such as circle time, singing, dancing, arts and crafts, and sensory trays, led by an experienced teacher. The children will have opportunities to develop social skills, confidence, and independence—soft skills needed for an easier transition into drop-off classes.  

Sounds promising, right?

I hated the fact that I needed to be there—not because I did not want to spend time with my daughter, but because I did not want to be her security blanket. This particular program allowed kids to join and unjoin any time, so the lack of continuity and familiarity made friendships difficult to form. The Dumpling naturally gravitated toward me instead of exploring on her own because I was the easier option.

The teacher functioned more as an activity prompter than a leader—she would not intervene when a child was disruptive, acted inappropriately, or did not participate. Adults were solely responsible for their children, which was problematic as each toddler saw his guardian as the main authority figure instead of the teacher.

With a dozen adult-child pairs in class, it seemed like everyone operated under different “playground rules”. When the Dumpling snatched a toy from another child during one session, that child’s nanny lunged and aggressively snatched it back from the Dumpling before I could react. I was shocked that a grown-up behaved this way. I guessed she believed in “an eye for an eye”.

The differences in everyone’s parental values and styles were apparent. During an arts and crafts activity, the teacher presented a cherry blossom painting created by dotting pink paint on a tree silhouette—an example of what the class was to replicate. I did a demo for the Dumpling on our sheet. She dotted maybe three or four flowers before she smeared the paint around with her hands instead. I shrugged and looked around to see what other pairs were doing. Most adults were taking their kids’ fingers and dotting for them; the rest were completing most (if not all) of the activity on behalf of the children, who either lost interest or did not want to touch paint.

When the paintings were placed on the table to dry, I noticed that all of them fell within the spectrum of the teacher’s sample…except for the Dumpling’s. The others depicted delicate, tranquil blossoms blooming, while my kid’s tree looked like a typhoon bulldozed its way through.

The Dumpling was so proud of her work, and I was proud of her. I was proud that her piece was different…that she was different. She was not afraid to explore, completed the painting on her own, and did not mind getting dirty along the way.

I often reflect back on this moment. In an age where “over-parenting” is normal, I was glad that I did not interfere. But did I overvalue her independence and creativity? Under different circumstances, these traits could be viewed as insubordination or arrogance.

Painting a cherry blossom was trivial in the greater scheme of things, but what if it metaphorically represented a different activity (say baking or playing a team sport), could the Dumpling’s “tree” be viewed as a failure?
Was the process that much more important than the result? Should I have encouraged her harder to follow instructions? Or guided her fingers (like what some adults did) instead of letting her go rogue? If she had refused to paint at all, would it have been acceptable to return home with nothing? If the stakes were higher, would I have completed the project for her (like what a few others did)?

The other adult probably judged me as I had judged them, so only time would tell whom made the right parental choices. We strive towards grooming our kids into happy, smart, successful, good people, but even our best intentions could produce a variable of unforeseen effects.

I left this playgroup after a few weeks and tried another one—it was just as chaotic and dysfunctional as the first. My biggest critiques with the accompanied programs are their continuous open enrollment and the mandatory presence of a guardian, which in combination hindered the development of soft skills they claim to foster. Luckily a spot opened up for the Dumpling at a drop-off class soon after. (Hallelujah!) In the end, she did not benefit much from attending accompanied playgroups, but at least I learned something about my parenting values.

Encounter with Mean Kids at the Playground

The Dumpling’s social development has always been a priority for jigg and me. Ensuring that she has regular interaction with other children was one of the main reasons why we started her at daycare when she was only six months old. Her caregivers have done an amazing job in teaching our daughter the concepts of playing together, asking for permission, sharing, ownership, and boundaries. As a result, the Dumpling generally gets along with most kids and holds her own on play dates.

There have been incidents when one child would act out aggressively towards the other because kids will be kids. The adults, however, would step in to right the transgression. Everyone [eventually] got along because of the mutual understanding that respect and cordiality would be enforced.

Playing in public areas, like the playground, is a totally different game. Unlike play dates, the environment is unstructured, and I have limited control over whom the Dumpling will be interacting with.

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Grandma and the Dumpling having fun.
Last weekend, our family was in Boston where Grandma and I brought the Dumpling to the community playground. One family had set up a tiny inflatable pool in between sprinklers, but their kids have lost interest and were playing elsewhere. The Dumpling, of course, was naturally drawn to it. Every time she got close to their pool, however, the kids would quickly run back, shouted “Don’t touch my water!” and shooed my daughter away by aggressively kicking and splashing water.

The Dumpling would then run towards us for safety while the other kids returned to whatever they were playing with before. The kiddy pool was set up in the middle of the sprinklers, so there wasn’t an effective way to keep the Dumpling away. Within minutes, she would run back and the entire episode would start again. The kids continued splashing even after Grandma asked them to stop, and their guardians idly watched as everything unfolded.

I felt helpless and annoyed. These kids had every right not to share, and it was not my place to tell them otherwise…especially when their parents didn’t feel the need to. They were not bullies (otherwise my claws would have been out); they were just mean.

It was also difficult to explain to the Dumpling why she can’t play with their pool. While my daughter understood ownership, she was also taught that others would share if she politely asked. In return, she would do the same. Reciprocity formed the basis of the Dumpling’s understanding of social interactions. In an environment where everyone abided by the same rules, like at daycare or home, things worked out. “Playing nice”, however, is open to interpretations at the playground.

Luckily the Dumpling has not yet developed the self awareness to realize that the other kids didn’t want her around. Although there was no physical and emotional harm inflicted, it was difficult for me to watch other kids being mean to my own child. A small part of me (actually a huge part) wanted to run into the nearest store, buy the biggest and best inflatable pool money can get, set it up right next to theirs, and bar these brats from going anywhere near it.

I eventually calmed down and brought the Dumpling home. As much as I wanted to be vindicative, it wasn’t an example I wanted to set for my daughter. As recourse, Grandma set up a little bucket of water in the tub where the Dumpling had just as much fun as she did at the playground.

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The Dumpling’s personal pool.