Monday, December 13, 2010

Play with Me!

My 20-month-old, Maisy, is rapidly approaching the age where she isn't content to just play; she wants to play with me.  Elana has been there for some time now, and my God, it is exhausting!  Two minutes of crawling around on the floor, barking like a dog, and pretending to drink water out of a Tupperware container, and I am ready to go back to washing the dishes, folding the laundry, or scrubbing the toilet.

It's not that I hate interacting with my children.  I do enjoy creating arts and craft projects, completing puzzles, and reading children's books.  However, the imaginative play, the kind that requires me to act like I'm three-and-a-half, is wearing.  I don't want to repeatedly pretend that I am mean Mother Gothel from Tangled and sing out "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!" while running around the house riding an imaginary horse.  I want to sit quietly on the couch while watching the kids do that!

At least with the other activities, like drawing, Play-Doh and puzzles, I can maintain a semblance of my adult self. With a box of clay, or a carton of crayons, parents can sit at the coffee table barely moving more than just the muscles in our hands.  We can draw a truck, a princess, or Elmo, and use the creative sections of our brains.  At least with puzzles, we can challenge ourselves- I bet I can put this nine-piece puzzle together before that 2-year-old does!

A few years ago the Boston Globe published an article titled Leave Those Kids Alone!  The need we feel to constantly engage with our children is actually an American ideal.  In other cultures, mothers are not expected to be rolling around on the floor with their children 12 hours a day.  In less wealthy countries, parents do not have the luxury of spending hours engaged with their children- how could a mother have time to play when there are baskets to weave, laundry to scrub, and fields to tend?  Even in other developed nations, such as France and England, the main job of a parent is to teach her child to be independent and self sufficient.  At playgrounds you see mothers sitting on benches- observing- not sliding down the slide and chasing their child on the monkey bars.  In most other countries adults actually think that it's a bit ridiculous to play with children (I completely understand this sentiment!).

Not only is this an American value, it is a fairly new American value. David Lancy, an anthropologist, claims that parent/child play is a new phenomenon, only recently advocated by child psychologists, preschool teachers, and social workers.  Again, I direct you to Betty and Don Draper, of Mad Men.  Have you once seen them crawling on the floor pretending to be a wild jungle animal, or brushing a doll's hair?  No, family time consists of Betty and Don lounging on the couch while Sally mixes martinis.

Lancy argues that this ideal of playing on the floor with your child is a byproduct of the culture of "perfect parenting" that is now part of the everyday pressure we face as parents.  Play is now taken so seriously- as though there is a right and wrong way to play.  (Do- encourage fantasy and messes.  Don't- make children color within the lines.  Do- get on the carpet and roll around like dogs.  Don't- use any type of electronic equipment, screen time for children less than two is strictly forbidden.)  Keeping track of what's correct and what's not is impossible, and even a bit ridiculous in itself.

Last week I brought Maisy, and her cousin, Aviva, to kindergym at a local synagogue.  Both girls are 20-months-old, and at this age they do a lot of parallel play (playing alongside each other), but little interaction.  I spent much of the class sitting in a central location that provided me an adequate view of both girls while they went about their business.  At one point I was resting at the Play-Doh table, extracting dried up pieces of old dough out of tiny crevices in the tools.  A father (and I must say that he had both ears double pierced and was wearing man-tights), sat across from me intensely playing  with his 14-month-old son.  "Thanks for helping," he said when he saw me cleaning the toys.  "No problem!  It sure beats playing with the kids!" I jokingly responded.   He looked up from the car he was building for his son with shock and disgust in his eyes.  Without saying a word, he took his son over to the puzzle station and began pointing out all the different animals in one puzzle.  "Look, a lion.  Lions say roar.  Here's a monkey.  What do monkey's say?"  The kid, too young to care, patiently ignored his father and began chewing on a giraffe.

Who was getting the most out of kindergym: Maisy and Aviva who discovered all sorts of new activities and figured out how things work on their own accord, or the kid who had his father's complete and undivided attention, while directing his play?  I think that there is an argument for both styles, but I also firmly believe that the former leaves the parent much less burnt out at the end of the class.
Currently there is a very fast growing parenting movement called "Simplicity Parenting".  (Please note that I am not in any way advocating this movement- it peddles tossing all Disney related toys and squeezing your own orange juice.)  However, it also emphasizes the need for children to have large amounts of unstructured play, without parental interference, daily.  This, I am totally onboard with!

So here is my new prescription for playing with your children: Sit back, relax on the couch with a glass of wine, and let the rugrats run rampant around the living room.  They will learn to play independently, use their imaginations, and work through problems with their siblings.  You will learn to relax and maybe even enjoy the heavy job that is parenting.


  1. Love this...I feel like a better parent already :)

  2. arghhh this fine when you have two kids and you can feel less guilty but me only having one, I feel like the worse parent inthe world when i make my poor only child play on her own... but not guilty enough to bore another one though :-)

  3. Yep, this is easier to implement with two than with one. That's why my older daughter constantly whines for company when coloring, playing with dolls, or even going potty. Daughter number two is generally very happy to play on her own, or follow daughter number one.

  4. My daughter generally plays happily on her own, not every day, but when I make dinner, she will often play in the living room or rarely in her room (on a different floor) with her toys. It may not last a long time, and there are frequent check-ins, but it is really nice to see her independence and I get actually get something done! At a party at our home this weekend, when the 4 toddlers were in the same room as the parents, there were a few melt-downs and the kids looked to us frequently for stuff to do. But when we suggested they go to my daughter's room, they played happily without any fights, for a good 20 minutes, while the parents could drink coffee and mimosas!!

  5. I totally agree with you Rhianna! Just put your child in a safe space and let them explore! Be available for interaction and sharing when they want it but let the child direct how much. Sometimes they will bring you a book to read or a want you to listen to their song or story and other times they will get totally absorbed in figuring out how to repeatedly do something like open and close a shoebox. You can sit back and watch as your toddler develops independence and self-confidence.

  6. Great post! I especially love your Mad Men reference- I can't tell you how many conversations this show has sparked between Ben and me on the evolution of the parent/child relationship.