How do you deal with a toddler or preschooler who wants you to play with them all the time?
I don’t play with my children, though I am very playful with them. I will tickle and chase and wrestle (though my husband does most of the wrestling), and we will play board or card games. But I have taught my children that it is their job to play and Mommy’s job to do mommy things. This is one thing that I do believe our culture has developed that makes parents unnecessarily child-centered. It is especially a problem in homes where the mother is not able to get anything done because her child is always wanting her to play.
I do not agree with everything in The Continuum Concept (by Jean Liedloff), but some of the ideas really struck a cord with me from what I’ve studied and experienced about parenting. One of the ideas I do embrace is the idea that children need to look to those older than them to model for them what is to come at those stages. I believe it can be confusing (for some children more than others) if a parent is playing – something the child knows to be his job – rather than being a parent. This models for a child that his job as a parent will be to play and entertain his children.
I think our culture has created this idea that people need to be entertained and that is not the healthiest idea for us. People need to learn how to be, and play, and do things alone as much as they do with other people. We’ve overemphasized socialization to the point that alone time = lonely.
Also, because parents are the authority in a child’s life, their presence in play changes the play from its intended purpose. Children play for many reasons, one of which is to learn about their world. They test their nurturing skills by playing house and their bravery by being police officers. When a parent is involved in the play one of two things typically happens: the parent takes over the play and the child takes her lead so that the child is not exploring his own ideas, or the child wants to control everything and make the parent take his lead, which can cause confusion on boundaries in other areas of life.
I engage in parallel play with my children–I’m on the computer while they build a tower beside me; I fold towels while they play cars on the floor. I interact with them and comment with descriptive praise, but I don’t play with them. Often I don’t even offer descriptive praise because I don’t want my children playing in a way that is an effort to please me.
Some children need to be taught how to play alone, especially if parents have spent a lot of time playing with and entertaining them. When this is the case, I encourage parents to go ahead and start playing with the child, attempting to let the child take the lead but without being bossy, and then slip out once the play is initiated. The parent may say something like, “Mommy is going to go do X. You are playing so hard – keep playing. I’ll check on you in a minute.” And then leave the child to explore his or her own ideas.
With opportunity and maturity, all children can learn to play alone and enjoy their own company while exploring their own ideas. Even in a family with five children, my kids don’t always want to play together. If even one child can’t play alone, there is going to be conflict as she goes from person to person interrupting their personal time. Teaching children how to play alone is a valuable skill. Then, once they have this skill, you can engage in playful ideas with them that you enjoy when you are both wanting to, rather than feeling obligated to entertain them.