You Don’t Have To Play With Your Kids

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Today, I want to chat about playing with your kids.

At least once a week, I see a Mom posting in the Posse about how she hates playing with her kids. She knows it’s important so she powers through, but it usually ends in tears because she “isn’t playing right” and all she can think about is her to-do list.

If this is you, give me a guilty as charged in the comments.

So here’s what you need to know about play: in order for it to have all the brain-boosting, life enhancing, social skills creating goodness that everybody talks about- BOTH PARTIES need to be in a play state.

WTF is a play state?

You know when you’re doing something fun that you just deep down enjoy- and you get in this kind of state of flow where time doesn’t exist. You could keep doing this forever, you’re not worried about your phone, you’re not worried about your to-do list, you’re TOTALLY in the moment and you’re just genuinely happy and fulfilled?

That’s a play state.

This is one of the reasons why short recess and lack of outdoor time is such a hot topic- because there’s research that shows it can take children up to an hour to settle into a play state. Which means that for a lot of kids who aren’t given BIG chunks of free play time- they’re just starting to get the benefits of play and then they have to stop. But that’s a whole other topic.

FOR US- what’s the implication of this? Well, if you’re not in a play state- if playing with your children is a chore for you and you’re basically a warm body that’s TRYING- bless you. You’re trying- but you’re just BORED OFF YOUR KNUT. You’re not actually helping your child. You may actually be hindering them. Because it’s really hard to get into a flowy play state when your partner is just not engaged. THAT’S what they mean when they tell you that you’re playing wrong. They KNOW that you aren’t on the same wavelength as they are. They can sense it. You’re playing wrong because YOU ARE NOT PLAYING.

Dr. Stuart Brown in his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul stresses that PLAY IS A STATE OF MIND. It’s not an activity. And when we’re in the play state- we attune with those around us, we bond, and we get on the same page. THAT is the benefit of you playing with your child- bonding. Attunement. So if you’re bored, disengaged, and just plain not into it- NEITHER of you is getting the benefit of the play. You’re not accomplishing what you think you are.

You are not required to be your child’s playmate. You’re their mother, not their friend, not a clown- it is not your job to entertain your child.

Does that mean that you can never play with them?

NO. Of course, you can- but do it when it feels engaging and fun and purposeless. What it does mean is that you can LET GO of that little guilty asshole on your shoulder telling you that you really should put down the book and get up and play with them. If your child is engaged in independent play and is in a play state- inserting yourself into that BREAKS the state and removes all the good stuff! So sit down, read that Sophie Kinsella novel, and do it guilt free.

And if you’re like- well, I want to play with them… I just don’t want to play Lego or Superheros or Disney Princesses. THAT’S DOABLE! Find something that you BOTH find enjoyable and puts you both in a play state. For my boys and I, that’s swimming- we all get in the pool and have a grand old time and before I know it my husband is home from work. We can spend ALL afternoon in the pool together. That’s fun for me, its fun for them, THAT’S playing with them. And that’s great! We don’t have to do it every day, and we don’t have to do it ALL DAY. And I don’t feel guilty one bit for then telling them no, really, you need to go downstairs and entertain yourselves- because I know once or twice a week we have a specific activity that we BOTH enjoy that we’ll do together.

We’ve been drilled on the idea that if we aren’t engaging with our children 24/7, even if we’re touched out, bored, frustrated, and overwhelmed, that they’ll be STUPID- that we’ve somehow landed in this place of being our children’s entertainers. My Mom didn’t entertain me! HER Mom sure as heck didn’t. Somewhere in the last 30 years we got the idea that it’s our job to be our children’s playmates- and that’s not helping us, and it’s not helping them.

And you know where this comes from?

There was a study done in the 1960’s by a woman named Marian Diamond which showed that rats raised in what they called an “enriched” environment had larger, more complex brains with a thicker cortex- which is where most data processing takes place. And that study- even though I’m sure you’ve never heard of it until right now- took hold in the Western society and it spread like wildfire. And the idea that stimulating your child ALL THE TIME was the best way to get them ahead in life took hold. Here’s the thing- Diamond later explained that what she meant by “enriched” environments- were once filled with play. The rats were exposed to a wide variety of toys, and they socialized with other rats. BUT- because she, as a female scientist, in the 1960’s, was getting ridiculed for being the girl who plays with rats. So she changed her language to get her research taken more seriously.

What an intense impact that’s had on how we raise our kids!

We don’t have to be stimulating them all the time. They just have to have lots of opportunities for play- and that doesn’t require US. Also? STOP SAYING THAT YOU NEED TO WORK ON THEIR INDEPENDENT PLAY. NO! They do! This isn’t your job- play is the work of CHILDHOOD.

So let go of the guilt. Put your focus on giving them the space to play independently and finding an activity or two that puts you BOTH in a play state- and schedule that in once or twice a week. And I know- it can be HARD to give them the space to play independently. We’re so conditioned to jump in there and save them. It’s okay if they get upset. It’s okay if they get frustrated. Children who are used to being entertained are GOING to have an extinction burst. It’s going to happen. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you were indispensable and they’re totally screwed because they have no independent play skills. It just means the status quo has changed- and kids like consistency- it’s frustrating and uncomfortable when the status quo changes. Acknowledge that, but don’t let it derail you.

So that’s it- you don’t have to play with your kids- unless you WANT to.

NOW, this really has nothing to do with play- but if you want more tidbits like this go ahead and grab your free audio script pack- it’s just chock full of info like this, but in regards to addressing misbehavior.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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