Confession time. I don’t always enjoy playing with my children.
I know I’m not alone. One mama recently asked on Facebook “Does anyone else love their child but hate parenting? I mean, does anyone really thrive in the day to day chaos that is raising another human being, or is everyone hanging on by a thread?”
As an advocate for children’s play it feels like a strange thing to say aloud: I don’t always enjoy playing with my kids!
3 Things To Remember When You Don’t Want to Play
Play is an essential part of childhood, perhaps even the most important part of childhood.
Yet sometimes, even though I know just how important play is, when I hear that inevitable question: “Mummy, will you play with me?” I just want to stomp my feet like a toddler refusing to put on pants and shout “I don’t want to play today!”
Mixed Feelings About Play
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes playtime is fun. We make snails and snakes out of play dough or build cubbies with blankets and chairs pulled from the dining table.
I love the funny things my kids say during play and the way they become so invested in the storyline of their games. I know when I play with my children we strengthen our relationships and I model social skills which are ever so important, particularly for my toddler!
But play is exhausting too. It can be both physically and mentally draining and at times, even boring (there are only so many dirt birthday cakes that you can “excitedly” blow the candles out on!)
Sometimes I find myself drifting off, my mind wandering to the grocery list or my to-do list at work or daydreaming about an upcoming holiday.
Sometimes I even find myself making excuses to slip out of the play: “I just need to turn on the washing machine and I will be right back.” And I know full well I will linger in the other room until someone comes looking for me, begging me to be the patient at the vet clinic (and yes, in case you were wondering, dogs read magazines in the waiting room too.)
And then there are the times when I say no or not right now. Within moments I am full of remorse, thinking about missing these precious hours because they grow so fast and before I know they will be moving out.
The guilt seeps in and I find myself in the backyard, pushing the swing for the next half an hour while I pray for the native birds overhead to join forces, swoop down and carry me off into the sunset, depositing me on a deserted island where the washing basket is always empty and no-one is asking me to play!
Not All Parents Like To Play
But this week, I got a reality check. I read an article by renowned psychologist and author Peter Gray titled Playing With Children: Should You, And If So, How?
As I read through the article, I found myself nodding along as Gray spoke about the fact many parents don’t enjoy playing with their children, yet feel guilted into doing so.
But why are parents not enjoying playing with their children? Children often like to do the same thing over and over, which can leave us looking for the quickest escape route as we are asked for the thousandth time to “be the baby and I’ll be the mum”.
Kids can also be quite bossy during play. When it occurs with a child playmate this is easily overcome by a simple “if you tell me I have to be the baby one more time, I am not going to play with you.”
Yet when it happens to us as adults we just nod and smile and fulfil the role, eager to not rock the boat. While we may think we’re doing our children a favour by engaging in play in this way, this can actually be detrimental to their social development.
So, what do we do to find a balance?
#1: Children Need Other Children For Play
I think back to my own childhood and while my parents were loving and provided a safe, fun environment for play, we children were generally left to our own devices when it came to play.
Sure, our mother would indulge our playful whims at times – helping us to wash and hang on the clothesline the many dolls and teddies, or making a train out of cardboard boxes (in fact, she did this just last week for my own children too).
But most days, I could be found playing with my brother or a friend from the neighbourhood. We spent long days digging in the dirt, swinging, having make-believe picnics, or teaching my dolls at the school we set up in the cubby house. Although I was often content to play alone, play really came to life when other children were there.
At the risk of sounding like my grandmother, back in my day children played with other children in the neighbourhood, they roamed the streets and played in communal areas like parks, fields or bushland. These days, children are tucked up safe inside their homes, a result of busy, overscheduled lives and parental fear. As a parent, I understand that fear. But I also understand children’s need to play freely and to play with other children.
We need to find ways of bringing children back into the neighbourhoods, back into the backyards!
#2: We Can Find Ways To Enjoy Play
Play should be fun! It should be fun for all parties. Kick your shoes off and roll around on the grass, enjoy a board game with older children, jump on the swings yourself (I did this recently and surprised myself at the simultaneous feeling of joy and terror!)
When you enjoy playing with your child, it will be something to look forward to, as opposed to the foot-stamping tantrum I previously suggested.
#3: Ditch The Guilt
As parents, we seem to be hardwired for guilt. Working mum? You no doubt feel guilty that you are not home enough. Stay at home mum? You probably feel guilty for not contributing to the household enough.
Breastfeeding? I felt guilty that I was spending so much time breastfeeding my youngest that I couldn’t always jump to attention for my older children. Bottle-feeding? I remember that guilt well too, the feeling that you couldn’t do what was supposed to be so natural.
With so much other stuff to feel guilty about, why add something else to the list? Seriously, we need to cut ourselves some slack and realise it’s okay if we don’t feel the urge to play with our children 24/7.
In fact, we are doing them a favour by giving them time to play alone or finding opportunities for them to play with peers. We’re supporting the development of social skills, of imagination and of resilience.
Clearly, it’s not every day I find myself in foot stamping, “I don’t want to play!” mode, but the next time I feel burnt out and like I just can’t summon the energy to be the customer at the shop once more, I am going to cut myself some slack.
I am going to remind myself they don’t need me all the time. I am going to remind myself of the hour I spent running around the playground the day before. I am going to remind myself they have each other (the joys of having three children – always someone to play with!) and I am going to remind myself it’s okay to say no, to say not right now. It is okay to grab a book, put my feet up and watch them play, because sometimes that’s all they really want – for me to be there.
And that’s all I really need, to put my feet up with a good book and watch them push each other on the swing for the millionth time, knowing this won’t be a moment that I lament missing.