Why do we parents feel such an obligation to play with our kids?
I just read a blog called Why I’m Afraid to Play With My Kids which reminds me of an article in the paper I read a couple of weeks back, daringly and shockingly entitled ‘Playing with my daughter is so boring it melts my brain.’ Credit goes to Esther Walker for gleefully saying the unsayable in that article, and to psychologist Peter Gray for backing her up with lots of common-sense Official Expert reasons.
I suspect that I have such a strong memory of spending an afternoon playing with my second son when he was about three because that was the only time I did it, and my other strong memory of that time was probably more representative of my general parenting. That was when two women knocked on my door and delivered said son back to me, having found him on his tricycle heading down the road alone towards the school ‘to visit his brother.’ The women were very cross with me I could tell. In my defence, he always played outside in the alleyway down the side of the house while I worked in the kitchen with the door open. I just hadn’t noticed he’d strayed a bit further than usual. I felt a new respect for him in his resourcefulness actually.
Gray makes the point that parents find playing with their children boring because children’s play is repetitive, and also that we are the first generation that has ever been expected to play with our kids, a point which has been made before – check out this article in the Boston Globe for example.
I have always felt that adults doing adult things and children doing children’s things is perfectly natural but I used to sometimes feel guilty about my lack of enthusiasm anyway. Memories of endless Sundays suddenly surface: sitting down on the carpet mindlessly running cars round tracks while trying to get away with reading the newspaper at the same time, to cries of ‘Mum you’re not LOOKING!’ But my newspaper was my anchor to the adult world and I needed it.
I think it’s great if you genuinely enjoy playing with your kids (I’ve known people like that and I’ve watched with amazement) but when my kids were little there was definitely pressure; it was the era of finding your inner child, when ‘being playful’ was elevated to a moral duty. We were supposed to all enjoy flying kites as I remember. We were all expected to play with our kids in order to be seen as good parents.
I’m all for genuine enjoyment but what’s always made me feel uncomfortable is the sight of fully-grown adults running round and being bossed about by their little kids. What do you do? You either go along with it, seething with resentment, or you assert yourself and it all ends in tears.
Rather than feeling a duty to play with our kids whenever they ask us, I think it’s far better to do with enthusiasm that which you genuinely feel enthusiastic about, to sometimes grudgingly go along with what you don’t, and to outright refuse to do anything when you really can’t. That’s a healthy balance I reckon.
In the end, playing is what your children’s friends are for. It’s the only reason I ever let other people’s kids into my house.