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Taking a pass on play: how outsourcing playtime helps me enjoy my toddler more

by Guest Blogger on November 16, 2012

By guest writer Erica Knecht of Expatria, Baby. This is Erica’s third post on cross-cultural parenting and finding happiness as a mom in a foreign country. Be sure to check out her observations on parenting a toddler in Asia, as well as a great discussion on post-partum rituals in other cultures.

toddler playing independently I have a confession to make: I’d rather be scrubbing dirty toilets than playing with my own toddler.

I was (am?) ridden with guilt about this. I mean, isn’t playing with a mini person, like, the whole point of birthing a child? Yes?

(But, also, come on! If I have to help an uncoordinated and easily frustrated toddler swaddle, change and feed a baby doll one more time, or order one more stone pizza and feign delight when it comes out of the oven…)

It wasn’t until I found a bit more confidence in my parental footing—with the help of some perspective I’ve gained from parenting in another culture—that I could cop to the fact that imaginative play just really isn’t my jam. Finally, when I said it out loud, I found that there were many other Euro-North American mothers who shared similar feelings about playing: specifically that it was stultifyingly, mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring.

It was then that I began to question my assumptions about play. Maybe I didn’t need to be my child’s constant companion and playmate. Maybe I don’t like playing because playing is boring. Maybe adults aren’t supposed to love playing. And maybe that’s okay.

Most Euro-North American parents value play. The books and experts tell us that play is essential to cognitive development. Marketers trumpet the brain-building powers of their toys. This one develops hand-eye coordination. That one teaches cause and effect. But the assumption seems to be that play is something that happens independently – between child and toy.

From what I’ve observed as an expat mother, Asian parents also value play. But play is seen differently here. Rather than a means of building neural pathways and growing genius babies, play is viewed as a means by which children learn to interact within the culture in which they live. Play is not about developing the brain so much as it is about developing relationships. It is through play that children learn how to be people.

“Let me make dinner,” I tell my girl. “Go play with your toys.” But she won’t. She wants someone to play with.

And maybe that’s normal and okay, too.

As is the social expectation in Indonesia, I’ve hired a nanny for my girl. Our nanny has become not only great porthole into Javanese culture and wonderful company for me, but she’s also become my daughter’s outlet for playing babies, stone pizza scenarios, and imaginary trips to the grocery store. I cook, clean, write, and pop in for five minutes here to join in a rousing game of carry-carry Baby Honey.

Now, before you berate me for my neo-colonial, bourgeois commodification of child care, please know that I have already done the necessary berating. Why do I need domestic help when I stay at home? Why can’t I just buck up and play with my kid?

Well, the answer is that through outsourcing play, I’m actually mimicking the natural order of traditional village life.

In an Indonesian village, once a kid can walk with a reasonable degree of confidence, he is let down from the mother’s selendang and sent out to play. An older sister or elder cousin takes responsibility for the child as he joins the pack of children who run around the village. The toddler is shown how to make dolls out of sticks; he’s scolded by his peers when he hits or takes a toy; he’s reminded by the big kids when it’s time to go pee-pee, and warned with a holler to be careful. He’s kept in the corner of his sister’s eye while she plays with her friends, and as he gets older and more aware of the rules and norms of the group, included in their play.

All the while, the child’s mother is at home, cooking, cleaning, or perhaps running a micro-business.

Finally, when the light gets too low, or the child too whiney, he is retuned to the cocoon of his mother’s batik selendang.

The mother in the village isn’t playing with her kid, and she doesn’t feel bad about it. She’s not second-guessing the educational value of the games she plays with her child, nor wondering just what neural pathways a particular toy will carve out.

That’s not her job. Certainly playful moments between parent and child do happen, and parents in the village, like parents worldwide, enjoy spending time with their children, tickling, giggling, and engaging in all sorts of playful tomfoolery. But in many cultures adults are not expected to be the primary play partners of their children. Play happens because it’s fun, not because it’s an obligation.

The kids are sent outside, out of the adults’ collective hair. Adults do adult things. Kids do kid things. The young ones play in together, bands of inter-age kids, all learning about social norms, responsibility, and how to be a person.

So maybe, if you’re like me, and you are considering viability of a self-induced eye-gouging as a means of escaping another round of “play cook!!!”, you shouldn’t feel too badly. Maybe you should just embrace the fact that playing is for babies, and you’re a grown-up, and man, it’s totally boring. And then, maybe you should find a nice, responsible neighborhood tween and hire him as a mother’s helper to play endless games of Baby Honey with your own honey while you cook dinner in peace.

What are your thoughts? Are you bored by play? Have you experienced play through the eyes of other cultures?

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Erica Knecht is a mother, writer, blogger, and professional nomad, currently based in Jakarta, Indonesia. When not gallivanting across the globe with her two-year-old, she writes about the lighter side of tri-cultural parenting on her blog Expatria, Baby.

You can read Erica’s whole three-part series on expat parenting for The Happiest Mom by clicking here.

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Curiosa November 16, 2012 at 8:27 am

Curious about recommending hiring a tween, what age group are you recommending exactly?
Surely not a pre- teen child minder? Do you really think that’s a good idea?

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Meagan Francis November 16, 2012 at 9:08 am

I think there’s a difference between hiring a sitter and a mother’s helper/playmate, in terms of responsibility and maturity required. Especially if mom or another parent is going to be in the house at the time! It doesn’t seem any different to me than asking an older brother/sister to play with his/her toddler sibling while you make dinner.

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erica @ expatria, baby November 16, 2012 at 9:34 am

I had my first “babysitting” job when I was 8. Once or twice a week I played with my neighbour’s baby son for about an hour while she cooked dinner. The boy and I played peek-a-boo, stacked blocks, and read books in the livingroom while his mom cooked in the kitchen. She was happy. He was happy. And I was THRILLED to be given the responsibility and the 50 cents that I used to earn.

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Sheila November 16, 2012 at 8:30 am

So Hillary Clinton was right – it does “take a village”!

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Megan November 16, 2012 at 9:09 am

I really enjoyed reading this – I have a 2 year old that I also stay home with, and I know exactly how you feel sometimes. I actually love playing with my son, just not necessarily for the ALL DAY that he prefers. I try to make sure we get some very focused play time each day, and then I encourage a little independent play. As long as he gets that focused attention, he’s happy to play alone when I need him to so I can get dinner made or whatev. It’s really about finding what works for your kiddo and your family, just like you’ve said here – we’re not all the same mother to the same child after all!

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erica @ expatria, baby November 16, 2012 at 9:43 am

Megan, thanks for the kind words! I’d love to hear any ideas for encouraging independent play because my girl (2.5) WONT play by herself EVER, despite lots of one-on-one mama-baby time and infinate burnt lips on imaginary stone pizzas. And so that’s why we have a nanny ;)

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Megan November 16, 2012 at 10:46 am

Oh, Erica, if I had a suggestion for that, I’d gladly give it to you, but I don’t! I think my son has a personality that makes him willing to do it – I honestly don’t think every kid does, and it sounds like you have one of the all-play-all-the-time kids. You’ve found a way to make it work and that’s what matters.

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Meagan Francis November 16, 2012 at 9:09 am

Love it Erica! I remember when I finally allowed myself to admit that I didn’t like playing with my kids and, more importantly, didn’t HAVE to all the time to be a good mom. I am still a PLAYFUL mom, but there’s a difference between being playful on my own (adult) terms, and expecting myself to get into playing cars and action figures!

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Laura Dennis November 16, 2012 at 9:18 am

OMG Erica!

I can totally relate! Playing with my kids IS boring, but it wasn’t until I moved to Serbia (American expat), that I realized that it’s okay that I think it’s boring, and that’s normal. It’s normal for kids to want to play with people their age. Is it more fun for me to go to coffee with a grandma, or with a woman my age? Obviously, my peer–and this is something many Serbian women have pointed out to me, without guilt, without sadness. It’s more fun for kids to play with KIDS. I get it, thanks for your perspective in Asia! I feel like a kindred spirit!

Laura

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erica @ expatria, baby November 16, 2012 at 9:48 am

Interesting, Laura. I think that the notion of play being the realm of children is actually far more pervasive outside of Euro-North American cultures.

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Elizabeth Johnson November 16, 2012 at 9:26 am

I agree! My version of this was letting day care handle all of the child play activities that I despised–I hate finger painting and messy stuff, so we never had any of that in my house. The kids could play with that all they wanted at day care, and I could pick them up at 5:30 p.m. all clean and tidy. Same with craft projects that involved lots of cutting and gluing. Not my cup of tea–but the kids could do all of that at day care, and I would ooh and aah over their completed creations.

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Carla November 16, 2012 at 9:31 am

AMEN! I wish all Mom’s would read this & breathe a big sigh of relief. I’m 6 years into this parenting gig & have let go of the guilt of not enjoying kid-play but I know many Mom’s who still struggle. Great post!

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Carrie November 16, 2012 at 9:36 am

Absolutely! I do not enjoy most playing, and I’m not apologetic about it. I love it that my older kids can play real games with me, like Scrabble or cards – and it’s a real challenge!

Of course it was hard with my first (I remember wishing so badly that I had an older child so play with him!), but now it’s easy since I have 7. There is always a playmate around.

I do love reading to my kids though, so that’s what I do when I “play” with my little ones.

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Chaunie@TinyBlueLines November 16, 2012 at 9:47 am

One of those posts that make you want to jump and shout, “Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!” I read a recent article in Parents about a mom who had an epiphany about how she “wasn’t good at playing” with her son–the article went on to give tips of how parents can play better with their kids. I mean, come on! As if we don’t have enough things to feel guilty about, we now have to feel guilty for not playing well enough with our kids?!

This post was perfect and I really have been working on this idea lately with my kids, although it is difficult–they seem to sense my guilt about not wanting to play all the time with them, but as a WAHM and an occasional night-shift nurse, it’s essential to my survival for them to learn independent play. That is why I love this site, it always helps me to let go of mom guilt and learn what works best for me. Thanks for a great post!

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Claire November 16, 2012 at 9:59 am

I love watching my son engage in imaginative play, but I can only tolerate participating in very small doses. Thankfully my husband has a higher tolerance for this. I handle this by chiming in while going about my business, when my son is pretending one scenario or another. Then I focus on things that I do enjoy doing with him, such as reading, crafts, and other structured activities. He has gotten better about playing alone as he has gotten older. I think what helped is that I started doing structured activities with him at a young age, and while he enjoyed them, he was always ready for a break in between activities. So he welcomed an opportunity to play independently and use his imagination in between the structured activities that I provided.

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Sarah Powers November 16, 2012 at 11:22 am

Great post, Erica! So many moms can relate. I think I am missing the “guilt gene” in some areas of motherhood because I have never felt bad about not playing with my kids – ha! :) I think because I try to have a broader definition of what it means to engage with them. I know what I’m good at – making up silly songs, reading (and reading and reading) books, creating a home environment that lets them play and relax, answering 14,000 questions a day about everything under the sun, etc. I also know what I’m NOT good at – pretending, making up stories, building train tracks, etc. I figure in the end it all evens out…my husband, the grandparents and other adults in my kids’ lives sort of fill those roles at different times and in different ways.

Also, I feel like we hit a total turnaround moment between 2.5 and 3 in terms of independent play. A was TERRIBLE at it too until that time. It will happen, and it’s magical (for everyone) when it does. :)

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Tiffany November 16, 2012 at 12:11 pm

I am so relieved to hear someone else say that playing with their kids is boring!! I have always felt that way, but always felt guilty about feeling that way! And also felt like I was the only one! Thanks so much for your post, hopefully it will help ease some of my guilt. I love the idea of outsourcing it to someone else, too bad I’m too cheap to do that!

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HapaMom November 16, 2012 at 12:33 pm

I’m a mom to 6 and 2 year old boys and I HATE to play. I love hearing that so many moms, too, hate to play. However, I disagree that it is “good” to stop playing with your child. My 6 year old would not, could not, play by himself. At. all. It was maddening. Any attempts at solo play would entail a huge tantrum and then him just sitting there doing nothing. He was also extremely talkative and insisted on being engaged with me 100% of the time he was awake. I couldn’t even have a thought to myself. Baths didn’t work, rides in the car didn’t work. It was rough.

BUT, I learned through all of this is that my child is a very well behaved child but with his spirit in tact. He tells me anything and everything that happens to him, what he thinks about, what he imagines. I’ve been able to instill in him values and beliefs through play and our talks together. His teachers comment on not only how smart he is but that he is kind, thoughtful, respectful, etc. And that is all because I worked so hard with him as a toddler/child. The other day I asked him what mommy does that makes him feel most loved (thinking of the 5 languages of love) and he told me playing with him. As teenagers they will go to people they feel closest to when they have a problem. I want that to be me as much as possible.

Being married to an Asian man and being around many many many Asian people I would not use the Asian culture as a model for ideal parenting. Speaking strictly about non-acculturated Asian parents based on Western ideals.

And as for the Indonesia example. America is not a village. There is a culture in my area that does the same thing with their children. But here in America the older kids teach younger kids very age inappropriate things (cussing, play violence, smoking, drinking), the older kids forget about the younger ones and the younger ones get lost and wander alone (at 3!), they pick on and tease the younger ones, etc. I won’t even let my kids play with older kids on the playground because more often than not they are being pretty mean to the little ones. I was often left in the care of my older brother and it was not pretty. I got to watch The Shining at age 7 and my brother and older cousin liked to take turns picking me up by my head. It’s sad but it is where we are as a culture right now.

I advocate a balanced approach. Definitely encourage independent play but also to suck it up and play for a while. Now, I tell my older son that my “play batteries” are low and have to stop. I’ve explained that adults don’t play as much as kids do and then encourage him to play with his brother and/or dog.

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Meagan Francis November 16, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I think for me it’s less about how “play” plays out day to day (which is always going to be different for every mom based on her unique circumstances), and more about moms giving themselves a break – that they don’t have to be GREAT at playing (on top of everything else), they don’t have to enjoy it and it’s even OK to delegate it out to others.

I also think it’s good for kids to see that while Mommy loves to talk to/engage with them, she also has the “work” of adulthood to do, whether that’s typing at a computer or washing dishes. And that the child’s wants/needs can’t always come first.

I think too that in some places the village approach can work well. We have a family of boys who live down the road from us: 11-year-old twins, 6, and 4. They often come over to play en masse and instead of kids breaking off by age, the kids often play with our younger three (3, 6, and 9) in a big group. I see so much cool interplaying going on between the two groups – the little ones are very much learning from the big ones; the big ones are helping the little ones, and I’m freed up to go about my grown-up business. Of course I’m keeping an eye on them, but they’re nice kids and there are rarely any problems.

Not everybody is fortunate enough to have that kind of setup, but even if there are “problem kids” at the playground I bet most of us, if we looked hard enough, could find nice groups of mixed-age kids for our little ones to play with. And maybe there’s something to be learned from interactions with not-so-nice kids, too?

I think it’s all about balance, like you suggest, Hapamom. Of course there are days when I play along with my daughter’s endless requests of “I’m the baby pony and you’re the mommy pony! Okay, now I’m the baby kitty and you’re the mommy kitty!” But it takes a lot of the pressure off to know that my daughter’s development isn’t dependent on my being a GREAT player. And that when I need to do other things, it’s OK for me to say “Okay, Mommy’s done playing now” and sometimes, leave the playing to a big brother or a sitter.

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erica @ expatria, baby November 18, 2012 at 1:51 am

HapaMom, tt sounds like you’ve really thought clearly about ways in which to show your boys how much you love them, what a wonderful idea to ask them outright what makes them feel loved. Going to put that one in my back pocket until my girl is a bit more verbal.
As for the Asian model of parenting, HapaMom, absolutely balance is key, and while I don’t always succeed, I do try to find balance in most aspects of my parenting. One way in which I attempt to achieve that balance is to take a blended Asian / Western approach to how I raise my kid.
Living in Asia, I can’t deny that our environment impacts choices and decisions I make for my kid. And honestly, some traditional Asian modes of parenting (particularly for young babies and toddlers) are totally my jam (babywearing, co-sleeping, being tolerant of mischievous toddler behaviour, for example) and I implement these along side the way in which I approach play.
On the other side, there are certain Asian parenting practices that don’t work for me, so I don’t use them. Just as there are more Western parenting norms that don’t really work for me. Balance! The key to everything in life, no?

As for the idea of having an older child mind a younger one, I agree with Meagan, I think it totally depends on the environment, the situation, and children (both minders and mindees) involved.

From the time my sisters and I were about 6, 4, and 1 our cousins (11 and 13) used to babysit us, daytimes and evenings alike. Sure we got introduced to all sorts of nonsense (notably my youngest sister being taught to sing Paradise City by Guns n Roses at the age of 1.5, and the earlier than appropriate exposure to soap operas). On the other side, I also got scolded by my cousins for using the word “jerk” and they covered my eyes and ears when people on the TV were kissing. I came out of the whole experience with a healthy distaste for crappy TV and some really wonderful, warm childhood memories.
That set-up worked for our family, which isn’t to say it would work for every family. It’s about comfort zones, and knowing the kids you’re dealing with. I suggested the older kid / younger kid childcare situation as an idea, something that may not spring to mind initially when a parent is frustrated that he or she can’t get dinner made for all the requests to play trains or play Baby Honey. Something to think about, and maybe an idea that works for one frustrated, played-out mother.

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Mystie @ Simply Convivial November 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm

My mom never played games with us or felt bad about not doing so, and we were homeschooled and all home all day. I don’t play with mine much, except to show them how to do things like build a stack when they are 18 months or so and receive “coffee” or other imaginary foods as I check my email and admire Lego creations from my older kids – and I homeschool and have all my kids with me all the time. I *would* go insane if I felt I had to actively engage with them all the time I was home, but I don’t.

I think hiring a pre-teen as a mother’s helper is a great idea for the oldest child or if you really need to focus on a project.

Honestly, this is one reason that it’s a good idea to not space kids too far apart. When my toddler wants to play with someone, he finds a sibling. Because they are around each other all the time and not used to peer-segregation, they all do get along remarkably well. I intervene when things get heated and make them “redo” the scenario so they learn the right way to interact, and it works well.

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Tiffany November 17, 2012 at 9:22 pm

I really like the idea of having them replay the scenario…I’m going to steal that!

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Kristen | The Frugal Girl November 16, 2012 at 2:49 pm

I’m not a huge fan of playing either, but since I have four kids, that’s not really a problem (and they’re all homeschooled, so I never had a lonely preschooler here while the older siblings were gone at school.)

So yeah, like Mystie said, siblings are the key here. With four kids in the house, there’s almost always someone willing to play with someone else.

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erica @ expatria, baby November 18, 2012 at 2:27 am

I guess I’d better get working on maybe baby number two, hey? That may just be the answer I’m looking for…
Also, Mystie, also stealing the redo idea. Nice one.

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Kristen @ Motherese November 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Once again, Erica, I’m totally fascinated by the cross-cultural perspective you’re bringing to your posts at The Happiest Mom. And this topic – as you know – is one that has been much on my mind lately. I especially loved learning about the toddler being sent out to play and being tended to by older kids. As Sheila mentioned above, it takes a village indeed!

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Sarah November 16, 2012 at 4:15 pm

I remember reading before I had my son that playing with your kids is a truly modern invention and not only is it not beneficial but it can be harmful to their creativity and problem-solving skills. I also remember feeling such a sense of relief b/c I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it. Beyond the occasional game of Candyland, I do not play with my kids and no body is worse for the wear!

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oilandgarlic November 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm

I like playing with my kids BUT I couldn’t play with them all day. I actually think it’s very important for them to play with their peers as that is just different than playing with their parents. I think playing with their peers allows for more creativity and problem solving and just plain fun, since adults always have their own baggage and may just take the lead in terms of action/storylines etc..

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Kara November 16, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Just want to say I REALLY appreciate these posts! There are many things that we seem to have lost sight of when our grandparents and great-grandparents settled in the US. Some of it is good but in some ways I think we’ve lost a lot of the common sense that we would have gained by living in a small community filled with family.

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Bess November 17, 2012 at 8:46 am

I cannot thank you enough for posting this. I have a 6-month-old, and while she’s possibly the happiest, most even-tempered kid I’ve ever met (which makes no sense given that she’s my daughter….), the idea of spending the entire day playing with her scares the hell out of me. So I’ve hired a sitter who comes in 30 hours a week and enjoys her immeasurably while I work from home, try to get to a yoga class, and go to the grocery store ALONE. I’ve been feeling horribly guilty about this since pretty much the first day, and now am feeling ABOUT A MILLION TIMES BETTER. So thank you. :-D

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erica @ expatria, baby November 18, 2012 at 1:53 am

Oh, Bess! I’m so glad! Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?? (Actually it was the internet that first gave me the courage to admit that endless imaginative play is just not my bag. So YAY INTERWEBZ)

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gena November 17, 2012 at 9:16 am

I have to disagree—if play is boring then you need to change it up–only boring people get bored –suck it up & get on the floor & interact :) it is oh so very easy to say “i’m not good at Imaginative play” or “I don’t do crafts” –If we birthed these kids we owe it to them to PLAY – whatever that means for you -we were all once children –it’s about getting in touch with that – i am not saying it has to be fun for you but neither is it fun for a kid to be schlepped all over town doing errands -it is a give & take -and as for the guilt YES i have a ton of guilt when i don’t play so i just give them about 20 minutes & get them started on something & then ease myself out- IT CAnbe done Moms.

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Meagan Francis November 17, 2012 at 10:40 am

“If we birthed these kids we owe it to them to PLAY”

I believe I owe my kids the opportunity, freedom and space to play.

But I don’t believe I owe it to them to, myself, play. Big difference.

This actually is raising an idea for another post – what do we “owe” our kids, and who gets to say? Hmm….

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Tiffany November 17, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Yes..I want to read that post!

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erica @ expatria, baby November 18, 2012 at 2:00 am

Agreed! I want to read that post too.
I’m not sure what I owe my girl beyond kindness and love, and I don’t know what she owes me either, beyond those two things.
While I do not really believe that I have an obligation to engage in imaginative play with my girl in a way which causes me soul crushing boredom (which isn’t to say that I don’t play with her, we do pass hours engaging in tickle wars and running around like banshees outside), I do think that, to use the vocabulary of obligation, we owe each other the kindness to find ways in which to spend time together doing things that bring us both joy. For us that’s swimming at the pool, making pancakes in the kitchen, “playing shouting” (running around screaming outside), exploring local markets, riding in a bajaj (the indonesian tuk-tuk) and walking to the park.

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Claire November 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Well, I didn’t birth my son (he’s adopted), but I certainly agree that we owe it to our kids to interact. And I’m sure that most moms play with their kids at least a little bit each day. But I think moms should be able to as you say, get them started and then back out and let them play on their own. I also think that moms should be able to spend more time on the types of play that they do enjoy and put more limits on the types of play that they find boring. For me, I do imaginative play in small doses, and spend more times on other types of play. It will look different for each household, and as long as the mom is interacting, that’s okay!

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Nina November 17, 2012 at 6:47 pm

My mom was pretty adamant that we let our kid play on his own, right from birth, and I’m glad I listened. We do plenty of play time, but I also don’t feel too guilty if he’s playing on his own or is deeply concentrating on a task. I think it builds on his focus and ability to self-entertain.

I grew up in a village type of environment with cousins galore, so I know exactly what you mean. I’m a bit sad that, while our families all live relatively nearby, it isn’t as near as I’d like it to be, where I still have to drive at least 45 minutes to see them. Good for weekends but not for daily village life. Still, I know I’m luckier than most to have them so close by.

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Crunchy Con Mommy November 18, 2012 at 12:43 am

I think this is another negative side effect of the isolated nuclear family culture in the US and of artificially small families. Historically most people lived near extended family, and only children and people with only one sibling would’ve been relatively rare. Now it is more rare to have a bunch of siblings and cousins and second cousins who live close enough to be playmates!! We are excited for when we have two kids old enough to play together. It will certainly ease the play burden on the parents.
That being said, I do actually love playing. But I love girl games, and tend to tire quickly of games like “make the plastic airplane fly around until your arms are about to fall off so he can pretend his action figures are skydiving” and would much rather make a craft, sing a cute song, or have a tea party! Luckily my son is still pretty crafty and musical-I hope those interests last his whole life!!

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Andrea Olson November 21, 2012 at 7:33 pm

I’m really glad you asked that question. I absolutely get completely, mind-numbingly bored playing with my 2-year old and my solution has been to find other places that have lots of other 2-year olds and have him play with them while I sit around and don’t think about playing. Love this post. Thanks!

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