Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all experience. From first time parents with little experience in child-rearing to seasoned parents who feel like they have their system down pat, every family unit moves through life with a unique understanding of what it means to parent their children. Still, in the social media age of sharing anything and everything, parents can feel like failures more often than not, especially when it comes to guilt over playing with their kids.
Do parents have to play with their kids?
While social media can be a harmful and judgemental place, it can also be helpful for parents struggling to find the balance between their kids' needs and their own needs. When it comes to spending time with children, parents can often feel like "entertainment directors" instead of parents.
Is it OK to not play with your kids? How do parents deal with the inevitable guilt that comes along when they don't play with their kids? And what can parents do to spend meaningful time with their kids if play is not their thing?
Play is important, but so is patience
Tanya Nichols is a licensed clinical psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Center of Excellence for Children in State Custody, who says while play is important for kids, there's some flexibility for parents.
"Play is important for processing thoughts and feelings," she says. "Part of life is learning that there is something I want, but I can't always get it right away." She also says it's vital to keep in mind the child’s chronological age as well as their developmental age.
"Give kids choices for play," Nichols says. "Think about what that kid needs and consider giving them a time limit for play or narrate what they're doing." Giving kids options for play can boost their confidence in decision-making while simultaneously helping them take charge of their own entertainment.
It's OK to say "no" to play
Nichols, who also runs Black Girl Wellness, a subscription-based tool that addresses physical, mental, career and financial wellness in the Black community, is passionate about mental health.
"Parents need to be attuned to what they're feeling in addition to being attuned to what their kids need," she says. "Think about what is realistic for you. Make connections during the routines of the day. It's OK for unstructured play to happen on the weekends if that's what works for your family. Remind yourself children need different things at different points. Do the best you can."
Give yourself a break
Mandee McDonald, a former elementary school teacher and host of faith-based podcast, Known, says when it comes to playing with her 6-year-old son, she tries to focus on her strengths rather than weaknesses. "I enjoy doing crafts, baking and exploring things with my son, but pretend play is so hard," she admits. "I try, but he usually tells me I'm doing it wrong."
McDonald says she relies on her past experience as a teacher to reassure herself any time she feels that dreaded mom guilt. "I just remind myself independent play is an important skill kids need to develop early," she says. "It really is good for his creativity — and humility — to let him get bored and figure out how to spend his time."
Hillary Ryan has four kids ages 2 to 11 and says she feels if she didn't like playing with kids after having four children she'd be "doing something wrong." However, she says, "Like most things in parenting, moderation is key."
"I love Play-Doh, coloring and building a good sand castle," Ryan explains, "I'm always down for a spontaneous make believe tea party and I am more than happy to send Hot Wheels soaring down the track over and over again; but please don't make me act out an elaborate scene with stuffed animals or Lego people."
You are not your child's entertainer
Jody LeVos, chief learning officer for educational site Begin, has extensive experience in children's media and early learning that has contributed to the development of several award-winning, play-to-learn products and experiences. "Parents wear many hats, but a full-time entertainer for our kids is not — and does not need to be — one of them," LeVos tells YahooLife. "In fact, there's evidence that boredom can be extremely valuable and research suggests that unstructured time — when parents are not actively directing their children's activity and entertaining them — is linked with important life skills such as creativity and problem-solving."
Ryan confidently affirms that she doesn't always say "yes" to playing with her kids.
"Maybe it's because, aside from the playmate hat, I also don the chef, housekeeper and household manager hats," she says. "Maybe it's because I have one chapter left in my book and my coffee is still hot-ish. Regardless, sometimes I say no to play, and that's OK."
Parents need to give themselves permission to say no. In our current cultural climate, many parents now work from home and childcare isn't always available or affordable. Having kids at home can be exhausting for working parents trying to balance everyone's needs, so teaching children the key life skill of patience may not always be easy, but it is essential.
How to set playtime boundaries with your kids
"Setting boundaries is an important life skill, and parents can model this for their child," explains LeVos. She includes some suggestions for setting boundaries as appropriate, depending on a child's age.
Use a timer to show children a visual representation of when the parent will be free to play.
Give the child a task or other activity to accomplish until the parent can engage with them.
Allow screen time with educational programs that promote active engagement.
So how can parents show they care for their children if they say "no" to play?
"Showing love to children comes in many forms, such as making them feel safe and secure, providing consistent routines and taking care of their most basic needs," says LeVos.
Tania Lamb, a mom to five girls ages 9 to 17 who blogs at parenting and lifestyle website Lola Lambchops, enjoyed doing activities or going places with her kids when they were younger, but knew she had her limits. "I wasn't the mom who went to the playground and got on the swings or slid down the slide," she says.
Lamb adds, "I didn't have any guilt because I didn't think my children were suffering. I couldn't be the constant source of entertainment, so they learned to play with siblings or alone."
"My husband is the one that practices sports with them and gets dirty with them," she adds. "I love that that's his role with his girls. He enjoys it and I don't, so it's a perfect tag team."
Parents are doing their best when it comes to raising their kids, and what works for one family may not work for another. It's important to be willing to be flexible when judging your own parenting methods. And, as Nichols says, "do the best you can."
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