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The Mother-Guilt Series No. 4: Play with Me, Mommy!

Feel like you should be playing with your kids more? Take heart, there's much to be gained by simply letting your child be.

My 2-year-old and I are in a parent-tot class together. Mostly, she does the hard work of playing alongside other little ones and I do the hard work of not interfering. The teacher feels that having time to immerse herself in play, without commentary or intrusion, is priceless to the hovered-over children of today. To this end she gives the moms and dads a craft or job in the kitchen area of the room and asks that we go over to our kids only if they need us for security.

I cannot tell you how hard it can be for me to carry through with this non-involvement at home. Somehow, I’ve gotten the idea that if I don’t absolutely need to be working on a domestic chore, or my own urgent business, I should be playing with my children. Otherwise I’m a bad mom…and there it is again rearing its ugly, useless head: the mother-guilt.

Now I do play with my kids a lot and we all benefit greatly from this. But when I’ve been tasking for a while, then look over to see my toddler happily involved in wrapping babies with scarves, or my 5-year-old seriously crafting a “map of the whole world,” I fight the urge to interject:

“What are you doing, Honey?”

“Oh that looks interesting!”

“The babies are going night-night?”

When I can hold my tongue, the imaginative world in which they are enshrined goes on and on. If I can’t, the bubble must burst even if only for a moment, as they look up, interpret the language I just tossed at them, and consider a response. Just like that, poof — the magic of childhood lifts.

Who knows what parts of her imagination my daughter was using before I butted in, what building blocks were clicking into place? Current research in the field all points to how much children’s brains accomplish through play. We can facilitate this by giving them time, opportunity, and sometimes just their own space in order to do what comes so naturally.

So what I try to do instead of interrupting is either walk away and let my child be, or else listen to the part of my guilt that resonates: my daughter would probably appreciate some attention right now. Then I pause to stay close, but engross myself in my own work or play nearby. This way I hope I’m being available, keeping her company, but not interfering. I feel like when I can do this, she has space to develop her own rhythm, and process the world she’s constantly taking-in in a way that makes perfect sense only to her.

For those of you not buying this, those wondering if this is just a thinly veiled justification to ignore my children, I hear you! I’ve wondered the same thing. Oh, that mother-guilt is cunning.

But consider the woman who first coined the word, “educarer” in the 70s, Magda Gerber. Gerber co-founded the nonprofit Resources for Infant Educarers, and in 2003 she wrote the book, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect. In it, she writes about the play of babies. She notes how if there’s an impasse, say a ball rolls away from them, they may naturally look around to find the adult’s reaction. “A calm, observant comment, such as ‘Oh, the ball rolled away,’ will allow your baby to retain his role as initiator in his play and to choose how to handle the situation.”

I think what many of us do in that situation is probably attach an emotion to it: “That’s sad the ball rolled away,” or even compensate by telling him, “You’ve been doing such a good job with that ball.” These well intentioned, loving impulses may not go as far as simple observation. This notion ties closely into the current research on praise, which tells us that kids perform worse after receiving these kind of “attaboy” comments. As Gerber reminds us, when you walk by a tower your child is building and distractedly tell her what a tall, nice tower it is, the tower building often stops.

Another source in agreement here is the popular Simplicity Parenting movement, started by counselor, educator and researcher Kim John Payne. Payne has said on his blog, in a topic titled Filtering out the Adult World: Talking Less, “…I don’t have to make every moment a 'teaching moment', or even a 'special moment.' I can often just notice.” 

That blog post featured a writer named Amy Marotz who described her ability to, “fill 45 minutes of dead time with a lecture on personal pronouns at the drop of a hat.” In an effort to allow her daughter to just be in the moment more, her new mantra had become “Is this something that will add magic to a 2-and-a-half-year-old’s world?” Adopting this mantra sounds both difficult and wonderful to me. So I’ve resolved to try it, without being too hard on myself of course (otherwise we’ll need another mother-guilt piece on the subject).

Now if you’re feeling guilty that you don’t play with your kids enough, take heart, there’s much for them to gain when you just let ‘em be. And if you’re now feeling guilty that you haven’t done this all along, go easy on yourself! Even considering that there may be another way is enough work for today. Now go ignore a child and some laundry and do something nice for yourself, you deserve it.

Editor’s Note: Today’s column is part of Abi Cotler O’Roarty’s Mother-Guilt Series, which launched on Patch last summer. Past columns in that series include No. 1: Time AwayNo. 2: To Work, and No. 3. Good Guilt

Lorette Lavine February 22, 2012 at 01:02 PM
I think the word "ignore" is not exactly what you mean in this case...I think a parent should observe their child's play and not necessarily intervene unless the child beckons. Now I don't mean sit there the entire time...but even if you are doing chores you are aware of your child, this is not,in my opinion, ignoring. Ignoring could lead to feeling mom guilt.
Abi Cotler O'Roarty February 23, 2012 at 05:04 PM
Thanks for reading Lorette. I agree that truly ignoring a child is not a good thing and could lead to insecure and dangerous. When I use it at the end of the piece, it's my (failed?) attempt at humor. I appreciate that you took time to consider and comment here, that's always what I'm hoping for when I write. Best, Abi

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