Playground Zombies: Just How Much Should Dads Play Anyway?

You’ve probably seen this guy: He’s standing or sitting in the corner of a wilding playground, checking his iPhone or Blackberry or whatever gadget seems almost glued to his hands. Kids are romping and screaming and running around — occasionally, perhaps, they’re calling to him, “Look at me! Look at me! Daddy!” — and still his eyes are glued to the screen, a Playground Zombie.

I’m going to defend this guy.

I read this interesting post/rant/cartoon over at Captain Dad about the typical “Not my job, dude” dad I think we’ve all seen at the playground from time to time. He’s probably the same guy who gets a few hours alone with his kids and calls it babysitting, or freaks out when his wife goes off to Vegas on a girls-only weekend, wondering just how in the world he’s going to care for his own children.

But looks can be deceiving. Maybe, perhaps, he’s a little bit more. Maybe, perhaps, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

When my daughter was younger, toddler age up to 4 or so, I used to resent this guy and look down my nose at him, to be honest. There I was at the playground, playing tag or hide and seek or just pushing a swing, and there he was, sipping leisurely at a coffee and checking out whatever virtual world was in his hands. Come one, dude, I’d think to myself, play with your kids!

But now … now I have to hand it to him.

His kid probably plays independently like a certified childhood mo-fo, forming fast friends with others or just making up new and creative games and worlds to kill some time, while mine goes to the park and whines and complains if I don’t play every game, heed every call, watch every ungainly dismount from the monkey bars as if the playground was le Forum de Montreal and she was Nadia Comaneci. Give me a break, kid!

As a stay-at-home dad who goes to more than enough playgrounds every week, I find myself trying to break away from my daughter more and more. Sure, I still play with her a lot — I still love to play with her — but she’s approaching six now and I wonder sometimes if all this daddy-daughter play time is, in fact, harmful — not harmful, I suppose, in a permanent, developmentally scarring king of way but in a way that maybe has not let her find ways to find joy on her own, to experience the full extent of boredom and the fun that can come of it.

Has all this time with me, I wonder, prevented her from making the kind of casual playground friendships I remember making at parks, all those pick-up games of Hot Lava Monster or whatever? Or has a lot of attention been good for her soul, given her a strong emotional bulwark to shelter in when when needed?

I’m not sure. I don’t have the answers. I do know there has to be a middle ground of attention/beneficent ignoring, and I don’t think I’ve struck it and am now trying to find the right balance. (I also know this is a rant about an incredible First World problem, an incredibly new-agey problem — I bet my mom would laugh at all this parental self doubt and start talking about playdates in the ’70s when the only focus of debate was whose turn it was to bring the Lancers. But I digress.)

Now when we visit playgrounds, I’m pretty clear about setting some boundaries: We can play together for a certain amount of time, I say, and then you’re on your own, kiddo. You’ve got to go make your own fun, while I sit on a bench with a cup of coffee and a good book.

So I look at Captain Dad’s cartoon and see myself in that sketch and shake my head in embarrassment at what an obnoxious, pontificating playground snob I used to be. Who am I to judge that guy? I wish in some ways that I had been that guy — more hands off in the beginning, maybe not fully hands off or completely checked out, to be sure, but at least a little, at least more than I was.

How do you play with the kids at the park?

It depends on the age, sure: It’s probably not wise to let a 1-year-old teeter around in front of the swings, but how about for older kids? The older my daughter gets, the more I’m trying to get out of the way. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s golden. I get to chill out with a book or chat with some friends, and she gets to experiment with what is, ultimately, our biggest shared goal as she ages: breaking away.

— Mike at Cry It Out!

Article Posted 5 years Ago

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