“You be Ariel, and I’ll be Prince Eric,” instructs my three-year old daughter Julia. Then she dives down into the pretend ocean that is our kitchen floor and beckons me to save her. I scoop her in my arms, and we swim safely to “Ariel’s Grotto.” I attempt to return to chopping vegetables, but she begins the game again. I try to get out of it. “Ariel has to cook up some crabs for Prince Eric’s supper,” I say. But she’s onto me. “Ariel doesn’t cook the supper,” she retorts.It’s not the first time I’ve dodged Julia’s games today. After a short stint playing a mind-numbing game of Dora The Explorer Candyland, I fake a bathroom emergency. When I come out, I casually begin folding laundry. When Julia calls me back to the game, I tell her I’ll come back soon. I’m lying.
Sometimes I’m not even that suave about averting playtime with Julia. After a few laps around the house playing Tag, I simply run away mid-lap. For a moment it delights her when she realizes I’m missing. She’s thinks I’ve turned it into a game of Hide and Seek, but after a few minutes she begs me to return. Then I use my arsenal of verbal excuses, including: I need to get the house picked up and make a phone call. When she whines, I urge her to play with her younger sister, Elise, who is old enough to toddle her way through a round of any running game. And that’s what siblings are for, right?
I’m not a complete failure at playing. I’m content to do puzzles, and I’ll take time-out from any adult activity to read a book. I’m a musician, which means anything musical is pretty much okay with me. I’ll also last a good while at “I Spy” during walks through our neighborhood. But generally speaking, I hate playing with my kids. Games of “Horsey” – in which I’m asked to giddy-up through our yard – or “Payer,” where we use a toy cash register to enact pretend transactions – are enough to make me lose my mind. Of all the negatives that parenting has brought – sleep-deprivation, a constantly messy house, never a moment to myself – it’s the playing that I hate the most.
And yet, read any mainstream parenting magazine today, and you’re made to believe that playing with your children is essential to their well-being. I recently read “Fidgety Kids: 10 Fun Games You Can Play in an Instant.” The article suggests I pass the time waiting at the pediatrician’s office by using the exam table paper to draw a village. It’s not that I can’t appreciate the inventiveness of this crafty game, but truthfully, I’d rather read a magazine and let my kids entertain themselves with the germy toys (which, by the way, they love).
Another recent article suggests that at holiday get-togethers, adults take all the children outside and enjoy a jaunty game of monkey-in-the-middle. I don’t know about you, but when we have get-togethers around our house, we let the kids play with each other while the adults enjoy festive drinks. In his book Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten, Dr. David Perlmutter hails the importance of playing with our children to promote intelligence, and in support offers pages of tedious activities.
Luckily, the jury’s still out. The Boston Globe recently reported that playing with your children is actually a modern phenomenon and not necessarily all that beneficial. According to anthropological studies, three-fourths of the world’s parents don’t participate in the kind of parent-child play so popular in our current American culture. In fact, the article, titled “Leave Those Kids Alone,” suggests that most cultures think we’re kind of nutty.
Still, deep down, I consider playing with my kids something I should do. Not because I think it will raise their IQs or because it will make me a better mother, but because they want me to. After all, what’s so hard about sitting down for a tea party with twelve furry stuffed animals and two cute little girls? Maybe it’s the fact thatI have so much to do every day that squandering twenty minutes on fake tea and pretend friends – while I think about unanswered emails and piles of laundry – makes me fidgety. as a mother who works from home, I have so much to do every day that squandering twenty minutes on fake tea and pretend friends – while I think about unanswered emails and piles of laundry – makes me fidgety.
And when I think back to my own childhood, I don’t recall my parents ever playing with me or my brother. He and I played together, building elaborate forts, rescuing stray animals, hunting for frogs, and thinking up creative ways to execute my Barbies. Would we have done any of this if my mother was right there orchestrating elaborate games instead? I don’t think so. So I’m going to follow her lead. I’ll stick to the grown-up things – making a living, picking up toys, doing dishes, vacuuming floors – and I’ll let the kids have fun for all of us. Although I may not care to swim around the house dressed up as Ariel the mermaid, I’m happy to do all the things that allow my daughters the time and space so that they can.