Play – this is the fourth of my five “parenting ethics”. First comes “love”, the catch-all, the foundation for the rest of our series. Then comes “discipline”, which must be present in any true, loving relationship. Then comes “intimacy”, and now we arrive at “play”. Remember that we are trying to answer the question – how do I best love my children?
Play is friendship: The whole of parenting doesn’t easily distill into one concrete role or another. We are not only doting nor only stern. We are what our children can rely on for authority when authority is needed, for comfort when it is needed. This is, in essence, a type of friendship. There must be a deep sense in which we make ourselves ‘friends’ to our children.
And in a child’s mind, there’s one super important aspect to all of their friendships – play time.
Every kid wants to play…that’s just what they do. Play is all about joy. This is the way that children enjoy life – it’s the way they enjoy themselves, others, and the world around them. Play is what develops into hobbies, interests, and passions, talents, careers, and ministries.
“Play” involves actual interaction between you and your child. So, if you’re at the park, on your iPhone, and you’re wondering why the kid is whining and nagging about everything – it might be because you’re not playing well. Understand that your kid learns how to play from you. If you’re crazy about your iPhone, your kids will be too! If you’re able to be joyful and creative with your own family on the slide or for a game of chase – little son and/or daughter will follow suit.
Special mission: One of my favorite things to do with my son and with the slew of kids I’ve babysat is to play “special mission.” Mission #1 = Go find all the big leaves you can and then come show them to me.
‘Missions’ like these build patience and determination. Every child I’ve played this with works with serious determination to accomplish the given mission. It seems silly, but they do this for YOU. They want to impress you, to have you delight in their work, to have you think they are wonderful. I recently heard on the radio that a common response among professional athletes as to how they excelled in their career was because their parents told them every day – “I love to watch you play.”
Exceptions: I would like to note that a constant play companion is not what our kids ultimately need from a parent. We parents have our own lives too, and this is important. Our roles are extensive. Currently, my life spans the occupational gamut of: mom, cook, maid, gardener, personal shopper, meal planner, blogger, scheduler, chauffeur, mechanic, and community volunteer.
Taking a break from these roles every so often keeps me sane. Spending time alone makes me a better parent. Our kids are no exception to this rule; they need alone time too (this will be talked about in detail in my next post).
Friends with kids are one of the biggest blessings you get as a parent. Being able to go on a playdate allows your kid the “play” time they need with others and allows you some basic adult/human interaction as well, which you need for sanity and to keep from talking to your husband like you talk to two-year-olds. I pray that God provides those relationships for us as our children are growing up.
Play outside home, work inside home: So, how do we balance play time with our kids? It seems like they are always demanding our full attention. The two to four-year-old stage is the hardest for me – listening to “watch me! look at this! mommy! look! look!” makes me want to purchase a robot, put a wig on it and program it to respond, “Wow! That’s amazing!”…all day long.
I believe that there is something simple we can do to help our kids and ourselves be just a little bit happier. What we need to do is switch when we engage, or “play” with our kids. I try to play more with my son while we are out and then I don’t need to play with him as much at home.
Usually when we’re out we think, “Hey, i’m doing something awesome for you. I took you to the playground. So – be happy! Do your own thing!” Starving our kids for interaction at the playground will encourage them to seek it in a more desperate way when they return home. If this happens, the chances of ‘independent play-time’ greatly diminishes.
If I really play with Josiah (my sweet 1 ½ year-old) at the park, and race all the way home, and tickle on the couch once we’ve gotten back, and laugh about how stinky his feet are after taking off his tennis shoes – he is SO ready to have alone time. If it’s nap time, he falls fast asleep in a second. If it’s not nap time, he will happily eat a snack, or play in his room, or wander around the house banging on the ground with his “broom” (he’s a real helper, this one).
And I can do dishes! And I can make lunch in relative peace. And I can sit down for a second and relax. It’s a beautiful thing to see your child so filled up with loving affection that they actually crave and enjoy their independent time.
If you’re bad at it: One last point to be made – it’s perfectly OK if you are bad at playing/imagining. If you’re terrible at playing dress-up or pretty princess, or you can’t make a convincing “I’m gonna getcha” scary voice, or you’re completely un-imaginative, take heart! Your child probably has enough imagination for the two of you. And if you sound stupid, at least they can laugh at you, which is pretty darn fun for them. Most kiddos I’ve known are pretty opinionated about what they’d like to do (especially toddlers). This is a great area of life for them to have a little piece of control over. It’s tough to be the little guy who has no control over anything. And while this is a good, humbling thing for them to learn, it is so so kind and gracious to give them control over something. It makes them feel good, and they can learn how to be a good leader.
Example from a friend: One of the cutest pictures of this comes to mind from my friend Brooke and her adorable and very determined three-year-old daughter. She has an incredibly hard time not being the boss of everything in life. She actually reminds me of myself.
Discipline is a constant struggle for Brooke right now. But sometimes, if the day has been long, or my wise friend has the ability to predict a tough day, she will let her daughter do her hair. Brooke will sit on the tiled floor of her shower and give her daughter full reign over her neatly organized “hair” box. Sweet, stubborn daughter is thrilled at this – she spends an hour brushing her mom’s hair and putting ridiculous clips all over the place.
Authority over one small thing, as in imaginative play, can change a whole day for a child. Well, let’s just say maybe an hour.
I hope you are able to use some of these ideas in your daily life with your kiddo. I pray we all remember to engage with our kids on their level. For that is what Christ did for us – he became man so that we could understand and know him. He understands our suffering, he delights in our passions, and he rejoices with us in our choice to come and live.