So, how can we all practice giving our children and ourselves some independent play (or in our case work or rest) time?
1. DO the four other parenting principles I’ve written about: Fill them up with your love, demonstrate your concern for their character with discipline, comfort and forgive them in intimacy, and have fun with them, engaging in play on their level. When we are loving our children well, it is much easier to foster a successful environment of alone time.
2. Place yourself in a different room. When they are old enough to be left unattended for a while, set them up with toys or a movie or a puzzle (whatever the heck you want!) and go get yourself into another room. The physical distance lets you focus on your task and lets them “focus” on playing. My 18-month-old will often play in his room or in the living room for over 30 minutes! I’ll be in the kitchen cooking or in my own room doing laundry, and I’ll look in on him stealthily every once in a while to see him happily playing with stuffed animals or pulling out all his pants in the bottom drawer.
3. No nap? If you child skips their nap or if they don’t take naps anymore, setup room time in your daily schedule. If they are small, like my son, then put them in their crib. Give them toys or stuffed animals or books and let them be independent for 15 or 20 minutes (longer for older kiddos).
4. Share media time. When Josiah watches his affectionately dubbed, “SZHOOW!”, I check Instagram and respond to emails with him in my lap. We both get to take a break from active engaging with one another, but we are relaxing together.
5. Force independence even when it hurts. Homes aren’t always happy places. We’re all whiners at the end of the day, dependent on food and sleep for our strong, mature virtues.
Between 4 and 6pm (the witching hour for moms), Josiah usually stomps in the kitchen, whining and pulling on my pants, and hitting my legs, screaming “Momma!” I’ve given him a snack, I’ve set him up with a TV show, I’ve just spent 30 minutes playing blocks with him – why can I never make dinner?
I think that even when it doesn’t look like it’s working, I still need to enforce the independent time. I tell him, “Josiah, I love you but I have to cook these eggs right now. I’m sorry I cannot hold you.” And he almost always screams louder and doesn’t leave. Having a husband is something I am extremely grateful for in these times. When mine is home, he will take Josiah outside or upstairs. But when it’s just me and my demanding tot, sometimes we have an unpleasant 20 minutes of Josiah crying and me looking like a bad mom who is ignoring his “needs”.
The good news – the more I have done this, the more quickly Josiah is understanding that his needs aren’t always met immediately, and that he should entertain himself with something else for a while during those times. I help Josiah out a bit by giving him some spoons and a pot to “cook” with while I cook. Or I let him splash in the sink for a bit while I wash dishes.
I think the goal is to really try to have a balance of all of these five parenting ethics throughout each and every day you spend with your child: love, discipline, intimacy, play, and space. Most days, I’m great at one or two of these things because it comes naturally for me. But all people (kids are people too!) need a healthy, steady intake of all five relationship ideals. What do I want for my kid? I want him to have good character. I want him to love God and love people well. I want him to have joy. If I strive for that kind of character in my son, he will be on the right road to joy and maturity in every other area of life.
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6