Just go and (fucking) play.
Parents tell their kids this all the time. Or at least think it.
I say it every day, multiple times a day, struggling each time to keep the expletive and anger out of my demand.
Why do my children need constant direction? Why do they need to be told what to play? Why do I need to transition them from one activity to the next? I feel like Entertainment Director Barbie on a cruise ship. “First, we’ll be on the lower level playing trains, and after dinner, we’ll be playing Zingo in front of the fireplace on the main floor.” I’m not even talking about playtime outside (a subject that many have tackled before me), which they never do unless I dress them appropriately, put on their shoes, drag them out there, and actively engage with them.
I’m just talking about playing in the house around me, while I’m doing something else.
Just play without me sometimes. Please.
They can play together, parallel to each other—just without me coming up with every single game or without me solving every single fight between them.
Here are some sentences that I say to my 6-year-old son every day:
“Your sister will play whatever you want, just include her.”
“She’s been waiting for you to come home from school all day.”
“I played with my brother every day, and he was much older than me.”
“That’s why you and your sister are so close in age.”
“My mother never played with me. She had to work.”
“Go downstairs and play.”
“Mommy’s making dinner.”
“Mommy’s working now.”
“Daddy’s at work.”
Here’s a sentence that I said to my daughter once:
“Dora has all sorts of adventures by herself (with just a talking monkey, but no parents).”
That’s it. She’s very good at playing by herself. This complaint is directed at my son.
I know there are a million articles on helicopter parenting and how we’ve ruined our children by never leaving them alone to solve their own problems. I know that I’ve hovered. But I’ve been actively ignoring my son around the house for the last year in an effort to make him a little more independent, and he still doesn’t just play (without me).
Please, please, please, I think. It’s been six years of not only pushing you through each developmental milestone, but also waiting for the stage of maturity where you just go to another part of the house without me and find your own thing to do.
I know I’m not alone. I have friends with four children, and they swear that their kids don’t know what to do with each other without direction, either. When other kids come into the mix, I get ignored. Thank God. That’s why I’m having your kids over for playdates—so that my child will play with yours and leave me alone.
Going hand-in-hand with helicopter parenting is another self-inflicted modern day problem: the open floor plan. We all want (myself included) homes with sight lines into play areas and a kitchen that opens up into the rest of the home.
By contrast, my mother was able to hide in our cavernous small house when I was growing up. I literally have no memories of her in our family room, where our meager collection of toys was housed. I simply played with my toys (alone), went outside in our yard (alone), or went with my brother to a friend’s house (alone, without even telling my mother). This is how we were called home for dinner: She would open the front door and yell our names. She had no idea where we were, nor did she worry. We were allowed to roam the neighborhood on our bicycles, walk to a friend’s house, and be on our neighbor’s swing sets without explicit permission for every single use.
My mother spent her days in our closed-off kitchen or in her basement office. At least, that’s where I think she was. I never thought to even ask. What a super-smart lady. We left her alone. She had phone calls to make or ordering to be done. We didn’t ask her to find anything—a lost toy was our problem. We were never listless or bored. We just played, like kids should. She was out of sight and out of mind.
I’m in my open-concept, modern, gorgeous kitchen where I’m so available all the time. Damn wireless connections. Damn open concept. More enlightened future generations will return to the closed concept design. Future homes will provide parents with more traditional places to hide. Kids will have the freedom to be kids.
I know that my kids are close to a next level of independence at 6 and 4. I catch glimpses of those times to come. Before I know it, they’ll be off on adventures without me. Until then, we’ll play princesses for my daughter followed by Chutes and Ladders for my son. After that, I’ll ask them to go and (fucking) play while I fold the laundry.