We had dinner at our friend’s house a few weeks ago. Halfway through the evening, one of the other dinner guests complimented our children. She asked what our secret was to having such well-behaved kids who were so content simply playing together, rather than bickering and running upstairs every five minutes like the other kids there. We just smiled and said thank you, beaming inside and exchanging proud glances. But, there is actually a secret and I’m going to share it with all of you right now: We ignore our children. And they are better for it.
Yes, it’s true.
Our kids are night owls; they are often up until 9:30 or 10 at night. It sucks to not have everyone tucked in and sleeping by eight, but our solution is to make them stay upstairs and play together while we pay as little attention to them as possible. And, they do. They play for hours and hours and hours while we try to pretend they are sleeping. They play zoo and teacher. They play restaurant and camp. They play babysitter and grocery store. They actually use the million stuffed animals that line their beds. They play and play and play, endlessly. They can play anywhere and everywhere because of it and I think it’s been the best thing we’ve done for their sibling relationship.
It doesn’t end there. When they fight, I don’t run in to break it up immediately and eventually most spats seem to resolve themselves. Some even end in a spontaneous explosion of giggles when they realize how ridiculously they’ve been behaving. I don’t jump up at each and every minor injury and they simply run over for a quick kiss and then they are back to the game at hand.
Call it laziness, call it parenting of convenience, call it whatever. But, it’s been working. Sure, they’re not perfect (at all) and they drive us crazy more often than not, but they really are more capable of entertaining themselves than most kids we know.
The New York Times just wrote about the Effort to Restore Children’s Play. The movement has focused on the educational value of play, with efforts beginning made to restore recess and unstructured playtime to early childhood and elementary schools. A coalition called Play for Tomorrow staged a giant play date in Central Park last fall which attracted more than 50,000 people. Scientists and experts are weighing in on the benefits of play verses extra-curricular activities or computer time. But, it’s really not that complicated: Just ignore them and they will play. No computers, no TVs, no gadgets. Just good old-fashioned play.
Sometimes, the less you do as a parent, the more they get. So, go ahead: Leave them alone. Put on some ear plugs, grab a cup of coffee, a trashy magazine and reflect on my guidance.