Once upon a time, I entertained my kids practically every minute of their waking hours. My first was born in 2006, before social media was ubiquitous and any parenting-related topic had at least 100 articles written on it. My parenting know-how came from What To Expect books, what I remembered from childhood, and what I assumed other moms must be doing.
So my living room was play-and-learn central, complete with brightly colored alphabet foam flooring tiles and a maze of giant secondhand toys I assumed would teach my 1-year-old to read and probably also how to microwave a potato. Plus, we would do lots of moving activities to encourage gross motor skills. I may have tried baby jazzercise. Play! Learn! Stimulate! Inactivity is for suckers!
By the time my kid turned 2, he still couldn’t read (gasp!) or bake a potato, and I was utterly exhausted from being a helicopter mom. At that time, I didn’t know there was a term for what I was doing, but “helicopter” is an apt descriptor.
When my daughter came along a few years later, I was all set with trying to be perfect all the time. So, for my own mental health, I found myself veering toward a more hands-off approach to parenting.
Turns out, my kids thrive when I don’t try to schedule every moment with pre-planned learning fun. Here are the best parts of letting your kids figure out how to entertain themselves:
1. They learn to create their own fun.
In retrospect, this is obvious. Of course, kids create their own play. What else would they do? My kids have conceived stories so elaborate that I have jotted some of them down for future development into a children’s book series. They make up their own games too, inventing rules on the fly that only they understand. They collect all the chairs, blankets, and pillows from around the house and turn their rooms into a giant blanket fort. #NoGrownupsAllowed
2. They bond with each other.
Limiting my involvement in my kids’ play means I’m less tempted to mediate their conversations. Because of this, they interact with one another in ways I never could have predicted. They have the cutest conversations about life, love, and all things big and small, none of which ever would have been inspired by me. They know each other’s hopes and fears. I will frequently ask a question of one child, and the other will answer—they know each other that well.
3. They solve problems independently.
I’ve overheard my kids spiral into yelling matches just a hair shy of where I really would need to intervene. But almost always, one of them takes a breath, suggests a palatable solution, and they resolve the dispute on their own. Then a few minutes later I hear them apologizing and telling each other they’re the best brother/sister in the world.
4. They read a TON.
I’m not entertaining them, so when they run out of physical play ideas or just need a rest, reading is their go-to.
5. They explore and investigate.
Children are natural scientists—no scheduling of scientific activities required. My son used to use his magnifying glass to examine bugs and try to light leaves on fire (when I was right there). Both kids know every nook and cranny of our house, have stepped on every blade of grass in our yard, and have tipped every potted plant to see what critters live underneath.
6. They’re never bored.
This is a big one. The biggest drawback to giving kids activity after activity to keep them entertained is that they grow dependent on others to amuse them. My kids are so used to having to come up with their own ways to have fun that they almost never tell me they’re bored. It doesn’t even occur to them, because they just don’t consider it my job. Sure, we play together sometimes, but I am not the idea provider. It’s up to them to come up with their own play.
7. They learn to clean up their own mess.
Ah, natural consequences. Gotta love ‘em. Those room-sized forts that my kids love to build? They have to take those suckers down too, as well as any other mess they create with their brilliant ideas. Sure, they’d have to clean up any activity mess, including one I planned for them, but there’s something to be said for making a big-ass mess because your brain exploded with creativity…and then having to clean it up. It’s a metaphor for life.
So, yeah, I still love to play with my kids sometimes, especially if they ask, but as far as coming up with entertainment goes, I’m more than happy to hand over the reins. They probably have a game with imaginary horses in it, anyway.