You know the song: “The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon/ Little boy blue and the man on the moon/ When you coming home dad/ I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then.” It’s this terrible warning about how childhood fades, and soon we’ll all be old, longing for the days when our babies were young. Missing their sweet faces, missing the time we spent with them. Time passes, time passes, the song warns us. Love your children while you can. Be with your children while you can. Keep them and hold them because they’ll grow up and leave you, and you’ll be alone and sad and craving them, missing days spent playing with them, but they’ll have their own lives.
I get it.
I love my boys. I adore spending time with them. I cherish taking them out to Target. There’s no one, except for my husband, I would rather spend time with. My 9-year-old can have conversations now, real conversations, and he has real opinions, and we can discuss them. My middle son delights in telling me about his latest toad. My 5 year-old baby will lisp on about whatever comes to mind. I take them to the zoo and the splash pad and the park. We sing David Bowie in the car. I will weep for the days when my 7 year-old no longer tunelessly sings the same line from Hamilton or “Life on Mars” over and over in the next room.
But I loathe playing with my sons.
Some moms are get-down-on-the-floor types. They’re up to their elbows in LEGOs. These moms know all the names of the Paw Patrol characters and race the miniature cars around the special Paw Patrol mats. These mamas play dinosaurs. They build with blocks. They help construct Hot Wheels tracks; they mold stuff with Play-Doh and help their kids fly drones. They’re always playing with their kids. Playing pretend. Playing on the playground. Playing, playing, playing.
This is not my jam, man.
I can be wrangled into playing a few things. I will play certain adult-ish board games with my sons. I will build elaborate Keva block sculptures with my sons (we build side-by-side, not the same building). I will read to them if they bring me a book and specifically ask for it; I will do crafts with them, especially of my own choosing, especially if they involve a hot glue gun and glitter. I love playing in the sand.
But that’s about it. My children, therefore, do not look to me for entertainment. The same way I did not look to my own mother for entertainment. This is amazing for their independence. Because I do not allow TVs or screens of any kind until at least 4 p.m., my kids must entertain themselves. They dig large mud pits and look for toads in the yard. They examine bugs. They play with their LEGOs endlessly and build elaborate creations: my 7 year-old constructed a model of the Cretaceous era around the Middle East a few days ago. They draw. My oldest reads and listens to educational podcasts. (We bend the screen rule for him: I let him go on the UFOtracker site and collect reports about supposed alien activity, because that’s his thing). They spend the day playing — without me.
Sometimes they want to do crafts, and we do that. I like to paint. I like to draw and color and make things.
Sometimes they want to play a board game, and if it’s one of the games I enjoy playing, I let myself get roped in. But they know Mama doesn’t play most of them.
Sometimes they break out the Keva blocks: my favorite. We build elaborate cities. Playing with those is probably my favorite.
With these exceptions, I don’t play. End of story.
They don’t seem to feel the loss of it. I never felt I missed out because my mom didn’t cradle Cabbage Patch dolls with us, or braid Barbie hair, or make our Playmobil people swing on their swing sets. Independent play is beneficial for children anyway, and so is boredom. Both teach them to be creative. And with their brothers as playmates, they’re forced to learn conflict resolution: I also refuse to deal with tattling.
Not playing with my kids rocks. I don’t miss it. They don’t miss it. And I have oodles of spare time compared to helicopter moms who spend all their time on the ground making Scooby-Doo figures talk to one another. I write. I make things. I garden. I have a life. I could theoretically clean, but no one really wants to do that.
I also have the amazing luxury of homeschooling, which means that while I’m not actively playing with my kids, they do get my undivided attention for long stretches of time — each of them, alone, in turns and together. They get praise; they get reinforcement; we laugh and have fun (we all do actually enjoy homeschooling, except mostly math). You could call that our playing, I suppose. Non-traditional. But my sons do get attention.
What we have works for us. My husband doesn’t much play with the kids either, but they fish together a lot. We all go for walks together. We hike together. We learn about salamanders and snakes and lizards and toads. We ride our bikes. But neither of us are get-down-on-the-floor-and-play-toy-soldiers parents.
I think that’s okay. And when I’m old, I won’t miss stepping on LEGOs. I’ll miss talking to my kids. My heart aches to think that one day, my son won’t tunelessly sing’ 90s pop tunes while constructing dinosaur habitats in other room. They won’t want to coat plastic dinos in glitter, or hot-glue robots together. Our days of sand art will have come to an end. That aches.
But actively playing with them? I won’t miss it one goddamn bit.