Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post in which I was extremely frustrated that my kids had no apparent ability to play without me. At ages three and six, I believed (and still do) that – given where they were developmentally – they should have had the capacity to do so for more than 3 minutes. I remember with great clarity sitting at this very dining room table and venting my huge irritation over this. I couldn’t manage a phone call or a few sips of coffee without both of them dancing and hollering around me, begging me to play or insisting our downstairs was too scary to go without me. You know, the downstairs where they slept every night without a problem.
I am here years later to tell parents of younger children: there is hope. I report today that your children, if they don’t do so naturally but are developmentally ready, truly can learn to play by themselves or with each other without you. I swear it.
This took some time, but as Lyle moved through the preschool years I gradually played on the floor with him less and less. Now this was no easy feat for me, being a play-based, developmental therapist. I believe strongly in playing with kids and I learned a lot about my own children through pretend play. We also worked through some challenges through play. I think it has an important place in early childhood parenting and we had a lot of fun in those early years. Some kids just seem to wean themselves from intensive parental participation more naturally than others. I did a lot of “getting them settled” and then leaving to do something else for a while, gradually increasing the time I was away. It also made a big difference when Lyle was old enough to share some of his big brother’s interests (such as Pokemon) and they could play more together.
Believe me, Lyle had some major fits about my periods of unavailability, but he also had major fits when he didn’t like what was for dinner or when I didn’t let him in the bathroom and wouldn’t hold conversations with him through the door. About all of those things I said, “Tough luck.” He got over it.
And so, where are we now? Lyle and Baxter will occasionally play together in the play room for long periods. When their friends come over, they are out of sight for hours, only emerging once in a while to ask for a snack or because they need my height to reach something. They require zero supervision when playing. When they’re not playing together, Lyle has learned to entertain himself with toys or a book, and Baxter is typically reading. I would estimate that 3-4 times a week I hear the words, “I don’t know what to do” from Lyle. It used to be 3-4 times an hour.
I think it also helped that we started taking long road trips with them and taught them the fine art of boredom. They can take a 6-7 hour road trip (with just one stop) without any DVDs – just music, podcasts (they especially like Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and This American Life), books, naps, and conversation. I believe this made a big difference in their ability to entertain themselves.
In the mornings, my early risers have learned to sleep until 7:00 and know that if they do wake up earlier, they are to entertain themselves downstairs (where their bedroom and playroom are) until that time. No one wakes in the night anymore. Baxter has even learned the fine art of going back to sleep after waking in the morning, thanks to Matt, and so on rare occasions they are sleeping until 8 now. They no longer come into our room first thing and insist on snuggling and an immediate breakfast. The boys watch a couple cartoons together and then start making their own breakfast when we get up. Yes, they make their own breakfasts now. I can often make my coffee and food and sit down with them. (Crazy, right??) Of course the counter is a mess, but we’ll work on that soon.
This morning was one of my days off from work and I was looking forward to lounging as long as I could get away with it. I asked Matt last night to walk Gus in the morning so I could stay in my pj’s and he did (thank you!). I was aware of the boys watching TV, heard Baxter feed Gus breakfast, and then I finally got out of bed at 8:30. (Unheard of!) I walked into the living room, thinking they were still watching cartoons, and saw this: both of them reading quietly, with their feet together.
I’m glad I’ve been writing things down along the way so that I can fill in the details of my spotty memory, because I immediately thought about how very different parenting was just a few years ago and wanted to read that old post. I’m sure in three years — when they’re 9 and 12 (gulp!) — we’ll be in yet another completely different world that I can’t begin to imagine today.