I was putting away the groceries one evening, overhearing the shrieks of my 3- and 6-year-old kids through the screen door as they played in the backyard. The baby was pulling snacks out of the bags on the floor, while I hurried to get frozen foods into the freezer after a way-too-slow, traffic-clogged drive home. My husband was, surprisingly, still not home, and despite all the food I’d just bought, I wasn’t quite sure what I would fix for dinner.
That’s when I heard the cries of my younger daughter from outside, rejecting her big sister’s efforts to push her on the swing, demanding that Mommy come push instead.
This is the sort of scenario when I, like most busy parents, usually feel a pang of guilt. Dinner can wait, right? A good mom would eagerly rush to her child’s side and push that swing, right? I should have been out there anyway, to make sure no one gets hurt or kidnapped, right?
I’m learning, however, to quiet that voice and remind myself that it’s okay for my kids to play by themselves sometimes. More than okay, actually. Essential.
I feel like a curmudgeon channeling that old line: “In my day, Mom kicked us out the door in the morning and said, ‘Don’t come back ’til suppertime!’ ” But it’s not just nostalgia that makes me want to give my kids a little more breathing room. It’s their own well-being.
I think about what is lost when children’s playtime is constantly orchestrated and watched over by grown-ups: Creativity. Problem-solving. Conflict-resolution skills. The joy of self-reliance.
When Mom or Dad is always right there to suggest remedies for boredom, fix the sagging pillow-fort, or separate squabbling siblings, kids are robbed of key opportunities to invent a new game, engineer a better design and negotiate their own peace.
Obviously, quality time with our children is essential. Playing along with the games and scenes kids invent shows them we value their ideas and enjoy being part of their world. And clearly there are age-appropriate limits on how much freedom kids can handle.
But I fear that, between the scheduled after-school activities and constant lure of screen time, kids are losing the ability to just play — to entertain themselves with whatever’s available. And I think we’re partly to blame, having trained kids to expect our orchestration of the next activity in their super-scheduled day and our constant presence accompanying them. And why?
One reason is guilt. Parents who work outside the home, especially, feel like they need to spend every moment at home with their children. Studies actually show, however, that parents today spend more time with their children than parents decades ago, when more moms stayed home. This self-imposed pressure is running parents ragged.
The other reason is fear. There’s the fear that letting kids play by themselves is hurting them emotionally, or taking time away from a more “enriching” activity. If you let children play outside without an adult, there’s the fear of kidnapping (or, more realistically these days, fear that other parents or police will accuse you of neglect).
Let go of the guilt and the fear. Next time housework beckons or you simply need a rest, tell the kids they’re on their own for a little while. It will be good for you — and for the kids.
(For more thoughts on child’s play and the value it holds, child life specialist Katherine Bennett writes here about the healing power of play.)
Jessica Miller Kelly is a working mom, pastor’s wife, and Christian book editor in Nashville, Tennessee. With two biological daughters and a special needs foster child who has been with them for over a year, life is full of gymnastics (literal and metaphorical), church activities, and therapy appointments. Jessica blogs about parenting, foster care and family fun at The Parsonage Family.