I was recently at a playgroup with my daughters, where all the mothers were sitting in the kitchen enjoying coffee and visiting with each other. One little guy left the rambunctious fun in the other room, approached his mother, and said, “Mama, I want to play!” She glanced down at her steaming cup of coffee and back up at her son. “OK, I’ll be right there,” she said. She excused herself from the adult conversation and went to play trucks with her son.
There were four other children at the playgroup his age, plus two kids a little older. His slightly younger brother was also hanging out. This little boy had plenty of playmates and toys at his disposal, but he was insistent upon his mother’s attention. After the fatigued mother left, I stated, “I play with my children as little as possible.” My statement was met with raised eyebrows. This position might be slightly unpopular. But I feel strongly about it. I am my daughters’ mother — not their primary playmate.
I rarely disrupt my daughters if they are playing independently or quietly together — I believe fostering and encouraging independent play means allowing it to happen with no interruptions. If a chore needs to be done or teeth need to be brushed, I will often wait until my daughter seeks me out before I instruct her on any other tasks. In most cases, playing alone is a learned skill, so like any other learned skill, I want my children to practice it as much (and as long) as possible.
I absolutely love listening to my daughters’ games. I enjoy hearing my older daughter make up detailed stories and dialogue with her horses and Barbies. She builds elaborate castles and Lego stables for her animals. Most often she does it completely by herself. She is empowered by creating and building by herself. She will proudly show off her latest Lego structure and exclaim, “I did it all by myself! Isn’t it great?” She is proud of herself and happy for her independence.
My younger daughter is a little young to be creating full narratives for her dollies, but she does love to make up songs and sing them as she plays. She is learning from her older sister that it’s fun to dress up in costume clothes. She careens around with her toy shopping cart, happily shouting, “Bye! Headed to store!” She has just turned 2, but she is quickly learning that it’s fun to role play and pretend.
My daughters are 22 months apart. My husband and I wanted to have children close in age so they could be good playmates for each other. Again, I think playing nicely together is a learned art. As such, I do not interfere if my girls are interacting well together. By removing myself from their playtime, they are gaining skills in learning to compromise, being respectful of one another, encouraging each other, and, most importantly, strengthening their bond as sisters.
I hope it’s obvious that while I play with my children as little as possible, I do interact with them constantly throughout the day. They are my companions at the grocery store where we identify numbers and letters and what constitutes a healthy diet. When we are out in public, we discuss the world around us and engage in polite conversation with strangers. At home, we like to bake together, and they often help me cook dinner. We pass the witching hour with exuberant dance parties. After Daddy comes home, we eat dinner together as a family and talk about our favorite parts of the day. We all get ready for nighttime together, and each daughter chooses two books to read before bed. There is a final snuggle and song, and then our day is done.
I do have faith that my children know they are loved, respected, and safe. But for me, an important part of parenting is fostering and encouraging independent play. And that means leaving them to play on their own. So while this stance may be unpopular, don’t expect to find me down on the floor with my girls when they’re in the midst of Barbies and dress ups and Legos — they’re busy practicing important life skills.