It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Let them play!

She was sitting under the play structure, busily playing with and directing the play of the small boy beside her. “Is that ice cream? Yum! I love ice cream! Do you like ice cream? What flavour is it? Should we put some chocolate chips on our ice cream? These little rocks, they can be the chocolate chips!”

The small boy was happily involved in the deliciously imaginative play. They made pies and soup, then back to ice cream. They stirred and built, ‘tasted’ and cooked. And all the time her words swirled round and round.

He was probably two. She was probably 32.

Three of my four children eventually joined her. They formed a circle of delight around this adult, who bathed them all with the loving beam of her full attention.

So why was I so damned annoyed?

At first I scolded myself. She’s not doing anything wrong. She’s enjoying herself, they’re enjoying themselves. The negativity, the (yes, I confess my darker side here) the outright hostility I was feeling was unworthy. It was pure ego.

I felt uncomfortable. She was making me feel like I should be doing something. But, wait. She was “making” me? Really? She wasn’t doing anything she hand’t been doing before I arrived. In her heart of hearts, was she judging me for my lack of interaction? Was she feeling superior to me, and pitying my poor, neglected charges? Why would I make that assumption?

Even if you figure the answer is “Hell yes, she was”, the fact of the matter was that she wasn’t doing or saying anything to or about me whatsoever. Any assumptions I’m making about her motivations are just that — assumptions.

I get tired of people projecting assumptions and motivations on other people, and then reacting negatively to their own projections. This happens all the time. A mother talks with pride of her child’s particular accomplishment, and the mother beside her, whose child has yet to do whatever it is, reacts with angry defensiveness. “She thinks her child is so superior. God, I hate this damned parental competitiveness!” Um, who’s being competitive here? Really?

People who get all offended over imagined affronts annoy the heck out of me. I didn’t want to be one of the people whose real problem is their own thin skin. If my annoyance was nothing other than ego, I just needed to get over it. Let it go, get over myself. So I didn’t intervene to pull my kids away.

Mind you, I didn’t let any implicit pressure provoke me to go over there and start playing with them, either. Because, really, once in a while I like playing with them, but I’m surely not going to do it all.morning.long, and I sure as hell am not going to start because I think someone I’ve never met before might be judging me for not playing with them. That would be adolescent silly. I don’t do peer pressure any more.

But, goodness, I was annoyed. So, in the spirit of all those mindfulness books I’ve been reading, I noted the annoyance without trying to do anything with it. And then the wheels start turning.

I usually find playing with the children boring. I know that, and I’m fine with that, because I also believe play is the child’s work, not mine.

Ah. And now, as my children continued to stand in an enthralled ring around the young mother, it started to come together for me.

My children had been happily playing a game, several games, all morning. They’d been running hither and yon, up ladders and down slides, happily occupied with each other the the opportunities of the play structure. Now they were standing still and talking. Nothing wrong with that. They often play that way, too.

But now they were playing a game of someone else’s devising. Nothing wrong with that, either. It’s good for them to learn the social give and take of initiating, then following, throwing ideas out, cooperating with someone else’s ideas.

Except there’s a power imbalance when one of the players is an adult. This was not a game amongst peers. This was five children vying for the attention and approval of a single adult. Now, she was managing the play well … but make no mistakes, she was managing it.

And that’s okay for a while. That’s good, as an occasional enrichment/enhancement of the children’s typical level of play.

But all the time? For the entire 90 minutes I was there, her little boy was not allowed to play by himself for one single minute. Until my children joined him, his only company was his mother. When my children joined in, they were not joining him, anyway, they were joining his mother. She was the attraction, not him, and not the game he was playing.

How will this boy learn to manage the playground? To manage social interactions without a protective, buffering, facilitating adult?

Furthermore, the play was all of one type: imaginative and verbal. They sat in one spot and played one game for an hour and a half. Perfectly good form of play, and one all children need to master, but what of charging around like mad, noisy fiends? What of learning to climb ladders and climbing walls, to scramble onto, and jump off, a rock?

When will this child learn to see a task through, from beginning to end, without constant input, probing, encouragement, and praise? He’ll accomplish his mommy-led tasks well, no doubt, but what of autonomy? Of pride in a job well done, with only the reward of the job done well

Involving yourself with a child’s play to achieve a specific goal, to help them over a particular social or emotional bump, to enrich things a little … that’s good parenting. But to play with them every waking minute? Contrary to popular opinion, that’s not good parenting. And in the long run, it’s bad for the children.

So this morning I let the children stand and chat with the mother for a few minutes, and then I called them away. We wandered to another play area, and there they resumed their former style of playing: running, climbing, calling to each other, sometimes stopping to chat and pretend, sometimes tearing around for the sheer joy of being physical.

All this without a single instruction, piece of encouragement, question or direction from me.


May 15, 2012 - Posted by | parenting, Peeve me | , , ,


  1. I’ve seen this a lot at the playgroup that I attend. Many parents playing with their children, but none of the children playing with each other. Which seemed strange to me, because I thought getting them around other kids is why we take our kids to playgroup!

    Something I’ve thought about too, with the parent as playmate thing, is that even when the parent isn’t directing the play, as an adult they have less of an emotional stake in the play, and so they are much more likely to just go along with whatever the child wants. There’s none of the give and take which would be present in the child playing with his or her peers. I think parents see playing as an an end in and of itself, but part of the importance of playing is learning social cues and how to mesh your wants with someone else’s. It’s going to be a huge shock for them when they get around other kids, and not only will those other children not go along with everything they come up with, but he or she will have no skills as to how to deal with such a situation.

    Great post! πŸ™‚

    Comment by Grace Goldragon | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  2. I used to have in my care three only children, and they were – at first, anyway – completely incapable of playing either independently or with other kids. Every time I add a new ‘only’ to the brood, there is an adjustment period where they follow *me* around all day asking me to play cars / trains / dinosaurs / whatever, while other children play merrily around them. It’s frustrating and also sad.

    One of my past kids came with his mom for a playdate last week, because she says he’s very bored staying home with her and his new baby sister all the time. After only two short months away from the gang here, he’s lost a lot of group in terms of his ability to navigate group dynamics, and spent most of the visit pestering his mom to play with him even though there were four other kids ready – and eager – to play with him.

    Parents who play FOR their kids – because that’s what the lady at the playground was doing – do them no favours. I think it’s an extension of people who misunderstand attachment parenting. Being attentive to your child’s needs and available to address them is not the same as being there 100% of the time to the exclusion of everything else.

    Love this post and am sharing it around. πŸ™‚

    Comment by Hannah | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  3. I read your post nodding my head the entire time. I also suffer moments where I feel I’m being judged by other mothers or caregivers in group situations (park, playgroup, etc.), but then I remind myself that I am not an entertainer, hoverer, or activities director. My job as a mother and as a caregiver is to keep the kids safe, provide them comfort, and show them the tools they need to succeed as people. I love how Dr. Phil says we’re not raising children, we’re raising adults. That makes so much sense. I will play with the kids when they invite &/or include me. But mostly, I make sure I’m close enough to supervise and help them out when they’re squabbling (and even then, I give them time to try to work it out themselves before intervening), or need assistance with things beyond their abilities. One problem I have is when other adults will see “my” kids having a squabble of some sort, and while I’m standing back allowing them to try to figure it out on their own, the adult will shoot me a look and then go intervene with a sing-songy, cheerful, “Now, let’s all take turns…” or some such thing. Now THAT’s a time I feel judged! And it really trips my temper. Besides the obvious interference, and the unwanted assistance, they’ve just taken on the role of a strange adult commanding authority over them – and put my kids in the situation they feel they need to listen to the stranger. I try to think sympathetically about parents who play nonstop with their kids. I have to figure if they work outside the home as most parents do, they feel they are making up for the time they can’t be with their kids. There’s nothing wrong with playing with kids, but as you said, when the “directed” play continues for more than a few minutes – especially with a preschooler – it becomes more about the adult than the child. I mean, when was the last time you saw a preschooler play at a single game/activity for more than 5-8 minutes? They haven’t developed the attention span for that kind of long, involved play yet! They should be free to flitter around use their own imaginations! This is also why I have such a problem with Ontario’s new full day kindergarten programming. “Play-based learning.” BAH! Don’t get me started! That’s another whole topic to cover!! πŸ˜‰ Great post, Mary! I’ll share it too!

    Comment by Kelly Lalonde | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  4. I do rather wish there were less judgement involved in parenting. It’s great, Mary, that you talked yourself out of feeling judged by this mother. But it does seem a bit as though the judgement then turns the other way, if not by you, then by some of your readers. Really, who knows and who cares what this woman did when she got home from the playground. Perhaps the intense interaction continued. Perhaps having had a long interaction with mom, the child was content to play alone for awhile while mom made dinner or read her novel. It’s not our business and it’s also not very interesting.

    I often play with my children when I’m at the playground with them. I did it just last weekend. Sometimes I just do what they want. Sometimes I try to direct a bit more, if I’m bored by what they want. I occasionally wonder if the other parents are feeling like I’m a crazy woman because I’m on the slide and the climber, but hey, that’s their problem. I doubt they are feeling pressure to climb up and join us, though they might be surprised by the fun they’d have if they did.

    This mother is hurting no one. Not her child, not herself, not the other children. I find her very generous that she apparently opened her game so easily to a crowd of kids she doesn’t even know when that playground time could easily have been a valued, perhaps rare time for her to be with her own child, one-on-one. She seemed to be having fun with her child. If it’s now against the “rules” to go to the playground and have fun – even fun that you as mom are in charge of – with your own child, then I’m sad for the rule-followers, but I’ll probably keep climbing the slide.

    Comment by sarahwiliarty | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  5. Mary, your post kind of reminds me of my day today. After finger painting, playing Simon Says, building block towers, doing the calendar, reading our story, teaching a finger play etc. etc. (ie: LOTS of adult interaction/attention) I had to make a necessary diaper change. My 4 year old dc boy, who is one of those kids who needs constant adult direction, interaction, praise, etc. pulled the “K look at me! K look at me! K LOOK AT ME!!!!” Even after I had gently reminded him that I was changing a diaper and would give him my full attention in one minute. The “look at me’s” continued while I finished the diaper change, threw out the diaper and washed both my and the other child’s hands. I could not care less if a parent plays with their child at the playground, library, etc. I think it’s wonderful. But I also would hope that they would teach them the art of entertaining themselves for a minute – as a caregiver I don’t have the luxuary of always having my focus on that one kid at all times. So it does interest me to know what kind of child I’m taking on. Is this going to be a kid, who even after lots of undivided attention, engages in attention seeking behavior the minute I have to focus on another child(LOOK AT ME!!!!!!)? Or is this going to be a child who I can set up with an activity while assisting another with potty training. Right now I’ve got a couple of them in my child care, and it can be exhausting.

    Comment by Kate | May 15, 2012 | Reply

    • I’ve had two DC kids that actually left my care because they were used to undivided adult attention at all times. So I hear you. πŸ˜‰

      Comment by Hannah | May 15, 2012 | Reply

      • Thanks! For me the parents are at least on board – they play with them constantly but are understanding as to why I can’t. And to be honest, I think they are a little relieved that the kids are not always the center of attention. If they expected me to do what they do, I could not…

        Comment by Kate | May 15, 2012

  6. Oh I did miss you Mary, when I was away for Screen-Free Week ! But now I’m back and loving your posts once again! Love the thoughtfullness and discussion sparked as well!

    As an emergent curriculm based child care provider myself, I find value in offering children the opportunity to discover the world around them by encouraging them to explore their own interests and passions (and no, Dora and Deigo do not count, but adventure and discovery do!) I believe in facilitating play experiences, not directing them.

    As an ECE working in a family resource centre though, I also really want to encourage parents to connect and develop positive relationships with their children. Believe me, I’ve seen plenty of families that are truly challenged in this area. Where I work, we are always encouraging parents to ask questions to encourage thinking in their children’s play, rather than leading it. It is always nice to have a parent who is demonstrating positive interactions with her child as a role modle for some of the parents whose parenting skills are less developed. There is always the fear that those parents are operating from a place of fear and lack and feeling of being judged by those who seem to have “the skills”. We are all here to learn from each other though. Love your posts!!

    Comment by carrie | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  7. I totally agree with you that they need to lean how to just play together. Drives me nuts when kids want me to entertain them all the time, they need to work that imagination muscle! That said though, this mother may have been away from her child for a while and perhaps they were looking forward to/needing some fun bonding time at the park. I would have taken issue if the child had been trying to go play with the other kids and she had been holding him back, but perhaps he was just craving some one-on-one mom time and the park was the location of the day. :o)

    Comment by Abby @ I Used To Have A Brain | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  8. On the one hand I get it– Only-Child Syndrome. A lot more constructive play happens when a child is not alone. Sometimes we adults feel the need to fill in that gap when a child is without a playmate. My oldest was an only child for five years. We just plain didn’t go to the park unless it was with another family. It’s just no fun otherwise, and I was bored stiff at the very idea of playing with him very long. He certainly did learn to play by himself at home (no WAY was I playing with him all the time… or hardly ever, actually), but the park is an unfamiliar situation some kids just can’t get comfortable enough to play alone there.

    So I can understand that kind of thing happening at the park (although… hello? how about a push on the swing or a walk around or something else physical?).

    But on the other hand, if that sort of thing is happening at home (and I know that in many families, it does), then I think that’s a problem. My personal opinion is that a stay-at-home mother should have plenty of work to do which a child can have unlimited opportunity to engage in alongside the mother if he wants her companionship. If a mom (or dad) feels compelled to play with a child that much, she/he needs some more work to do. Kids learn a lot about life from working with their parents.

    Of course, this is coming from my farm-life perspective… I have tons of work to do and my kids can just be near me, doing what I’m doing or going off to play as the inspiration hits them (or, hilariously, they make my work into play and then things really get fun!).

    Comment by rosie_kate | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  9. Brilliant post and responses. At daycare my daughter is mostly left to play either by herself or with other kids. But at home we engage with her quite a bit. I need to take all these tips and work on facilitating play, not directing it.

    Comment by shachi18 | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  10. I am totally with you on playing with kids being boring. And yes, once in a while I will do it but I figure if I am going to play with my kids, I would prefer playing chase or hide and seek or something that burns calories rather then playing pretend. And I totally leave board games to the grandmas (when they visit)/

    That said, this topic does make me get into internal discussions regularly where I feel like my kids are losing out on speech development *because* I don’t play with them and I send them to full-time preschools (and now preschool & kindergarden/afterschool program). Single kids and kids with super interactive parents seem so, well, articulate and verbal compared to mine πŸ™‚ Anyways, my internal discussion pretty much always ends with me actively choosing to let them come up with their own games. And deciding that my kids will just develop their creative skills at a faster rate then their verbal skills or ‘talking to new-to-them adult’ skills. I am guessing/hoping that in then end it all hopefully evens out.

    And as a side note, if you ever have a chance & the topic strikes a chord with you, I am really interested in ‘how you read to the older kids’. Like most parents reading your blog, I read at least 20 minutes a day to my kids.

    For what ever reason, I literally just figured out a couple of months ago that ‘reading to kids’ isn’t just reading to kids but apparently also encouraging kids to make connections, to talk, to discuss, to predict outcomes and such. Do you do all that? I have been trying but it’s not at all natural for me to well, discuss books with my kids (which is probably why they are not so articulate πŸ˜‰ Anyways, I peaked in at daycare the other day and one of the teachers did indeed ask questions while reading. Same in the kinder class. I am kind of in shock about the whole business!

    Comment by MB | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  11. While I totally agree with you it’s also important that children get undevided one to one attention for some time each day from their parent. However this is meant to be child led, rather than adult led play. Funnily your description brought to my mind a parent I know, and she too makes everyone around her feel bad and like we don’t engage enough with our kids. Then there’s the issue of personality – my older daughter has always wanted me to play with her and is very demanding of my attention in spite of me having encouraged independent play and playing with other children while my younger one is almost reluctant to play with me – I never manage to engage in play with her for more than 10 minutes at a time. Which suits me just fine just that I feel a bit guilty as her language is lagging behind and I keep wondering if this is the reason. Regardless of this – she would simply leave if I did something like what you described, while my older one would be delighted…

    Comment by cartside | May 17, 2012 | Reply

  12. I love love love the first part of this post! But the second part reads like you inadvertently fell into that same judgmental trap…spending the time to analyze a perfectly fine interaction between another parent/child, assuming that this snapshot describes the child’s life, and concluding that your way is better. I can think of a dozen reasons why the game that they were playing was perfect for them at that moment, but really, who cares? I yearn for the day when we can see someone doing something different than what we do, conclude no harm done, shrug, then move on or not, as the mood strikes.

    Comment by Raia | May 17, 2012 | Reply

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