It’s a gorgeous summer day as we bust through the gates of our local park, ready for what I hope will be hours of fun-filled, energy-sapping movement and activity.
Five minutes after we arrive, my seven year old asks me to play hide-and-seek with him. I do, for five minutes, until he finds a boy his age on the playground to play with and I walk away, hoping he doesn’t notice me wandering off. As I do, my four year calls to me from the swings.
“Mom, push me!”
I do, for five minutes.
“Honey, you make the swing go now. You need to pump your legs,” I tell her.
“Go ahead, you can do it!” I add, over my shoulder, as I head to the bench to take a seat. Once there, my seven year old greets me to tell me he’s bored and can I please think of a game we could play together? As I’m shooing him away, my four-year-old beckons me to assist her in repeatedly going up and over a metal bar she likes to treat like a gymnast’s apparatus.
30 minutes later, and we’re leaving. The kids say they’re bored and sick of the park. I am sick of their relentless requests. So we take off hours earlier than I’d hoped and in a significantly darker mood.
“The kids CANNOT entertain themselves!” I complain to my husband later that evening.
“I know,” he sighs, laying down for 20 seconds of quiet before the kids come in and request he pretend to be a pony.
Soon after, I begin griping about this issue to anyone who will listen to me.
“I don’t remember bugging my mother to constantly entertain me when she took me to the playground, or to the pool, when I was a kid,” I declare. “Christ, I was just glad to be there! Just glad she took me at all! But this generation? This generation simply cannot play on its own!”
“I know! This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed!” cries a chorus of no one to agree with me. Because, apparently, I am one of very few who seems annoyed by this trend. And, clearly, my generation brought this on ourselves with our insistence on not just being parents, but by professionalizing it all the way down to playtime.
Parent-child-playtime dependency starts with the ignorant, yet well-meaning new parents, who, bursting with enthusiasm, take their four-month-old baby to the playground together. The infant, barely even blessed with the ability to hold his own head up, is “guided” down the slide in Mommy’s or Daddy’s arms. He is then treated to a 30-minute ride in the baby swing while his parents take turns standing in front of him, “oohing” and “aaahhing” each time he swings forward.
By the time this kid is three, he may now be walking, but that doesn’t stop these parents from following him all over the playground – cheering him on as he (gasp!) climbs stairs and (wow!) slides down the slide – alone! He is reminded not to eat woodchips and to “share” during any tense moments involving shovels and pails in the sandbox. The intense drama that will erupt around a fall or a skinned knee goes without saying. This bonding we experience by taking part in our child’s playtime never gets old.
Except it does. Dear, god, it does. Especially by the time they reach age seven and may no longer NEED a parent right behind them, but still EXPECT one to be there. Every. Minute.
I’m a working mother and, quite frankly, after a day of writing, researching and interviewing people, I’d really enjoy being able to read a book or check email while my kids run around on the playground. Hell, I’d even lie down on the park bench and nap if I didn’t think it would earn me a visit from local police or DFS. But even if I wanted to endure the whispers from disapproving parents who are shocked I am not keeping my eyes glued to the kids, it wouldn’t matter anyway. Because as soon as I do anything remotely resembling adult activity, my children will be on me like white on rice.
“Mom? Can you be the tickle monster and chase me and my friends?”
“Mom? Watch me do this on the monkey bars!
“Mom! Time me! Mom! Mooooooom!!!!”
I will indulge these requests for a while, but after too many of them, I start getting nasty.
“What?! No, I can’t watch! Go ahead and play for goodness sake. You know, play? Why can’t you just go play?”
But then….the guilt creeps in and I begin to feel like I am shamefully ignoring my kids – like I am one can of Budweiser, Marlboro Red cigarette and pair of size-22 pants away from being that woman who thinks it’s acceptable for dirty-diapered toddlers to roam unsupervised in the street. The kind of mother who tells her kids to “Go on and git! Mama’s watchin’ her stories!” as she settles her butt down for an episode of General Hospital.
One day, as I am allowed three minutes of peace because I’ve just spurned my son’s attempts to get me to play, I go into a fantasy shame spiral about the possible damage I may be causing.
“Gross motor skills not developed at an early age leading to significant other learning delays and problems,” I imagine the college-readiness evaluation stating, as it is concluded that my son is not eligible to attend even the most basic of community colleges at age 18.
“Lack of parental involvement in playtime,” the guidance counselor will sigh. “If only she’d sucked it up and BEEN the tickle monster more. This kid had the makings for Harvard…if only….”
But, in short time, I am roused by a small voice.
“Mom, will you build a sand castle with me?” it asks.
“A sandcastle?” I say, exhaling, as I heave myself up from the bench and allow a tiny hand to lead me the ten feet toward the sandbox. “Sure.”