Do you play with your children? I cannot refer to a large body of research to argue for or against parents playing with their children, but I think the question is a good one for thinking about what it means to be a parent.
Someone asked me a startling question awhile ago: why do I spend so much time with my children? and I’ve been noticing since then that parents are often talking about needing a break from their children. Of course, my children are teens now, but I don’t remember ever wanting a break from my kids for more than getting more work done or more sleep. This led me to begin wondering what people mean by “a break” and why they couldn’t take some breaks with their children.
Perhaps the better question is, Do you enjoy being with your children? I made a conscious decision when my oldest was two years old to enjoy my time with her rather than trying to make her conform to my desires or comforts (which resulted in frustration usually when I tried). I for instance transformed our walk to and from daycare from one of battling about whether she would ride in the stroller, walk, or be carried (at 1, she began to refuse to ride in the stroller) into adventures of finding pine cones and learning to get the fuzzy seeds to fly off dandelions when her breath was not strong enough to blow them off. Those walks have become some of my fondest memories, and some of the pine cones are still on a shelf. I decided then to have fun with my children as often as possible, and I recommend it.
Parenting, of course, has changed enormously over time, and it varies lots between and within cultures. I don’t think my parents ever got on the floor to play with us or gave voice to a toy, and I’m certain my grandparents didn’t even throw a ball with any of their children. Perhaps this shift reflects differences in our jobs as much as our ideas. Research by Bernstein in the 1970s compared class differences in London to find that–to some degree–parenting practices reflected the kinds of jobs parents had: Parents who were professionals and were friends with their bosses tended to talk with their children in ways that were more “elaborated.” Parents who worked in jobs that required deference and formality with their employers tended to require obedience and formality from their children, using a “restricted code.” I think this difference is really about the same parenting styles Baumrind described with authoritative and authoritarian because the way we talk with our children is most of what it is to parent. The way I view it, the more parenting is about obedience, the less it is about joy and love.
If you want a warm and supportive family, you need to be warm and supportive. If you want an obedient and respectful family, you need to model the behavior you want: be disciplined and respectful. Parents begin creating the kind of family they want from before the time their child is born. I recommend making sure you have some fun in amongst all the chaos and work and exhaustion. If you find child rearing boring and tedious (which of course it is at times), your child will think it is about them. Value the time you can spend with them, and don’t be afraid to say when necessary, “I’m sorry. I am busy right not. As soon as I am done, we’ll play,” and then make sure you do. You can’t spend all your time playing, but make at least a little.