If you Google such phrases as “playing with children,” you will find lots of experts telling you how important parent-child play is for both parties. They describe it as a way for you to bond with and get to know your child, a way to have fun and get healthy exercise with your child, and a way for you to help your child learn new skills. You will also, however, find posts by parents, mostly mothers, who confess that they play with their children because they feel guilted into it and that, truth be told, they hate playing with them.
The problem of children dominating parents in play
Many of those who are brave enough to admit that they hate to play with their children (or at least that they sometimes don’t like it) have learned from the experts that they aren’t supposed to dominate the play and should allow the child to take the lead. But they go too far with this idea.
The problem is, the way that children want to play is often not the way that parents want to play. For one thing, children love to do the same damn thing over and over and over again. They’re wired for it. That’s how they learn; that’s how they practice a skill until they get it right. But parents quite understandably don’t want to do that, at least not with the particular skill with which the child is obsessed. One mom, whose son demanded that she play “Discoball” with him, repeatedly, always in the same way, wrote: “Admittedly, it was fun the first 500 times … but now it’s starting to wear thin.”
Children also sometimes want to boss their parents in play just for the sake of bossing them. They become little tyrants, and some parents allow that because they think they’re supposed to. For example, one mom described how her daughter, in make-belief play, demanded that she, the mother, say only the exact lines that the daughter chose for her, and only at the precise time that the daughter told her she could say them. The daughter got mad whenever the mom varied her line or said it at not quite the right moment. The daughter could be creative, but the mother could not. For the mother, then, this was not play. The mother was allowing herself to be a human prop, not a playmate. No wonder she hated it.
So here’s one problem that occurs in parent-child play. We—and when I say “we” I don’t so much mean we dads as I mean you moms—have been brainwashed into believing that it’s our job practically every moment to serve our children’s needs, sometimes by telling them exactly what they should do and other times by catering to their every whim. In some contexts we are the bosses, because we think we are supposed to boss them for their own good (that’s a problem I’ve described in other posts, such as here). But in other contexts, and especially in play, we mistakenly think our task is to allow our children to boss us. But bossing in either direction destroys play. Play requires negotiation and agreement, so everyone’s needs are met—not bullying and subservience.
No self-respecting child playmate would tolerate being bossed around in such a way. A child playmate who got bored after 500 rounds of Discoball would say, in effect, “Either we play something else now or I’m out of here.” In make-believe play, any child playmate prevented from taking a creative part would protest immediately, and if the protest wasn’t successful, would quit. The ability to express displeasure, to rebel, to quit, is what makes play such a powerful vehicle for social learning (for more on that, see here). When we allow children to dominate us in play, to be inattentive to our needs and desires, we destroy play’s social value. We are not doing our children a favor by “playing” with them in this way. We may, in fact, be turning them into spoiled brats.
The problem of parents dominating children in play
The opposite mistake, of course, is for us to dominate children in play, or, at the extreme, to take over the play and leave the children out entirely. Dads are generally more guilty of this than are moms, but I’ve seen moms do it too. You start off playfully building something together—maybe a sandcastle or one of those horrid Lego kits that is designed for a specific end product—and you get into it so much, and are so much better at it than the child, that you take over completely, or you tell your child exactly what to do, so now it’s just your play and not the child’s.
I remember, years ago, when my son was little, we joined a group called Indian Guides, which was supposed to provide bonding opportunities for fathers and their young sons. One of the activities given to us was the creation of little wooden cars for a “Pine Box Derby.” I assumed that the intent was for the son to build the car and for the father to play some sort of facilitating role—such as showing the boy how to use the tools safely and effectively, or how to clean the paint brushes afterward. I was quite proud of the little car my 8-year-old built, and he seemed to have fun building it. It did seem to be genuine constructive play for him.
But when we showed up at the derby, car in hand, both of us were crestfallen. All of the other cars were perfectly crafted, beautifully painted and polished. I was astounded by the craftsmanship of all the other fathers. It was obvious that the children had played no role at all except maybe to watch or do just a few tasks in accordance with the fathers' precise instructions. Maybe the event provided, to some degree, a learning opportunity for the children as they watched their fathers, but it most definitely was not play for them. At any rate, my son and I both felt the strong desire to shrivel up, crawl home, and toss our car—a car that looked like it was built by an 8-year-old—into the trash.
The sad reason why parents today feel it is their duty to play with children
Play should never ever be a duty; it should always be for fun. Play, by definition, is something that you want to do; so if you “play” with your child without wanting to you are not playing.
David Lancy—author of The Anthropology of Childhood and perhaps the world’s leading expert on child-parent relationships throughout the world—says that the idea that parents should play with their children is a uniquely modern, Western idea (see his blog post here). In other cultures, and in ours until recent decades, children always had other children around to play with. Parents didn’t feel the need to play with children, and children didn’t particularly want to play with adults, because the children had plenty of more interesting playmates—other children of all ages.
The adults in such cultures might play, but they would play in their own chosen ways. Sometimes children would join in, which was fine as long as the children didn’t ruin the play. And sometimes adults, especially young ones, would join into children’s play, just because they wanted to, and that was fine with the children as long as the adults didn’t ruin their play. When adults played with children, it was never out of a sense of duty; it was only for fun. All this appears to be especially true of hunter-gatherer cultures, according to anthropological reports. It was also generally true of the communities in the United States in which I grew up, in the 1950s.
Children naturally make better playmates for children than do adults. They are more likely to have similar interests, similar senses of humor, similar energy levels. They are less likely to be condescending or to try to turn play into deliberate and boring teaching opportunities. I’ve argued elsewhere that age-mixed play can be especially valuable for children (here and here)—for the older ones as well as the younger ones—but when we’re talking about someone over 30 playing with someone under 10, that gap may be hard (though not impossible) to bridge while retaining the true spirit of play.
We—shame on us—have created a world in which children can’t just go outdoors and find children to play with without adults watching and intervening and ruining the play. This is the first time in the history of humanity (outside of periods and places of slavery and intense child labor) that children have not been able to play freely with other children, for hours every day. Of course we feel guilty about this, and we should. But we should use our guilt to solve the real problem. We need to find ways to allow our kids to play freely with other kids, not try to fill that void ourselves, a void we are poorly equipped to fill.
Some fun ways to play with children
OK, after all this, I have a confession to make. I do like to play with children, and I also have some fond memories of playing with adults when I was a child. I actually think most adults would enjoy playing with children if they would figure out, along with the children, ways of playing that fit everyone’s abilities and interests. As part of my research I’ve sometimes watched teenagers play with much younger chilldren (see here), and they are often brilliant at finding ways to play that are fun for everyone. We can learn something about playing with little children by watching teenagers do it. Teenagers, after all, were little children just a few years ago, and they haven’t forgotten what little children enjoy or how to enjoy some of the same things. And teenagers aren’t afraid to be assertive and insist on ways of playing that are fun for them as well as for the little ones.
Rough and tumble
Most little children love chasing and rough-and-tumble games with older children or adults. The adult can be the monster, who’s going to catch the child and eat him or her for breakfast. The little child squeals in delight as he or she runs away, and the big guy really enjoys the squealing. Everyone laughs uncontrollably. Or the adult can lie on his back (usually it is a “he” who plays this way, but not always) and swing the little one up and down with his legs, or vault the little one over his head onto the couch or a pile of pillows or leaves. Or he can toss the little one up in the air and catch him or her, or give piggyback rides. In all such play both players are getting great exercise, the little one is enjoying a wonderful thrill, and the bigger one feels the thrill, too, vicariously if not directly.
Needless to say, in such play it is crucial, always, for the adult to be attuned to the child’s expressions of joy or fear. If fear begins to dominate and joy subsides, you need to back off. The older one needs to adjust the intensity of play, always, to meet the capacities of the child. What is wonderfully thrilling for one child might be terrifying for another.
I have great memories of picnics—sometimes they were union picnics (my stepfather was a union man), sometimes church picnics, sometimes gatherings of extended family—at which we’d all play some game together. Usually it was softball. There’d be women and men, girls and boys, teenagers and little kids. We followed rules that made it fun for all—such as pitching softly to the little ones and novices, or making the strong teenage boys and young men bat with a broomstick and hop on one leg around the bases. There was something special and wonderful about these games that brought the generations together. As a kid I wouldn’t have wanted to play that way all the time, but it was great to do so two or three times a year at those picnics.
Family card or board games
A great idea, I think, is to establish some regular evening as “family game night,” in which everyone who wants to plays some game together. The trick is to find a game everyone enjoys, so everyone will want to play. In my family of origin, back in the 1950s, the game we all enjoyed most was canasta—a rummy card game that was the rage everywhere then. We’d have canasta nights, and when we had relatives or friends over they would play it too. The great thing about canasta is that it involves a certain amount of skill, so it's not just luck, but the skill is easily enough learned that 7-year-olds who want to can become about as good at it as adults. There are many other card and board games, also, for which this is true. Some families I know love to play charades together. Little ones are often very good at it; they are natural actors, naturally creative, and add to everyone’s fun.
Well, those are a few ideas to get you thinking. The main idea is this. If you want to play with your child, be sure to find ways to do so that are fun for you as well as your child. It should be a joy, not a duty. You do have a duty concerning your child’s play, however, and that is to figure out how to enable your child to play freely and often with other children, away from adults—that’s the bread and butter of child’s play. Your play with your child is just a special little now-and-then treat, for both of you.
And now, what do you think about this? … This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post at the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.
For more about young people’s need for freedom, see Free to Learn.