My daughter likes when I play with her. It’s her favorite question to ask.
Daddy, do you want to play with me?
I almost always agree and, from there, we embark on some pretty intense play time. I know this because if my phone vibrates and I glance at the screen 15 minutes into a Lego session, she will ask me.
Daddy. Do you want to play with me?
I am playing with you. I’m sitting in front of you and holding a Lego.
Oh. OK. But I meant after you stop looking at your phone, you’re still playing?
Even a trip to the kitchen to get a drink – which I make sure to announce prior to doing – turns into a playtime inquisition. As I close the refrigerator door, it reveals a pint-size being standing there like Jason Voorhees and the age old question.
Um, Daddy. Do you want to come play Legos with me when you’re done?
I am playing with you. I’m getting a drink. I told you that.
Oh. OK. But I meant after that. Do you want to play with me?
I am playing with you.
Oh. Ha ha. OK.
Turn. Walk three steps. Turn back.
So, you’re still playing?
It’s annoying, but to be honest, it’s also flattering. There’s something to be said about someone wanting to spend so much time with you. As adults, every day we get dissed, ghosted, catfished, or whatever slang we’re using for disregarded these days. Having a tiny person who loves when you’re around makes you feel better about yourself in a world that’s sometimes engineered to do the opposite.
On top of that, I was a kid once too and I remember what it was like to want to do something fun. Time alone can be rough and, as a parent now, I sometimes overcompensate with both my children when it comes to quality time.
That’s not always good, though. I learned a while ago that we need to take steps back from our kids now and then – not only for us, but for them. Although I’ve known it for years, it’s still a confusing reality that I struggle with still today. It seems to contradict so much natural parenting instinct. It is, however, a pretty basic kid instinct. Sure, we know that we can say “no” to buying gifts or bad habits, but this is different. Turning down a whining kid who’s insisting your spend another $50 on a stuffed animal is easy. When they’re batting their eyelashes for another ten Uno games before you go to the park, it’s not so cut and dry. For some, telling their child to play by themselves can almost feel like giving out a punishment. In reality, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
When Olivia was in kindergarten, she would bring all of her Barbie dolls to the dining room table. As she set them up in front of her, she would hand out a very important instruction.
Daddy. Don’t listen to me.
I laughed every time she said it because I knew that once I verified that I wouldn’t listen, she’d begin loud whispers between each doll. I’d just hear high pitched shushy talk about how pretty a dress is or where the prince lives. It was seriously adorable.
It still is actually. Sure, it’s not as common as it was years ago or prefaced with, “don’t listen to me.” Now it’s once in a while and she doesn’t give a damn who’s listening. She’s nine, punk.
Just this past weekend, I made her take a forced break from my amazing company for an hour. Despite her protests, I went into my office while she set up her dolls in the living room. Of course, within ten minutes I felt guilty. It didn’t matter that we had done so many fun things this weekend. All that mattered was this moment of nothing. I had sent her to be bored out of her mind alone so I can take a dad-break. How selfish.
Slinking back into the living room, I walked past my son, who was glued to a TV show, and took a seat as she was loudly whispering between Harly Quinn and Poison Ivy on the couch. Hearing something about “sisters”, I figured I’d show an interest and make her day. With a proud-of-myself grin, I leaned over.
Oh, are they sisters?
No answer. Continued hush talking.
I said, are they sisters?
To this, she turned with a confused and annoyed look. It was the look I’d imagine you’d get when pulling an award winning director away from his pivotal scene. In the most dismissive tone I had ever heard her use, Olivia shooed me away with:
What? Yeah. Yeah. Sisters. OK.
Her head whipped back around and her hair bopped along after. I suddenly realized that she wanted to be doing this and my own hang-ups were what was keeping it from happening. Sure, she’d ask to spend time with me, that’s what kids do. But I could say no and she’d be fine. In many ways, she’ll be more than fine.
The thing I had to remember was that time alone is some of the most important times for a child. It allows them time to formulate all the thoughts that will narrate their life. Some of the most creative moments I ever had as a child was spent playing with action figures for hours in the basement. Sure, a game of Yatzhee would have been more fun now and then, but I wouldn’t have traded that alone time for the world.
Yet, here I am feeling guilty about giving the same time to my own child. It’s something that we all know is right, but in the moment, it can feel wrong. There are very few good parenting moments that allow us to put our feet up in another room, but this is one of them. It’s like finding a vegetable that tastes like ice cream cake.
Everyone deserves a break – parents and kids alike. Time alone helps us all grow. Recharge your batteries and let them discover their talents untethered by others. Sure, we’ll still worry and feel guilty. But we’re parents. That’s kind of what we do. The kids will be just fine.