Here’s a question for parents–why is it easier to do an activity with a friend than it is to do an activity with your child? Pretty simple: when you do an activity with a friend, you are your natural self. You’re at normal speed, so to speak. If something’s troubling you, chances are you talk about it. If something new interests you, chances are you talk about that, too. Plus, your friend has better reasoning abilities than your child, and—significantly—if your friend begins wearing on your nerves, you know you can find ways to disengage. It all makes sense at normal speed when you are your natural self.
For some reason, when you do activities with your child, it seems to require more energy. Why is that? One reason is that you’re at half speed. You’re pretending to play. Look at it like this: the difference between standing and sitting, in terms of difficulty, is hardly anything. Right? They’re both pretty easy. But now try half sitting. That’s very difficult to do. That’s what participating in kids’ activities at half speed is like.
Why not try a new approach, and instead of pretending to play, actually play? Find some actual meaning in the activity and pursue fulfillment. If you’re playing blocks, for instance, make something cool. Look for symbolism. Why make a wall? A road? A castle? Do you have a character (represented by a single block or a figure from another play set)? Where is your character going? Where would you like to go? Who will meet you there?
If you’re coloring, pursue the same lines of fulfillment. Color things that interest you–things you’d like to have or used to have: a garden, a boat, a day on the sea shore, etc. The items don’t need to be elaborate–just symbolic. Express your mood, your hopes, your silly inventions–just do it at normal speed. Do it because you want to–because it’s interesting, fulfilling, redeeming.
You’re not going to be able to use the normal speed, natural self strategy all the time, and it won’t work for all activities. If you’re having a snowball fight, for example, normal speed isn’t a good idea. But if you’re playing a theater game, for instance, invest yourself in your character. Be the queen you’ve always wanted to be, or the wood-cutter that doesn’t take any bull.
In general, when it comes to playing kids activities, the key to operating at normal speed is to direct your energy at what you’re doing, not at your child. What does this do?
- It gives you a better chance to enjoy the activity on its own terms
- It tells your child that you are a separate person with separate interests and needs
- It accustoms your child to independently exploring meaning and finding enjoyment
What do you do if you’re playing Legos, for example, and your child keeps interrupting your efforts to make a house? That situation will, and probably has come up hundreds of times. That’s why playing kids’ activities can be so exhausting in the first place, and why finding ways to operate at normal speed is so vital to your overall well being. You can’t consistently give your child all the benefits of quality playtime if you’re using all your energy in the process. So stand your ground. It’s your house. You’re working on it, and that’s that. If you want to incorporate something your child is doing into the design–great. If not, say so. Use a firm but reasonable voice. Your child will return to her own independent efforts.
Again, you most likely will not be able to sustain normal speed, natural self participation–not all the time and not for all activities. But it is a strategy you can employ in order to gain some separation from your child while still providing the extraordinary benefits of playtime activities. If your child sees that you are in the habit of settling completely into an activity, she too is more likely to settle completely into an activity. That strengthens her confidence and ability to learn, and at the same time gives you, the parent, some much needed distance. It’s a win-win situation.