Why you don’t need to constantly entertain your kids (and what to do instead)
I love being a mum. I always wanted to be one.
Pre-kids, award-winning-teacher me had a very clear idea of how this would look and what I would DO.
Pre-kids Amy thought it would look like…
???? making the most of every.single.second…because everyone tells you how fast it goes
???? my kids being little angels all the time and never having tantrums or big feelings that I could not manage
???? LOVING every single minute…I had taught hundreds of kids in my teaching career, having my own kids would be like icing on the cake (right?!)
???? lovingly devoted to my kids, providing them with a stream of fun and educational things that would fill their days, helping them develop different skills (of my choosing) ready for school
And then…I had MY kids.
With two kids under the age of 17 months I got a big, fat dose of reality.
I was a stretched, sleep deprived shell of who I thought I would be.
Of course, I had an idea of what my days ‘should’ look like, but tiredness made everything so much more of a challenge.
When I had three kids under three and then four under five, a LOT shifted for me.
I learnt that I didn’t need to be constantly entertaining my kids in order for them to thrive.
I realised I was holding onto many unhelpful beliefs about what it ‘should’ be like.
I became a happier parent who actually enjoyed the time with my kids when I replaced these beliefs…AND, it was also way better for my kids and our relationship.
Here are three key beliefs that I needed to flip in order to fully *get* this.
1. We don’t need to be involved in every second of our child’s day in order for them to thrive.
We do not need to provide our children with a constant stream of entertainment and ‘learning opportunities.’
It is not our job to enhance our children’s play everytime they are in their own little world.
Many parents I speak to (and myself included at one stage of my life) experience so much guilt about what they’re spending their time on – when they are playing with their kids, they feel guilty about the housework, and when they are doing housework, they feel guilty about not playing with kids.
The reality is that self-directed and independent play is the best type of play for young children.
You can’t plan this type of play – it just happens based on what your child is interested in at the time.
It allows your child to use his imagination and move at his own pace.
Free play is an opportunity for the development of self-esteem, autonomy, confidence and creativity.
It may not ‘look’ the way that you want it to, but they are learning things about themselves, their skills and the world they live in when they are playing.
And when you provide the space and opportunity for your child to use their creativity and interests to guide what they play with, it doesn’t just benefit them: you feel more relaxed too.
Flipping this belief (thinking that we need to be involved in every second of our child’s day) and replacing it with the knowledge that self-directed play is good for our kids has been such a game changer for how I show up for my family and ENJOY the time I spend with them more.
2. You need to savour every. single. second of this precious and finite time.
We are told to ‘savour every moment’ because childhood flies by so quickly.
This is built on a deeply ingrained assumption that our proficiency as a parent will be judged how our children turn out.
Good kid = good parent.
Crying / naughty kid = bad parent.
But the reality is, we don’t measure any other relationship in our life this way.
We don’t evaluate the success of our marriage by measuring ‘character improvements’ in our partner in the years since we have met.
We don’t judge ourselves as a ‘good sister’ or ‘good friend’ by the things our siblings or friends have achieved since being in their lives.
So the question must be asked: why do we do this when it comes to being a parent?
What if we viewed our relationship with our children through the lens of the latest research into developmental psychology instead of outdated beliefs?
Alison Hopnik is an American professor of psychology and preeminent developmental psychologist and has been on a pursuit to help parents view their role not as carpenters, but as gardeners.
A carpenter is someone who follows a blueprint of steps or a set of instructions to create a particular kind of person of our own carefully controlled design.
A gardener is someone who creates nourishing environments, routines and habits to help children grow into who they’re meant to be.
Creating a nourishing environment for everyone to thrive involves parents doing things for ourselves. Recognising that we are not robots.
And recognising that we are teaching our children how to look after themselves by looking after ourselves.
Being ‘on’ all the time isn’t possible.
Of course, there are seasons of life that require more of you (when you have babies and toddlers that are waking up in the night), but the gift of BEing a parent (versus the idea of ‘parenting’ as a verb) is softening our expectations so they serve us and our families.
Being a parent is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
And it’s not a solo event either – there are many factors and people that help shape the gorgeous individuals we are raising.
You wouldn’t train for a marathon by running a marathon and backing it up by running another marathon!
The rest IS the work.
3. Time spent playing is wasted.
We are a productive generation that has been told very early on that we can have it all.
Productivity and ‘being busy’ are worn as badges of honour.
And play is an afterthought, not something integral to our lives.
Even though I knew at an intellectual level that ‘children learn through play’…the truth is, when I was a new parent, there were times that I wasn’t truly valuing my kids’ play.
If they were playing happily with themselves, I would find myself interrupting their play… ‘Ohhh what are you doing? Are you playing with a blue car?’
…or trying to scaffold and guide it ‘why don’t you put the big block on the bottom?’
…or just totally undervaluing it ‘put that down now, it’s time to stop, we have to go to the shops.’
Of course, this was coming from love.
Think about when you are concentrating on something and you get interrupted. It stifles your flow and train of thought!
And yet… how many times we pull our kiddos away from their games because they are ‘just playing’?
Respecting and valuing their play – even if it seems pointless, random or inconvenient – helps send the message:
This matters. You matter. Your connection to self matters.
We want to foster the intimate connection with themselves, their inner wisdom and authority.
When we judge their play, insert ourselves into their games or take over, we are training them to think about what WE want them to do instead of allowing them to nurture their relationship with themselves.
Of course, as a parent it’s our responsibility to ensure our kids are safe and there will be times we need to remind them of these (loving) boundaries.
There is also time and a place for playing together.
When I truly started valuing my kids’ play, viewing it as theirs (not mine) not only did they start playing for longer, but I was able to get more done guilt-free.
And the first stepping stone to this?
When they are busily engaged without you: just watch.
Notice what they are doing.
Notice their movements, actions.
Notice their facial expressions.
Observing shows us exactly where our child is right now.
Key Takeaways and reflections:
Let’s flip some beliefs!
Time playing is never wasted.
Do you find yourself abruptly interrupting your child’s play for more important things? Interrupt their flow by questioning them or commenting on what they are doing? Your child doesn’t need you to be their entertainment coordinator. In actual fact, it’s better for them (and you!) if you’re not!
‘Savouring every minute’ can include you cutting yourself a break. Are you finding that you are holding yourself to impossible standards of what it means to be on?
Aim to be the gardener and create nurturing environments, habits and routines that are nourishing for everyone.
If you’d like to join a movement of families who embody these messages, make sure you sign up to be notified when our Play Squad’s doors open!