Dear Mr. Dad: I have two kids, ages six and seven, and I’m completely crazy about them. On one hand, I’m confident that we have a good relationship, on the other, I worry that I’m a bad dad. One of the things I hate about myself is that I can’t seem to connect with the kids during play and I have a really hard time making myself play with them. That doesn’t seem like something a good parent would have any trouble with at all. Is there something wrong with me?
A: Ok, first off, there’s nothing wrong with you — the fact that you’re worried about this aspect of your personality says you’re not a bad parent at all. Many of us were raised to believe that good parents play with their kids (and they do). However, the reverse — that parents who don’t get down and dirty with the little ones are bad parents — is simply not true. Chances are excellent that you’re struggling with playtime not because you hate your children (again, the fact that you’re worried about it takes that option off the table, at least in my view), but because spontaneous or casual play simply may not be part of your personality.
And you’re far from alone. One recent study found that one in six parents has trouble connecting with their kids through play, and six in ten say they play with their kids only occasionally. Some of these parents were Type A personality types — the kind of people who, after five minutes of play, start thinking about all the projects that need to be done around the house or the report that’s due at work next week. These are the kind of people who constantly feel the need to move forward, make progress, mark items off their to-do lists. Unfortunately, that often results in having less fun.
Others said they just don’t have enough time for play. This was most common with dads. Most of us live hectic, fast-paced lives, and being bogged down with money worries, or being overworked at the day job doesn’t lend itself to relaxed, stress-free play with the kids. But whatever the reason, almost all felt guilty about not playing enough.
If you’re not in either the Type A or the not-enough-time camps, you might be one of those people who’s simply forgotten how to play. Don’t laugh. This has become such a big problem that some childcare centers have started offering play classes for parents. Really.
Not being sure what to do can definitely make playing a little (or a lot) more challenging. But don’t worry: We all have the capacity for it. Here are a few ideas that may help you reconnect with your inner child.
— Channel your inner Mr. Rogers. The second you come home from work, go change clothes. Getting out of that suit and into some old jeans and a t-shirt can put you into a completely different mindset.
— Break out the clay and paint. Make a mess in the kitchen. Bang on some pots and pans. Get creative and you’ll be surprised at just how much fun you and your kids will have.
— Stop being so tough on yourself. Play is all about letting go of boundaries and structure. The more you worry that you’re not doing something right, the more trouble you’ll have relaxing.
— That said, sometimes having a little structure can help you ease into the whole play thing. Start with games that can be started and completed within a short time (say 15-20 minutes). A lot of game manufacturers now have playing-time info right on the box. Card games, board games, and puzzles are especially good candidates.