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Have Kids Lost the Ability to Play Alone?

Courtesy of Sasha Emmons

“Mommy, watch me!” I watch as my daughter Chloe executes handstand #37 of the day. I have already been called upon to observe handstands 1 to 36. If a girl does a handstand, but her mommy isn’t around to see it, did the handstand happen at all?

My son Julian, never one to let his sister hog my attention, is pulling me to the floor to play Lincoln Logs. We build a “dragon jail,” but when I get up to do something else, my son says he doesn’t want to play anymore. He wants the iPad instead.

I have no desire to be a helicopter parent, but somehow I became an unwitting one anyway. My kids want to interact with me constantly, which I love. But I also love making dinner, something I am currently unable to do without the aid of Wild Kratts.

We moved from Brooklyn to Toronto last summer. In New York we lived in a loft apartment with tiny bedrooms off one big (by NYC standards) main room. I thought the reason my kids were always looking to me to entertain and validate was that we were essentially always together in one room. I also figured that as a mom who worked full-time outside the home, maybe I overcompensated by turning into Super Awesome Activity Mom when I walked in the door.

Plus: Dealing with Child's Boredom

But guess what? Now we live in a house with a yard and a basement playroom, and at the moment, I mostly work from home, so my kids see me a lot more. I’m still Julie from Love Boat. Somewhere along the way, I forgot to teach my kids how to entertain themselves.

It’s not just me. A friend wrote on Facebook recently that upon returning from an ambitious, multi-stop outing with her family, her 5-year-old daughter innocently inquired what they were doing that day. A slew of moms gave it a like in knowing recognition.

When I was a kid, we lived on a big plot of land backed by a forest. My siblings and I used to spend hours roaming it unsupervised. On summer days, from a very young age, I would disappear to a friend’s house for the day, only returning home when I heard my mom shouting for me. I don’t mean to paint my parents as uninvolved. They shuttled us around, ate dinner with us every night and made sure they knew what was up in school. But I remember my mom being on the phone quite a bit and having long conversations with my dad at the dinner table. 

I think my husband Justin and I are still trying to finish a conversation we started back in 2010, since approximately the time my son learned to speak.  

I wanted to figure out how this parent fail happened, so I talked to an expert: my mom. How did she get us to play on our own, and where did Justin and I go wrong? 

“I had to get you to entertain yourself if I wanted to get anything done!” she says. After all, she was a stay-at-home mom with a lot fewer screen options. She started early, using a playpen, which many modern parents would consider baby jail. Toys were less sophisticated, more open-ended, and we didn’t have that many. My mom says we had one activity each; often we didn’t go anywhere for a few days -- just hung out at home. She thinks with more moms working, and more kids at daycare and starting preschool earlier, kids come to expect constant enrichment and engagement. 

Independent play also stems with independence, and that’s where it’s hard for me to imagine recreating the atmosphere my parents raised me in. My mom thinks the world is a more dangerous place now, but I’m not sure I agree. What I do think is that horrible stories get shared and amplified in our uber-connected world. Even the positive stories, about learning games and superfoods and the right amount of exercise, invite parents to micromanage their child’s every move.

My mom and I couldn’t remember exactly how old I was when I started walking to the bus stop – a half mile away from my house – by myself, but it’s younger than my daughter is now.  I was also allowed to ride my bike alone on the streets and knock on neighbors’ doors to find friends to play with from a very young age.  I think my 8-year-old could totally handle the block and a half walk to school on her own. Can I bring myself to let her try?

Plus: "Mom, I'm Bored": What He Really Means

I’m going to think about that one. In the mean time, here’s my new weekend to-do: let the kids get bored…very bored. 

My mom shared one last secret with me: she let us watch TV while she got dinner ready too. “That witching hour, when the kids are hungry and getting tired, is just tough no matter what you do,” she says. 

Some things never change, I guess. 

Do your kids play on their own? How did you make it happen?