By Sara Norman-Politinsky
Playing with our babies and toddlers can be fun,
but they don`t always need, or benefit from, our full-time
entertainment. In fact, our constant attention in this way can lead to
unnecessary dependency and thwart self-reliance and even creativity.
As psychologist and free-range play advocate
Peter Gray wrote a while back in this magazine, it’s not our job to keep
our children busy and entertained and can even interfere with the
benefits they would otherwise reap from free play. However, many of us
react to the way we were parented and believe that our children need our
constant attention while they play. That, I believe, is the genesis of
the helicopter parenting that we read so much about, when parents worry
about every aspect of their children’s well-being and hover over them
even into adulthood. It also can exhaust parents and make us feel
Child care expert Janet Lansbury says that parents
should not even coax their children to play, “because coaxing signals to
kids that we’re uncomfortable, tends to increase their resistance to
whatever we want them to do, and can even turn an activity as innately
pleasurable as play into a chore.”
So what is the alternative? Lansbury points out
that we can safely leave a young child – even a baby – in a one hundred
percent safe, familiar play space with age-appropriate toys and objects.
And they will occupy and enjoy themselves – even learn on their own – no
matter how young. A safe space and a few familiar objects are often all
it takes for infants to spend time on their own.
Just try it! Leave your child alone for a while
with paper, crayons, blocks, and other favorite toys. See what happens?
Even a young baby, left lying on her back, can play by herself,
examining her fingers and toes, and observing the space around her. She
will probably happily occupy herself for much longer than you could have
imagined. You can peek occasionally or often, based on your comfort
level…and stay in the same room so she’s safe and feels safe.
If that doesn’t work because you’ve already
accustomed your little one to your brand of entertainment, you might
have to wean him off your attention a bit at a time in order for him to
regain an interest in child-led play and be comfortable with exploring
the world on his own terms.
I am not advocating that you abandon your child in
front of the television. Nor is this attempt to foster self-direction
contrary to attachment parenting. It is, instead, about having respect
for your child’s abilities and assisting her to develop a sense of
herself and her boundaries. There are lots of times where you can be
close to and interact with her – feeding, changing her diaper, carrying
her in a sling as you go about your day, etc. But finding a balance
between closeness and allowing her to play on her own is in your and
your child’s best interest.
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