Now that we've finally moved to a house with a backyard, I've invented a cool new game to play with the boys. It's called: Go Outside.
First I push them out the door, then I lock it.
It's super fun. And oddly relaxing too, once you get past the first five minutes of whining that inevitably devolves into doing blowfish on the window, which becomes hitting each other with sticks and somersaulting headfirst off the picnic table into the cedar hedge. Eventually, if I sit very, very still in the kitchen reading my iPad, they seem to forget I'm there at all. And that, as I remember it, is the very definition of childhood fun: Forgetting that adults, and their boring adult concerns, even exist.
I love my kids but I hate playing with them. It's not their company I dislike, but the activities they choose. Like pushing dinky cars up the wall, or building laser guns out of Lego or seeing what happens when you mix saliva and milk and purple Playdough. I know these activities are magical and necessary for their intellectual and emotional development. But they bore me. At best they fill me with a face-scratching restlessness. At worst, total despair.
Most parents feel the same way. According a 2004 study by the Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman on what activities working mothers enjoy, we rank "childcare" 16th out of a list of 19 – behind sleeping, shopping, cooking, watching TV and even housework.
It makes sense, because it's only recently that "childcare" became an activity in itself – rather than something one did while napping, shopping, cooking, watching TV or cleaning.
I never liked playing with kids before I had them but I just I assumed that would change – kind of like my interest in baby cloths and lactation. When it didn't I felt sort of guilty until I remembered that my mother never played with me. When I was a kid, playing was something kids did while mothers did Mum stuff, like talking on the phone and smoking and making casseroles (usually all at once). The idea of my mother getting down on her hands and knees and making a mud pie would have been ridiculous, like watching an avid dog owner roll in dead squirrel for fun. Yet most of the parents I know today spend hours each week playing with their children. You know the parents I mean; perhaps you are one.
Presumably we are playing out of guilt. For all our stress and problems of work-life balance, here's a statistic that will stop you in your tracks: Despite the rise in work hours (especially for women) in the last half century, parents now spend more time with our children than ever before. This is because our kids' leisure time is as heavily supervised as ours was feral – and this is a bad thing for everyone.
It's not like we don't know it. My parent friends constantly lament the rise of helicopter parenting, the lack of freedom our kids have. We reminisce about how we walked ourselves to school and played all day in the woods. We talk about "overprotective parents" as if they are not us. They are us. We live in an overprotective parenting culture. While I know abduction rates have actually gone down since I was a kid, I would no sooner let my five-year-old run to the corner store and buy himself a Popsicle than I'd offer him a joint. But here's one thing I can do to foster his independence and my own sanity: I can read a book while he builds a fort out of sofa cushions.
I'm all for children playing, you understand, I'm just not for adults joining in. I think we should leave them alone, get out of their way, and resist their pleas to the contrary.
I have learned this from our childminder Maria, who at 60, raised her own three children while running a busy restaurant. She would much rather be ironing than playing megablocks with the boys – a quality I've come to appreciate over time. One day, when James was going through a particularly clingy baby phase, I noticed he never cried and pawed at her to pick him up (as he always did with me). Instead he'd just sit playing contentedly with his toys on the floor while she stepped over him, doing whatever she needed to do.
"Why doesn't he cry for you to pick him up?" I asked, astonished.
She smiled serenely. "Because he knows."
"Knows what?" I waited for Maria to deliver her mystical supernanny secret.
"He's knows I won't pick him up."
The same is true of play. The less you do of it, the less your children will look to you to entertain them. Your kid might think they want you to play with them, but really they're better off learning to amuse themselves. You might think you're awesome at playing pretend but unless you're a birthday-party entertainer, you're probably deluded. Our imaginations are stilted and we're too stiff to climb trees. We have no more business playing make believe than the average eight-year-old has drinking a dry martini and chatting with the bartender – and yet we persist.
There's been a lot in the news recently about how we need to learn to be less overprotective of our kids. Articles extolling the virtues of outdoor education schools and free-range parenting and "adventure playgrounds" where kids are encouraged to light old sofas on fire and whack each other with scrap metal.
Most parents I know love the notion of freedom for kids but seem unable to follow through. Here's my advice: Don't play with your kids. Kick them outside and lock the door. They won't thank you for it. They'll be too busy having fun.