Resisting the Siren Call of “Play With Me!”

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t claim to be a parenting expert, but I do have a plan. It’s not a set-in-stone kind of plan where any deviation could bring destruction and ruin. I’m not building a hydroelectric dam; I’m raising kids, and I hope that my parenting style can adapt and grow along with them.

And now may be a time when I have to do some adapting.

If I had to boil down my goal for the earliest years of my kids’ lives, it’s that I want to send them one clear message: “You matter.” Because it’s easy to send little children the opposite message. They’re small, and they get ignored a lot, pushed aside a lot. In a roomful of people, they often get treated like they’re not there.

So, to that end, I make a point of listening when they talk, being interested in the things they’re interested in. When they say, “Daddy, play with me!” then I try, as much as possible, to stop what I’m doing, get down in the floor, and play with them. Because that’s how you show them that they matter: by giving attention and time.

This is not so much of a challenge for me, because I like getting in the floor and playing with my kids. I like watching cartoons with them and eating candy with them. Yes, I am a grown man.

But I like these things so much, and I think this is so important, that I now find myself with a new dilemma. While it’s still important to tell the kids, “You matter,” it’s becoming increasingly necessary to tell them, “You’re not the only thing that matters.”

That’s an important lesson to learn: You have priorities, but everybody else has priorities too. And I fear my unlimited playtime policy is not doing a good job of teaching that lesson.

If a house guest was at the foot of your bed as soon as your eyes cracked open in the morning, insisting that you get up and play games with him right away; if he interrupted you with stories about plans for next Halloween every time you tried to work or eat or read or watch a TV show; if he pounded on the door whenever you were in the bathroom, shouting that he needed to show you his new drawing right now — you’d probably say that it’s time to establish some boundaries with that guy. Or put him in a hotel.

Considering the expense involved, I’m probably not going to put my kids in a hotel. However, we are going to start working on cultivating a healthy respect for the priorities of others.

The struggle for me in this is that it’s so hard for me to resist my little girl, my little boy, when they look up and say, “Play with me.” Because I want to play with them. And I know that, soon enough, this problem will take care of itself, when they realize that I’m actually not fun or cool at all, and they decide they don’t want anything to do with me.

But right now they haven’t figured it out yet. The only thing they want in the world is to spend more time with me. So, we have that in common, and it makes it hard to resist when I have the opportunity.

If anybody has ideas about how to set boundaries for kids in this situation, I’m all ears. Right now I’m just thinking that I’ll have to say to them that there are certain times of day when daddy is available and other times when you’ll have to entertain yourselves. And then stick to it.

Like parenting wasn’t hard enough already, now I have to start purposefully teaching them to live without me. It’s best for all of us in the long run, but man, they sure are fun to play with.

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