Independent play. The holy grail of parenthood. That sometimes feels so near, and yet can never quite be attained. I’ve got drawn into a few debates over it recently. Obviously it is a heated issue in the internet mummy-sphere.
For a child his age M actually has a reasonable concentration span. He loves being read to. Though we don’t necessarily think he has to sit still for this. Or even sit. He’s enjoyed more than a few books while doing downward facing dog on his bed, or jumping on the couch. And he is paying attention, because if you get tongue-tied by Dr Seuss he will helpfully point it out.
Since adding to the family his ability to play more or less independently, more or less supervised, has become more, not less, of an issue. Something that will be familiar to many families. As I’ve seen happen on internet forums, if you dare admit that you are struggling to keep your older child entertained while you indulge in the frivolous activities of caring for your newborn, there are plenty of parents willing to judge you for it.
You let them watch TV? Their eyes will literally go square, and their brain is rotting.
Read to them. Holding a book whilst simultaneously breastfeeding a newborn is easy.
Just tell them ‘No. I’m busy’. They won’t mind at all that this new person in the house suddenly takes up all your time. I’m sure they’ll understand and happily play quietly on their own. The seething resentment they feel is normal, and I’m sure they’ll find an age appropriate outlet for this emotion, such as hitting or biting. Oh no wait. Hitting and biting are bad. Um. Maybe just tell them you understand, and you’ll have time for them later. Like when the baby is sleeping. Or as the baby never sleeps, when it’s ten. You’ll probably have some time then. If they’re lucky.
M hasn’t been overly resentful, and never violent to his sister. We’re lucky, that’s pretty normal behaviour actually. Mostly I’ve been the target of his resentment (lucky me!). But the reality is, there is only so much I can expect from him in terms of entertaining himself. Even when he does, he ends up doing stupid annoying shit. All The Time.
Twice recently I’ve let him have unsupervised water play while I feed A. I sit on the couch, while he splashes in the bathroom sink; I can’t see him, but I can hear. Both times we started well. Then I heard quite a lot of water running.
‘What are doing?’
‘Stop running water!’
Frantically interrupts A’s feed, gets to feet, into bathroom, just in time to see the water lap over the edge of the sink onto the bathroom floor.
Or the second time, I heard a lot of suspicious splatting noises. Again I yelled out. M happily replied
‘I’m throwing the dirty water in the toilet.’
Yup, he was using a cup to throw water from the sink, in the general direction of the toilet so he could flush it later.
Not much had made it into the toilet.
On neither of these occasions was he being naughty. They were just interesting ideas he got and decided to explore. At three he genuinely is not able to foresee the messy outcomes, and doesn’t really care much about the cleaning up. Yes I got him to help wiping up with a cloth, but that’s sort of fun too, and he is ineffective so I have to do it after him anyway. I wasn’t mad, bud it adds to the generally harassed sense of never ending cleaning-washing-nagging-exhaustion-not-sure-I’m-doing-this-quite-right.
The internet is full of helpful suggestions for play; awesome ideas to keep your littlies entertained for hours. I don’t think I’m the only parent to find many of the suggestions intimidating, and the ‘play’ rather stressful. Coloured rice, paint, glue. It all gets everywhere. M would love it. He’ll spend an hour at børnehave playing with these beads. But it isn’t something I can cope with at home. It’s messy enough as is, add those beads and I’m in trouble. That’s now, just imagine what it’d be like in a couple of months when A will have approximately two skills: crawling, and putting things in her mouth.
Maybe other kids are different. Maybe their playing never results in unintended mess. Or parents yelling at their kids when they really didn’t plan too. Maybe they are a better parent than me.
Maybe their kids are dull…
Truth is, three year olds have plenty of energy, but little experience of the world. Their job at this age is to experiment, and to learn how to regulate their emotions. God knows, enough adults struggle with that. Learning to play independently takes time. Some kids take longer than others. Add in any additional stresses to the mix, family illness, moving house or daycare, new siblings or whatever, only makes it harder. So let’s stop judging parents whose kids don’t play independently ‘enough’