Playing With My Kids Isn’t Just Boring, It’s Hell. Can I Just Not?

A dad asks the Goodfather why his kids are such jerks when they play — and, can he just skip it all?

a picture of a man stroking his beard beside the words "ask the godfather"

Dear Goodfather,

This coronavirus has me scared. No, not getting sick — that’s scary, sure, but inevitable if you ask me. I’m scared of being at home with the kids for weeks on end. Weeks. What the hell will we do? I know what you’ll say (long-time reader, first-time writer): “Play with them! Take the time to bond and enjoy it!” But I don’t. Playing with kids is a certain kind of hell for me.

For one, my toddler is always telling me how to play. “No no no” he says to any and all suggestions. Then he cries when I follow his lead because I’m doing it wrong. Yeah, next.

My second grader is similarly bossy as hell and while he’ll let me read to him day or night, I never get past five minutes of playing without being called out for being ‘unfair’ or ‘mean’ or ‘not playing right.’ I swear, I’m just sitting there, trying to further the story. Instead, apparently, I’m supposed to be the audience to the most boring, mean-spirited play of all time.

So weeks with the kids? Hell on earth. How could it be any different?

Quarantined in Quakertown

As a noun, the term “play” would seem pretty simple and straightforward. We can say “play” and confidently assume that the images conjured up in the mind of the listener are probably consistent with our own. But there are an enormous amount of activities that can be crammed into those four letters. My worry is that you’ve found yourself in a play-rut. The problem you have with playing with your kids isn’t likely because your children are jerks who make it impossible for you to enjoy playtime. It’s far more likely that you’ve taken the diversity of play for granted and haven’t found the right type of play to enjoy with your children. Also (and I’m saying this cautiously) you don’t really need to play with your children for play to be effective.

My caution on that last point is simply due to the fact that you’re right, I would prefer you to take the opportunity to play and bond with your kids. But at the same time, I don’t want you to do that when it becomes a roadblock to the beneficial types of play that your children need. Honestly, if your kids can play without you, then you should let them play. If your presence is poisoning their imagination land, then you should absolutely hop in the next rocket and take your leave.

Sometimes your job as a parent is not about being in your kid’s face. Sometimes you just need to provide the right environment for the activity and GTFO. What is the right environment? It’s any place where your child is free to explore safely and includes resources for them to use during play.

In my house, that space is our family room. In that room, my boys have a box of costumes, containers of cars and action figures, building toys, puzzles, books, and random mess-light craft supplies like paper, pom-poms, pipe cleaners, paper, crayons, felt tape, and kid-safe scissors. We don’t care too much about them making a mess in the room and they know that they have free reign of the space until clean-up time.

That room also features our TV and videogames system. And while you’d think that all the other crapola would be neglected for the bright promise of TV and game controllers, you’d be wrong. Left to their own devices I often find my kids ignoring what’s on the TV to collaborate in costumed role play. And, when I insist the TV be turned off, they usually have no problem in pulling out the stuff they want to play with and going to town. Many times that means pulling all the cushions off the family room sectional to make a fort. Other times it means scattering papers all over as they make up games or work on writing comics or books.

All of these activities are play activities and they occur whether or not I’m involved in them. My kids are a bit older than yours (in first and third grade) but the independent play has long been a part of their life. It just took my wife and I trusting that they could figure stuff out, intervening in conflict resolution when necessary, and joining in when we had the energy and inclination to play along.

Granted, letting kids play independently isn’t the easiest thing. We’ve had to make our peace with the inevitable chaos left at the end of a play session. Personally, I hate it when the kids remove the couch cushions. From my adult perspective, it looks trashy and wildly uncomfortable. But for my boys, that pile of couch cushions is an animal nest or a hideout from bad guys. It’s far more valuable for them to build their world than for me to have a normal looking and functional couch. So, it’s incumbent on me to take a breath and be cool.

This is all to say, I think you need to take a step back — both figuratively and literally. In the figurative sense, I’d like you to step back and examine your idea of play. From your description, it feels needlessly limited. Look at the play that frustrates you and simply do anything other than that with your children. Can you wrestle with them? That’s play. Can you throw a ball with them or have them chase a ball around? That’s play. Can you build a castle out of blocks or do some Lego free-building (sans instructions)? Can you take them into the garage and let them swing a hammer at a piece of wood while you supervise? Can you hand them some magazine to tear up? Pots to bang on? That’s all play, too.

If the things you normally do for play aren’t enjoyable. Don’t do those normal things. Do abnormal things. And if you still find yourself frustrated and despondent about play, then leave their space and let them find their own way. You’re not helping matters by forcing yourself to be there and grumping your way through it. If that doesn’t work, then I suggest you examine your own feelings about your children. Is there something going wit you that makes being around them simply unpleasant? Are there any personal changes you can make that might allow you to find the joy in a shared activity?

I know that this is a scary time for a lot of parents like yourself. The stress of keeping kids occupied during a pandemic is just as acute as keeping them safe and healthy. But I am giving you permission to loosen up a bit. Try to find a balance in allowing your kid’s room to play on their own and following their lead when you join them in play. Get creative.

We’ll get through this. Trust me. It just might take getting a little out of our comfort zone and allowing things to get a little bit weird.