It Won't Hurt Your Kids If You Stop Playing With Them

In fact, they'll benefit from the independence, and you'll get a break. Win-win!

mother getting tied up by children

Getty Images/Darrin Klimek

A recent article in The New York Times had me jumping up and down in enthusiastic agreement. Written by Edan Lepucki and titled "Don't Play With Your Kids. Seriously," it makes a case for parents consciously withdrawing from their children's playtime until those children are able to play independently all the time.

There are two main reasons for this. One is that it allows the child time and space to delve into wonderful imaginary worlds that he or she is not able to enter in quite the same way if a parent is present. As Lepucki writes about her own childhood, raised by non-playing parents, "[They] allowed me private worlds of my own creation, and they respected them." 

The second reason is that it gives parents a break. With everything else we do on a daily basis—feeding, cleaning, disciplining, educating, transporting, and more—it's simply too much to be expected to entertain our kids actively, as well. Lepucki describes a sense of exhaustion to which I can relate, particularly after the past year and a half of particularly intensive, COVID-induced family time.

"The constant wrangling and vigilance were so exhausting that my husband and I didn’t have the energy to play the way my son preferred—anything that involved full-body contact or pretend violence. Instead, I said no and stop all day long, and when my scolding seeped into the playing, I felt guilty and frustrated. I was a terrible playmate, a tired mother who did little beyond obstructing."

Adopting a no-play approach changed everything, improving both the relationship with her son and her own mental wellbeing, and it has done the same for me, with my own three children. "Moms don't play," I've been saying for years, much to my kids' annoyance—or, more precisely, "This mom doesn't play." It's just not how I operate.

I have another reason for choosing this approach: It builds greater independence in children. Children play differently when adults are present. They tend to rely on adults to resolve conflicts, whereas when they're on their own, they have no choice but to rise to the occasion and deal with any issues.

Lenore Skenazy, the author of "Free Range Kids" and founder of the Let Grow Foundation, told me in a recent interview that when adults are present, kids act like kids, but when adults leave, kids become the adults. She said, "If there's an adult there, they will take over. So you need adults to step back."

Take this as your excuse to stop playing with your kids. Know that it's perfectly OK to say no, to admit you need a break, and to encourage your children to play without you. Then indulge in what Lepucki and I both enjoy, which is sitting back and observing the clever, imaginative little humans we've created at play. It's a most satisfying feeling.