I Stopped Playing With My Kid -- And We're Both Better Off Now

child playing

The attachment parenting equation feels perfectly logical when you first start out: Lavish hands-on attention on your child in infancy, and when they get older, they'll play independently with confidence and joy. And you'll be able to enjoy having an entire complete thought and maybe even floss your teeth without interruption. So it's a win-win! Except when it doesn't work this way for you at all.


This "independent play" stage is supposed to start when your child is a toddler. Here's how Dr. Sears puts it:

Helping raise an independent toddler is all about helping the child break away from the mother in order to learn about their environment and about themselves; the mother needs to let her child go and learn how to maintain their connection over a longer distance. As with so many aspects of discipline, it’s a question of balance ...

You know, balance? As in, that unstable feeling you get when you're trying to juggle knives while standing on top of a beach ball? That balance. You're teetering between these two psyche-destroying extremes.

One way carries the risk of hindering a baby’s development, and the other allows the baby to hurt themselves or others or damage property.

But don't stress out because we're just talking about kids playing, heheh. Not a big deal or anything.

More from The Stir: How to Raise Independent Kids

Anyway, Dr. Sears offers some helpful tips, like for example: "Best odds for a baby developing a healthy sense of self is for the baby to separate from the mother and not the mother from the baby." This makes total sense if you have a toddler who voluntary separates from you EVER IN HIS ENTIRE LIFE. I did not, at least at the toddler stage. Definitely now that he's 10 years old, sure. But not at 18 months, not at 2 years old, not even at 3.

I felt guilty pulling away from my son when he wanted me to play with him, which was pretty much every waking minute of his life. I needed to do things, like have a conversation with another grownup. He wanted me to make the blocks talk.

And honestly, I loved spending time with my son. I was smitten with him. He was this warm little source of constant love and delight. I felt our hearts were tethered together with glowing filaments of gold. Pushing the independent play agenda felt wrong for him. But the imperative nagged at me.

Had I somehow done attachment parenting wrong? Why wasn't this magical independence happening ... on its own, like it was supposed to?

Because! I can tell myself now. Parenting is an art, with a little science thrown in. And Dr. Sears is not the boss of me. The truth is my son needed some nudging. And I needed to be strong and trust that he would be okay if I insisted, with lots of smiles and hugs and kisses, that he spend some time making the blocks talk himself.

He didn't like it at first, but he adjusted. I learned to worry less and enjoy a little more time to myself to remember that I'm a whole person, not just someone's mommy. And then, the real magic would happen: I would hear him laughing to himself in the other room. Is there a lovelier sound on Earth?

Learning how to maintain that strong emotional connection with your child while encouraging their independence can be incredibly difficult. But I think what I'm figuring out is that there's no one way to get it right. There's the way you do it. And that's just fine.

How did you learn to encourage independent play in your kids?


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