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A lot of parents feel an overwhelming responsibility to help their kids reach their fullest potential. This is probably a result of parents’ profound love for their children. However, it can be misplaced and actually hamper kids’ development when parents act more like playmates than parents.
Up until recently, I acted like this. So much of my energy was spent playing with my son in “developmentally appropriate activities” that I didn’t have the energy for the more important parenting tasks that were vital to his healthy social-emotional development.
For instance, at one point I would spend upwards of 3 hours a day playing play dough, kinetic sand, water beads, or toys with him. And, at the time, I never expected him to get dressed on his own, clean up after himself, or even really obey my requests.
As a result, he did pretty well in his cognitive development, but he was very needy and demanding. He needed my attention constantly, and wouldn’t ever do anything I asked.
But after I realized this was doing him more damage than good, I started to require him at times to entertain himself while I took care of what I needed to do.
I remember the first time I did this, and I was absolutely amazed when I looked in his room and he was building a castle with magnet tiles. When he saw me, he happily said, “Mommy, the people are sleeping in the castle!” In response I said, “Oh, you put people in there?” (They were blocks.) “Is that where they live?” This started an interaction between us that was genuinely enjoyable for both of us.
What can you do differently?
Don’t make the same mistakes I did. Remember that you are always a parent first. Take all of the love you have for your child and put it into upholding consistent limits, calmly, but firmly.
You can also utilize the developmentally appropriate and research-based practice Serve and Return. Basically, you want to follow your child’s lead. When they express an interest in playing with you, respond positively and play with them.
But if they’re happily playing by themselves, don’t intrude on their play. Don’t try to control it. Let them lead the way, and they will develop initiative and will know how to function without your constant attention. Kids actually need you to leave them alone sometimes or else it will harm their development in the long run.
In sum, there’s a fine line between parent and playmate. You can find the balance!