Playing With Your Children Can Be More Than Fun and Games
Over the last thirty to forty years, a subtle shift has happened in American homes—parents, particularly fathers, are playing more with their children. "I think it is a good change in that particularly fathers are spending more time with their kids," says Dr. Juli Slattery, family psychologist at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"Play helps build a connectedness between parents and children that can help them enjoy parenting more. As kids grow and strive for independence, a playful spirit within the home can help get the family through various stages and challenges during the teen years," adds Laurie Winslow Sargent, author of The Power of Parent-Child Play. Sargent blogs about the topic from her Ames, Iowa, home at http://www.parentchildplay.com/.
Play can provide parents with unique opportunities to bond with their children and to understand them better in a more relaxed atmosphere. "If all of the interaction [between parent and child] is only teaching, chores, disciplining and correcting, then a parent is really not having a positive interaction," says Slattery. "You're not only encouraging play and imagination for the child, but you're also developing and creating some really strong bonds and memories between parent and child."
By using play in addition to other parenting responsibilities, parents convey to their children they are important. "Playing is one of the ways that a parent can show children that they care about them and that they value spending time with them. When a parent never takes time to play, the child can get the idea that what he is doing isn't very important and that his time is not as valuable as his parent's time," says Rachel Paxton, a freelance writer who lives in Pasco, Wash., and publishes http://www.christian-parent.com/ and http://www.creativehomemaking.com/.
Parents show children play's proper place in the home by helping them to see play's role in the household. "Children need to understand that parents need to do things such as cooking and household chores. Children should be required to help their parents with these tasks and then there is time for everyone to play together," says Paxton.
Playing with your children gives parents glimpses into their children's personalities. "Through play, we get to know our children better as individuals, which impacts all other aspects of the parent-child relationship," says Sargent.
With families having increasingly busy schedules, working in playtime can seem like an impossibility. However, consider developing an attitude of play throughout your day and you can easily inject fun into your family. "Have an attitude of enjoying your kids, laughing with them, having that easygoing, playful spirit with your kids because that's contagious," says Slattery.
Sargent suggests working into daily life what she labels 5-Minute-Funs. These "playful moments … can suffice in small, sporadic bits during the day to keep parents and kids connected. However, it's important to set aside time at least every few days to devote attention entirely to a child and simply hang out with her. That's when some of the most interesting, fun and insightful moments happen: moments that surprise us with sudden insights about our children. This also feeds a child's need to feel close to a parent without distractions," she says.
Of course, playing should not be the only interaction parents have with their children. By balancing play with other parent-child interactions, such as chores and discipline, parents teach "children there is a time for work and a time for play," says Paxton.
"When family members have playful attitudes, it affects many interactions not normally designated as ‘play.' A family dinner can become a symphony with the director using a carrot stick baton when classical music is playing in the background. That bit of silliness might last less than a minute but it strengthens the parent-child bond," says Sargent.
However, parents should take care not to allow play to "interfere with discipline. Parents cross the line when they are not willing to hold children accountable for their actions. There is a time and a place for play, but when a child is acting out there, should be consistent and appropriate consequences," reminds Paxton.
Parents also need to be careful not to teach their child to have an unhealthy dependence on them because of the amount of parent-child playtime. As the children grow older, parents should not become too involved in their children's extra-curricular activities or hobbies.
"For the older kids, you should ask these questions: Am I living vicariously through this child's hobby? Am I letting her experience this with other friends? Am I letting him get bored?" cautions Slattery.
"It is perfectly acceptable to set limits on parent-child playtime," agrees Sargent. "The focus should be kept on enjoying each other's company. But mom or dad need not give up their own position of authority either. Parents can be fun, yet firm. Boundaries can help make play more fun for everyone."
Christians Parents at Play
Sometimes, even Christian parents need to be reminded that it's okay to play with their kids. "As Christian parents, we can have the tendency to become overly serious," says Slattery. "We're adding spiritual things, such as devotions, service and church, onto the chores and homework. These spiritual things are very important, but we can get to the point that we don't see the value in play."
Slattery recommends Christian parents use play to teach their children spiritual and other lessons. "Even when it comes to spiritual things, if we can make those lessons fun, it's that much more powerful," she says.
"Many of our playtimes have led to discussions about faith in Christ," says Sargent of playing with her children. "I truly see children as gifts given us to brighten each and every day for us as parents, not just responsibilities for us to care for. But at the same time, as we show love for our kids through play, we honor them and teach them compassion through play."
For each family, parent-child play will look different, just as the way you play with your child changes as the child grows. "Playing with children is very rewarding for both parent and child. There is no better way to get to know your child," says Paxton. "There are times to play with your children together as a family, and times you should spend playing with your children individually. … Parents [should not] miss out on [this] important opportunity to bond with their children."
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired @ Home: The Christian Mother's Guide to Working From Home. She lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children. Visit her at http://www.sarahhamaker.com/
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