When it comes to play, let child be the boss

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 1, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, How much should we indulge our daughter's directives during play?  She is not quite 2.5 years old. She likes to tell us what to do during play (not all the time), along the lines of "do this daddy" or "mommy you get this doll--feed her."  My guess is this is age-appropriate and her way of asserting control and independence. I would love to know about play at this age through age 3 and what to expect, what to encourage.  Book recommendations would also be appreciated.

As always, thank you!
From: sleepmama, South Shore

Hi SleepyMama,

(I know you had two questions, so I've broken it into two. I hope to get to your other question down the road some time, perhaps in conjunction with a few other sleep questions.)

I can't tell you how much I love your question, not just because it means your daughter isn't spending all of her time in front of a screen, not just because child-directed play is probably  the single best way for parents & children to create a lasting bond, but also because it speaks to your understanding of some basic child development that is lost on so many parents in our age of technology. And it's this: Children learn through good old-fashioned, give-and-take, I'm-the-mommy-you're-the-daddy, let's-pretend kind of play.

My answer: Let her boss you around as much as she wants! Let her create all kinds of imaginary scenarios! Encourage her to use all kinds household props for stand-ins! Ask her questions about what she wants you to do.

Caveat: I'm talking about letting her boss you around while you are playing. There needs to be a clear delineation between when you are playing and when you are not, when you are the parent who sets limits and when you are the  playmate who goes along.

It's true when you are the playmate who goes along, you are not simulating a true play experience for her; when she plays with age-mates, they will not always allow her to be the boss. Don't worry about that. She knows the difference between playing with you and playing with peers. She's still getting valuable lessons from playing with you, especially the opportunity to be in charge of the play. That decision-making is great for boosting self-confidence and imagination. Sure, you can throw some ideas into the pot now and then. But don't over-do; don't feel that you need to push the play in a particular direction or that there need to be "lessons" from it. Another way of thinking about that is this: resist the urge to put yourself into the play in an ego-centric way.

 You asked about book recommendations. In David Elkind's "The Power of Play, how spontaneous, imaginative, activities lead to happier, healthier children," there's a section called, "Lighthearted Parenting." Elkind warns that when parents play with their kids, they can get caught in the "egocentric trap," which means we look at the play from our perspective rather than the child's. When we do that, Elkind argues, we remove some of the value of play.

When it comes to toys In the toddler years, less is more. Even if your child has a ton of toys, keep only a few favorites out and about at a given time. Too many choices are overwhelming. Simple toys are the best ones, including those that have withstood the test of time: balls and blocks, for instance. For a good role model about how and what to play with young children, read this column of mine about what early childhood educator Nancy Carlsson-Paige said about how she played with  her grandsons when they were young. Among the advice: keep battery-operated toys and micro-chip toys to a (bare) minimum. Toys in miniature that enable children to assume various roles are great for this age: the play farm, garage, work bench, fire station, house, school... you get the idea.

Someone once told me that if you could afford only one toy for your children, no matter what their age, manipulatives are the single best buy. That means blocks. Read this to know why.

And you asked about books. Obviously, I like Elkind's Book, as well as Paige's most recent book, "Taking Back Childhood." For a research-oriented look at play, read this in "Pediatrics."   

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
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6 comments so far...
  1. I understand this for toddlers, but when should they grow out of this? I remember dreading playing with some of the older kids that I babysat for because they wanted me to exactly what I said. Example "This is your Barbie. Make her say X. Now make her do Y."

    Posted by bgj February 1, 10 10:18 AM
  1. I would also just make sure that she is using her manners while bossing you around. My son does the same thing - he has a very clear idea of how a game is supposed to be played and what our roles are in that game and I happily go along with him as long as he using his manners.

    Posted by Kelly February 1, 10 11:41 AM
  1. Hmmm. How about when your toddler wants you to "play," but wants to hoarde say.....all of the good matchbox cars and give you the one with the chipped paint and the one with the missing wheel? Or the naked doll with the missing arm and sheared hair while she has the rest of the dolls and all the clothes? What then?

    As much as I get a kick out of my three year old bossing me around during play (it IS funny, because many times the kids are mimicking me), I also like to use those moments to teach about taking turns with different toys, sharing, and being kind. Am I reaching too far? Should I just take my three-wheeled car or handicapped dolly and deal? ;)

    Posted by RH February 1, 10 04:56 PM
  1. Yep, just deal. Feel honored that your kid wants to play with you and go with the flow. If you impose too many rules, lessons and lectures, it stops being play and you stop being fun. You have plenty of other opportunities to get those important messages across. Caveat: If the play is destructive or hurtful, or offends some clear family value (he's swearing, or hitting you), tell him, "You know what? I can't play like this. When you want to play without hitting, let me know," and get up and leave.

    BFM

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page February 1, 10 07:00 PM
  1. Barbara, is it really wrong to say 'wow, you have a lot of cars and I only have one - may I have a few more?' or something like that? I can see how pushing it would make the play not fun, but it seems to me that a little gentle guiding would be a great way to teach a lesson. It seemed to work with my kids, anyway... Also, I don't think it's imperative that you sit there like a lump while the child says 'ok, your doll does this and mine does that'. I think it's more fun for both of you if you ask questions about the scenario - 'where are they going? what will they do there? can they go to the park, too?' - which gets you engaged, and can encourage creativity and imagination in the child. It's especially fun to make silly suggestions, and let the child turn them down (or run with them), or pretend you don't know how to dress the doll or whatever, IMO. It lets the child be the one teaching you.

    Posted by akmom February 2, 10 06:39 AM
  1. AKMom, I don't mean to say parents can only be bumps on the log and never speak/respond/initiate. Let's use a little common sense, please! I never mean for any advice I give to be taken verbatim, but for parents to hold it in their hands, weigh it, play with it, and make it work for them. Asking questions about the scenario, putting in your two cents -- just as you describe -- is absolutely appropriate.

    BFM

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page February 2, 10 03:22 PM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. I understand this for toddlers, but when should they grow out of this? I remember dreading playing with some of the older kids that I babysat for because they wanted me to exactly what I said. Example "This is your Barbie. Make her say X. Now make her do Y."

    Posted by bgj February 1, 10 10:18 AM
  1. I would also just make sure that she is using her manners while bossing you around. My son does the same thing - he has a very clear idea of how a game is supposed to be played and what our roles are in that game and I happily go along with him as long as he using his manners.

    Posted by Kelly February 1, 10 11:41 AM
  1. Hmmm. How about when your toddler wants you to "play," but wants to hoarde say.....all of the good matchbox cars and give you the one with the chipped paint and the one with the missing wheel? Or the naked doll with the missing arm and sheared hair while she has the rest of the dolls and all the clothes? What then?

    As much as I get a kick out of my three year old bossing me around during play (it IS funny, because many times the kids are mimicking me), I also like to use those moments to teach about taking turns with different toys, sharing, and being kind. Am I reaching too far? Should I just take my three-wheeled car or handicapped dolly and deal? ;)

    Posted by RH February 1, 10 04:56 PM
  1. Yep, just deal. Feel honored that your kid wants to play with you and go with the flow. If you impose too many rules, lessons and lectures, it stops being play and you stop being fun. You have plenty of other opportunities to get those important messages across. Caveat: If the play is destructive or hurtful, or offends some clear family value (he's swearing, or hitting you), tell him, "You know what? I can't play like this. When you want to play without hitting, let me know," and get up and leave.

    BFM

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page February 1, 10 07:00 PM
  1. Barbara, is it really wrong to say 'wow, you have a lot of cars and I only have one - may I have a few more?' or something like that? I can see how pushing it would make the play not fun, but it seems to me that a little gentle guiding would be a great way to teach a lesson. It seemed to work with my kids, anyway... Also, I don't think it's imperative that you sit there like a lump while the child says 'ok, your doll does this and mine does that'. I think it's more fun for both of you if you ask questions about the scenario - 'where are they going? what will they do there? can they go to the park, too?' - which gets you engaged, and can encourage creativity and imagination in the child. It's especially fun to make silly suggestions, and let the child turn them down (or run with them), or pretend you don't know how to dress the doll or whatever, IMO. It lets the child be the one teaching you.

    Posted by akmom February 2, 10 06:39 AM
  1. AKMom, I don't mean to say parents can only be bumps on the log and never speak/respond/initiate. Let's use a little common sense, please! I never mean for any advice I give to be taken verbatim, but for parents to hold it in their hands, weigh it, play with it, and make it work for them. Asking questions about the scenario, putting in your two cents -- just as you describe -- is absolutely appropriate.

    BFM

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page February 2, 10 03:22 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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