Can parents play too much with their preschooler?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 21, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara,

An imaginative play question. Our daughter will be 3 in September and I'm wondering whether there's such a thing as us (as parents) playing too much with her?

She is good about playing alone by herself for stints of about 30-45 minutes, but on the whole, she prefers playing with one us ("school", "kitchen" etc.) for hours on end if we let her. She's in daycare 4 days a week, so this largely takes place Fri-Sun, and we don't allow for more than 30 minutes of TV a day (she's not interested anyway), so she is in full play mode from sunrise to sunset.

On the one hand, we love playing with her and want to keep her engaged in what is becoming some fabulous and fun imaginative play, especially where we are not home with her 4 days of the week. On the other hand, three hours can go by on a Saturday morning and none of us has even showered yet because we're too busy changing dolls and feeding them (she has generally preferred playing with one parent at a time). What kind of balance do you recommend at this age? She tends to get upset when we leave the play time to do something else, even if we do hang out nearby and "feed the meter" so to speak.

On a related note, we are still on the fence about whether she will be an only child--would there be other considerations to take into account (now or later) if it seems like she might end up being an only, particularly where she is still a few years away from us being able to just let her run around with the neighborhood kids without us around? We want to foster both independence and sharing skills. Thank you!

From: Sleepymama, South Shore, MA

Dear Sleepymama,

As we discussed here a few months ago, imaginative play is the best kind of play there is for young children and when you engage in the play with them (see the caveats in the previous post), you give your child a gift.

But yes, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, even when it comes to playing with your preschooler. In an email exchange last week, here's what David Elkind, author of "the power of play," wrote me:

"...[your daughter] may, unwittingly, be using the play time to keep you close, which is understandable. But it might give her the idea that she can control the situation and that she is entitled. Neither attitude is healthy. Rather than all the time playing with her, I would, for a good share of the time, have her help you do whatever she is able to do in the way of household chores. This is just as valuable as play because it gives her a sense of being needed and belonging."

As far as whether she'll be an "only" or not, my advice is not to overly anticipate. Doing the best by any child as she/he moves into a new stage is the most any of us can ask of ourselves as parents. But I will tell you this: Having a second child so the first won't be a "lonely only" is a bad reason to have a second child. My son has no siblings. From an early age, he loved pretend play (and so did we, much as you describe), had a long attention span, and was able to entertain himself for hours on end. Even as he got older and became very social, those traits never left him. Which came first? Does he enjoy his own company because that's the way he is, or is enjoying his own company a learned behavior because he had no built-in playmates?

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4 comments so far...
  1. Oh, for the love of all things holy....an almost-three-year-old is old enough to hear "I need to go take a shower/make breakfast/whatever now. I will play with you afterwards" and cope with it. Just make sure that you follow through. And definitely invite her to 'help' where appropriate.

    And Barbara, it sounds like you are suggesting that children with siblings don't keep their ability/desire to play imaginatively by themselves. Both of my kids will play independently for hours in their rooms, but they also both love playing together. If wanting one's child to have a sibling is part of the motivation for having another child, what's wrong with that? You say it's an awful idea, but you don't elaborate.

    Posted by akmom June 21, 10 06:31 AM
  1. As always, THANK YOU!

    Posted by Sleepymama June 21, 10 10:02 AM
  1. I do understand sleepymama's concern but I have to side with akmom on all points on this one. As parents we are the ones who sometimes get carried away or confused about who's in charge. In our home we catch ourselves asking the kids (3.5 & 2.5) if they want to go potty or which car they want to take. Then we realize just how silly that is, they are kids they don't need nor do they have the ability to make most of these decisions.

    Posted by pstevens June 22, 10 02:21 PM
  1. akmon, becuase if you are having a second child only solely for the reason of playmate and not becuase you want a second you are doing yourself a great disservice.

    sleepymama get to know some other parents at the daycare so you can have playdates outside of daycare.

    there are some great books out there about only children as well as websites.

    Posted by albertamel June 27, 10 09:15 PM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. Oh, for the love of all things holy....an almost-three-year-old is old enough to hear "I need to go take a shower/make breakfast/whatever now. I will play with you afterwards" and cope with it. Just make sure that you follow through. And definitely invite her to 'help' where appropriate.

    And Barbara, it sounds like you are suggesting that children with siblings don't keep their ability/desire to play imaginatively by themselves. Both of my kids will play independently for hours in their rooms, but they also both love playing together. If wanting one's child to have a sibling is part of the motivation for having another child, what's wrong with that? You say it's an awful idea, but you don't elaborate.

    Posted by akmom June 21, 10 06:31 AM
  1. As always, THANK YOU!

    Posted by Sleepymama June 21, 10 10:02 AM
  1. I do understand sleepymama's concern but I have to side with akmom on all points on this one. As parents we are the ones who sometimes get carried away or confused about who's in charge. In our home we catch ourselves asking the kids (3.5 & 2.5) if they want to go potty or which car they want to take. Then we realize just how silly that is, they are kids they don't need nor do they have the ability to make most of these decisions.

    Posted by pstevens June 22, 10 02:21 PM
  1. akmon, becuase if you are having a second child only solely for the reason of playmate and not becuase you want a second you are doing yourself a great disservice.

    sleepymama get to know some other parents at the daycare so you can have playdates outside of daycare.

    there are some great books out there about only children as well as websites.

    Posted by albertamel June 27, 10 09:15 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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