Last night after dinner Caroline told Jay he could play in the family room for a few minutes before bedtime. Jay sat down on the carpet and started building a tower out of blocks. A few minutes later Caroline sat down on the couch beside him with a copy of the New Yorker in her hand. Jay looked at her, and then looked at the magazine, and said, “Why you reading that?”
It was unclear, as it often is when Jay asks a question, whether he meant “why” as in “What is the purpose of reading a magazine?” or “why” as in “Why would you choose to read that magazine instead of playing with me?” Caroline took the latter interpretation. Chagrined, she put the magazine down and sat on the floor beside Jay. Together they built tall towers until bedtime.
Later that night Caroline and I lay in bed talking about the exchange she’d had with Jay about the magazine. It struck me that while I spend many hours everyday with Jay, I very rarely actually play with him. A good portion of our time together is spent transacting family business—cooking dinner, running errands, coaxing him through the stages of his day—and basically all the rest of the time I supervise him: I sit in the passenger seat of our car while he pretends to drive; I watch him dig in the sandbox at the playground.
Both Caroline and I felt bad when we realized just how little we play with Jay. My mind ran to the image of a little boy who wants nothing more in the world than to play cars with his dad, but who’s become so defeated he never even bothers to ask anymore. For a second I had to resist the impulse to go into Jay’s room and wake him up for a compensatory midnight play session.
Caroline made a few observations, consistent with her work as a demographer. She mentioned her friend Whitney, who’d told Caroline that she plays with her son Noah much more than she remembers her mom playing with her. Caroline took this as an indication that the amount of time parents spend playing with their children is partly generational—parents today are likely, on the whole, to be more hands-on than parents thirty years ago.
Caroline also talked about parent-child playtime as a function of social class. She brought up sociologist Annette Lareau, whose theory of “concerted cultivation” I blogged about a couple weeks ago, and who argues that middle class parents are more likely to see themselves as their children’s playmates (and developmental partners) than poor or working class parents.*
I haven’t spent enough time with parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to know if that part of the theory holds. But the idea of middle class parents as playmates is consistent with my experience taking Jay and Wally to playgrounds in Philadelphia and Ann Arbor, where it’s not uncommon to see all the toddlers playing separately with their parents, and none of the toddlers playing together.
I could come up with a philosophical explanation for why I tend to let Jay play by himself, but really I think it comes down to disposition. For whatever reason, I feel a little silly climbing around on a jungle gym after Jay and I’m not good at sustaining enthusiasm for the types of games he likes to play.
After Caroline and I had said goodnight, I kept thinking about the amount of time I play with Jay. Overall, I think I’m comfortable with the way things are between us. If, in the extreme, it’s a choice between the extra enrichment Jay would get from playing with me and Caroline on the one hand and giving him the space to learn how to be by himself on the other, I’d rather give him the space.
But those are just ideas, and while it’s good to have a philosophy as a parent, it’s even more important to pay attention to the facts on the ground. And what I realized before falling asleep is that there are plenty of times when I don’t play with Jay because I’m feeling apathetic or lazy or distracted; when I choose to steal a few inconsequential minutes on the Internet instead of saying hi to him.
So this morning after breakfast, when we had a little time to kill before Caroline headed off to school, I went into the family room to see Jay. He was busy putting an addition on the tower he and Caroline had built the night before. As soon as he saw me he said, “Daddy, sit down,” which I did.
For a moment he didn’t do anything, and then he grabbed the yellow bulldozer that his grandparents had given him as a present the weekend before. He picked it up and started to move the front shovel up and down. “This works like this,” he told me proudly. I was happy to see that he hasn’t given up on me completely.
*This article from the Boston Globe a few years ago provides a good summary of the research into how much time American parents spend playing with their children.
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