The ‘I’m Not Playing With My Kids Enough’ Is the Grand Daddy Of Mom Guilt

playing with your kidThe older my daughter gets, the more I feel obligated to entertain her all the time. She’s at that perfect play age – where her imagination runs wild and she still wants her parents to pick an action figure and jump in the game. But after a little reflection and perspective from some of our dear readers, I’ve realized this push constantly engage with our children is causing plenty of moms more guilt than they need. And it’s not doing the kids any favors either.

Yesterday, I admitted that I hate playing in the snow. (It’s blasphemous, I know.) Even worse, I feel super guilty when my daughter wants to drag my out in 20 degree weather to build snowmen and ice forts and I’m not into it. One of our astute commenters, Anne Cordelia, noted “this modern trend where mothers are expected to play, play, play with their children all the time.”

Immediately, I admitted that I really do feel guilty whenever I expect my daughter to play my herself for long periods of time. I associated my guilt with feeling sorry that my little girl doesn’t have a sibling to play with. We’ve been trying to have a second child for years now. The fact that my daughter prays for a brother or sister weighs pretty heavily on my heart.

However, I wasn’t the only one who felt bad for leaving their children to their own devices. Another great commenter, LiteBrite, jumped in with her own perspective.

I too feel guilty when I’m not constantly interacting with my son. For me it’s less to do with wanting siblings for him and more to do with the guilt of me working all day and feeling like when I come home I should be spending time with HIM, even though like you I’ve got things to do.

While talking about this growing guilt we were feeling surrounding play time with our kids, a friend of a friend put in her two cents. For her, the guilt was centered around being a single working mom. She felt like she needed to constantly have fun and exciting evenings planned for her child, so that they weren’t missing out, even though they only had one parent. Her single mom guilt contributed to constant engagement whenever she had time with her child.

Three separate moms, three separate justifications, all the same mom guilt. And it all resulted in us over-compensating, wanting to spend all of our time engaged with our children. We’ve been told over and over again that kids do better when parents play with them, talk with them, expose them to new and exciting activities. We’re spending so much time focusing on those admirable goals, we’re not giving our kids a chance to play by themselves.

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    • chickadee

      It’s an interesting quandary, and it’s not one I had to worry about, really. I was lucky. I was a SAHM until my eldest was 5 and my youngest was 2.5, so I never felt any time-related guilt and was able to play with them and leave them to play alone by turns. When I did go back to work, the girls played with each other and with friends at day care, so I was free to focus on them during my weekends with them and again wasn’t overly burdened with the feeling that I should be making up for the time I wasn’t able to be there. It’s particularly relieving to have the built-in sibling playmate, although my sister (who has a boy and a girl) informed me that it wasn’t as smooth with her two as it was with mine.

      I hope that last bit doesn’t sound insensitive. I know you’re still trying for another child, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that it works for you. And also, don’t worry about the age gap between children. You’ll find, I expect, that whatever the gap is, it is just fine.

      • Anika

        Yeah, the built-in sibling playmate didn’t work out so smoothly for my family. My sister (2 years younger) was a last resort if the neighborhood kids weren’t available and I don’t remember even once playing with my brother (5 years younger). Providing a sibling doesn’t necessarily mean providing a playmate also.

      • chickadee

        I was really lucky that it worked out so well for me — my daughters liked playing imaginative games together, so they’d have Playmobil and Lego people scattered all over the room and I’d hang out by the closed door and listen. It was pretty funny.

        I have a sister who is a year older than I, one who is 3 years younger than I, and a brother who is 6 years younger….my older sister and I played together a lot, but we also lived in a cul-de-sac with a lot of families with young children so that was ideal. I think the difference between my experience and my daughters’ might have something to do with the fact that one is more likely to play with sibling in the play-date-only era as opposed to the one I grew up in. It makes siblings more appealing as friends.

    • LiteBrite

      “As moms, we’re constantly told that there is more we can be doing.”

      I think that’s it really. No matter what we do, there always seems to be someone doing it better.

      I agree that kids grow up feeling more secure when they have parents who are engaged with them. However, I also agree that learning to entertain oneself is a much needed skill, and the sooner a kid learns it the better. It’s also important for the parents to have a child who can entertain themselves because if you’re the one doing it all the time it creates a ton of stress. I’ve found that with my own situation. I get home between 5:30 and 6 p.m. and though I have things to do (laundry for example) I tend to put a lot those things off until after my son goes to bed because my mommy-guilt dictates I need to be engaged with him. However, I spend the rest of the night trying to do 20 million things at once which means I don’t get to sit down until nearly 10 p.m., at which point it’s time for bed and then I’m angry because I haven’t had any real downtime.

      I’m not trying to bitch and moan or turn this into a “woe is me” post because the fact is it’s up to me to find that balance. (I also want to say my husband is absolutely wonderful about giving me time to myself by occupying the boy, so it’s not him either.) So, I think that’s my new year’s resolution: start working to create more of a balance at night.

      • LindsayCross

        You are not being “Woe is me.” I think so many moms relate to this. You don’t get home until 6 and then you have dinner and then it feels like there’s barely any time before bath and bed. So you don’t want to bother with chores or anything. Those are done after your little one goes to bed. But I’m just like you, I need a little down time with a good book or a tv show. And if I’m too tired to take that, I never feel like I got to unwind from my day. But I hate to pay attention to anything else during my daughter’s few hours with me a night.,

    • SusannahJoy

      Ugh, I know this is going to be me. I just have a guilty personality. I always feel like I should be doing more or being more interesting. For me it’s because this is the first time I’m not working. Before it was ok if I was lazy every once in awhile, because hey, I was contributing to the household! I was paying bills and buying groceries! But now I’m not, so I feel like it’s completely my responsibility to do all the chores and keep the house running as smoothly as possible. I hate it when I see my husband doing the dishes or when he comes home from work and asks what’s for dinner and I don’t know. It feels like I’m failing somehow. The baby’s not even born yet, but I’m already having to remind myself that it’ll be ok if sometimes I don’t feel like playing with him or giving him attention or whatever. I think I’ll bookmark this so I can go back and read it later.

    • Blueathena623

      Oh this is me. Before staying home I worked at a school that focused on language development. It was drilled into my head that for the best possible outcome we should speak to children constantly. Narrate everything. Read constantly. Now, I agree with this, and I do try, but there is this major guilt if I’m ever silent for any period of time. I feel like I should be talking, even if its just something like ” we’ll, mommy doesn’t know what to say right now, so let me think of a topic, hmm, still thinking, wow, mommy wishes she could check Facebook in silence for 5 minutes but I guess I’ll read all of the posts out loud . . .”

    • K.

      I think back to my own childhood in which my parents and babysitters (my parents worked) generally NEVER played with me. They were involved–they read to me and cheered me on at soccer games and we ate dinner together–but play with me? Nah. They liked their TV time and Sunday morning crosswords much more than Barbie.

      …And back when I was a child, I couldn’t. have. cared. less. It’s like when my friends talk about how guilty they feel about dropping their kids off at daycare–but I remember being fairly young in daycare (maybe 3) and did I spend 1 second thinking about what my parents were doing or their absence while in daycare? Nope.

      As a parent now, I understand the mommy guilt, but I quickly remind myself of how I felt as a child AND the fact that children don’t need–and shouldn’t learn to need–parental validation for every single thing they do. Part of playing by oneself is to learn independence, self-reliance, and social skills but more importantly, to ENJOY time alone. It’s probably going to cause the child more stress and anxiety to expect constant attention than it is to establish appreciation for privacy and freedom.

    • Daisy

      Enhh, when I was a kid, it was nice when Mommy or Daddy wanted to play with us, but mostly they sucked at it. They didn’t know the right way our Barbies talked, they didn’t have the names and ages of all the siblings in our Polly Pocket family memorized, and they didn’t even know all the Sailor Scouts’ powers!

      Maybe it would’ve been different if I didn’t have sisters, but I was a solitary kid and still pretty happy on my own. Mommy and Daddy were good for reading books or watching our dance classes, but playing was for sisters, friends, and baby-sitters.

      So to all the guilty moms out there: it is really great that you want to be a big part of your kid’s life, and you should be, but don’t beat yourself up. Playing alone is a good skill to have too :) And I am sure your kids do appreciate the times when you do get a chance to play with them.

    • Melody

      I feel tremendous guilt that I don’t do enough for my kids and I’m a SAHM AND a homeschooler. I literally spend 24/7 with my kids but every time I send them to their room to play alone while I catch up on Dexter or Real Housewives or even shower I feel like I’m screwing up. Part of it has to do with my eldest daughter. She actually lays the guilt trip on really thick. She is super needy and I feel awful if I’m not playing with her or listening intently to her recounting of her dreams every morning because she’ll actually say “you NEVER play with me” or “are you even listening to me? You don’t even care…” and “I wanted us to spend some FAMILY time together” and it’s only later when I’m thinking back on my day that I realize that I have spent the majority of my day engaging with her and she’s just an over dramatic seven year old.

      My younger kids don’t seem to care as much. They want to play with their siblings whenever possible but when that’s not happening they can usually just play by themselves and do their own thing. I think it has something to do with the fact that my eldest daughter used to be an only child and she still hasn’t really gotten over not being the center of attention.

      Both of my parents worked and my sister and I were in daycare during the week and played by ourselves on the weekends and we weren’t scarred by it. I just need to step back and realize that my kids will be fine – no, better for it, if they can learn to play by themselves. Honestly I long for the days of “children should be seen and not heard” sometimes.

      • trixya

        do not feel bad and, in fact, try to start to break the habit.
        my mother stayed home with me until i was 13 – she was always with me, doing things for me, entertaining me – i wasn’t home-schooled, but when i went to school was the only time that i had away from her (other than my weekend ballet class).
        i’ll tell you something – i turned into the biggest spoiled brat who couldn’t stand on my own two feet without talking to mommy every time something not-so-nice happened to me…i’m 36 now and just started breaking out of that cycle over the last year and a half, when i found out i was pregnant.
        i’m now a mom to a gorgeous baby girl, but i also work full-time from home while raising her. i started to feel bad because i wasn’t always entertaining her, but my mother actually told me to let her be more independent or she’d end up coddled and unable to function independently in difficult situations.
        i’m a smart, talented person with a high-quality education and success when it comes to my work, however, my dependency on my mother and lack of strength are a result, i feel, of being paid too much attention to by my mother and never left to do my own thing.
        it’s probably going to be tough, but they’ll thank you for it later, as will you when you’re not being stressed out with all of the sad and upsetting times that your children will, inevitably go through, and you having to sit by and listen. nobody wants their child to hurt and feel pain, and to hear about it can be awful, so don’t set yourself up for the experience.

    • Rebecca

      My kids are 3+4 (less then a year apart). I’m Stay at home, but I must be a terrible person because I hardly ever play with them. They play together and apart, but almost never with me unless we’re working on a craft or playing a board game. Even then I walk away from it as soon as I feel like they don’t need my help anymore. I grew up with 2 siblings close to my age and I don’t remember my mother playing with us either and we all turned out well. I enjoy my kids, but I think it’s much more fun to listen to their crazy conversations and see the art projects they come up with on their own. My nephew was an only child though, and when my mom used to watch him as a preschooler she said she was exhausted by the end of the day because he needed to be entertained all day long.