• Wed, Feb 26 - 12:09 pm ET

I’m A Smug Mom Because Teaching My Kids Independent Play Gives Me Plenty Of Me Time

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I remember vividly the first year of my son’s life. I had no idea what to do with him. I didn’t have much experience with children, and while I loved him so very much and proved it by taking many different Instagram pictures of him in various lenses, I wondered what to do with him all day long.

At that time, my husband and I were both working at home, but I was working a little less to spend time with my new baby during the day. I was really at a loss for how to entertain him and myself. Was I supposed to enrich him? Was I supposed to take him to classes? Would he turn out evil and demented if I let him watch Sesame Street already? (Spoiler alert—Sesame Street exposure happened early on, and I haven’t seen any confirmed evilness yet.)

I was this close to googling: What do you do with a baby all day long?

As my son got closer to toddler age, he grew clingy. From all of the blah blah blah that I’ve read about child development online, this was totally normal. But what are you supposed to do about it? Are you supposed to let him hang all over you as you type an email with one hand? Or do you put him in his baby cage and let him cry it out?

Barring cruelty, we went with the baby cage on that one. My older son craves attention, which may be a toddler thing or may be his personality. It took a few good weeks of us teaching and encouraging independent play without lavishing attention on him every single second.

I felt guilty. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I wondered if the “evilness” would shine through if I didn’t show him unconditional love every single second of every single day.

Looking back, the focus on independent play was one of the smartest moves I’ve made as a parent. I don’t pat myself on the back for much, but this one I feel proud of because our house feels so much more balanced after the fact.

Once my second son was born, a little bit of independence just came naturally. We didn’t pick him up the second he cried, we let him play on the floor by himself, and we also put him in his baby cage to self-soothe from time to time. Kids are still kids that crave and deserve attention, but encouraging independence saved my sanity.

(Image: Elena Stepanova/Shutterstock)

You can reach this post's author, Bethany Ramos, on twitter.
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  • rrlo

    What’s a realistic expectation of average independent play time from a toddler? My kid plays for about ten minutes or so by himself before the inevitable “Mommy/Daddy Wanna play with me?” comes out. I have no idea what we should be “aiming” for.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Yeahhh I’d love to hear the answer on that too. Sometimes, he can go for about 30-45 minutes if we are working with lots of checking.

    • rrlo

      I suppose mine can go for longer if destruction is involved. Like ripping unsuspecting tissues to shred or turning over every bin of toys.

      30-45 minutes sounds very impressive! Go Bethany!

    • kbr

      My daughter is 19 months. In the morning I let her choose things to play with in her crib by herself while I get ready for work. She usually does 30-45 min in her room by herself. This morning she picked a pile of books, a bin of Little People blocks, a Mr. Potato Head, and an old wallet stuffed with paint chips. For us, the trick is having a bunch of different stuff (pre-edited, so I know it’s something she can physically handle by herself and also so there’s nothing she can destroy, so no books with paper pages or flaps, no crayons, etc).

      When we are together, she will play without assistance all night. I mean, I’m in the room with her and I help her open containers or get her fresh paper for coloring or play with her if asked but most of the time she is happy to do her own thing. is that not normal? I don’t even know…

    • Bethany Ramos

      I think that sounds wonderful! It was just my tendency to hover at first because I felt like I needed to keep my kids entertained at all times. Also, my personal theory is that the “independent play” helps my son to do better in his crib at night. Sometimes, if he’s not tired yet, we’ll watch him play on the monitor with his foot or a stuffed toy for like 45 minutes. :-)

    • rrlo

      Sounds like a great thing to me! Although she may want playmates as she gets older.
      My son wants to play with us all the time. And these days he is becoming very bossy and dictating where and how we play. It is extremely adorable (“No mommy, we play on the carpet with Spiderman”) and annoying at the same time. He is almost 3 now – I have no recollection of what he was like at 19 months – complete memory loss.
      Although, I was really afraid of Mr. Potatohead when my son was younger because we caught him trying to put pieces into his ear (makes perfect sense when you think about it).

    • http://ichasekids.com/ Litterboxjen

      My kid is a bit past 2 (about 2 yrs, 4 months?), and some evenings/days she’s perfectly happy to play by herself, and other nights it’s all about “mommy do puzzles? mommy play blocks?” And then sometimes it goes from being a question to being a command — “Mommy sit chair, colour! Mommy, sit down, play blocks!”

      Some nights I feel guilty when I just want to sit on the couch and play on my tablet, or read, or do other things, especially when I only have a few hours with her a night. :/

    • http://wtfihaveakid.blogspot.ca/ jendra_berri

      I think it’s normal and healthy. She knows you’ll play if she asks you but doesn’t feel she needs you to be okay all the time. That sounds like an excellent balance.

    • Natasha B

      Totally normal, my kiddos are like that. The 20mo is singing to herself in her crib until she passes out for nap, and the 4yo is building a train track by himself. Blessed peace.

    • SA

      Ooh! I love the wallet with paint chips idea. I think my kid would love that.

    • http://wtfihaveakid.blogspot.ca/ jendra_berri

      My 11-month-old son can do that too. It’s amazing.

    • Véronique Houde

      My daughter (16 months old) spends mostly all day playing independently, but she’ll often come and hand us stuff, or babble/explain whatever it is that she’s doing with said object. Being pregnant, it’s so important for me to be able to have her not feel the need to be with US 24/7, and so I usually keep myself busy (right now renovating the condo – or being on the computer, or cleaning, or watching tv lol). I’ll always turn to her when she wants to give something to me or talk to me, and interact with her, but she’ll just generally move on and continue playing.

      Sometimes she’ll just come and sit next to me or my boyfriend on the couch and play with some random thing (obviously never her toys), but not needing for us to interact with her. I think she just needs a little bit of physical contact – she’s a very textile child and has always needed to be held from birth. I think it’s her way of compromising – mommy and daddy won’t always give me 100% attention, but they’ll let me sit next to them.

      It’s great because, despite our condo being a literal construction area (pulled up floors, boxes everywhere, doors in the process of being stained and varnished, etc), she has never become fussy about it, or been bothered by us having to work on the condo while she’s awake.

    • Shannon

      Great question! My daughter will be 3 in April and aside from a bloody cailliou episode or a game on my phone, only plays independently with her toys for like 10 or 15 minutes. Well, she gets an hour of quiet time in the afternoon (she stopped napping regularly about 20 months BIG SAD FACE) cause I reeeeally need that hour for myself honestly. She does a good job of coloring and playing dress up on her own. So I guess I sorta feel bad encouraging more independent play cause she already has an hour if quiet time. Where does all this shitty guilt come from?? There isn’t anything wrong with her playing on her own, yet I feel sad for her when she does. What the hell..

    • rrlo

      Independent play is supposed to be really great for their development. :) Mine will be 3 in April as well. I wonder if it is an age thing where they want to play with others.

    • Lu

      It is. Around age 3 is when children become less egocentric and realize, “hey, there are other people with wants and ideas.”

    • rrlo

      I wouldn’t go as far as to say “less egocentric” LOL.

    • Lu

      Not my words, that’s the term child psychologists use. Children under 30 months don’t understand the concept of other people or that they may have different views of the world than they do

    • rrlo

      Oh I know… I am just joking.

  • Crusty Socks
    • Bethany Ramos

      Okay this really is my husband!

    • Crusty Socks

      LOL Wot?

    • Bethany Ramos

      No, he has noise canceling headphones to work at home, and it makes me all bitter because I have to listen to the crying, but I would feel so guilty if we both wore headphones all day. Ha!

    • Crusty Socks

      We need to plan out a revenge plot on your husband.

    • Bethany Ramos

      I’m in!

    • Megan Zander

      I’d go to build a bear and get a sound chip and record something annoying but subtle like buzzing, then jam it to play and hide it in the headphones. But that’s bc I’m still bitter than my husband wears earplugs to bed and I’m secretly seeking retribution.

    • Valerie

      You should trade off on who gets to wear them because for this, I would apply the same philosophy I used for shaving while pregnant- what I cannot see I am no longer responsible for maintaining. What you cannot hear, you do not have to address in any way. #mommyfreedom

    • SA

      Ha! My husband bought ear plugs so he can sleep in of the mornings. I haven’t got to wear them yet!

  • Lee

    I miss the baby jail. Isn’t it funny to listen to them playing by themselves? I will be doing dishes and hear the boy yelling things like “Dragon, ahhhh, run!” It always cracks me up.

    • http://wtfihaveakid.blogspot.ca/ jendra_berri

      My son acted like he needed an early nap today so I put him to bed. Turns out he wasn’t sleepy, and I listened to him happily babble to himself for a straight hour. Did he just need personal time? Did he want to practice talking alone? What did he think he was saying to himself? Damned if I know.

    • Lee

      Haha, that’s awesome! I love the babbles. When the boys doesn’t want to nap he will usually sing to himself for an hour or two in bed. If he is happy I just leave him up there.

  • Jessifer

    I hear ya! I’m going through that with my 7-month-old. Sure, I’ll do the whole tickle-pick-a-boo thing and play on the floor with him for a bit, but I just don’t know what to do with him the rest of the day. And let’s be honest, sometimes I just don’t feel like doing more cause I’m damn tired! I’ve been bringing him to baby hour at my local library 2x a week just so someone else can entertain him instead of me. Takes me about 15min just to get him bundled up, another 15min walking there, 30min of playtime, then another 30min of walking/undressing. By then I’ve killed 1.5hrs of my day and baby is ready for lunch then nap. Yay me!

  • SA

    I was the mom that totally left baby on her activity gym, bouncy seat, name it. All preparing for ‘independent’ time. Once she figured out how to crawl, she would just crawl right up my leg demanding my attention. Ugh, I had to ATTACHMENT parent that child. The Ergo was my best friend. Only recently she has taken up with independent play again. Independent play for her usually means climbing up to sit on the top of the back of the toilet, changing table, or dining room table. So no rest for the weary here. Hopefully she is just around the corner from figuring out that toys are more fun than eating diaper rash creme.

    PS – I have definitely googled “What do you do with a baby all day long?” I may even have started a Pintrest board. :)

    • Bethany Ramos

      I need a Pinterest board for that!!

    • SA

      It pretty much wound up a Pintrest Fail for me. But there are some good ideas out there with sensory play and such. My cat liked the activities much better than the kid.

  • sandra richter

    We’ve encouraged our now 8 and 10 year olds to play independently since they were babies (just a little longer in the crib/cage, just a bit more time with the puzzle/blocks, just a bit longer in the car with music and books). I can’t say how great it is to now have two kids who can entertain themselves for a very long time. We live on a farm with buildings and pastures spread out. The kids can be in the house–the rule is no cooking, no fire, no knives which makes them laugh–while we’re checking a fence or a horse or whatever just broke and be fine. I did come back in after 40 minutes or so the other day (stuck plow) to find a pile of duct tape, coffee filters and empty water bottles. Didn’t ask.

  • Toaster

    I am SO HAPPY that my older kid is capable of extended independent play and that the baby is when on his way there. I can say “R, please go play in the living room for a few minutes while I hose your food-encrusted brother off in the shower” and he goes and finds something to do. Sometimes that means he ends up trying to cram Legos into the DVD player but usually he’s pretty good.

  • doodlebug2

    I needed to read this today. How do you get them to start playing independently when they’re 2.5 years old and you’re a first time mom and you’re only just realizing you’ve created a monster by lavishing them with attention every minute of every day since the day they were born? I’m one of those people who really gets a kick out of babies. I actually find them pretty interesting. I don’t remember exactly what I did with my daughter when she was an infant, but I was constantly engaging her, talking to her, etc. I kept the TV off, all that good stuff. But as she entered her toddler years I began to realize that she was either completely incapable or completely resistant to playing by herself. We live in a little apartment in NYC and I’m home with her 3 days a week and man it’s tough! She does. not. leave. me. alone. EVER. I mean literally, she will not entertain myself for more than 2 minutes without demanding my attention. Now when I try to get to her to play alone she wants no part of it, and she eventually starts to cry, which of course makes me feel guilty and then I cave! Help!

    • Bethany Ramos

      You sound like a very loving mom, so don’t feel guilty! I am NOT an expert, so you may want to research more, but we did/do let my toddler cry a little. Like if it’s play time, you can keep telling her it is play time and allow crying for 15 minutes or so as you don’t give her the attention she wants. If you have a small apartment, you may want to give her a book to read in her crib or bed in the afternoon for an hour or so. When my toddler goes crazy with a tantrum, we’ll put him in his crib for quiet time. He has come to really like his crib a lot. Good luck! :)

    • doodlebug2

      Thank you for the great tips!

  • SusannahJoy

    I did google what I’m supposed to do with a baby all day. Be glad you didn’t. Baby center is evil. Apparently 6 month old babies love to collect things, so one of the best things you can do with them is go for a walk and have them point out interesting sticks and rocks (they can already say a few basic words like “stick” and “rock” right?) and then bring them home to have the baby “artfully arrange” them on paper. I’m not even making that up. I think they got “months” and “years” mixed up.