Do you feel guilty when you don’t want to play with your kid? I do.
Do you give in and play with them anyway, all the while checking your phone and wondering exactly how long you have to pretend to be a dinosaur? Or do you say “no” to play time and endure the inevitable whining, coupled with mom-guilt that ensues?
Neither of these options is particularly tempting.
So what’s a mom, with a fully developed intellect and adult interests and subsequent lack of interest in playing with toys for 10 to 12 hours a day, to do?
Here are six phrases to try next time your kid wants to play and you need a break.
1. “I will be cleaning the kitchen. You’re welcome to join me.”
This is my personal favorite and one I use daily. The next time you need to get something done and your child is clinging to you, offer an invitation instead of a dismissal.
Try asking your child to join you instead of saying, “go play.” The beauty of this phrase is that it gives your child a choice—they can either be with you and help with what you are doing, or they can go play independently.
Often my toddler will join me for a while and then drift off to play on his own.
2. “I’m not available to play dinosaurs right now. Would you like to read with me?”
While sometimes we simply need to get something done, other times we just honestly do not want to play whatever our child is asking us to. And that is okay.
There are only so many hours in the day that you can reasonably be expected to play dinosaurs or princesses. If you are available to spend time with your child, but find yourself cringing at the idea of one more game of superheroes, offer an alternate activity.
It’s important for children to get the chance to choose the activity sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be all of the time. Offer one or two activities that you would genuinely enjoy doing with your child and give them the choice of whether to join you.
3. “I’m going to read for 20 minutes and then I will be able to play Legos with you.”
Let your child see your interests too. You don’t have to cram your own life and hobbies into nap time and after bed. It’s okay, and even valuable, to let them see that you are a whole person with your interests.
Tell them that you want to read or garden or workout for 20 minutes. Invite them to sit nearby, or to play on their own. It helps to start with a very manageable amount of time, like 15 or 20 minutes, and stretch it as your child’s ability to play on their own grows.
Your child may sit and whine for the entire 20 minutes. While this can be annoying, it is best not to respond in anger. Try to acknowledge their feelings, but don’t give in to their demands. You might say, “I see that you’re having a hard time waiting for my attention. Reading is important to me. I’m going to read for 15 more minutes, and then I would love to play with you.”
If you do this consistently, your child will get used to the idea that you have needs and interests too.
4. “I don’t want to play right now, but I would love to sit and watch you.”
Be honest with your child. It’s okay if you want to be with them, but don’t feel like actively playing. This can be an excellent way to observe how your child plays when left to their own devices. It is also a way for them to share their favorite games with you, without you feeling forced to play something you don’t enjoy. Children can tell when we’re not having fun, even if we try to fake it.
5. “I would love to play for a few minutes. Then I will need to fold the laundry.”
Sometimes children need help getting started. It often works well to play with them for 10 or 15 minutes and then back away to do something else nearby. This allows your child to play independently while also saving your sanity.
6. “Sure, I’ll play! You choose the game today, and I’ll choose tomorrow.”
While we naturally do not share all of our young children’s interests, it is important for children to get to choose what we do together some of the time. Create a system where your child chooses sometimes, and you choose other times. Once your child is confident that they will get to decide what you play together sometimes, they will likely let go of the need to always demand that you play certain games.
The beauty of learning to say “no” to your child’s requests to play is that you will enjoy the time you do spend playing together. No one has fun when they feel like they’re being forced to do something, even if it’s by a 4-year-old.
And the thing is, they can tell. Children know when we want to be there and when we’re just phoning it in—we’re not fooling anyone.
When I force myself to play, I imagine my toddler feels sort of how I feel when I drag my husband to the farmers market. Yes, we’re doing what I wanted to do, but I can tell he’s not into it and that kind of takes all the fun out of the experience.
Once you feel the freedom to decide whether or not you want to play, you can choose the times when you do feel like being silly, playing pretend or merely dropping everything to build the tallest tower ever in the whole full world.
And your child? They will know the difference. Their little heart will be so full of playing with you when you want to be there. That’s what will stick with them, not all of the times you said no.