Play With Me, Grow With Me

Every so often, I look at my amazing children and reflect on how thankful I am. I am thankful for what they have become and what they are becoming, for sure; but I am also thankful that they still choose to include me and ask me to be a part of their lives. There was a time when I used to wonder why they sometimes wanted me to play with them, while at other times they chose to exclude me. Some of it is simply their preference, as they grow and gain independence and foster their desire to try things without the engagement of others. At other times, though, when the mood in the house shifts a bit and things become more hectic, it seems almost like they are excluding me because they are angry at me, or disappointed in me somehow. This hasn't happened to me very often in the past few years, but when it does the cause is always the same.

It's me.

In one way or another, for some reason, consciously or subconsciously, I have created an environment in which my kids have chosen to play without me, and without asking me if I'd like to join in. They have decided that, in some way, I am not able to fulfill what they need from their play with me, and it would be better to not even ask.

"Daddy, do you want to . . . ?"

Children ask us to play with them for a very simple reason: because they desperately want to play with us. They want us to see what they are doing; they want to celebrate their accomplishments with us; they want to share some of their fears and concerns so that they do not have to shoulder those burdens alone; they want to check in with us to see if they're on the right track; they want to feel supported; they want to work out questions or curiosities with someone they trust; they want to have fun and laugh and be free with someone they love. I think that they also need to see and know, in a world which often expects so much out of children and in which kids seem to "grow up" faster than ever, that it is okay to be playful and fun, and to let go of your internal editors and inhibitions - even if you are an "adult." In other words, kids need to see you play in order to confirm their hope that play is okay, and fun, and worthwhile.

Our children also have a deep protective instinct. When they first ask us to see what they are doing, or watch a show with them, or play with them, they are asking out of a deep sense of affiliation and with no ulterior motives. If we respond to their requests with passion and interest and immediacy, we stand an excellent chance of continuing to receive these open invitations into their lives. Now sometimes we are doing things that truly require us to concentrate, and preclude us from being able to play at the precise moment we are asked. If we can stop, even for just a few seconds, and talk with them about why we are unavailable, we're likely to continue to receive the invitations.

"Wait a Minute!"

But if we delay, blandly asking them to "wait a minute" while we finish our game on Facebook, or wait until a commercial, or do the dishes, our actions are telling them "You are not a priority to me right now." When we let these opportunities pass us by, we are taking their reasons for wanting to play (noted above), and turning them around 180 degrees:

I don't want to see what you're doing, or celebrate your accomplishments. Your concerns and fears are yours to deal with, because I will not share them with you. I don't care what track you are on, and I have no interest in supporting you. I don't want to have fun and laugh and be free with you. It's not okay to be playful and fun, and to let go of your internal editors and inhibitions - even if you are an "kid." Play is not okay, or fun, or worthwhile.

Are there parents who actually speak those words out loud to their children? I suspect that there are, but that it's fairly uncommon. But are there parents who, through their lack of ability or desire to prioritize play time and engagement with their children, send this message loudly through their inaction and inattention? Of course there are.

When a child "hears", or feels, or senses such a reaction to their request, they feel rejected. Rejection is one of the single worst feelings we humans are capable of, because it leads to self-doubt, and fear of trying new things, and reclusion. These emotions are so powerful that most people will do anything they can do to avoid feeling them, so when a child feels rejected frequently enough they will condition themselves to avoid feeling rejected at all costs. This often means that a child will simply stop asking you to play, stop inviting you into their hearts, because they cannot stand the rejection that comes along with having their needs devalued and deprioritized.

And Then There's The Whole Partner Thing

This doesn't only happen with you and your kids; it happens to partners, sometimes even more frequently and more deeply.

In my relationship with Ginger, she clearly lead the way in almost all of our parenting and family choices: no circumcisions, breastfeeding, cotton diapers, no vaccinations, co-sleeping, home birthing, sling carrying, attachment parenting, unschooling - you name it, it was her idea. I went along with all of it, mostly right away but sometimes tentatively, and eventually came to be a strong believer in and advocate for the choices we have made. I trusted her to lead the way and make good decisions. But I deeply, deeply regret not having been more proactive in researching the wide variety of choices available to parents so I could have been a part of that discovery.

Why? Because rather than be proactive, and fully engaged, and exploratory, I waited for her to invite me into the parenting journey she was on; as if somehow it was her journey and I was just along for the ride. She found it, she set the course, she listened to her heart - and I followed when she asked me to. In other words, I consciously let her drive. Had I resisted her, ignored her, invalidated her feelings or thoughts, or deprioritized and devalued her beliefs, it would have been easy for her to stop asking - because adults and partners don't like being rejected anymore than children do. Ginger knew what was right and what felt right, and she would have done it without me if I had refused her invitation, just like a child would have. I consider myself very lucky that she kept inviting me, and that I kept accepting.

No Invitation Needed

Think about this. Your children may invite you to play with them, and you may say "no." Eventually, they may stop asking. There is no warning, no advance notice, no phone call or ad in the paper or note on the mirror to let you know that they will stop. But one day they will just stop, and you will be lucky to even recognize it when it happens.

Your partner may invite you to grow with them, and you may say "no." Eventually, they may stop asking. There is no warning, no advance notice, no phone call or ad in the paper or note on the mirror to let you know that they will stop. But one day they will just stop, and you will be lucky to even recognize it when it happens.

And then, you are on the outside of your life looking in.

But goodness gracious, why did they even have to invite you into their lives in the first place? Why put your partner and children in the position of having to learn and make choices on their own? Why then put them in a position of having to influence, cajole or coerce you into learning more about what they are interested in? And why put them in the terrible position of having to chose to reject you and exclude you from their growth and passions, just because you have refused their invitations?

You can alter that outcome by not relying on your partner or children to extend the invitation in the first place. You can initiate, you can learn, and grow, and explore, and play more. If it has been a long time since you have connected authentically and your partner or child has been conditioned to stop asking for it, you may not be ale to initiate the invitation right off the bat; instead, make yourself available to them. Turn off your cell phone, throw out the remote, log off Facebook. Grab the toys that your child likes to play with, sit on the floor and play with them. Grab the book that your partner is reading and sit down next to her on the couch with it, highlighting areas you don't understand. Create, in your words and in your actions, an aura of approachability and openness. Invite them back into the relationship they want with your spirit and your heart.


  1. Been loving your writing lately, Jeff! This one hits a chord. Thank you for reminding us.

  2. I needed that whole partning words right now, I am like your wife where I make the choices and hubby follows, sometimes with hesitation but mostly right away. I am still waiting for him to come aboard all the way though! LOL

  3. Thank you for your words -- and their timeliness!

  4. I am in the midst of a big messy nest of conflicting "needs" and your post is just what I needed to remind me of everything. Now I am going to walk my daughter around the block on her wobbly rollerskates that she can't even move an inch in on her own. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.