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Parent-Child Play: When Is It Real and When Is It Not?

By Peter Gray, PhD

If you play with your child because you think you should, it isn’t really play.

Recently, I focused on the value of play among children who differ substantially in age. I presented evidence that even play between teenagers and very young children can be highly enjoyable and beneficial to both parties. So, that raises the question: What about play between adults and children, or, more specifically, between parents and their own children? 

If you Google, “playing with my child,” and especially if you get more specific and Google “I don’t like playing with my child,” you will quickly find dozens of parents—mostly moms—who express guilt because they believe they should play with their child but don’t like to and therefore don’t do it as much as they believe they should. Here is a sample of quotes I just now picked up from the internet: 

  • “I hate playing with my kids. And if you’re wondering what I’m thinking in those torturous moments, here’s what’s usually playing through my mind: What am I supposed to do here exactly? What do they want from me? How can I participate in this bizarre storyline? This doesn’t even make any sense! God, I’m bored. When will it end? How can I make myself useful in a different way without disappointing my child?”
  • “I hate playing with my daughter, and it makes me feel like a bad mom. I just don’t want to play barbies or stuffed animals…I feel so guilty.”
  • “So, I love my kids, I read them bedtime stories (etc.)…But I don’t like to play!… He wants to play hide and seek, cars, etc. etc. and I just don’t want to. My husband doesn’t like it either, but he does it out of guilt.” 
  • “I like doing a lot of things with my kid, but playing isn’t one of them…I’m wondering what kind of damage I’m inflicting on my kid by not wanting to play with him. Any thoughts?”
  • “As crazy as it sounds, I just don’t like the way they play, and I get frustrated. …My daughter loves to play barbies, but she always dictates the story and tells me what my barbie should do and has a meltdown if things don’t go the way she likes…So, I do it her way, but it’s just not fun. It makes me feel like a bad parent because I’m not enjoying my time with her.” 

Quotes such as these raise three questions in my mind, which I address on the following pages.

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