I’ve been seeing a lot of blog posts about the level of parental engagement popping up on my Facebook news feed lately. It seems as though they generally migrate towards one of two mindsets:
- The Shame-on-Me-for-Using-My-Cell-Phone-at-the-Playground – These types of posts usually feature a very self-reflective parent who has realized that they have spent so much time on their cell phone at the playground that they’ve looked up and realized their kid is now 19 years old and too big for the swing. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. But because their head has been down for so long they have failed to notice that their child has grown and are just now realizing that they can never get those moments back. Now they are vowing to never use the phone again while at the playground with their kids.
- The I-Ignore-My-Kids-on-Purpose-So-They-Can-Learn-to-Live-Without-Me – These blog posts are usually the complete opposite of mindest #1. These parents allow their kids to explore the playground without feeling any need or guilt about not watching their kids, mainly because they see it as a break time for themselves. Kid falls down? He doesn’t need me to kiss his boo-boo. Someone takes her toy? She needs to learn to stick up for herself without me intervening. I’m sure these parents are actually watching their kids, but the impression is that playground time is not supposed to be time with mommy or daddy, but time for mommy or daddy.
I’ve read multiple blog posts on this subject, and the end result always seems to be the same: think about what impression you are leaving on your kids when you take them to the playground. Mindset #1 tells you that you need to make sure your kids feel important. Mindset #2 tells you that your kids need to learn that you need some you-time.
Now, before I’m seen as too judgmental let me be perfectly clear – I easily fall into both of these categories, although I think I usually find myself in the second. I’m actually writing this post at my backyard table while the girls play together. There are clearly benefits – and detriments – to following either of these mindsets exclusively. I know I don’t want my girls thinking I’m always going to want to go down the slide with them, and I certainly don’t want them thinking that my phone is more important than they are. So I try to find a happy mix of the two. I like to think of myself as part of the Pretend-to-Ignore-My-Kids-Until-They-are-Asking-Me-to-Interact-with-Them-and-Then-Stop-What-I’m-Doing-and-Play mindset.
Here’s what that looks like. As I said, I am currently sitting at the table in my backyard writing this post on my laptop. My girls are playing at their sand table together. They are fine, I am fine. Everyone is happy. But at some point they realize I’m not paying attention to them, and they start bringing me sandy “meals.” They set the table, ask me to choose a meal from the menu, “cook” it, and bring it over to me. That’s when I stop typing and play along. I eat all my food and demand that they clean the table or I will never eat at their restaurant again. As they clean, I type some more. Then we do it all over again. They love it, and I still get to sit and type. Sometimes they want me to do something more engaging, in which case I stop and go play, because like the parents in mindset #1, I know they won’t want me to play with them forever.
It’s a little different at playgrounds. Whenever I take out both girls I do intentionally step back and let them have fun without me. And yes, that means that sometimes I play on my phone. But my eyes and ears are always on my girls. If I hear, “Look, Mommy,” then I look. If they want me to push them on the swing, I go push. But otherwise, they are on their own. I won’t always be there to fight their battles or to come up with fun games to play, so they need to learn that they can develop some of those skills on their own. Yesterday Emily made a new friend on the playground, something very hard for my shy girl to do and something she may never have done if I had been playing with her.
That chameleon on the playground? It’s me. I analyze our situation, take their current needs into account, and become the mom they need me to be, whether it’s the quiet adult figure pretending not to watch them so they won’t be embarrassed (although I’m secretly snapping photos), the fun mom who’s ready to play kickball, the mom who stops playing kickball so they can interact with other kids, even the grumpy restaurant patron. I’m willing to change my colors so that my girls can grow independently yet still feel safe and important. I’m not going to put myself in a box or live by absolutes – at least, not when I’m on the playground.