A common question from parents keeps popping up this week. It goes something like this, “How do I get my child to play by themselves? They won’t let me cook or do anything. It is driving me crazy!“
Alas I don’t have a magic wand to change this overnight, but I do have a couple of suggestions that should help with a bit of time.
1. Fill your child’s emotional bucket
Sometimes when children are nagging us to join them (even when we feel like we have been playing with them all day), they are expressing something important to us. They have a need at that moment for lots of love. We are busy people, kids to look after, food to get on the table, work that doesn’t stop with the phone beeping, Facebook to be checked etc etc. Our kids go along with us on this ride, but sometimes they just want to say, “Stop Mum/Dad. Look at me. Please give me a hug.” Unfortunately it often comes out as a whining noise but I speak toddler language pretty well 😉
Change your routine slightly. For example, you get home from the supermarket and have a big pile of shopping to unload. Instead of tackling the shopping and your toddler comes to moan at you, take 5 minutes to cuddle with your child first. Play with them, sing some silly songs and bounce them up and down on your knee. Fill their emotional bucket. Then you can invite them to help you unpack the shopping or bring something to play with while they watch you.
When my children were older (12 and 10 years), it meant sitting down and having some afternoon tea once we walked in from school before they vanished off to read/do homework/play — and then I could sneak in some cheeky emails and phonecalls. It gave us some time to connect with each other, share stories from our day and refuel. Whenever I did it the other way around and tried to make a quick phonecall or something, the kids snuck off to do their independent thing. But by 6pm, just when I am starting to cook, they ask if I want to play a board game. I feel like screaming “But I’ve been here all afternoon!”.
Take it from me, it is so much less stressful to fill those buckets first.
2. Hug until they wriggle away
Your child comes up to whine at you to play with them. Get down to their level or pick them up and give them an enormous hug. The big difference here is to wait until they pull away from the hug. It may even be longer than you expect. This goes a long way towards Step 1 filling their emotional tank.
3. Empathise – see the world through their eyes
Instead of telling them how you feel “But I have to cook” or “I never get anything done” (toddlers are notoriously uncompassionate listeners), let them know you understand how they feel. “You wish that mummy could play with you right now. How disappointing!” If you say this with genuine emotion, this can sometimes be enough. But if they are still pulling your leg…
4. Invite them to join you
Get those Montessori kids involved in your daily life. A small stepladder in the kitchen means they can climb up to see what is going on. An older child can pass you bowls, set the table with you, or peel the vegetables.
5. Give them a choice
Offer a choice such as, “You can help me cooking, or you can bring one of your cars to play with here in the kitchen”. This kind of choice would be a reasonable choice for a 2 year old. Perhaps you can even offer to help them choose something to bring into the kitchen to play with. It is all about our attitude. If they see resistance, they will nag louder and harder! If you help them instead, are more likely to be cooperative.
6. Give useful feedback when they have played by themselves
Don’t forget the saying, “Catch them being good”. You don’t need to be your child’s cheerleader but you can point out when they were helpful and played by themselves while you prepared the meal. “Thanks for keeping yourself entertained. Now we have a lovely meal ready to eat together.”
7. Build it up gradually
It is difficult for some children to play by themselves. In these cases, it is better to play together and pop to the kitchen for a few minutes, and then come back to your child. You can offer for them to join you or they may cry. Again empathise but do what you have to do – go to the kitchen quickly and come back. Then you can gradually over several weeks increase the time you pop off to the kitchen. I also often brought the vegetables for dinner to the dining table where I could be closer to the children and they could climb up to help.
No magic, but love the Montessori way – be kind and firm. Don’t give up. You are not alone in this one. It is possible.