My husband was due home within the hour. On top of cleaning the house, making a celebration dinner, and baking a cake for his last day on the job and the acceptance of a new career path, my 14-year-old son wanted to create a balloon cascade for him when he came through the door that night. My gut response? “Great idea son, have at it!”
My real response? “Give me five minutes to put this cake in the oven, and I will start blowing up the balloons.”
Everything in me cringed while I was trying to maneuver 25 colored balloons into a reconstructed black plastic trash bag hanging from the walls and ceiling by thumbtacks.
But my son was in heaven.
The effort and smiles that went into our struggling together to make his balloon-idea a reality was evident in his joy throughout the process.
He is fourteen years old now, and this was his form of play. He learned many years ago that it was okay to ask me to join in—but it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when he would have only asked his father to play and left me to do the laundry, dishes, and all that other responsible stuff.
I am not a playful kind of person. I am very serious, and I take everything in life very seriously. My idea of playing is getting through my task list at the end of the day. I love deep conversations and reading and serving in my community. For me, that is fun. I do not like to play. I am not called in any way to serve in the nursery at church. And when my son was young, I had no connection to my child’s need for play. In that area of parenting, I failed miserably.
Then, when he started to get older, I started noticing that my son was passing me by for the “fun stuff” with other people. At home, he went to dad for everything that brought a smile to his face. I had become the very efficient teacher, mom, taxi-driver, team mom, and cook, but nothing about me was fun for him. I could have fun, but I had never taken the time to really play with him. It is important to note that I was not neglectful; we attended every homeschool field trip that was offered. But when we’d arrive at each event, I sent him off to play with friends while I talked to the other mommies.
Over time, though, I realized that by closing that door I was missing out on parts of my child that he was only comfortable showing to those who would let loose and play with him.
I had to make a drastic change to my mindset. So I decided that against all odds, I’d learn how to play. And over time I did. I still do not like it. To be honest, I feel awkward at times. But the fruit found in the process was worth the discomfort, and I have made great strides in my relationship with our boy.
I had become the very efficient teacher, mom, taxi-driver, team mom, and cook, but nothing about me was fun for him. I could have fun, but I had never taken the time to really play with him. It is important to note that I was not neglectful; we attended every homeschool field trip that was offered. But when we’d arrive at each event, I sent him off to play with friends while I talked to the other mommies.
I don’t need to convince you of the importance of play. You can Google this topic and find thousands of articles on the wellness, development, and psychological impact of play for kids.
What I want to bring to light is the obedience factor that our walk, as Christian parents, takes when we allow “the little children to come . . . and forbid them not.” Jesus was very clear that children were not to be pushed aside or ignored. In fact, He uses them as an example of who is going to fully experience the Kingdom of Heaven. I firmly believe there is a deeper message there for us as parents.
When I was busy pushing my son off to play with other kids or for my husband to “keep him busy,” it was usually while I was taking care of more important things. I was keeping the house, the bills, the shopping, and all those many household things in order; I did not have time for such trivial things.
Yet, play is not trivial to children. It is their foundation for experiencing the world, and it is the building blocks of their development. It is crucial that not only do they play, but they see how to play. We are the ones who have the privilege to teach them. When I was busy being more important to myself and the world than I really needed to be, I was missing opportunities to teach my son things such as how to share, how to lead others, how to follow, or how to stop and enjoy life in the middle of a stressful day—all things he would need to learn to be successful in life.
For example, if I wanted to grow him into a leader that respected others, the best way to do that was to let him lead me through play. By listening to his instructions and then playing along with him, I was able to teach what it meant to lead others. I could show him what a loyal follower looks like, and when he was not leading well, how to change and correct things. When I was busy being a serious mom and ruling the world with an iron fist, I missed out on the chance to teach lessons like that.
More importantly, I was missing things like hearing him laughing and seeing the things that brought him joy.
These, and so many more, are the crucial lessons that we learn when we play with our kids. We know that they learn things like spacial reasoning, motor skills, and balance when they play. What we often forget are the deeper blessings and lessons learned when we play with them.
I know that Jesus left us these words because He wanted us to be able to experience things that only time with our children can provide: true freedom, deep joy, and trust building.
When we play with our kids at a young age we are also creating bonds that the enemy will have a hard time getting through when it comes to dealing with tougher issues down the road. Those trust bonds don’t just happen. They must be built through years of showing them that you trust them—enough to be their follower in playtime—and that you value them enough to put down your important stuff just for them.
It’s funny when I look back, I realize that my house always was cleaned and I was less stressed about things when we played. What I remember most are the memories we made as a family. Funny how a little play can make the memories that much sweeter.
Tips for Better Playtime
- Let your kids lead you. Play is quite fun if you relax and let them do the heavy lifting. They don’t need much to have fun, so just get on the ground, or to their level and do whatever they want to do.
- Try dressing up with them. Props are a great tool for make-believe time, and you can just let the imagination run wild with story-lines and fun.
- Create something together. If you don’t know what to do, make a challenge to create something like a castle or a boat, and use whatever you can find. There is nothing more magical than a homemade fort complete with flashlights, hanging paper stars, pillows, and snacks.
- Be yourself. Your child loves you. Don’t try to be super mom or dad. Just be yourself and let the good times roll.