Are we together too much?

happy child girl with a kite running on meadow in summer

Tips for Creating Space in a Family

“I feel like I am disciplining my children way more often than my mother had to discipline me.” I hear this often. It may be that we, as families, are just together too much. Or, at least together way more than we were with our families growing up.

Aging myself here, I was a child in the 1970s. Summers and weekends we were outside, playing in the neighborhood, and riding bikes to the park at six years old with lots of other neighborhood kids. There were long days when my mom would say, just after breakfast, “go find someone to play with,” which meant, “go knock on neighbors doors until you find something to do.” We’d be out until lunch and then often out again until dinner. When I was inside, my mother was often busy with cleaning house, cooking or grad school. She was rarely playing with me.

I am not saying to put your kids outside for the day after breakfast, and let them fend for themselves at 6 years old. I get it doesn’t work that way anymore. If your kid were out there, they’d be out there alone and likely CPS would take issue. And, it’s good to play with your kids.

I am saying our kids are underfoot, they are indoors and often stuck with siblings for much longer stretches. They have constant supervision until much later ages. This shift means more discipline and more sibling conflicts. It means more pressure to provide structured activities and classes. It means arranging more playdates.

  • Encourage independent play – By three years old, a child should be able to occupy their own time for about 20 minutes. By five years old maybe 45 minutes to an hour. If your child isn’t able to do this, they may need more practice. During the summers in preschool and elementary school, my girls had 30 minutes each day to go to any room in the house to play alone. Some days one was the playroom the other in the living room, other days each others’ bedrooms. It wasn’t that they were in trouble, it was a time for everyone to have a bit of space. For older children, this might be having an independent reading time each day in the summer. Here is a blog post with lots of helpful ideas to encourage independent play.
  • Think downtime daily – Downtime is truly unstructured and relaxed time. This can be when they are busy with independent play. It can be time playing with siblings or time to just look out the window or hang out with the dog. It’s not time on screens and it’s not time directed by you. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) would like children to have at least an hour of downtime a day at three through ten years old.
  • Have more long term projects – To encourage downtime and independent play as children are a little older, it may be helpful to have a few long term projects available. This might be a large jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, model kits, building sets they are allowed to leave out, latch hook rugs or big fuzzy posters to color.
  • Get them outside often – There is so much more space outside. The playground, the park, a walk in the neighborhood, the field behind your house, county parks, the woods. I get you are going to trail along at least for a while. There is so much benefit to spending time outside and in nature. A good parenting book is Last Child in the Woods by Louv.
  • Take them to the playground and plan to sit on a bench for some of the time – Once they are able to manage the playground equipment, it is fine to take stretches to sit on a bench and watch from a distance rather than follow them around the playground. Yes, it’s good to play with them, but it’s also good to give them some space.
  • The backyard – When they are young, this might be sitting out in the backyard with a good book while they play nearby. As they are older and you feel comfortable, this is letting them outside on their own.
  • Plan playdates then strive for less supervision – So this one may backfire. Invite a friend over and you may need to supervise more. The hope is you find a few friends who get along very well with your child for one-on-one playdates and schedule them more often. Here is a blog post all about playdates.
  • Give them a chance to work things out on their own – When children have conflicts with friends at any age, it is good to let them try to work it out. Even toddlers might surprise you with their ability to give a turn or help another child. It’s helpful to keep an eye on things, and if it starts to go south, you can intervene. Under three years old you are likely making the decisions and walking them through ways to solve. As they get older, it’s helpful to gradually do less. This might be helping them brainstorm solutions or giving a few suggestions. The goal is to support them learning to work it out on their own and they can’t do that if you continue to solve things for them. Give them some room.
  • Give siblings a break from each other – This might be the daily play times listed above. You could have each invite a playdate over and then play with their friends on separate levels of the house. It might be having individual outings with each parent regularly. You might have them work on homework in separate rooms.
  • Give privacy when they ask – At some point, most children close the door when they use the bathroom or sleep, and ask that they bathe separate from siblings. The idea is to plan to give them privacy when they ask for it. As long as you feel they are safe and old enough, step out.
  • Their bedroom is their space in the house – This includes letting them pick the paint and the decoration as young as you can tolerate. As they are in middle school or high school, this might be letting them keep their room how they’d like to keep it. You can insist on a deep clean once a month, and in between maybe just close the door.
  • Good to have some boundaries for your own privacy – When they are little, privacy is often unheard of, they follow you in the bathroom and basically sit on top of you on the couch. It is fine to teach them about personal space and request it as needed.
  • Still set smart limits on screen time – I get that handing them a screen, your phone or a tablet is an easy way to buy you some time, but it comes at a cost. If you do this often or for long stretches, their time on screens may skyrocket. Here is a link to four articles that outline the current screen time limits offered by the AAP.
  • Have hobbies and other interests – It’s healthy for everyone in the family to have outside interests. If you’ve lost your time for that, finding it again will give everyone a bit of space.

All About Playdates

Two little girls playing in daycare

Playdates give kids an opportunity to build individual friendships and practice related social skills.

  • Playdates can be brief – An hour is plenty for young children or children who don’t know each other well. Older children that get along well can often handle longer stretches.
  • Balance unstructured and structured time – Unstructured is open play time indoors or outdoors. Structured is set-up activities that may need direction or supervision. It’s good to prepare for both.
  • Have the activities as a backup – When the unstructured play is going really well, I tend to let that take the bulk of a playdate. If kids aren’t getting along or seem bored, the structured activities can be helpful (see list below).
  • Allow your child to put a few things away – Help your child by letting them put away any toys that they would have difficulty sharing.
  • Everything else is to share – Prepare them that all other toys are to be shared. For young children, you may have to manage turn taking.
  • One-on-one or at least four children – Two children for play is plenty. Three is definitely a crowd as one tends to get left out. If more than two, go for four or more which is more of a party than a playdate.
  • Snack can help – Snack provides a short break from play and a chance for kids to just talk. You can also make snack more playful by having a picnic or playing restaurant or letting the kids participate with prep and set up. Check for allergies before the playdate.
  • Okay to play separately – Sometimes kids are happy just to play near each other. One may be content with trains while the other is working on puzzles and that’s okay.
  • Your house, your rules – Whatever you would expect from your children (not jumping on beds), is fine to expect from all.
  • Outings can be fun – Think bowling, the playground, movies or a nature walk.
  • Invite a variety of kids – For my own children, we made the effort to get to know all the other children in their classes. Of course, the majority of playdates were with the friends they choose, but it’s nice to branch out too.
  • Be clear about the parent or sibling staying – It is great for the other parent to stay. It gives you a chance to get to know their family, and their child may be more comfortable. As children get a little older, it is also fine for playdates to be drop offs.  It is also okay to invite siblings to attend, but it’s not necessary. If two or more of your children are hosting playdates at the same time, it may be helpful to give each pair their own space to play.
  • Put pets away – Between allergies, children being scared or being rough with pets, it may be best to put them away.
  • Fine to cut it short – If it isn’t going well or if children are being aggressive, it is fine to end the playdate.

Structured activities – art projects, crafts, cooking, board games, puzzles, building pillow forts, puppet shows, dance parties, water play, Playdoh or coloring

Playdates and Stressed Kids

Dear Dr. Rene,

My son is almost three years old. He is very verbal and cognitive, but seems overwhelmed easily in playgroups. If we are at playgrounds and there are three or more kids nearby, he wants to leave. If an indoor group is loud, or children are misbehaving, he gets extremely upset. He manages better when play is with just one other child, but even that often ends in tears. He hates to leave the house, he says, “let’s just stay home,” even when it’s a place he loves to go. He dislikes other children or adults touching him. He is also an only child and takes after me. While I try not to show it, I don’t like crowds and don’t care for other children being rowdy. Do I continue to put him in these stressful situations?

Sincerely,

A Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

I think there is a best answer in the middle. Yes, continue to leave the house and continue to schedule playdates. Leave the house for more low-key activities, think play at the park rather than busy gym class. Plan one-on-one playdates with kids that tend to play well rather than playdates with several children at the same time. One-on-one actually tends to be better for play skills, and there’s no real downside relative to bigger groups. Managing group play becomes more important as he is a bit older.

When things get to busy or loud, give a lot of empathy and step out for a time. When others misbehave, if he is not directly involved, distract him away when you can. If there’s no distraction, talk him through it and let him see the resolution. If he is directly involved, think empathy and wait for the calm. Talk through on the quiet, calm side.

Pulling too far back means no playdates and you never leave the house. Both are important towards social development, but you want to aim for things that may be successful. Just diving in to big groups means he will struggle through and enjoy social less. Aim for the middle.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

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