May 12, 2013

Motherlode: Parents can do without family-time 'shoulds'

By KJ DELL'ANTONIA

Dear public relations representative for an unnamed organization,

I would like to write about your proposal that parents should commit to "engage in imaginative play with their children for at least an hour every day."

But I'm pretty sure that what I'd like to write about it isn't what you have in mind.

First off, that way madness lies. An hour-long imaginary tea party, daily? Sixty daily minutes of pretending to be Thomas puffing around the track?

There are parents who thrive on these things, certainly. Then there are parents for whom such a commitment would only lead to their eventually being committed.

Second, children don't need to engage in imaginative play with adults for an hour daily. They need to engage in imaginative play with themselves, and with each other, and not in some prescribed hourly dose. My version of what should happen when we play "family" is far less imaginative than that of my children (which is frankly disturbing). They need their own rich imaginative lives, not mine.

But my real issue with this, a real proposal from a real, well-meaning organization concerned that children spend less time in play now than they once did, is that these campaigns -- all the things parents "should" do with their children -- add up, and what they add up to is a load of guilt. The kind of guilt that leaves parents wondering how on earth they can be both breadwinners and caregivers.

Really, after a full day of work, dinner and possible homework help, and before the bedtime routine, a full hour of "imaginative play" daily?

Yes, I'm a curmudgeon. Yes, a better woman than I might get up early to put in this time, or split time with her partner so that one is doing the imaginative lifting while the other does the dinner prep, or just not take the whole thing so literally and use it as a spur for imaginative prompts. Fine.

The time demand is the least of my problems with this and the dozens of other ways our time with our children is massaged and managed and pushed into strange structures unfamiliar to our parents and grandparents.

Nearly every parent can name half a dozen or more "shoulds" that she should be squeezing in with her children daily: talking about math concepts, cooking healthy nutritious meals while conveying a positive body image, reading aloud, promoting physical activity and I use the female pronoun advisedly, not because women do much of the heavy lifting on child care, but because many mothers, myself included, seem to find themselves more susceptible to these messages than fathers.

All of those "shoulds" are wonderful things, as is the occasional parental engagement in a tea party or a manned Lego space mission. Some weeks they fit naturally into every day. In my family, we cook together nearly all the time; I have many friends who are outside with their children every day regardless of the weather.

We create the families we create in part because of who we are, who our children are, who our partners are and who our friends and neighbors are.

The pressure for idealized perfection, even when it comes in the form of yet another promotional campaign, can eat away at our satisfaction with our haphazard, lopsided, particular and peculiar lives.

Of course, no one is really going to ink in an hour a day of mandatory imaginative play on some family calendar. But the insidious nature of these little prescriptions is cumulative, and I loathe them.

If you're happily logging an hour a day re-enacting moments from "Star Wars" with your children, then grab your light saber and get back to it. Otherwise, embrace whatever it is that you are doing, and give your children memories of the way their parents always found time to grow tomatoes or prowl bookstores. Let them find time for imaginative play under your table at the train show or while crankily trailing after you through model houses.

What we really need to commit to is to spend less time listening to others about how we should spend our time, and more time together doing whatever makes our family just that -- ours.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

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