Q: How can I encourage my 4-year-old to play more independently? All he wants to do is reenact imaginary stories (mostly the same few), and it requires my spouse and I to play specific roles and say specific things. He sees toys only as props for these games. He is in school all day, so I do want to play with him in the evenings, as it’s our only time. But it’s exhausting and, frankly, boring. He is an only child, so he has no sibling to play with.
A: I have to confess that I laughed when I read this because I vividly remember playing “very sick patient” while my eldest daughter was “the doctor.” She took my temperature, gave me Band-Aids, checked my eyes and put washcloths on my forehead. I remember thinking: “I will never leave this couch. I am going to die of boredom here. I will be a patient forever.”
Of course, I eventually left the couch. My daughter grew up, and I will be sentimental: I would give anything to lie on the couch and spend another easy afternoon with her.
That does not mean that you aren’t genuinely tired of being the entertainment for your child every night. You are tired, and, after working all day, it is hard to find the energy for all this scripted play. So, let’s try to accomplish two goals: One, let’s discuss why it is developmentally normal for your son to orchestrate play this way, and two, let’s come up with ways to lessen your frustration.
Four-year-olds are amazing creatures. Finally gaining some control over their bodies, most 4-year-olds are old enough to (sometimes) verbalize many of their frustrations, needs and desires, as well as their big imaginations. And 4-year-olds have huge imaginations! Think of the things that 4-year-olds believe in: Santa, a bunny who delivers candy, the tooth fairy — and that’s just the beginning. If you take 4-year-olds to a magic show, they are fully committed and believe every trick. And because most 4-year-olds are still pretty black and white in their thinking, that critiquing part of the mind is not getting in the way. If you tell 4-year-olds you saw a mermaid, their eyes will widen as they ask: “Where? Did she talk to you?”
This magical thinking has an important developmental role in your son’s life. In fact, the primary goals of preschoolers are to get rest (emotional and physical), have tears (adapting to what they cannot change) and play (practicing for the realities of life). While your son is setting up scenarios with scripts and using toys as props, he is practicing life without consequences. Isn’t that amazing? In play, your son can experiment with any scenario he imagines, and if something goes wrong, he has the power to change the game, abandon it or create a whole new scenario. This is how the brain grows and learns, not from adult-prescribed play or outcome-based games. Every great teacher knows that the best preschool toys are those that can be used toward many ends, not just one purpose. All of this is to say: Don’t worry about this type of play. It’s developmentally normal. Don’t try to change it.
What I will focus on is your frustration. There are two issues at play. First, it is okay for you to be bored. It is normal to tire of this activity and its repetitive nature. As an adult, you have a mature brain, ever whirling and taking you out of the present. A mature brain, though wonderful in its ability to make decisions and think about the future, has trouble staying focused on one thing at a time. And your son? He is purely in the moment. There’s no dinner to worry about or work emails to check or laundry to turn over. He has his scenario and is utterly focused on it. To expect him to be considerate of your feelings is unreasonable, and to expect yourself to be utterly focused on this type of play is also shortsighted. But it is within your power to place yourself in the moment and fully enjoy it, rather than count the minutes and fuel your resentment. You can decide (truly, you can) to give yourself over to playing. And while you may never prefer this type of play, you can delight in your son’s joy, creativity and imagination. And that is worth its weight in gold.
But it is perfectly okay to place boundaries around this evening routine. Although it is not your son’s job to understand your needs and take care of you, it is also not your role to stay at his beck and call as soon as you pick him up from school. Please understand that his neediness will peak after school, so we need to dance with it. But if your son controls too much of the nightly routine, you run the risk of parental burnout. Although you need to deeply connect with him, this connection does not require spending hours every night mired in a three-act drama written by your 4-year-old.
The problem isn’t the scenarios and the scripts — it’s whether your son is running the show. Is he always in the driver’s seat? If you find that you’re always the recipient of his ideas, the result can be a subtle but palpable shift in power. Is it a crisis to allow your son to lead the play? No. But let’s do it in a way that puts you back in charge.
1. Time the play with enthusiasm and joy. Say something like “I cannot wait to play ‘selling cheeseburgers’ with you. I love being the chef, and I cannot wait to make the cheeseburgers and fries and milkshakes. I want to make chocolate milkshakes! Today, I am setting a timer for 15 minutes, and when the timer goes off, we will stop playing and begin making dinner.” Stay crystal clear about what is happening.
2. Give your son something else to do when the timer goes off. “I can play with you now, but after the timer goes off, I want you to keep playing right here in the kitchen while we cook.” Give strong direction and stay nearby, but . . .
3. Get ready for some serious tears. Even though you are being reasonable and fair and kind, remember: Four-year-olds are emotional creatures, and your son will not like these boundaries, especially after leading the evening routine for so long. If he pushes against the boundaries, begs, throws a fit and screams, it is not misbehavior. We want him to experience the frustration of not getting what he wants, and we want him to cry about it. Yes, cry. Not getting what you want is tough when you’re little, but it happens, and we can kindly get your son ready for this reality.
4. No matter the tantrum or shenanigans, be sure to tuck him in at night and say something like “I loved playing with you tonight. I think next time I will make a double burger!” See whether you can get a twinkle in his eye and a smile. What you are doing is focusing on the next time you’ll play together and how much you love it.
Stay flexible, stay in the driver’s seat, and try to remember that these years and this time will end. I say this not to guilt you; it is simply a matter of fact. Good luck.