No, I do not want to play Nazi Germany in a world-conquering board game. My computer-weary eyes can’t bear to squint at teeny plastic ships to determine which is the battleship and which the destroyer. When I counter with an activity I would prefer — playing Kingdomino, doing a puzzle — he would rather read.
This is the daily standoff in our house. My son and I can’t agree, because we have opposite interests. He wants to play drawn-out board games that replicate historical wars, with instruction manuals as long and complex as a PhD thesis. I’m more comfortable sketching crazy stick figures in a Pictionary match. I’d enjoy dressing up in superhero garb and chasing imaginary bad guys around the backyard, but he’d rather shoot real people (namely, me) with Nerf or laser-tag guns. I love to hike; he’s happiest indoors.
From talking to other parents of elementary-school-age kids who would rather gouge out their eyes than play Roblox, Barbies or Risk, I know I’m not alone in resisting playtime. Here’s what the experts suggest we do to connect with our kids in a way that works for us.
Shift your mind-set
The point of play (for parents) isn’t to have fun. “We play with our children to spend quality time with them, but also to understand the world through their eyes,” says Kenneth Ginsburg, director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “This is about connecting on their playing field, and that will pay off dividends.”
In the short term, the strong parental bond formed by play helps to elicit better behavior. In the long term, your involvement in your kids’ interests will keep the lines of communication open as your children reach adolescence.
When you reframe your expectations to understand that play is the parenting version of eating your vegetables, the chore becomes palatable.
“Kids are frustrated that they get the leftovers [of their parents’ energy],” says Kevin B. Hull, a licensed counselor who specializes in play therapy. “Set aside your judgment and expectations, like the need to do dishes. It’s an investment in your child’s emotional well-being.”
You don’t have to say yes whenever your child asks, experts say. “It’s unhealthy for parents to drop everything,” Ginsburg says.
Tell your children you’re excited to play with them, but it will have to be in an hour, after you’ve finished your work. Pick a time when you have more to give, and establish limits, so games don’t go on for hours.
Setting expectations that Nerf wars will commence every Saturday at 2 p.m. or that the dress-up closet will open for a half-hour twice weekly gives kids the security of knowing that family playtime will happen. It also generates added incentive for them to finish their homework or chores, so they’ll get more special time with you.
When I find my attention wandering from resource manipulation and knight purchases, I announce that we have 10 minutes left to play, and I set an alarm. These limits appear to satisfy my son, and I feel relief that an end is in sight.
Connect through words and observation
Does your child speak ad nauseam about Minecraft or Pokémon? Let your kid be the expert lecturer while you listen and ask questions. “Have them explain the game to you, which empowers them with a role reversal in which they are the expert and you the novice,” Hull says. As long as you remember a few key facts to ask relevant questions or mention later, you can let your attention wander with no ill effects.
Similarly, you can spur connection when you’re an active observer of your child’s play, rather than a participant. “Let them tell the story of what they’re doing,” Hull says, whether that’s describing their attack plan while you watch them play “Fortnite” or giving a tour through the city they’ve built with blocks.
Dinner discussions in my house are a litany of details about the latest Minecraft snapshot or Roblox tycoon game acquisitions. “Tell me more about that Nether portal,” I say. My son’s face lights up, and he speaks animatedly for five minutes — a refreshing change from the grunts and eye-rolls I get when I initiate the conversation or ask him about his day.
Take turns choosing the activity
Children need to learn that relationships involve both give and take. If they expect their parents to battle with Beyblades for an hour, they, in turn, will have to join their family at the museum or ballgame.
Lunchtime walks are a battle that my son and I fight. “First, recognize your kid’s feeling of frustration,” says Rachel Bailey, a parenting specialist and speaker who hosts the “Your Parenting Long Game” podcast. “Say, ‘We’re going for a walk, and I totally get that you don’t want to go, because walks are so boring and you have no interest in nature.’ ” Then help them brainstorm ways to make that activity more bearable.
For us, that means my son will bring a book and read while we walk, or he’ll scoot ahead of me if we’re taking the long route.
If you stay respectful of their perspective, Bailey says, they are more likely to indulge you. This goodwill gesture on their part will make you feel less resentful and more ready to join them in their play next time.
Offer an alternative
To find common ground, Bailey recommends using the “dump” strategy. Dump all your ideas of fun activities onto a list, then have your child do the same. Create a Venn diagram of the activities that overlap to find play options acceptable for everyone.
You can also get a little creative, Hull says. If your child wants an all-out Nerf battle and you hate being attacked with foam bullets, set up toys on the deck rail for target practice. Your child gets the fun of a shooting contest, and you can avoid getting hit. Plus, you may discover, like we did, that it’s incredibly satisfying to shoot foam bullets at a trampoline and watch them bounce back at crazy angles.
Redirecting can be great for parents, but Ginsburg urges us to occasionally join our kids in their favorite activities. “Spend some time immersed fully in their world,” he says, “because not all parents are invited to be there.” Getting to know your children on their own terms will not only foster an improved relationship, but it will also allow you to stay engaged with them through adolescence.
Work on yourself
“It doesn’t matter how many parenting tools you have if you don’t work on your own depletion,” Bailey says. At heart, our struggles are not related to our kids; parents are too exhausted to have the energy needed for play. Can you get help with housework or carve out a half-hour of daily alone time, so you’re more invigorated?
Even if it’s not possible to get relief from the daily grind, Bailey says the most important thing is to not feel guilty over your lack of interest in play. Negative talk doesn’t help you. “Instead, plan to do something different you can handle.”
For me, that’s been watching Hotel Transylvania movies with my son, snuggled up under his favorite fuzzy blankets. I’ve also sought out new board games in an attempt to find one we both like. I want to remain a safe harbor for my son, whether that’s during the coronavirus pandemic or the precious late elementary school years, before hormones take over my sweet boy. If safety means attacking his battleships with my bomber plane, this reluctant recruit is reporting for duty.
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