Posted: Thursday, January 3, 2013 3:45:41 PM
It’s a few days after Christmas and the playplace is swarming with parents and children. I’ve been here a few times before and it has, in fact, never been so busy. The layout of the facility is thrilling for kids. Numerous “pretend” areas all have their own sections: a supermarket, a veterinary office, a fire station, a costume shop, a bakery, etc. The back is filled with an indoor playground, complete with pretend tree house and twisty slide. Toys and play equipment litter the space and the center of the enormous room is lined with benches. I sigh inwardly at the crowd and move forward, my four-year-old in hand, her eyes big and excited voice lost in the din of children running and screaming.
We start off in the supermarket section, one of my daughter’s favorites. She stands behind a child-sized counter and I pick out some choice groceries from the shelves, first putting them in a minute shopping cart and then passing them to her so she can check them out for me. Around us, children mill in and out, some stopping to look for a moment, some grabbing fake food out of other’s hands, a few standing behind the counter with my daughter over at a second cash register, gazing about, looking for someone they can check out. I frown as I look around because the fact of the matter is that most of the other parents who have brought their children here are, literally, “checked out”. For the most part, they pack the benches, sedentary, in various states of distraction. A number are absorbed in their smartphones, furiously punching the screens or staring intensely as if searching for the meaning of life. Others are wrapped in deep conversation, seeming oblivious to the outside world. I observe as one father send his young son off towards the playground with a few pats on the shoulder before he parks himself on the floor, plugs a pair of Bose headphones into his phone, pops them over his ears, and closes his eyes. My unease is furthered as I see a child across the room, no more than a year, tottering around on unsteady legs screaming, “Mama, mama,” with no adult in sight.
While this is not all parents; it is not me and it might certainly not be you, the fact of the matter is that the majority of parents I see when I am out and about with my own child are like this: disconnected, unplugged, checked out. I cannot reconcile a culture where it is preferable to ignore your children than to attend to them, where the norm seems to rest in satisfying a parent’s own agenda before a child’s most basic needs—love and attention—where the “cool” thing is to socialize with your friends while your combined children occupy themselves, or to read a magazine while your child desperately tries to show you something they’ve built with legos, but you need them to just hold on for a minute while you finish the article you’re reading about Channing Tatum. I have far too often seen children fall, children fight, children search hopelessly for some interaction while their parents stand on the sidelines and do nothing. I have observed countless children, far too young to be out of arm’s reach, wandering on their own, misbehaving, or begging a stranger (myself) for attention. I cannot tell you the number of times someone else’s child has come and asked me to do something with them, or to look at something they’ve made, or if they can be involved in a game that I am playing with my daughter. Often, this child’s parent is within earshot and seems comforted that someone else is relieving them of their duty as a parent.
I believe that all parents need a break. I believe that there is a time and place to engage your cell phone, to chat with friends, to read a magazine. And yes, taking your child to some amazing and wonderful place that you may even have had to pay to get into might be, to some, the perfect opportunity to reprieve yourself of the sometimes overwhelming responsibility of parenting. In my experience, however, the frequency with which parents are taking this “me time” is disturbing, and the setting inappropriate. Don’t people want to spend time with their children, to bond with them during critical years and moments of development—to be a role model that their children look up to—to instill a sense of safety, pride, security and attentiveness? Having taught both middle and high school, I know that a time will come soon enough when my daughter will be more interested in her friends than me, when schoolwork and the pressures of growing up will consume more and more of the carefree and fun moments we enjoy together. I make it a conscious point to try and appreciate every moment we are able to spend with each other and to infuse in those times as much quality as possible. This is not to say that my daughter is constantly attached to my hip. As a working mother, my child goes to preschool five days a week for a full day. My husband and I go out alone monthly. As my schedule allows, I socialize with other mothers and old friends: sometimes with our children in tow, sometimes without. My nails may not always be newly polished, my hair not always freshly cut, but do I get around to those things on at least a semi-frequent basis. I go shopping. I clean my house. But my focus is on building lasting memories with my family: on creating a rich foundation and depth of experience that everyone can look back on. I am not a perfect parent, not by far, and none of us are, but I cannot understand, why, why do we not play with our children?