**This is a post I wrote last year but didn’t get round to publishing. There is an update at the bottom. **
It’s a problem many of us have faced on our parenting journey, myself included. You sit down to read a book or do some paperwork, or crafts, or maybe even just to drink a cup of tea, and before you even hit the cushions, your toddler is clambering all over you demanding your attention.
We went through a tough time with this recently. As soon as I would try to get on with something, my top would be pulled at with requests of “Milk please” and no sooner than I would feed him, he would rush off to get a book returning shouting “Read it please!” Once he had had a feed and several stories had been read with appropriate funny voices and tickling, the whole cycle would begin again and my project would fall by the wayside.
This scenario started to become more and more intense, and I was feeling so frustrated that one day when I sat down to do some knitting for the first time in AGES, (After spending all afternoon playing together, I should add.) he rushed up and did the usual routine of “Read it please, milk please, read it!” and I reached my limit, shouting “Why cant I get a moments peace, this is ridiculous!”
(Yes, I’m human too…)
And it really was ridiculous, the whole situation was just silly. I was beginning to feel like I couldn’t meet my needs, He had dropped his nap very recently and I was struggling to adapt to that loss of “Me time” which had always perked me up again. My reaction was more upsetting for me than him – He ran off laughing, but I knew we had to resolve this situation – and fast!
The problem was – as on closer inspection most of our parenting issues have been – entirely my fault. You see, in an attempt to meet my toddlers needs, every time he asked for my attention while I was trying to do something, instead of continuing with my task while meeting his needs, I would quickly give up, thus teaching him that nothing I do is as important as he is. That might sound like a nice thing to do, but it was not only giving him an unrealistic view of the world, but it was also giving him a role model who had no pride in her work. A role model who did nothing interesting to observe, but cook and clean and focus entirely on her child. In essence, although I hadn’t started out this way, I was becoming more and more child centred, and my own needs were no longer being met.
Of course, in a more natural, less modern setting, I would have no time to worry about such things. A mother has tasks she must do, and without modern conveniences such as washing machines, ovens and running water, her day is filled with busy work. She has to grind the grains from scratch, weave blankets, make clay pots, fetch water. There is no idle sitting watching TV or optional jobs. And so the children quickly learn that although they are indeed loved and welcome, mother cant always stop what she is doing repeatedly, and although she can stop to feed and cuddle with them, they must then get on with their own project, more often than not, an imitation of the adults work.
There are a lot of benefits that come with independent play –
- Developing imagination
- Discovering their own preferences and interests
- Challenging themselves without feeling pushed by adult interference
- Self reliance and confidence in their own abilities
- Increased independence
- Physical and psychological development
But what can you do if your child has become reliant on you to be able to play? How can you gently encourage them to give you the space you need, without damaging their feelings or making them feel abandoned?
The first step is to start slowly. Set aside ten to twenty minutes for yourself when your toddler is awake. Before you start your task, spend some time reading to them or doing an activity one on one with them. Offer them a feed if they are breastfeeding and remind them that they wont get a chance for a little while.
Next, make sure they have access to a few interesting activities, I find that crafts such as painting or playdough keep my sons interest the longest. Perhaps choose an activity that they have not seen for a while. It is also a good idea to have tools for your child to imitate your work if they choose – a drawing pad and pencils if you are writing, story books if you are reading, a ball of wool and chunky needles if you are knitting.
Make sure the TV is off. Staring at a screen does not equal independent play.
Then, tell them that you are going to sit down and do your work now. You will be right here in the room but you need to get on with this as it is important. Take note of the time and begin your task.
You will most likely find that the first few times you do this, you will have to reinforce your message. The idea is not to ignore them, rather than to work in harmony side by side. If they approach and ask you to read to them, or tell you to stop what you are doing, you can simply tell them, “Mummy is doing this right now, we will read when I have finished.” Then direct him back to his activity or let him sit and watch what you are doing. They will likely find it interesting and want to take a look for themselves. Remain calm and gently direct them to their own tools to investigate and copy with, returning quickly to your task.
You probably wont actually achieve much the first, second and however many more times you attempt this, as this new pattern will take some getting used to, but do try to continue for the whole ten or twenty minutes. (This decision will have to be based on our knowledge of your child and how long they can cope with.) This will get your child used to seeing you doing something, and to learn this new information, that Mummy is doing something important.
If you are reading this and thinking, “But my child is the most important thing in my life!” then I agree totally. If you have read my regular posts on this blog, you will know just how I feel about my child. He is the most important thing in the world to me. But, it is healthy for both of us that I am able to complete tasks and he is able to watch, learn and explore his own passions through play.
Once you finish your task, read that book, build that tower and enjoy it. Slowly, you will be able to increase the time until you find a balance that works for you both.
This post was written at the end of last summer and since then my toddler has developed his own interests and enjoys regular independent play. Back when I wrote this I was experiencing a strong unmet need to be able to have some time to myself after my son stopped napping. Raising children alone with no support during the day is not the natural way for humans, and many of us struggle with finding a balance to accommodate everyone’s needs. On reflection of my struggles after reaching my limits, I made a few changes. I made it a regular habit to do the suggestions I have offered above, but I also met my needs in other ways. I was aware that my son was not yet at an age where he would be able to play for extended periods of time, and that wasn’t something I wanted to force him in to. With gentle guidance his ability to play independently has grown over time.
In addition to this, I sought support elsewhere. I realised that I had a strong need for some time to be alone, and so began taking a break when Daddy came home from work, taking my writing and a cup of tea upstairs, leaving the two of them together.
This time to myself refreshed me and removed the resentment I felt at being constantly on call. Sometimes, we need to get creative to find solutions that we can all be happy with. This is what worked for us.
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