I’m Bad at Playing with My Kids, But I am Still A Good Mom

Yep. I’m bad at it. I’m a stay at home mom so there are people out there who would claim it’s even my JOB to play with my children. I however, am not only bad at it, I (can’t believe I’m actually going to admit this) don’t always like it. Now, that doesn’t mean for one second that I take getting to stay home for granted. Or that I don’t love spending time with my children. I just find pretend play somewhat exhausting. I don’t think that makes me a bad mom. I think it makes me a really honest one. There are parts of this gig that are more one person’s cup of tea that others. Some people love breastfeeding (ouch), others love elaborate sensory bins (all that rice to vacuum for ten minutes of entertainment). After the guilt storm that is realizing that you don’t actually *like* playing, I have come up with some strategies that have really helped me learn to appreciate this phase of parenting littles with less guilt.

When Your Mind Is Elsewhere

Like every mother out there, the invisible weight of all the to do lists both written and mental weighs on me heavily. Particularly during a seemingly endless game of cars where my participation is subject to a very specific set of threenager created rules. Tiny car dictators, I tell you.

Article after article will tell you to “Let the dishes wait” and “Be present” while well intentioned, I find these posts more guilt inducing because I can’t turn off my other responsibilities. Is a dish fairy godmother going to appear if I really lean into Candyland this time around? Probably not. Nor is my darling husband, who works a crazy job going to remember the birthday party next week because in our house, with our division of labor this falls to me. Plenty of women juggle these things and a 9-5 or more, but I can only speak from my own experience.

What has helped me with this:

When I find my mind to be ticking off a seemingly endless list of chores, errands, 3rd grade failings: I set a timer. Yes, that’s right. I restrict my playtime with my child to an iPhone timer. Now before I get hate emails about my selfishness as a mother, hear me out. 1) I don’t always do this, but in times of higher stress it’s a tactic that works 2) I’d much rather (as would my kids) have me fully engaged for fifteen minutes than half-ass it for 25. While the timer is on short of a doorbell delivering something other than a salesperson or Amazon goodies or an important phone call that cannot be rescheduled is all that interrupts us. Setting these limits helps my children learn what to expect too. The conversation might go something like this:

Kid: “Mommy, can you play cars with me?”

Me: “Let me finish unloading the dishwasher, and then I have until the timer goes off before I have to switch the laundry. After that you can help me with laundry or keep playing without me.”

Clear boundaries, when I actually follow through, have the added benefit of less whining.

Spend Time Doing Things You Actually Enjoy with Your Kids

This one is hard for me. With every social media scroll, I tend to feel inadequate about all that I am NOT DOING with my kids. We don’t organically farm our own produce. We don’t serve in homeless shelters weekly. We don’t even own finger paint besides watercolors because I’m a freak like that and consider painting and glitter (the Devil’s powder) preschool’s responsibility.

I do however, really like cooking with my kids. I also like getting them involved in other household chores so that they can learn what it takes to maintain a marginally clean home. Practical play is what I call it to myself. I have to do it anyway, why not teach my kids life skills along the way. This is not to say I don’t see the point of imaginative play. Of course I do. I also however, see the power of boredom, independence, and giving mama a flipping minute.

If you love playing dinosaurs do it. If you love doing STEM experiments, get it mama. But, you don’t have to do it all. And you certainly don’t have to like it all. A lot of us were 80s babies. A tub of Barbies and a Happy Meal toy followed by the Land Before Time was life.

Not Every Phase of Parenting Has to Be Your Favorite

Some mamas love the sweetness of newborn life, others the wild wet kisses of toddlerhood. Frankly, teenagers scare the beJesus out of me, and I know too little to comment. There is something sweet in every season, but there is probably also something a bit sour. Doesn’t mean the sum of the parts isn’t so worth it. Never have I met an honest mother who really soaked up each toddler tantrum so she could scrapbook it. But the ferocity of hugs and the wonder of simple things like snow and clouds? That stuff gives this journey is heart.

If This is Resonating, What Do You Do?

I sometimes get bogged down in the chores of daily parenting, only to have a tender moment thrown right in my face. Take those moments because we know the next thing to be thrown in your face might very well be spaghetti. No child will grow up and say I wish my mom played more Mr. PotatoHead with me if they are getting love in different way. Below is a list of ways to play without sitting on the floor surrounded by plastic crap:

  • cook or bake together
  • have kids help with laundry making a game out of sock sorting or putting clothes away fastest
  • go for a walk
  • read together
  • color
  • clean (spray bottle of water or hydrogen peroxide is great for littles)
  • play dough
  • have them help with meal planning
  • look at old photos
  • watch a movie (yep, I’m all about screen time)
  • plant something
  • sort things (organize a closet)
  • draw a family tree
  • pretend play along side real chore (play kitchen toys in real kitchen)
  • dress ups
  • paint nails
  • nature walk/hike (My husband’s personal favorite)
  • puzzle
  • board game
  • museum/zoo
  • play sports in the yard/park
  • playground

The list may seem obvious, but sometimes it’s nice to know there’s more than one way to create memories with your child. Very few of these things are big or expensive. Kids don’t care about that. My kids, at least, are usually more excited about a rock they find at the park than a toy from a birthday party.

Maybe you relish playtime. Maybe it’s hard for you. Know that you are still exactly the mama your children need. Teach them the things you do well together. Learn and create together, but for the love of all things holy stop feeling bad because you aren’t a Pinterest mom. I personally have a lot of things on Pinterest, but cannot craft to save my life. We all have our gifts. Thank goodness or life would be pretty damn boring.

11 thoughts on “I’m Bad at Playing with My Kids, But I am Still A Good Mom

  1. I struggle with this, too! I am a mom of 4 but new to being a SAHM. I’m trying to build a routine that works in quality time with the kids (and hopefully once I get into a solid routine, I’ll feel confident there will be time for the other things on my list). I am also working on being “restful” on Sundays so I am there for them. Such a good point about choosing activities you enjoy (last night I initiated playtime with my 2 older kids by bringing out a favorite childhood game of mine!). I may have to try the timer!

    1. I only have two kiddos so I’m sure 4 and a change in routine brings it’s own set of challenges. You’ll get it. I love the idea of being restful on Sunday’s and bringing in traditions from your own childhood. Let me know what you think about the timer!

  2. I also have a hard time with this. I just can’t even get into the pretend play. My daughter is really into that right now, but I get so bored with it. I’d much rather be doing something productive like cooking together, doing crafts, working on household chores etc. Pretend play definitely has its place and is a wonderful way for children to learn many skills. I just wish my daughter had more playmates for this purpose. I know as she grows, her play will change too.

    1. I can relate. I look forward to my youngest getting old enough to play pretend with my oldest so I can observe rather than always participate haha. We don’t have to love every moment to still be good mamas!

  3. I love your tips! I definitely struggle to engage in play sometimes. I am very goal oriented so it can be difficult, but I’ve definitely found ways to connect such as we both love reading books, engineering or word games, and getting outside!

  4. This is all such great advice and I love the list of activities to do together! I’m so bad at telling my boys “one more minute or hold on mommy has to do this”. It’s always followed by the fussing and whining. Maybe the timer trick would be a good thing to implement!

  5. I only have one child at the moment. But, I can understand not being able to play all the time. I do try to make time where I’ll sit down and play for a while but mostly my daughter likes to have her independent playtime. This was a great post, thanks for sharing.

  6. Oh goodness I feel this!! And LOVE your tips. This mama can’t be happy mama in a messy house or with a massive chore list.

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