Apr 25, 2017

Sometimes I Don't Like Playing with My Kids

By Anna Mussmann

 Sometimes my toddlers want me to sit at their little table and pretend to eat plateful after plateful of imaginary food. Sometimes they want me to stand at the door of an imaginary house and be the arriving guest. Sixty million times in a row.

It’s sweet that they love it when I play with them. But sometimes it is so horribly, mind-numbingly repetitive that I can’t stop my fingers from twitching and my brain from whispering that I could be reading a book. I could be doing laundry. I could be enjoying myself so much more productively somewhere else. I’m not supposed to feel like this, right? I’m supposed to treasure every moment, aren’t I?

It’s not that I don’t like my children. I think they are a hoot and two of the best companions in the world. We have a blast working together and exploring the world. It’s just that sometimes I don’t like playing with them. And it’s a funny thing--even though I firmly believe that children’s attention spans and imagination benefit from playing alone, even though I think it is philosophically correct of me to refrain from joining in every time, I still feel guilt. I still wonder, at the close of the day, if I was “present” enough. Should I have steeled myself for ten more minutes of imaginary cookery? Should I make a fresh resolution not to read articles on my phone while the kids are awake?

And here, I think, we see one of the great conflicts within parenting today. On the one hand, parents are expected to be constantly engaged with their children. Kids aren’t even supposed to go to the backyard alone. The general vibe is that it will take eighteen years of vigilance, parenting books, and music lessons to give our little ones a chance at surviving in the big bad world. It’s all about constant safety and enrichment, which means there is no level at which a mom has done “enough.”

On the other hand, we also live in an era in which automobile-based lifestyles and personal screens make it easy to be emotionally distant with our nearest and dearest. We’ve all seen the articles about about the ways that omnipresent technology decreases eye contact and social skills. It’s common to spend more time in the physical presence of our children than moms in the 1950’s did, while actually talking with them less, and our generation feels the tension between the benefits and the costs of the way we live. Perhaps it is because “being present” is a struggle for us that we are never sure if and when we do it enough.

Yet where does all this leave us? What level of sacrificial playtime do our kids really need? This is where we benefit from the perspective of older books. When we read Little House on the Prairie or a biography of Katie Luther, we realize that Christian mothers throughout history have rarely seen it as a defection from duty to skip the role of playmate. On the other hand, they did recognize a moral duty to be their child’s mother. To educate their children. To nurture their children’s moral imagination. To discipline in order to shape the child’s character and to bestow the gift of self-control. These mothers carried heavy burdens of daily labor and weren’t necessarily “fun.” Yet they were present.

Life is a little different nowadays. I have the luxury of more free time than Katie Luther or Ma Ingalls, and I think it is often helpful to show my children that I enjoy being with them by entering joyfully their games. At the same time, though, it is also meaningful when instead I invite my kids into my world--when we cook, clean, or exercise together; when we make something for someone else; when we shop for groceries and discuss the merits of different brands and prices. Ultimately this is probably more important than whether or not I eat another plate of imaginary “cream of wheat tomato bread,” because it is about teaching them how to live.

The question brings us back to the odd relationship our culture has to guilt and the way we use guilt as a motivating force. Guilt can be effective sometimes. Yet it is a poor way to live. We moms would do better to rejoice in confession and absolution than to vacillate between guilt and self-justification. As I go about my day, I will repent of those times when my selfishness makes me blind to the charms of toddler play. I will rejoice in the mercy of a good and gracious God who not only forgives me all my sins, but who has taken my children into His arms and who will guide and lead them even if I sit and read an article on my phone.


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.


  1. Oh how well put! I remember being bored by repetitive games when my children were young and felling guilty and inadequate as a result. Wow! I'm not the only one! I often considered different role models of motherhood and was forever trying to settle on the one that was most admirable. I think your pointing to confession and absolution is wise.

  2. This is something I have struggled with some, and I appreciate your insight here. I have a difficult time playing with my children, and it's good for me to remember what my job really is, and also that when I truly am just being selfish, I can repent and find forgiveness. Thank you!

  3. That is a good and necessary word!! I fully agree that bringing the children in to the real grownup world is more important, more fun for us, and can be more fun for them. It's a different kind of work, of course.

    This was natural for me when raising my own children. Now that I have grandchildren asking me to play with them, it's a different kind of challenge. It doesn't seem as easy to bring them into my own world, because it's a different world, and I don't seem to have the juggling skills I used to have. ;-) But I don't enjoy the playing any more than I used to!

  4. Thank you for this! I went "shopping" about six times in my backyard this past Saturday with my granddaughter. We bought the same stuff over and over; I was the little sister and the cashier; she was the Mommy. Yes, it was a little mind-numbing, but I hope she remembers it - I won't see her again until June.


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