I have no memories of my mother playing with me as a child. She read to me a lot, we went on outings together, and we cooked together on occasion. But I can’t remember actually playing together, and I think most of my friends would say the same things about their mothers. Recently, I’ve become aware of what a huge contrast this is to my own parenting style.
Since I have only one child, it’s not surprising that I spend more time than average playing with my son. But family size alone isn’t enough to explain the discrepancy between my level of involvement in my son’s playtime versus the amount of involvement that I grew up with, and I think parents today, in general, spend a lot more time entertaining their kids than parents of previous generations.
I’ve heard the tsk-tsking of older mothers, implying (or stating outright) that mothers today micromanage too much and cruise direct too much. I’m sure there is some validity to their concerns, but there are also some validity to the hands-on approach, especially given the climate of today’s lifestyles, neighborhoods, etc.
Anecdotal observations over the past 30 years (no hard statistics, just my impression) show lots of shifting variables that have probably contributed to the trend toward more hands-on parenting. In the 70s, many neighborhoods were still full of at-home mothers. Consequently, the kids were closer to home as well, and there was a built-in entertainment network for the kids.
In the 80s, these networks became less common as more mothers entered the workforce. Fast forward to my generation of motherhood, where (in my neighborhood at least) playdates in walking distance don’t exist. This means that I have to actively orchestrate social opportunities for my son, and it also means that he’s home a lot without a playmate.
I have tried very hard to avoid the over scheduling trap, and believe that less is more when it comes to structured enrichment classes for toddlers and preschoolers. But I’m thankful that these classes exist. I would definitely prefer to live in a neighborhood with lots of stay-at-home moms and built-in playmates for my son.
I imagine a world where mothers didn’t have to study the latest research on how to stimulate their children’s developing brains and plan well-rounded curricula for toddlers, because the environment naturally facilitated appropriate development. However, I suspect that I still have less isolation than mothers did 20 years ago, when neighborhoods were emptying out but there was no internet to connect with mother’s groups and classes.
I play with my son a lot. He goes to preschool three mornings per week, and we do library Story Hour and playdates whenever we can. I go to great lengths to incorporate developmentally appropriate educational experiences into our time together. I tend to prefer more structured activities, and which has actually worked to my advantage. It means that in between the structure, I back off and let my son do his own thing in terms of imaginary play.
So even with all my cruise-directing, he is actually quite good at entertaining himself and playing independently. In the end, I feel that hands-on parenting can be very beneficial as long as mothers find things that they themselves enjoy doing with their kids, and simultaneously foster opportunities for kids to learn to amuse themselves.
I would love to hear from other moms that have ideas about finding balance in regards to hands-on parenting!
Claire is a regular writer on Catholic Mothers Online.