Imagine a beautiful day in early fall at the beach. The sun is shining, the temperature is perfect. You and your children are enjoying the sounds of the waves, the calling of the birds and the calming view.
The children start to entertain themselves. YES!!! And they’re cooperating!! WHAT??! They’re playing in the sand, running to the water’s edge, and giggling. Then it happens.
That familiar twisting in your stomach. Your brain goes into overdrive with questions. What if they get super wet? Why didn’t I bring towels? Are they going to catch a cold? Have we been gone too long? Should I have them stop?
Anxiety is my nemesis in parenting.
I want my children to play freely, I want them to entertain themselves, get bored and figure out what to do next. I want them to use items around the house in creative ways. I want them to cooperate and play nicely with one another. And sometimes, they do.
But once it happens, then I get anxious. I get anxious that it won’t last long, or that it will end badly. I start questioning everything, and worrying about it all. It stops me from just relishing the moment. The worst is when I let my anxiety take over and I make my kids stop. So now, not only have I NOT enjoyed the moment, I’ve prevented them from playing because something was anxiety provoking for me.
As I stood there on the beach and took a few deep breaths (and continued to let them play), I realized that some of my favorite memories of watching the kids play are those times when I’ve been able to shut off my anxiety and just let them be. And some of their best learning happens when I don't step in, and let them figure it out themselves.
In Toronto, we found spray parks with playgrounds within walking distance of our condo. We loaded up the supplies we needed for a day. When we got there, I let them go. I sat and watched them make new friends. I watched them get closer than they ever were before since they were both experiencing this new place together. We stayed until they were done. We didn’t have anywhere else to be but playing on a playground. It was freeing.
Summer Time Fun:
Or how about the time in the middle of a heat wave in the summer where they wanted to pour water on each other, then wanted to run through the water fully clothed? My mind started swirling. What if they trip? What if they drip water everywhere? What will the neighbors think? After some initial hesitation, I said yes. What’s the worst that could happen? They get their clothes wet, then they change. They STILL talk about how good it felt and how fun it was to run through the water.
Football at the Park:
I wanted to stop them the other day at the park. My son saw a kid playing catch with his dad, went up to them and asked to play. My anxiety went through the roof. He doesn’t know how to catch a football yet! Is that dad irritated with my son? I know that look on my son's face - what if he gets super frustrated and embarrassed and then lashes out?
And then I told myself to take a step back and let it happen. If it goes worst case scenario, you’ll be able to figure out a way to get him out. You may be embarrassed but you’ll do it.
And you know what? My son learned how to catch a football. And he and the boy started asking other kids around the park if they wanted to play. This, from the little boy who only wanted to play at the park with his sister for the longest time.
When my kids argue:
Sometimes, it happens when I hear one of them getting testy while they're playing together. The argument gets louder and I go into counselor mode and intervene way too quickly. But are they able to learn how to negotiate and problem solve without an adult if I keep doing that? My husband recently shared his strategy with me. “I hear them fighting and I let them try to work it out until I think I should step in. Then I let it go a little longer. “ And they NEED that. They need to be able to figure it out without an adult hovering.
Chicago Toy and Game Fair:
At ChiTAG, I was reminded of anxiety while parenting in a huge way. Our booth was designed for kids to stop and play. It was interesting to watch how different families reacted to kids doing this.
Some families were in a rush, “Hurry up! We don’t have time!” And I kept imagining what I would do if I were on the other side of the table. I kept thinking to myself - Would I rush them through this? Would I be feeling anxious to see the next “thing”? Would I let them lead, or would I let my anxiety get the best of me? I honestly don’t know.
I decided to take a lesson from some of the other families I saw. The families that let the play unfold at their child’s pace. That stayed until the child had finished their creation and proudly showed it off to the adults with them. The look of concentration on those children’s faces and the pride they had when they were done was amazing to witness.
My goal has always been, and continues to be, to make time for my kids to play for extended periods where we don’t need to go anywhere. Where we don’t need to get to the next thing. Where they can concentrate and focus until they’re done. But a new part of this goal is about me.
My goal is to let them play even when I feel anxious.
Back on the beach, it’s 30 minutes later. Both of their pants have gotten wet from going a little too close to the water. Their hands are sandy. They’re excitedly talking to one another. And I’ve been enjoying listening to them laugh. I took some pictures to remember this feeling.
And I stayed in the moment to relish it.