Learning to Play with My Children


My two boys, sweaty around the temples with sticky popsicle mustaches were riding their balance bikes on the deck the other day. They came up to screeching halt in front of me (“Whoa . . . almost fall down,” says Oliver, my two-year old). His older brother, Jude, then asks me for gas . . . imaginary, of course. To comply, I grip my hand around a pretend pump and push buttons in the air and proceed to “fill up” his strider-turned-motorcycle and send him on his way.

Of course, Oliver decided he needed gas as well, and right as I repeated the charade, the four year old chimes in, “No! My gas” to which I replied, “Ollie gets gas too. We share.”

We argued for nearly a full minute before I threw up my hands in frustration. “It’s not even REAL GAS! It’s imaginary. Fake. I’m NOT talking about this anymore!”

I might as well have slapped them both, two tiny faces looking at me in shock. “Look, buddies, I’m sorry; Mama’s not really great at playing this game. You should learn this lesson early. I’m the fun, cool mom and will gladly engage in conversations about current events. But I don’t know how to play with you.”

Disappointed, and I’m sure not entirely certain what just transpired, they mounted their bikes and rode away.


Ahhh, confessions of the soul.

Sadly, I wish I could up my game in these matters. I have great intentions. Sitting on the floor, criss cross applesauce, ready to build a beautiful city of wooden block skyscrapers, but when I’m 34 blocks in and one of them knocks it over, I’m tempted to line the boys up and pelt them between the eyes with letter D.

Also, I take coloring really seriously. I would be humiliated if someone would have witnessed my reaction when my youngest ripped off the back end of the dump truck that I had spent 20 minutes carefully shading the appropriate orange and yellow.

In theory, I’m all imaginary sword fights and pajama picnics. But in practice, I’m all buttoned up and by the rules.

My hope in this admission is two-fold: 1. That there will be at least one more mom that says, “Totally! Me too!” which would make me feel so much better about life in general. And 2. That somebody out there is actually good at this and can come play with my kids for the day . . . er, I mean, teach me their techniques all guru style.

In the meantime, I work tirelessly at play.

Which is kind of like saying “mandatory fun.”

I’m ready to take responsibility for my part of the problem. Playing into that, I’m sure, is the fact that they’re boys — two highly energetic, mess-making, thrill-seeking boys, and I’m not all that interested in making spitty-vroom-vroom noises every time they pick up a Hot Wheel. I know I’m supposed to get nine kinds of excited when they come up rosy-cheeked and beaming with pride at the creature they seized in the backyard, but all I notice is the grasshopper juice smeared on their fingers and the terrified stillness of the broken-legged captive. Can’t we just have a tea party and call it a day?

And in addition to being all boy, as they say, they’re also all toddler. Here I sit wanting to cultivate their sense of culture by leisurely trips to the museum and candlelit evenings watching old black and white films, and they’re begging me to sit on the floor and watch Thomas.

“Give it time,” I tell myself, 47 times a day. The day will come when they don’t want you around as much . . . and then I shiver. And cry. And throw my guilt-ridden arms around them, showering them with kisses and apologies and beg them to stop growing up so fast. Will you ever forgive me for being the mom that didn’t play?!

Of course they will. Because the truth is, at this stage, they won’t remember our actions as much as our attitudes. Kids are kind of like dogs in that way. All sixth sense and stuff: able to pick up on tension and frustration, reacting to the atmosphere and vibes. Give them a treat, and I’ve bought myself a few minutes of quiet while they roll around on the floor and play with their bone food. Spend 10-15 minutes of really awesome, quality time doing what they want to do, and they’re much more forgiving when I completely lose my junk over nothing of consequence.

I’m learning to find ways to invite them into what I’m doing throughout the day. Pulling up the chairs so they can stand counter height with me and help me destroy the kitchen make a meal. Throwing clean clothes over their heads while I’m folding the laundry to see who can make the loudest dinosaur sound. Letting them line up behind me, choo choo train style, while I vacuum the floors and yell “All aboard!” above the sound of the vacuum.IMG_2627

And just in case those things don’t really count enough, I’ve started telling them at random times, “You guys are experiencing such a happy childhood right now!” Because I figure if they can fight over an imaginary can of gas, then surely they can conjure up the hope of a mom that gets better at playing somewhere along the way.


  1. I’ll be mom 1 and say ME TOO! I have maybe 30 minutes a day of fun play mom in me before I reach my limit. Because I love tickling, I’ve resolved to being the tickle monster instead of the monster truck driver or bad guy catcher. I think with some creativity we can all find our “thing” when it comes to play time. By the way I love the subliminal message “look at you making fun childhood memories”!!!! Hopefully those will come in handy in the therapist’s office hahaha!!

  2. I will also be mom #1. I found my groove with my little man by having dance parties! Turn up the tunes and we go to town showing off our moves (thank goodness no one is watching)!

  3. Yes…. Mom #1. Sorry I have nothing to teach. I have a little girl which doesn’t help at all. We’ll all just keep hanging in there!!

  4. Yes, this! Mom #1 right there will yall. Great read Jodi! Thanks for sharing. When tickle attacks aren’t working, I resort to tag.. at least in this short season. My little guy loves some tag. 🙂 I’m working to be better at the imaginary stuff like the horse that’s been eating at my table lately that “needs a pwate too!.”

  5. Oh no! I thought this was a how-to guide! At least I found company among moms like myself. 😉 Thanks for sharing your story.
    It’s funny, as a kid I had so much imagination. Life has just stolen that away from me, one worry at a time. My instincts tell me that to play like a kid again, I need to gain back that child-like sense of wonder. Personally I think laughing with friends in person is the way to go. It’s like a massage for the insides, a way to calm down and re-claim it. It also helps me stay calm. But it’s so hard to get out as a mom! We have no “community” anymore. I miss it– even though I never had it.
    If it helps… I always pretend the car is solar-powered with my boys?


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