I remember a conversation I once had with a teenager and her mother. The mother brought her complaint to the session – it was summer vacation and the fifteen-year-old daughter was constantly saying, “I’m bored!” and asking, begging, pleading to go outside, meet friends at the mall or movies. “I’m so-o-o-o bored!” she cried. Mom, who worked all day and came home to a sink full of dishes and empty bags of potato chips (not to mention a daughter sprawled on the family room sofa, TV remote in one hand and cell phone in the other) couldn’t understand how her daughter could be bored with so many chores to do!
We say, “it’s child’s play,” to describe something easy and not-so-serious. In fact, child’s play is serious stuff. In this age of “hurry up and grow up” we seem to have lost a healthy respect for children’s need to play. So, let’s talk about the importance of play.
I meet a lot of parents with children of different ages who complain about the toys and activities their children seem to be “obsessed” with – the toddler who can’t resist any stairs he can climb and come down (which means a parent has to stand guard and prevent a tumble), the fourteen-year-old girl who’s glued to the phone, the twelve-year-old boy who cares for nothing but his video game…..
Haven’t you had this experience yourself?
Perhaps when you’re trying out a new song on your piano, or trying to make a favorite dish from your childhood taste just the way your mother’s creation did, or learning how to navigate the internet, or perhaps attempting to sink a three-point shot…
In each case, you and the toddler, the fourteen-year-old girl, and the twelve-year-old boy have more in common than you may realize – you’re each trying to gain mastery over a new skill.
Mastery is the name of the game.
When we get it right, we beam and feel that inner surge of joy and pride, “I did it!”
At each stage of development, children are expected to master new skills. The one-year-old learns to walk, the toddler to name things around him.
The first grader is trying to master turn-taking and the sixth grader is experimenting with friendship and what you should share and what you should keep to yourself.
The sixteen-year-old must learn the art of friendship without losing oneself. Each one will get hurt and bruised as they learn what it takes to manage this new task on their own, without adult prompting or safety net.
If you look closely at children’s play, you might notice that all their “obsessions” are concerned with mastering a new skill. Once mastered, the old obsession is replaced by a new one that will lead them to mastery of a new skill.
And so the cycle goes on, because that’s what growing up is about – mastering new skills that will help the growing child to understand his world and negotiate his way in it independently and with confidence.
In order to learn the skills they will need as they grow, children don’t really need any special toys, even though that’s what the high pressure advertisements would want parents to believe! Yes, children are enriched by toys and trips, but it’s the everyday stuff of life that offers the best opportunities for learning.
The important thing is to give children the opportunity to participate in everyday life. If a parent speeds up the morning routine by doing everything for the elementary school aged child and then fills their afternoon with ballet, sports and tutoring they may be depriving the child of important opportunities for mastery, while increasing their anxiety about achievement and approval. As the article suggests, the need for stimulation begins in infancy.
Hard as it may be to believe, the fourteen-year-old girl who can’t live without her cell phone is “working” to understand the rules of social engagement with peers, learning to balance her need to have friends with her role in her family, to communicate her feelings and set healthy boundaries, to name a few of the lessons of this stage of life. Help her by setting limits that she can’t yet understand, but don’t disrespect the importance of what she’s trying to learn! Just watch for the sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle changes that signal that your baby is growing up!
Dr. Sunaina Rao Jain
Child & Adolescent Clinical Psychologist
Pathways Transition Programs