The idea that it’s okay to tell your kids to just go play was met with enthusiasm. ” ‘Sittervising is the latest parenting trend because it’s creepy genius,” read a headline on Motherly. An online Today article asked, “What is ‘sittervising’ and why is it the latest expert-approved trend for parents?” The Skimm, in a somewhat retro fashion, deemed it “A parenting trend that’s actually helping kids and moms alike.”
Childcare, of course, is just the latest parenting trend that isn’t. Allowing children to be entertained is a practice that has existed at least since hunter-gatherer societies. Its popularity probably tells us more about the anxious state of privileged parenthood than anything else.
But the fact that this concept attracts such a passionate audience offers an opportunity to revisit the reasons why children need to play solo and to wonder why so many parents seem to believe that they should spend all their free time with their children.
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Mark Sabbagh is Professor of Psychology and Principal Investigator at the Early Experience Lab at Queen’s University in Ontario. He agrees that whatever you call it, encouraging your kids to play alone is a good idea and always has been.
Children use play to explore the world, Sabbagh said. “So sometimes they work on how physics works building with blocks, or sometimes they work on how people work in some sort of dramatic game.” They usually have ideas for how things work, he added, so through play, “they try out those ideas, and then they see the results of those ideas in an environment that they themselves have. carved”.
It’s an important part of development, Sabbagh said. When parents think they need to be involved or teach some kind of lesson, “they can interrupt this natural learning process.” If you are invited to play, so much the better. But if you’re not, “then let them do their thing,” he said.
Of course, don’t go overboard: Scrolling your phone so far that you don’t answer when your child needs you isn’t good either, Sabbagh noted. Parents should encourage exploration and independence in a positive way that also makes it clear to their children that they will be there when needed.
Brandi Hawk, an expert in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), which was developed as an intervention for nonconforming and oppositional children, examines the issue of monitoring through the lens of attachment theory. “Attachment theory says there are two really important roles a caregiver plays in a child’s life,” Hawk said. “One is to be a safe haven, so when your child is scared, scared, upset, they know they can come to you for help.”
But, added Hawk, “the other equally important element is being a safe base from which your children can explore. So being the person your child can look up and say, ‘you know, my mom or my father is there so that I can leave and discover new things”.
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Children also grow through measures other than play, said Nancy Darling, chair of the department of psychology at Oberlin College, who has studied different parenting styles. One way is to watch parents while they do chores or run errands. “There are a million things we learn about being adults by hanging out with our parents when they’re not paying attention to us,” Darling said.
Allowing kids to explore the wider world means “they don’t just play with us, they play with other kids, they play with dogs, they play with random kids they have to learn to negotiate with , or slightly older and slightly younger children.And if they play without their parents interfering, they must learn to solve problems by themselves or with the help of other children, which gives them power.
Of course, some kids don’t get a lot of one-on-one time, often because their parents have multiple jobs and many responsibilities. This can lead to issues such as adhesion; throwing tantrums or being aggressive; or be anxious, moody or withdrawn, said Hawk, who is the supervising psychologist at the PCIT training center at UC Davis Children’s Hospital..
One of the components of PCIT is “Special Time” – five minutes when a parent engages in child-directed play and practices some of the skills taught to them in this therapy. Research on the effectiveness of PCIT has shown that children whose families engage in special times perform better than those whose families do not, Hawk said.
Acknowledging that some parents struggle to find even five free minutes a day, Hawk suggests incorporating one-on-one play with their child into daily activities such as bath time, or squeezing it into slices of the day, such as right after school. “It’s amazing when kids go from nothing to a bit of ‘one-on-one time,'” she said. “Parents also feel less stressed, as they begin to have some joy with their child.”
So where did many parents get the idea that they had to spend it all with their kids?
Sabbagh says the internet plays a role. “I think working from home tends to be undervalued,” Sabbagh said. “So that creates a cultural pressure to publicize the work that we do,” through blog posts and social media. Hawk agrees. “There’s a real push that if you’re a good parent, you should post pictures of you and your kids having a good time together,” she said.
Some parents feel pressured to do more parenting in fewer hours, Darling said. “One of the things that’s changed dramatically over the last two generations of parenting is that we’re spending a lot less time with our kids, but we’re focusing on them,” she said. “So it’s not like you’re with your kids and you do something, and they come with you, and they’re kind of part of an activity. They are activity.” This makes any parent who isn’t 100% focused on their child when they’re together feel like a slacker.
But, Darling points out, that guilt is a feeling based on a misconception of the past. After all, the stay-at-home moms of yore didn’t spend every hour after school caring for their kids. “It was just like, ‘Oh, you’re home now. Okay, go play, do something fun, and then we’ll do something together as a family, like dinner or whatever,” Darling said.
“I just think we’ve really raised the stakes of what we say is good parenting, and then we’re not supporting anybody,” she added. “So no matter what you do, it’s not enough.”
None of this happens in a vacuum, Sabbagh said. “Everything happens in this kind of cultural landscape. And so I understand why people do it.
But he also appreciates when that landscape produces someone coining a term like sittervising and telling parents it’s okay to let your child play alone. “That’s where developmental psychologists can step in and say, ‘Yeah, we think so too.’ ”
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