Parents at Play

A friend and neighbor of mine had just gotten bad news from work, and was dropping his son off with me on his way to the unemployment office. It was during our first snow, and his son joined in the snowball fight that had started on our block, among boys we all know. John finished his business with me and turned to go--an adult on a serious errand. As he went down the steps he smiled, then, all in one motion, scooped up a ball of snow, threw it at one of the teenagers and sprinted away down the block. He was followed by a pack of eager and delighted young people and a volley of snow.

It was a heart-warming sight. I don't often see an adult, in the midst of adult worry, choose to do "childish" things like that. And I'm always struck by how irresistibly attractive to young people is any adult who will put out energy and enthusiasm and play hard with them. Most of us can manage a board game or cards with children. Others can pull off organized sports activities. But not many will get in the middle of a snowball fight, or invite a roughhouse or a pillow fight or a wrestle.

I think part of it is that the job of being an adult--and a parent on top of that--feels so hard that the idea of voluntarily expending more energy can look like plain stupidity, if not suicide. But my guess is that what we're feeling is mostly mental exhaustion (stress, worry, overload, etc.). While we're in this shape, the pull to rest is almost irresistible. But a dose of hard play may do just as good a job of taking care of the exhaustion as rest--and sometimes better. I have a picture in my mind of John heading off to the unemployment office with a lighter step as a result of that little skirmish in the snow.

At other times, we may not be exhausted, but the idea of play still doesn't appeal. The message to "act our age" is a strong one--and everyone knows that real adults don't play (except occasionally with other adults, and in an organized way). I'm definitely one of those people. Yet I have a wonderful memory of a family play-day I attended where the object was to play hard with our children at their chosen games. The game they all ended up choosing involved riding on our backs as we crawled along trying to butt into, slip under, and knock over other pairs. Now this is not the kind of game that I ever, EVER would have chosen. But I found myself laughing uncontrollably as I crawled, butted, and bumped into other people with my sweetie crowing on my back. It was utterly silly. It had absolutely no point. And it was the most fun I'd had in a long time.

It's not surprising that so many of us decide over and over again (probably unconsciously for the most part), that we are too tired or too grown up to play. Who wants to expend energy inviting chaos and feelings of looking ridiculous or incompetent into their lives? But, as a result, our children lose out, missing the joys of hard play with the adults they love the most. And, perhaps more important, we lose out--we have less fun.