Free Play: The Working Parent’s Conundrum

This summer appears to be overloaded with articles about how kids need a rest from structure and need to just play. From this blog on Scary Mommy to this article in The Atlantic, parents are being cajoled into dropping camp, swimming lessons, and Russian Math this summer and letting their kids roam free.

But here’s the catch: who is watching these kids roam free? Last I checked, most kids have one or two parents/caregivers that work at least some, if not most, of the time, outside the home.

I see this as yet another way to heap guilt on the working parent.

I want nothing more than my kids to have unstructured playtime outside. Or inside. As I am barely working this summer, and my kids go to Nonna-care (read: my mom) as opposed to daycare, my kids will have loads of time to “just play.”

In other words, in order to have this, someone has to be HOME. While many daycare centers and camps have “free time,” and “free play,” it is simply not the culture in mainstream childcare to drop your kids off and pay money to people who simply make sure your child checks in regularly and eats something. When a nanny or a babysitter is hired, free play may happen more often, but even then, the culture is to demand something of the caretaker of your children. As in, most people I know would be BENT if their nanny told their charges “go play outside,” and then watched General Hospital. If you’re going to shell out for childcare, generally you want that person to DO something for your kids.

Hence where the guilt comes in. We are supposed to give our kids unstructured free time, but leaving children home alone to roam when they are young is also not a possibility for the working person. The solution? Camps. Classes. Daycare. Why? While helicopter parenting and a zillion classes aren’t the answer, leaving, say, a five and seven year old home alone to “go play” while their grown-ups work 40+ hours per week is also not a possibility.

As my own kids grow older, and my (and their father’s) need to work more or less changes with time, I’m going to have to struggle with this as well. This summer, since I’m around, I’ll simply fight the urge to go retro on them and smoke some Pall Malls, slather myself in baby oil and tan while they go play.

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