Teaching Kids To Play By Themselves : Life Kit American parents often feel like event planners for their kids. There's a pressure to make sure kids are entertained and content every minute of the day. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff says kids can be trained to occupy themselves.

Kids Know How To Occupy Themselves. We Need To Let Them Do It

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JAN WILSON: Hi. My name is Jan Wilson (ph). I'm a senior. I broke my kneecap at the same moment as the COVID thing struck, so I decided to do two things. One was to do a free writing course online. And two, staying in touch with people on Facebook that I normally wouldn't, so reaching out more, just becoming more involved emotionally in other people's lives and doing the best I can.



This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Cory Turner.


And I'm Anya Kamenetz. And, you know, it's been a minute since we talked to each other, and a lot has been going on.

TURNER: Yeah. Obviously, there's everything that's been happening in the news, which is tragic and stressful. It's almost possible to forget that we're now three months into a pandemic and that for many of us parents - I know this is true for me; it's true for you - we're also three months into being home not only working full-time, but also being with our kids full-time. And now that school's out and most summer camps have been closed, it's about to get even more complicated.

KAMENETZ: A lot of people are working from home with minimal help, and getting even an hour of time to yourself sometimes seems like a dream.

TURNER: (Laughter) Like a dream - especially when to get there, you have to essentially rebuff your kids, who are asking you to play a game or come outside or just do this. You know, it's really hard for me to say no.

KAMENETZ: Or, you know, the guilt that comes when you just kind of hand them a screen so you can, say, record a podcast.

TURNER: I've never done that (laughter). Well, the good news for us - I don't know about our listeners out there, but at least for me - I'm super excited that one of our own NPR colleagues, Michaeleen Doucleff, was actually feeling this stress big-time. She's been working, quarantined with her husband and her daughter, Rosy, who is 4.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: She is like a firecracker, right? She is strong-willed. She goes through life with this intensity, which is fantastic. She learns really fast, and she's fearless. But, you know, it's like when she wants something, there is, like, no giving in. And it was these constant demands - demands to draw narwhals, to play another video, Mama, make a sandwich, Mama, set up my Zoom circle time, Mama.

TURNER: You know, all those little interruptions that completely obliterate your concentration.

DOUCLEFF: I would lock the door. I slid down the back of it, and I just cried. I was like, what am I going to do? Like, I have this book deadline in July. And it was just really like this is not going to be good for any of us. Like, things are going to deteriorate really quickly in this house.

KAMENETZ: Michaeleen actually wrote about this moment in a New York Times op-ed recently, and it's related to the book that she's working on. So it's called "Hunt, Gather, Parent," and it's coming out in March 2021, and it's all about what American parents can learn from other cultures, including traditional cultures.

TURNER: Because the pressure to keep kids constantly entertained, well, Michaeleen says that's really specific to American parenting culture.

DOUCLEFF: There is huge amount of pressure. Like, I have been fighting it, and I still feel it. You know, I still wake up in the morning. I'm like, what are we going to do today? What are we going to do this morning?

TURNER: Right. You're like part child entertainer, part event planner.

DOUCLEFF: (Laughter) I mean, it is like we're event planners, I mean, if you think about it, right? It is like they are little tech CEOs that have, like, a day planned out for them, and we are there to usher them in, and not only just usher them, but make sure they enjoy it or...


DOUCLEFF: ...Get something out of it. Or - like, you know, there's feedback afterwards, right?

KAMENETZ: There's a cruise director - like, there's definitely, like, a customer service aspect to it.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. Is everyone having a good time? Did you have fun?

TURNER: Yeah, except my kids are those trolls on Yelp that always give the two stars, the one star - nah, not good enough, Dad - not good enough.

DOUCLEFF: Maybe they're trying to tell you something.

KAMENETZ: So on this episode of LIFE KIT, it's all about turning kids from customers you have to please into good co-workers.

TURNER: Michaeleen is going to share what she's learned from her reporting on other cultures to help our kids learn to entertain themselves.

KAMENETZ: Michaeleen Doucleff says that she got this idea from her reporting that she could sort of retrain her daughter.

TURNER: Yeah. She was thinking about a scene she had read about in an anthropology book by Jean Briggs, who studied the Inuit in the Arctic.

DOUCLEFF: In the '60s, the Inuit still lived a nomadic lifestyle. And in the winter, they built igloos to stay warm. And the mother had two young children. I think at the time, they were about 3 and 6. So this is a part of the world that's one of the coldest parts of the world, and so there were many days where, like, the little girls couldn't go outside. They had nothing to do, right? There were no videos, no Legos, no children's books. And there's these scenes in the book where the children literally spend, like, an hour or two in the morning under a blanket playing without bothering anyone.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, that sounds like a real dream come true.

TURNER: (Laughter) I cannot wait to get to that point.

DOUCLEFF: And so looking at these cultures that do this, you see a striking similarity, and that is that they do not feel the need to constantly entertain or educate or stimulate - however you want to think about it - children. It's a very different approach to the way they treat a child's time. And I think because they don't demand the child's attention - you do this now; now you're doing this; now you're doing this - I think in return, the child stops demanding the parent's attention. And so that's what I really wanted to test out.

TURNER: OK, so walk us through. What did you do?

DOUCLEFF: I stopped trying to demand Rosy's attention, right? I stopped trying to say, now it's 9 o'clock; you're going to watch this video, or, now we're going to read a book, right? I stopped being the event manager for her, and I started doing the things I needed to do and expect her to come along with me and welcomed her, right? So another thing that, like, these other cultures do that we tend not to do is welcome the children into our world, right? There's a very separate adult world, child world. And I think in order for this to work, you have to welcome them into your world. So, hey, we're cooking now. Come over here and, you know, help me stir these eggs. Or now we're cleaning. You know, help me vacuum. It is not forced. It's not like you have to do it, but I'm not going to draw you a narwhal right now. I'm cleaning. And they do this with all of their work. It's not just cleaning and domestic chores, but also, you know, their businesses. The children are there. The children are welcomed into the world.

And so I started doing that, too. I say, well, you know what? I need to write. I need to write, like, four hours a day. And, yeah, me sitting at a computer writing is not very interesting, but neither is, like, sewing in an igloo. And so I said, you know, OK, I'm going to write. I need quiet. And you are welcome to sit here with me. The first time we did it, I started small - like, 30 minutes. And if she really was upset at the beginning, I would stop. Like, I'm not trying to, like, force anything and make a lot of chaos in our house. It's really the opposite.

KAMENETZ: You mean like if she was really - like in the beginning, if she was really escalating with you and, like, getting really upset, you would give her some time?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. Like, first, I would really try to ignore her because I was really teaching her, like, this is quiet time, and it's not time for me to give you attention. But if it got really bad, then I'd be like, OK, let's go outside. You know, let's take a break, you know? But you know, guys, the first time I did it, she was kind of stunned. She actually said to me, I can do anything I want? I was like, yeah, you can do anything you want as long as you don't damage the house (laughter).


DOUCLEFF: Like, you know, and she just couldn't believe it. So started small. And after about I think a week, we had worked up to, like, hour, hour and a half chunks. And by, like, two weeks, she wants to do it, even. She'll be like, are you going to write? You know, and she'll ask me.

KAMENETZ: And so you built up to it. And her main thing that she does while you're working is what?

DOUCLEFF: She will stay here and color with me for an hour or so, and then she kind of runs around the house and does her thing. She can go outside. She "cooks," quote-unquote, which means, like, you know, mixing different things in the kitchen, and she makes a mess. There's no doubt there's messes. To be honest, she latched on to it, like, quicker and better than I thought it was going to be. You know, I mean, it is one child in one house, but it's backed up by all these other families - right? - that we've seen in these cultures that people have studied.


KAMENETZ: We did talk to another expert who had a similar take on what Michaeleen is saying. Jennifer Keys Adair is a professor of early childhood education at UT Austin. And the way that she breaks this down is called the 15/45 minute rule.

TURNER: Yeah. She suggests that you give a young child about 15 minutes of your full attention. You know, you get on the floor. You play. You read books. And that should set them up for about 45 minutes of self-directed play so you can get your work done.

KAMENETZ: Yes. And I have to say since I talked to Jen (ph) about this, I have been putting this into practice with my own 3-year-old, and it's actually working. It's actually pretty doable.

TURNER: There's one big caveat here, which is that it is obviously, for many of us, a pretty big habit change. And Michaeleen was very real about the fact that her daughter, at least at the start, had some pretty big feelings.

DOUCLEFF: This is the truth. Like, Rosy went around the house and, like, turned over every chair really hard. Like, it was really a test of my ability to just be like, I don't care, you know? And I think you're going to have to, like, steel yourself for things like that - like, big disruptions, you know? But there's something on the other side of that. And what's on the other side of that is a calmness, is ability to take care of theirself (ph), to self-entertain. It's really about getting over that wall of resistance that you're going to hit and not caring - right? - because if you care about it and you, you know, engage with it - what are you doing; what; I told you this is time to sit down - you know, like, all you're doing is giving that child more attention, right? And all you're doing is...

TURNER: Right.

DOUCLEFF: ...Showing that child that, like, oh, this isn't writing time. This is time we're going to have a big argument. And so you have to steel yourself for that. You have to, like, really believe that, oh, there's something on the other side.

KAMENETZ: Is there a compensatory thing that happens? Like, once you get your work done and you can close your laptop, do you feel like you need to give Rosy some of your, like, full-force attention to kind of balance it out?

DOUCLEFF: That's an interesting question. You know, I think I want to be with her more. During this whole time when I wrote the piece for The New York Times when I was testing it out, I was by myself. My husband was actually taking care of his dad, who was sick.

KAMENETZ: Oh, wow.

DOUCLEFF: So it was even harder than, like, right now when he's back. So I was really tired of being with her (laughter). Like, I really wanted to get away from her 'cause it was just me and her in our house. But, you know, one time I think we did it for, like, four hours straight. It was incredible. And, like, I worked, and I got work done. And then, you know, guys, like, I wanted to be with her. Like, I wanted to, like, go outside, take a walk with her. And I think for me, that's what kind of the flip side is - is like, oh, and it makes the time with her better.

KAMENETZ: I think that's really important because this reframe is just so necessary not only for the practicalities of it, but also the mental health of parents to not feel like they're being asked to do something that's, frankly, impossible.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. I mean, I think this, like, intensive parenting - right? - that we've created in our culture right now, it really doesn't work 12, 14 hours a day. You'll break down. Even if you have some help, it's still so tiring. And I think in many ways, kids just aren't built for that either. I think the kid will break down. I do really believe that kids build confidence and build maturity when they're learning autonomously. I'm not saying we should, like, stick to this all the way, but I think sprinkling it back into our children's lives will have benefits on both ends, the parents and the child.


TURNER: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've talked about teaching kindness to your kids. We've got another one about talking to kids about race.

KAMENETZ: You can find all of those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love us at LIFE KIT and you want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

TURNER: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Meghan Keane and Sylvie Douglis. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Cory Turner.

KAMENETZ: And I'm Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for listening.


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