As adults, our lives are filled with chores. Our days are a non-stop stream of childcare and work, always moving from one obligation to the next. We review the past, and we plan ahead. Children, on the other hand, see it all differently. They see what’s right in front of them, right now. They see the wonder and magic in the world around them, in even the most mundane things. The best, most wonderful, shining moments for me happen when I can get down to their level, to see the world through the eyes of my two little boys. It’s not always easy. I have to let go of my plans, and my expectations of what I thought was going to happen. I have to say ‘no’ to something in order to say ‘yes’ to something else. But getting on their level means a better life together as a family. We play more. We play better. We’re happier, because our priorities are clear.
It began when I made a disturbing realization: everyone was playing with my kids but me! Their dad, grandparents, and other relatives all spent most of their time at our house playing with one or both of our boys. Sure, I made the food, and changed the diapers, and was their home base of love and affection. But as soon as they were playing happily, I jumped up to get something done. I was unconsciously valuing any household chore as an accomplishment, but ignoring the important work my boys were doing. My two-year-old’s work is to stretch his imagination, to investigate new things, and to confirm what he already knows about familiar ones. His job is to run and jump and climb everywhere. He needs to be silly, and to ask the same question forty-seven times, and to roar like a lion for no reason. He needs to play on his own, yes, but he also needs to play with me. The same is true for our baby. He’s learning how to crawl, and exploring how different materials feel in his hands. His job is to look at familiar faces, and to try to eat carpet lint, and to snuggle in our arms. They are both doing the amazing work of childhood, of learning everything they can about their world. It’s awe-inspiring, and wonderful, and I wanted to be a bigger part of it.
So, I started getting on the floor with my boys. My baby can see my face, touch me, and try to nurse on anything he can reach. My two-year-old knows he has my attention, that I’m right there. We touch, and wrestle, and move away, and come back to each other again. It’s effortless, because he can get to me easily. I’m very much within reach, for both of them.
And then I got to thinking. Playing on the floor, being on their level, was forcing me to change my perspective, quite literally. I was valuing their needs for interaction, and affection, and silliness. Suddenly it was easy to see that the messes we made were unimportant, but that the time we spent playing together was essential. As soon as I started applying this perspective to our days, I began to see how I could make room for what we were missing: playtime together.
Dinnertime was the first routine to change. I used to tidy the kitchen (with the kids playing nearby), then cook the food (with the kids starting to need my attention, and getting a little fussy), then eat as a family (while the kids got wiggly in their chairs, and fussed some more), and then clean up (while everything else descended into chaos). See the pattern? I didn’t want to ignore them, and I knew they wanted me, but I kept thinking ‘but I have to do this now!’ Except that I didn’t. Not really. Children don’t care about the state of the kitchen counters, or how many dishes are in the sink. Heck, they can’t even see that high yet. They just need me to be accessible. And they need to burn more energy before bed. So now we cook together, as much as possible. And I plan meals that take less time to make. But most importantly, after dinner is official Crazy-Loud Playtime. While the weather still allows, we go outside, usually to run around the big tree about four hundred times, or play in a big pile of leaves. As the days get shorter, and the nights colder, we have to be a bit more creative. We turn off all the lights and play hide and seek with flashlights. We make blanket forts. We always try to do something we haven’t yet done that day, and we make it as active as possible.
We’ve made many other small changes. I do more chores while the kids are asleep. My standards for the house are lower. And we make experiences a priority, even if they take some work. I will say ‘yes’ to jumping in that big mud puddle, even if it means more laundry. One look at my boy’s face makes it totally worthwhile. If we’re late heading out the door somewhere, I stay calm. We’re either going to be late or we’re not, but raising my voice about it doesn’t change one thing except our stress level. My boys can’t focus on a task for very long. It won’t always be that way, but it is right now. They’re little. So, I breathe, smile, and adjust my expectations.
Often the change we’ve made isn’t something we do differently, but rather something I approach differently. For example, our hiking trips are definitely about the journey, not the destination. Like many kids, my son wants to bend down, examine, and then pick up every single acorn he comes across. In the woods. Woods full of oak trees. Before, I would be tempted to achieve some sort of goal, like getting to the top of the ridge, or doing the whole loop of the trail. We often didn’t achieve that goal, or if we did, it was because I said “Keep moving!” over and over again. It wasn’t very fun, and was stressful on all of us. But like many parenting solutions, the answer was so simple it was easy to overlook, and only needed a slight change in perspective. Who cares about walking the whole thing? That was my goal, but from my son’s level it was completely secondary to the acorns. He was stopped in his tracks with amazement at these tiny things that somehow grow into enormous trees. Their frequency in no way reduces the mystery, and I wanted to share in my son’s amazement, not diminish it. Our hikes are still about the same distance they ever were. We stop just as often. But now we all stop, and bend down, and wonder together at the tiny acorns that will someday make a forest. Yes, let’s pick up that one too. Yes, I’m happy to carry it in my pocket for you. Hey, you found another one!
There are many times as parents when we have to say ‘no.’ We are able the take the long view, and make choices that our kids might not always like. This is as it should be. But the adult perspective isn’t the only one worth seeing. When we can get on our kids’ level, we can see the importance of playtime, and affection, and uninterrupted attention. We can see the world for the magical place that it is, and we can share in their joy and amazement. Hey look, another acorn!