Dear Dr. Debbie,

My mother thinks I play with my children too much. Really? I wish I had more time to enjoy them, protect them and teach them!Mom plays with kids

I stay home while my husband works, however, I do pick up volunteer duties for the older one’s preschool, social commitments for my husband’s job, and a comfortable amount of obligations for family, friends and neighbors. Plus, there’s housecleaning, laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, etc. that come with managing the bulk of the needs for my immediate family. I try to enjoy a good book several times a year, too.

Grandma’s criticism is that I don’t give the children a chance to get bored and find ways to entertain and solve problems themselves. I find that if I do ignore them for too long, they fight with each other or create huge messes. Plus, the older one can manage the latch on the gate, so leaving them unsupervised in the back yard just isn’t safe.

Mom On Duty

Don’t miss last week’s column Birthday parties can be stressful — Good Parenting

Dear MOD,

When you play with your children, you can share cultural knowledge, challenge their thinking skills, build their vocabulary, shape their character, and yes, protect them effectively. It is nice to hear that you take your parenting duties seriously and find the joy that comes from doing this job well. It sounds like you also manage to maintain some connections outside your immediate family to balance your children’s needs with some of your own.

Grandma’s point of view is likely colored by different circumstances that existed in her parenting years. Rather than play with her children, she may have spent time including them in her chores (yes, this makes chores take longer, but it’s time well-invested toward children’s gaining responsibility and independence). Quite likely she had fewer conveniences than you and needed more time for housework which kept her too busy to play. The family may have lived where there were ready playmates among the neighboring families. Or maybe your mother was a working mom who had even less time at home to take care of household chores, and therefore, expected children’s play needs to be taken care of while she was at work.

Too Much is Too Much

What your mother may be noticing is that while you have the best intentions, too much parental play time can sometimes be too much of a good thing. A little boredom, a little unsupervised risk-taking, a little of getting into trouble and having to rely on oneself or a playmate to get out of it, can all help a young child to gain self-confidence and boost creativity. These gains happen best with the least amount of parental influence. While it is wonderful to share playtime with your children, you should be working toward helping them to play independently of you. And you may need to step back some to let it happen.

You should organize play spaces in and out of the house to eliminate dangers and increase self-directed play. The simpler toys are usually better because they stimulate imaginative thinking such as a ball, blocks, a sandbox, blank paper and washable markers. Some children may need a little guidance to get started (and be safe) with these materials, but it usually doesn’t take long for their fun value to be self-evident. You might also invest in a child-proof gate for the fence.

There is an apt quote from the revolutionary educator, Maria Montessori, who “invented” the planned environment in which children are pretty much left on their own to choose their work and make their own discoveries. “The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’” We could say something similar for a mother — that you can count it as a success when your close engagement in your children’s play is by invitation rather than expectation.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]

On Wednesday, May 4, 2016, Debbie will be leading a discussion inspired by Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” comparing the childhoods of the past with childhood today. This is part of The Big Read, a program of the National Endowment of the Arts which endeavors to spark conversation and bring communities together through reading a common book. Activities are planned for adults, children and families at Chesapeake Children’s Museum and other sites in Anne Arundel County through May 21. For more information, go to or call 410-990-1993.