A Case for Hands-off Parenting, and Play

It is early one weekday morning and I am catching up on emails. I hear some kind of unrest percolating in the living room, some sibling kerfluffle that often comprises our family palette. My daughter stomps by my desk, snorting and mad. She cranks down the tie on her bathrobe and pumps her fists, shaking them at her younger brother, who stands giggling in the hallway.

“You know what?” she shouts at him, “I’m taking you off the timeline of major events in my life. Because you are minor!”

My son’s laughter shifts into a cackle, a verbal defense. He tweedles off down the hall, giving himself time and space to work out what his sister has said.

I laugh. Perhaps I’m supposed to stop this talk, to tell her to be nice. But my daughter has found her voice, and it’s bold, funny, and smart. Her brother took a piece of her Lego set, and she is angry.

Lego play seeds the stalk of my children’s imaginary life, which means it ends up influencing a large part of their actual lives. My children take new Lego sets and follow the building instructions, helping each other when one mind sees what another does not. The instruction booklets are then either lost or thrown out. Before long, the sets begin to break down: someone trips and falls, integral piece in hand, a jet booster or an axle, which falls to the ground, flies left, and lodges itself inside, say, the kitchen heating vent.

For years, I tried to reduce the ambient chaos in my house by figuring out where each wayward piece was supposed to go. My anxiety level would surge—any return to the picture-perfect original set seemed hopeless—until finally, exasperated, I started putting all the pieces together in one place. From there, I discovered, the building possibilities were infinite.

As parents, how much do we actually need to swoop in and tidy up, shape behavior, bring everything back to a perfect center? A lot of the time, I’ve learned, we don’t.

Each week, from a hodgepodge of Lego bits, my children set up new scenes, the intricacies to which only they are privy. My daughter dresses a table, filling dishes with treasured pirate gems, petit radishes, and a milk jug, her imagination splashed on the living room carpet like a page from a beloved children’s story.

This type of play is like meditation, and my kids are well practiced. Their scenes are impermanent by nature, like a Tibetan sand mandala designed over many hours and then dismantled unceremoniously by a sibling who covets, or the dog who tramples through unaware, or me, whose hands sweep everything into a storage basket at once, reducing it to litter.

Most of the learning my children do outside our house is active and engaged—in school, at sports practice, during music lessons. At home, my kids learn passively through play, where it’s safe and inherently messy. They can check out of life, into their imaginations, and back again, often grasping important emotional skills in the process. They absorb more when this happens organically, without my intervention.

My children will realize suddenly, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, that they still haven’t eaten lunch. After school on weekdays, they find that I have moved their play sets, interrupting their mental flow to make room for dinner on the kitchen table. They have to stop playing to practice piano and get their homework done. They share, pooling favorite pieces to create combined sets. They learn, therefore, how to be angry and disappointed, to forgive and surrender, to take care of themselves in small ways.

They also unearth little joys, like when one of them discovered she could make a swaddled Lego baby by simply attaching a yellow head to a tiny building column. Instead of freaking out about those tiny, errant pieces everywhere, I am actually tickled when my three-year old son lays out baby Jedi, baby Spiderman, and a baby ninja girl side by side on the corner of my desk.

“Look, Mama! They’re sleeping!”

Indeed, they are.

Some parents I know keep Lego pieces organized, colors and sizes separated in a special container made just for that purpose, getting everything back on point at the end of each day. Others still are excellent at consistently engaging with their kids in the moment, teaching them how to harness or express anger and other emotions that bubble up and over during playtime. Me? I don’t always have the time, energy, or patience for that. What’s more is that when I bring my own psyche into the mix, I can be more disruptive than helpful. As long as everyone is being respectful (or nearly so) in both the imaginary realm and the one we share together, we’re all better off when I just let the pieces roll.

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2 thoughts on “A Case for Hands-off Parenting, and Play

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  1. So interesting that the children figure out how to use Legos constructively both as a set which can only be realized by following directions, and as random pieces which act as suggestions for their fertile imaginations. The skill sets are very different and the learning possibilities vast. The parent company deserves to be making lots of money, and you deserve the peace-and-quiet you get while the kids are engrossed!

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