Encouraging kids to entertain themselves

Tracy Chappell wonders if it’s a nature versus nurture question when it comes to her daughter's need for attention.

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Anna plays around in the snow. Photo: Tracy Chappell

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005.

You always hear it in the parenting world: Kids today don’t know how to entertain themselves. They want us to fill their days with activities and stimulation, and we’re bending over backwards to do so, loading up their time with lessons, personal attention and teachable moments.

But is it really our fault? One on hand, we’re told to do this. Our generation is full of sponges eager to absorb all the good teachings around us in the parenting realm, and there is so much information hovering over us about how to raise kids who are smart and kind and empowered and awesome. What’s wrong with wanting parenting to be something we work really hard at?

Read more: Do you spend one-on-one time with your kids? >

Well, for one, it’s exhausting. Of course our kids should feel loved and we should strive to raise them the best we can, but we also have to remember that we’re raising people who have to go out into the world and make their way, based on what we’ve taught them.

One issue we have at my house is that “entertain me” desire. But not for both kids. I have two girls—Anna is seven and Avery is five—who make me wonder if the ability to entertain yourself falls into the nature versus nurture conundrum.

Anna has always needed a lot of attention and, because she was my first, that’s just how I learned how to parent. She wanted me with her all the time—“Watch me, Mommy!” “Look at this, Mommy!” “Come sit with me, Mommy!” “Mommy?” “Mommy?!” Sometimes, she calls my name and doesn’t actually have anything to say, it’s as if she just wants a check-in. She really, really likes me, which is great but, yes, it gets tiring. Even today, I have to say to her “If you need my help or my attention, come to me, don’t holler from the other room/level of the house.” But have I conditioned her to think I’m at her beck and call? I’ve tried not to, but maybe so.

At times, Anna has trouble entertaining herself, unless a screen is involved. She loves to read, and loves games and playing with figures and things like that, but she would rather me choose something for her to do than find something on her own (and she doesn’t usually like my suggestions). She also wants us engaged in her activity. For example, she can’t just play and float around in a pool—we need to be chasing her or creating some sort of game for her. She’s started declaring “I’m bored” at an annoyingly frequent rate. And there’s not a statement that makes me cringe more than that one. My instant response is “Only boring people get bored,” but she shrugs and says, “I guess I’m boring then,” which isn’t the message I’m trying to convey at all. I think a big issue is the TV, and the passive entertainment it provides. When she has to turn it off, she has trouble switching to a more active role in her own amusement.

Avery, on the other hand, has always been very content to occupy herself. Second-child syndrome? Maybe. I remember when she was a baby and Anna was a toddler and I’d be on the floor playing with Anna in some half-awake state while Avery cooed away in her bouncy chair. At some point, I’d look over and Avery would have just fallen asleep on her own. It always shocked me, since Anna wouldn’t sit in that chair for more than five minutes, and I had to rock her forever to get her to sleep. I know second kids grow up not knowing anything different than sharing their parents’ attention; Avery never seemed to mind.

And these days, she is very much the same. She doesn’t like to watch TV, so while Anna’s glued to the screen for her allotted time, Avery will casually wander off and find something else to do, like a puzzle or a game. Some days, she’ll drag out the craft box without me knowing and present me with some glitter-glued masterpiece she created while I was throwing dinner together. She likes to hang out with me if Anna won’t play with her, and is happy to set the table or help me make dinner, or set up a card game for us to play when I’m done doing what I’m doing. Even when we have movie night, she gets all excited, but will find something else to do on the living room floor within 15 minutes of showtime. “Are you happy I don’t like to watch TV?” she asked me the other day. I admit, there are times it would make my life easier, but it’s nice to see her so content with her own company.

Read more: Is using a tablet to keep your kids occupied lazy parenting? >

When Anna is into a book, it’s a great thing—that can definitely occupy her time. She can also get very absorbed by Lego or playing with figures. And, strangely, she is very content in the car, reading or colouring or even just staring out the window. I think it depends largely on her mood; when she’s having trouble finding something to occupy her time, we sure know it. I guess the challenge is to find a way to help her help herself.

It’s nice, in a way, to be wanted. I’m sure when she’s older, I’ll look back and be happy we were so closely aligned… while she’s off entertaining herself.

Do your kids have trouble entertaining themselves? How do you handle it?

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