Friday, February 22, 2008

Freedom by Structure

“Mommy, will you play with me?” asked my two-year-old daughter. It was at least the tenth time that morning I’d heard her request. This time, though, I sighed in frustration.

“Gracie, I AM playing with you!” After nearly an hour of trying to fold a single load of laundry, I had given up and sat down in the midst of the toy pile in her room. What more does she want from me? I asked myself. I quit even TRYING to get anything done around here and sat here with her while she plays with… with… That’s when it hit me: I had no idea what she was playing. I had stopped working and sat next to her, but I wasn’t really playing with her. I was just sitting there, distracted, thinking of the work that wasn’t getting done while I was sitting there not playing.

Then I realized that I’d had one too many of those days. There has to be a better way, I thought. A balance must exist between the “let go of the housework and spend time with the kids” theory and making sure we had clean clothes to wear, clean dishes from which to eat, and a discernible path through the house.

That night Gracie didn’t want to go to bed, so I employed a technique that has become well-known in our house: the timer. “OK, Gracie,” I warned, “I’m going to set the timer. You can play for a few more minutes, but when the timer goes off it is time for a bath.” I call this “freedom in structure.” She can stop worrying about bedtime and focus on playing until the timer goes off; and she’s also prepared for what is coming next, so it cuts down on any hassle over going to bed.

Hmmmm... maybe there’s something to this theory for grown-ups, too, I thought. Maybe I would try setting a timer for myself. It seemed a little cheesy, but I was desperate to get out of the rut I’d been in for the past few weeks.

The next morning I decided to put my new method to the test. After breakfast I set the timer for 30 minutes. “Mommy is going to play with you until the timer goes off,” I explained, “and then I’m going to do some work.” For the next 30 minutes I was able to enjoy my children (Gracie and my then-infant son) without worrying about the dishes in the sink or the clothes in the laundry room, because I knew I would get to them. When the timer went off I set it again, for 15 minutes this time. “Now you need to play by yourself, and Mommy is going to work until the timer goes off again.” It worked like a dream!

Since that morning I have put the timer to use many times over. The increments vary depending on the day—sometimes my play segments are longer than my work segments, sometimes the other way, and sometimes I set a timer for “Mommy time” (where we ALL play by ourselves for a while, Mommy included). At first glance it seems very constraining, like I’m tied to the clock. On the contrary, though, I find it quite freeing. When I’m playing with the kids I can focus on them and enjoy them; when I’m working I don’t feel guilty about putting off their requests for “Mommy play.” Of course, the work time isn’t fail-proof—there are times when I need to help get a toy out or referee a fight or do any number of little things to help my children. That’s just life with preschoolers. Overall, though, it works well, and even helps my kids to know that they will have my undivided attention when I am playing with them.

My house is far from spotless, but it is nice to have a method that provides me the balance between being with my family and taking care of my family. Freedom in structure—such a simple concept, yet it works wonders for toddlers and grown-ups alike!

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