My kid is bored and I am frustrated.
March 7, 2011 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Is it fair that I ask my 2.5 year old daughter to play independently? She wants me around to do *everything* with her and I feel like she should at least be able to occupy herself alone for a few minutes at a time. I need guidance and suggestions.

My daughter is extremely verbal and bright (but of course, I'm biased). We've enrolled her in preschool for this September when she turns 3, but for she's mainly with me all day until my husband gets home. We have tons of music classes, art classes and playdates with friends to keep her occupied, but I worry we should have enrolled her in preschool earlier. C'est la vie, because preschools in NYC are all overbooked so we can't get her in anywhere earlier.

When we're at home alone, my daughter expects me to do everything with her. If I have to answer emails or take a phone call, I'll set her up with art supplies or give her a "task" she usually enjoys ("tear up this magazine page into tiny pieces"/"put Kleenex diapers on your dolls") to keep her occupied, but she gets extremely upset and clingy. It's gotten to the point where I can't get a free minute to plan the day, look up what museums are open or who's free for a playdate, because she's crying about being ignored. If I set her up at the kitchen table with crayons and paper so she can color while I make dinner, she begs me to color with her the entire time and gets agitated when I finally leave to put things in the oven.

Just now I dropped her off at our neighbor's house because I needed to check directions on how to get to our new music class. We'd been pretending to go to the store, so I asked my daughter to take her baby to the store while I found information. She elected to stand right by my side, staring at me with huge Anime eyes full of tears, and then sobbed in my lap during the 3 minutes it took me to check the subway directions.

I know she's still very little, and Mom saying that she has to check her email can seem like Mom is saying "go sit in a lonely corner and wait forever." I understand that when I do simple adult tasks where I can't include her (like taking things out of the broiler, or talking to my editor on the phone for 5 minutes, or checking the computer for subway directions) make her feel neglected and sad. When there are ways to include her, I do, but I also think she needs to learn how to amuse herself independently for short periods of time. Is that too much to ask of a still-youngish toddler?

The worst part is that I get so frustrated when I can't get a second to pee or answer emails for 2 minutes that I snap at my kid, which in turn makes her more anxious and upset and needy for my reassurances. I need more constructive ways for dealing with the "staring at Mom pointedly while tears well in my huge eyes" than simply feeling guilty and irritated!

Other details: she watches a half hour of TV a couple times a week, but I don't like using TV as a babysitter unless absolutely imperative. I am at home with my daughter M-F, 8-6, but when my husband gets home he takes over main parenting responsibilities until bedtime.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (49 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, wow, I feel for you. Our almost two year old is pretty good at playing on her own, and I attribute a lot of that to daycare/preschool, so I do hope that will help you out. And also, I think it means that at least for some kids, that is certainly not too long for some solo play time. (Or, maybe at 2.5 I'll decide it is impossible... but our 21 month old can play happily by herself for 15-20 minutes).

Advice for now, though - maybe try setting a routine for a while, where, at the same time every day, you expect her to spend 15 minutes doing something on her own. Is there a time that she is generally in a happy mood? (post nap, post snack, maybe?) Is there a room where you can safely stash her - we can gate off our family room, and if I'm in the kitchen I can still see her. I say "mommy has to finish X. I'll be right here. You play for a minute." And then I put up the gate and ignore her for 15 minutes ("ignore her" meaning that I don't engage her, but I do make sure she isn't going to harm herself - she can't really, in that room, but you get what I mean). When she was younger, we sometimes put her in her crib for this (although I know some parents who would say that's bad because the crib is for sleeping not playing, but we luckily don't have sleep issues... yet...). Or, sometimes we would put her in the high chair and give her something to do there - she couldn't get out.

All of which is a way of saying, you have to not engage the sad eyes and crying, as hard as that is. Eventually she will learn that "checking email" or "emptying the dishwasher" or "peeing" doesn't mean you'll be gone forever, and she'll figure out that playing is better than crying. But right now, it sounds like crying gets her what she wants, so she's going to keep doing it. I bet if you set a schedule for two weeks and are pretty firm in it, it'll get easier. (Maybe after that you can relax the schedule).

Good luck.... it's so hard sometimes, isn't?

(oh, and on preview, I thought of something else - I don't usually tell our daughter what to do during this time - I just give her access to her toys/books/whatever. Kids are so different.. I know some need direction/structure, but maybe your daughter would do better if you just let her pick the activity?)
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:41 AM on March 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

I also think she needs to learn how to amuse herself independently for short periods of time. Is that too much to ask of a still-youngish toddler?

Yeah, I think this is too much to ask, but then again there are no right answers here. If you have to go pee, you have to go pee (although why not let her stay in the bathroom with you? It's a teachable moment). If you have to take food out of the oven, you have to take food out of the oven. But generally speaking, unless we're talking about material goods, watching television or sugary snacks, as a rule of thumb it's best to give your toddler everything she wants.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:41 AM on March 7, 2011

It probably depends on the kid. I was definitely playing by myself by the time I was two.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:42 AM on March 7, 2011

I don't like using TV as a babysitter unless absolutely imperative

This might be considered a little bit unorthadox but I think a sane mommy is worth a little more TV, especially if it works to keep her entertained for a little while.

If her only source of entertainment was TV, and if you weren't doing all those other things that keep her engaged.. then I could see why you would have concerns and consider it as the tv being your babysitter. But it doesn't sound like you're doing that.

If you have cable, and unless something has changed in the last few years, turn on Nickelodeon. Their morning and early afternoon programming is geared towards sesame street style shows.
posted by royalsong at 7:45 AM on March 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think you've probably nailed it yourself - it's time for preschool, or at least more time with other kids, such as some kind of co-op or share.

I also wouldn't beat yourself up to much about putting on the TV every once in a while to get things done, as long as you don't follow the slippery slope into having it on constantly.
posted by Artw at 7:45 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

(We also use TV - almost every morning when I am getting dressed for work. If you have cable, the on demand stuff is great - Barney, the Wonderpets, Jack's Big Music Show are all hits here. Barney has taught her to repeat, among other things (with reinforcement from us, of course), colors, counting, and the days of the week (not that she knows what these thigns are, but she can say them).
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:48 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

My daughter is 4 now, but when she was 2.5 I was desperate to get a break of any kind for exactly this reason. I made two decisions at that point:

1. While it was fine for her to want me every minute of every day, it was also fine for her not to get what she wanted every single time. IOW, I didn't need her to be OK with playing by herself, but I did need her to leave me alone.

2. I was going to be OK with her watching a lot more TV.

I went from allowing her a half hour of TV a day to an hour and a half of TV a day. (As my pediatrician said: "The APA recommends as little TV as possible, and certainly no more than two hours a day. But Jesus Himself can't stop me from putting on Dora so I can cook some damn dinner.") I also tried to start a "quiet time!" tradition to replace naps, which I didn't stick to and really wish I had; basically, it's a period where We Play By Ourselves In Our Room. I'm having a bit more luck with it now, since she's in preschool for 3.5 hours a day, five days a week, and it tires her out a little. I think it's worth it to push the Quiet Time agenda, even if it means tears, even if it's only 15 minutes a day at first.
posted by KathrynT at 7:49 AM on March 7, 2011 [9 favorites]

Yeah, I think 2.5 years is really young to expect a lot of solo play. My kids didn't start pre-school 'til they were over 3, and then it was only 2-3 mornings a week. They didn't go M-F until they were 4.

I do understand not wanting to let TV be a babysitter! I didn't, either. And yes, they follow you to the bathroom (I would shut the door, though, because I did need some privacy), and they cling and they want you. I honestly don't think it is realistic to expect to be able to get much work done at home with a toddler in the house.

It sounds like you have a lot of activities planned. She may be getting overstimulated. You need some slow down time, like reading to her, and also maybe some undirected play time. It could be that she is so used to you giving her activities that she doesn't know what to do with herself when you don't!

That said, maybe your toddler would like a pet to make friends with?

And, this will sound trite, but you will be amazed how much you miss these times once your toddler is older. I don't miss bottles, diapers or car seats but I so miss camping out on the floor with my kids building train tracks and constructing bock towns with my kids! And now my oldest is off to college in the Fall and I. Am. Freaking. Out.

It's kinda nice to be needed, you know?
posted by misha at 7:50 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I do not think you are asking too much of her. Both my three and a half year old and my 22 month old can do this for about 15 minutes pretty easily, both alone and together. I follow the philosophy mentioned above. My 22 month old's room is extremely well kid proofed and full of cool toys and puzzles and books. If I need to make a phone call, I tell her to go play for a few minutes while Mommy talks to a grown up. She does this without an issue. But I've been doing this since she could crawl, trying to teach her to amuse herself sometimes. Is this a clingy phase for her? My older one went through that a couple times-where she just seemed very emotional. So maybe it will get better with time.

Also it might help if you found her something similar to do-like say that it's time to make phone calls-give her an old cell phone to "call" some people while you call some people. Or give her some celery to wash in the sink while you make dinner so she can feel like she is helping. Something that entertains her and keeps her out of your way for a few minutes but also makes her feel like she is part of what you are doing, at least until she gets used to the idea?
posted by supercapitalist at 7:50 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, she should be able to occupy herself for periods of time while you pee or do other stuff. She may be a toddler, but she's capable of playing solo from time to time.

I think you're doing a good job at giving her things to do while you need to attend to other duties. However, if she's still clingy and fussing while you take a phone call or whatever, I'd remove her from the situation and from the fun task you've provided. Explain simply that "Mom needs to write an email. Here are some crayons and pictures to color while I'm on the computer." Perhaps follow up with letting her know once you're done with task you'll read her a story, color with her, etc. If she fusses, tell her that she needs to stop fussing or she'll need to go to her room/time out, whatever. And then follow through.

It sounds like you do A LOT with her. And that's good. Don't feel guilty. She is not neglected.

Another thought just crossed my mind. Like I said, it sounds like you do a lot with her - museums, playdates, music classes, etc. Are you really getting enough one-on-one time with her without any distractions? No classes, museums, play dates. . .just you and her reading stories together or doing a craft together.

I agree with the suggestion above (dpx.mfx) of making a routine. I've been a stay-at-home mom for 10 years now (wow). After I get the kids breakfast and get the older kids off to school, I put on the tv for my little guy and he watches while I check my email and take a shower/get ready for the day. It's our little routine. No setting up a craft or cleaning up an art mess. He doesn't watch for hours and hours. But he is aware that I'm attending to other things and this is his time to watch tv until we get into our day.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:51 AM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Hey I have a 2.5 year old daughter that can be like this at times! (also live in NYC, playdate?!)

Hopefully this will improve once she is in daycare. But for now? Can you ramp up a little bit? When we are trying to train my daughter to do something for longer than 30 seconds or so, we use the microwave timer and tell her she has to do whatever "until the beep beeps". (in our case, it was sitting on the potty. she kept wanting to get up and run around, and no amount of books or talking to her would keep her sitting, UNTIL we told her that she should wait until the timer went off. for some reason that worked, and we've used it for another couple of behaviors since then). So maybe get her to play by herself for 30 seconds, or a minute or whatever and then gradually make it longer?

I definitely agree with letting her pick the activity, too. Does she like to "read" to herself? (except for when on the potty) my daughter will happily sit in the middle of a pile of books and "read" them out loud. I firmly believe that a little bit of ignoring the kid is ultimately good for them, so if you can gently push through this phase it will be good for both of you.
posted by gaspode at 7:53 AM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Coming back in to say that a little TV every day is fine, IMO, especially if it is fun educational stuff like Sesame Street. I didn't mean to imply you should never turn on the TV!
posted by misha at 7:54 AM on March 7, 2011

Does she still nap? Naps can be used to transition to learning to play alone if she knows she needs to stay quietly in her room during that time.
posted by carmicha at 7:54 AM on March 7, 2011

You might be in an anxiety feedback loop, where you get mildly annoyed, she senses it, and gets more clingy.

I also think she needs to learn how to amuse herself independently for short periods of time. Is that too much to ask of a still-youngish toddler?

I don't think it's too much to expect but I do think it's too much to expect it to happen when you want it to with this kid. Our kid is 2.5 and isn't at all clingy, but it's nothing to do with us -- she was like that from the start. Sounds great now, right? But she also might wind up smoking when she's thirteen, so take heart. We're all different. I was a clingy, clingy kid. I probably drove my mom insane.

We keep a store of go-to wow projects like sheets of stickers or new paints or some toy someone gives us or whatever, so there's something in a moment of crisis that we can hand to her and say, Here! Be wowed! when we absolutely need to have her occupied.

Also TV, and 'not liking to use it as a babysitter' If you're looking for validation: go for it. We did, we do, we will again. Shamelessly. If we need a Sesame Street break in order to keep from going into a toddler-induced coma, such is life. She's still watching nowhere near the amount of television Mr. Llama and I watched as kids.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:55 AM on March 7, 2011 [8 favorites]

When she turns three, or maybe now if you're really desperate, you could start showing her how to read? That's what my mother did. She saw my frustration at not really being able to do anything, and reading was something to do.

Just show her the letters and tell her what sound each letter makes. Not "this is a kay" but "this is a /k/". And some easy-to-recognize words, like "exit", will help her to string the sounds together. At least that is how my mom did it.

It will take a little time to pay dividends, but it worked on me.
posted by tel3path at 7:57 AM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you have your whole day scheduled a lot, and are go-go-go all the time. Maybe your little girl just wants to relax with her mommy? Can you both just watch a movie or something and snuggle on the couch? It might give her the opportunity for some amazing one-on-one snuggle time with Mommy and fulfill that need for her so you can get some more done at other times of the day? Let her snuggle on your chest and watch Finding Nemo or something.
posted by katypickle at 7:59 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I feel for you as well. I call my daughter "the Barnacle", and she's 5. Some kids need more interaction than others. No two kids are alike. There is nothing wrong with her--or you--it just is what it is. Do you use Time Outs as a discipline technique? If so, remember to structure her "alone play time" as VERY different--completely different--than a Time Out, as the withdrawal from interaction can feel very difficult to her. (We didn't use TO's until age 3, but some parents use them earlier.)

Try to think about what you need and what she needs, and find a compromise.

-Predictability, or some control over her world
-New association with your alone time and something that she enjoys vs. dreads

-Time to plan things without interruption
-A confident and less anxious child

There are a few ways to go about this.

Things to do for reassurance? Let her sit on your lap and "help" you while you do some things (not ideal).
Reassurance + Predictability? A countdown timer where she knows when you will be done and will turn your attention back to her. (Start it off with her using very small amounts of time, and increase it gradually. 5 minutes is a lot of time for 2.5 years old.)
Interaction + Reassurance + New Association? An educational, no-ads, online learning site, such as PoissonRouge while you are on the phone.
Interaction + Predictability? A fun sitter or play date scheduled at the same time for the same amount of time for 2-3 mornings a week that allows you to catch up on things.
posted by jeanmari at 8:01 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Welcome to the long, long journey of not giving your child everything she wants, and having to grin and bear it through the ensuing agitation and tears and whining. You start off with the infant-parenting stage, when your main job is to make your child feel comfortable and happy, and will eventually wind up with a teenager, when your main job (or at least the only one that seems to elicit any comment) is to make your child feel miserable. It requires a bit of a mental shift :-)

I think it's quite reasonable to expect to be able to disengage from your daughter for short periods of time at her age. As for how to make it easier for you and her: for you, keep in mind that your goal is a behavior modification, and being consistent in your response (ignoring, not giving in) will get you to that goal so much quicker, and that oftentimes kids will ESCALATE the behavior that used to work before finally giving it up. So if things go from bad to worse as you consistently enforce the ignoring, steal your resolve by reminding yourself that your evil beneficial plan is working! Because really, it's as much of a behavior modification for you as it is for her: going from crying/whining=OMG, must fix something ?!?!?! to crying/whining=parenting job well done!

For her, some kids find an egg timer to be helpful before they have a real sense of time. Also, if you think TV is too non-interactive, we got a lot of mileage out of Keywhack or whatever the equivalent toddler keyboard-pounding software is today (won't work if you've only got one computer at home and you need to answer e-mails, but in other situations it may help out).
posted by SomeTrickPony at 8:01 AM on March 7, 2011 [8 favorites]

She's not too young to learn some self-soothing skills. She is probably too young for you to expect her to successfully do this for any length of time. There are plenty of great non-licensed-product TV options to use for your kid and these can be great ways to buy you some time. My wife and I hate anything on TV that is designed to sell a product (to the point that we even avoid Sesame Street), but we have a bunch of DVDs and iPhone videos and games that we can whip out as needed.
posted by norm at 8:02 AM on March 7, 2011

At 2 1/2 she's certainly able to use tears to get you to do what she wants. And at 2 1/2 she's certainly old enough for some self-directed imaginative play. (Honestly I'd be a little more concerned about her unwillingness to play without instructions than about the clinginess, but I read a lot about the "play movement" so my brain goes that direction.)

Personally I'd give her ten minutes or so (five, fifteen, two, whatever you're comfortable with) that you give some kind of name ("solo play time" if you want) and do it at the same time every day ... like maybe before lunch or midmorning ... but not right before a nap. And then I'd get a new toy she was really interested in, give it to her at that time, and say "it's time for solo play time, mommy is going to be in the other room doing [whatever]." And then resolutely leave her alone to play in a safe place. You will probably have to be out of sight. And she will probably be hysterical the first couple days. Set a timer. Don't come back until it's done. Do this for a week or two and she'll probably get the idea. I'd put the special toy away after solo play time and only bring it out for that, at least at first.

And then you can start introducing it at other times in the day: "Mommy has to go make dinner for ten minutes, so you have some solo play time, okay?" And you can start encouraging her to play on the floor NEAR you while you read a book and give her attention when she needs it but let her play solo other times.

(We have "mandatory morning rest period" with my 21-month-old who gave up his morning nap but who goes into FULL MELTDOWN MODE by lunch if he doesn't have some quiet, not-very-stimulating alone time in the morning. He actually plays happily in his room for half an hour with some books to look at and some trucks to crash and lots of words to say to himself outloud, along the lines of the nap/play suggestion above. It's also made him better at amusing himself at other times.)

Another option: is she as clingy with daddy? It's possibly dad could introduce solo play time -- when I nannied a clingy 2 1/2 year old, he was not nearly as clingy with me as with mom, so I had a lot more success introducing him to playing by himself than his mom did, but once he learned with me, he could do it with mom.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:04 AM on March 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

You will be less frustrated if you wait until she is engrossed in something and then check e-mail &c, instead of trying to: Mum has to do X now.

Setting her up to "work" beside you = good. It will of course take longer to do everything, but, it will get done. My play kitchen is right by my actual kitchen for this reason. I am going to do X so here is some X for you to do. Do make sacrificial offerings of mess/commodities from time to time -- a bag of dried lentils on the floor is a worthwhile distraction, easy enough to sweep later.

The amuse-oneself stuff just comes; it can't really be taught anymore than walking can. But it does come. My daughter is 3.5 now and life is different from what it was a year ago, I promise.

I am very down on TV for kids, don't own one, did no TV until two -- but it does have its uses, and YouTube can be a good bribe when you need to make a phone call. I managed to sell my toddler on Beethoven and orchestra videos buy enough time to breathe. It can be useful; I like to use it as a tool to expand on the real world. Tomorrow we're going to the museum and we're going to see an exhibit on mammals; here is a video about bears, etc. In my experience, when video is very limited and there's no exposure to the sort of junk that exists just to sell junk toys, it is (1) highly appealing, will totally buy time to use the telephone, (2) actually somewhat useful. My deal with cartoons has been that one can go ahead and watch if they are in French, and we watch French cartoons on YouTube with me getting work done in another window and offering translations here and there, and little by little the kid is learning French, and the impact of my awful accent is minimised.

My daughter has enjoyed "nursing" her dolls, and I pounced on this as an opportunity to explain that Mummies like to read while they nurse. She is set up with the dolly, snuggled up cosily with blankets and pillows, and given a board book she is familiar enough with to "read" on her own. Fifteen minutes break for me, literacy boost for her...

I can't imagine how an early pre-school enrolment would help? If the kid is not yet ready to be away from Mummy much (normal!) you'd just be looking at upping the clinginess level with that. I would not punish a toddler for fussing -- not useful to engage in what ends up amounting to fighting with your kid (see also "ignoring, not giving in"; don't power-struggle, it's not a fight, you don't have to win). +1 that you might be too busy and she may be happier with more time on the sofa.
posted by kmennie at 8:04 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a 2.5 yr old and I guess I'm lucky, because she will play by herself for 20-30 minutes at a time. I pop her in the gated playroom and go get stuff done, but then, I've been doing that forever.

Maybe a timer will help your girl. Start off setting it for a minute and tell her that you'll be back when it dings - but you HAVE to come back when it dings. Gradually increase the time until you get good sized chunks of solo play out of her. Maybe she just needs to know when you'll be available again. Five minutes doing 'X' is an eternity if you don't know that 'X' will be over in six (if you know what I mean).
posted by PorcineWithMe at 8:04 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

You probably have anxiety about it which she's feeling. The big things here are patience and confidence. Try doing this kind of thing when you don't have things to do, and ride out any sad eyes. It's okay for her to be sad. We all get sad sometimes.

I've found that the transition can cause crabbiness and that longer blocks of independent play work better than 5 minutes, which is not really long enough to get into the swing of things.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:16 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not very articulate right now, so excuse me if this is a little random and disjointed. I also didn't read the above posts, so I'm sorry if this is a repeat.

Your daughter needs to learn to play by herself and keep herself occupied. Maybe in your play together you can start to have her take the lead. Also, instead of giving her tasks maybe you can just give her the tools and let her do what she wants. "Play with your blocks" instead of "Build me a castle."

Also, maybe you could try scheduling time where she has to keep herself busy but you're still there. Maybe it could be a game? "I'm going to set the timer for 5 minutes and you have to find something to do while I sit here on the couch." Don't leave her, but don't join in either. That way she has to occupy herself but won't feel abandoned. You could even call it her "Me time." Eventually you can build up the time and slowly move on to doing your own thing.

This is one of the things she needs to do. You're going to have to ignore the (heart breaking, gut wrenching) tears. It's just like getting shots, it's a little pain now but it'll be worth it in the end.

FWIW my three year old doesn't play very well by himself unless he's forced to sit down. I can't just put toys out for him and expect him to play. He has to be strapped into his high chair at the table or in his stroller with toys on the tray. I teach art at my older kids' school and he's perfectly happy sitting at a back table playing by himself as long as he's strapped into his stroller. If I let him out then he's running a muck all over the place.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:19 AM on March 7, 2011

2.5 is the time to have her play independently at the playground while you sit on the bench and watch. Yes, it's cold, dress warmly. However this is your shot to read your email, surf web, etc in piece (albeit on small screen).
posted by crazycanuck at 8:24 AM on March 7, 2011

Children respond well to operant conditioning, including extinction. That is, part of the reason she keeps doing this stuff is because it gets her the reaction she wants--your attention. She's not being maliciously manipulative, right now she's still a half-formed creature operating with a lot of egoism and not much abstract thought, so she sees a need and wants it fulfilled NOW. Give her routine self-playtime, and find a routine way to respond when she resists. So when she starts crying, calmly say "Mommy needs you to play alone now," and continue with your work. No punishment, no placating, no putting her somewhere else, you put her with her toys the first time, put her back there two, three times at most when she follows you to your office or whatever, and then continue with your business.

The hard part is this endeavor will require you to initially withstand a LOT of crying and temper tantrums without reaction until she gets the hint that they won't work anymore. You have to go about your business and completely ignore them. The reason extinction doesn't work for a lot of parents is because ignoring a screaming child is extremely hard to do.

Consider is that kids got on by themselves without constant adult petting and attention for hundreds and thousands of years. Adults were within eyesight or earshot, but children have managed without playdates and museum trips and all that crap forever. Not to say that these things are bad, or there aren't some childrearing practices that needed serious improvement, but there's something to be said for expecting independence from a kid. Expecting self-directed play is not child abuse, it's encouraging creative thought and self-confidence.
posted by schroedinger at 8:26 AM on March 7, 2011 [15 favorites]

Also - I am sure NYC has similar facilities to I take for granted in the Seattle area - coffee shops with toy areas for kids to play in and purpose-made indoor drop in play areas. In both places, you can sit and keep half an eye on a kid while she entertains herself with new toys/friends.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:28 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Er, should be "Consider kids", take out the "is that".
posted by schroedinger at 8:28 AM on March 7, 2011

When my child was a toddler, I also worried every time she was unhappy without me. Here's what you'll realize in a few years: if you don't feel guilty or anxious about her tears, they will be just what they are: a toddler crying because she wants what she wants now. Not an imperative about what you should do, just an expression of what she wants.
Remind yourself -- *yourself* -- about the difference between her wants and needs. She wants you every second. She really doesn't need you every second.
AND - most important -- don't forget to put your own oxygen mask first. I personally don't think you should have to wait to get to a place where she has tons of distractions, like a playground or coffee shop, to do a little emailing, to thumb through the newspaper, or to go to the bathroom by yourself. Maybe you want to do this whenever you want to do it, not have to hold out, day after day, until she's entertained. Her life does not have to be a Disneyland of constant entertainment. It takes a long time to realize this with a first kid, but she will be OK just *being* for a few minutes, even if it causes tears and big anime eyes. The bigger lesson: You count too, and it's GOOD for her to see you taking care of yourself! It's really good (especially for girls) for her to see: Hey, Mom needs five minutes and she's taking care of herself. Catch you in a second, honey.
If you get to a place where you know you're really not neglecting her every time you do a task, then I think she'll calm down. Remind yourself that mothers all around the world just go about their days while their toddlers watch. It's more than OK, and it's necessary to take care of yourself.
posted by keener_sounds at 8:51 AM on March 7, 2011 [15 favorites]

Not only is it fair for you to do this, it's necessary. Managing unstructured time is an important life skill she needs to be developing. When my kids were each that age, they would do their own thing and I'd do my own thing... in proximity, so we were together if they really needed me, but certainly my full attention wasn't on them all the time. Or, to be frank, even most of the time.

Other commenters have hit the nail on the head here: Just because she's upset doesn't mean you have to make her feel better. Cultivate a heart of stone. Just like it's important for her to learn how to go potty, how to talk, how to read... it's also important for her to learn how to handle frustration when it inevitably arises, and how to entertain herself.

Extra bonus points: You're modeling for her what an adult woman should be like. Show her that you value yourself and your own needs, so that she will, in turn, know how to value herself and her own needs should she have children one day.
posted by Andrhia at 9:09 AM on March 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

All my kids played alone for at least 15 minutes or so at a time before the age of 1. So yeah, I don't think 2 1/2 is too little to learn to play alone for brief periods. I would say it's not only "fair", it's necessary for her development to help her learn this. I firmly believe kids need to learn how to amuse themselves (fall on their own resources) as early as possible. Independence is a good thing - I did not and do not want my kids to expect me to amuse them (I do play with them, but it's not my job to make sure they're entertained all the time - how will they develop their inner resources without opportunity?).

But of course if you haven't been on that page up until now then it's much harder for both you and your daughter to transition to a new expectation. It sounds like you're both stuck in a script - you try to leave her be, she cries and gets upset, you get upset, you give her more attention, etc. (We all get stuck in scripts with our kids, of varying kinds.) Also I note that you sound like you are often finding specific things for her to do rather than she figures something out herself.

How much unstructured time does she have to play? Do you sit her down with something to do - blocks, a dollhouse, whatever, and then sit back on the couch and read while she does it? Try giving her more time like that. Don't participate, don't give her a task to accomplish, just let her play on the rug while you do something else quietly in the room with her, and don't interact much. You should absolutely be able to read a magazine for ten minutes or check email while you're in the room with her without her demanding your attention the entire time.

To play without you in the room, I think first you should work with her to get her to play independently for a few minutes when you DON'T have something you have to do. This will mean you're less stressed and it'll be easier not to follow the script - you don't HAVE to have her be quiet because you've got to make this phone call RIGHT NOW. And you probably should work on it regularly, as part of your routine, a bunch of times every day.

Start using a timer? Get her used to the "ding" - we'll color for five minutes until we hear the "ding". Then you color for five minutes by yourself and let me know when you hear the "ding"! How long can you stay in your room by yourself? Let's see! Can you stay two minutes? Can you stay three? Until you hear the "ding"?

Maybe letting her pick out a toy - a really amusing toy - something flashy and interactive, perhaps, like it plays music when you press different buttons or something. Then she only gets to play with it while you're on the phone or checking email. Get her excited about it - it's time to play with THE COOL TOY! You get to play with it for ten minutes!

You can also try making a big deal out of being "big" - you're so big Mommy can trust you to sit in your room by yourself for a few minutes! (Obviously, childproofed.) Babies have to be watched all the time but YOU are so big now you can read in your room by yourself! Help project an attitude of growing up.

Notice even the littlest times she gives you - you played by yourself while Mommy went to the bathroom! You're getting so big! Would you like a sticker to put on the fridge? Praise her for a minute or two, work on praising for longer lengths of time, so she can make the connection that loss of attention for a few minutes isn't loss of attention forever and ever.

You have a lot of talk here as if you are doing something wrong by needing time to do adult tasks or even a little time to yourself - that she will feel "neglected and sad", that you feel "guilty and irritated". Please try to reframe it to yourself that you are doing her a favor - you are helping her learn and grow to be an independent person, which is vital for a child. She will have a hard time transitioning to preschool if she needs interaction all the time! Your attitude will help shape your child's attitude. If you don't want her to think you being on the phone for five minutes is "being ignored", don't think of it that way yourself, and don't reinforce the idea for her! Good luck.
posted by flex at 9:12 AM on March 7, 2011 [13 favorites]

You are not expecting too much of her. My 2.5 year old can definitely amuse herself for stretches of time and we never watch television. However, we've always had the expectation that she could and should entertain herself occasionally so I think it's somewhat ingrained with her by now.

Can you try setting a clock for small but gradually increasing increments? If you let her know exactly what your expectations are ("You need to play by yourself with these blocks for 2 minutes and then after that we'll read a book together") and then follow-through on both aspects - making her wait for 2 minutes as well as spending time with her afterward that might help establish the pattern. It'll be tough in the beginning but you'll need to be equally adamant and not cave in to her demands. Kids this age are tyrants but they also seem to need very clear boundaries about what they can and can't do. Good luck with this. You need a break, too!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:27 AM on March 7, 2011

Every 2-year-old in my family has been left to their own devices for long minutes at a time; it's part of normal development. Don't worry about the tears and doe eyes.
posted by SMPA at 9:52 AM on March 7, 2011

As others have said it's certainly not "too much to ask" - but it's way harder for some kids than others. My first child was playing by herself just as soon as she could sit up and hold some measuring spoons. My second...not so much. He loves constant interaction (he's 4).

What works well for us when I need a few minutes to do something is to assign a "job" to my son that he has to do to "surprise" me. Starting at age three he has been really into surprises (weee!). I can tell him, "I wonder if you can SURPRISE ME and get your socks and shoes on all by yourself?" or "I wonder if you can stack up all these plates for me and wipe up the table all by yourself and SURPRISE ME??" Easier stuff (stack up some blocks?) maybe for a 2-y-old.

Make it a big deal and really act skeptical when you ask and surprised when you come back and the task is done. I really have to "sell it" but my son usually goes for it. The kiddos then have a 1) a short time span they know will be over when the task is done and mommy comes back and 2) the devious feeling of getting one over on you.

Also, as others have said, a little more TV is probably OK.
posted by pantarei70 at 10:22 AM on March 7, 2011

All my kids played alone for at least 15 minutes or so at a time before the age of 1.

Same here, and we've got four of 'em. By two or three, they could entertain themselves for hours in the same room with a parent (with intermittent interaction/intervention, of course).

That said, each of our kids went through stages of being clingy, even up to the age of five. You just have to work through it.

The question is not "is a 2.5yo too young to play alone" (absolutely not), but rather whether your little one has learned these skills yet, and how you and she can change the ways you've been conditioning each other. flex's detailed advice is great.

Where this comes from, I have no idea, but I totally disagree. "Give your toddler everything she wants" is a recipe for misery for both of you.

Absolutely do not feel guilty about guiding your daughter toward independent play, both by lavishly rewarding even her smallest achievements, and by "cultivating a heart of stone," as someone said above, in some instances. It's obvious from your post that you are giving her an amazing amount of love and interaction. But it should become an assumption, a matter of course, that sometimes your immediate attention must be elsewhere. You and she will be much happier when you get there. Good luck!
posted by torticat at 10:23 AM on March 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

Been a full time at home dad for 5 years now, and I never had a problem with using the tv as a temp to occupy my son for a few minutes while I get stuff done. Or for a sanity break.
posted by ducktape at 10:31 AM on March 7, 2011

When she turns three, or maybe now if you're really desperate, you could start showing her how to read? That's what my mother did. She saw my frustration at not really being able to do anything, and reading was something to do.

Oh wow! I thought this sounded like a really good idea. I don't have kids. But my mom taught us to read at a very young age- I don't know how old I was, but it was before any of my earliest memories had developed, so it had to have been earlier than 4. When I think back on my memories of childhood, I remember just spending hours and hours of my life holed up in my room (or outside) reading books. Not only did it probably make my mom's life a lot easier, but I think it set me up to do well academically for the rest of my life. It makes sense that if you're not always planning/ supervising the activity, that kids will develop intellectual curiosity on their own. (As far as I can recall, my mom never really told us what to read either, she just took us to the library and let us pick whatever.)

Also, does Magna-doodle or something like it still exist? (if so hopefully it's improved since the 80's?) drawing is the other big time-consuming thing i did as a kid. but i can totally understand how you wouldn't want to leave her alone with materials that can mark up other stuff. but again, being left to my own devices with art materials at a young age seems to have given me a good foundation of creativity and art skills/ confidence that i still use now.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 10:37 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh and I meant to say, these books and art supplies should be in the gated-off playroom where she can choose to do whatever. Again, I have no kids myself, but after much babysitting I've noticed the kids who seem the happiest and brightest were the ones raised by parents who used that system. (Gated playroom where you can see/ hear Mom, they gotta do your own thing.) the worst were two young kids who were addicted to TV, but they truly did watch it almost constantly. i think it made them a little neurotic, as one of them hated quiet and would have like, an anxiety attack when the tv was off.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 10:42 AM on March 7, 2011

Not a solution - just my experience. Our son is 5.5 and is still clingy/refuses to do much of anything on his own...

We too expected this to change when we got him into preschool. We were dead wrong. And when thinking about it now, I don't know why I would think that preschool would change this behavior. There is constant attention/playmates at preschool. It's not one-on-one time with an adult, but there's 15 some other little kids to play with. He never has time to himself in preschool whether he wants it or not.

If I knew then (when he was 2.5-3) what I know now, I would have taken more serious steps to get him more comfortable with entertaining himself. It's become a real problem now. We should have nipped it in the bud and we did not.
posted by thatguyjeff at 11:01 AM on March 7, 2011

I had two kids who could play independently for like an hour at that age. And now I have number 3, who is 3.5 and basically is a bundle of energy and not interested in toys, and it's just very different. She's incredibly demanding. So there is no age at which kids necessarily can play on their own. That doesn't mean you shouldn't work toward that, just that it may be a long process. And in my experience, often when we've worked really hard on some challenge with our kids, the thing that ultimately solved it was development as much as anything. I suppose the various efforts served to keep us busy in the meantime.

I'd just second a couple of things from up-thread: one is that TV is really not a terrible thing (or movies). My little bundle of energy has had her own iPod since she was like 18 months old. Because the *only* thing that will keep her in one place for more than two minutes is a movie. And anybody who thinks I'm a bad parent for letting her watch a lot of movies can suck it.

The other is that, like someone else said, I sort of got over thinking she needed to be happy all the time. Her demands are my time are so unreasonable that it is not actually possible to make her happy; no matter how much I give, she'll be unhappy some of the time. So I try to let her be unhappy now and again before I'm at the end of my rope.

The thing preschool has helped us with is that it keeps her busy and out of the house for 3 hours 3 mornings a week. She loves it. And she comes home tired. She's not any more inclined to play on her own, but there is a huge difference between days she's in preschool and days she's not.
posted by not that girl at 11:23 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing I wanted to pointed out is that there are a lot of (really on-point) comments that give you permission to use TV to take a breather. I completely agree with this, but I also want to challenge the dichotomy between Mom Time vs. TV Time, like these are the only two options.

It's 2011, and your kid is growing up in a different world than the what we had in the 70s and 80s, and it's a different universe compared to, say, anytime before 1950. Kids, even tiny ones, are relentlessly exposed to TV, computers, iPads, iPods, iPhones, video games, the Internet, Skype, whatever. While these gadgets are probably fine in small quantities, I'd treat them with at least some caution. Turn on the TV when you need to take a break, absolutely!, but recognize it for it what it is: it's a really crappy babysitter. Parents often talk about all the things their kids "learn" from TV, like my friends who gush about how their toddlers "Try it! You'll like it!" from a Yo Gabba Gabba episode. Does their toddler actually try new foods thanks to this song? Nope, but she sure can repeat that little ditty. For all the things kids "learn" from TV, I still wager that there's a huge net loss given what it does to their burgeoning attention spans.

Right now, it's important to cultivate your child's ability to amuse herself instead of using gadgets that will do the amusing for her, because soon enough she'll have all those machines at her disposal whether you like it or not. The NYTimes loves printing articles about how computers and the internet are ruining the attention span of adults, so why do we think they're any different for kids? Having your child play on the carpet with her blocks instills a wealth of inner resources, imaginative capacity, creative problem solving and other crucial skills that are more or less dimmed down when you sit her in front of the TV, even when the show is "educational."

To wit, my mother has taught elementary school for over 35 years, and she says the latest batch of kids have been the laziest readers because they'd rather doodle around on the school's computers than open a book. Reading requires a lot of attention and discipline, but computers are fun and flashy!

Don't get me wrong: I am by no means anti-TV. Half an hour every once in a while is great, but be prepared for that amount to only increase as she gets older. So if you're having trouble justifying teaching your daughter to amuse herself, just remember that playing alone demands discipline and resourcefulness and creativity. Her world will soon be filled with inevitable gadgets that may very well whittle down her attention span soon enough, so build up her resources NOW so that she can daydream and make up funny words and be a creative little kid instead of a passive consumer of technology.
posted by Viola at 11:50 AM on March 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

But generally speaking, unless we're talking about material goods, watching television or sugary snacks, as a rule of thumb it's best to give your toddler everything she wants.

That is pretty much like telling Obama to negotiate with terrorists.
posted by Viola at 11:57 AM on March 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

But generally speaking, unless we're talking about material goods, watching television or sugary snacks, as a rule of thumb it's best to give your toddler everything she wants.

That is pretty much like telling Obama to negotiate with terrorists.

Oh, I don't know. I kind of agree with it. Between 'No, you can't have that steak knife' and 'no, you can't have cookies for breakfast' I think our toddler is getting enough experience in the horrible world of OMG NO?????!!!!???!!!! to give her a decent intro into the notion that the world won't give her everything she needs, but if she wants to wear her boots instead of her sneaks or no shoes we're all right with that.

If she wants to wear her painters' smock all day and that's the hill she wants to die on I'm also certainly not complaining considering I'm going to have to wrench a corkscrew out of her hands in ten minutes.

I think a battle you can not fight is an excellent battle indeed.

(Not our house is actually not built of knives, corkscrews, screwdrivers, nail guns....etc)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:04 PM on March 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've been through this recently. My daughter is three and a half now, but it wasn't until she was three that she was able to entertain herself. Even though she's always been very verbal and bright, she just didn't have much in the way of imagination at two and a half. Is your daughter using her toys to full potential? Mine wasn't. She would carry around dolls or stuffed animals, but she didn't pretend with them until around the time she turned three, and suddenly a whole new world of imagination opened up. Now she will play dress up, sit with books, pretend to cook, etc. It's been great for me. She still wants me to play with her, read to her, color with her, but not all the time. So hang in there. It may be that you are mere months away from getting some relief!
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:08 PM on March 7, 2011

if she wants to wear her boots instead of her sneaks or no shoes we're all right with that.
If she wants to wear her painters' smock all day and that's the hill she wants to die on I'm also certainly not complaining

I agree they should have a lot of autonomy about things like that. But when it comes to 100% of your attention 100% of your time, no way! OP mentioned she has an editor--I mean obviously she has other things she has to get done.

[I had an editor, too, while at home when my first three were babies/toddlers--which is exactly why they learned very early to draw, play with blocks and stickers and cars, build pillow houses, whatever, either in the same room with me or in a safe gated-off area.]

I do agree with above posters who say children vary wildly, so I don't mean to suggest this is some major failure on the OP's part. But just that typically, I'd say, it's perfectly reasonable to expect a toddler to self-entertain at least for brief periods if not longer.
posted by torticat at 2:14 PM on March 7, 2011

I have read through this, and some of the answers, but I need to get going so I'm throwing this out there: Suppose you can't change her - can you change how you're doing it?

If her separation anxiety is beginning with your directing her to amuse herself however, can you remove that as the trigger until she gets that it's not a bad thing?

Our daughter was similarly clingy, and from when she was nine months old to when she was just over a year old, I couldn't even turn my back on her in the same room! But what happened with us, and it took time, was that I'd set her up with something, do it with her, go away for a minute, come back and play, and praise her madly for doing SO WELL while I was busy for just a minute there, and then do it again, longer and longer. Like a puppy, she got praised for the good behaviour and the bad behaviour wasn't addressed. A timer would work well in this scenario, though we didn't use one. And I'm glad, because she's now obsessed with time, and unless your "in minute" is indeed, sixty seconds - that won't fly for long.

If the transitions are what's hard and you want to be abrupt and are doing things where you're pressed for time, and you're frustrated and she's picking up on the stress, can you go pee/check directions/make that call when she's happily occupied, then reward her for letting you do your thing? Kids here age are still having those positive/negative attention issues, yet if the positive attention is over-the-top awesome, they begin to make the right associations.

This post on benign neglect was circulating around that time for us, and I loved the idea that entertainment is something children have to do for themselves - that we as adults can't always do it to them and for them. I'm so glad that now if my kid disappears and is quiet for some time, she's going to reappear in some fabulous costume with a great story.

Whether or not it's your daughter's personality, or something you've created and need to remedy or just something that it's time to develop regardless, it's not too much to expect of her. Now our daughter is seven, and when she was about four, for my own sanity, we had to go through "Operation Toughen Up, Buttercup" and I'm so glad we did. I should have done it sooner. I stopped hovering on playground equipment and I let her sort things out with other kids, even if someone ate sand in the process. I let TV be the babysitter that it is, but also let boredom be her problem, not mine.

She's maybe a bit young for playdates, your daughter; but I'll promise you that when she's old enough, they're the lifesavers and you'll get all the breaks you need to get things done. Our best ones started around three and a half and four - the two's are still pushy and grabby. But it's easier for me to have a friend for our daughter over to play with, to this day, than to have my daughter on her own (unless we're getting out and about or I'm doing something she can enjoy). Bringing a kid home from school means that I have three hours to sew something (with them), do laundry, bake something (with them) and make dinner, then get a dog walk in as we're taking the kid home. Can you start trading playdates so you can get a break? You need to take care of yourself, too.
posted by peagood at 11:34 AM on March 8, 2011

Apologizing - I'm back and read everything again, and still have to agree. And, interestingly, the blog I linked to has an more recent and interesting post on the same subject. While you or I may not agree with everything, her salient point is that it's time to teach that other people have needs that are just as valid as her own.
posted by peagood at 2:31 PM on March 8, 2011

Is this more about boredom, or separation anxiety?

To piggyback on Viola's point, I've noticed that electronic toys and TV can wreck toddlers' ability to enertain themselves, and lead to whining, nagging, and other unpleasantness. I'd cut out TV completely before I'd add more for a child who already has difficulty entertaining herself. It's not that it makes you a bad person or anything, it just tends to be counterproductive.

I also suggest hiding a lot of her toys and rotating them in and out. Too many toys can overwhelm, and "new" toys are more exciting.

A special toy or sticker just for "mom's busy" time might help her distract herself. Or a shirt or object of yours might help her self-soothe.

Talking on the phone makes some kids anxious because you're talking, but not to them, and your attention is completely elsewhere (why driving and cell phones don't mix). You might want to go to a different room to reduce the weird frustration factor of Mom being in the room but ignoring her.

Hang in there!
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:30 PM on March 9, 2011

Oh, and sounds like you might be discussing these things with her...don't. Come up with a message like "mom's cooking" and repeat it as many times as necessary with no guilt or anxiety. It should be a statement, not a question. Try to avoid up-talking or asking her if she's going to be okay or if it's okay if you go cook now. The longer you drag out negotiations and pre-activity apologies, the more uncertain you seem, the more worked up she'll get. Act like you're doing something normal, not scary at all, and barely worth commenting on, because you are.

This reminds me of a great toddler conversation I had that went like this:

"Why you have the bathroom door closed?"
"I need privacy."
"NO! You not need privacy! I need privacy! You open that door! NOW!"

Followed by 5 minutes of angry banging on the door and sobbing and then ominous silence. I go out to find my nephew as happy as a clam, tearing pages out of my college textbook. Oh, toddlers.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:43 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

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