Let me walk you through a typical day in our house. The alarm goes off at 5:00. I’m up and making coffee by 5:05. Then I get a whole twenty-five minutes all to myself to cook and eat breakfast until Wife finishes up her shower and joins me in the kitchen. We wake Bubby at 5:30 and Boo at 6:00, feed them, dress them, dress ourselves, drop them off at separate daycares by 7:00, and get to work by 8:00. We get home around 6:00 and finish dinner by 7:00. If, by some act of divine intervention, we don’t have laundry or dishes piled to the ceiling, we might squeeze in exercise, gardening, or writing for an hour or two before we go to bed and do it all again the next day.
“Daddy, would you like to play with me?”
No, Bubby, I really don’t. I want nothing more than to just sit down with a book, video game or TV show and shut my brain off for the rest of the night. But how in the world can I possibly tell that little boy no? So, I smile and say, “Absolutely, buddy, what would you like to play with?” But sometimes…
“No thank you, Bubby. Why don’t you go build one of your puzzles or play with your trains?”
And that is ok.
As a new parent, the constant nagging guilt associated with wondering if you’re doing enough to help your kid develop is as ubiquitous as it is irrational. The mere fact you’re even experiencing guilt in the first place means you’re trying and you care. Wife and I love our boys more than anything in the galaxy, but we all need our own time to relax. We have a mutual understanding of this and often take turns catering to the boys’ requests for playtime, while the other one catches up on a few chapters of a book. More often than not we both end up sitting on the floor with them building a new train track or Lego firehouse or reading Little Blue Truck for the billionth time, and I highly encourage all the dads—and moms—reading this to share your interests with your kids and engage them as often as is practical. But every now and then it’s okay to politely decline the invitations to play superheroes or zombies in favor of something you want to do.
Obviously this is all dependent on your child’s needs and your family circumstances, but you don’t have to spend every waking moment teaching or playing with your kids. While this approach is far better than the alternative of letting the TV babysit, you will burn yourself out and stunt your own mental development if you play peekaboo twelve hours a day. Some solitude is good for kids. It helps their little imaginations develop, it breeds independence at an early age, and it helps them learn to occupy themselves. And best of all, it gives Mom and Dad a little time to focus on something other than kids.
Your first job is and always will be parenting, so don’t think I’m telling you it’s okay to let your children roam unattended for hours at a time. But if you know your kid is someplace safe—i.e. in a swing, in a saucer, in a playpen, in his bedroom—it’s okay to let him be alone for a minute or two while you catch your mental breath. Besides, who knows when your next break will be?