“When we played Monopoly we were the worst. We actually applauded each other if you could steal money out of the bank without the other person knowing it,” she recalled.
When the younger of her two now-grown daughters was about 8, mom realized she hadn’t experienced the scent of fresh-baked cookies filling their house.
“I just don’t like to bake cookies, so I took a pot of water and I put cinnamon and vanilla in it and I boiled it,” Clark said. “She came home from school and she goes, ‘Wow, what’s that smell? That smells so good.’ And I said, ‘Well if I were baking cookies, that’s what it would smell like.’ ”
But there were countless other things Clark and her husband enjoyed, like making homemade Play-Doh or pushing the girls on a rope swing that straddled a pond. The couple lived guilt-free about the rest, believing their kids had plenty of quality time with their parents.
When it comes to “play,” parents should not feel honor-bound to participate in exactly what their kids want to do, said Clark, who now lives in Seattle and has written a dozen primarily family-focused books.
The bigger question, she said, is whether parents have forgotten how to play altogether in these stressed-out, overbooked times, when dropping kids off at classes or other structured activities prevails, along with loads of homework.
“I’m totally shocked when I’ll do a parenting seminar and I’ll do something as simple as say, ‘Why don’t you play hide and seek in your house?’ and people look at me and they’ll go, ‘What? I never thought of playing hide and seek in our house,’ ” Clark said.
Quality time, she suggested, doesn’t have to mean a hated board game or endlessly pretending you’re a cat. It can mean a trip to the hardware store, if done with spirit – and even TV, something parents might depend on a little too much during school breaks.
One weekend before the Tony Awards, her theater-loving family spent an afternoon drawing the New York skyline on a huge length of butcher paper and taped it to the wall. They taped down red construction paper for a red carpet leading to the TV room, bought sparkling cider and dressed in their fanciest clothes for the broadcast.
“As long as kids have your full attention, it can be as simple as taking the dog for a walk together or getting a bird feeder,” Clark said.
Parents shouldn’t feel guilty for not liking certain games or a particular type of play, agreed Rita Eichenstein, a developmental psychologist in Los Angeles.
“Your child will know how you are feeling, no matter how much you fake it, so it’s best to create games and activities that you both find fun,” she said.
In addition to developmental benefits for kids, play can reawaken and relax parts of parents’ brains that help them live more in the moment, where children naturally dwell, Eichenstein said.
When a parent has to suck it up and play something they’re not into, Clark suggests setting a timer for 20 minutes, or establish a special time of the week that’s “kid choice.”
Patrick Lee, 62, in Ashland, Mo., raised four daughters and fostered two sons.
“I played some, but I didn’t need to be their playmate all the time and I certainly didn’t feel guilty about it,” he said. “I don’t regret my choices to let them amuse themselves. Those were formative, imaginative times for them. But sometimes I wish I had played with them more.”