‘I Don’t Play With My Kids’ Is Not A Flex, It’s Neglect

play with kidsThe person who made sure I saw this viral TikTok knew it was going to trigger me. I’m pretty passionate about how important play is, and this video with 1.1 million views is a woman bragging that she doesn’t play with her children. She boasts that she can lay in her bed with her husband and eat Indian food and watch movies because she’s “trained” her 4- and 6-year-old not to ask her to play with them. “I’ve created a culture in my house, that adults do not play with toys, adults do not pretend play.” She goes on to justify her behavior by clarifying that she does connect with her children by snuggling or baking. But no matter how many times they ask, or how sad it makes them, she will never play with her kids. And that is why she gets to sleep in on Saturday mornings. 

She starts by acknowledging that she knows the comment section will not approve of her behavior. And rightfully so! I don’t want to go so far as saying that not playing with your kids is neglect — but it’s close, and it certainly isn’t something to brag about. Many parents do not have the luxury of playing with their children, whether because of proximity, health, or economic status. I acknowledge that being able to play with your kids is a privilege, and I wish this woman and the commenters supporting her understand what a privilege it is. Play is an essential childhood need, in line with food, clean water, and shelter. In fact, the United Nations lists age-appropriate play as a fundamental human right for children. Play is absolutely critical to the mental, physical, and social development of children. To neglect this fundamental need isn’t a “parenting hack,” it’s neglectful.


Replying to @Vanessa Kay caveat: your own kids ages, unique abilities, siblings, developmental pace and personalities along with your home layout and environmental constraints will obviously come in to play when it comes to their ability to play independently. There are other factors at play but this is the factor that made the difference for us #strugglecare#mentalhealth#ADHD#autism#independantplay#parentingtiktok

♬ original sound – Kc Davis

When a parent refuses to play with their child, they are first and foremost refusing bids for connection and attention. When they are denied connection through play, even if the parent is offering to “snuggle” or “bake,” they learn that their needs are only important when they align with the parent’s interests. When a child learns that “adults don’t play,” they miss an opportunity for a rich, joyful adulthood. They also begin to devalue play and see it as frivolous, when science has shown time and again that lifelong play is a key indicator of healthy aging.

READ: It’s Okay to Just Let Them Play

I’ve had a similar conversation many times with other parents, albeit in a much less extreme way. A lot of parents I talk to genuinely want to do what’s best for their kids, but don’t know how to play with their children or they just don’t enjoy it. For those parents who aren’t just trying to go viral for being lazy, here are a few ideas to get you started: 

Time travel. Think back to when you were a kid: What types of play did you enjoy most? Getting your kid engaged in a form of play that younger you enjoyed can help you tap into your inner child, and you may feel more comfortable playing with toys or games you are familiar with. 

Reframe the play. It’s pretend play that gets most parents stumped. When you’ve got to worry about taxes or laundry, it’s hard to really get lost in a make-believe world. Some grown-ups feel awkward taking on new characters or making up silly voices. Pretend play becomes so much more enjoyable when you meet it with the curiosity of using it to deeply understand your child. Through pretend play, children work out their dreams and fears, they try on new personalities, and they experiment with scenarios. When you have the honor of meeting your child in pretend play, you can learn so much about their inner worlds and help them to meet challenges in real life. 

Meet them where they are. My daughter is a sore loser. She is not fun to play competitive games with. But we, as a family, love to play games. When I’m feeling particularly patient, I’ll suggest we play competitive games so we can work on the skills she needs to develop. But, I’ve also invested in a number of cooperative play games so that we can enjoy playing games together without the potential conflict of competition. Is there a particular thorn in your play experience with your kid? See what creative solutions you can come up with to limit the conflict. Do you or your child get frustrated trying to put together LEGO sets? Try buying some simpler ones or building from your imagination. Does your child always want to play with dolls, but you don’t enjoy role-playing? Maybe you can be in charge of “costuming” or “set design” while your child makes up the scenes. 

READ: Making the Case for Family Game Night

Sports are play, too. Do you like sports? Kids today so rarely get the chance to try sports and be bad at them in a low-risk environment. Neighborhood pick-up games have been traded in for organized youth sports. As a parent, you can give them space to try things out, fumble, and improve. If you love a sport, get your kid involved in a low-stakes casual game with their favorite playmate: YOU!

Play, especially with trusted caregivers, is a critical part of the development of all mammals. Have you ever seen a mama cat with her kittens or a dog with her puppies? They play because play fortifies their bonds with each other, strengthens their bodies, and teaches them the skills they need to survive. No amount of sleeping in on Saturday is worth giving that up. 

Theresa Duncan
Theresa is a recovering fake adult and is now proudly a child who refuses to grow up. She spent a decade developing and facilitating enrichment programs for at-risk youth. Through this work, she saw firsthand the power of play in the growth of emotionally, physically and mentally healthy children. The pressure of pretending to be an adult finally became too much, so in 2014 she and her father Todd (also NOT a grown-up) opened Villa Villekulla Neighborhood Toy Store on Amelia Island. Her two children, Adrian and Francine, often exhibit more maturity than she does and are, therefore, the ones in charge both at home and at Villa Villekulla. When she isn’t playing with toys, learning about toys, or talking about toys, she enjoys dance parties and listening to live music with her husband.


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