As I read Bunmi Laditan’s wildly-popular article “I’m Done Making My Kid’s Childhood Magical,” I found myself nodding over several of her points. After briefly caving to the pressure-filled parenting trap of trying to do everything beautifully and perfectly (and then posting visual evidence of these creations on social media), Laditan came to the conclusion that we as parents are NOT the ones who make childhood magical for our kids: childhood is a magical inherently. Based on her own fond childhood memories, during which her parents were supportive but not especially active in the "play" of her siblings and herself, Laditan feels that we simply need to let our children use their imagination and discover the magic of life themselves through natural daily play, not through large vacations and crafted projects.
I am totally in agreement with the notion that the majority of modern-day parents buy too much for their babies and kids and stress too much about how perfectly picturesque their handcrafted, homemade birthday cakes are. But while IS such a magical element intrinsic in childhood, via the learning, discovering, and exploring that goes on, I find myself wondering, “What’s so wrong with wanting to authentically create a magical childhood for your children?” I am decidedly not done with trying to make my childrens' early years more magical. Read on for the reasons I believe playing an active role in our children's daily play is so important and how creating a magical childhood WITH your children can be different and special for every family. No pressure or guilt required!
The Reality: Their Childhood Will Be Different Than Ours
My childhood, like Bunmi’s, was magical, and I have fond memories of both of my parents as well as my two sisters and the active roles that each of them had in my life. I vividly remember many of the vacations we took and how those travels piqued my interest in the greater, wider world. And I recall my own less earth-shattering, personal discoveries, like how if I pretended I needed the light on in the closet at night because I was scared, I could crawl in there and read after bedtime. I think there is something inherently different about the way that our kids are growing up that needs a parent’s magical touch. It’s a bummer of a fact that most of us don’t feel comfortable letting our kids play outside until dark. There was definitely something magical about the way my friends and sisters and I used to bicycle around, traipsing through the suburban woods, and making fairy bowls out of acorn tops that I simply can’t recreate in my children’s urban environment today.
“Kids grow up so fast these days” is a cliché, but I have found it to be painfully true. Once they are school-age, the majority of our childrens’ waking hours are spent away from the home and family (and for children of working parents, this can begin basically anytime after birth). They are being taught at most schools that they need to sit up straight for long hours, perform well on tests, and control their basic need and desire for hours of unstructured outdoor play. I do want their time at home to be somewhat magical and free from the stresses and anxieties that seem to be plaguing kids from a younger and younger age.
It would be awesome if we could regain some of the laissez-faire attitudes of yesteryear, when playdates always meant playing, as in with toys or games or outside. But we all know plenty of kids whose idea of playtime after school is watching hours of television or playing electronic games or (worse) sitting in the general vicinity of their “playmate” while texting or emailing someone else. And since both of my kids fall more on the introverted side, they crave the comfort of home and familiarity and being with their family after a busy day or week with their peers.
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We’ve All Got Time (At Least a Little Bit)
I am enormously grateful for modern, time-saving conveniences: even washing dishes by hand is an activity that has become optional for many of us. We, as a society, no longer prescribe to the 50’s ideal of needing to have an immaculate household and a homemade pot roast in the oven every night (thank goodness). And most of us will thankfully never know what it feels like to have to grow and make everything that we put into and on our bodies. Most of us parents have at least a little bit of time at some point during the week, and I often choose to spend that little bit on learning, doing, and creating with my kids.
While I don’t think it is intentional, I see Laditan’s article as just another way in which we are making judgment calls on how people parent: stay at home vs working, attachment, RIE, etc. For those of us who are at home, there are many hours of the day to fill, and I want to engage with my kids. Personally, I would rather do crafts or other activities with my kids and participate in one of the “2000 things to do inside” than just say “Go ahead, have fun” and focus my attention on Facebook or one of my other personal interests that don’t generally appeal to children (500 page novels without pictures don’t often go over well with preschoolers).
Laditan was one of four children: she had a built-in playmate posse to hang out with, fight with, etc. For those of us with one or even two children, there is less of this constant camaraderie and “kid energy” that feeds off each other. Several moms that I know with one child at home lament the fact that certain times of the day (such as dinner prep and cooking) would be so much easier with another kid to play with. There’s obviously value in a child learning to amuse him or herself, but there’s also the simple fact that having two or three siblings around can make daily activities more fun. And I’d also argue that the siblings are actively making each other’s lives magical; my older sisters certainly made mine more enchanting with the way that they shared their books, music, and life experiences with me.
What Do We Want Our Children to Learn?
As a SAHM (who works during hours my kids are in school or sleeping), I see these projects and activities as enriching and bonding experiences for us, and most of them are very far away from being Pinterest-ready. Obviously, if someone feels that they are doing these crafts or projects out of obligation to society, they should stop and find some other worthwhile pursuit. But selfishly, I see these activities as forms of creative expression for myself as well as my kids. A friend of mine who read Laditan’s article said her knee jerk reaction was, “Now does this mean I am trying too hard with my kids? Is this just another thing for me to feel guilty about?” I say, no.
This may be a slightly less magical element of my child-rearing beliefs, but I am also active in my childrens’ play because I recognize how important the things are I have to teach them — beyond simply feeding them and keeping them warm. Bumni describes how she was lulled to sleep by the sound of the sewing machine as her mother sewed cloth scraps together at night to make hair accessories to sell (she sounds like a pre-Etsy entrepreneur!). At some point, I am guessing her mother taught her the basics of sewing, an extremely useful skill. By teaching my kids about cooking, gardening, or making our own costumes for their latest “play,” I am showing them that I value creation over consumption and also that learning and exploration are lifetime pursuits, not something relegated to K-12.
I certainly don’t feel everything is a teachable moment, and my kids get plenty of time for unstructured free play. If you were to come over to my house most days after school you would find my daughter riding her tricycle in circles around the kitchen and my son building armies out of the chess pieces he has collected. Or perhaps perfecting the age old Art of Annoying One’s Sibling(s). But there are so many things that our kids would never be exposed to if we as parents weren’t the ones to shed the light on them. Again, schools today seldom offer music, art, and many other “extracurricular” subjects that can’t be easily quantified. If I don’t show my children the joy I find in making handmade jewelry for my loved ones or baking challah from scratch (not to mention outside activities such as going to hear live music), how will they know how much I value these things? How will they understand that I see them as creating traditions, which I believe are integral to developing their cultural, ethnic, and religious identities?
Do What Works For Your Family
I feel that most of us are aware of and should be ready to cast off the shackles of the confining expectations of society. I also think we need to stop thinking everything is about us. Maybe your friend posted a picture of her awesome hand-built treehouse to show her friends and family who live across the country, not to make you feel bad because you can’t wield a hammer and nail to save your life. Maybe if you think your child’s class has gotten crazy with birthday gifts, request donations to a charity instead of presents for your own child’s special day and purchase sensible, reasonably priced presents for the parties your child attends. But let’s stop with the “I can do better attitude” for everything, including “I can do better at just letting my child discover the world all by herself.”
I agree with the idea that “It is not our responsibility to manufacture contrived memories on a daily basis,” but I’d like to think that for many of us, these activities that we do with our children are a part of authentic memories and true desires to connect with these amazing little humans with whom we share our lives. My older child is almost 6, and I have seen him go from an incessantly needy infant to a much more independent kindergartener. Soon he will likely prefer the company of his peers to mine, and not too long after that, he may even find my presence embarrassing or annoying. But right now he loves being with me and our family, and I don’t think I am limiting his imagination by helping him make spaceships out of LEGOS or drawing alongside him. I’d like to think I am helping him discover his own magical passions, that the joy is in the doing, the exploring and the development of these interests.
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Let’s Drop the Judgment
Parenting is hard no matter what you choose, so let’s be kind to one another! Like any parenting decision, you should choose what matters to you and make those passions a part of your family’s life. For my SAHM friends who were once involved in the fashion world, it comes as no surprise that they love buying cute clothes for their kids and dressing them in the latest styles. I’m not really sure what the problem is here or how this affects me and my little ones. We all bring something different to the table. So no, I don’t pretend that a tiny leprechaun put his little green footprints all over the toilet seat for St. Patrick’s and my kids have no clue about the rules of most sports, but I do play board games with them almost daily, and I am an active part in Halloween house-decorating because I’m the only one allowed to attach things to the ceiling. I don’t feel the need to be their entertainment director, but I’m not sure when it became universally accepted that the activities you do with your kids had to be a drag: I have fun doing (most of ) these things.
In the end, I agree with Laditan’s idea that if it’s the pressure of today’s society that is driving your actions, you should definitely remember the magic that exists in childhood inherently. I also agree that kids need time and space to explore their world, to discover the magic of life all by themselves. But if your idea of fun is expertly executing your child’s themed birthday party, go for it! If you want to share your photographs of the minutiae of your children’s day, please do. Bring your beauty into the world. Whatever it is that you love to do with and for your children, do it! And try not to make others feel guilty for the effort and the energy that they are also unleashing. That’s a magical example to set at any age.
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