Ever feel like you're throwing yourself into a bottomless pit of need? Ever feel like the pit is so wide and deep, you don't even touch the sides? Ever feel like no matter how much you give, your child still has more to take?
This is how I feel with my son whenever we attempt Independent Play.
Today's effort went like this;
'Mummy, I need you to play dinosaurs with me.'
'Honey, we've had a whole morning together. We read your dinosaur dictionary. We made a triceratops out of loo roll. We made your dinosaurs a picnic and ate it at the park. I think you can play by yourself ten, teeny-weeny minutes'.
'No.' (Crazy head-shaking.) 'NO! NOOOOOOO!'
'Honey, I need to do some jobs* (*Make a cup of tea,) and some work** (**Muck about on Facebook).
'But I neeeeeeeeddddddddd you'.
'You're fine, honey. Take your Iguanodon to the garden, make a jungle'.
'Primordial swamp, mummy. Iguanodons need swamps. And snacks. And mummies'.
Oh yes, I'm responsible for the emotional demands of Iguanodons as well as children round here. Dino-sized guilt!
Luckily, I was recently offered the opportunity of a consultation with Onna Alexander. A co-founder of the Pikler UK Association. Oona has twenty years' hands-on experience working with children and families - first as a teacher, then guiding parents and young children as a group leader. About ten years ago she came across the work of Dr Emmi Pikler and, having now done extensive training in Pikler's approach, she gratefully acknowledges Pikler as her greatest source of inspiration.
I could have talked with Oona all day and would've loved to have heard more about Pikler, but we only had 45 minutes: the dinosaurs will still hungry. Luckily Oona had some quick-fire myth-busting techniques to help me rethink my whole approach to independent play.
Myth Number 1
My child needs me to play with him.
Nope, according to Oona. All he needs is to feel a strong loving connection, which will empower him to play on his own.
Hang on, he's Velcroed to my leg. A pretty strong connection, no? Thing is, the tighter he clings, the more I'm forced to - and there's no nice way of doing this - peel him off, one white knuckle at a time. Before long I'm locking myself in the loo just for 2 minutes of alone time. Strong feelings? You bet. Loving? Not so much.
Apparently it's a matter of baby steps. The first being sitting and watching him play, without taking part. When the role-play demands kick in (Roar, mummy, roar! Like I'm roaring. At you.') I'm to remind him I'm enjoying watching him without joining in.
What about when he plays hardball? You know, when can't reach the exact shrub the triceratops wants for lunch or find the exact moss the T-Rex fancies sleeping in, and the tears start squirting? Oona calls this 'getting creative' and advises me to remind him I'm enjoying watching him solve the problems for himself without joining in, thus volleying the imaginary ball back into his hands. So no more dreaming up ever-more intricate and fantastical scenarios in an attempt to capture his imagination, then. Step way from the prehistoric soap opera, Jude.
Myth Number 2
It's my job to play with him.
Of course having fun with our children is all part of bonding and being a parent, but our real calling is to support our children's journey towards becoming independent, says Oona. Sounds simple, but this was a big revelation for me. I'd always felt like I should play with my kids on demand and felt guilty when I said no. But Oona's words made me realise that by stepping back, I'm not taking something away, I'm giving him something better; the opportunity to become more self-reliant.
Keep telling yourself that when the tantrums kick in, Jude. Oona has tips for this too.
Myth Number 3
I need to solve his tantrums.
Typically when I force the Independent Play issue. the Red Mist descends and I quickly fall back on the ye olde parenting favourites of explaining, distracting and redirecting. 'I can't play now, I'm on the phone. Diplodocus is hungry. Go make him a leaf salad.' Unsurprisingly, this never works. Salad never solved anything.
Oona's take is that rather than trying to palm my son off with alternatives, I'd be better off acknowledging his feelings and letting him know he's been heard whilst still sticking to my boundaries. Give me exact words, I begged, knowing this would be tricky when the dinosaurs were charging. She had me write these down;
'It sounds like you really want me to play with you,'
'You're telling me you want me to play.'
'You wish I could play with you now.'
It's going to be hard for you to play without me.'
That's it. No justifying or rational explanations. No trying to solve the problem or distract him. I'm just to repeat these phrases and be with him till the tantrum burns out, without giving in. The idea is that he'll be soothed by my presence and feel heard, while I get to stick to my boundaries, guilt free.
'Even when he's butting me with his Raptor and threatening extinction?' 'Yup,' Oona continued. 'You can still hold him and cuddle him when he's cross. Use phrases like ''I won't let you break that/ hit me/ hurt your sister,'' but don't send him away or demand he stops. Let the tantrum burn out and you might find he has a moment of softness and opening up when you can reconnect.'
Ekkkkk! All sounds pretty exciting and revolutionary. I can't wait try these techniques out with my son. And his dinosaurs. Listen out for the stomps and roars.... I'm hoping for a dino-sized improvement.