Screen time versus no screen time. Grubby park versus indoor children’s gymnasium. Extra-curricular versus free play. Toy guns, Barbies, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) toys—somebody tell me how girls became scientists before this industry was born? Traditional school, alternative school or home school? Parallel parenting, helicopter parenting or intentional millennial parenting (I have no idea what the last one is). And, of course, that killer “evidence-backed” twaddle: how to raise better kids according to science. PS: The bigger your child’s head, the smarter she is.
I stopped reading parenting how-to manuals the day I finally figured out what makes Babyjaan happy: playing with her parents.
Of course the husband knew this instinctively. From the time she was a year old he seamlessly reinvented himself as a master goofball—lurching horsey rides on his back, rolling on the carpet, laughing loudly and inappropriately at god knows what, lying on the grass vacantly, teaching her the joys of tugging at spiral curls and physical ball games in the living room. He also introduced her to Archie comics at age 5 but that’s another story.
I guess he gets it from his mother. Babyjaan and she always played elaborate games. These days their favourites are make-up Antakshari—they’ve reinvented the traditional game to include made-up lyrics in addition to real songs—and imaginary competitive gymnastics. In the latter, Babyjaan pretends to compete with her two besties in a floor gymnastics event and, unsurprisingly, ends up the winner. Her Ajji, as she calls her paternal grandmother, is the announcer, scorer, audience and cheerleader of this emotionally charged competition.
After I quit my full-time job a couple of years ago, I spent lots of time with Babyjaan. Mostly, though, I helped her with her homework, ferried her to and from various activities, watched films with her and read to her. An important aside: Enid Blyton might be sexist, but she is a million times less boring than the Magic Tree House series or all those innumerable fairy-tale books where characters named Melli, Berry and Kirsty pair “beautiful red liquorice swirl skirts” with “cotton candy tops” and speak in inanities such as: “Wake up sleepy wings.” This was also about the time I discovered that the hugely popular Thea Stilton and Geronimo Stilton series of books were about RATS. And while all those brilliant Indian children’s publishers are great for toddlers, they lose the plot as your child grows older. So don’t deprive your children of Blyton.
I also taught Babyjaan some board games—Monopoly, Pictureka! and Farkel—but given a choice between playing with her mother and her father, Babyjaan always picked the latter. At first I attributed it to that cliched “girls and their fathers” business, until I realized that playing with the husband was just more fun for her.
It was time to put in place some emergency measures. I attached a rotating disco bulb to a ceiling light in a corner of our bedroom, splashed some talcum powder on the floor and created a song list titled “Alia Dance” on my phone. Then I showed her my convulsive moves.
Instead of our daily fights about the importance of reading, I co-opted her to read simple recipes that we then cooked together. Nothing serious, just fun stuff like fruity ice lollies, fruit custard, and incredibly easy granola that somehow managed to burn itself in the oven (I take no responsibility).
Most importantly, I realized I had to be loud, energetic and active—and fully present. I couldn’t just take her to the park, be on my phone while she played and count that as time spent with her. So we giggled at people executing bizarre contortions that they believed were exercises. I began practising hanging on the monkey bar with her. Men’s Health magazine says one of the benefits of hanging is that it “decompresses your spine which decreases your risk of back injury and helps correct your posture”.
Every walk became an important mission to a secret destination with the enemy in hot pursuit. We raced, skipped, jumped and hid as we made our way to the grocery store or the park. Somewhere along the way, I started enjoying playtime as much as her.
On quiet days, I let her pick the game and pray she isn’t in the mood for Top Trumps, that ridiculous card game children have played since 1968. Name Place Animal Thing, telling each other jokes and laughing loudly, hell I’ve even learnt some basic origami moves that I whip out to surprise her every now and then.
Playing may sound ridiculously easy, but if you discount the fathers who play as they teach their children swimming and cycling, I can’t say I’ve encountered too many parents who actually play with their children.
Of course some experts have argued that “playing” with one’s children is a Western construct, but it’s a different world from the one in which we grew up where same-age children were easily accessible after school hours. Besides, as I discovered, the more you play, the more fun it is.
“Play should never ever be a duty; it should always be for fun. Play, by definition, is something that you want to do; so if you ‘play’ with your child without wanting to you are not playing,” says author and researcher Peter Grey in Psychology Today.
Playing with me leaves my daughter happy and satiated. After we’re done, she runs off for some quiet time with herself. Plus, there’s nothing to beat the high I get when she tells her father:
“You work Appa, I’ll play with Mama.”
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