One thing I ask parents frequently is how much fun their family has. The reply is often that their child loves their organized athletics, or music, or whatever afterschool activity that their child does, and that is fun for their child.
It is true that some children love those activities. But some children don’t. They do them out of a sense of duty. They do it because their parents make them. Or they do them because it has been impressed on them, either consciously or unconsciously, that they have to do it to get into college—for their résumé, in other words. And many of them never tell their parents that they would rather not do them, or do them quite so much. When you have Outcome Fever, it becomes very hard for your kids to be honest with you.
But even if your child loves their extracurricular activity, that is different from plain fun. Unlike organized activities, fun has no responsibilities, such as practicing, attached. Most importantly, the fun I’m talking about has no outcomes attached.
So playing on the school hockey team would not count, but playing an impromptu game of pond hockey would. Practicing an instrument would not count, but jamming would.
So we’re back to the original question: how much fun does your family have?
Fun for Your Kids
Many families have a lot of fun on vacation, and that’s great, but it isn’t enough to only have fun a few weeks a year at most. I’m talking about incorporating fun into your lives regularly.
Why is this important?
There are countless articles on the physical and psychological benefits of play. Unstructured play is crucial for the physical development of childrens’ brains and the rest of their bodies. Play deprivation is responsible for a host of emotional issues. In fact, it has been argued that the rise of stress and anxiety in our kids today can be traced, in part, to play deprivation.
And, ironically, for parents who are so worried about outcomes, such as their children be successful in school and get into good colleges, one of the best ways to insure school success is to encourage your child to have more fun. It increases creativity, attention, and retention, and reduces stress and anxiety.
As Shawn Achor has explained, being successful doesn’t make you happy; being happy makes you successful. So for parents who are focused on their children’s success, they will be more successful if you focus on creating happy, positive children. That doesn’t mean that you set up an elaborate structure in order to schedule playtime for your child. That’s missing the point. The goal is to relax and break down some of the structure…and let your kid be a kid. Allowing your children to have unstructured fun is one of the best ways to do that. The result will be more successful adults. Counterintuitive in today’s world, I know, but, nevertheless, still true.
Besides good old unstructured play, here are some examples for kids—or for you and your kids to do together sometimes—to have fun that are not connected to outcomes:
- Spending a day at the beach, lake, or pool
- Going to an amusement park
- Going for a hike or walk or bicycle ride
- Doing a jigsaw puzzle
- Playing board games
- Miniature golf
- Attend a sporting or cultural event or museum
- Reading together: even older kids love to be read to.
These are just some examples—there are many fun things to do in this world, and you know what would work for your kids.
That’s fine for the kids, but where do you fit into all of this?
Fun for You
Although it is important that kids learn to play without adults around, play is something you can all do together as a family, too. However, there should be a balance: it shouldn’t totally replace kids playing on their own, which is essential to their development.
But you are not just having fun for your kids. You, too, can benefit from more play: like with your kids, your creativity, productivity, and overall wellbeing will improve, and your stress and anxiety levels will go down.
Also, kids learn both by your active teaching, but they also learn by example: it’s called modeling. If you keep telling them to have fun, yet you never do it yourself, you are teaching your kids that adults aren’t supposed to have any fun. That’s not good. So it is crucial that you lead the way by having fun yourself, both with and without your kids, so they learn to automatically incorporate fun into their lives.
One caveat to having fun as a family: if you are the type of person who gets annoyed when your kid—or your spouse—does chip shots instead of putts when you play miniature golf, or you get über competitive when you are playing any game, turn non-competitive activities into competitive activities, or take every opportunity to do teachable moments when you are with your kids, then you need to sit playtime out until you learn how to play nicely. The cure, for this, of course, is have more fun yourself so you remember what having fun feels like and can relax. But you might also have to watch yourself and catch yourself before you step over the line and ruin the fun for your kids.
On the other hand, if you are having trouble staying connected to your kid, doing something fun together with no goals attached allows you to relax in each other’s company. Doing fun things together is a great way to bond, and this softening can open the door to a conversation that you might not have been able to have were you not so relaxed and spending time together.
An important addendum to this is to laugh more, as true unadulterated joy and laughter create many of the same positive effects as play.
Finally, you shouldn’t be using your devices when you are playing. Physically put your phone away somewhere if it is too difficult for you to shut it off.
Go play, and laugh! And have a great time.