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Do parents have to play with their kids? Why a mom's TikTok about saying no stirred up debate — and what an expert thinks.

Parents with two kids playing
To play or not to play? A mom's TikTok about saying no to her kids' requests to play with them has stirred up debate among parents. (Getty Images)

L'Oreal Thompson Payton is a mom, journalist and motivational speaker. She's also the author of Stop Waiting for Perfect.

Right now, playing with my daughter is one of my favorite activities and it seems like one of hers as well. We love reading together, playing blocks together and sliding next to each other at the playground. Just the other day we were on the seesaw at the park and I asked if she wanted to play with her friends, and she said, “No, I’m playing with mommy.” I know that I’m not always going to be her first choice of a playmate (if my own teenage years are any indication), so I’m enjoying our time together now.

But playing dolls, building Legos or running around a playground isn't for every parent. Earlier this month licensed counselor and author KC Davis ignited a fierce parenting debate after she posted a TikTok explaining why she doesn't play with her kids, who are 4 and 6.

"I just said no to them, every single time they asked me to play with them, for years," Davis said. "And eventually they stopped asking, and just went off and played."

Why encouraging kids to play solo can benefit them and parents

In her TikTok, Davis acknowledged that her no-play strategy might have critics calling her a "horrible parent" — and while her post has stirred up a lot of debate, it turns out that she may have a point. A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics found that the decline in independent play is negatively affecting children’s mental health and well-being.

According to Davis, having kids who can play freely can also have benefits for parents. “I can tell you with 100% certainty I am a better, more engaged, more responsive parent since I made the decision to not play pretend w/ my kids," she wrote in a follow-up response on X. "It was one of the most impactful decisions I’ve made in overcoming PPD [postpartum depression] & maternal burnout.”

As a new mom, Davis explained that she “started motherhood thinking I needed to be 100% engaged 100% of the time.” But after hearing author and parent educator Janet Lansbury say “it’s not a parent's job to play with their kids,” her life changed.

According to Lansbury, two 20-minute sessions of 100% engaged play a day is all a 2-year-old really needs. Parents can also use other life activities, such as baking and family outings, to connect and engage “meaningfully and playfully” with their children.

“Kids absolutely need opportunities to play, but parents shouldn't feel pressured to always be their child's playmate,” Christine Carrig, director of Carrig Montessori School in Brooklyn, N.Y., tells me. “Kids who sense their parents are playing with them out of obligation aren't really learning the true spirit of play.”

Where does this pressure come from? According to Carrig, there are several factors contributing to societal expectations that parents be “on” at all times, including families having fewer children; ideas around whether it’s safe to play outside until the streetlights come on; and social media “holding up an unattainable ideal of what it means to be a good parent.”

“The combination of all of those factors puts a lot of pressure on parents and we shouldn't be shaming parents who are making reasonable efforts to remain resourced in the face of all these demands,” she says.

How to navigate boundaries around play

If you find yourself running on empty and not having the capacity to be fully present when your child asks you to play, it’s OK to say no — and, despite what the internet will have you believe, that does not make you a bad parent.

“Parents who set reasonable boundaries with their children about when they are or aren't available to play are taking care of themselves, as well as helping their child learn to accept small disappointments,” explains Carrig. “It's OK on both sides, it really is!”

To help manage your child’s expectations, it’s helpful to share when you will be available to play with them.

“Children would rather have a smaller amount of their parent's undivided attention in play rather than a huge amount of distracted attention,” says Carrig. “If you are going to make the time to play with your child, really give them your full attention and have fun. Even if it's just five minutes.”

It can take some practice for children to learn how to play independently, but once they do, the results can be life-changing for everyone.

“It’s incredibly powerful for them to realize that they can make up their own games, and they can change the rules, and it can be flexible and that they don't need an adult to direct what they're doing,” says Carrig. “Playing with your child because you are making an assumption that they aren't resilient enough to handle the disappointment of letting them know honestly and compassionately that you aren't available to play isn't a good long-term solution for the parent or child.”

Want insight on a parenting or family health topic? Reach out to L'Oreal on Instagram or X, or email heylifeeditors@yahooinc.com with your question, and it may inspire a future column.