Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Importance of Playtime and Hands-On Parenting

One of the new and innovative programs we offer to Renewal House residents who are also parents is individual playtime with their children. Supported by a staff person or volunteers, this playtime is dedicated to intentional interaction between parent and child. We were motivated to provide this program because we noticed that many of the mothers we work with are so overwhelmed by their situation and the reality of living in a shelter that they sometimes forget to play with their children. And, as a result of the abuse they experienced in their relationships, some of the parents have lost their relationships with their children. Ironically, their stay in shelter can actually be a time of rebuilding the trust and love between parent and child.

When you think about it, our society offers little support for "play." We are supposed to be working, doing something, contributing. But as we all know, play is the way young people learn, the way they interact and make sense of the world they live in. And to have a parent or other ally play with them helps them to know that they are not tackling this project of learning and living on their own.

The first night that our Boston College PULSE interns offered one-on-one play for two of our children and their mom, I happened to be working late and got to listen to the interaction. The children were thrilled to have time with their mom. And mom was sweetly attentive to the children, participating in an art project with one and playing a game of Chutes and Ladders with the other. Each of the one-on-one playtime sessions were only 20 minutes long, and yet those 20 minutes were invaluable to the connection these family members made with one another.

As a parent, I find it difficult some weeks to "decide" to take time to just be with my son. And being a single parent, playtime competes with making dinner, cleaning the house, overseeing homework, making sure baths are taken, reading, and ensuring we will be ready for tomorrow. There are so many demands on parents from all angles that it is hard to believe that setting aside time to give full attention to our children is valued and, in fact, necessary. And yet it's clear that when I am able to give that time and attention to my son it makes a difference in his life and in mine, and definitely creates a stronger bond between us. I can tell he knows that I am with him and that he can therefore tell me how things really are going for him at school or with his friends, or even in his own mind or dreams. I am his resource, as is his father. It is our job to give him attention and care - not just to feed and clothe him - to help him process the joys and struggles of life.

All children need parents. And many of us have had parents that were unable to attend to us in the ways that we needed. But that is not a reason to just "settle" for providing the minimum of what we can give as parents. We are constantly called upon to learn and grow from the past and build on it for a brighter future. It is work, though, and work that unfortunately is not highly respected or hugely supported.

There are a few great programs in Boston for children who have witnessed domestic violence. The ones we work with are "Child Witness to Violence" at Boston Medical Center and the Children's program at the South End Community Health Center. Both of these programs are fabulous and can offer great resources, and yet it is often difficult to get parents to go. Additionally, at times there are waiting lists for the programs, which can be a further deterrent for parents who want/need something NOW. Thus, we decided to start this work in order to provide a resource to our families, to offer a "taste" of what could be more fully experienced in one of these programs, and to let parents and children know we believe more than anything that the health of their relationships are vital to their healing.

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