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We have a 3.5 year old and a 2.5 year old and they're both exhibiting this behavior:

They prefer to watch mommy and daddy play rather than do it themselves. I think it started with drawing, we'd show them shapes, and they'd say ask for more: "More circles!" or "More clouds!" and I thought we were doing pretty good demonstrating how to draw a shape, first with a few examples, then holding their hands, then letting them try followed by praise.

But it seemed to always follow a path where they'd ask again for more and we'd encourage "okay, keep drawing" or something like that, and then they'd say "No.. you do it!" and if we came back to help, it would repeat - as long as they were moving their hand and such, they'd be fine. So reasonably at some point we have to tell them that they can keep drawing, but we have to continue doing what we were doing.

This has spread in to other activities, where when we play, they want us to drive the cars on the playmat, etc. and it seems to be getting a little silly with respect to how often they insist we do the activity that is intended for them. They just watch. It's become so that if I want to play with them, I end up playing by myself while they watch.

On their own, they're great with respect to imagination and motivation, it's as soon as we attempt to 'join in' that they back off completely and just want to watch.

Is there a good way to respond to this? Should we stop playing until they rejoin the activity? At present if we refuse, they will continue to insist until they get bored and walk away and start something that isn't really structured or constructive.

Sometimes it is really basic things that they will stand and ask for help (such as picking something up off the ground in front of them) - I'm concerned this is learned helplessness?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

You're right that this needs to stop. I can easily imagine how you got yourself into this situation; of course you want to engage with your kids, and it's fun and cute, at least in the beginning.

But as long as you're doing the playing for them, they are not developing their creativity and imagination, which is very important at their age. That only comes to them from having to figure out on their own what the next shape is going to be, and where to drive that car.

Also, if you're picking up toys for them that are right before their feet, then you're allowing them to be lazy in the extreme! This can come back and bite you hard later on, so be sure that anything and everything they can do themselves, they do themselves.

I don't think you can get away with a gradual change. Small kids understand consistent behavior best.

So what I would recommend is to tell them that you will no longer play for them. If they're sweet, you might want to play with them, but only as long as they play too. If they stop, you stop. And when you stop, you take a break (15 minutes, an hour, whatever feels right at the time, but it has to be significant).

Be prepared to do this often in the beginning. Very often. But don't give in, make no exceptions. Consistency is key. Keep in mind that if you do give in, you lose a lot of the training effort. This is your internal motivation to stay firm.

Explain that you have other tasks to do, and if they insist on you playing with them, then those other tasks can't get done. We can't go to the playground / read bedtime stories / (insert activity here) now because you wanted me to draw with you. Now I'm doing the laundry I couldn't do before.

It'll take weeks or even months, but they will learn to create their own entertainment, and they'll get better at it. It will also become more structured and constructive along the way.

Good luck!

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Torben is right that you can simply refuse to do the activity for them and that it is good to do it WITH them. I would simply add, that sometimes a warning first (when appropriate) is helpful. For example, if they ask you to draw a shape for them, sometimes the model is a useful tool. BEFORE drawing the shape state, "okay, I'm only going to draw one and I'll do it to show you how". Then draw the shape. Draw it slowly and speak about how it is you are drawing it. Then, refuse to draw more.

You probably know this, but just in case (my husband didn't know this) unstructured time is SUPER important practice time. Even scribbles are valuable exercise and brain feedback opportunities in the very young. You mention "holding their hands" but have you ever just let them draw? just let them scribble? It doesn't have to "be anything". Same thing with play with toys. Sometimes a car might become a helicopter. That is alright (as long as it isn't literally flying through the air because it has just been thrown).

What you describe can be a common phenomenon with kids that have perfectionistic tendencies (sometimes it is in their nature, sometimes it is brought on by an environmental stimulus). To make sure it isn't you, try to be really careful about both your compliments and your critiques. Focus on effort in both situations as much as you can. Sometimes kids will stop doing things because they figure if they can't do it just exactly right, they shouldn't do it. Even when they do need correction, if it seems genuine effort was made, celebrate the effort and then learn from the mistake in a celebratory, "look what you learned!" kind of way.

If they draw a circle with three slight bends in it and call it a triangle don't correct them, instead, ask the child to point out what it is that makes their drawing a triangle. When they tell you, "because it has three points mommy" and point to the bends, compliment their efforts. Many children will know a triangle has three sides and three points but cannot actually draw it for awhile. If your child answers something like, "because it is round" You can simply say, "oh. You must mean circle because circles are round. It is definitely a round shape you drew!"

Also, you say, "On their own, they're great with respect to imagination and motivation, it's as soon as we attempt to 'join in' that they back off completely and just want to watch." Why must you join in? If they are having a good time, and playing well on their own, what is wrong with letting them? Interaction is great, but kids also need "free play" time. They learn a lot from simply creating their own worlds and how nice that they play so well together.

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