Friday, 13 June 2014

Parenting, play and the work-family interaction

By Stefano Ba', University of Huddersfield
Contact Stefano at: stfnba@gmail.com
 
Sometimes we play with our children. Sometimes we would rather not, as we are tired and we would prefer to watch TV or relax in some other ways. Yet many parents end up organising special time to play with their children or make that extra effort taking them to swimming, music lesson or similar activities, when actually their children would rather stay home or watch TV.
 
Why should we have an interest in these ordinary stories between parents and young children? Where is the social interest in these mundane interactions?
 
Play is an important part of children’s life and it is considered a crucial element in family life and in the formation of emotional bonding. As mentioned above, taking care of children’s free time can also be quite a demanding activity, as parents – more often mothers – needs to motivate themselves and the children to do something that, there and then, requires extra efforts.
 
However, I think that as well as the ‘doing’ and the labour that goes into sustaining play and meaningful interactions with children (the effort of taking them away from the TV or from electronic games), there is also a perhaps hard to confess aspect which involves the pleasures of participating into the children’s world, the pleasure of creating little rituals that can be as comforting for the children as for the parents themselves.
 
The article I have published in Sociological Research Online explores this recreational time of parents with young children and the ways it is mixed with work life and other more taxing  aspects of family life. It is, however, important to explore this ‘mixing’ through the internal dynamics and the emotional side of family life, in order to take in consideration the richness of parents’ life with their children.
 
Moreover, it is worth considering the ways parents arrange time-together with their children and how the emotional focus that family needs is created through these playful and recreational interactions, if we want to see how and why work and family balance is shaped the way it is.
 
I found that play and activities with children represent a real area of tension, but this tension is a special one: the labour of parents and its intensification augment as the family space gains in personal and emotional qualities. Through recreational activities and play, parents construct an emotional environment for their family life. This emotional, intimate environment represents home as a distinct and special space which in the mind of parents is often separated from work, although the singularity of this space is very much connected with mothers’ constant engagement with children’s free time.
 
Thus, if play and recreational time becomes important for parents because this time strongly characterises their home experience and through it they construct emotional bonds with their children, these activities are also arranged with the participation of women more than men in the intimate domestic sphere.

In the article, I propose the concept of ‘parent-initiated play’ to explain some of these dynamics linked to play, bonding and care. Parent-initiated play is a type of interaction between the parent – very often the mother – and the child, whereby the parent takes the lead in stimulating play time with the child, whilst letting the child develop his/her imagination in using toys, developing games and imaginary stories. Mothers – and to a less degree fathers – are intensely involved in the participation and arrangements of play time; these interactions involve doing, dedication, time and energy, but are also an important source of meaning for family life.

Parents, especially from middle class background, very often arrange a series of activities for their children and these typically consist of: swimming, football, basketball, ballet, horse riding, drama, art classes, music lessons etc. Indeed doing something with your children is often understood in these terms, in terms of organising extra-curricular, ‘enrichment’ activities. Organising these activities for children requires the careful observation of children’s progress, the monitoring of their involvement and supervising the overall attendance. It is a practical and organisational focus that needs to be maintained in time and that can be termed as ‘organisational intelligence’, a rather intensive way of taking care of your offspring, but in the article I argue that through these recreational activities parents also form the emotional side of their family life.

Compared to these relatively formal activities, parent-initiated play is more spontaneous; the ludic, fun element comes from experiencing a close interaction with the child and her/his imagination, from taking the initiative of arranging together play time. Conversely the work-like element comes from having to force oneself in a demanding activity which requires time, empathy, patience and at times, appropriate skills; all qualities that parents are not always willing or able to apply.

In general, parent initiated play shows a peculiar characteristic of family life, that is parents literally construct time together with their children and in so doing they fill home life with meaning, they construct a world that has different features from others. This is not simply a rosy way of seeing children-parents interaction, or the separation of the public sphere of work and the private sphere of family, because as we said, this intensive interaction can be sustained only through the labour of care that is often done by mothers. I call this the dual nature of parents’ time with children, which I believe crucial in understanding family life and the strains around the work-family ‘balance’.

This blogpost is based on the following article, published in the May issue of Sociological Research Online: Ba', S. (2014) Parenting, Play and the Work-Family Interaction, Sociological Research Online, 19 (2) 7.

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