“Daddy, would you please play like you’re a little doggie?” For the past several months, these are the words that have greeted me as I returned home from work. Instead of wanting me to play with her toys or read a book, my daughter, Taylor, wants me to get down on all fours and bark like a dog. At first, I thought this request was cute. But as a psychologist in training, my concern slowly began to surface. Is this canine fixation normal? Should I consult a child therapist or perhaps, a veterinarian?
I thought about this for several weeks, and even asked other fathers if their children wanted them to be dogs. To my surprise, several dads relayed similar experiences. The situation continued to puzzle me until I picked Taylor up from daycare one day. It was there, that I discovered why Taylor wished I was a dog.
Walking into the daycare, I heard several children laughing uncontrollably in the next room. The laughter was intoxicating, and I found myself smiling at the anticipation of learning what was so funny. Entering the playroom, I quickly understood the reason for their laughter. A small puppy was chasing Taylor until she fell to the ground. Once on her back, the puppy began licking until her face dripped with puppy saliva.
I enjoyed watching my daughter have so much fun. However, I also felt a strange sense of jealousy. Seeing the excitement in her eyes, I began to wonder if I made Taylor that happy when we played together. Suddenly, I found myself watching the puppy. What was the dog doing that Taylor enjoyed so much?
Like a ton of bricks hitting me on the head, I instantly understood a very important parenting principle. As they played, the puppy was completely focused on my daughter. The puppy wasn’t thinking about other dogs or attacking the neighbor’s cat. In other words, the puppy had only one concern: Playing with Taylor. No wonder Taylor wished her daddy was a dog. She was needing my undivided attention. Taylor wanted to look into my eyes and find me totally focused on her. Instead of playing in between TV commercials, homework assignments, or household tasks, Taylor wanted to feel like the most important thing at that moment.
STRENGTHENING RELATIONSHIPS BY HAVING FUN
The stress in our lives from school, work, household tasks, children and the demands of society, can feel overwhelming at times. As we struggle to keep our sanity in the midst of our busy lifestyles, it’s necessary to develop ways of coping with stress. One of the best methods for managing stress is through play.
In her excellent book, Traits of a Healthy Family, Dolores Curran makes this observation about healthy families, “The primary hallmark of a [strong] family seems to be its absence of guilt at times of play. Individuals and the family collectively give themselves permission to sit back, relax, dream, and enjoy. Further, they schedule play times onto the calendar; they don’t wait for free time…” (p. 143).
Playing with our children can be difficult because we all have more to do than can be done in one day. However, we need to develop the ability to divorce ourselves from work and other responsibilities in order to have the possibility for enjoyment. Therefore, healthy family relationships can be built when its members keep their work and play in perspective – when they feel no remorse by relaxing and having fun.
PROTECTING FUN TIMES
Not only do our families need fun time protected from thoughts of other things; more importantly, they need protection from conflict as well. The relaxed fun that strengthens the bonds between family members can be weakened or destroyed when conflict enters into the play. Therefore, make it a rule to keep play time – fun time. Set aside another time to deal with problems.
A great way to strengthen the relationships within your family is to provide times of fun and play. I encourage you to make fun play a regular habit – protected from outside distractions and conflict.
In closing, I recently found a touching poem from Elrod Leany, inspired as he became aware that he was too busy and tired to be approached by this son.
One day when Bruce was just a lad, first starting out in school,
He came into my workshop and climbed upon a stool.
I saw him as he entered, but I hadn’t time to play,
So I merely nodded to him, and said “Don’t get in the way.”
He sat a while just thinking… as quiet as could be.
Then carefully he got down, and came and stood by me.
He said, “Old Shep, he never works, and he has lots of fun.
He runs around the meadows, and barks up at the sun.
He chases after rabbits, and always scares the cats.
He likes to chew on old shoes, and sometimes mother’s hats.
But when we’re tired of running, and we sit down on a log,
I sometimes get to thinking… ‘I wish my Daddy was a dog.’
Now I know you work real hard, to buy us food and clothes,
And you need to get the girls those fancy ribbons and bows.
But sometimes when I’m lonesome, I think ‘twould be lots of fun,
If my Daddy was a dog, and all his work was done.
Now when he’d finished speaking, he looked so lonely there,
I reached my hand out to him, and ruffled up his hair.
And as I turned my head aside, to brush away a tear,
I thought about how nice it was to have my son so near.
I know the Lord didn’t mean for Man to toil his whole life through,
“Come on, my son, I’m sure I have some time for you.”
You should have seen the joy, and sunlight in his eye,
As we went outside to play– just my son and I.
Now, as the years have flown, and youth has slipped away,
I’ve tried always to remember to allow some time to play.
When I pause to reminisce, and think of joys and strife,
I carefully turn the pages of this wanderer’s book of life.
I find the richest entry recorded in this daily log,
Is the day that small boy whispered,
“I wish my Daddy was a dog.”
As parents, God has given us the most precious gift – our children. More important than any accomplishment, our children are our greatest legacy. Let’s make sure we provide wonderful memories of the fun times we shared together. Or sadly, our children might wish someday, that their daddy had been a dog.
Greg Smalley, Psy.D. is director of Marriage Ministries for the Center for Relationship Enrichment on the campus of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Greg is the author or co-author of eight books concerning marriages and families.