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It’s not too late to learn how to play

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m the father of two kids, 5 and 6. I love them fiercely, and I think we have a good relationship, but I worry that I’m a bad dad. I can’t seem to connect with the kids during play and I actually have a hard time making myself play with them. That doesn’t seem like something a good parent would have a problem with. What’s wrong with me?

A: OK, first, there’s nothing wrong with you – the fact that you’re worried about this aspect of your personality says you’re not a bad parent at all. Many of us were raised to believe that good parents play with their kids (and they do). However, the reverse – that parents who don’t get down and dirty with the little ones are bad – is simply not true. Chances are excellent that you’re struggling with playtime not because you hate your children (again, the fact that you’re worried about it takes that option off the table), but because spontaneous or casual play simply may not be part of your personality.

And you’re far from alone. A recent study done in the United Kingdom found that 1 in 6 parents has trouble connecting with their kids through play, and 6 in 10 say they play with their kids only occasionally. Some of these parents were Type A personality types – the kind of people who, after five minutes of play, start thinking about projects that need to be done or the report that’s due at work next week. The kind of people who constantly feel the need to move forward, make progress, mark items off of their to-do lists.

Others said they just don’t have enough time for play. This was most common with dads. Being bogged down with money worries or being overworked doesn’t lend itself to relaxed, stress-free play with the kids. But whatever the reason, almost all felt guilty about not playing enough.

If you’re not in either the Type A or the not-enough-time camps, you might be one of those people who’ve simply forgotten how to play. Don’t laugh. This has become such a big problem that some child care centers have started offering play classes for parents.

Not being sure what to do can definitely make playing a little more challenging. But don’t worry: We all have the capacity for it. Here are a few ideas that may help you reconnect with your inner child.

• The second you come home from work, go change clothes. Getting out of that suit and into some old jeans and a T-shirt can put you into a completely different mindset.

• Break out the clay and paint. Make a mess in the kitchen. Bang on some pots and pans. Get creative and you’ll be surprised at just how much fun you and your kids have.

• Stop being so tough on yourself. Play is all about letting go of boundaries and structure. The more you worry that you’re not doing something right, the more trouble you’ll have relaxing.