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'Play with me!' How to balance

Kimberly Dzielski worries she doesn't play enough with her 5-year-old daughter.

"I read to her. We play games. We play make-believe," Dzielski says. "I even try to make housework into a fun thing."

But she worries it's not enough. Except when she's worrying that it's too much.

"I worry if she's just by herself she'll be lonely, and I don't want her to just be in front of the TV," says Dzielski, who lives in a Chicago suburb. "Then part of me thinks she'd be more independent if I wasn't doing everything with her all the time."

Dzielski is not alone in her dilemma. Countless parents of young children are finding themselves navigating a world in which books, blogs, parenting magazines and researchers extol the virtues of parent-child play, even as an equal number of resources warn that we're raising a generation of spoiled, entitled children accustomed to viewing their parents as pals -- and struggling to deal with teachers, bosses and other authority figures as a result.

The issue is a fairly modern one. "My mother never played with me," Dzielski says, echoing a common sentiment among the over-30 set. "I don't have any example to go on. I don't know what's normal."

Parenting experts say a happy medium does exist. And there's even time to throw together dinner or, dare we say, relax with a (nonparenting) book on occasion.

"Set aside a period of time that's bounded," advises Julianne Idleman, communications director for Hand in Hand Parenting, a California-based group that conducts parenting workshops and support groups. "It needs to have a beginning and an end so the child understands they're going to have you to themselves and you are fully devoted to them."

Clear-cut start and stop times allow both parent and child to settle immediately into play mode.

"The child can't really relax knowing every minute is negotiable," says Idleman. ‘‘You make a special gate for special time, and if the phone rings, you don't answer it."

Likewise with the buzzing dryer, the barking dog and the beeping BlackBerry.

The allotted time might be five minutes or 30 minutes, Idleman says. But it's protected.

"The kids (who) are constantly demanding attention never feel full," she says. ‘‘It's like eating junk food and never getting satisfied. They never know they've got your full attention or your full cooperation."

And when the time is up, you shouldn't feel guilty about moving on.

"Simply say, ‘I love spending special time with you, and we'll do it again tomorrow. Right now it's time for ...' '' says Idleman. "It doesn't take playing with them all day long. It takes playing with them well."

"Different kinds of play are important in different ways," says parenting expert Penelope Leach, author of Your Baby and Child (A.A. Knopf). "Free play is anything a child thinks of for himself, does because it's fun and goes on doing until it stops being fun. Imaginative play, where a toddler whizzes around the room being a truck, or a preschool child sits talking to dolls, is of that kind. And that's the kind of play where parents have the least to offer -- and trying to join in may even be interfering."

Other times, a parent makes a perfect playmate.

"A 3-year-old who wants to make a den won't get far enough to satisfy himself unless someone helps him," says Leach. "A 5-year-old who enjoys puzzles won't be able to get from 50 pieces to a daunting 100 unless an adult will help him go patiently on."

Parents can use this time to model behavior they would like their children to mirror.

"Children who enjoy ball games early are often frustrated by trying to play with peers because they can't yet catch or hit the ball or abide by the rules," Leach explains. "Likewise board and card games. It's hard enough for a grade-school child to manage his own competitiveness and be a good loser, but if he's playing with another child who's in similar difficulties the game often stops being fun. A grown-up player can keep it enjoyable."

"It's a little space we carve out for them to learn to be a leader, to learn to direct things, to learn to work with other people," says Idleman.

"After the age of about 4, parents shouldn't try to join in when two or more children are playing together -- unless they need an assistant," says Leach. "But there may still be times when a lot of playing together is appropriate and hugely enjoyable, whatever the child's age. On a vacation, for example, where nobody in the family has their usual outside-family companions."

Don't be afraid to prod your children to entertain themselves as well.

"Sometimes you have to be more boring than the boredom," says Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids (Ballantine, $15). "You don't want to become an unpaid performer where you're offering them option after option after option. They can take that for hours.

"That's when you answer, ‘I'm bored,' with, ‘Oh, that's too bad. I'm sorry to hear that,' '' Payne says. "The payoff for parents is, when kids learn to get creative on their own, we can finally sit down and read that magazine."

"Children tend to do better when they know an authority figure is setting limits and rules for them," says Tanya Remer Altmann, associate medical editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics' manual Caring for Your Baby And Young Child: Birth to Age 5.

"You shouldn't be your child's best friend. But you can play with your child and have fun with your child, and you are still the authority figure."

Children are accustomed to seeing their parents wear multiple hats, after all.

"Playing with a child is one in a bunch of parental roles," says Leach. ‘‘Disciplining is another, just as cooking meals or speaking for the child to schoolteachers are others.

"Playing with your child isn't a special rationed indulgence. It's part of the parent-child relationship, part of being a family."