It’s Really Okay to Say ‘No’ to Playing with Your Child (5 Reasons)

In this episode: A parent writes that she’s struggling with her 5-year-old’s demands to play with her. This mom says that although she understands the theory of Janet’s parenting approach, she has difficulty putting it into practice in the moment, and she finds herself getting frustrated and being unkind. “She irritates me, and I feel absolutely terrible for admitting that!”

Transcript of “It’s Really Okay to Say ‘No’ to Playing with Your Child (5 Reasons)” 

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to a parent who says that she finds herself frustrated and even a little irritated by her five-year-old’s constant request for her to play with her. Saying no makes her feel terrible, and she’s searching for a way to handle her daughter’s demands for interaction and not feel so guilty.

Here’s the note I received:

“Hi, Janet. I’m getting in touch as I found your book transformed my understanding of parenting when I first read it a few years ago. It was like a moment of clarity that I’ll never forget. My little baby is now five, and I’m struggling with her. I find her need for my attention to be very demanding, and I find myself getting frustrated and being unkind. She is unlike her sister, two years old, in that she always wants me to join in her imaginary games. She can play on her own, but her preference is that I join in. She’s disappointed when I say no, and then I feel guilty. I do try to play with her when I can, but I don’t always have the energy. I’m not sure how I should handle this. I’ve reached the point where I find she irritates me, and I feel absolutely terrible for admitting that. I don’t know what to do about that either. Often, I know the theory of your approach but don’t manage to do it in the moment. I would be so grateful for any help you can give me. Thanks.”

Okay, well, I choose this question to respond to because a version of this is one of the most common questions that I receive. A child wants the parent’s attention and to play, and the parent has a difficult time saying no to that. My main goal in this podcast is to give this parent and any parent going through this more permission, to help them feel more permission to say no.

I notice that there are a lot of posts and memes out there that I find kind of guilt-inducing in that they say thing like, “You only have 15 summers to spend with your child before they’re gone,” or, “On my death bed, I wish that I’d played more with my child,” I regret this and that. And I don’t appreciate those posts because I know that they make it even harder for parents to set reasonable boundaries. I’m sure there are some parents that they help to appreciate their children more and live in the moment and be with their child when they can, but I think the parents I work with, these work the other way around.

I really appreciated when Magda Gerber taught me that it is not our job to play with the child. In fact, oftentimes, our play with a child changes the direction of what the child would be doing. And we are very powerful, so she suggested using that power wisely. And that when we are playing “with” our child, that we do so more as an observer from the beginning, a very engaged observer who definitely responds when our child looks to us as an infant, or we see that they’re struggling with something, we acknowledge. Maybe they’re just looking at us, and we say, “Yes, I see, I notice what you’re doing,” and we describe what they’re doing for them. Children do need us to give them full attention periodically, but not all the time, and not for a long period, certainly not if we don’t 100% want to be there in that moment.

What Magda also gave was a framework for giving attention, so that we didn’t have to feel guilty that we weren’t giving enough. And that framework is to focus on those care-giving moments, which come quite often with a young infant: diaper changes, bedtime rituals, feeding, bathing, dressing, and it can be less and less clear as a child gets older to age five, let’s say, but we still offer it at meal times, when they need a bandaid, when we’re brushing their hair, taking advantage of those moments because those are opportunities for us to give children full attention when it matters most.

We may not be able to do it every time, especially if we have more than one child, with every child, but we prioritize. Sometimes, maybe we only connect at breakfast with that child because for whatever reason, things get complicated later. That’s okay.

Now, in terms of play time, that’s also a wonderful time to give attention, but it’s really the icing on the cake and should only be, again, when we really, really want to be there.  Because think of the messages that our child gets when we’re irritated, we’re frustrated, we feel even a little resentful that we have to do something, that our child is making us do something.

Now, I don’t want to add any guilt on this parent’s plate or anyone’s plate, but how does that feel to that child to have that power but to also have this really important person they adore who really doesn’t want to be there, and there they are, not feeling clear, not feeling good vibes, not fully engaged, distracted by the rumblings of, “She’s making me do this, and I really don’t want to, and I feel guilty, so I have to.” That’s not play or what play is supposed to be, which is joyful, engaged, interested.

The other part of that is that children can start to feel like it’s okay to be with others who really don’t want to be with them, and that’s a message we don’t want to give our children.

When this mother says the daughter is irritating to her, I’m sure there’s definitely some truth in that her daughter is acting in a way that’s irritating to anyone, and so we don’t want to feed that side of her, being a nag or being persistent in that way, being demanding. We don’t want to encourage that. So that’s another reason to say no when this parent feels like saying no. There really is no positive in playing when we don’t want to play, and I would say especially in imaginary games.

The thing is, this little sister will be able to participate in those pretty soon. She’ll have her to play imaginary games with. Maybe she’s not quite there yet at age two, but she will be. So here’s another positive to saying no, opening up that space for her and her sister to find each other in that kind of play, which is not something I would coax or even mention or suggest to her, but setting your limit will make space for that possibility. If you don’t set your limits, there’s less chance that they’ll find each other.

Now, let’s look at what this parent’s struggle is, which is the feelings around disappointing her daughter. So important that we get comfortable with disappointing our children. That’s a must, and I’m sure there are a lot of areas during the day when this mother is more comfortable disappointing her daughter, but this one, for some reason, gets to her. She doesn’t feel sure of herself. She feels pulled. She thinks she should want to play with her daughter more.

It’s not our job. It really isn’t, but the way I would say no is, “Here’s a period of time when I really want to do this with you. I’m not going to do it now, but I’ll do it then,” and maybe that time period isn’t even every day, and maybe it isn’t very long, but you’re letting her know that that’s when you are going to be 100% excited and available to be with her in that way.

Then, yes, she’s going to throw every guilt trip in the world at you because that’s what children do, not because they’re mean, but she has to see.  And, actually, there’s another element to this that explains why this is happening, and that is that children need to complain to us. They need to whine at us sometimes, and especially if they have cute little sisters. But just generally, children take out their stress on us in that way. Ideally, we see it as theirs, and we’re not taking it on as being on us. That’s what they do. They share with these people close to them.

I think there’s really good possibility that this is an area where she’s found that she can share her feelings with you that aren’t really just about play, really is not about imaginary play at all. It’s about, “Ugh, you had this other child,” and, “Ugh, I’m starting a new school,” and whatever else is going on. This is where it’s coming out.

And if you can set that limit confidently, “No, I’m not going to play with you now. I hear you. You really want me to play? This is when I’m going to do it.” Period at the end of your sentence. Comfortable. If you can do that, then she has full permission to be upset with you, which, again, really isn’t about you at all. It’s about her. You’re being her safe place to vent, which I’m sure this mom wants to be. Right now, she’s taking it personally and seeing it as a failure on her part that she’s not playing with her daughter enough or whatever, but that’s not the truth. The truth is it’s this daughter’s feelings.

So that’s another reason to say no, to allow your daughter to vent. She sounds like a girl with a healthy, strong will, and she really needs a mom who is stronger than that and feels confident in her decisions, and the job she’s doing, I’m sure she’s giving her daughter plenty of attention. Ideally, she will give her just that positive attention and not the negative kind where she is irritated and frustrated and doesn’t want to be there, and that makes her unkind.

Yeah, if we feel like we’re being controlled by somebody or forced or coaxed or that we have to do something that we don’t want to do, yeah, we are going to lash back at that person, but we’ve got to be the ones to not let that happen. It can’t be up to our children, ever, to release us. We have to release ourselves, and that starts right away with an infant, with a toddler. We have to take our time and say, “This is what I need to do. I’m not going to take you to the potty with me. I’m not going to be with you every second.”

There’s probably more here that I could explore with this mother. If I was speaking with her, I could find out more of why this is such a tender spot for her, because I think there’s probably other guilts wrapped up in this one for her, and that would be good for this mother to look at. But I want to encourage her and every parent to be clear, to feel good about your choices, and to not do something as precious as play with our child if we’re irritated and don’t want to do it. That’s worse than not playing at all.

I really hope that helps and clarifies some things. Again, this parent, every parent, say no with love, with confidence, with no anger at your child for what they’re asking for. They’ve got a right to ask for the moon and the stars and constant play and attention and everything else. There’s nothing wrong with asking. Welcome them to ask, but feel good about your choices. We can do this.

Thanks so much for listening.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you for this and everything else <3

  2. My child is like the child described in the question also, but she is a little younger at almost 3. She has an incredible imagination but becomes really distressed if I cannot or will not play with her for a while. I am home with her all day and she is an only child, so I know she gets lots of focused attention from me, and sometimes her requests to play frankly exhaust me. She also loves for me to read to her and will sometimes bring me 15 books in a row to read. How can I encourage her to play independently more often? Should I be scheduling more opportunities for her to play with other children also?

    1. I am in the very same boat. Hoping for a reply from Janet. Especially on being an only child. I’m not a huge fan of play dates but I am also not sure we are ready to send him to preschool.

  3. My daughter struggles with, not her four year old only child but rather, her husband, demanding that she play with her daughter constantly.

    He plays and entertains her from the moment he gets home and even stays in her bed with her until she falls asleep nightly.

    They are older (40’s and 50’s) and conceived only through multiple rounds of IVF. She is a precious, bubbly, little girl that has a wonderful imagination and entertains herself beautifully and also plays well with her friends but tends to be a little shy with other children if they are overly rowdy or aggressive (identical to her mom as a child) but her dad much rather she be a more outgoing, leader of the pack type.

    He refuses to be more than a best buddy and truly never says no to anything, continually planing play dates while pushing for more IVF and a surrogate so she won’t be an only child.

    I might add that he and his brother speak multiple times a day by phone yet he has a sister he does not get along with at all.
    However he is certain that she needs a sibling to be happy and in order not to be alone when she is grown.

    My daughter is overwhelmed and very much the third wheel in the family.

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