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Q. "I have a 6-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl. The only time my son plays alone is when he is on the computer. On school days, he is allowed one hour of one or the other, not both. I am very strict about television viewing and being on the computer. Once the hour is up, if I don't stop what I'm doing to play with him, he'll begin pestering his little sister. When I suggest he go and play by himself, he refuses. If I suggest that he get a toy and bring it into the kitchen and play while I make dinner, he also refuses. How can I encourage him to entertain himself? He really drives me crazy during the dinner-making hour. "
A. You can't talk a child into entertaining himself, nor can you punish him into it either. Instead you need to find creative ways to entertain him. To this end, there's one obvious -- but not so simple -- solution to this problem. Let him help you make dinner. It's a bit of a bother having a 6-year-old help you with the meal, but under your supervision he can do it. Give him simple tasks like washing vegetables for a salad; or if he's learning to read, have him read the recipe aloud to you. If you're not using a recipe, then let him read his favorite book while you make your preparations. The idea is to keep him occupied while making him useful. Be creative. Let him retrieve items from the refrigerator, or stir ingredients in a bowl; teach him to set the table or how to load the dishwasher. Give him busy work and you'll both be happier. By involving your son in this way, you serve three purposes: 1) You're spending valuable time together; 2) You're keeping him away from his sister, and 3) You're teaching him how to cook, which will be handy as he gets older. What more could you ask for? Of course, you can probably get dinner on a lot faster without his help, but your aim is to keep him out of trouble and purposefully occupied, so it's worth your while to set aside your need for efficiency. In the end, everyone benefits: you, your daughter and -- most of all -- your son.
Once dinner is over, make real time to play with him. Give him a specific duration -- 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or one hour -- for play and allow him to choose the activity. Then set a timer and have fun. During this time reverse roles from the dinner-making activity. Let him be the boss. He'll make the rules, and it will be up to you to follow him as best you can. Whether it's building a block house, playing with cars, or coloring, keep the activity light and don't make it a competition. Remember, this is his time to shine, so let him. By allowing your son to run the show (so to speak) for this set time period, he will feel confident and in control. And by maintaining your attention in this positive way, he'll be less inclined to act out or behave aggressively towards his sister -- negative behaviors he used in the past to gain your attention. When the timer goes off, he'll probably go and play on his own; or if you say, "Now it's time to feed the dog," he'll most likely comply. However, if he begs for more time with you, be clear that his time is up, and that you need to tend to other household business. This is a positive, proactive method for combating I-can't-entertain-myself syndrome. Eventually, he will learn to entertain himself. This is one of the endless paradoxes in parenting.