As A Parent, You’d Think I Would Be Used To This By Now, But I’m Not
Let me paint you a picture: You’re living in Houston, Texas, and there’s a tropical storm warning issued for your area. You’re relatively new to the city, having relocated here just over a year ago, and in that time you’ve moved into a new house from a rental as well. You have three very active boys who are four-years-old and younger, and the rain is coming down so heavily the neighbor’s house just across the street is a blurry outline.
With COVID changing the way everything is done over the last 1.5 years now, my life as a military spouse has become more challenging than usual. Add in being sent to an area where there isn’t a military base, and it ups the ante a bit.
I have been one of the luckier parents in this pandemic, even if we have moved twice in the last year, once while my husband was in Korea with the Army. My kids aren’t school-aged in the sense where they are required to complete schoolwork at home.
I breathe a sigh of relief every time I remember that, and my heart aches for all my friends and relatives with children who are required to complete a homeschooling curriculum.
Gratitude aside, something else I haven’t been able to nail down is a way to occupy my three boys indoors. My youngest only just began walking a few months after we moved to Houston, and now that he’s nearly two, if he has energy to burn off he will destroy everything in his path.
I spend my days chasing the one-year-old from one danger to the next, always trying to be a step ahead of his destruction and safety. Once I went to throw away a diaper and when I turned back around, he had scaled the cat tree, which was gated off by a baby gate he’d also vaulted with ease.
In the midst of Tropical Storm Nicholas, though, I am tearing my hair out. How in the world do I keep him occupied while it’s raining so much the roads are flooding and trees are snapping and taking power lines with them?
I’ve taken to the internet, trying all the different activities I could find, but many of them just don’t work for more than 5–10 minutes at a time. I refuse to spend my entire day entertaining the kids, either, because I firmly believe they need to develop the skills to entertain themselves.
Here are the things I’ve found I can hack to get some extra time out of, and they’re my most effective strategies.
Building forts and playing “Hide-and-Seek”
If this seems too advanced for a one-year-old to keep up with, I’ll let you in on a secret. It is. But my youngest son will do anything his brothers do, and even if he doesn’t play correctly, I can squeeze a lot of joy into something very simple.
The one-year-old is an incredibly destructive child. He can shred a cardboard book in the span of time it takes me to duck out to relieve myself. He is delighted by destroying toys, books, and any pretend games the other two build. I’ve watched him run up, break or steal toys or block towers, then speed off cackling like the Wicked Witch.
He’s not alone, either. Although they are less destructive, now, his brothers are equally energetic and difficult to keep track of. Three-against-one leaves me outnumbered and exhausted.
Giving them pillows and cushions to play with and build up forts and hidey-holes is distracting for a while, and it gives me time to teach my older two how to handle that kind of behavior with kindness. Because let’s face it, no one wants to deal with someone who repeatedly shows up, wrecks their hard work, then vanishes into thin air leaving behind giggles and ruins.
Dumping out every toy we own
Yes, I realize exactly how counterintuitive that sounds. But think about it, kids love to dump things and put them back. As early as 9 months, my sons were dumping things out of boxes, then trying to learn to put it back simply to do it all over again.
I will spend hours chasing my boys around, only for them to be onto the next act of toddler terror. If I chase my child away from the counter, while I’m putting back the chair he dragged over — in the hopes it makes it even slightly more difficult to repeat the behavior — he’s already trying to yank the plug for the internet box out of the wall.
Those things are terrifying, but also indicate curiosity and learning. He will watch and mimic his brothers or us as parents, achieving agility my other two children didn’t have until long after they turned two. His physical dexterity and light-footed tread inspire awe and dread in the same breath.
The last thing I want to do is quash his natural inquisitiveness. On any other day, I would take him to run around outside a few times, tiring him out with walks, games, or activities I hope will hold his short-attention span longer than usual. With the heavy rain, I was forced to get inventive. Why not use his instincts to my advantage?
Picking up all the dumped toys helps them learn to clean up, and where each to goes. It teaches them what I expect, and I reinforce their behavior with praise and sometimes even goodies like some peanut butter on waffles or a “banana split” with greek yogurt and honey. It makes life simpler at bedtime, too — when I play the clean-up song, they clean up. There’s no arguing, begging, or pleading.
Extra puzzle time and story time
My kids love to do puzzles. Maybe that means I’m lucky, but I’ve found they don’t get tired of them if I add in an extra hour in the afternoon here and there. When I tried doing it daily, the one-year-old did get tired of it. He tends to lose interest much quicker than the other two since his attention span isn’t as developed yet.
While the other two keep working on a puzzle, I read stories the littlest likes. My older two kids don’t always enjoy the “baby” books, so it’s the perfect opportunity for some one-on-one time, and it keeps him from destroying things. I just have to be sure whichever book I choose isn’t ripped, otherwise he tries to shred it instead of listen to the story.
After that I can do a reading circle. The little one never sits still more than a couple minutes, but I read more complex works then, out of paper books I usually keep out of reach. The kids are enthralled by the different stories, and sometimes I will even play music in the background. That brings me to my final parenting life preserver.
When all else fails, have a dance party
My kids all love music, and started dancing before they could walk. If I turn on a catchy song, they will dance. It’s just a fact of life in our house. They even know the names and words to a good number of songs, and will request the ones they like. We listen to My Own Drum from the movie Vivo and What Does The Fox Say by Ylvis on repeat a lot at the moment.
If you can put aside the tiresome feelings you get listening to the same two songs on repeat for half an hour or more at a time, this is one of the best tools in my arsenal. Letting them request a song, or even try to activate the echo on their own to ask Alexa to play a song provides entertainment for a while.
If they seem like they’re not all having fun, or a couple are bored and I need to drag it out, I will blow bubbles while they’re dancing. It’s like hitting the refresh button on the browser, and they love it. They will dance with renewed vigor, trying to catch and pop more bubbles than the other brothers, and I can get a few minutes of non-destructive fun.
I know I’m not the only one out here struggling with kids. It doesn’t have to be the middle of a tropical storm for a parent to be stuck at the house. Some parents work from home and can’t go out to the park, or maybe one or more of the kids (or the parent!) is sick. Having some useful tools in your belt to keep them occupied is always a good idea.
So to summarize, here is my arsenal for days I can’t get outside:
- Build a fort or play hide-and-seek
- Dump out all your kids’ toys and have them help you put them away
- Do extra puzzles and add an additional story time
- Have a dance party!
And hey, make it your own! Show your kids games you used to play growing up, or show them new skills. Narrate their stories using different voices — my boys love it and get upset when I read normally now. Heck, even watch a movie sometimes. Children are like sponges, and figuring out fun ways to teach them what we expect of them can come in handy down the road.
I wish all the other parents out there good luck, and if you’re near where I am right now, stay safe and dry. I would love to hear your ideas, too! What do you do to occupy your kids?