Fathers, remember to take time to play

We get so busy providing for our families, we forget that our children need us to just slow down.
Ethan Williams with a completed Lego set.

Credit: Courtesy Sean Williams

Credit: Courtesy Sean Williams

Ethan Williams with a completed Lego set.

Three years ago during the coronavirus pandemic, like most moms and dads, I was trying to figure out how to cope, not only with social distancing but also with three bored kids moping around the house.

I was a single father of a then 16-year-old, 5-year-old and 3-year-old with custody half the time. We were living in Long Island, N.Y., with a backyard big enough to host and entertain and, most important, provide space for my kamikaze youngest son, Ethan, to run around and do his thing.

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

This was my first house so I decided to put my own mark on it, though I am not a professional handyman. I decided the yard needed a fire pit, handmade by me, that would bring all the kids and maybe their friends to the yard on brisk fall evenings.

Because my then 3-year-old was (and in many ways still is) my shadow, I decided to make a game of creating this fire pit, one that we could “play” together. And, like any toddler into rocks and sand and dirt and getting his hands dirty, Ethan was all in!

I was going to make this perfect fire pit from scratch. I had just started the DadGang and launched our social media presence. Everything was content, so I filmed the process.

I was getting all the materials together — sand and blocks, cement and glue and whatnot — and my son “helped” by handing me stuff. He was a child, so it was all fun and games to him. Me? I was taking it super seriously. I was laying the bricks just so. Son, do you see what we are doing? You’ve got to stagger the bricks like this, in this pattern. You got it? Great, let’s go! I’d gotten to maybe the second or third row, and before I could add the brick onto the next layer of cement, Ethan dumped a big pile of dirt and twigs all over it.

I immediately went crazy and start panicking, slapping the dirt off before it dried on the cement and, I’m ashamed to say, yelling. Ethan looked up at me, hurt and confused. So here I was, appalled at my reaction because to him it was playtime and to me it was serious. I wasn’t taking the time to see that all he was trying to do was add his own little touch to the masterpiece he thought we were creating together.

This taught me an important lesson. It taught me that I can’t double dip, you know? Meaning, I can’t turn work into play or play into work. For our kids, it’s all play. As parents, we are so busy multitasking that we miss points to connect with our kids. The firepit moment taught me I needed to be more intentional in my playtime with my kids. Play is all they have. It also caused me to reflect on all the ways I was denying play to myself, contributing to some of the tension I was experiencing with them and in other parts of my life.

I don’t want to come across as preaching because that’s not my intention, but if I could send a message to every dad, it would be to create time with your kids that is strictly theirs. Put your phone away so you can truly, intently, spend that time watching a ballgame with your kids. This is what I needed to learn to do. I had to figure out how to create consistent playtime with all of my kids without distractions.

For most men, building in time to play with their kids is not easy. Most men who are working hard to support a family don’t give themselves a break.

Real talk: A lot of times you don’t get a second childhood until and unless you have a kid. And then you realize, wow, playing lets you use your imagination — you start tapping into stuff you haven’t done since you were a child.

Before I had kids I would ride with a pack of my boys with a motorcycle club. I would catch some air on the highway where I didn’t have to hear anything, I wasn’t sitting next to anybody and I could just breathe and be in my own space. When you become a dad, it becomes all about your family, if you’re prioritizing them correctly, and it’s easy to forget you still need to fill your own cup.

As a child I always liked Legos. But, as an adult, I had forgotten. [Lego is now a sponsor of some DadGang events.] One Christmas, I went shopping for the kids and I saw Lego had a blue Bugatti, but it was expensive. And I’m like, oh man, am I really gonna spend all of this money on a set of Legos for myself when I’m here trying to buy Christmas gifts for the kids? It was probably the most expensive thing I had ever considered buying myself.

I bought it. After the kids went to bed, it was me and that blue Bugatti. It took me almost a year to finish the set, but during the course of that year, I reconnected with myself. I started scheduling time just to snap the brick together because it occupied my brain and my hands, relaxing me in ways that I hadn’t felt in years. I didn’t have to go anywhere. I didn’t have to exert myself. I just sat there in the comfort of my home when all the kids went down. It gave me some great quiet, phone-free time when it was just me — something I came to realize was necessary for my mental health.

Ethan is 7 now and, of course, he, like the rest of my kids, is in love with my Bugatti. It is on display in our house, a reminder to play with my kids and do a better job of taking care of me, for them and for all of us.

Sean Williams is the founder of DadGang, an organization building community among Black fathers for camaraderie and support.