Shortly after my son was diagnosed with autism, someone handed me a poem about how God handpicks the parents upon whom He bestows special-needs children. Ugh. Extra challenges aren’t an honor—they’re a possibility we all accept when we decide to have kids. We roll up our sleeves and do the best we can for our kids because we love them, not because we were pre-vetted.

So I learned to be wary of moralistic homilies, but there was an essay that was passed around mom-to-mom that did make an impression on me when my kids were small. (I don’t know its origin, so if anyone does, please tell me in the comments and I’ll give credit where credit is due.) It told the story of two mothers: one keeps a clean and elegant home, always is beautifully dressed and coiffed, brings home-baked cookies to every school event, and lays a healthful gourmet dinner on the table night after night. But her kids are never home . . . they’re always down the street, eating store-bought snacks at the messy house of their friend, whose sweatpants-wearing mother happily ignores her chores in favor of playing games with her kids.

The moral: children would rather have their mother’s attention than a perfect home.

Despite the obvious sexism (where the hell were the fathers in all this?), I approved of the message—probably because I am all about letting my house get messy. That’s not a problem for me.

But I do have to admit that as much as I was willing to ignore dishes and clutter to spend time with my kids, I did occasionally drag my feet about actually playing with them, which was a lot more work than putting on a Sesame Street video. Playing takes energy, and also patience—no one warns you when you’re pregnant that a lot of the games your child will want to play are boring. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a circle of hell that’s one endless game of Candyland.

Even imaginative play can lose its charm after a while. How many fake pies can one woman pretend to eat? (Kudos to my husband, who figured out that he could play sick patient and just sit in a chair and doze while our daughter covered him with a blanket and fussed over him.)

But as tempting as it was let our TV do the babysitting, I tried to resist always taking the easy way out. Yes, games could be boring and exhausting and require tons of turn-mediation, and, yes, books and my laptop were always calling out to me (fortunately I didn’t have a smartphone in those days), but even so . . . I tried to spend at least some time every day really playing with my kids.

And you should, too. Because the time you put in when your children are little? It pays off.

First of all, they get older and the games get better. Candyland gets replaced by far more interesting board games (I always liked Battleship and Sorry; my husband was a Risk and Monopoly guy—and, later, Settlers of Catan). Playing house turns into charades and Bowlful of Nouns and the Adverb Game. Playing with the kids starts to get really fun.

And then your kids get even older.

My youngest is 16 now, the oldest 24. They’re busy. They have friends. When they’re home, they’re usually studying or working or getting ready to go out again. There’s not a lot of “Mom, I’m bored, play with me” anymore.

Everything has turned around: now I’m the one desperate for attention. I miss my kids when they’re gone or busy and follow them around the house when they’re home.

Playing games with their mom may not be high on my kids’ lists these days, but, thankfully, it’s not completely off their lists either. Sometimes it’s just a round of Botticelli while we’re waiting for dinner at a restaurant, and sometimes it’s a scheduled “game night,” but it happens. Sometimes it’s even their idea.

And this is why you should play games with your kids when they’re little, even if you’re bored to tears, even if you’d rather be messaging a friend on your phone or watching Transparent or getting through the work that’s piling up around you: one day your kids aren’t going to be little anymore. They’re going to be these wonderful, interesting adults and you’re going to want to spend time with them. And if you put the hours in and play with them when they’re small, there’s a good chance they’ll still enjoy playing with you even when they’re not so small anymore.

The dishes and the work can wait—they don’t grow up and leave home.

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