Playful Parenting
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Published: 4/30/2002
Have you ever stepped back to watch what really goes on when your children play? As psychologist Lawrence J. Cohen points out, play is children’s way of exploring the world, communicating deep feelings, getting close to those they care about, working through stressful situations, and simply blowing off steam. That’s why “playful parenting” is so important and so successful in building strong, close bonds between parents and children. Through play we join our kids in…

In chapter 1 of Playful Parenting, "The Value of Being a Playful Parent," Cohen presents his thesis:

Playful Parenting is a way to enter a child's world, on the child's terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence, and connection. When all is well in their world, play is an expansive vista where children are joyful, engaged, cooperative, and creative. Play is also the way that children make the world their own, exploring, making sense of all their new experiences, and recovering from life's upsets.

Two questions immediately spring to mind: "Do I believe him?" and "Does the proposition align with my own values?"

Though he begins expanding on his argument and presenting evidence in the remainder of the chapter, I will withhold judgment on whether he's successfully made his case until the end of the book. However, I can answer the second question now.

Assuming he can deliver the goods, do I want what he is selling?

Yes. Yes, I do.

Closeness, confidence and connection are a different triumvirate of values than the consciousness, compassion and courage that I identified to support my mantra of "Head North," but they are not contradictory when it comes to the pursuit of well-being. In fact, I could believe that they are, in fact, more appropriate when adopting a child's point of view. "Joyful, engaged, cooperative and creative" sound like characteristics of the state of well-being. Furthermore, when he invokes an "expansive vista" or "exploring" and "making sense," I feel a good deal of harmony with my metaphor of the compass.

Following the thesis, I also picked out a few quotes that really resonated with me (some which I wish didn't).

We complain about children's short attention spans, but how long can we sit and play marbles or Barbies or Monopoly or fantasy games before we get bored and distracted, or pulled away by the feeling that getting work done or cooking dinner is more important?

I could make the argument that cooking dinner is more important (and I think Mrs. BPR would back me up on that), but given that my kids rarely actually eat dinner, I have to admit that from their perspective it would be way down on the list.

…play serves our incredible—almost bottomless—need for attachment and affection and closeness.

I could probably just extract "bottomless--need." This has been one of the most surprising and intimidating things I have encountered as a stay-at-home dad. It is most apparent with my toddler, but the enormity of their desire for attention is present in all of them…which probably means it is present in me…and yet, I usually find it difficult to locate within myself, and I too frequently find it difficult to reciprocate. I have been scared by it at least as much as I have been sympathetic to it.

As we shall see, however, Playful Parenting is more than just play. We can interact playfully, or on a deep emotional level, no matter what we are doing: working on chores, playing sports, completing homework, hanging out, watching television, cuddling, even imposing discipline.

Ok, buddy, I'm listening, but I'm also from Missouri. You've got to show me.

Play is one of the best things ever invented to build closeness. I think that must be why school-age children, when asked to define play, focus on the human connectedness of play: Play is what you do with your friends.

It is a cliché that children need their parents to be their parents and not their friends. I'm sure I've even been guilty of pontificating to that effect in the past. I don't say it now, and for those of you who still do, ask yourself this: don't you want to play with your kids, or more to the point, don't you want your kids to want to play with you? Don't you then have to at least be their friend?

When children lock themselves away in one of the towers and pull up the drawbridge behind them, parents wonder how to help them. We may feel helpless and rejected ourselves. We may even go so far as to retreat into our own fortresses of powerlessness and isolation, which makes us even less effective in dealing with our children.
“He's a spoiled brat.”
“I don't know what to do with her.”
“I hate myself when I yell at them, but the next time I just yell again.”
“Suddenly she's afraid of the water, but I paid for a whole year of swimming lessons, so she's going to swim or else.”
“Go away, I'm busy.”

I'd be curious to know if Cohen has heard himself utter these phrases; regardless, he has clearly heard others say them or confess to saying them. I must own to it as well. I wish I didn't have to. I wish this read like bad fiction. Instead, it reads like the truth, and it increases my confidence that I will find an intelligible perspective in future chapters.

When we are exhausted or when we are at the end of our rope, we tend to think that play will be just more of an energy drain. But when we engage playfully with our children, we find that suddenly we do have energy, both for fun and for finding creative solutions to thorny problems.

I'm pretty sure this is true. I'm pretty sure this is like going to dance lessons on the nights where I think I'd really rather stay at home but invariable end up discovering that I actually did have the energy and in fact had a much better time than doing almost anything else I could have imagined. And yet I still have those nights where I don't want to go. We are such strange creatures.