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 the first chapter of Playful Parenting, Lawrence J. Cohen recounts a story of putting on a little play with some of his daughter's dolls as a way to defuse a frustrating situation:

After just a few times playing this game, getting dressed on her own became a habit, and I didn't have to spend every morning making up doll dialogue. Once in a while after that, instead of being pokey and driving me nuts, she would say, “Come in and be those people saying I can't get dressed.” Playfulness turned a time that used to be full of frustration for both of us into something fun, enjoyable, and confidence-building. Emma got over her loneliness and reluctance and got used to a new path. Of course, to get to that point, I had to put in some time up front. As every parent knows, that time may be hard to find, but it paid off in a very short while. If I take into account the time I used to spend nagging, fussing, and supervising, then I really come out ahead.

One of the weirdest parts of being a parent is how frequently you confront things that are objectively small--small voices, small bodies, small toys, small setbacks--but at the same time completely intractable. Trying to figure out how to get my toddler to stop crying because he broke his graham cracker feels like trying to perform surgery on a sardine with hands covered in dish-soap.

I should be embarrassed to admit that it had never occurred to me to try Cohen's approach, but having tried it, I'm too appreciative and relieved to feel much shame. Here's what happened.

The other day, GoGoGadgetGreta was melting down into tears after I'd asked her to get her shoes on so that we could leave.

In the past, I've tried yelling.

I've tried expressing my utter dismay at her refusal to do something I've seen her do dozens, if not hundreds of times on her own.

I've tried waiting her out.

I've tried happily agreeing to help her put them on, hoping that she would eventually decide to do it on her own.

None of them have "worked."

I'm sure the last approach has been the least damaging, and it's been my go-to for the last several months after experimenting with Pam Laricchia's "Why Not Yes." However, even in that case, my help is often met with complaints or whining or moaning.

This time, I tried something different: I grabbed two Barbie dolls that were lying on the kitchen table, Anna and Elsa of Frozen fame, and I did exactly what Cohen described. I had them stage a mock argument about the little girl's puzzling incompetence.

The little girl laughed. Hysterically. She covered her mouth because she couldn't contain her giggles. She called out "Daddy!" with a mixture of embarrassment and delight. And she got her shoes on. By herself.

And here's the really surprising thing. I started out being super self-aware of what I was doing. A little voice in my head was definitely telling me "This is stupid. You're the parent. You're her father for chrissake. Just lay down the law and make her do it." But I didn't listen to the voice, and pretty soon it was gone, and by the time that the kitty-shaped-boots were zipped up, I was laughing too.

It wasn't easy for me, but it worked in a way that nothing else really has up to this point. It worked well enough that I was even willing to try it again--with the toddler--duhn duhn duuuhn.

FeeFieFoeFord refused to get himself up into his chair so that he could eat his cereal. He wanted me to do it for him, and was crying about it in the way that only toddlers can cry. I grabbed two Thomas the Tank Engine toys that were lying on the floor and had them debate the merits of sitting in a chair to eat. It took longer for the tears to convert to chuckles, and the transition was a bit less stable, but by-god, he actually got himself into the chair. And their were no tears in his mini-wheats.

I've got one more so far.

Yesterday, Greta was complaining about not being able to put her bowl away after breakfast. She claimed it was "too loud"  and she couldn't cover her ears and put the bowl away. Now, I could have pointed out that she and I were the only ones awake and that the only sound was actually her own crying. Instead, I pretended to be a stealthy ninja and got the step stool from the dining room and tip-toed it over to the kitchen sink. She started mimicking me and muffled her laughter and, very quietly (and very slowly), put her bowl in the dishwasher.

OK, so three attempts and three successes--definitely enough to encourage me to continue both with the book and the practice, and I can tell it is going to require practice. I can see it working best with my daughter, and not too bad with my toddler. I'm still a bit at a loss as to how I might implement it with 8-year-old holdenprime, but I'm going to give it a go, and I'll let you know what I find out.

In the meantime, let us know in the comments if you have any experience using play as a strategy to navigate conflict. I'd definitely be interested in learning about different techniques for different ages and genders.

Happy parenthood.