Whenever I write about parenting, I feel like I need to add a disclaimer:
I am not a parenting expert. I make mistakes every day, all day long. If my kids appear well-behaved, it’s because either you caught them on a really good day, or you are crazy. Take this advice with an ocean of salt and feel free to add your own advice in the comments section.
But, as every parent does, I do happen to have a few tricks up my sleeve. Today I thought I’d share them with you. Most of these ideas began as little nuggets of golden wisdom gleaned from Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. It’s one of the only parenting books I recommend anymore, and if you’re interested in more whys and hows of playful parenting, I highly highly suggest reading it.
Big Picture: Playing is How Kids Learn
“They just have to suck it up. Life isn’t all fun and games”
Yes. And also no. Life isn’t all about play, but play is the way kids learn best. Respecting your child’s development will not make them soft and wimpy. It will make them better able to progress to the next stage of their development. Besides, who doesn’t want happy, compliant, smart kids? Joan Crawford, maybe, but nobody I know.
When I treat my kids like little adults (or worse, little factory-working adults), more often than not, household tasks become stressful. When I smile and laugh and make a game out of it instead, their faces light up and they instantly become more engaged. They’re happier and more willing to do the things I ask of them.
Do I challenge my kids? Yes. Do I ask them to do things that are difficult without the added bonus of playfulness? Yes, quite often. But if I’m honest, we all learn and get along better when we’re playing.
Big Picture: Be Playful, Even (Especially) When You Don’t Feel Like It
“I’m not a playful person.”
Me. Neither. I think I am probably lacking the “playful” gene. The whole time I was reading Cohen’s book, I was shaking my head and thinking, “This is nice for somebody else, but not really for me. I’m just not fun.”
My mom has led a youth group of one form or another since I was a kid. She has a quote that always bugged the heck out of me: “”To BE enthusiastic you must ACT enthusiastic.” One day, when I wasn’t feeling playful and the kids were being obnoxious and needy and whiny, I took that advice. I busted out my playfulness and GUESS WHAT!!! The kids responded, 100%. They responded to my fake enthusiasm (I’m a so-so actor) so much so that it became real. I began to enjoy myself and they enjoyed themselves more and then all of the sudden it didn’t feel awful or stressful or forced anymore. A few minutes of playfulness made a world of difference, and not just for my kids, but for me too.
Big Picture: Play the Game You Hate
One of the sections in Playful Parenting that stood out to me the most was a section where a mother asked Cohen about her child’s interest in guns. She said all he wanted to do was shoot things, and for her to play with him. She was all “Nuh-uh. I’m a pacifist and I will not shoot anyone or anything,” Cohen told the mother that she should play guns with her child, because it wasn’t about the guns, but about working out something through play with his parent, a person he was safe with. Moreover, the longer she resisted playing this game that interested her son, the more power she was giving to the subject of guns. (See my bonus tip below about how we handle guns in our family.)
At the time, I had 2 small girls, so guns weren’t really on my radar, but Barbies were. I refused to play them, every time. My girls kept asking and asking and asking and finally after reading the section above, I decided to play Barbies as much as they wanted for 2 weeks. Before the first week was out, the girls had moved on to something else and I’ve never played Barbies since. (And no, I do NOT think that I made Barbies un-fun for them. 😉 )
Enough with the big picture. Let me share some tried and true tips that you can use right now.
Playful Tip: Anything Can Be Pretend
In an ideal world, I’d allow my children to play until their little hearts were contented and then I would gently guide them to the next task or activity.
I don’t live in an ideal world. There are places to go and things to clean and food to eat. The way I work playfulness into this is that rather than breaking into the kids’ game, I simply redirect it to include whatever we need to do next.
Example 1: Zeke is a guinea pig and Gabe is his owner, but it’s time to eat dinner. Me: “Ezekiel, your guinea pig food is at the table! Gabriel, I’ve set your human food there too so you can keep him company.”
Example 2: Girls are playing princesses but it’s time to go to art lessons. Me: “Your royal highnesses, the carriage is awaiting. Please don your ballgown and your glass slippers. You don’t want to keep the prince waiting!”
Playful Tip: Leaving Doesn’t Have to Be Hard
Hate leaving somewhere? Do your kids scatter, run across the street/parking lot willy-nilly? Do they whine and complain that 7 hours wasn’t possibly long enough to play with their friends?
Become a mother duck with her ducklings. Or an army captain with his troops. Or a robot with its… robot minions. Whatever your kids like, do this thing, complete with charades and embarrassing noises. If you’d have told me 4 years ago that Gianna (at 8 years old) would still flap her “wings” and quack while walking single-file to the car, I would have laughed in your face. But she does. Every time.
Example: Me: It’s time to go!
Kids: WHINE, MOAN, COMPLAIN
Me: Where are my ducklings? Do I have all my little ducklings lined up in a row? (Flap arms and quack)
Kids: Quack quack quack!
Playful Tip: Brushing Teeth
If your kids are old enough to brush their own teeth, feel free to skip this one. But honestly, this is the one I use every single day. Got a toddler who fights you tooth (heh heh) and nail over dental hygiene? Try this: As you’re brushing, pretend to “find” things in your child’s mouth. Again, anything they love will do. Dinosaurs, zoo animals, cars, princesses, family members… The only limit is your imagination.
Example: Gasp!* What’s that at the back of your teeth?! Is that Opa? (Grandpa?) Opa, what are you doing back there? (Flick imaginary Opa in the direction of home.) Wait! What else is there? Is that… (gasp!) Opa’s tractor? Oh my goodness. Go home, tractor!
*An authentic-sounding gasp is a parent’s best friend. It distracts and resets the tone of nearly every situation. Find it, work on it, use it, own it, love it. You can thank me later.
Playful Tip: Accents and Disguises Make the World Go ‘Round
A command said in a plain old California accent isn’t nearly as fun as if I pretend to be a British monarch. Or an Australian sheep farmer. Or a pirate on the high seas. Better yet, any accent coupled with a crown or sunglasses will garner laughs and compliance.
Just be sure that you follow through on this one, as things can get silly and out of hand. Then you get frustrated and yell at the kids and the fun is all over and never again will you playfully parent. Not that I’ve ever had that happen or anything. If you stay in character and follow through though, this one works wonders on older kids as well as younger.
What to Do About Guns?
Our rules about guns: they’re not to be pointed at people. (We don’t actually own any toy guns, so we’re just talking imaginary ones here.) If for some reason they are pointed at people, they magically become LOVE Guns. They make the person you fire upon love you and want to hug you and be your friend forever. (This tip came directly from the book, BTW.) Even though I haven’t used it lately, when I have in the past, it was a win-win. I’d chase down the shooter and hug them and it becomes a sweet moment of connection. And if the kids really do want to engage in a battle of some sort, they create imaginary villains like trees and bushes and they can shoot to their hearts content.
Those are my tips, friends. Do you have any other tips for playful parenting? Or comments about the theory in general? I’d love to hear them. Be sure to head over to Jen’s House of Crazy Yet Hilarious Quick Takes on Planes, if that’s your cup of tea. (It’s as hilarious as it sounds, by the way.)