Playful Parenting by Lawrence J Cohen

What the Heck is Playful Parenting?!

Of the twelve sections from my Parent Coaching program, I have to say that the last week’s exploration of Lawrence J. Cohen’s book Playful Parenting was the most jarring to me. It just seemed so counterintuitive that being playful would be anything but extraneous. I even had a physical reaction when I read the title of the section of my course. It was certainly not the way I grew up!

But lo and behold, this topic turned out to be the pièce de résistance of the course for me. Early on, my instructor kept inferring that something great was coming and that it was her favourite thing. Being the cynical pragmatic student I was, I kept thinking, yeah, yeah, okay, sure, sure. I read the materials and watched her videos. The intellectual side of me wasn’t convinced, which was odd. Usually, my intellect understands ‘the why’ behind theories or recommendations even if it’s hard for me to emotionally get it or implement it. This time, it was completely the opposite.

Two Sides of the Brain

I don’t think the rational-logical side of my brain liked the idea of playful parenting. It seemed like an ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ kind of thing and it really was distasteful to my ego. I pride myself on being a very reasonable person. So if I make a reasonable request, I expect my kids to follow my instructions. That is to say, if I overreact due to my own triggers, I certainly own up and apologize to my kids. But, but… this ‘Let’s play and laugh instead of focusing on the important task that needs to get done exactly in the way I want it done’ felt… preposterous!

At the same time, though, the instinctive-emotional side of my brain was lapping it up! I found myself using humour, sneak attacks, and imaginary scripts to reenact emotionally difficult moments with my husband and kids. I had always thought that I had to be ‘the mother’ and I had to ‘parent’ them through all those moments. We are talking about a 12-year-old going on 25 and a 14-year old who has gone from a people-pleasing, well-behaved child to someone who now grunts most of his sentences. I did feel that maybe this Playful Parenting idea might have come too late for this Untigering Mom and Recovering Shouldaholic. A lot of the examples were about very young children.

It Works! It Really Works!

But my emotional side was already implementing the idea without the support from my intellectual side.

And it was working!

Just as psychologist Lawrence J. Cohen describes in this book, practicing playful parenting was building closer bonds between me and my kids. The subtitle describes “An exciting new approach to raising children that will help you: nurture close connections, solve behaviour problems, encourage confidence.” And they are not kidding! It really works! The list on the back indicates that it can help children to: “express and understand complex emotions, break through shyness, anger, and fear, empower themselves and respect diversity, play their way through sibling rivalry, cooperate without power struggles.” As I said, I wasn’t really believing in this idea, but anecdotally, it’s working for us!

Trying Out Playful Parenting with Chores

Let me give you an example. Here’s a scenario that used to play out every night after dinner:

Me: Come back here! You can’t just run away and leave your chores undone. Put away the clean dishes! Wash the dishes! What part of ‘This is your job to do every day’ do you not understand? This is your responsibility! Mommy and Daddy can’t be the only ones doing things around the house! I’ve had it up to here. I hate yelling and I feel like the only way to get you to do this is to yell at you!

Child (reluctantly returns, being dragged away from something he was enjoying): Okay, okay, OKAY! I’m coming. Fine. Sheesh.

There’s probably some eye-rolling on both sides and unfriendly internal dialogue while he does his chores with that look on his face. We each leave the situation with residual feelings of annoyance.

Now here’s an example of what I had started doing before learning about this concept:

Me (going to his desk and seeing him on the computer with his friends having fun): Oh hey, I see that you’re having fun. When you’re done, can you come down and help me figure out what chores are not yet done? I mean, I think some of them are done, but I need help to decide if I should yell at kids or if I should just be resigned to having a dirty house. 

Child: Yeah, can I come down in 5 minutes, I just want to finish this level. And then I can help.

Me: Okay!

In this scenario, depending on how deeply he is into the game with his friends, he will return afterwards and wash the dishes or forget and I’d have to go back and tell him again. So this is just me trying to see things from his perspective and avoid yelling, but it didn’t really change his feelings about his chores. But then I upped my game and started using Playful Parenting:

Me (before child even leaves): Wait a minute! I see you leaving me and I think it’s an invitation to kiss your nose… unless…

Child: (shrieks and giggles): Unless what? Unless what?

Me: Well, unless it is busy with the chores that it committed to, being a part of this household and all. I mean, it looks like it needs some smooching, but I also don’t want to interfere with the important job of… what’s that again? What is it doing? Pointing your face in the right direction so that you can do what again?

Child: I know, I know, put the clean dishes away and wash the dirty dishes. You think I don’t know? I know my job. I know what I’m supposed to do. You don’t have to tell me, MOMMY, I was going to do my chores.

Me: Well, I think YOU know, but I don’t know if your nose knows! And anyway, it looks like it’s inviting me to kiss it. So… I… think… that I… can’t… resist… any longer…

Cut to: child and I dissolving into a tickle fight. And when we are done, he goes and does his chores. And since I wrote that last sentence, we added another two elements to this ‘game’ that emerged from the game. (Now I have to wait for a formal invitation to play it, like when he says “the nose knows.”)

Wild! I mean, I read the book and thought, No way! But this laughing, pretending to fight, and making up rules as we go along does seem to make chores less unpleasant.

So my review is to say simply, Wow, yes, this playful parenting thing works! If you have time, you should read this book. It explains the value of playful parenting. It gives you many examples of how to do it (for example: Join their world, follow the giggles, learn to roughhouse, suspend reality, and follow their lead), and what the results are (for example: connection, building their confidence, empowerment, and recharging our batteries).

Focus on the Values and Not the Specifics

As a parent, I like the idea that I get to insist on the values (doing chores is an important aspect of being a part of the family), but that they get a chance to control the HOW (not by nagging, not by admonishing, but rather by using gentle reminders and humour). As an adult, I think that many of us have hang-ups because we associate bad feelings with certain tasks (for me, it’s doing the dishes and, well, house chores in general… and more broadly, anything associated with the concept of SHOULD). If I make my kids feel badly about these things, they aren’t going to like doing them, they will just do them to avoid me yelling at them. That’s not a sustainable strategy!

So what to do as a parent when we find ourselves dealing with something repetitively unpleasant (like arguing over bedtime, temper tantrums, siblings fighting, chores, etc.)?  Depending on the age and personality of the kids, it could be getting on the floor and voicing conversations with stuffed animals, playing with words, pretend boxing, or reenacting a scene from a show. The creative possibilities are endless.

Play activates the parts of the brain that tells our bodies we are safe: physically and emotionally. This allows everyone to be more open to learning and interacting. Having fun and releasing hormones make us happy, which in turn is good for our health–mental, physical and emotional!

Won’t you join me in adding playful parenting to our parenting tools?

Published by Sherry Yuan Hunter

Sherry Yuan Hunter is a certified trauma recovery coach and certified parenting coach. Taiwan-born American-Canadian Chinese, married, working mother of two, Sherry identifies as a Sandwich Parent, Third Culture Kid, an untigering Mom, and Recovering Shouldaholic. Based in Toronto, Canada, Sherry has been working in student success programs at University of Toronto for 20 years, supporting students, young professionals, new managers, working moms, and new immigrants to success.

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