Friday, September 16, 2011

Quote a Day #9 - Playful Parenting

The Book: Playful Parenting by Lawrence J Cohen.

The Quote:

 I learned a great game from Jimmy, my eight-year-old neighbor.  Jimmy's little cousin would come visit, and he would take her to the swings across the street.  He would stand in front of her and give her a push.  When she came back toward him, he would stand so that her feet just barely touched him on the chest.  Then he would make a big show of falling over and pretending to be mad at her.  He would get up and say, "You better not do that again!"  She would laugh with delight and he would patiently play this game with her again and again.

Why is this such a great game?  It manages to cover all of the deep purposes of play, as well as just plain being fun.  The contact, or near miss, is a great way to play with connection.  Having the younger child be the more powerful one builds confidence.  Besides, why are toddlers called toddlers?  Because they fall down a lot.  Having someone else fall down, in a funny way, lets the toddler release--in waves of giggles--all her frustration about walking.  Much better than finding another toddler and pushing him over, or whining to be carried because walking is so difficult.

I often use Jimmy as my model when I think of ways to help children out of their twin towers of isolation and powerlessness and into the open vistas of delighted, exuberant play.  First and foremost, what Jimmy did at the swing set was join the younger child in her world.  He went to her level and played in a way that was most fun for her.  Playful Parenting begins with an eagerness to connect with childrne in the way Jimmy connected with his cousin, and willingness to provide children with unlimited refills of love, encouragement, and enthusiasm.  Loosening up--literally and figuratively--also helps, as most of us adults are rather stiff when we try to get down on the floor and play.  Since fun and laughs are the currency of children's play, we may need some work on lightening up a bit.  When we get disconnected from children--and we do, again and again--play is our best bridge back to deep connection with them.


I read this book about a year ago, and this passage stuck in my mind.  Many months later, when I was watching Bethany grappling with her new skill of walking (around 11-12 months), I saw her lose her balance and fall down over and over, and become more frustrated and upset each time.  Just when she was on the verge of a major meltdown, I had a flash of inspiration.  I jumped up and said: "Bethany!  Oh no, mum fall down!" and fell over dramatically.  She looked at me startled, then grinned.  So I got up and did it again.

She giggled.

Then followed much more giggling as I almost managed to walk across the room and fell over in different ways, including almost on top of her so that I ended up kissing her tummy.  After a few minutes of this  she got up and tried to walk again, and this time when she fell over, she looked up and grinned at me.  Then she got up and tried again.  No more tears (for that afternoon).

Play had communicated, in a language a toddler could understand: it's ok to make mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  Even if you don't succeed, it can still be fun to give it a go.  You are worthy and loveable no matter if you succeed or not.

I found Playful Parenting a wonderful read.  Not too long, a conversational style, but full of insights that felt fresh, and grounded in a strong understanding of child development.  The author is a child psychologist who specialises in play therapy, and he draws on many years of experience to give lots of wonderful examples of play ideas that can help you connect with your child, learn appropriate skills and behaviour, and defuse difficult situation.  I cannot tell you how many almost-tantrums I have managed to head off by adopting some of the ideas in this book.  It also contains one of the most brilliant, practical metaphors I have seen for understanding and fostering attachment (the 'cup filling' metaphor).

The book is aimed at parenting children of all ages (except babies), from toddlers to teens.  The beauty of the approach is that it doesn't assume you have to be a super-parent, and it forms a useful accompaniment to any other parenting style.  Playful Parenting is different.  It is genuinely a positive, realistic, and very practical book that gives you a toolkit of ideas you can try, rather than making you feel guilty about what you're not doing.

Cohen does explain why play is so important and addresses many common fears or misconceptions about getting involved in playing with your children.  Most importantly, I think, it discusses how to play in a way that will be most effective.  There is an excellent chapter in particular on play-wrestling and how to handle violent play in a way that respect's the child's needs and curiousity, but does not glamourise or support aggression.

Play is what our children are geared up to do, because their brains know it is what they need to develop. Rather than fight their nature by expecting them to understand logical explanations and exercise self-control on request, playing swims with the current - it is a parenting tool to encourage cooperation and understanding that children not only understand, but enjoy.  And because it can address underlying issues which motivate other negative behaviour, it can be one of the most effective tools for actually preventing problematic behaviour before it starts.  It teaches self-control by creating situations where children are actually motivated to control their behaviour for the intrinsic reward of enjoying a game.

My TEDx talk & Childcare - or Why This Blog Has Been Silent

It's been about 2 months since I posted on here.  There have been a number of reasons for this, but a major one is that I was preparing to give a talk at the TEDxDarwin event.

What is a TEDx event?  Basically, it's a mini-conference where speakers apply to present an interesting idea or original perspective in a polished speech (without notes) under 18 minutes.  You are mic'ed up, videoed, and all the talks are released online under a creative commons licence (meaning it can basically be shown and shared by anyone for free).

TEDx events are a spin-off from TED events.  TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. Started as a four-day conference in California 26 years ago, TED has grown to support those world-changing ideas with multiple initiatives. At TED, the world’s leading thinkers and doers are asked to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. Talks are then made available, free, at TED speakers have included Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sir Richard Branson, Benoit Mandelbrot, Philippe Starck, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Isabel Allende and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.   In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organised events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience.  The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organised. (Subject to certain rules and regulations.)

So I had to submit a proposal to the organising committee, along with a bit about me and my experience as a public speaker, and I was fortunate enough to be selected to speak.

My talk was called Empowering Parents Through Information, and you can watch it here (the picture's a bit dark on some angles, particularly the opening shot, but the sound is clear):

Feel free to share with parents, health care providers, or policy makers who you think might be interested.  You can link back to this blog post, find it on Youtube under my name (Caroline Norrington), or here on the TED website.

Brave New World of Childcare

The other major reason that this blog has been silent is that I am now working 4 days a week.  Bethany is transitioning from being cared for by her Granny to a childcare centre for 2 days a week and her Aunt for another day.  The fourth day of work I am doing flexibly in evenings and on weekends.  As you might imagine, fitting in two more days of work is going to severely cut into blogging time.

I am very happy that we have been able to find Bethany a place in a lovely childcare centre - a community-run organisation, the Nightcliff Family Centre.  Unfortunately it's a bit out of my way, which is a pain as I am still breastfeeding her at lunchtimes, but I am happy to do the extra driving time to have her somewhere as stable as Nightcliff appears to be.

I thought I'd post a few notes here about what I looked for in a childcare centre and why, because when Bethany was first born I had no idea what I was looking for, and I thought some notes might help parents who are looking.

In order of importance:

1) Recommendations of other parents.  I asked around.  I particularly took note of the opinions of parents who I thought probably had similar parenting philosophies to me.

2) The extent to which the carers engaged with the children lovingly and sensitively, as opposed to just doing feeding / sleeping / crowd control.  For a 14mo, long daycare has to be a home away from home, and babies are still really forming their understanding of whether they are worthy and that comes from being shown love and sensitivity and having the chance to interact one-on-one with a carer.  I found this out by asking parents, and also by going to the centres and watching the carers interact with the children.  Daycare centres will have routines, but good centres will also do their best to adapt to your baby's routine.

3) The extent to which the children going there seemed to be happy.  This involved again talking to other parents and visiting the centre (although I think when you visit the centre you can catch them during a bad day or a busy moment, so take the visit with a grain of salt).  Great signs were children who ran in to cheerfully hug the carers in the morning, and parents who say that their child still speaks fondly of their carers some years later.

4) Transparency and parental engagement.  I visited one place where the carer flat out refused to let parents come and settle their children in or drop in during the day.  This is not on, in my view.  A 14mo old needs to gently adjust to a new care environment by being gradually transitioned, and a 14mo cannot tell you what happens to them at daycare, so the ability for the parent to be involved and for parents to scrutinise how care is being provided is essential.  Good centres actively encourage parents to help their children transition, because this makes children happier.  Beware any childcare providers who discourage this, because it suggests they either know very little about child development, and/or your child's psychological and emotional wellbeing is not high on their agenda.

5)  The quality and quantity of one-on-one attention my baby was likely to receive.  For example, avoid having your toddler / older baby being cared for in the same room as very young babies.  Very young babies require intensive attention, and leave the carers with very little time to be responsive to your older baby / toddler.  I tried to find a centre that didn't take babies under 6mo, or has the younger babies in a separate room.  I actually found a centre where Bethany is basically in a room of 1-2yo's, so that's great.  Look at the ratio of carers to babies.  The required ratio is changing from 1:5 to 1:4 in 2012, but it can still vary from centre to centre.  I was particularly keen on centres with 3 carers to 10 babies.

6) Stability of the centre and longevity of carers.  This is actually really, really important, but I put it lower down my list because it's very hard to find.  Children bond to particular people, not to the centre per se, so if your centre has a high staff turnover, that can be very disruptive and upsetting to them.  Ask how long the carers have been there.  I was incredibly lucky to find a centre where two of the carers in the baby's room have been there for over a decade (one for almost 3 decades) and are committed to staying there.

7) Other things I looked at were policies on sleeping and behaviour management.  Most childcare providers I spoke to were happy to use gentle methods to get my baby to sleep if I preferred.  No childcare providers are supposed to use corporal punishment.  You can find many centres this day which practice positive discipline and do not use humiliation strategies like time out / naughty corners.  That's not important to everyone, but it was to me, and it's good to know that this is quite common in centres and not at all too much to expect.  I found that the centres who did well against all my criteria generally were also very positive about me coming in to breastfeed.  (In fact, I had a carer suggest the other day that perhaps I could come in to feed Bethany twice!  Unfortunately that's not feasible, but I do appreciate how welcome they made me feel.)