Friday, September 16, 2011
Quote a Day #9 - Playful Parenting
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.
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.