Friday, September 3, 2010

playful parenting, shoot-em-up games, & blonde hair envy

I am only 1/3 through a new parenting book, so I am still starry-eyed. "This approach will solve EVERYthing!" Bear with it. I reserve the right to change my opinion by the time I get to the end of the book, or if it turns Zoralee into a hooligan. Also, I wish to clarify up front that, despite the name, this book is not about being a full time goof ball, nor does it promote, as my husband feared, distracting your bratty children with silliness rather than having clear cut rules and consequences.

So, the book is called Playful Parenting, and it's written by Lawrence Cowen, a psychologist who specializes in parenting and play therapy. Per his website, it's "an award winning book about nurturing close connections, solving behavior problems, and encouraging children’s confidence." Shoot. I already have another disclaimer. The book's cover and the website call Cowen's approach "new," but some people, myself included, are put off by apparent trendiness, especially when it comes to a basic (though not simple) endeavor like raising children. Sure, playful parenting differs from a very serious, tow-the-line approach. But it's all about connecting with kids through their primary language - play - and that's not new a'tall!

Why, what's the first thing adults do when they see a child not their own (assuming they're comfortable around them)? They somehow play. They engage in peek-a-boo with a baby, or they take an interest in a toy the toddler is toting around, or they agree to build a sheet fort in the living room. But don't a lot of parents, even fun-loving, hilarious people, feel that playing with their kids is a luxury, something to do with spare time? We're "beyond" that and more concerned with the REAL LIFE chores of getting teeth brushed, manners rehearsed, etc. Cowen proposes that play is absolutely essential for good connection with your kids - whether their emotional cups are empty or full - but I'm thinking the main mental hurdle for many of us is to use play when our children are distressed, because that's when we want to do everything but play.

Children ride a roller coaster of emotions just like adults do, but they're not adults. They haven't learned (and in some ways aren't yet capable) of clear communication and appropriate coping mechanisms. Thus, we see tantrums and whining, sibling rivalry, lashing out, bullying, etc. Our usual response is chastisement, punishment, or reasoning with them, rather than wondering about the roots of their distress. Look. I expect a lot out of kids, because I believe they're capable of a lot. But come on, the last time you were in a high state of agitation as a full grown adult, did punishment or reasoning work for you? Likely not. We long to be understood and then, if needed, helped, often with a good dose of humor.

Enter playful parenting.

Per Cowen, children have two basic twin towers they'll retreat into if distressed: powerlessness and isolation. They act from those places, often in ironic ways. He says, " is especially useful to translate whatever you hear or see into the language of closeness and isolation, confidence and powerlessness." Bullies often show their power over younger or weaker kids, precisely because they lack confidence. They might feel powerless about situations at home or abuse they've endured. For only $14.95, you too can enter a bully's world through age-appropriate play and help them to feel powerful and confident in good ways! But in truth, those parts don't stick with me much, because I have a toddler. So, for tips on older kids, you'll have to get the book yourself. Free at the library, and if you think it's all hogwash, no money wasted.

I thought I'd share a few concrete examples of the scenarios I've been experimenting with in our household:

  • Zoralee first wakes up from her naps as a cranky little bear. One of my usual approaches is to hold her gently. For some kids this might work, but it makes Z flail around and sort of reject me. It's like I've come in too close, too soon. The connection isn't right. The other approach is reasoning. "If you're fussy, you're still tired. You need to go back to sleep." Outcome: more fussing. Nowadays, though, I'm thinking along the lines of connection. When I walk into the room, I don't go straight to her. I play. I "look" for her under the dresser, or among her toys, making a big show of not knowing where she is. Then I say I can't find her, but I'm tired and better lay down on the bed for a nap. I lay down and use her for a pillow, by which point she is giggling and totally over being fussy. And I am serious - she is ready to get up from her nap and do the next thing HAPPILY. Yes, it seems like a distraction, but it's connecting with her through play, and that connection pulls her from the seriousness of needless fuss.

  • She hits me. My gut reaction is anger and punishment. Mind you, Zoralee is not on a serious, dangerous tirade (that's different, and Cowen addresses it). She just hits me once, usually when we're already playing, and waits to see what I'll do. It's totally the whole, "I want to be close, but I don't know how, so I'll do the opposite." Today I instinctively reprimanded her and told her to say she was sorry. Well, she wouldn't. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt if I would've forced it, there would've been lots of aggravation on both of our parts and very little resolution. So, I bit my tongue of chastisement and instead said tenderly, "That's not okay. Let's cuddle." Within literally three seconds of cuddling, she looked at me and said, "I'm sorry," and was good to go!! Also, I've tried this other idea of Cowen's. If Z hits me, I say, "Oh, you want to dance, do you?" and off we go dancing. It's immediate connection - on both of our parts.

Side note: Does this rail against the stern parent in you? I admit that it does me, and I still believe there are times for serious laying down of the law, especially in situations of danger for the child or anyone else. But you know what? Zoralee's little attention-getting hits have lessened. Hitting is not okay in our house, and she still knows that after these encounters, but now it seems she needs it less often. This mightn't work for every age, but it worked for her.

  • Random acts of playfulness. I have found that if, throughout the day, I take a few minutes to connect with Zoralee in play, it makes a world of difference in her neediness/whininess levels. I am already doing things with her all day long, so the play thing didn't really strike me as a need. She "helps" me clean, helps me cook by pouring ingredients and stirring, we read books, etc. etc. But there is something different about entering her world of play, whether it's dancing or wrestling, or obliging her by conversing with her doll, or making her doll dance around to the music.
Last concept I wish to share (for now):

Kids like to shoot each other with toy guns or make believe weapons, and this makes some adults nervous. The reasoning is that if children are allowed to act something out in play, they'll do it in real life. And maybe there are times this is true. However, in this application, Cowen says differently. Kids need a way to express aggression, to emulate what they've witnessed in the media (or, sadly, real life), and to try on roles - even if, in adult world, it's evil to shoot other people. Play is a child's primary language for working through thoughts and emotions. So, though Cowen tends toward pacifism, he will readily jump into a shoot 'em up game (usually with boys), because that's where they are. That's where he can CONNECT with them. Stopping their play (unless it's actually violent) is not only ineffective, but it's often harmful, because that aggression needs to be expressed somewhere.

When a kid shoots him with a toy gun, Cowen either dies a long, laborious, silly death, or else he says, "You've just shot me with the love gun!" and runs after them to give them hugs. And in this way, he lets them experiment with their own thoughts about death and enemies and dark things (as they were doing anyway), but he can introduce a lightness if it's too serious and he can direct traffic if it turns toward actual danger. Fun, huh???? Makes me want to run out and play guns with a band of little boys.
That's pretty much all I want to say so far about the book. However, yesterday I mentioned drawing a line between the two very different dots. Stick with me.

If playing war games with children is one dot, and touching Zoralee's hair is another dot, the line between the two is as follows.

Humans tend to avoid, dodge, or somehow ignore bad emotions, right? But it's just not helpful. At least, it's not helpful to me. So, rather than chastising the kids about shooting (since it's off limits in the real world), Cowen plays along, steering things in a healthier direction if needed. Within the subculture around here, if you envy something, you should touch it, bless it, so that you're not overcome with that envy (i.e. cursed). The Hispanic people do this with Zoralee's blonde hair and blue eyes. It's the opposite of disconnection. It's like the biblical injunction to pray for your enemies and do good to them that do evil to you. A face your fears kind of thing. Otherwise, we're overcome by our own yucky feelings - fear, envy, desire for revenge, or downright hate. It's like Jesus leaving heaven and putting on people skin to show us HOW to love our neighbor, HOW to give selflessly.

It's about being together, rather than chastising or ignoring.

It's about connection.

If you read this whole thing, I thank ye wholeheartedly. It was long.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, parenting experiences,
or other connection stories...


Rachel Clear said...

Damn, this was good, sis. I mean, really really good. You are (I have seen first hand) an incredible parent, which is only highlighted by the fact that you read things to make you an even MORE incredible parent.

I admit that my "stern" side I didn't even know I had does bristle a little at the idea of a kid hitting, but then again, I'm coming from a line of reasoning that a tiny little kid just IS NOT coming from. They dont know all the things we know. What a unique approach to parenting and to connecting.

See, when little B punches us in the face, as he always does, we just would typically punch him back - hard. But now we'll try a new approach. (Hahaha! Clearly, I'm kidding about punching B.)

Rachel Clear said...

Just a side thought. Although it might seem like stern discipline is the best answer at certain points (like hitting) doesn't it also seem like the kids that have the strictest discipline are usually the naughtiest? Those and the kids with NO discipline... I guess finding the balance is key when it comes to discipline. What I love about this playful parenting thing is that it's not about discipline at all... it's about connecting and understanding what caused the act that even required discipline in the first place.

I can't wait til Bennett is old enough for me to REALLY play with him. I mean, I play with him now, but he has no clue.

ms emili louann said...

Thank you for this post!

I have been bashing my head, trying to figure out the most effective ways to deal with a crabby Elijah (or a sassy Elijah, at that) and you know - everyone offers their advice (spank him, give him timeouts, etc.)

Do you mind if I ask, what do you do when Z has deliberately disobeyed you, or been outright naughty to another person? I know it's kind of a complex question, as there are many different answers per situation, but I was curious. So many people (in our church, go figure) offer spanking as THE ONLY remedy for a naughty child. I have *never* felt comfortable or compelled to spank, though I was spanked and don't feel as though it "scared" me. But I just can't/ don't wish to with my own children.

Anyway, thank you for this post - definitely something I am going to look into more. And absolutely checking out this book from the library :)

Christi said...

I love how you connect the dots...I want to do that more often.

I think playing around is the natural first approach for Jeff and I. It is really interesting to hear the whys behind this angle. But I feel like we almost lean too far that way. Mostly, when siblings come into the picture. I am interested to see what he would say about siblings. The way we want them to treat each other has to be modeled by us, but yet they aren't sophisticated enough to see the root of each other's tantrums/whining/aggressions. I guess when I think about it they have been taught to just laugh when something goes on this side of ridiculous or when somebody is acting irrational to wrestle it out and then stand up laughing.

This is kinda hard to discuss in a comment, but just know you got me thinking and I did try to reserve the book at the library :)

Oh, you know what is the best thing ever EVER...I am at the point with Max where we have real, true nose-flaring uncontrollable laughter together.

Also, I probably full-on wrestle my boys for a full hour each day. It's just funny to think about in those is seriously one of their basic needs. I feel like it is aging me but keeping me young at the same time.

Oh, one more thing...this post makes me grateful that my boys got to spend a year at home with Jeff. Man, dad are just so good at playing.

Christi said...

I had a realization overnight...

I have been struggling with the way my kids behave when we have people over to our house. They gravitate toward this rude/awkward silliness and it always upsets me because I feel like the people we are with don't get to see those three amazing personalities that I love so much. Lately I have been wondering how I might be contributing to this or just not encouraging the right way. What I notice now in light of this book is that when people are over I am treating our kids a little differently. I am not really playing with them. My main concerns are that they are talking nice and entertaining themselves. Seeing it from their perspective, that would be kinda weird to have a mom who is constantly wrestling you to the ground, but when company is around sits on the couch and just doesn't interact the same way. I can see how it would make them even resent the guests a little.

I think just being aware of this will help the entire situation for us. The hard part will be balancing my attention between the two parties.

Thoughts on this?

lori said...

Thanks for reading, and for your comments, Rachel, Emili, and Christi! I've been mulling them over in light of what I've read of this book so far.

The playful approach makes sense with Z for general neediness / whininess / hyperactive transitions to bed or other activities (the merely irritating behaviors). But what about out-and-out defiance, like Emili mentioned? The one thing that comes to mind is that Cowen asserts that time spent in playful connection (including board games, pretending, role swaps, wrestling, etc.) will alleviate some of the defiance. I don't know what else to say. Maybe other people can chime in with help on this?

One note: he says it happens that kids have these out-of-the-blue emotional breakdowns during play with their parents, because they're suddenly free to express buried emotions. Don't panic! Accept it as an honor that they're open, and, whatever the author suggests for helping them through it. Ha ha. Again, I'm reading with toddler-tinted glasses and haven't yet arrived at some of the dilemmas y'all are facing.

Christi - Yes, I imagine you and Jeff could've written some of the chapters in this book. You guys are definitely playful parents! This guy is huge on wrestling, for building confidence in both boys and girls, and letting kids experiment with their own strength against someone stronger and thoughtful enough to let them win some, be overpowered some, etc. based on apparent need.

I wonder if there's a way to get the boys and your company to somehow connect through play, even briefly, so that everybody is more at ease.

kranberrys said...

Funny how my husband has been telling me about this FOREVER and he has never even heard of this book... He's so stinkin' smart... BUT of course now it CLICKS that I hear it from another point of view...I'm gonna check that book out...

I really like to think that parenting is like a pot-luck...we take a little of this and a little of that to make of the plate of parenting...and nobody's plate is the same because everyone's kids are lifestyle's ...schedules are different...

And as far as spanking...although we do spank...we don't spank for doesn't work and the kid "gets used to it" when here comes another swat... communicating with them on whatever level and way they need is what works...

I am going to try the thing with nap time because I have one little boy who is VERY grouchy no matter what he wakes up from and the other little guy is HAPPY every time he wakes's a personality thing for sure =)

Great discussion!

jannell said...

I don't have kids, but I have nieces and nephews, work with kids, and was once one myself. Everyday when my dad got home, all four of us kids would wrestle him from the door. It gave my mom a break, and we got out all our energy before dinner. We would also have full on, full family, pillow fights. I'm talking tip the couches over, break a lamp kind of pillow fights. We never tried to fix our aggression or problems with roughness, and if we did their were consequences. I know that kids now still need heavy doses of affection and rough play. I see the need everyday at school.

I know also with my nieces and nephews, they are the most happiest when we are playing together. It's also great to see how creative they are.

I think in parenting it's hard to see the full picture. Sometimes parents want to discipline their kids because they are embarrassed or offended or alarmed at what their kids have come up with. Kids are born witha limited range of emotions, needs they don't know what to do with and the primary way of learning is error. Thats kinda rough. Its pretty important to make sure your kids have all sorts of tools in their tool belt to navigate life as they get older. If a sense of humor and playing and taking things lightly are part of that belt, it's hard not to imagine them growing up with a lot less stress and a solid understanding of who you think they are.

Anonymous said...

I love this...I mean what's better than connecting with each one of your children?! Thank you for the insight, it makes so much sense to pretend with them, let the aggression out, and just play! I do this at times, but I guess for the most part I default to the "spanking parent" as my form of discipline. I want to discipline and connect...that balance I believe can be achieved with lots of hard work!
Rachel (Knoll) Scribben

Sarah said...

Hi there...I was blog hopping and saw this post on my most favorite parenting book. I have two boys whom are very active and that book has been the best gift to my family in terms of allowing us to see that playful parenting is really great. So often I think people want to see parents using stern voices and making their children "learn their place", but really it's about connecting and helping them to not feel alone or unable to work through their problems/frustrations.
Other books you may like:
How to talk so kids listen and listen so kids talk
Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids
Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves
Between Parent and Child (Haim Ginott an amazing author on children...really amazing!)
And another personal fave
Unconditional Parenting

lori said...

Karissa - Hodge podge, indeed. I love picking up bits and pieces from here and there, including most obviously, the great parents I know!

Jannell - thanks for your wrestling memories. Your family in general seems to have promoted playfulness / humor as a major family value. Playing Alligator and Bucking Bronco with my dad and siblings are among my fondest childhood memories. About wrestling, I think it's practically, as Christi said, a NEED for kids. It makes me so sad about some of the kids you work with not having that interaction. I suppose it would be weird to send home a flyer asking parents to pleeease wrestle their children, wouldn't it?

Rachel S. - balancing everything is hard work, yep! Ooofda. I had major reminders of that today. I thought I might throw playful parenting out the window, along with Zoralee herself. :)

Sarah - Thanks for chiming in! I love "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen..." What a great resource for good communication in general. Incidentally, I'm currently skimming parts of "Happiest Toddler On the Block," and the style of his cartoon illustrations reminds me a lot of "How to Talk..." Thanks for the other book suggestions too. Happy mothering!

Now then, anybody out there beg to differ on this topic? Bring it!

Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

Lori! I love this post! So much good stuff, and I may have to think about it and come back later and say more.

I wanted to suggest a couple books, to put on the ol' reading list--both for you, Lori, and also for Emili and others on here. I'm not a parent, but I hear from some of the parents I most respect that these books have been profoundly helpful:

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn

Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, by Rebecca Anne Bailey

And I'll be back to say more later, but Lori, I'm so glad you took the time to write this great post.


Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

oh, i wanted to check the "email follow up comments..."

Shana said...

I think this makes soo much sense. And just as anything else it allows you to adjust your parenting to your child's, what great ideas!

The Caldwell's said...

Love this! I know that Riley is still a wee lad at only a month old, but I sing everything to him in a playful way! Mark gives me a hard time about how our life has become a musical because I can turn any sitaution into a song. I'm running out and buying that book this week! Love to hear that these tactics have been really working for Zoralee. (BTW she is getting soo big!)