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, "...it 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.
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.