THE VALUE OF BEING A PLAYFUL PARENT
Play is the essence of life.
Think about the loving gaze of an infant, the no-holds-barred embrace of a toddler, the intimacy of a shared bedtime story, or a silent hand-in-hand walk. These moments of heartfelt connection with our children are part of the great payoff for the hard work of parenting. Yet this connection all too often eludes us. We find ourselves locked in battle instead of joined in partnership. We all know the rest: the inconsolable baby, the toddler in the throes of a tantrum, the third-grader in a huff over bedtimes, the twelve-year-old sulking in her room.
Children’s natural exuberance and exploration often gives way to what I call “fighting and biting.” Or they hide themselves behind a Gameboy or a locked door. Meanwhile, our profound feeling of parental love is replaced by resentment and aggravation, even rage. We nag or punish, or we say, “Fine, stay in your room.” We yell when we reach the end of our rope, or just out of habit. All because we feel helpless, rejected, and cut off. We want to reconnect, as much as our children do, but we don’t know how. We still love them, but we barely remember those melting eye gazes of babyhood. If we do remember, it is a bittersweet memory, as if that closeness were lost forever.
Play—together with what I call Playful Parenting—can be the long-sought bridge back to that deep emotional bond between parent and child. Play, with all its exuberance and delighted togetherness, can ease the stress of parenting. Playful Parenting is a way to enter a child’s world, on the child’s terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence, and connection. When all is well in their world, play is an expansive vista where children are joyful, engaged, cooperative, and creative. Play is also the way that children make the world their own, exploring, making sense of all their new experiences, and recovering from life’s upsets. But play is not always easy for adults, because we have forgotten so much. Indeed, children and adults often seem to reside in radically different worlds, even within the same household. We find each other’s favorite activities boring or strange: How can she spend all afternoon dressing up Barbies? How can they sit around all evening just talking?
Parenting and playfulness can seem like contradictions, but sometimes we just need a little push to find one another and have fun together. I was at an outdoor concert, dancing off on the side with my nine-year-old daughter, when a mother and son came over to the dance area. She started dancing a little, but he just stood with his arms folded, a little too shy to dance now that he was there. He was about six or seven. His mother said, starting to get angry, “You dragged me up here, and now you’re not going to dance?” He folded his arms tighter and literally dug his heels in. I thought, We can all see where this is going. I said, “Oh no, he’s doing a new dance,” and I folded my arms just like his and gave him a big smile. He smiled back and moved his hands to a different position, which I copied. His mom caught on right away and started copying him, too. We all laughed. He started moving his shoulders up and down to the music, and his mother said, “You’re dancing!” Then he started to dance, and he had a great time. We all did (including my daughter, who waited patiently while I did “the Playful Parenting thing,” and then wanted my complete attention again). A little playfulness turned the tide.
This small episode demonstrates that Playful Parenting can happen anywhere and anytime, not just during designated playtimes. Playful Parenting begins with play, but it includes much more—from comforting a crying baby to hanging out at the mall; from waging pillow fights to taking the training wheels off the bicycle; from negotiating rules to dealing with the emotional fallout of a playground injury; from getting ready for school to listening to a child’s fears and dreams before bed. Sadly, these simple interactions can seem out of reach sometimes, or full of complications and hard feelings.
The fact is, we adults don’t have much room in our lives for fun and games. Our days are filled with stress, obligations, and hard work. We may be stiff, tired, and easily bored when we try to get on the floor and play with children—especially when it means switching gears from a stressful day of work or household chores. We might be willing to do what they want—like the mom at the outdoor concert, above—but then we get annoyed when they don’t play the way we expect or when they demand too much from us.
Others of us may be unable to put aside our competitiveness or our need to be in control. We get bored, cranky, and frustrated; we’re sore losers; we worry about teaching how to throw the ball correctly when our child just wants to play catch. We complain about children’s short attention spans, but how long can we sit and play marbles or Barbies or Monopoly or fantasy games before we get bored and distracted, or pulled away by the feeling that getting work done or cooking dinner is more important?
When my daughter was in preschool, she made up a great game that helped me be playful instead of shouting at her to hurry up and get ready. One morning she came downstairs, hid behind the doorway, and whispered to me, “Pretend that I’m still upstairs and that we’re really gonna be late and you’re really mad.” So I shouted upstairs, “We’re late, and I am really mad!” and I started storming around and stamping my foot. Meanwhile, she was behind the door giggling, her hand over her mouth. I said, “You better get down here, or I’m leaving without you. I’m going to go by myself to Big Oak Preschool!” She started laughing out loud, so I pretended I couldn’t hear her. While letting her sneak out ahead of me, I made a big show of leaving the house without her, supposedly not noticing she was there. She got in the car and I pretended I was talking to myself out loud, saying, “I am so mad. The teachers are going to say, ‘Where is Emma?’ And I’m going to say, ‘She wasn’t ready, so I just left with- out her.’ ” She was giggling and giggling and trying not to let on that she was really there. She was making getting ready for preschool fun for me! Pretending to be mad helped me not to be really mad, and playing instead of shouting helped her get ready faster!
—WHY CHILDREN PLAY—
Some children are leaders and some are followers; some prefer fantasy dress up while others are drawn to ball games. But virtually every child has an instinct for play that buds immediately after birth and is in full bloom by the age of two or three. Play is possible anywhere and anytime, a parallel universe of fantasy and imagination that children enter at will. For adults, play means leisure, but for children, play is more like their job. Unlike many of us adults, they usually love their work and seldom want a day off. Play is also children’s main way of communicating, of experimenting, and of learning.
A child who won’t or can’t play is instantly recognizable as being in significant emotional distress, like an adult who can’t work or won’t talk. Severely abused and neglected children often have to be taught how to play before they can benefit from play therapy. Why do we consider child labor such an abomination? Because it means children grow up without having a childhood, without play. It’s even worse when their labor is exploited so that adults can have more leisure, as depicted in this nineteenth-century poem by Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn:
The Golf Links Lie So Near the Mill
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And watch the men at play.
Many experts describe play as a place—a place of magic and imagination, a place where a child can be fully one’s self. As psychologist Virginia Axline wrote about children in preschool: “They can build themselves a mountain and climb safely to the top and cry out for all the world to hear, ‘I can build me a mountain, or I can flatten it out. In here, I am big!’ ”2 I had a great reminder of the basic nature of play at my daughter’s third birthday party. I had organized all kinds of games to play in the park across the street from our house, and, of course, being a psychologist, I explained all of these complicated games to the children, who stood around looking at me as if I were from outer space. I wasn’t sure what to do. The children were too revved up to go back inside, but they weren’t going for my games. My wife interrupted and said, “Okay, everybody, run to the other side of the park and back!” They all ran happily across the park, shrieking and laughing, then ran back and flopped on the ground, giggling and panting for breath. They looked at me, and one boy asked, “That was fun, can we do that again?” I got the point.
Nevertheless, I can’t quite stop talking about the serious side of play. Play is fun, but it is also meaningful and complex. The more intelligent the animal, the more it plays. Unlike slugs or trees, every human learns new things about the world, and themselves, through discovery and practice. Some of this learning just happens automatically, by virtue of being alive, but much of it happens through play. Human childhood has gotten longer and longer, which means an increasing amount of time available for play. Play is important, not just because children do so much of it, but because there are layers and layers of meaning to even the most casual play.
Take an apparently simple game like catch—a child and a parent tossing a baseball back and forth. Much like observing pond water under a microscope, close observation of a game of catch reveals a great deal going on right under our noses. The child is developing hand-eye coordination and gross motor skills; the pair are enjoying their special time together; the child practices a new skill until it is mastered, and then joyfully shows it off; the rhythm of the ball flying back and forth is a bridge, reestablishing a deep connection between adult and child; and comments like “good try” and “nice catch” build confidence and trust.
But this straightforward game can also contain strong undercurrents of feeling. A father I was seeing in therapy described a game of catch during which his son threw him one zinger after another. He could see how angry and frustrated his son was by how hard he was throwing the ball. Together we figured out that perhaps his son was really asking him, “Can you catch what I throw at you? Are my feelings too much for you? Am I safe from my own impulses, my own anger?” Another father’s son loved to play catch, but whenever he missed the ball, the boy would dissolve into tears and tantrums and say, “I told you to throw it lower—you never listen to me!” In this case, the child seemed to be using the game as a way to release a pile of hurt feelings that had nothing to do with baseball.
Not every game of catch, or every playtime with a child, contains all of these multiple levels of meaning. But all play is more profoundly meaningful than we usually think. First, play is a way to try on adult roles and skills, just as lion cubs do when they wrestle with one another. Human children roughhouse, and they play house. As children discover the world, and discover what they are able to do in the world, they develop confidence and mastery.
Play is also a way to be close and, even more important, a way to reconnect after closeness has been severed. Chimpanzees like to tickle one another’s palms, especially after they have had a fight. Thus, the second purpose of play serves our incredible—almost bottomless—need for attachment and affection and closeness.
The third purpose of play for children, and perhaps the one that is most uniquely human, is to recover from emotional distress. Imagine children who have had a hard day at school. They come home and one way or another show you that they’re hurting. They talk about it, or they are irritable and obnoxious. They lock themselves in their room, or they insist on extra attention. But most often, they spontaneously use play to feel better. Perhaps they play school, only this time they are the teacher. Maybe they play a video game and blow up alien enemies for a while. Or they call a friend and talk about it, which is what older children and adults often do instead of play. By pretending, or by retelling the story, the scene can be re-created. This time, the child is in charge. Through playing it out, emotional healing takes place. Escaping into a book or playing a hard game of tennis can also be helpful after a bad day.
One child I knew, who had lots of reading difficulties, would always come home from school and do something she was really good at, which was drawing. Before dinner she would show her parents what she had drawn. In one sweet moment, she was reconnecting with them, restoring her sense of competence, and recovering from the frustration and humiliation of feeling like a failure at school.
Before going into greater detail about these deep meanings of play, let me repeat that play is fun. Spending time with children is supposed to be joyful. My daughter’s preschool teacher told me that preschoolers laugh an average of three hundred times a day. What would happen if we all did that? Let’s have more fun: sing goofy songs, fall over, exaggerate, have pillow fights, tell jokes. If you are frustrated because you have to remind your child for the twelfth time to pack her lunch or take out the garbage, next time try singing the request in a fake-opera voice instead of using the usual nagging tones. At the very least it will get her attention.
As we shall see, however, Playful Parenting is more than just play. We can interact playfully, or on a deep emotional level, no matter what we are doing: working on chores, playing sports, completing homework, hanging out, watching television, cuddling, even imposing discipline.