The Importance of Playfulness
By Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
For some people, parenting seems to come easily. They play, respond to children's needs, understand children's feelings and trust themselves. The rest of us need to work at it a bit more. But that's OK, we don't have to all be naturals. Each of us can develop those traits that will make us the parents we want to be. This article, focusing on playfulness, is the first of a 10-part series exploring how we can nurture The 10 Talents of Parenting.
Playfulness is fairly easy when things are going smoothly, when everyone is well-rested, relaxed, healthy, cooperative and not in a rush to get somewhere.
Playfulness is much harder when you're racing out the door and your child is dawdling over tying his shoes, when you are trying to get everyone to bed, when everyone is cranky or when siblings are screaming at each other and screaming at you. In other words, playfulness is hardest when we need it most. Fortunately, all parents can learn to be more playful, even at these tough times. It's a trait that can be nurtured, especially if you are willing to give up a little dignity.
Parents often tell me that they could never be as goofy as me. I'm not quite sure if this is a compliment or an insult. But, in fact, it has taken a lot of practice. If you have a hard time lightening up, you may need to practice too.
Try making silly faces at the next baby you see. With toddlers, fall down a lot, and make a lot of noise as you topple over. Preschoolers love when you put on a funny hat and play dress-up with them. Even if it feels like you don't know how to "make pretend," do it anyway (you can practice with stuffed animals while the kids are in school!).
Start a pillow fight with 5- or 6-year-olds, and then yell out, "Waaaah, pick on someone your own size!" Seven- and 8-year-olds always crack up when I tell them that I want to get married to Barbie™. Next time you want your preteens to clean up their rooms, don't nag at them; sing your request in a fake opera voice. It gets them every time.
Of course, you'll probably feel terribly silly. Don't let that stop you. Playfulness builds closeness with our children, and that's worth a little humiliation, isn't it? After all, it's also embarrassing to be seen yelling, screeching, threatening or pleading with our kids, so we might as well be doing something useful and fun.
Lightheartedness means that conflicts don't have to be deadly serious, either. Try picking up two stuffed animals, or two action figures, and having them act out the power struggle that you have been having with your child. One can say, "She can't get dressed by herself, she's only 6 years old!" and the other can say, "Oh, yes she can, she can do anything!" She'll be giggling as she gets dressed on her own.
Playfulness does not mean forcing children to cheer up, in violation of their feelings. It means transforming a situation with a light touch. Here's how one mom did it during her daily walk with her toddler:
Today, on our walk, we met two kids. The 5-year-old boy had a box of cookies. The 4-year-old girl asked if she could have one. He said, "They're all mine" and turned the box of cookies away from her.
I decided to try "playful mode." I put my hands on my hips, and said "Hey, what's the big idea? I want a cookie, please." Then I said, with a grumpy face, "No, they are all mine!"
They both started to giggle, and then said, "Do it again!" I did it again … and again. The boy handed the girl the box of cookies and said, "Here have a cookie." I thought to myself, "Wow!"
The next thing I knew, they reversed the roles: He said, in a playful voice, "Hey, what's the big idea! I want a cookie." She said in a grumpy, funny voice. "No, they are all mine!" It was adorable.
So next time your child says, "Will you play with me?" don't make excuses about being too busy; say, "OK!" Then let them show you how it's done. And next time you want to scream and yell, try a little playfulness instead.
Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychologist who specializes in children's play and play therapy, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Playful Parenting(Ballantine Books, 2001).