When he was about six, my son declared war against his evening shower. One night, tired and resigned to the fact he was starting to look like Pig-Pen from Peanuts after five straight days of avoiding soap, I heard a commotion in the bathroom upstairs. I assumed my husband was locked in the same conflict, but when I opened the door, I saw my kid happily jumping up and down under the shower. “Here comes more fruit for the monkey’s cage,” my husband yelled, lobbing little plastic yellow balls over the glass doors, my son giggling madly, catching them and making ape noises. It made me feel like the silly one—I’d forgotten how quickly a kid responds to shameless goofiness.
In the world of child psychology and parent coaching, it’s not news that play can work magic, shattering the tension and forming a bond with your kid. But parents are rushed, stressed and tired—we’re too focused on results (the kid getting clean) and not interested in taking the long way around. So instead we resort to nagging and lecturing, and then anger and punishment—far less effective techniques, according to the experts.
“We need to spend more time joining children where they live, instead of all the time dragging them into our world, which is the world of schedules and chores and planned activities,” says Lawrence Cohen, a Massachusetts-based psychologist who wrote the book on the subject, Playful Parenting. “Those things have to be done, but when they take over our family’s life, what gets shortchanged is play.”
Play, it turns out, has serious benefits for kids. Cohen says it’s the most productive way for them to learn about the physical and social world around them. “It is also the best bridge to connection between people,” he adds, pointing to the simple, disarming act of playing peekaboo.
What’s more, it’s easier to discipline kids when you have that sense of connection, Cohen says. Discipline is the key word—it’s not about letting kids get away with bad behaviour, says Doone Estey, a certified parenting educator and partner at Toronto’s Parenting Network. There should still be consistency and consequences, but humour—instead of nagging or anger—can be the default mode. “You’ve got to have a sense of humour with everything kids get up to,” she says. The one big hurdle: It’s hard to be silly when you’re frustrated—but that’s the moment when we all need play the most, Cohen says. And you might be surprised to find that a simple joke is more efficient than a prolonged battle of wills. As consultant Gail Bell, of Calgary’s Parenting Power puts it, it’s all a matter of perspective—and maybe even how you see your role. “We waver because we think we’re just so busy,” Bell says. “We have to get back to looking at what parenting actually is—play is a huge part of it.” Even when it means going a bit ape. Here’s how to inject fun into the most unlikely scenarios—and while it might require you to take a deep breath and get creative, the reward is that it works.
1. Not fun: The morning rush
Your fallback: Barking out increasingly shrill orders for your child to put on his boots and grab his backpack, then, 10 minutes late, pulling his boots on for him while angrily vowing to send him to school in his pyjamas tomorrow.
The playful way: Morning rush seems like the worst time for play, but give Cohen’s math a chance: “If you put in 10 minutes of connecting time—it could be extra cuddling, a fun activity or making getting ready a game—long before you need to get out the door, you will save yourself 30 minutes of nagging once the countdown is on. Kids are much more co-operative when they feel connected,” he says. Waiting for a kid to get dressed can be maddening. But turn things around—pretend his pants go on his head—and watch how quickly he’ll correct you. It feels good for him to be right, and the bonus is he’ll do it right away.
2. Not fun: Toy cleanup
Your fallback: Threatening to take her favourite dolls away if she doesn’t pitch in, confiscating said dolls despite her teary pleas and finally tidying up the rest by yourself once she’s gone to bed because you wasted so much time fighting about it.
The playful way: Instead of stopping playtime for tidying, make cleanup a game. To expedite things, Cohen asks kids to pretend they’re a vacuum or a magnet to see how many toys can get sucked up or stuck to their hands. Or let the concept of musical chairs be your guide: Turn the tunes on and off as they tidy, Estey says. Whoever’s caught with a toy in her hands instead of the bin has to pick up two more before the game starts again. “You’re going to be picking up toys for years,” she says. “You might as well make it enjoyable—there’s no sense in getting into a power struggle over it.”
3. Not fun: Sibling rivalry
Your fallback: Shouting at them to stop shouting at each other; hiding the object being fought over; sending everyone to their rooms.
The playful way: Break up an intense tug-of-war with an unexpected strategy. “When children are fighting over a toy or object, just grab it and run,” Cohen says. “Say: ‘I never get to play with this! No wonder you’re fighting over this!’ And then: ‘Wow! Even the two of you working together can’t get it away from me.’ Kids can’t resist this; they will always co-operate to get it away from you,” he says. But what if it’s you they’re fighting over? Cohen, a strong believer in a daily dose of roughhousing, makes it physical—ask them to each grab one of your limbs and pull to see who will win. “When you’ve got physical contact, you have emotional intensity and connection. Soon everybody’s laughing over something that was terribly serious a minute before.”
Not fun: Dinnertime battle
The fallback: You overcompensate with oohs and aahs over the broccoli, issue ultimatums and threaten to withhold (and then eventually bribe with) dessert.
The playful way: While it may not seem super playful to you, eating a bit of dinner away from the dinner table is a treat for kids. Put out an easy-to-eat healthy snack—green beans, carrots, chickpeas—your kid can munch on while you prep the rest. “It’s impressive how much kids will eat when they’re distractedly playing,” Estey says. Once you’re sitting down, forget what’s on the plate and focus on good conversation. “Ask kids about the best/worst/funniest part of their day, what made them laugh, what made them sad, if they did something kind for someone or if someone did something kind for them,” Estey says. “And it’s important that parents share, too.” If the table really has become a dreary place, turn things upside down for one night. “Spread a blanket out under the table and have a picnic,” Estey says. “Obviously don’t do it on spaghetti night, but it’s an unexpected idea that puts everyone in a good mood and makes the dinner table a place of fun, not struggle.”
4. Not fun: Bedtime procrastination
The fallback: One more glass of water, one more cracker, one more hug raises your frustration until you finally snap and slam the bedroom door for the last time—but it isn’t the last time, because then there are tears (your kid’s) and apologies (yours).
The playful way: Lull him at a relaxed pace with a sweet-dream spell. Let your child pick a pleasant image or thought, talk about it with him—what it looks like, feels like—then slowly count down from five before poof, the spell has been cast, freezing that sweet thought in his mind and allowing you to leave. Swap the sweet thought in the spell for gratitude or even try covering your kid with the “yolk” from a love egg. Gently clap your hands to “crack” the egg, Estey says, and then slowly drag your hands down his body to spread the yolk all the way to his toes. “Casting the spell is like visualization or meditation, and the egg trains your kid to think positively about his day—they’re all connected,” she says. “You’re wrapping him in a bubble of love and empowering your child to not be scared to be left alone for the night so that you can finally slip out and feel good about it.”
5. Not fun: Whining at everything
The fallback: When you can’t stand it anymore, you angrily snap: “You need an attitude adjustment!”
The playful way: Tone is everything, so use those same words, but make it silly to break the tension and shift their focus. Tell them: “You need an attitude adjustment,” as you pretend to turn a knob or flip a switch in their back to tune out the whining. “It’s really your own attitude that you’re adjusting,” Estey says. “It’s how we come at it that makes the difference, and it rubs off on kids.”
These little ditties are easy, fun and best of all: unforgettable.
• One bite to be polite
• No feet where you eat
• You hit, you sit
• You get what you get and you don’t get upset
• No fighting, no biting
• Try before you cry