Your 4 year old is mad because you told him he can’t play until he cleans up his room, and he pouts and throws his stuffed animal across the room. What do you do?
- yell at him and tell him that’s not how we behave
- put him in timeout for 10 minutes
- give him a spanking
- calmly pick up the bear and pretend like the bear is talking and playfully say “Ouch! Why did you throw me? You know I don’t have my parachute on. Now can you please clean your room so that you can take me outside and we can play together?”
If you answered “d”, then you’re what some people would call a “playful parent”.
There is a whole culture of people who live in the Arctic, called the Inuits, who apparently parent this way – and I think it’s genius.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say my own parents were Inuits – because they modeled a lot of that parenting style for me, and it’s naturally how I respond to my own children *most* of the time. Sure, there are still moments that I yell or get frustrated, but it’s actually pretty rare. (knock on wood… I still have lots of years of parenting ahead of me… but so far, in almost 6 years, I’ve never had to use time outs and I’ve never spanked my children.)
I think when we lead with playfulness everything else falls into place.
When you look for ways to be playful with your child, you’re speaking their love language. And it creates a bond with them that makes it easier to discipline when you need to.
This starts with just being playful with them in everyday life. When it’s time for bed, carry them upside down or fly them like an airplane to their bedroom, chase them, tickle them, play hide and seek with them, slide down the slide, go exploring for bugs. Just be a part of their world!
Children don’t respond well to nagging and lectures and “adult-speak”. They just tune it out and put up even more resistance. But, teaching through play – that’s where the magic is!
Here are some examples…
1. Getting ready for school
Not fun: Yelling across the house for your daughter to hurry up because you’re gonna be late, and then telling her 20 different times to put on her shoes, until you’re finally fed up and you scold her for being such a bad listener! (which then causes her to cry and creates a melt down, which takes even longer to recover from and actually get out the door!)
More fun: Going to her bedroom and helping her choose her outfit. And then being silly and pretending to help her by putting the shirt on her legs instead of her body. Getting her shoes and putting them on your hands, pretending like they’re puppets and making them sing a silly song before you help her put them on. Voila! You’re out the door and everybody is in a good mood!
2. Daily routines – like brushing teeth
Not fun: You say “it’s time to brush your teeth”. Child declares that he doesn’t want to brush his teeth. You get frustrated and tell him again to do it. He says no. A battle of wills ensues until you’re angry and yelling.
More fun: You say, “okay, fine – if you don’t want to do it, then I will”…. and proceed to brush his ears and nose and belly button. (More than likely, at that point, he’ll be willing to do it himself!)
3. Mealtime battles
Not fun: Demanding that your child eat his vegetables or finish his food – which creates a power struggle and he refuses. You bribe him with dessert, toys, etc – which still doesn’t work. Two hours later, he’s still sulking at the dinner table, you’re so mad you’re about to walk out of the house and book yourself a solo flight to the Bahamas and never come back.
More fun: I remember when my nephew was little and he wouldn’t eat his food – my parents (his grandparents) would tell him a story about how there was a tiger that lived in his stomach (that’s why it “growled” when he was hungry)… and that he had to feed the poor hungry tiger.
And with my kids, one day when they hadn’t eaten very much, but said they were done eating, their Granny said, “oh… your belly doesn’t look full… come over here and let me check your belly for holes” After poking around on their stomach for a couple seconds, Granny declared, “nope… you still have 4 holes”… and they both went and gobbled up 4 more bites of food. And that still works to this day – over a year later. Sometimes, they’ll even ask me to “check their belly for holes” – and whether I say they have 1 hole or 5 – they’ll always go back and eat that many more bites of food. Because it’s a game! No drama and no tears at mealtimes!
And… just yesterday, we picked up burgers from a restaurant and they had poppy seeds on the buns. And my kids were complaining… until I told them that they were special black magic seeds that give you superpowers if you ate them…. like reading minds, becoming invisible, etc. They ate the burgers, and for the rest of the evening, they had a blast pretending to have super powers… like being able to tell the wind to stop and start! Go figure!
4. Toy cleanup
Not fun: Threatening to take away her favorite toy if she doesn’t help clean up
More fun: Set a timer and play “beat the clock”, or use your funniest voice to announce that it’s time to clean your room. Make up a story about an invisible giant blue monster who comes into houses every Wednesday and takes all of the toys that aren’t picked up. Create a lot of suspense and drama around this story as you tell it – and a sense of urgency to get the toys picked up that day before the monster comes.
5. Whining or being too loud
Not fun: Any sort of shaming statement like “big kids don’t whine” or “you’re acting like a baby”
More fun: “whoa… I hear lots of whining… can you come over here so I can find the button to turn that off?” (Proceed with poking / tickling around on him until you magically find the right button.) Or find his “volume button” if he’s being too loud.
I know maybe it sounds like a lot of work to come up with stories, and to be playful when you’re downright exhausted. But, in the end – it is worth the effort. Not only does it create a happier environment, it also teaches kids how to handle their own emotions. When a child sees their parent remaining calm and creative in stressful situations, they’ll learn how to stay calm as well. But if a child’s actions are constantly making their parents angry and irritated, that’s likely what they’ll mimic as well.
AND… do I do this alllll the time? Heck no. But when I throw some playfulness into our days routinely… then when I really am exhausted or in a rush – I can simply tell them what I want them to do without any tantrums or pushback.
This isn’t about letting children get away with things – they absolutely need limits and boundaries and rules in order to feel secure. They need consistency and consequences. But… if we as adults can loosen up a little, discipline doesn’t have to be so hard. If we can handle the “little things” by being playful and not getting into a power struggle – then when we need to be more strict and enforce consequences – those times will have more power.
I have this same philosophy when it comes to photo sessions with young kids as well. I always ask clients not to threaten their children to “behave” before they come to meet me. Then they’ll be expecting it to be no fun, and they’ll already be on edge. But… if you just tell them “we’re going somewhere fun to take some pictures together as a family” and that you’re just going to have fun exploring and cuddling with mom and dad – then they’ll immediately feel more at ease. Tell them that you expect them to be good listeners, and leave it at that. And then I’ll do the rest! During my sessions – we play all sorts of games and say silly stuff like “poopy” – and they’re allowed to just. be. kids. Because they grow up so fast. And pretty soon, they won’t believe in magical stories, they won’t want to play tag, and they won’t need help putting on their shoes. And we’re actually going to miss these messy and exhausting years!