Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Parenting through play: Exaggerating for effect

Welcome to the September Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting Through Play

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how challenging discipline situations can be met with play. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

My partner, Sam, has been instrumental in helping me let go and let loose when it comes to parenting through play — which is a good thing, because kids love it when you ham it up.

I should have known Sam was going to teach me how to emote expressively from one of our first dates — to see a second-run showing of the movie Multiplicity, which he had seen before and I had not. I had never before been to a movie with someone who laughed out loud in such an enthusiastic way. His uninhibited laughter rang through the theater, probably startling some of the other moviegoers as well. After some initial astonishment, I found the laugh infectious and now I amaze all my friends and family by guffawing heartily through movies myself. (Although I did it at a play once and got some looks…)

It's such a gender stereotype — and, in so many ways, unfair — to suggest that what fathers are good at is playing, and what mothers are good at is nurturing. Putting aside right now the myriad ways Sam has taught me nurturing as well, I've been fascinated and led by his ability to let go of dignity and grown-up self-consciousness and play.

So when it comes to helping a (now) four-year-old through a tough day, I find myself turning again and again to those lessons Sam has taught me: to be silly, to challenge decorum, and to turn frowns into smiles. The most used tool in my box is exaggeration: When you're connecting with a preschooler, it's go big or go home. Here are some of the ways it works:

The gimmes have set in? Offer more, more more.

A common scenario: Mikko is sitting down with twelve toys in his lap. He tallies them up and realizes that the one he really wants is missing and we have to find it for him. Or he's gotten a treat or a gift, and all he can think about is the one he didn't get.

You can turn grabby moments like this into physical or verbal opportunities to play at abundance. You could pile more, more, more toys into your child's lap, asking with wide eyes at each one, "Is this the one you're looking for? No? Is this it?" Who knows — maybe you'll even actually find the toy while you're playing!

Or you could just imagine out loud what it would be like to have ALL the treats in all the world! Maybe your kids chose a hot pretzel but now wish they'd gotten a hot dog. You could pretend to order a hot dog with fantastical toppings ("You like slug slime on hot dogs, right? What about hedgehog barf?"), or ask their tummy if it could possibly eat forty hot dogs and start counting them as you pretend to stuff them into the bellybutton.

Pbbt to maturity.

Speaking of which: As a 35-year-old mother of two, I fully endorse toilet humor. Kids find bodily functions and body parts fascinating anyway, so I like to point them out whenever I can. Yeah, it's scientific, that's it.

Maybe I'm just reacting against an upbringing where I wasn't allowed to say "fart" or "butt," but I now try to insert forbidden words and poop jokes into our lives every day.

When a three-year-old's feeling hesitant about eating noodle soup, pointing out that they're actually worms in snot juice can be just the ticket.

Scraped knee? That leg's gonna have to come off.

Of course you want to comfort and care for a child who's injured or sick, but sometimes extended moans and groans can be safely and playfully met with exaggerated, false-panicky exclamations of woe. My mother's favorite was to offer to call the tow truck if we stubbed a toe. (Get it? Har.)

I want to be careful with jokes like these not to gloss over a child's pain, but to use them gently to encourage a smile and some perspective, which in turn can help distract from some of the aches. When they say laughter's the best medicine, they're serious.

Dial up the consequences.

Threatening horrific punishments for small infractions can make both of you laugh, which helps diminish frustrations all around. When Mikko spills a drink, if I can, I like to keep my cool and say something like, "Uh-oh, you're going to have to go to drink jail now." Mikko will then proceed to tell me there is no such place, and I'll playact that I hear the sirens coming for him. I listen to his insistence that "It's just a drink, Mama. You just clean it up!" I respond with exaggerated and slow-dawning comprehension, and then we do just that.

Blame somebody else.

It's awesome to have a baby brother around, if only for the comic possibilities. When we're all feeling fried from hearing Alrik cry in the car on the way home, I can defuse his big brother's resentment by mock-scolding Alrik for once more dropping his pacifier, the better to scream. Mikko rushes to Alrik's defense and explains that babies sometimes cry, saving me the trouble of giving the same lesson to him.

Other safe possibilities for goofy blame include absent family members, pets, and inanimate objects. "Oh, no! Did Bunny Bob spill the beads all over the floor? I keep telling him to be careful with that box. Bunny Bob is going to have to go to bed without any supper." Instead of both of you getting upset about the spill, you can let out your own tension by giving in to your ingrained desire to blame someone, and your child can feel a release by laughing at you and defending the hapless scapegoat.

Make a safe game of being in trouble.

This goes along with some of the other ideas, but I've noticed that Mikko really enjoys playacting the idea of being in trouble at a time when he's clearly not. When he can be sure that no one's actually upset, he can get the giggles over the release of tension that a game like this brings.

For instance, one of our current favorites is the swing game. I stand in front of the swing to push Mikko and tell him sternly, "Now, stay back there where I put you." Of course, he inevitably swings forward. I scowl and squawk: "No! What did I just tell you! You're not listening to me. Now stay back" — as I push him harder, which just makes him swing forward all the more energetically, physics being what they are.

Mikko also loves to "surprise" us by taking his shoes off in the car and then displaying his naked feet with a flourish when we open the door — our cue is to gasp and tell him how much trouble he's in. And he loves to have both of us run away in supposed fear from his father the Monster when we're on the beach. Sam roars and lumbers after us, and tickles or tackles his helpless prey.

Besides giving Mikko some power in knowing he's not really in trouble, which lets him safely explore those feelings of danger and testing limits, it serves another purpose in giving us as parents an outlet for our own built-up desires to lash out. I know for me, gentle discipline doesn't come as naturally, since I wasn't raised with it — it can be a challenge to turn my perspective on punishment on its head (reading Unconditional Parenting helped a lot with that) and then keep that new point of view firmly in place in every moment. Hearing myself scold Mikko for the silliest of things helps me hear those strident voices and knee-jerk reactions for what they are: inappropriate in any situation.

Further proof this is all Sam's doing:

He even whipped off his glasses for that second one.

And proof Mikko has inherited the goofiness gene:

A lot of ideas like these and more can be found in the excellent book Playful Parenting, which — much like Sam's good influence — was a good kick in the pants for me to remember to let loose and meet children in the way they communicate: through play.

I have to make a couple things perfectly clear. First of all, I do not do the above suggestions all the time. For one thing, that would be obnoxious and eventually become boring. For another thing, sometimes Mama or Daddy is just too dang worn out, physically or emotionally, to respond playfully, and that's how it goes.

Second of all, Mikko does not always respond to the playfulness, and that's OK, too. I mean, it doesn't necessarily seem OK in the moment, but of course it's his choice to continue being grumpy or upset, and I'm trying to learn to respect that without needing to cajole him out of every foul mood.

I mostly like these techniques to try to head off momentary pique from turning into all-day doldrums. Sometimes just seeing things from a different perspective, as exaggeration can do, is enough to make any of us decide it feels better to laugh it off.

So give it a try to see if you can stretch your exaggeration muscles and if, when you do, it brings more smiles all around!

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • On being a more playful parent — Isil at Smiling like Sunshine shares how the Playful Parenting book impacted her.
  • Parenting a toddler through play — Alicia at I Found My Feet lists some examples of how she uses play to parent through everyday tasks and challenges.
  • Splashing in Puddles — Abbie at Farmer's Daughter shares how she learned to get dirty and have fun with her little boy.
  • Say Please — Cassie at There's a Pickle in My Life explains how they taught their son manners by "play," showing that actions speak louder than words.
  • No Nanny Needed — Laura at Our Messy Messy Life wishes parenting through play was her only responsibility during the day.
  • I'll Run Away With Gypsies — Nikalee at Spotted Pandemonium maneuvers physical and emotional obstacles while spinning playful tales, jumping through hoops, and inspiring the kids to clean the living room.
  • A Promise To My Daughter — Lindsey at An Unschooling Adventure writes a poem for her daughter promising to use play instead of anger when facing difficult situations.
  • Parenting Through Play — Not Always Easy But Always Rewarding — Amy at Peace4Parents discusses how play hasn't always come easily to her, the power of appreciative observation, and how her family learns together through play.
  • Imagination Plays a Role in Our Parenting — Tree at Mom Grooves shares how parents can use play to set the foundation for communication and understanding.
  • A Box of Crayons — Jenn at Monkey Butt Junction talks about how a simple box of crayons has become a wonderful parenting and teaching tool.
  • The Essential Art of Play — Ana at Pandamoly shares some of her favorite lessons available for young ones through play.
  • The Art of Distraction — Amanda at Let's Take the Metro shares a list of distracting alternatives to harsh punishments in tough parenting situations.
  • Grace and Courtesy Games at Home or School — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now has ideas for grace and courtesy games that help you encourage courteous behavior without reprimanding your child.
  • I am woman, hear me roar! — Mrs Green from Little Green Blog shares how one simple sound can diffuse an argument in an instant.
  • Getting Cooperation Through Play — Amyables at Toddler In Tow talks about respecting the worldview of a preschooler by using play to encourage connection and cooperation.
  • Playful Parenting = Extra Energy??Momma Jorje didn't think she had the energy for playful parenting. See what she was surprised to learn…
  • Dance Party Parenting — Laura from A Pug in the Kitchen learned how to be the parent her children need through play.
  • Wrestling Saved My Life — Wrestling is as vital to her son's well-being as babywearing once was, finds Hannah at Wild Parenting.
  • Parenting through play — By playing with her children, Tara from MUMmedia is given amazing opportunites to teach, train and equip her children for life.
  • Parenting Through Play Starts in Infancy — In a guest post at Natural Parents Network, Issa from LoveLiveGrow shares that though she only has a 3-month-old, playful parenting has already started.
  • Play Before Sleep — Adrienne at Mommying My Way writes about how playing and singing with her son before he falls asleep helps calm her frustrations that tend to arise at night.


Hannah said...

I LOVE this. We love silliness too but I hadn't even thought of some of these. They're genius. Drink police - definitely going to use that one!

James and Jax blog said...

This is such a wonderful post, full of practical tips. I'm definitely going to share this.

Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama said...

I'd like to be 4 years old again and have you as my mama because it sounds really fun :-)

The stereotype of fun daddies and nurturing mommies is way too prevalent. I'm glad we're breaking it down with all of our playful parenting techniques!

Thanks for another awesome carnival!

Jenn @Monkey Butt Junction said...

I actually laughed out loud at the "toe truck" thing. God, I'm a dork.

I see the stereotype of "playful dad/nurturing mom" play out in my house too. My husband is a goofball who loves to laugh and smile and sing and I see him doing a lot of what you describe.

I love the idea of "more more more." I can see that playing out at our house too.

These are all great ideas - we aren't quite at the stage where they are all useful to us yet, but I'll tuck them away into my parenting toolbox until the time is right.

tanya said...

So true! My wee one is just 4 months old, and I can already see my husband is going to be just like this. When our friend's kids turn on the "poor me whine", Dean's response is "Oh, I think I hear the waaaambulance coming". Always makes them giggle and stops the whining in it's tracks.

mrs green @ littlegreenblog said...

I have to hand it to you, I find toilet humour hilarious and it's not just for the kids - my hubby and I frequently giggle like little children about it all. How wonderful that your man bought such a gift to you and thanks for sharing it with us too :) Yours souns like a happy, fun household!

Shana said...

I am totally on top of the toilet humor. What is it about the word "poo-poo" that makes a 3-4 year old laugh even when in a cranky mood? I like your other ideas too. I think this post is a bookmarker!

teresa said...

I am loving all the posts in this month's carnival, but some are particularly helpful to me and yours is one of those. You've given me actual ideas to try and I will try them. I also believe in the power of potty humor. I mean, farts are funny. Totally.
I love your Sam. You're lucky and wonderful for seeing how great he is too.
And I've always had a soft spot for Mikko.

Shannon said...

My Dad used to ask if the floor was okay, with great mock concern, every time I fell and started crying. The first few times it was alright, but he wasn't good at backing off the joke when I wasn't in the mood so it just got to be annoying. I've been leaning in the opposite direction, of always taking my kid's tears seriously, so it was great to have this reminder that sometimes a joke can be more helpful then a hug.

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Oh such awesome ideas!! I particularly like your responses to the "gimme's," because Kieran has those quite often, and it is frustrating for me. I need to file some of these away!!

btw I wasn't allowed to say fart, and I always said "well MY kids will be allowed to say WHATEVER they want!" Now? Now the word "fart" from a 2 or 3yo makes me shudder - so I unexpectedly sided with my mom. I'm working on it though ;)

Sylvia@MaMammalia said...

Super helpful ideas! I was particularly struck by your discussion of how play prevents us, the parents, from lashing out. I'm going to try some of your suggestions on those days when I get sick of cleaning up messes, messes that are really pretty silly to be that upset about. Call the drink police!

Oh, and fart jokes? Dying of laughter here!!!

Cassie said...

I love your playful games!! We do some similar ones too. I'm always amazed that the silly games really break up some bad moods sometimes.
I wasn't allowed to say butt or fart too. But oh boy am I using them now hahalol. Poop jokes are always fun around here :)
Great post!!

Momma Jorje said...

Oh, I smiled through this entire post!! I didn't really think I had all that great a handle on the Parenting through Play thing, but a lot of these remind me of when Tyler was younger. In fact, we used to blame all the knots in her hair on "The Knot Fairy." It gave us someone to curse while we worked out the knots.

Wonderful post, thank you!

Gaby @ Tmuffin said...

Hahaha! If a post can make even us adults smile, imagine what doing this stuff does for the kids? Great tips here!

We do the "police" thing too. Big T "arrests" Baby T by holding his arms gently behind his back and leading him to "jail" where he gets "tackled." It makes Baby T crack up. (Not to mention his ecstasy when he hears us make siren noises.)

And making up pretend food... We do the pretend thing a lot. When Baby T is whining about wanting a snack in the car, for example, I open up the "refrigerator" in the car and throw all kinds of pretend goodies to him in the back seat.

...sarah. said...

It takes a measure of creativity to respond playfully sometimes (I have found!), and it really helps to read others' ideas. Thanks for yours! I've had trouble brushing my toddlers' teeth of late. I called my dentists' office and talked to one of her hygienists at length about the problem: she suggested I pretend like I was chasing bugs out of his mouth. Eeeew! Worked like a charm, though. Maybe this gross humor thing really does have something to it?

Sylvia@MaMammalia said...

Update: OK, so I've started exaggerating how annoyed I am and what a total crisis it is when Munchkin spills a drink. It works! I'm now able to laugh at myself instead of feeling frustrated. At first he was unsure of this game, but then a smile crept in. Awesome suggestion!!!!

Unknown said...

Fantastic!!!! Now I am fully armed with a playful parenting aresonal when Tiny turns 3"ish". This is a GREAT post chalk full of all kinds of wonderful ideas.

I have to admit that my husband is teaching me how to be more playful because yes, it seems like as a father he is able to let go more than I am as a mother. I love to watch his playful approach in action.

Deb Chitwood said...

What great ideas for playful games, Lauren ... and your husband sounds like an awesome dad! My son and daughter-in-law are like Sam in the way they laugh at movies ... the best type of people to attend comedies with! I love that you have a whole list of ideas for keeping things light. Deb @ LivingMontessoriNow.com

Related Posts with Thumbnails