Monday, August 3, 2015

On being a playful parent & following your child's lead

toddler playing in bathroom with kitchen implements
Hobo Mama wants you to know she's a professional blogger! Look at how professional she's being!

This is a post I first published 5+ years ago, and I'm breaking it out for you as a helpful reminder: Let your kids teach you how to play like a kid.

Here are some recent examples to illustrate what I talk about below:

Clockwise from top right: Mikko decided we needed to jump into hay together hand in hand; Alrik tells us which My Little Pony to play and what lines to say; Mikko directed me on shooting a video of putting funny hats on his video-game characters; Alrik told me we needed to stick out our tongues for this selfie; and Karsten I included because it's pretty easy to tell what makes him happy — especially if there's a swing around!

From April 2010

Why are there a spatula, tongs, strainer, two ice cream scoops, mushroom scrubber, address labels, several dish towels, and child's chair in the bathroom? Only the two-year-old knows, and he's not telling.

Yesterday Mikko was directing us as if we were, as Sam put it, an improvisational jazz troupe.

It's hard to tell you what was so intriguing about this exchange to Mikko, and when I describe it, you'll probably be thinking, What the hey? But here goes.

There's a show called Dora the Explorer (yes, you may have heard of it and/or love/hate it, whatevs), where a fox character named Swiper comes up and tries to steal something. When he's foiled (through a clever tactic of telling him to stop), he slinks away, muttering, "Ohh, maaan."

This was, sadly, the best video I could find of our inspiration.

I was hiding on the stairs so Mikko wouldn't bug me while I was trying to do something on the computer. (Yes, this is on a post about responding to our children with sensitivity. You got something to say?)

To amuse him, I would periodically call out, "Ohh, maaan." At first, Mikko was looking around, wondering where I was. He asked Sam, who was sitting beside him, "That Mama?" And Sam, trying to distract him (i.e., lie), said, "No, that's just a commercial."

Mikko thought this was hilarious. He started requesting that we say our lines in order. "Ohh, maan," I would call from my hidey-hole. Then Mikko would point to Sam, who was supposed to say, "That's a commercial." Then Mikko would say, "Ohh, maann," and then Sam was supposed to, say, once again, "That's a commercial."

It was convoluted to explain to you, so you can imagine how much time it took for us to figure out exactly what Mikko was hoping for in terms of our impromptu performance. He would coach us — "Say, 'Just a 'mercial,' 'k?" to Sam. If Sam forgot his line or came in late, Mikko would make us start over.

This whole affair was filled with giggles and went on far, far longer than Sam or I would have continue without two-year-old prodding.

This experience, among many others, has made me think about respecting our children as we play — following their lead and doing things that, to our adult minds, might seem pointless.

Here are some of my examples. One I mentioned awhile ago in my Rainy-day movement ideas for toddlers, where I described my toddler roller coaster:

I kneel on the bed, and he clambers around behind me and holds onto my shoulders. Then I fall face-first on the bed while he hangs on and rides down. He ends up landing mostly on my bum, which — trust me — is a soft landing.

There are so many of these games we made up by chance that Mikko grabbed onto and loves.

Sam accidentally made up "Sack Attack," where Mikko was climbing on a bed sheet and Sam scooped him up in it and then swung the sheet with (36-pound) Mikko in it around and around. Mikko was delighted. Sam later told me, "Don't make up any game you don't want to do a billion times in a row." So let that stand as your warning.

You know the rhyme "This is the way the lady rides"?

This isn't exactly the way we do it, but it was a cute baby, so I went with it.

My dad always used to add "And this is the way the elevator rides" and let us crash through his legs to the ground (I say "crash," but he broke our fall) or "This is the way the escalator rides" and he'd stretch out his legs and let us slide down. So, of course, I do this with Mikko. Only, it isn't enough to drop him through my legs for an elevator ride. He must push the button (on my palm) first. And then tell me what floor he's going to and whether he's going up or down. And usually? He's going up. All right, kid, I'll allow that. Up he goes!

The boys made up another game where Mikko stands at a particular spot distant from the bed and then runs and flops on it, rolling onto his back. Sam then runs after him and flops down beside him, and they give each other nose kisses. Why does Mikko find this entertaining enough to repeat again and again? I'm sure he has his motives. Whatever they are, it's a winner of a game — it gets him moving and helps him feel connected to his father.

I think that's the point of following our child's lead in our games. It shows that we respect what they value. It shows that we think they have an opinion worth listening to. It helps them feel honored and special and like they have a bit of control in this strange, wide world where everything and everyone is bigger than they are.

One book that got me to open up and engage more willingly in silly play was Playful Parenting, by Lawrence Cohen. Cohen talks about play as children's way of communicating and working through their emotions. It's the way they build relationship, so we as parents need to meet them there.

Sometimes I get so involved in an idea of how I the adult want to play that I miss my child's cues telling me how he wants to play. Are we lining up the toy cars in a row instead of driving them? All right, let's do that. I'll get bored and try to arrange them, then, by color, but maybe that's not his conception of the "right" way to do it. I have to let go of my own notions of what's valuable (in terms of "teaching" him something) and correct.

When I'm on the playground, I'm sometimes amazed by how parents try to control how their children amuse themselves, ferrying their kids from sandbox to swing set to slide as if to get full use out of every piece of equipment — and as if that matters at all to the child who should be left to her own devices at, if anywhere, a playground.

Once when my niece was about five years old, my brother who is somewhat of a manly-man jock, tried to get her interested in playing catch. "Come on, let's go outside!" he said, grabbing up a football.

"All right, Daddy," my niece replied. "But first, we should bring my dolls out to watch, don't you think?"

"No, no," my brother said. "Let's just go. Let's just play with the ball."

But my niece insisted. One by one, she brought out each of her numerous assortment of dolls and stuffed animals onto the lawn.

"I think they want to watch us, Daddy," she said. "Let's help them line up so they can see us."

"What about the ball?" my brother said, shoving the football into her arms.

My niece looked down at her new acquisition and began to cradle it, rocking it gently back and forth. "This baby needs a blanket, Daddy."

My brother gave up. She and her dad spent their playtime arranging dolls in the proper formation. The ball — and my brother's catch-playing dream — were forgotten.

It can be hard to let go of what we want from our children. But by engaging them on their level, in the way they want to play, we show we're willing to learn from them who they are, and that we respect them for being just that.

What are the goofy ways you play with your kids? Do you find it easy or hard to loosen up and be playful?


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