Play? Who, me? Uhhhh . . . .

Play? Who, me? Uhhhh . . . . 

Alright, here's a confession: I was not so into playing with my kids.

Sure I did try to engage with them and affirm their interests when they were little. I love my children and did want to fill their cups. It's just that it was never really my thing; even as a kid, I often chose to read rather than play with my little brother. 

Recently, when my eldest Harrison (17 and that's not his real name) found out I was going to a Pokemon symphony with my sister in law and her two younger kids, he was shocked: "I thought Mom was suffering from PTSD from all the Pokemon she played with me."

I was sad hearing that he had gotten the obviously not-so-subtle message that Pokemon (along with Yu-Gi-Oh) was B . . .O. . . R. . . I . . . N . . . G.

I wish someone had sat my butt down and made me read Lawrence Cohen's Playful Parenting. His approach jibes well with the philosophy of P.E.T. and I've been recommending it left and right!  

So where might play fit in the Behavior Window? Turns out -- all over the place.

Child Owns Problem

When kids feel isolated, they rarely come up to us with the clear statement of need: "I require attention and connection please." Instead, they often behave in ways that get our goat: whining, picking fights with their sibling, hitting or giving us "the stink eye."

Cohen says that the quality of their play -- unusually reckless or wild, seeming stuck in a rut, not having much fun -- can also be a cue and a clue that they are having a problem meeting some need.

Cohen, a psychologist himself, does indeed recognize the importance of listening:

  • "[W]hen children want to directly express their feelings of anger or frustration . . .[i]n these cases it is very important to hear them out, to allow the feelings to come out, rather than try to cheer them up or cajole them out of feeling bad. This disclaimer is especially true for girls who are given so many messages not to be angry." (page 51)
  • "All we have to do is listen, and maintain our confidence in them, while they release these feelings. This may not sound too playful, but listening patiently to these outbursts is a crucial part of Playful Parenting. The process of growing up and learning things and mastering new skills brings lots of frustration, and this frustration is released by giggles (when you're lucky) or by tears (when it's too strong a feeling to come out in laughter)." (page 72)   

But the author also wants parents to see the value of playing out problems too.

In the many instances when children (pre-verbal or verbal) are unable or unwilling to talk to us about their feelings and experiences, Cohen recommends we use a playful Door-opener to invite them to explore their problem with us:

[W]e want our children to talk to us, because talking is our way of communicating. But talking is not how they express themselves; play is. So if we refuse to play their way, and then insist on their talking to us our way, we are not going to get much communication from them. If we do play, especially if we play on their terms, then they will surprise us by showing us their thoughts and feelings. If we wait patiently and don’t push, they may even tell us in words.
— Playful Parenting, page 291

In Chapter 2, Cohen flags some important problems that require us to up our participation in our kids' world even more:

  • Conflicts with peers or adults -- We can play to assist them in socializing more smoothly with others
  • Inability to play freely in the moment -- Our engagement helps them learn rules, skills and sportsmanship
  • Times of big change (new sibling, new school, death, divorce) -- Play offers extra  helpings of love and comfort
  • When they are endangered in any way -- There are games we can lead that build assertiveness and trust on their part

Importantly, Cohen acknowledges that sometimes we simply don't want to Active Listen, let alone play with, our child because We. Have. Just. About. Had. It. Young. Lady!! In the course, we talk about strategies to calm ourselves down to find the empathy and acceptance that are the hallmarks of Active Listening. 

He offers another way out:

[W]e often forget the importance of laughter. We are especially forgetful, or especially serious, when we are dealing with children who are being obnoxious or aggressive or uncooperative, and when we have run out of patience and good humor. Stress doesn’t help much either. But these are the very conditions when Playful Parenting is most useful . . . Often it is the adult who doesn’t want to let go of the struggle. We want endless remorse and reparations and apologies from our child before we are willing to connect again. We refuse to laugh as if our lightening up would be a reward to the child for bad behavior. But laughter is healing. Remember, for most difficulties between parents and children, the real problem is lack of connection, so the solution is more connection.
— Playful Parenting, pages 78, 84

Best thing is, he gives us about 4000 examples of how to do this! (See especially Chapter 5 Follow the Giggles and Chapter 7 Suspend Reality: Reverse the Roles.)

Check out this sampling of activities that help children feel less isolated and powerless:  

  • The Love Gun -- If a kid is acting aggressively toward you, take a silly tack: "'Hey, you found the love gun. . . . when I get shot with that gun, I just have to love the person who shot me.' And I opened up my arms wide and took a step toward him with a big, goofy, lovestruck grin on my face." (page 50) Or just fall down dead, preferably on top of them, offering them some bumbling and silly closeness. Or meet their aggression with a surprising challenge  -- "The idea was to change the action in some small way so he could begin to get some control over it. If you can stand on one foot, and sing while you bop someone, you can possibly stop yourself from shoving a kid who steps on your foot in line." (page 187) (Note: he does discuss when aggression is destructive and requires a different approach starting on page 197.)
  • You Act Hyper-Afraid  -- "To help children with fears, for example, it often helps to play as if you are the one who is scared, and really exaggerate it . . . I pretend that I am scared of everything. And I do mean everything: pencils, the letter Q, lightbulbs, video games, anything that happens to be in the room. He'll ask what time it is, and I'll say that I don't know because I'm scared to look at my watch. He thinks this is hysterical. This type of play lets children gets some distance from their fear, and the distance allows them to release the fear through giggles." (page 82) Or play at being incompetent instead of fearful, all the while taking care the child doesn't feel teased. (pages 128-129) Or cling to your child so much that he delights in having to push YOU away instead of melting down at that dreaded moment of separation. (page 194) Or use artistic play to ease anxiety and fears. (pages 222-233)
  • You Play Bully/Obstacle AND Cheerleader -- By physically wrestling you with your support, your child can act out the "frustration, humiliation and helplessness of having lost or given up the first time around." (page 97) (By the way, roughhousing is so important it warrants its own chapter.)

Cohen devotes the entirety of Chapter 14 to a big Child Owns Problem issue: sibling rivalry. His guidance includes offering only half a solution (and letting them work out the details), encouraging win-win problem-solving (Go Method III!), three-way pillow fights and designated sibling playtime ("I've noticed that you guys have been struggling with each other a lot, and I want to give you a hand with your relationship. It's important for me that you have a close connection." (page 267))  

No Problem Zone

In the course, we talk about Modifying the Environment to keep us in the No Problem area longer. One of the visuals actually discusses one on one time and activity time as something that can be added to the environment. 

Basically Cohen takes it one step further, suggesting we add to the mix an enthusiastic and committed parent who knows a bit about the value of play!

Children are already in the No Problem area playing a lot, processing new information, trying on adult roles and skills, healing small t and big T traumas. 

By playing with our children, we fulfill important needs of attachment, mastery and socialization. Check out the "power room" idea (let the child create an enduring source of confidence (page 60)) and the "poopyhead game" (allow him to experiment with the power of words & breaking rules on YOU (page 64)). 

In his section Fostering Emotional Recovery Instead of Emotional Distress he illustrates the healing potential of acting the hapless patient to your daughter's doctor after she's just been given a shot:

[How] does she want the game to go? She wants you to pretend to howl and say, ‘No, no, no, please don’t give me a shot. I hate shots! No, no, no,’ and act as if you are in an agony of pain and terror . . . The purpose is to go through the incident again, but this time letting the scary feelings out — usually through giggles.
— Playful Parenting, page 13

(Sure she could play with her dolly, but her first choice is you.)

Another way to Modify the Environment is to inject regular one on one "PlayTime" into the schedule. This means doing whatever THEY want to do (sorry, that stack of children's classics may have to wait). The No Problem zone expands as our undivided attention and willingness to follow their lead eases sibling rivalry and other family conflicts and helps us connect with our especially hard to reach little ones. 

Parent Owns Problem/Both Own - Conflict of Needs

In Chapter 13 Rethink the Way We Discipline, Cohen lists some familiar ways to approach times when we are having trouble meeting our needs. These include:

  • Cooling off
  • Meeting on the Couch rather than a time-out -- see also Dr. Laura Markham's idea of a Time-In
  • Instilling "good judgment" -- sounds a lot like Confrontive I-Messages and Shifting Gears

But then he throws in this

A lot of parents can’t imagine being playful as a form of discipline. Discipline is supposed to be deadly serious. Don’t believe it — play! . . . I think parents avoid playfulness in difficult parenting situations because they are afraid of rewarding bad behavior. ‘I have to remain stern and angry and cold so he’ll know he did wrong.’ But being playful is not about rewards or punishments, it is about restoring the missing ingredient — connection — that caused the problems in the first place.
— Playful Parenting, pages 238, 241

I would liken his approach to Active Listening the behavior -- when our child is having a truly hard time hearing our Confrontive I-Message and defensively continuing the unacceptable behavior we can listen hard to hear the need for intimacy and love from us.

We can meet those needs, Cohen argues, not only through free play, but in other radical approaches that address head on the behavior we don't like, as in:

  • Goofy Threats -- "If you do that again I'm going to have to sing the 'Star-Spangled Banner." "You spilled the milk again? I'll have to do my milk-spilling dance." (page 240)
  • Play the difficult scenario - Whether it's bedtime, bathtime, mealtime or talking back, get them to laugh and have fun yourself devising crazy rules or coming up with flippant comebacks. See if your kid is not more on board next time.

Both Own Problem - Values Collisions

Values conflicts are the driving force behind many parents signing up for my P.E.T. course. We fervently hope our children adopt what we know has served US well, like table manners, personal hygiene, disciplined studying and a healthy dose of the outdoors.

In terms of our P.E.T. strategies, I think Cohen's approach can be an innovative way to Consult (which requires that we get kids on board to listen to us, share our wisdom and expertise and then allow them to make the decision) and Model.

For instance when we see our child flipping out after losing or being very competitive, we can try being this kind of Consultant and reverse-Model (yeah, I just coined that) on sportsmanship and fair play:

Switch gears from playing the game to playing with these themes. For example, set up a game where they will always win, and pretend to be a ridiculous figure of a sore loser. Or brag about how great you are, then miss every shot — whatever helps them laugh and release that feeling of life or death over the outcome of the game. Make up a game with a funny rule, like, ‘No hitting me with this pillow,’ and then act goofy when they — surprise — hit you with it. ‘You cheated. Waaah!’
— Playful Parenting, page 68

If we want to share values of resilience and assertive behavior, Cohen offers confidence-building games that allow kids to explore themes of humiliation, self-esteem, competence, incompetence and inadequacy. Safe processing with us releases pent-up feelings and helps our kids in situations with their peers.

Emotional self-regulation and impulse control are big values for most parents. For those with children diagnosed (or likely to be) with attention deficit disorder, Cohen says we can help these excitable children to self-soothe which will then help them pay attention. He recommends:

  • Safe wrestling
  • Playing with dolls (especially important for boys, he says)
  • Self-regulation games -- e.g. by calling out frequent rapid changes in their movements ("Faster! Slower! Crazy fast! Right foot! Left foot! Both feet!")
  • Playing out an actual challenging situation for them

Rather than medication, we can tap into our playful side to foster our child's ability to reduce anxiety and frustration which, unchecked, can lead to the fidgeting and impulsive behavior that can earn him the ADD/ADHD label. (pages 108-111) Worthy of a hearty go, I'd say. 

And if all the above examples weren't enough reason to read this wise book . . . 

Bonus: He Active Listens Us Parents!

Cohen has sections like Why It's Hard for Adults to Play (page 28) and Take Time to Recover (page 166) and Adults' Unfelt Feelings (page 213), not to mention an entire Chapter 15 titled Recharge Your Own Batteries, all of which acknowledge every single reason I ever wanted to skip over the playing part of the day.

But then he weighs in with his experience as a clinical psychologist and play therapist. Accepting that play can actually feel like work for us, he exhorts us to do it and persist anyway. Playing with kids gives us many opportunities to nurture and challenge them and, he has me totally convinced, can actually be fun.


I so remember what I have said to my kids in those low moments when I was putting my to-do list first: "No, I can't play. I'm the adult. You're the kid. You play. I work."


But I read this book when I did and I want to release myself from guilt through action! 

Even before finishing it, I began to be a lot more nutty with my kids, especially my 12 year old daughter, with fabulous results!! She's enjoying a wacky mother who doesn't always have to TALK about the situation but who can still guess at the needs underlying the behavior and get us giggling our way to solutions that work for everyone.

To get started, you don't have to study the entire book in depth first or even reread this post. Like Dr. Cohen says on page 272, "[D]iving in without a plan is an excellent Playful Parenting strategy." 

The pressure is off. 

Now go play. Yes, you!

Of course, if you are itching to read some more ideas right now, here are other concrete examples of games for emotional intelligence and connection by Dr. Laura Markham of Aha Parenting.

Credits: Mother and child (