Last night, as I was trying to get my son ready for bed, the usual shenanigans were ensuing. Far be it from my child to actually just get into his pajamas when I ask. That would be way too boring.
He had been running all over his room, leaping onto the bed and off, singing one song after another. I managed to get his pants off—one step closer to actually getting the PJs on him—and he was now back to bouncing on the bed, singing loudly, wiggling to his own kooky beat.
Meanwhile, I was starting to get annoyed. I was managing to control it for the moment, but I could see that it would be short-lived. I looked up at him, ready to turn on the serious voice.
There he was, holding the final note of his made-up song in a t-shirt and undies, with his finger in the air, disco style, when suddenly . . . "pppppbbbbfffff." He farted.
We both fell over laughing. My irritation evaporated in an instant.
“All right mister,” I said when I had recovered. “Do you think you can sing the next part of your song at the same time as you get these PJ pants on?” I sang along with him as best I could, pulling up the pants while he shook his little booty.
We eventually got him dressed and got his teeth brushed with the same weird mix of play and work. It was fun and funny—such a noticeable contrast to some of our evening wrangling matches.
This evening taught me again that play is one of the best parenting tools there is, even as our kids get older and more capable.
When Play Can Help with Behavior
As I’ve written about before, play is so much more than meaningless fun for kids.
When they are young, play is the primary way our children learn about the world, how to engage with others in social situations, and what they are capable of doing.
And, just as independent play is an important part of your child’s development, play with you facilitates a greater bond between you and your child, and deepens his trust in you.
Play is one of the main ways our kids connect with us—their most important grownups. It offers your child some of the warmth and closeness he needs a good healthy dose of daily.
In addition to all of these benefits, play is also an amazing tool to help increase our kids’ cooperation, improve their behavior, and decrease the struggle that we often face with everyday tasks.
How to Use Play When It’s Hard
When I support families with responding to their children’s challenging behaviors, we often turn to play as a tool. After they try it out, it’s very common for me to hear things from parents like “wow, this really WORKS!” or “we could not believe how quickly things changed once we got serious about play.”
I also hear this: “yeah, play definitely works. . . and it is super hard to do.”
What they mean is that it is hard for them as parents to get into using play. I get this, believe me.
When we’re in a pattern of frustration or anger with our kids about their lack of cooperation with a task, it can be very hard to break out of that pattern. Even if we’re not in a deeply ingrained pattern, it is just plain hard to feel playful when we’re annoyed, tired, or fed up.
It takes work (and often an internal pep talk) to shift to using play in these moments. But it can happen.
The question I ask myself when I’m locked in a battle with my son about something is, “would play help?” Usually the answer is yes. (The times when I answer “no” are usually when he is clearly processing a feeling that needs to be fully experienced.)
But if the answer is “yes!” then I take a deep breath. I feel my breath come into my belly—the seat of my capacity—and I say to myself, “ok. I can do this.”
And, most of the time, I can.
You can get better at this if, like me, play doesn’t immediately come naturally to you. Like anything, it takes practice and a little bit of patience.
Ideas for Using Play to Shift Behavior
The great thing about play is that there are a million ways to do it. The only rules are that it can’t hurt anyone or the space we’re in, and that it has to be respectful of those playing. So tickle fights are out, as are any physical games that fully disempower the child.
In fact, I look for ways to play that make me seem smaller or less competent and make my son seem and feel big, capable, and strong.
As with all efforts to shift a child’s behavior, I also don’t recommend play that is geared toward getting a reward. Play is more enjoyable when the only prize to be won is the enjoyment of doing something fun together—and getting that thing done, of course. Keeping rewards out of the equation also helps your child develop the intrinsic motivation to cooperate that will serve her well throughout her life.
Here are some of our favorite ways to use play during challenging everyday moments:
Tooth-brushing: Mom is regularly screwing up the way we brush teeth. She forgets how to use the toothbrush, tries to brush all the stuffies’ teeth, or maybe the kid’s ear… Hilarity often ensues, with a very wise and giggly 5-year-old showing the way to do it right. (This has been going on for several years, so it works equally well with 2-year-olds.)
Getting dressed: We often show the new favorite stuffed animal how we get dressed. The cougar hasn’t seen it, after all! Or we race to see if the kid can get dressed faster than Dad can make breakfast. Somehow the kid usually wins.
Getting out the door: Anything that makes a game out of the process will work wonders. Here’s one mom’s story about using play to get out of the house in the morning.
Cleaning up: We try to beat our record (though no one is keeping track of the record) at cleaning up quickly. Our son gets to choose how fast we can do it, and he usually picks a very generous amount of time. We do it together with a lot of excitement and are super stoked when we beat it handily. High-fives all around.
The Long View on Using Play
As you begin (or continue) to practice using this kind of play, you will notice that some of the struggles you have around everyday tasks and processes with your kid(s) starts to soften.
That means that you may find that you’ll have to purposely play less and less, and that the spirit of play will start to arise more naturally when struggles arise. And I’ve noticed that when this spirit of play is present, children are just more inclined to cooperate with us—even if we don’t make a game out of it.
I’d love to hear how this works for you, or any of YOUR favorite ways to use play to increase your child’s cooperation. Please share below in the comments.
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