The importance of playful parenting

By Dr. Lawrence Cohen/ Gentle Parenting

  • “He’s a spoiled brat”
  • “I don’t know what to do with her”
  • “I hate myself when I yell at them, but the next time I just yell again”
  • “Suddenly she’s afraid of the water, but I paid for a whole year of swimming lessons, so she’s going to swim or else”
  • “Go away, I’m busy”

Play is one of the best ways to engage with children, pulling them out of emotional shutdown or misbehaviour, to a place of connection and confidence.

When I talk to parents about playfulness, someone always says, “I don’t really play much with my children; that’s more my husband’s job.” Another frequent comment is, “My children play great on their own. They don’t need me to be involved.” I appreciate these responses, because they challenge me to explain why play is so important to children, why participating in play is so important for adults, and why being more playful is possible for any parent who is willing to give it a try.

Playful Parenting helps with the toughest aspects of parenting: tantruming toddlers, biting pre-schoolers, anxious third-graders, out-of-control preteens. Playfulness resolves our battles over getting dressed and ready in the morning, soothes our frazzled nerves at the end of a long day, and restores family harmony. Playful Parenting offers a hand even when playfulness seems a dream that’s out of reach or a joke in poor taste. When we are exhausted or when we are at the end of our rope, we tend to think that play will be just more of an energy drain. But when we engage playfully with our children, we find that suddenly we do have energy, both for fun and for finding creative solutions to thorny problems.

Many parents tell me, “I could never be as goofy as you.” I am not sure whether to take this as a compliment or an insult, but either way, it just takes practice. Contrary to what my daughter might tell you, I had to train myself to be as goofy as I am today. I had to get over my shyness and embarrassment about playing on the climbing structure with her when she asked me to, instead of sitting on the bench with the other parents. As long as we are grown up enough to handle things like keeping them safe and getting dinner on the table, our children want and need us to loosen up. I don’t think it makes sense to leave the playing for others, who are “better at it”. Why should they have all the fun?

And if we don’t play we miss out on more than fun. Play is where children show us their inner feelings and experiences that they can’t or won’t talk about. We need to hear what they have to say, and they need to share it. That’s why we have to join children where they live on their terms. Children don’t say “I had a hard day at school today; can I talk to you about it?” They say, “Will you play with me?” If we say yes they play out what happened in the best way they know how. Or they don’t say anything, needing us to take the initiative. By the end of the game we may have helped them boost their confidence and their inner feeling of being loved – just what they need to go back to school and solve the problem themselves. If they don’t think we will play, they may not even ask. They just go about their business, and we go about ours, and we all miss chance after chance to reconnect.