Parenting can get overwhelming. When kids don't do what they're supposed to, you can may be tempted to blow your top; or you may feel very down. Fortunately, here's a third option. Parent in a playful way that engages kids' cooperation. Yet how can parents stay in charge if they aren't going to turn into tyrants? It's hard enough to figure out how to communicate with your spouse. How do you communicate with kids who aren't listening to you?
Parenting, someone once said, is the art of getting kids to do what you want them to do, and getting them to stop doing things you don't want them to do. In both cases, playing can do the trick. The parents are in charge; they set the tone and call the shots on what the activity is. At the same time, everyone can be having fun.
Transitions from one activity to another, for instance, are inherently difficult because they require kids to switch from what they were happily doing to what you want them to. When parents want kids to leave the game they were playing to get dressed, come to the dinner-table or take a bath, the potential for a battle is high. So to get a young child to head for the bathtub, play Follow the Leader, doing funny walks and hops as the child(ren) and parents head for the bathroom. Play strategies enable transitions to flow smoothly without kids getting resistant or mad.
Building routines. The good news too is that there's generally no need to keep coming up with new play ideas. Kids generally love rituals, and rituals can turn into routines. You'll probably be able to do the same Follow the Leader game every evening until the children get the idea that at a certain time each night transitioning to the bathtub is just what they routinely do. The same with enjoying fun games about getting dressed in the morning, posting checklists on the front door to be sure that the kids have everything they need before they go out the door to school, clearing the dishes after dinner, wash-your-face-and-hands-and-brush-your-teeth routines for bedtime hygiene right up through to saying good-night.
Moments when kids are doing something that is out-of-bounds present a second category of situations that challenge parents with regard to exerting authority without inviting power struggles. Out-of-bounds and against-the-rules behaviors tempt parents to speak harshly or threaten punishment. Play strategies by contrast change mutually frustrating parent-child interactions into positive moments.
Parents who see their five year old, for instance, throwing balls in the house, hitting a baby sister, or dragging muddy toys onto the rug, are likely to feel their temper begin to rise. Time for taking charge. To get the kids to "behave," start by saying the rule, e.g., "No throwing balls in the house; balls are only for throwing outside." Immediately after saying the rule, use a play strategy to distract the child so the bad behavior switches to participation in the new activity.
Doing "chores." Picking up clothes from the floor before bedtime can become a power struggle. So can clearing the table after meals. Far better to make chores a time for fun. Maybe make a race between finishing the chore and finishing a song you're singing together.
Here's three play strategies that are easy and versitile. Use variations of them any time you want to get children to transition from activity to activity, to do something they need to do, or to stop doing something.
Play Strategy #1: Tell a Story
Kids love make-believe. Fortunately, they're easily hooked by virtually any plot line.
Are you getting resistance to tooth-brushing? Here's a story-line that works beautifully as long as the tone is fun. Souping up the drama helps too.
"Once upon a time, a little girl (boy) named (his/her name) went out to the playground. S/he was all alone. She wanted someone to play with. Who will s/he find? Look! There's your cousin _______. (Parent brushes one tooth, and continues on to a new tooth with each new name.) And there's ______ . He's having lots of fun on the slide. Oh no!!! I think your friend __________ just fell down. How did that happen? Is he crying? And there's ..."
Why do stories work so well?
Make-believe transports children's thoughts out of the present situation into another mindset. Having entered the world of make-believe, they may hardly notice that you are getting them to leave what they were doing and do what you want instead. That's prevention of resistance.
Stories also enhance the technique of distraction. Prevention and distraction are the two key "discipline" techniques for young children that I discuss in my blog posting on Discipline with Babies and Toddlers.
Young Jimmy is playing with a vase of flowers that you forgot to place out of reach. You swoop in, pick him up, and focus him on a picture on the wall, anticipating that he will be unhappy to let go of the vase and the flowers.
"Oooh, that picture reminds me about a story!" you begin with infectious enthusiasm, removing the vase from his grip. "Once upon a time there was a little _____, and a very big _______. The little ______ wanted to _______. What do you think the big ________ said to him? ....."
Fortunately, there's always something in your environment, or maybe in your imagination, that you can use as a trigger for some kind of story. Starting out with "Once upon a time there was a ...." gives you time to think. Look around for a something, anything, and the story will begin to emerge. E.g., at dinner, in response to siblings kicking each other under the table, "Once upon a time there was...a fork. The fork lived next door to a spoon. What do you think that fork did when he saw the spoon playing one day in the park?...."
Lastly, stories can be an effective medium for conveying information to children about problematic habits that you would like to see them change. Information conveyed via a story can raise a child's internal motivation to make the change. Then parents don't need to be the heavies who are insisting on a switch to the new behavior.
I've posted a free story you can print out for helping kids tone down loud voices. The story provides a starting point for discussion of voice volume habits. Kids then are likely to be able to discuss the issue of voice volume without hearing the parent as criticizing them.
Play Strategy #2: Play a Game
Like a story, games propel kids into a new mindset like a bus transports riders into a new environment.
Stories get their power from the potency of a plot line. Kids want to know how a story will turn out.
Games have a goal. A goal functions like a story's plot line, that is, it motivates children to keep moving forward. There's Who did it? Or Who will win? Or Find the x. Beat the clock is another versatile challenge. So is How many x can we do?
Here's some examples of effective and easy games.
Kids seldom want to pick up their clothes from the floor. Instead of arguing or insisting, put a laundry basket in the middle of the floor. "How many baskets can each of us get?" you say as you toss the first pair of plants into the 'hoop.' And "How far from the basket can we stand and still shoot our clothes into it?"
How long will it take is another game servicable in all kinds of situations. "How many seconds will it take for everyone to get in their seats at the dinner table? One, two, three, ......"
Competition adds to the fun. Rather than having siblings compete against each other though, bypass sibling rivalry by having them compete as a team against themselves. "Yesterday you guys made it in twelve seconds. Can you beat your record? One, two, ...."
Another classic is "I see something...." That's especially good for stopping kids from fighting with each other on car rides. "I see something that's purple...." The winner gets to give the next "I see something..." puzzle.
One tip: Avoid asking if the kids would like to play. Just start the game.
Play Strategy #3: Sing a Song
Preschool teachers often have specific songs for pulling kids along in activities that they might otherwise not want to do. Melody lines, like the plot of a story and the goal of a game, have potency to carry children forward into whatever activity you want to promote.
"Now is time for pick-up, pick-up, pick-up, now is time for pick-up, what did Susie pick?" works to the tune of "Here we go round the Mulberry bush."
Susie sings back, "I picked up the paintbrushes, the paintbrushes, the paintbrushes, I picked up the paintbrushes, what did Thomas pick?"
It can be a good idea to make yourself a list of some favorite songs so you have a few favorites always readily available.
Note that song strategies work well for a broad rage of ages. Use preschool songs for little kids and pop songs for older ones. "Shake it up baby!" can become "Stack it up baby..." when you want older kids to load the dishwasher.
Music is especially potent in situations where you need distraction for young children. If in the shopping mall or on a long walk home your child begins to fuss, quickly launch a melody line. "Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock...." As the clock strikes two, end with a rhyme, and so on up to twelve.
Or, do a combo.
Here's a song-game. "Hickory dickory dock, the elephant ran up the clock, the clock struck one, the elephant ___(chewed gum?)________, hickory dickory dock."
Fill in the blank on a nursery rhyme or simple song combines the potency of a melody line with power of a narrative plus also the fun of interactive games. Playing together this way sure beats feeling helpless as your child throws a temper tantrum in a public place. If you forgot the prevention technique of bringing a stroller or backpack for walking home, when young young son sits on the sidewalk refusing to take another step you'll both feel happier with a song-game-story that gets him walking again.
In sum, cease becoming frustrated, having to win power struggles, resorting to bribing (rewarding) your child for every good behavior, and depending on ineffectual threats with statements of "If you don't ____, I'll ______". Instead, enjoy fun stories, games and songs as you ease your little ones via play into good behavior.
One last key word of advice:
If you and your co-parent are on the same wavelength with regard to these parenting methods, the continuity will boost your effectiveness. Sit down together one evening and have a good talk to consolidate your co-parenting team strategy.
For an indexed listing of Dr. H's Blogposts see Dr. H's Blogposts on her clinical website.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, has authored From Conflict to Resolution for therapists, plus the Power of Two book, workbook, and website that teach the couple communication skills for successful relationships.
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