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Three Ways to Use Play to Get Kids to Behave

Be prepared so you can be in charge, and the kids grow up happy.

This post is in response to
Not Naughty: 10 Ways Kids Appear to Be Acting Bad but Aren't
Having fun together breeds cooperation.

Parenting can get overwhelming. When kids don't do what you think they should, you may be tempted to blow your top, or you may feel totally worn down.

How can parents stay in charge without either turning into tyrants or giving up? 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.

When parents initiate playful interactions, they are in charge. They are the ones who set the tone. They call the shots on what the activity is. At the same time, everyone can be having fun.


Transitions from one activity to another are inherently difficult. Few kids want to switch from what they were happily doing to what you want them to do.

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. Lead with funny walks and hops as the child(ren) follow you to the bathroom. Or let a child lead and you follow.

Enjoy playing, and enjoy also how smoothly the transition flows. No resistance or anger!

Building routines.

The good news too is that there's generally no need to keep coming up with new play ideas. Kids love rituals, and as rituals turn into routines, good behaviors become automatic. You'll probably be able to do the same Follow the Leader game every evening.

The same with games for getting dressed in the morning. Maybe, for instance, play a matching game. You pick a color, and they need to find tops and bottoms that "match."

Other routines that can feel fun for kids? Post checklists on the front door to be sure that the kids have everything they need before they go out the door to school, and play who can check off all their list before I count to 20!

For clearing the table, try Once upon a time... "Once upon a time, there was a little girl who carried a big plate from the table to the sink."

"When she got to the sink—there was a buffalo dressed in pink."

The children complete the rhyme.

"When she go to the faucet she saw someone toss it."

" When she got to the window, she a small minnow."

What about when kids are doing something that is out-of-bounds?

When children do things that are not allowed, parents become at high risk for getting into power struggles. Out-of-bounds and against-the-rules behaviors tempt parents to speak harshly or threaten punishment. Play strategies by contrast can change these potentially 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. Get the kids to "behave," 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. "Let's go outside to play! I'll go out with you."

Going on a road trip? All those hours in a car are certain to have moments when the children get tired, hungry or bored. Any of those three states can make sibling spats almost inevitable. So invite everyone to take an eyes-closed rest time, with the Fake Dream game. Each person gets to make up a dream, and then tell the others. You might also want to google "games to play with kids on car rides." Be prepared!

Doing "chores." Picking up clothes from the floor before bedtime can become a power struggle. Far better to make chores a time for fun. Play basketball, shooting hoops with clothes from the floor that you shoot for the laundry basket. Or maybe create a race between finishing the chore and finishing a song you're singing together.

The following three play strategies are easy to use in a wide range of situation.

Use variations of the three options below 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.

  1. Tell a story.
  2. Launch a game.
  3. Sing a song.

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, children may hardly notice that you are getting them to do what you want. That's prevention of resistance. Plus distraction from what would otherwise be upsetting.

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 in your imagination, that you can use as a trigger for some kind of story. Start out with "Once upon a time there was a ...." Once upon a time..." 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.

Similarly, my book for children on thumbsucking helps children four and older decide to stop thumb and finger sucking habits.

Play Strategy #2: Play a Game

Games, like stories, 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.

Or, do a combo.

Here's a song-game.

"Hickory dickory dock, the mouse 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. 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 and your 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 power struggles, resorting to bribing (rewarding) your child for every good behavior, and issuing ineffectual threats with "If you don't ____, I'll ______". Instead, enjoy fun stories, games and songs as you ease your little ones via play into good behavior.

Two final bits 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.

The bottom line is that children need their parents to be in charge. At the same time, they do best when parents are in charge without becoming disciplinarians or tyrants. Take charge by having fun with your children. That's a win-win all around.

Happy playing!


(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

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 communication skills for successful relationships. Use these skills at work, with loved ones and with kids.

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship quiz.

Click here to learn the skills for strong and loving couple, work, and parent-child relationships.


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