Have you ever had the experience of meeting a stranger and connecting with them in a way that changes you?
Many years ago, I sat next to a woman on a plane and she changed the course of my future as a parent. We began talking and realized we were both child development psychologists. But, we didn’t talk about work that day — we talked about what it means to be a parent.
We were talking about how it’s not about how much time you spend with your kids, but rather, the quality of the time that you do spend with them. We were talking about connection.
She told me that the week before, she woke her kids in the predawn hours with the promise of donuts and adventure.
They piled into the car, bed head and all, and drove three hours away to the beach. They arrived just as the first pink streaks filled the sky and together they huddled under a blanket, munched donuts, and watched the sunrise over the ocean.
Just because. Just because this is our one life and she wanted her kids to always remember THAT day, just because. She looked me straight in the eye and she said this:
“When you become a parent don’t forget to play– do playful things, things an “adult” would never do.”
When she said those things to me, I got chills and I had a vision of the kind of parent I wanted to be someday.
Now, more than 15 years later, I am a parent and I strive to be a playful one. One that can live in the moment and have a dance party just because.
Life is what you make of it. Play with your kids. Make memories. Share Traditions. Do Crazy Fun Things.
Seven Habits of Highly Playful Parents
Master the Super-Silly Face in Response to Whining
This a perfect response to a tired and whiny child — a shocked face or silly surprised fish face, really any silly face that shows you are surprised by their protests. Be careful not to mock their very real emotions, but show them how laughing about the small stuff makes everything easier.
Whines turn into giggles and while all may not be solved, usually you can move onto the next thing with a little less fuss and a few more smiles.
Bring Play into Your Routine
So, your child doesn’t want to wash their hands, put on their shoes, go outside, go to the potty, leave the playdate and so on. Transitions from one activity to the next are hard for kids, as are everyday tasks.
They are too busy playing to stop and take care of business or move onto the next thing.
The typical response from a parent may be to talk about consequences — if you don’t brush your teeth you will get cavities — or to engage in a power struggle.
The playful way is to just keep playing.
We play a game ‘chasing’ the cavity germs around the mouth when we brush teeth. You could sing a song or play a song to help make transitions fun. Or use a favorite toy, make the toy “talk” and ask your child to put on their pajamas. Or try using a story to encourage cooperation or a game to set limits.
Instead of forced conversation at the dinner table, listen to a funny podcast, take turns reading from a joke book for kids, do mad libs together or play table topics.
Appreciate Little Kid Humor (even potty humor?)
Ok, admit that it was funny when your child made the ‘poop’ joke. Don’t be afraid to laugh. And I promise you, if you make a potty joke back, they will belly laugh.
Just have a rule like — potty jokes are only for home, not for preschool.
Beyond the usual potty jokes which rarely fail, playful parents know when to infuse the day with laughter and they know how to make their kids laugh.
Is your child tired or stressed? Has talking about it helped, but they need some cheering up? Or maybe it’s just a rainy Saturday afternoon and the family is cooped up inside. We dress stuffed animals in our son’s clothes, play silly rhyming games, pretend to be surprised by something totally normal, and generally are just goofy.
Make Family Traditions out of Everyday Situations
Being a playful parent means appreciating the moment. Getting on your child’s level and living in that moment.
This sense of presence is a gift from our children to us. It doesn’t mean you have to do anything special, but just recognize what is already happening, name it and repeat it.
Let’s say your kids are running around after dinner acting like total goofballs. You join in (leaving the dishes for a moment) and say “It’s the Tuesday Goof-Off.” Or one afternoon your child takes out a game they want to play while wearing their super-hero cape. You say “It’s Super-Hero Game Day!”
Join in, name it, repeat it and boom— a new family fun tradition is born.
Understand that play is LOVE
I am all for connecting with your kids and having deep heart-to-hearts. That is important and cannot be discounted. But, especially with younger kids, connection happens through play.
The last few years, preschool teachers and this year my son’s Kindergarten teacher have done special mother’s day cards and events like muffins with mom. Each time they ask my son, why do you love your mom? Every single year he says “I love my mom because she plays with me a lot.”
And every single year I get a little pang of guilt when I read that because I don’t sit down and play with him that much. And every year I resolve to try to do it more often.
Because for kids, they don’t say to us that they had a hard day or that they feel lonely. They say, “Play with me, Mama.”
I fully believe in independent play — it is so important for creativity and cognitive development. But, I also believe in love and I know that if I sit with my son a little while and do my silly play, that he will feel loved.
Rough-House to Relieve Stress and Tension
Next time you child acts grumpy or acts out when you reunite with them after a day of school and work, try playing a physical game with them. Hide and seek, chase, a hugging game — any kind of rough-housing.
What level rough-housing you do depends on your child’s age, temperament and also your temperament. The point is for it to be physical play which helps children (and adults) blow off steam and reconnect.
Share the Beauty of the World with Your Kids (Be spontaneous and live for THIS day)
I love what that woman on the plane did with her kids. She was spontaneous and showed her children a beautiful part of the world.
To raise a child who can look around and see beauty in nature and the world around them is an amazing gift.
Stay up late on an air mattress in the backyard and gaze at the stars, wake up early and watch the sunrise over a lake or at the beach, have a picnic at a park for dinner on a weeknight in the summer, surprise the kids and take them to look at Christmas lights at bedtime, go camping with friends from his class for one night at a place just 20 minutes away.
Anything that shows your kids the beauty of this world. Be spontaneous and live this one life to it’s absolute fullest!
Want to read more? I love Child Development Psychologist Lawerence Cohen’s books. My favorite is The Art of Roughhousing, which is a practical how-to guide and a great father’s day gift.
Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage ConfidenceThe Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and FearsWell Played: The Ultimate Guide to Awakening Your Family’s Playful SpiritThe Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It
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