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The Single Most Important Skill Parents Can Acquire Is Playing

By Pam Leo

As nearly as I have been able to translate it, “Na-Na-Na-Boo-Boo” is actually an invitation, even a plea to “come and play with me.” Our most important task as parents is securing and maintaining a strong bond with our children.

For a multitude of reasons, children growing up in today’s society are at great risk of not having a solid bond with their parents. One of those reasons is parents not having enough time to spend with their children. Another reason is how we spend the time we do have.

Though we may spend time with children building Lego’s, dressing dolls, playing board games or checkers, the kind of play children crave the most is the kind of play most parents do the least. This is the physically active play of chase and capture, hide and seek, piggybacks, pony rides, and the roughhouse wrestling that makes children giggle and laugh and ask for more, more, more. It is this kind of play that emotionally connects parents and children and strengthens their bond.

Most parents actively play with babies. We patty-cake, peek-a-boo and bounce them on our knees. We sacrifice all dignity doing silly things to make babies laugh. But once they grow bigger and can play by themselves or with other children we usually spend much less time actively playing with our children. There are some adults, often, but not always Dads, who seem to just naturally excel at this kind of physical play, but few children get as much as they need of this kind of play. Whether we don’t have the energy, are too distracted with things we feel we have to get done or we just never learned how because no one played that way with us, we usually aren’t as playful as our children beg us to be.

Even if playing doesn’t come naturally to us we can learn how to be more playful. Lawrence J. Cohen, author of my new favorite parenting book, Playful Parenting, says, “Unlike many personality changes we might like to make, better playing skills can be pretty easily learned.” I can confirm that what he says is true. I have never been one of those adults who excelled at physical play. I didn’t get much of that kind of play as a child; therefore, I didn’t do much of that kind of play with my children or my grandchildren. Since reading Cohen’s book, to the delight of my grandchildren and their friends, I’m getting pretty good at playing, roughhousing, and silliness.

For those parents like me, for whom physical play doesn’t just come naturally, learning to play is work. The exciting thing about the work of learning to play is that the payoff is priceless. The smiles, giggles, laughter, affection, and feeling of connectedness that bubble up from a rollicking playtime can change our whole day, even our whole relationship with a child. In my parenting series, “Meeting the Needs of Children,” I talk a lot about the importance of connecting with children and “filling their cups” by spending special time, one on one with them. Since reading Playful Parenting, I have experienced first hand the value of this kind of play and heard the excited reports of parents’ experiences with being more playful. I now see play as one the most important ways we can maintain a strong bond with our children.

Children are like re-chargeable batteries and the people they are bonded with are their re-chargers. The younger they are the more often children need contact with these people. If we observe toddlers, we see them play and explore and frequently return to check in with their parents for a quick recharge. Cohen and I both use the analogy of filling the cup. Children’s cups hold the emotional fuel that keeps them going. Filling the emotional cup is just as important as making sure children have food. Just as we get cranky when we don’t eat regularly, we get cranky when the fuel in the emotional cup gets low. Difficult behavior is usually a communication of low cup.

The fuel in children’s cups gets used up by the general wear and tear of the day and by frustration, disappointments, fears, and the little and big hurts and losses. Emotional cups must be refilled everyday with attention, nurturing, and play. It would be so much simpler for parents if children could just say with words, “I need a refill of love and attention.” However, children usually communicate that need through their behavior. When parents and caregivers don’t understand the language of behavior they often react to children’s emptycup/ refill-request behaviors with anger, rejection, and punishment instead of responding with the love and attention that children need to fill the cup back up.

It is hard to remember that children need love most when they appear to deserve it least. Sometimes by the time we finally “get it” that our child’s behavior is communicating the need to connect for a refill, the empty-cup/refill-request behaviors have so annoyed us that we probably won’t be feeling much like playing. If we get stuck in anger they will be stuck with an empty cup. If we expect their behavior to change we must change our behavior. We can choose to play to reconnect and bring up the level of their cup. Children with enough in their cup have no need for empty-cup/refill-request behaviors.

Our ideas about discipline begin to change once we recognize that it takes the same amount of time, attention, and energy to meet a child’s emotional needs as it does to deal with the behaviors caused by a child’s unmet emotional needs. It is a lot more fun and certainly more productive to spend ten minutes playing with children than to spend ten minutes threatening, scolding and punishing them. Playing is proactive and productive because it keeps the connection strong and the cup full. Punishment is reactive and counter-productive because makes children feel powerless and disconnected and drains their already low emotional cup.

Children need connection to get their cup refilled. Trying to fill a child’s cup without connecting with the child is like trying to fill a car with gas from a pump that has no hose. Play is the hose that connects the pump to the tank. As Cohen points out, children already know how to use play to connect, to heal their hurts and develop confidence. Play is the language of children. When we learn how to play we can communicate our love for our children in ways that will strengthen our connection and fill their cup. While “quality” time cannot replace the quantity of time children need with us, we can increase the quality of the time we spend with children by learning how to play in ways that fill up the cup. Physical play not only fills a child’s need for attention; it fills the need for touch and deep connection.

Laughing together is a powerful way of connecting with each other. Children delight in silliness and often use it to try to connect when they need a refill. Instead of thwarting silliness, we can initiate it or at least join in. We can usually turn the tide of a power struggle by getting silly instead of getting bossy. When children are giggling over our silliness they are also reconnecting and getting the refill they were asking for with the power struggle behavior.

Children lose confidence when they feel powerless. They disconnect either by withdrawing or by trying to control things. We help children regain their confidence when we play role reversal games that make the child the powerful one. Nothing will give us a more accurate picture of how our children see us than playing pretend the child is parent and the parent is the child. Children delight in making us brush our teeth and forbidding us to jump on the bed. The more we ham up begging them for what we want, the more they laugh.

Those who have attended my “Healing the Feeling Child” workshop and learned how children (and adults) heal their emotional hurts by discharging or releasing the hurts through laughter, tears, and tantrums will really appreciate all the ways that Playful Parenting addresses and supports that process. Those who have not attended now have the opportunity to read and learn about how to support their children in recovering from emotional hurts.

Playful Parenting is now at the top of my recommended reading list. I am telling parents, child-care providers, teachers, and anyone who works with or loves families, “If you read only one book this year, let it be Lawrence J. Cohen’s Playful Parenting.” It is one of the very few books that I can endorse 100%. Parents who have taken my classes and then read Cohen’s book tell me they can’t believe we have never met because we say so many of the same things. We both remind parents that they need to get their own cups filled in order to keep filling their children’s cups. A night out to play will help fill your cup.