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Okay, I have found my new all-time favourite parenting book.

This is one of those books that make you want to run around, handing it to people you know whose parenting makes you wince, and handing it to people whose parenting is already awesome.

Because Playful Parenting is AWESOME.

The author, Lawrence Cohen, is a Psychologist specializing in play therapy.

He talks a lot about why children act out, and how to deal with it, and of course, being a play therapist, his methods of dealing with child behavior problems involve using play.

So first off, the book is full of fun ideas and advice on how to play well with your kid and WHY you should play with your kid.

I love some of his ideas – like, if your kid is obsessed with guns take to dying dramatically and enfolding the kid in a hug on your way down.

Or (and he mentions this one several times) if you’re having trouble getting the kid to do something, get them to pretend they are doing the exact same thing.

“My daughter said to me, when I was very frustrated with her, “Let’s pretend you’re the dad and I’m the daughter and you’re mad at me.” 

I know that would work, because I remember as a kid how much I loved pretending to do totally mundane things. But in the real world it was work, whereas in my world, it was play.

His advice makes a lot of sense, and follows advice I have read in attachment parenting books like The Parent/Baby game – follow the child’s lead, rather than directing the play too much, because after all, whose game is this, yours or the child’s?

But it’s more than that.

The book is WISE.

When discussing attachment theory, he uses the metaphor of a cup to show how all people need to feel loved and valued.

When our “cup” is full, we are happy and able to spread love and care to others. When our “cup” is empty, we act out, don’t show empathy to others and so on.

Children who are feeling “empty” may try to fill their cups by demanding negative attention, taking things from other children, whining, being clingy, and so on.

It’s a great metaphor.

We can all think of at least one person we know who bullies others and behaves badly when really they are secretly suffering from some serious lack of love in their life.

The book also totally re-framed the way I view Owl’s play.

He claims that children deal with their problems in play by using role reversal to put themselves in the other person’s place.

Role Reversal helps the child deal with the challenges in their lives while giving them a much needed break from the bleakness of reality.

A three year old gets a shot at the doctor’s office. She comes home, and what game does she want to play?

Doctor, of course.

And who does she want to be? The doctor or nurse, the giver of the shot – definitely NOT the patient. And who does she want to give it to?

Well, her first choice is a parent or another adult. If no one is available she might use a stuffed animal or doll. And how does she want the game to go?

She wants you to pretend to howl and say, “No, no, no, please don’t give me a shot. I hate shots! No, no, no,” and act as if you are in an agony of pain and terror.

Now, I was a very imaginative child, and play (usually solitary) was a huge part of my childhood, so I feel like an idiot for not knowing this instinctively. But I didn’t, until I read that and went “OH MY GOD THAT’S TRUE.”

We pretend to be what we are not.

After all, as a well behaved and rule-abiding child, what kind of a personality did I always want to pretend to be? Why, a rule breaking little mischief maker.

And even as an adult, I have noticed that in Dungeons and Dragons games, short people have tall characters, lawful people have chaotic characters and so on.

And yet, if I hadn’t read that book, I would have spent needless hours worrying that Owl was a sadist when he came home and wanted to play that vaccination game with me.

Dr. Cohen makes it clear that when we play with our kids, we should be the weak and powerless ones, because our kids’ play-world is a bizarro version of the real one.

If we want to be powerful in this world, we give our kids the power in the other. And that makes sense to me now.

Not to mention that when we play with our children, we teach them how the big should play with the small.

And how do I think Owl should play with someone littler than him – by ordering the little one around, or by graciously following the baby’s lead?

On Owl’s second birthday, a friend of mine played a game with Owl where he pretended to hit her, and she pretended to fall down.

I didn’t stop it, but I worried that he was learning that it was fun to hit people.

But now I realize that he understood it was a game, and just loved the illusion of power.

Furthermore, I am teaching him that pretending to let a smaller person push him over is a nice way to play, and how adorable would it be if he let his future little brother or sister pretend to push him over again and again?

If it would be cute for him to play with a younger sibling, why shouldn’t I play it with him?

I have since played that same game with Owl, and he laughs hysterically every time, and it has not resulted in aggressive behavior in other scenarios.

Even at two, he understands the difference between reality and let’s-pretend. 

I also notice that he wants to play that game the most when he and I have been disconnected in some way – when I come to pick him up from daycare for a while.

Maybe he takes out a subconscious anger at me for leaving him. All I know is he has a great time and then he lets me put on his shoes, both of which are pluses in my books.

But even with that wonderful duh-I-knew-that insight into Owl’s imagination, this book is full of other kinds of wisdom.

For example, you might think that this book endorses indulgent parenting. After all, he’s encouraging us to let our kids literally push us over!

But he talks a lot about how important it is to have firm boundaries.

Behold, the wisest paragraph I have ever read:

The extremes that adults go to in order to stop tears and tantrums reveal a surprising similarity between abusive parents and overindulgent parents.   Abusive parents often punish children harshly for tears or tantrums, because the can’t stand to hear them.  At the other end of the parenting spectrum, overly indulgent families often give children their own way in order to prevent them from crying or tantruming.  Again, the adult can’t stand the sound of it, but instead of lashing out they bend over backward to avoid an upset.

I bet a lot of you went “YES!” at that.

That one paragraph says in a few eloquent sentences what I tried to convey with my long winded diatribe on attachment theory, and why permissive parenting is NOT the same thing.

He also gives some poignant examples of children who were completely out of control and were desperate for some boundaries. When a therapist came in and physically stopped one child from hitting others, the child melted down into tears and confessed how frustrated he felt that the other kids didn’t like him.

Cohen also touches on fathers, and their common inability to deal with a crying baby.

He says it all goes back to the way people tend to dismiss a boys’ tears more quickly than a girl’s tears. Whole generations of men have been raised to “suck it up”, and were never encouraged to play at nurturing behaviors, like caring for dolls.

Untrained in nurturing, men feel helpless. And most men hate to feel helpless.

{….}My friend Michael and I started a fathers’ group when our children were a few months old.

{…} When the children were infants, many of the fathers would leap up and race home with the babies as soon as they started to cry. They thought they had to get them to their mothers to nurse. I had to wean the fathers off this, if you will excuse the pun, and explain that babies cry for many other reasons besides hunger (most of these babies had nursed right before the group anyway). And, even more important, the fathers were missing out on a great joy of fathering: holding a crying baby as he or she releases all those feelings – the only way a baby knows how to talk – and then settles down in our arms. These men had all held their babies more in the first few months than their own fathers had held them their whole lives, but they still couldn’t stand to hold a crying baby.

Perfect Husband is among those men who can’t stand to hear a baby cry.

He did not tolerate Owl’s colic well, and was deeply relieved when Owl developed the ability to explain himself. He doesn’t seem to mind listening to Owl in a tantrum if he knows why the tantrum is happening.

Dr Cohen also has a whole chapter on how girls need to be empowered and boys need to be taught empathy and kindness.

I was thinking of picking a book on raising boys to be emotionally literate, but now I don’t need to, because I have this book, which I thought would simply have some good game ideas.

This book that not only struck me again and again with uncommon wisdom and “DUH!” moments, but which got me even more excited for all the games I will play with Owl some day.

A lot of Owl’s games bore me right now.

But it’s okay! He doesn’t even guilt you into thinking you should enjoy playing with your kid more. He has a whole chapter on how to deal with the fact that playing with your kid bores you to tears.

Best. Book. Ever.

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