Monday, June 16, 2008

Playful Parenting, with a side of Wish Books

In an earlier post I mentioned the parenting books I have started reading for some reason. I'm about one third of the way through the book Playful Parenting, by Lawrence Cohen. My usual way of reading books is to pick three or four of them and start reading them all more or less at the same time, so that I have different books going to fit my reading mood. So I started with the no-cry discipline solution, but I only got about one chapter in before I was snoozing. I will probably read the book, but I'll say that it didn't grab my attention right away and hold it. It sort of reinforced my feeling about reading parenting books in the first place, which is..."Well, DUH." I start to feel like, "Why am I reading this again? I know how to be a parent."

So the no-cry discipline solution was relegated to the bathroom, where I will honestly read anything, even the shampoo bottles. Although I have not yet been able to read any of David's catalogs. WARNING: Total off-topic tangent, but wtf is with men (people, I guess...I shouldn't make a stereotype just based off of my husband, brother, and five hundred male students I've had, I guess) and spending inordinate amounts of time reading catalogs??? Like, I understand the appeal of a catalog when you're trying to choose something to buy. Maybe you need to make a big purchase, so you start looking around, comparing prices and features. Then you make a choice and you're done. But David will spend hours, weeks, months even poring over catalogs for things that, at least to my knowledge, he has no intention of buying. Camera gear is a huge one. He gets these massively huge doorstops from B&H Photo, and he dog-ears them until the very day the new one arrives. And then it's guns, and target shooting equipment. Remember the Sears Wish Book that you'd mark up with all of your Christmas desires? I guess it's just a continuation of this? Maybe he's hoping that one day I'll see one of these catalogs lying there on an end table and start paging through it. "What's this?" I'll say. "Look at this amazing spotting scope, this terrific telephoto lens, with the circles around them. Why, and look at this advertisement for the Red Ryder BB gun with the compass in the stock. I'll just place my order right now!" Whew. That was quite the tangent. I've got to go and refill my coffee, and then maybe I'll be mentally ready to nail down my thoughts so far on Playful Parenting.

As I've been reading this book, I've been chatting with David all about my thoughts on what I read. The poor guy--I do this with almost every book I read, especially non-fiction. Sometimes I'm sure he wishes he could just NOT be in school for once, but I can't help it. I learn more about things when I discuss it with others. So a few of the things that I have learned from this book so far is that a lot of conflict and crises can be averted in your life with small people by lightening up. I think sometimes we worry (okay, we meaning I) that if I let go a little bit when Jabber and I are power struggling, if I "give in to him," then all chaos will reign, and I will have a little monster on my hands. Rationally, I know from teaching that things work a lot more smoothly when I am willing to joke and laugh with young people--they are more willing to go along with my methods and needs when they see me as someone not afraid to be silly. And we all have more fun in the process. But somehow in parenting my children, this is harder. The stakes are higher, I guess, because these are my small people. I don't get to send these kids home to other people, don't get to blame other factors for their faults.

Another thing that made sense about what Cohen is saying in this book is his metaphor for attachment: a cup that needs filling, a parent as a reservoir. He uses this metaphor to describe various ways that children behave, depending on the state of this invisible cup. This way of thinking has given me a new way of looking at behavior. Jabberwock is an intense child, full of anxieties and dramatics. I feel that our attachment is quite secure, but I know that the arrival of his baby brother 18 months ago has changed something about our ability to connect with each other. There are times when I have found myself at my wits end with him because he's bouncing off the walls, unlistening, and seriously doing everything it seems humanly possible to annoy me. Maybe I can accept Cohen's assertion that what he is really doing is running low on attachment, running around freaking out because his cup is getting low, and in the process sloshing out anything that was left in the bottom. Whatever the case, the current strategy isn't working. We both end up frustrated, and the behavior doesn't stop either.

Reading this book, I get the idea that Cohen, as a psychologist working with play therapy, sees kids that have a lot more difficulties than the average child. From his intense assertions about the importance of play for children to work through all of their aggressions, insecurities, and feelings of disconnection, you can kind of get the idea that children are awfully delicate, at risk for damage, as though they will certainly be screwed up forever if you don't play with them. Getting beyond this sentiment, I started to use some of the strategies with my intense little Jabberwock, and found that it really did make our lives a lot more fun.

An example: Jabber is fearful of heights, moving too fast, and other situations where he feels physically out of control. He is thrilled by a little bit, but it quickly becomes too intense for him, and then he starts to panic. His body becomes rigid with fear, and he forgets to breathe. He got this way on his Grammy's swingset just yesterday, while we were at a Father's Day picnic. Although he has played on a swing many times, this was sufficiently different for him to scare him silly. He was playing with his friend J, a boisterous girl who is a year and a half older than him and fearless and bossy. They wandered off to the swing set alone, and I followed them over when I saw that, while J was gleefully swinging and laughing and acting crazy, Jabberwock was hanging by himself on the edge of the scene, looking doubtful and apprehensive. According to Cohen, this is the place for the parent to join the play, helping the child figure out how to connect.

So I convinced Jabber to get into the smaller swing, the one with a seatbelt like a baby swing. Instead of standing behind him to push him, like I usually do, and leaving him to face his fears alone, I got in front of him, like I do with the baby. "When you were a baby, Jabber, this is how I would push you on the swings. Let's pretend you're the baby and I'm your mom." Then I started to push him gently, and he started to get anxious. "When you were a baby, I'd pretend I was a monster and grab your toes, like this...Gotcha!" I repeated this game a couple of times while he giggled and seemed a little more comfortable in the swing. Slowly, I pushed him a little bit harder.

We continued on like this for a bit, and when the swing was really starting to cook, Jabber became nervous again. "Mom, slow it down!" he said. Normally, my response would have been to immediately help him slow the swing down, help him feel comfortable again, because he was saying that he was nervous, and I didn't know how to help him "get over it" any other way.

"All right, I'll slow you down, just a sec," I said, moving in toward his feet again. But I wondered, if maybe he really wanted to enjoy himself in the middle of this risky business but didn't quite know how to dissipate his nervous feeling. So instead of actually slowing him down, as soon as one of his feet touched me, I made an exaggerated motion backwards and yelled, "WHOA! You almost knocked me over, you're going so fast." He began to giggle, so I kept on playing. (Cohen talks about this game in the book; I had just read it on the drive up. When I read about it, I didn't really ever imagine myself doing it, just to let you know.) "Hang in there!" I shouted. "I'm trying to slow you down!" Again, I flew backward, fake screaming and flailing my arms, as soon as his feet lightly touched me. Jabber's giggling escalated, and all the rigidness of his nervousness disappeared.

"Again, Mom! Try to stop me again!"

This looked like so much fun, that fearless girl J decided she needed in on the action. She grabbed the back of Jabber's swing and started pushing him very wildly and erratically, yelling, "Now try and slow him down! He's going SUPER fast now!" I watched Jabber carefully, but he was still having fun. I continued to fly backward and do silly hand motions, wheeling backwards comedically with every "push." J. tired of pushing and jumped on another swing, calling out for me to push her, too. I told her I was going to try to take off her shoe, and she squealed happily. The swingset was shaking with their laughter.

As usual, though, I started to tire of the game well before the kiddos did. But the purpose was achieved. I gave Jabber one final push, and then on the next swing through, I not only flew backward but took it the next step and "fell" down onto the ground. Monkey happened to be making his way across the yard at that point, and like usual a body on the ground is a body that needs to be tackled, so he started off at a run toward me. When he landed on me with a fit of giggles, Jabberwock decided that he wanted a part of the action. Without a trace of fear, he threw off the belt on his still-moving swing and jumped down to the ground to tackle me. Earlier, he had claimed that he was afraid of falling out of the swing.

This is a tiny little "victory," but later that evening Jabber told his other grandma that she really should have a swingset for her grandchildren, so it seems like he has realized a new enjoyment of swinging.

This kind of goofiness is not always my first response to having my buttons pushed, but at least I can practice using this "playful parenting" at times when the stakes are not so high. Already I've tried being playful in a couple of other situations where normally I might take to nagging, like when Jabber kept sticking his toes under the edge of the rug, curling it up. What was on the tip of my tongue was to say, "Excuse me? What have I told you fifty thousand times about sticking your toes under the rug?" in an annoyed tone of voice. Not pleasant, and pretty much shaming him because as a four-year-old he has trouble controlling his impulses. So I controlled my own impulses for a second and thought of something different. Putting on a silly voice, I cried out, "Hey! That tickles! Get your stinky toes away from me!" He got the point, and giggled a little, too. Granted, he did stick his toes under twice more, looking for more of the rug voice, but then I said in my normal voice, "Hey, it sounds like the rug doesn't like it when you do that, doesn't it?" He smiled and stopped "tickling" the rug. Then he said, "Anyway that makes the edge curl up, and you don't like it." Exactly!

1 comment:

cowpops said...

You are an amazing mom.