Saturday, December 22, 2007

Fall Into Reading--Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen

Wow, I really, really needed this book. Parenting was starting to feel like a trudge for me, with two rambunctious boys with interests that often seemed to diverge completely from mine. But "Larry," as he refers to himself throughout the book, reminded me the most critical job of parenting is to "only connect." He provided plenty of examples of how to be silly, which I truly felt like I'd forgotten, tucked away under the "protecting them from themselves" jobs of mothering. Some of the strategies helped diffuse what could have been confrontational situations. (For example: My older son started using a plastic dinosaur to "attack" startled little brother out of the blue. "EEEEK!" Mommy [me] yelled. "It's a dinosaur! Let's get out of here!" and I bolted from the playroom. It was then older son's turn to be startled, then, with a giggle in his voice, saying kindly, "No, no, Mommy, it's just a toy, see? There's nothing to be afraid of." This was nothing short of a miracle.) Others I have a lot of trouble with--especially his "you can't beat them so you might as well join them and redirect when you can" attitude about violence/gun play with boys (or Barbies for girls).

The metaphor he uses most often is that of children as having "emotional cups" that need "filling" with connections with others, mostly through play. When a child's cup is low, they have a harder time behaving well. The cup gets filled by good experiences, fun times, and love. The cup is depleted by disappointment and isolation. It's a powerful image, and something that resonated with me was when he pointed out, "It drives me crazy when people say, 'Oh, he's just doing that because he wants attention. Leave him alone.' Does anyone say, 'Oh, he's just doing that because he's hungry. Don't feed him'?" He gave me tools for hopping in to "bad" play patterns and disrupting them in to more acceptable ones, or steering in to more mutually enjoyable activities (for example, I'm trying to read to the boys more during the day, not just at night).

Other times, he was able to shed light on some patterns; our older son cannot stand to lose anything, plus he turns everything in to a race. But he also whines so much about wanting to win the race-of-the-moment that he ends up handicapping himself--while he is still yelling about needing to put his shoes on, his baby brother is out the door, which ruins his day. Larry writes about what competition and winning might represent to the child, and when and how they might want and need to win, and how to model losing for them. He also gives strategies for figuring out whether a child needs not only to win, but to win easily, or to win by earning it, or whether he might really just want the fun of a game.

But his best chapter, in my book (ha ha), was the last. In the last chapter, Larry gets to the idea that parents have "cups" that need filling too, and unless ours are full, we will struggle to fill our children's. We fill our cups with kid snuggles too, but also by talking with other parents, reconnecting with spouses, and doing things for ourselves. That sounds obvious, and like something I've been doing to some extent, between Mothers & More, the job, etc., but it made a lot of sense to me all of a sudden: I have great friends but few (between jobs, their own kids, and time zones) that I can just call to vent for five minutes as my own "time out." So I need to find some other way to let off some steam and refill my own cup in day to day ways.

I won't pretend it's been easy. And I can't shrug him off, because I realize that where Playful Parenting isn't working is where I am too much of a stiff, no-fun grownup to do the things he suggests that might make a difference. But little by little, his strategies are teaching me new ways to deal with my sons in a happier fashion, which makes a little loss of dignity a fine tradeoff. It's an easy book to read, and a tough one to put in practice. Or at least it is for me--which tells me that I really need it. For anyone who admires those parents who just "get" kids and connect with them easily and wants to nurture that in themselves, I highly recommend this book. It has certainly earned a permanent spot on our shelves.

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