Is child’s play just for children?

October 26, 2012

Over the last few months I have become increasingly interested in the issue of the loss of freedom in childhood today;  the lack of free play children engage in due to the rise of screen technology, the trend towards over-scheduling children into organised classes and activities, the introduction of homework in primary schools, an increase in traffic, and an increased fear of ‘stranger danger’. By free play, I mean children playing imaginatively and creatively, without adult supervision and direction, with each other or independently, and without the use of screens. I have written more about this here and here.

My conclusion is that this type of play is of vital importance to children and needs to be promoted, facilitated, and preserved. This is something I’ve started to feel increasingly strongly about.

Also of vital importance, however, is spending time with our children. Yes, we need to give them space, but there’s a balance to be struck here. A recent study reports shocking numbers of children saying that they wished they could spend more time with their parents, and shocking numbers of parents admitting to spending shockingly little time giving their children their full attention, and somehow I suspect that this is not due to the children spending too much time engaged in free play.

There are many different ways to spend time with our children. We can engage in activities like baking or cooking together, reading, or playing board games. But whilst these things all have their value, they can be quite restrictive, controlled and adult led. A more free, child-led play, however, has a special quality. When we play with children we are joining them in their world, meeting them at their level, on their territory. The value and benefits of simply playing together cannot be over-estimated.

Get to know you

One of the many ways I feel play benefits my relationship with my child is that it enables me to learn more about him, especially now that he’s at school and spending more hours away from me, but even before a child begins school, there is a lot going on in their heads that may surprise us, and playing can give us some real insight.

Imaginative, make-believe, role-play based games can be really fascinating. If I let my child come up with the ideas and lead the way I can learn what has made an impression on him, what has been going on at school, and what he is needing to process and is trying to understand. Play is a great way for me to help him do this. Play can help him work through issues, things that might have upset him, that he’s struggling to come to terms with. We can re-enact things like going to the doctor, or getting hurt in the playground.

Get rough

Rough and tumble is important play particularly for boys who use this type of play to bond with each other and play out aggression. For parents who find this type of play worrying, what better solution than to practice with your child? We can help teach them some basic rules and to figure out their own strength, and when they need to hold back or stop. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D, author of the fantastic book, Playful Parenting, has also co-authored a whole book on this one topic, The Art of Roughhousing.  In it he writes;

“Roughhousing is play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy. It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing. It is physical, and it promotes physical fitness, release of tension, and well-being. Roughhousing is interactive, so it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the floor and join them in their world of exuberance and imagination.”

Get some therapy

Play can even be used to help children with particular problems they might be having, as play therapists around the world will attest. Maybe your child needs a little bit of extra nurture, reassurance of their value and your love. Maybe they need some help giving up a little control, or practice following instructions or taking turns.

For more on this, see my previous post on Theraplay.

The single most valuable aspect of playing with our children though is simply bonding and connecting. Staying connected with our children is essential for successful parenting, and playing with them is one of the best ways to achieve this. Putting the household chores and everything else aside and giving a child our undivided attention also tells them how special and important they are to us. Just half an hour a day can make a world of difference.  Sure, kids need space, they need free play without adults muscling in or hovering, and they need to be able to play independently too, but the value and benefit, indeed, in my opinion, the necessity of playing with our children should not be forgotten.


Looking for discipline techniques that ‘work’? Forget it!

August 16, 2012

“If we don’t use rewards or punishments, what’s the alternative? What else can we use that works“.

I remember asking this question myself when I first began to make the shift in my attitude towards parenting. But the problem lies in the question itself. What do we mean by ‘works’?

Usually, I think we mean ‘get our children to do what we want, now’ or ‘Get a child to stop an unwanted behaviour, and sooner rather than later.’ So we’re measuring the success of a particular method by the immediate and perceivable outcome. Conventional discipline techniques like the naughty step are all about gaining obedience in the short-term. So when we ask, ‘What’s the alternative?’ I think we’re still too hung up on short-term obedience, or in finding ways to manipulate and change behaviour.

There are different strategies we can use to try to avoid power struggles and upsets, and gain cooperation. There are different ways we can respond when a child’s behaviour is unacceptable. But there are no quick fix solutions. We need to think long-term, and seek to guide our children into acceptable behaviour over time, not overnight. If, instead of looking for things that ‘work’ in the immediate term, we pay attention to the relationship, to being connected, and to meeting our child’s emotional needs, this in time will lead to fewer difficulties, and a fresher, more effective approach to the challenges we encounter – and often it’s a change in our own attitude, expectations, and approach that’s needed, rather than a change in our child’s behaviour.

Let go of control.

Too often we try to exert unnecessary levels of control over our children. Make sure there’s a good reason to say no. Often there is. But sometime it’s possible to come up with a compromise or solution that allows your child some autonomy. Save rules for things that really matter. Be mindful of safety without using it as an excuse. Respect a child’s need for what little freedom and autonomy we can afford them. Life as a young child is restrictive enough already.

Don’t be a helicopter or try to micro-manage. Step back a little and chill out. Allow that kids can be messy, forgetful, impulsive, and may not always like or enjoy what you expect them to.

Don’t expect, or even desire, blind and instant obedience.

Have realistic, age appropriate expectations.

Don’t expect a two-year-old to happily share toys with other children. Don’t expect a young child to follow you quietly round the supermarket without ever running in the aisles, attempting to touch anything on the shelves, or whining. Be reasonable, get real, and plan accordingly.

Furthermore, many unwanted behaviours will change over time as part of a child’s natural development, and don’t need to be interfered with by adults with “behaviour modification techniques”. Hitting will stop when a child develops greater impulse control and anger management. We can take steps to prevent it, step in quickly when it happens, gently teach and guide, but we can’t change things overnight.

Change the situation, not the child.

 “It takes a truly adaptive parent to sense the futility of harping on behaviour and to stop railing against what the parent cannot change……It takes a wise parent to focus on what the child is reacting to: the circumstances and situations surrounding the child.  In other words, a parent must first let go of trying to change the child.” Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D., “Hold On to Your Kids“.

Strive to prevent difficult behaviour from happening in the first place. If your child can’t manage certain situations, avoid them, or change them. Maybe they just can’t handle the supermarket. Can you shop online? Make it more fun for them? Leave them with dad and do it on a Saturday?

If something’s going wrong on a regular basis look at the circumstances surrounding it and for ways to change them.

Meltdown? Maybe they didn’t get enough one to one time with you today. Can you build some in tomorrow? Maybe they’re over-tired. Perhaps that after-school playdate wasn’t such a good idea. Every situation is different, and a different set of circumstances led to things turning out how they did. Things will go wrong sometimes. Learn from these without letting yourself or your child feel bad about it, and emerge stronger and wiser the next time.

Stay connected and give attention when it’s needed

“…I hate the phrase, “He was just looking for attention.” For years, the standard advice has been to ignore such behavior. I don’t get that. We don’t say, “He keeps asking for food, but just ignore him: he’s only saying that because he’s hungry.” We don’t say, “Your cup is empty; so I’ll make sure you don’t get a refill.” If someone is looking for attention that bad, I figure they must need some attention! If we give them enough of the good kind, they won’t be so desperate that they’ll settle for the bad kind”. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., “Playful Parenting”.

Forget the old philosophy of not rewarding ‘bad behaviour’ with attention. If your child is attention-seeking, give them some attention. Then give them some more the next day so they won’t have to resort to ‘bad’ behaviour to get it in the first place. Simple.

Difficult behaviours stem from disconnection. Staying connected with your child is the single, most effective way to avoid these.

It’s not discipline techniques we need, conventional or not. It’s the bigger picture, the whole approach and attitude to parenting as an ongoing journey. There are no short cuts. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to any given situation, to any particular child or particular behaviour or issue. We’d all love there to be a magic step-by-step procedure to stop our children hitting, to make them share with other children, to make them get ready for bed every night without any fuss . Programs like Supernanny would have us believe there is. But there isn’t.


Triggers

July 1, 2012

Crying over spilt milk? A broken stick? The fact that you cut the toast straight across instead of diagonally? Something that seems to you utterly ridiculous and unimportant?

Possibly. Probably not. Probably really crying about something else, more important, bigger, deeper. The spilt milk was just a trigger.

My child sometimes appears to get upset about something small, seemingly petty, then get really upset, disproportionately upset. Then I know there’s probably something bigger that’s bothering him. It might have been bothering him for some time. Maybe he couldn’t articulate it, maybe he thought he was OK about it. It’s probably been bubbling away under the surface for some time. The broken stick, or the ball not rolling in the right direction was just the final straw, the trigger. Then, once allowing those pent-up emotions to come out it’s a bit like a volcano that’s been waiting to erupt.

Adults do it too. Can you remember ever having a complete meltdown just because you dropped something?  That final thing that just tipped you over the edge? But you probably realised it wasn’t just the dropping something that you were crying about.

My child doesn’t always seem to realise this. So if I say, “I don’t think you’re really crying just about the stick” he becomes more upset and angry. “I am! I really wanted to play with that stick!” But sometimes, if I know what’s bothering him, it can help. It’s just a matter of feeling my way. “I wonder if you’re feeling sad that Granny & Grandad are leaving today”. If I’m right this can allow my child to admit and recognise these feelings, and then of course cry even more. But if I don’t know what’s bothering him, that’s OK too. Maybe he’s just tired and hungry after all. There’s not always really a need to say anything at all. He just needs me to be there for him,  and allow him to have a good cry so he can heal and move on.

My biggest temptation is usually to try to fix things, to say things that will make him feel better. “Never mind, we’ll see Granny and Grandad again soon”. But this isn’t what he needs, it isn’t helpful. He just needs me to validate his feelings and let him know they’re OK.  Another pitfall is to try to distract, cheer up, or worse, belittle or dismiss his feelings, not recognising that there’s more to it than just a broken stick.  Distractions may work in the short-term (although the older he gets the less likely this is), but it’s really just a delay tactic, and doesn’t allow him the time to fully deal with his feelings. It’s like putting a lid on a bubbling saucepan. If there’s something bubbling away under the surface it has to overflow eventually. Better to get it all out at once, in one big storm, than have a day of puzzling, difficult, disconnected behaviour.

Finally, I never send him away to cry, or threaten or bribe him to stop crying. The crying is annoying, but too often it gets treated as bad behaviour. When we threaten children into silence we are telling them that we don’t accept their feelings, and teach them to suppress them. When we ignore them we are telling them we don’t care.  This is not what they want to hear, and probably not really what we want to say.

Yes, I want him to stop crying, but the quickest way is always to allow things to run their course. When he’s finished he’s refreshed, and we’re connected, and both ready to move on. Happily.


The Treasure Box

May 9, 2012

When I was a child I had a scrap-book. In it I kept various souvenirs and mementoes. I thought this would be a nice thing to do with my own child, so I bought a scrap-book, then felt guilty ever after for not having got round to putting anything in it, and since my child hasn’t shown much interest, it has fallen by the wayside.

Then, someone told me about the treasure box. Rather like a scrap-book, but without any pesky sticking, and able to contain items of a shape and size other than very thin and flat, the treasure box is a place you can keep, well, anything you like.

First pair of shoes.

Favourite cot toy from babyhood.

Once favourite book now grown out of and cast aside.

Tickets from first train, plane, bus or boat ride, or any rides you like.

Random photos that people have given us and I was never quite sure what to do with.

Selected congratulations cards from when child was born.

Mementoes of special family events; an invitation to Grandad’s 70th birthday party, the birth of a cousin, a wedding….

Selected things my child has made that he was particularly pleased with and likely to remember.

Entry tickets from days out.

A pebble or shell from a day out at the beach.

Achievements; badges and certificates.

Select photos of milestone events – first started to walk, first mastered scooter/bike, first sleepover at Granny’s, first camping trip…….Nowadays we tend to store all our photos electronically, so opportunities to look through photos together, whilst still perfectly possible, just don’t present themselves as readily, so it’s nice to print some select ones out, for the treasure box or for the walls.

If you move house or redecorate you could keep scraps of the old curtains, wallpaper or carpet. It might sound a bit odd but think about your early childhood memories. Think of the home where you grew up. Think of the sights, smells and sounds that you experienced and still remember. Can you remember the colour of the curtains in your bedroom or the pattern on the wallpaper? What could you see from your bedroom window? What sounds did you fall asleep to? What else can you remember that sticks in your mind?  All these things, subconsciously at first, make us feel secure and attached.

But the treasure box is not just about attachment and security. It’s about celebrating your child’s life, their unique identity, and helping them build a positive sense of self.  It helps develop a sense of passing time and focusses on the many positive aspects of your child’s experiences. Plus, getting the treasure box out and spending some special time together looking through it and talking about it can be a wonderful connecting experience, and a very positive experience for your child.

What’s more, it’s something a child will really value in years to come. Every adult I’ve talked to about the treasure box says how much they’d love to have something like that from their childhood.

So decorate an old box today. Together.


Connection is the key.

May 2, 2012

Connection is about maintaining that close, loving, attuned relationship in which a child will feel secure and loved, and will thrive. This alone gives us something to constantly strive for. But there are also practical day-to-day benefits. Connection is the key to preventing and reducing unwanted behaviours, and to gaining cooperation. If my child is disconnected, this is when unwanted behaviour is likely to occur. We need to reconnect. This is why punitive responses to behaviour don’t work. They only widen that feeling of disconnection.

But what does connection mean exactly?

Lawrence Cohen, as usual, does a great job of describing this concept in “Playful Parenting”. He starts by describing that deep connection between babies and their parent, sometimes referred to as eye-love (we all remember those long periods of eye contact with our babies) then goes on;

“If all goes well, the eye-love between infants and parents is replaced by a less blissful, but still solid, connection. You and your child are able to talk or play or hang out easily together, enjoying each other, relatively in tune. These moments can be quiet times, like just before falling asleep, or active playtimes. The next level is a more casual connection, an unspoken bond that may be noticed only when it’s gone, replaced by conflict or distance. At the extreme are the most alienated types of disconnection. Disconnection can be a nightmare of painful isolation, withdrawal, and lashing out…….even normal, healthy children have moments when they lose that thread of connection. They retreat into towers of isolation when they feel lonely, afraid, or overwhelmed.”

How do I know when my child’s disconnected? It’s hard to describe exactly as it’s sometimes a subtle change like avoidance of eye contact, feigned lack of interest in my offers of closeness, an extra jumper or a snack. But often it’s obvious; loud, out of control, slightly crazy behaviour, and at worst, lashing out, either physically, verbally, or just by doing things calculated to enrage.

The more I observe these behaviours, the more likely I am to be able to predict when they might happen, and so take steps to prevent it happening in the first place. So, often I’ll make a point of reconnecting before any difficult behaviour starts, like at school pick up time, or any other time we may have been separated, not just by school, but maybe because he’s just been busy playing outside with his friends all morning.

Sometimes we just need a ‘quick connect’, like a quick high-five, or a joke and a giggle together, or a special something that only the two of us know about. Anything that involves giggling and/or eye contact nearly always works.  Giving a quick passing hug or a kiss usually doesn’t – he needs to be engaged with it, accepting of it.

Sometimes we need to have a longer period of one to one time together, usually playing, especially rough and tumble play that involves lots of physical contact, but also imaginary play that will often bring out things that might be troubling him.

Sometimes, I’ll need to insist on reconnection – in other words, I don’t accept rejection. Children need to know we’re always there for them and that we love them no matter what. Whilst there might be times when they really do need to be alone for a while, and I actually find these are rare, shouts of ‘Go away’ are often a test to see if we really will go, or if we love them enough to stay even when they’re behaving horribly towards us.

Many little things throughout the day can cause that connection to be strained or broken – failing to empathise with something he got upset about, a few harsh words or a betrayal of annoyance and impatience, a disagreement about whether he’s allowed to do or have such and such. Having a handful of ways to reconnect and incorporating these into our day-to-day interactions can help stop things getting out of hand.

One connection technique I sometimes use with my child is challenging him to look constantly into my eyes while we both count to ten. It’s become a bit of a game, and usually gets a bit of a giggle, as well as some eye contact. I’ve always thought the success of it was somewhat varied until the other day. He did something that really annoyed me (I won’t bore you with the details of what it was, it was a silly thing really in hindsight) and I made my annoyance very clear. He said sorry, then put both arms round me and said “Mummy, we need to connect, let’s look into each other’s eyes.”

So we looked into each other’s eyes and counted to ten.

Priceless.


Unpunished

April 18, 2012

I don’t punish my child for his behaviour. I haven’t done for a few years now. Before I made this shift in my approach and attitude I would have thought these statements sounded extreme. But now I often find myself reflecting on how I actually never feel the need to punish. My child presents his fair share of challenging behaviour, yet strangely I never find myself wishing I could dish out a punishment, or having to remind myself not to. The less you punish, the less you need to punish. Punishment only makes behaviour worse.  I was commenting on this to my husband last night, then suddenly remembered that earlier that evening my child had hit out at me. Surely this would be considered by many to be punishable behaviour. Yet it never occurred to me at the time, and reflecting on it afterwards, I’m still quite certain that it was right not to punish.

My child had been at school all day. When he came home, after a snack, he said he wanted to play ‘rugby on the bed’ with me. This is his name for playing rough and tumble, and one of our main ways of reconnecting with each other. We had a lovely play and a giggle together for a few minutes, then he heard voices, looked out of the window and saw his friends from next door playing outside. He immediately announced that he wanted to go outside and play with them, but with a hint of regret at ending the time we were having together. I commented that we could always have another play later, and off he went.

There was never an opportunity to resume our rough and tumble play that evening for one reason or another. When I announced it was bath-time my child started bouncing on the bed – a clear and common indication of his intention to be uncooperative. Being accustomed to these tactics, and having various means of dealing with them, I was unphased until he started hitting out at me. His hits were more like swipes, reminiscent of the warning swipe a cat might give with her claws retracted. There was no intention to hurt, but there clearly was the  intention to communicate something.

“No hitting”.

He continued.

“No hitting” – this time gently taking hold of his hands. I knew there was something wrong, and I had a pretty good idea what it was.

When he was calm we talked.

“Are you sad that it’s bath-time?”

“Yeeeees”, came the sad cry.

“Do you feel like we haven’t had enough time to play together?”

“Yeeeees”.

“Tomorrow I’m picking you up from school early so we’ll have all afternoon”, then realising this was trying to fix things and not validating the feelings he was experiencing right now in that moment, “We were playing rugby on the bed then you went outside to play with your friends, and we never got a chance to play again”.  A cuddle.  “Let’s get ready for your bath really quick so we’ll have time for some extra books tonight”.

A minute later he was playing happily in the bath.

Did he ‘get away’ with hitting? Was a punishment required to ‘teach’ him that hitting is wrong?  I think not. He knows hitting is wrong. That’s why he was doing it. He was doing wrong because he was feeling wrong inside and couldn’t quite find the words to tell me about these feelings.  He may not even have been sure exactly what those feelings were or what gave rise to them. He may have felt angry at me when he realised the day was nearly over and we had not had enough one to one time together.

I reminded him “No hitting” and gently enforced that limit. I then helped him process the feelings that had given rise to the behaviour. That is all that was needed. If I had responded by putting him in a timeout, or saying ‘no books tonight’, giving him a ‘sad face’ sticker on a chart, or come up with some other parent imposed ‘consequence’ would this make him less likely to hit again? Absolutely not. If anything it would make his behaviour worse. He would feel bad about himself, angrier with me, and more disconnected from me (the very issue that caused the behaviour in the first place), and the opportunity for me to help him process those feelings would have been lost.

He lost control. He did wrong. He’s a kid and he’s not perfect. I’m not going to punish him for that. I will, however, be more mindful of incorporating one to one time into our days. My child is not the only one with lessons to learn here.

Punishment does not teach. Empathy, understanding, and love teaches volumes and equips children emotionally to deal with their feelings and problems in a more mature way.


Theraplay activities – Nurture

March 27, 2012

Following on from my post about Theraplay, this post looks in more detail at one of the four different dimensions of Theraplay – Nurture. 

The purpose of the nurture activities are to reinforce the message that the child is worthy of care, and will receive care without having to ask.  So it’s very much about building self-esteem, as well as your attachment relationship, and helping to make your child feel safe and loved.  If you feel your child’s self esteem needs a boost (and they can never get too much in my opinion), that they seem particularly needy, or you just feel you need to reconnect in a loving and caring way, these types of activities could be helpful. If your child is rejecting your attentions and care, these activities can help re-establish your role as caregiver if you take small steps at a time. Remember, also, that connection is the key to eliminating challenging behaviour.

There are many nurture activities. For some of them you’ll want to set aside some uninterrupted time, but others are so simple that it’s more a case of making them a natural part of your daily interactions with your child. 

The activities below are just a small selection of some of my favourites. 

Manicure

Wash your child’s hands or feet in a basin of warm soapy water. Gently dry them and massage them with lotion, then paint their nails. You can keep it simple, or do lots of different colours – your child can choose them.  My son is very pleased with his multi-coloured toe nails. He also enjoyed choosing the colours at the market stall where we bought the nail polish. 

This activity required him to sit still for some time, which brings in an element of challenge for some children. Keep talking to your child as you paint, and finish off by reading books together while the nails dry. 

Caring for hurts

Check your child’s hands, arms, legs etc for scratches or bruises. Give them magic kisses. Rub magic cream, lotion or powder on or around hurts. If your child won’t let you, try just gently touching hurts with a cotton ball, or blowing or giving elephant kisses. (kiss your fist, make an elephant trunk shaped gesture, then plant the fist on your child). You can follow up by checking for healing next time. 

Face painting

Paint flowers and hearts on cheeks or make the child up like a princess. Moustaches and beards are fun for boys. If you’re short of time or just can’t face the mess today, use a small paint brush, wet or dry, or your finger, to pretend, describing their wonderful cheeks, lovely eyebrows and so on. Make your child feel special! 

Twinkle song

Adapt the words of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to be about your child. “…what a special boy you are. Dark brown hair and soft, soft cheeks, big blue eyes from which you peek…” Try to make eye contact, or cradle in your arms like a baby. If there are two adults present you can spread a blanket on the floor, lie your child down on it, then lift up the corners and swing them in it like a hammock.  If you really think your child needs, and will accept, some ‘babying’, you can finish by swaddling them in the blanket and giving them a drink from a bottle or lidded cup.

For children who, for a number of possible reasons, may have had a difficult time during infancy, these activities are intended to help fill the gaps and provide the experiences they may have missed out on when they were younger.  But for all children, self-esteem and a strong connection with their parents is of such importance that I really don’t think you can over-do it!  So give your child some extra nurturing today!