Parenting Through Play Starts in Infancy

Back in September 2011, this article of mine was posted at the Natural Parents Network. I’m reprinting it here for you now.

Parenting Through Play Starts in Infancy

One of the overarching values that guides my parenting is playfulness. Through my years as a nanny, everything was made a bit easier with an attitude grounded in play and lightheartedness, and I bring this sense of play to parenting as well. When I think of playfulness as a parenting technique, I’m not just thinking about the games and stories that will be useful years from now. Parenting through play starts in infancy. It has already started, even though Dylan is only 3 months old.

Taking a parenting action that might otherwise be stressful (for either of you), harsh, abrupt, or coercive and turning it into something funny or silly or gentle or cooperative makes your relationship that much more joyful. Keeping play in mind as a value reminds me that things don’t have to be stressful; they shouldn’t be stressful. We can enjoy one another instead.

I’ll give an example.

When Dylan was in the hospital, he used the jacket-style shirts, but when we got home the shirts I had for him went over his head. Right off the bat, he hated anything touching his head or going over his eyes. Putting a shirt on was stressful for him as he jerked his body trying to get away from the offending object, stiffened up his limbs, and made gasping faces. Putting a shirt on only took seconds, but I knew I didn’t want to continue with it being stressful for him. I’m going to put a gazillion shirts on him throughout his childhood, plus touch his head for so many other reasons, like cleaning or putting on hats. I didn’t want to set a pattern of head/face touching being a horrible thing he had to put up with, but I also wasn’t going to stop putting shirts on him.

Enter playfulness.

I started turning shirt-putting-on into a silly moment. I’d lightly touch his face with the shirt, make a silly noise, and pull it away before he could really react. I made it into the same game as the boop-your-nose game or tickle-your-tummy game, all sound effects and light touching. The first couple of times, he was still skeptical. I’d touch his face, make a sound, and pull away, repeat, and then make a different sound and slip the shirt over his head. He’d still be surprised, but not as much so when I’d just put the shirt on him out of nowhere. But these days, he loves the game. I scrunch the shirt up so I can see him through the neck-hole and he smiles at me in anticipation of my putting it on him.

This is such a small example of playful parenting. Maybe it seems like it’s too much work to figure out how to make something a game. But with an attitude of playfulness, the motions of play are fresh in my mind. Maybe it seems like play would take up too much time. But a few moments making something fun can save you many moments of sadness getting in the way later. Maybe it seems like any one example of an unwanted moment for your kid is insignificant, but those small moments add up to many, many moments over the life of your relationship.

Play keeps me centered on the truth that we are having a relationship. It’s not my job to just get a shirt over his head (or whatever other situation arises). It’s my job to give and take and learn and teach and give smiles and get smiles and have a good time while we’re spending our time together. With our relationship full of the joy of playfulness, we’re off to a good start.