Toddler girl smiling at dinner table

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One of my favorite parenting strategies is one that is easy to forget — playful engagement. It’s easy to see why. We spend so much time focused on correcting our kid’s behaviors that we don’t spend enough time connecting with them. Who has time for play when the goal is behavior modification? We want obedience. We want compliance. What we should want instead is connection and healing. Changed behaviors are the result of connection, not the cause of it.

One of our parenting defaults is to navigate to compliance using the path of least resistance. Sure, that sounds appealing on the face of it, but parenting isn’t about finding the path of least resistance. It isn’t an exercise in efficiency. It’s about training and healing. It’s about letting our kids know that they are safe and that they can trust us.

We can get so fixated on resolving an issue that we lose sight of using it as an opportunity to empower our kids and build greater connection with them. Because if we are honest we would rather have things resolved quickly than take the time to resolve them correctly. I think that engaging our children usually requires more than one strategy, so we have to be well-versed in what’s in our toolbox. Some of my best moments as a parent happen when I’m flexible and willing to think on my feet. They happen when I use different strategies instead of just going with the first thing that comes to mind.

That’s why I love playful engagement so much. It’s an easy thing to add to another strategy or two and it forces us to be in control of our own emotions. It requires us to self regulate. One of the ways that we can keep things from escalating is by being in control of what we bring to the situation.

Try Using an Accent

My six-year-old daughter is someone with big emotions. I have heard her say “This is the worst day ever” in response to me asking her to unload the dishwasher. It’s easy to respond in big emotional ways to her, but that doesn’t help her at all. One of the ways that I keep myself in check when dealing with her is to engage her playfully. Sometimes I won’t respond to her using dad voice or conversational voice, I will respond using an accent.

One of her favorites is my cockney accent.

If I can get her laughing then I can move her from a right brain emotional flood. So I engage her playfully with my accent and she laughs and connection is established. Once we have connected we can start using strategies like re-do’s and compromises and other things that give her voice.

Make it a Game

We recently had dinner with some members of our family and our two-year-old daughter was refusing to eat her dinner. She got to the point where she wasn’t going to eat another bite. She told us that she was done eating and that she wanted dessert.

Let the battle commence.

Watching an adult negotiate with a two-year-old can be funny. Many adults believe they can reason with an emotional child and that if they can just explain things with enough clarity everything will be fine. I find that the more logic and reason an adults applies to a situation the more dis-regulated the two-year-old becomes.

Here’s the deal that was offered to her. She was told that she needed to eat two more bites of her chicken before she could get any dessert. Her response was a simple and emphatic “No!”

After watching this scene play out for a few minutes, I went to my daughter and told her that if she fed me some of her food I would eat it for her. She picked up a piece of chicken and as she was about to put it in her mouth I said to her “If you feed then daddy’s going to feed you a bite.” She laughed and allowed me to feed her a piece of chicken as soon as I started chewing the piece she fed me. But the story doesn’t stop there, she then picked up a spoonful of rice and try to feed it to me as well. So I reciprocated. Two minutes later her plate was empty.

Instead of making dinner a battleground we made it a game. She ate her dinner without incident because we had engaged her playfully.

You can’t connect with a child who is dis-regulated or stuck. You have to move them to a place where they can receive the correction and to do that you have to establish a connection. One way to create that connection is to engage them playfully.

When your child is drowning in a right brain emotional flood, you’ll do yourself (and your child) a big favor if you connect before you redirect. – The Whole-Brain Child, Siegel & Bryson

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