Playful Parenting is a way to enter a child's world, on the child's terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence, and connection."
-Lawrence Cohen, "Playful Parenting"

Chances are, you don't always enjoy playing with your child - especially when you are busy, tired or the imagination game she likes to play isn't your idea of fun. It can be hard to let go of your to-do list and play even for ten minutes.

However, embracing play and humor can foster positive changes in your child's behavior. As any good preschool teacher will tell you, play is child's work, and its benefits extend into adulthood and go beyond simply having fun. Play is a crucial aspect of cognitive, physical and emotional development, and necessary for maintaining strong relationships and emotional well-being.

Lawrence Cohen, a clinical psychologist and the author of "Playful Parenting" (2001) and "The Art of Roughhousing" (2011), points out some specific uses of play, including supporting learning and emotional processing, releasing stress hormones, promoting self-soothing and providing deep connection to others.

Being a more playful parent can also help put an end to power struggles, invite cooperation and teach responsibility and encouragement. All you need is a willingness to adopt a more playful attitude in responding to your child. Singing a goofy song instead of repeating a chore request, for example, works wonders - even with an aloof teenager.

Here are some situations in which humor and play can pack a positive parenting punch:

When a child wants attention or is clingy

When a child is nagging or interrupting you, try saying, "Oh! Are you out of hugs? How awful!" Then, give her a big bear hug, holding her tightly until she starts to squirm away. Grab her hand and say, "Wait! I think you have a hug leak! Let's plug it." Give her a kiss to plug it and then say, "OK, one last squeeze to make sure your tank is full." Make this a regular practice and soon, when your child is feeling lonely or bored, she will ask for the "hugging game," rather than whining.

When a child is resistant

Instead of falling back on reminders, yelling and threats, do the unexpected to defuse the situation. Sing about the morning routine in a melodramatic, operatic voice with horrible pitch to get some laughs. Offer to arm wrestle before it's time to do the dishes to see who will wash the dirtiest pot (and mostly, let your child win). Get the blood flowing to your child's brain (and yours) by turning the tables on that game of cat and mouse: "Oh yeah? You think you're a fast runner? I bet you can't catch me!" Let her capture you and then demand a rematch, chasing her to the tub and rewarding her victory with hugs. It gives the child permission to express her feelings while learning to work through them. Play this game one day a week and you'll probably get more cooperation on the other six.

When a child is being disrespectful

When a child is sassy, resist the urge to "correct" her. The child knows her comment is rude and your shocked, hurt or angry response only gives her behavior more power. Instead of a response such as, "That's not respectful," Cohen suggests creating a "bridge of connection" by saying something like, "What!? How did you find out that "Stinky Butt-head" was my secret name?" Or, "You hate me? Those are fighting words! I challenge you to … a love battle! Get your pillow!" Start a pillow fight (below the neck) or use a feather duster to duel. Wrestle to the ground and let the child claim physical victory while you claim love-sickness. Humor reduces the power of the child's inappropriate behavior and sends an important and reassuring message, "I love you. I can handle your strong feelings and will help you learn to manage them, too." The physical play sidesteps the backtalk and helps both parties self-regulate. This keeps the door open for respectful communication moving forward.

In families with multiple-aged children or when there's sibling rivalry, Cohen recommends playing games together when possible. Try active games such as Pictionary or Charades, use fun conversation topics at meals or play overlooked team sports (badminton, anyone?) If a child generally doesn't handle losing well, Cohen suggests that a parent play with that child privately and repeatedly, using role reversal. The parent loses sorely yet humorously, without making fun of the child. This can help her come to terms with the experience of losing in a non-threatening way.

When children struggle with self-regulation or focus

Adults often fear allowing young children who get "over-excited" to play rough, thinking their high emotions will escalate. However, Cohen makes an important point, "You can't learn to settle down if you never get revved up!" So, help your child gain practice through physical play. Block the sofa and challenge her to get to it by plowing through you. Over time, modulate your strength to give her more of a challenge.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan, renowned professor of psychiatry, behavioral science and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School and creator of the "Floortime Approach," recommends that parents play games with children to strengthen attention. For example, tell a child to do jumping jacks or any activity with repetitive movement, followed with quick changes of direction, such as, "Run in place for ten seconds. Now go faster. Go slower. Super slow. Now go right. Hop on one foot!"

Then, explicitly and playfully practice calming techniques together. Say, "Okay, it's time for us to slow our engines. Let's walk slowly around the room and take deep breaths. Okay, now stop. Close your eyes. Breathe slowly - in and out. 1-2-3. Phew! That was fun!"

Use play to fill a child's cup, anytime

Playing with a child, even for ten minutes a day, can fill a child's cup with acknowledgement, connection and courage. Play heals wounds and refills cups that we, as parents, sometimes leave empty. When your child's cup is full, she's more likely to solve problems independently, treat others respectfully, cooperate and entertain herself. "Playing" it forward, so to speak, will ultimately fill your own cup with the time, energy, focus and perspective required to take on your to-do list and the parenting journey that lies ahead.


Suzanne Ritter is a parent coach and a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). She's the courageously imperfect mother of two teenage sons and an eight-year-old daughter. PEP offers classes and workshops for parents of children ages 2 ½ to 18.