On chapter 9 in Playful parenting

This chapter is about ”Following Your Child’s Lead”. Cohen here discusses the importance of letting your child be the leader when you play. He think that we should do this as much as possible when we play with children (with the exception for moments when play seems to get into a dead-in or get destructive)

There are very good reasons for letting your child decide a lot in playing. For instance:

  • It enhances self-esteem. Since children naturally feel powerless a lot, letting them lead and direct play with their parents, will give them a sense of importance and agency.
  • It helps the parent to really receive and enter the universe of the child, with all the imagination, delights and anxieties there. Which in turn will strengthen the relationship between the child and the parent.
  • Stepping back and putting your own ideas to the side will also help the child to start expressing him/herself more freely.
  • It will also help developing fantasy play and other creative forms of play.

Important strategies are:

  • Just say yes – like I mentioned in an earlier post.
  • Setting aside a regular playtime. I have to admit that I don’t do this. It seems like a good idea to really make clear that this time is entirely the time of the child, that you are not going to cook, rest, watch TV or answer the phone now, and the the child is encouraged to decide for him/herself what to do.

I feel that this principle of following the child is terribly important, and often more difficult than it might seem. You might encounter boredom, or feel that you don’t want to do this or that, but here Cohen sides entirely with the child – he encourages us to just put aside about our misgivings and fears and just follow our children in play.

When reading Cohen, I have been thinking about Webster-Strattons concept Parent Training. It has become quite widespread here in Sweden, and it also served as blueprint for the even more popular Swedish adaption Komet.

Webster-Stratton is in agreement with Cohen in putting play as the base or centerpiece for raising emotionally healthy kids. But the approach to play of Webster-Stratton is radically different. She recommends parents to just sit beside the child and describe neutrally what the child does. She makes the same observation as Cohen does in this chapter, that it seem to be terribly difficult for most adults not to interfere and take over the play of their children. But her solution does not give room for very much interaction or fun between the child and the adult. The child might feel to a certain extent that the adult is present and interested, but in the light of Cohens book, Webster-Stratton really miss out most of the possibilities of play.

This is a posting in a collaborative project together with Jennifer at InspireMama. She is reading the chapters concurrently and posting about her thoughts. (The book Playful Parenting at AdLibris, Bokus)

Thoughts on Chapter 8 in Playful Parenting

Empower Girls and Connect with Boys

I once asked two six-year olds, a boy and a girl, what the key was to popularity in first grade. The boy said, ”Shoot missiles.” The girl said ”Be nice.” In other words, the fact that boys are given a heavy dose of  ”boys don’t cry” does not mean that girls have full freedom to express all their feelings either. […]No wonder so many girls become experts at subtle cruelty. [from chapter 8 of Playful Parenting of Lawrence Cohen]

Cohen here mentions the large body of research about how we gender children. We adults tend to treat both younger and older children very differently depending on their sex. And this really locks the children into rigid roles. Like the ones mentioned in the caption above.

I read this chapter with mixed feelings. I am in a way happy to live in Sweden where there is always an ongoing discussion about these issues, both in media and among ordinary people. It is actually quite common that parents talk about gender stereotypes, and it is sort of assumed that everybody try to make at least some things to break up this tradition. We also have many organisations, companies and agencies that work actively with promoting more gender-aware methods in families, schools and kindergartens.

At the same time I also feel how very true it is that these gender patterns are in many ways unconscious, like Cohen also mentions several times. They are very difficult to change, and we tend to act these out the gender stereotypes with our children even if we make a deliberate effort not to do that. So in spite of belonging to some sort of global elite on gender equality, I feel that we very much face the same problems that Cohen mentions from his American vantage point. Unconsciously we Swedes give our children very much the same gendered roles as in the rest of the world.

Play can have a very important role in working with gender stereotypes:

  • Play introduces a sort of a ”free-trade-zone” where normal rules are suspended and children can try new ways of acting. Boys can be encouraged to be sensitive and caring and girls can be encouraged to lead and express anger and individualism.
  • In play adults can also model expression of new behaviours and feelings, in the guise of joking and playing.
  • Girls and boys playing together can also present a very creative challenge, when the dinosaurs and transformers meet the barbies and bratz, and new combinations can emerge.

Cohen here stresses the importance of meeting the child where (s)he is, typically playing boy-things with boys and girl-stuff with girls. And then from that point of departure, as an adult you can try to toss in new things and see what happens if the superhero hurt his leg and cries for comfort, for instance.

Also it might be extra important that fathers make an effort to play with dolls and that mothers play physical games and roughhouse (etc.).

The goal here of  course is not to make men of women, and women of men, but to promote more healthy and flexible identities for both sexes.

Note: This posting is part of a series where I read each chapter of the book Playful Parenting (of Lawrence Cohen) together with Jennifer at Inspire Mama. Jennifer has been busy being pregnant recentle so this series have been dormant, but I plan to take it up again soon (added june 2011).

Thoughts on chapter 7 in Playful Parenting

This posting is part of a series where I read each chapter of the book Playful Parenting together with Jennifer at Inspire Mama. This is her posting on this chapter.

The name of this chapter is Suspend Reality: Reverse the Roles.

Most important is to play

Now we are really in the middle of the book, and I start to worry a little that this many chapters and all these thoughts might make somebody out there less inclined to play with their children. Therefore I would like to stress one thing. The really most important message of this book is: Play with you child! Don’t make it into something complicated or tiresome, just do it, and try to enjoy it as much as possible, and if you don’t enjoy it so much, spend some time with it anyway.

The  book is a very beautiful document of how parents can express love and empathy through play.

The scare-thief

Recently my son has talked a lot about thiefes, wondering thing like: Why do thieves steal? Do thieves steal childrens toys? etcetera. It is clear that he has been struggling with the reality of thieves and the possibility of losing things by theft.

So we made into a project to construct a ”scare-thief” (en tjuvskrämma in Swedish). He painted a scary ghost that we glued to our front-door.

It was interesting for me to watch this happening, because at one hand I have the impression that he understands that thieves probably aren’t that afraid of ghosts, and at the other hand he is absolutely fascinated with this project and seem to take it 100 % seriously.

I think it illustrates Cohen’s point that children need to work through their fears and anxieties in many ways. Constructing a thief-scarer is doing something about the threat, and there’s something so extremely human about this. We humans desperately want to feel that we can do something about our plight.

I also feel that probably it is more important than we adults want to think that we participate in these projects. Probably on some symbolic level my participating in the project makes my son feel that I’m on his side against the thieves and other evils that he might encounter in this world.

Jennifer also gives a beautiful example of how adults can use play to help children work through learning-challenges, by pretending to fall when the child is falling. (Here I come to think of externalising, an interesting concept in therapy with children)


This chapter also has a very important discussion about screens – tv and computers. Cohen argues that of course we need to discuss the pros and cons of TV and computer-games, but it is just as important that we adults really offer alternatives and play that draw the children back into the real world.

Also play is very important for children as a way of dealing with the frightening parts in movies or TV-shows. They need to try and be Spiderman themselves, or they might need a parent to be a clumsy superhero that falls over and begs for a hug, to bring forth the giggles and make the scary stuff less threatening.


Jennifers discussion of the role of imagination made me think of when my son started using role play. He had been watching Pippi Longstocking and started giving commands: ”I’m Pippi and you’re the father. No! I’m the father and you’re Pippi”. I remember thinking that there was a whole new world of opportunities opening in his brain in that moment, and I could see for my inner eye how the neurons started connecting in new ways, and how he used play to try and ”be Pippi”.

Chapter 6 in Playful Parenting

Chapter title: Learn to Roughhouse

When Emma was little, I would stand right underneath her when she climbed on a playstructure, my face contorted by worry and anxiety. Her mother would let her climb as high as she wanted, a confident smile on her face, trusting Emma’s judgment. At the time I thought this was horrible, but she was right. No broken bones. And I know, as a therapist, that even if she had broken a bone, bones heal faster than timidity and fearfulness

When reading this chapter I have been thinking about how playing with children can boost their self-esteem. Social interaction among children is almost 100 % about play. So while we cognitive behavioral therapists train adults with social phobia in social small-talk or to stand in front of a crowd and talk, the most important skill for a child in order to get along with his/her peers is playing. And since most of us adults have forgotten much of childhood and playing, we underestimate how complex a skill playing is.

Think of how people who want to do acting spend years learning and rehearsing every aspect of it. Children also spend a lot of energy learning to play. And think of the advantage of a child who has one or two dedicated  coaches in this process in his parents. (This paragraph may have sounded competetive – like as if you should make your child a ”winner” – of course parenting and play must also be a way of helping your child in finding their uniqueness and their own way through life)

Things that are important for children to learn in this area are for instance:

  • How to be a leader or follower in play – this will make it easer for them to adapt to new playmates and new constellations.
  • Initiating play with people they know and with strangers.
  • How to be light-hearted with their own mistakes. Here I think Cohens advice to act goofily is extremely important. I think that if a child sees an adult make mistakes and laugh about it, it will make the childs own mistakes much easier to bear. You know – I spend my days seeing people with all sorts of social inhibitions, and for these people making a social mistake can often feel like being sent to purgatory or something. So being able to laugh at your own mistakes can be a tremendously important skill to teach your child. (or your grand-child or some other child…)

This chapter is about roughhousing. I must admit this is not at all something that I consider myself good at. My parents never did much of that with me. [for my Swedish readers: I didn’t know this term either – ”roughhousing” seem to indicate physical play like ”kuddkrig”, ”brottning” and similar stuff]

I remember, though, that as I child I sometimes saw other parents wrestle and do that sort of physical play with their kids and I can remember that, as a child, seeing this looked so very warm to me. It felt like those parents and kids built a warm bubble of love together.

Again, Cohen argues brilliantly why it is so important to engage in this kind of play. He mentions that there are findings that indicate that children who wrestle with their fathers have better social contacts with their peers (he also makes a strong argument that mothers should also wrestle…). And for those of us who are ambivalent about wrestling, he points out that wrestling is not that much about winning or being strong. It is just as much about learning about using your body, and learning to control your aggressiveness. And learning about other peoples control over their aggressiveness.

Cohen provides ten very useful rules, especially useful for us who feel inadequate in this sort of play. Please note rule number 9 – no tickling allowed. Our parents often had no clue about how to play physically with their children, and they often didn’t have very much clue about physical integrity either. So many of us were tickled too much, without any any respect with regard to when we wanted to stop, and as parents we might have a tendency to repeat this mistake. So please pay attention to this!

Rule number 7: (usually) let the child win, made me think of a coaching with the Danish parenting-guru Jesper Juul, that I read in a magazine a while ago. Juul recommended that the father wrestled with his son, but Juul stressed that the father should always win.

We Scandinavians proud ourselves of being anti-authoritarian, but when comparing Juul and Cohen I feel that it is Juul that is authoritarian. My vote is definitely for Cohen, and I keep wondering why Juul had this idea, he who has been the big name in Scandinavia for democratic parenting.

For Cohen, a very important function of play is to reverse roles, and this he deals with in the next chapter.

Note: This posting is part of a collaboration with InspireMama, who also writes her about reflections on each chapter of the book.
Added sept 2015: InspireMama seem to have gone off grid, I cannot find her blog any more.

Playful Parenting chapter 5

This last week I have had the occasion of witnessing some of the positive consequences of playing with your children, that Cohens mentions. (this is a posting in a series where a I write about each chapter in the book Playful Parenting of Lawrence Cohen).

When reading this book I have made an extra effort to play regularly with my son. We have done a lot of wrestling and pillow-war. After one of these occasions he started talking about death, and I could really feel that this was an extremely important issue for him right now. And on one other occasion our wrestling turned into him wanting to play me giving birth to him. I can understand that he is curious about how it feels to be born, and trying to figure out how he could get born out of his mothers belly.

So, in the vein of Cohen, my conclusion is that playing gave us a closeness that made it possible for him to bring up very important issues and questions about birth and death. This felt enormously rewarding for me, it is sort of the thing you want as a parent, that your child feel the trust to talk about such things with you.

Another thing I have been thinking about recently is that nowadays when there is a potential of a conflict between me and my son, my kneejerk reaction is to think for myself that he is obstructing or obnoxious or something – but now I try to erease these thoughts and think ”playful parenting!” instead. And this actually works.  Like if he puts his underpants on his head, the best is to play and laugh about that for a while; to try and force him to put them on normally is just going to increase his resistance and cause a conflict. This will take time and make the morning less enjoyable for us.

Chapter 5 is about following the giggles. Quote from this  chapter:

If you want them to get the giggles, don’t talk in a regular voice if you can talk in a funny voice; don’t talk at all if you can sing; don’t stand up when you can fall over.

I think Cohens incitement to goofiness makes a lot of sense. Cohen also has a very sound discussion about the difficulties that many of us adults have with loosening up and being goofy. The main idea is that children are so powerless and face so enormous obstacles every day having inferior abilities, experiences etc. So we give them a tremendous gift if we play goofy and fall and ”make fools” of ourselves. We offer them the chance to laugh and release some of all that tension, and they can feel that the adult can share their feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness. Playing sort of creates a space where those feelings can be shared and made less threatening.

Talking about this, dealing with feelings. I would also like to mention that I see playful parenting as one tool and validation (see for instance the book How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk) is one other tool that I think we should use. Yesterday evening my son was really extremely angry about not getting to play computer game as much as he wanted, and then we first talked about his anger in a (hopefully) validating way – to only focus on our understanding that he was angry and sad. And then it shifted a bit so that we could also play with his wanting to revenge – he talked about throwing grease on me and I pretended to be sad and hurt.

(see also InspireMama for more posts about the chapters of this book)

Playful Parenting chapter 4

(About chapter 4 in the book Playful Parenting of Lawrence Cohen)

Chapter 4 is about encouraging self-confidence. Children will always have issues around mastery – it is frustrating to learn to tie shoelaces and the other thousands of things that children have to learn. By playing with them around these things, we make these frustrations easier to bear and the challenges easier to overcome.

Of course most of us like to see our children learn things, especially when you see the pride in their eyes after accomplishing something new. Often we can help them by giving them appropriate resistance; physical/intellectual/etc.

But even more importantly, it seems to me, children get all sorts of problems around the issues of learning, accomplishing and performing. Some get to obsessed with winning or following the norm, whereas other seem to give up too easily. Cohen suggests that play is a very gentle and effective way of coaching children out of these impasses.

When reading this chapter, I have been thinking about the concept of blocking that I mentioned a few postings ago. It is a term often used within impro (a form of stage-improvisation) when a participant says no to a suggestion or invitation. I then wanted to stress the importance of saying yes! (with an enthusiastic energy) to the suggestions of our children.

I think the concept of blocking can be extended to parenting in other ways. For instance if the child spits on the floor, it is a huge difference to say ”no, you musn’t spit on the floor” or to say ”you can spit in the toilet” – the latter not blocking the energy of the child. And in the thinking of playful parenting, I think another way of blocking the child is to try to correct it, for instance saying, ”no, firemen don’t have yellow caps, do they?”. The spirit of Cohen’s book is very much that the play in itself should be encouraged, to correct facts often just disturbs the flow of play. But at the same time we want the child to learn new facts, don’t we?

This can sometimes seem like a difficult dilemma, how much should we let the child win (in checkers or football) and how should we balance the two goals of encouraging learning and encouraging self-esteem? I appreciate that Cohen stresses listening as the primary way of solving this. If the child signals that today I want to win, then just let him/her win. If the child seems to be absorbed by the play, try not to interrupt.

To me it is extremely important that I give my son the self-esteem that he can try new things and not have to ”win” or achieve instantly, and I want him to have the courage to ask for information or clarification when he needs that. It is so much more important to make sure that he will ask people for help and information when needed than correcting him about facts in his playing. Reading Cohen again helps me to focus on the long-term goal hidden in my everyday play with him.

(see also: Jennifer at InspireMama, I think she will soon post about this chapter)