Friday, September 16, 2011

Playful Discipline: A Gentle (and Joyful) Approach to Teaching Our Children

This post was originally intended as a submission for the "Parenting Through Play" Blog Carnival over at the blog Code Name: Mama, but my over-ambitious writing style met with one big, puke-covered obstacle when our entire household got sick - and I missed the deadline. So here it is for your (belated) enjoyment: Playful Discipline!

Play - and its accompanying benefits in childhood development - cannot be underestimated, as I’ve previously discussed. But is it possible to parlay the power of play to help teach and guide our children toward the values and behaviors we want them to have? Can we as parents use play as a form of discipline - and have it actually be effective?

I've been reading a lot about "Playful Parenting" lately, an approach that's largely credited to Lawrence Cohen, the author of the book by that same name. Playful Parenting is one part of Gentle Parenting (a.k.a. Gentle Discipline, Positive Parenting, and Peaceful Parenting). Proponents of the Gentle Parenting style forgo spanking and other corporal punishment in favor of guiding, teaching, empathizing, and working to form a deeper connection with children. Within this parenting style, play is frequently incorporated to divert, redirect, and reset situations that might normally result in tantrums, tears, and (on the part of parents) an impulse to punish or spank. Using play to parent is a concept that, I'll admit, seems lighthearted and simplistic at first glance, compared to other methods. When applied to discipline, the use of play can seem downright foreign - particularly in a culture where spanking and other forms of physical discipline are so widely accepted.

We've come a long way from the dunce cap! But have we gone far enough?
If the idea of disciplining your child by playing with them sounds a bit counter-intuitive to you, you’re not alone. Recent studies have indicated that more than 90 percent of parents use physical discipline with their children, and more than 70 percent condone corporal punishment as a means of disciplining children. We take this discipline stuff seriously.

But with more and more studies showing that the use of physical discipline can profoundly affect children’s behavior and long-term psychological well-being for the worse, maybe it’s time we started thinking about a different approach.

Playful Intentions
In our home, we've had intentions from the beginning to avoid spanking as anything but a complete last resort (if even that). The idea of spanking never sat well with me, maybe because my parents used that form of punishment so sparingly on my brother and me when we were children.

My efforts to employ gentle discipline have really been tested as of late, now that Little Man is walking confidently and exploring (i.e. destroying, smashing, testing the limits of) everything he sees. I find myself saying “no” much more frequently than I would like. But, mostly, we do well with the Gentle Discipline/Positive Parenting approach. I use redirection to avoid tantrums when possible; I head off potential catastrophes by keeping tempting items (i.e. anything breakable, valuable, pretty, newly purchased, homemade, or otherwise meaningful to me or my husband) out of his path. I’m not going to lie – it’s exhausting. I constantly have to be on my toes, my "A" game...whatever you want to call it. There are times when I think, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to slap his hand or spank him? That would teach him not to do x, y, z.” The short answer is yes, it would be easier. But would it be more effective? Would it get at the root of his behavior? Would it really be better? I'm not so sure.

It's these moments - the moments when I'm most exhausted and pushed to my limit - that I'm finding play can be most effective. Rather than yelling, I sing at the top of my lungs. Rather than slapping his hand, I tickle his feet. The change of tone is often just what we both need to clear tensions and re-establish a good connection.

There are exceptions, of course. Hurting others is a non-negotiable behavior that always results in a stern "no" and an attempt to foster some empathy for the hurt person (giving a kiss, showing him the hurt spot, etc.). If Little Man is doing something that could cause him harm, that is also a "no no." But the little annoyances - the insistent attempts to touch "off limits" items; a tantrum that results from not getting his way - these are times when play can really be a great tool to have in the disciplinary toolbox.

If this doesn't seem like discipline, maybe it's because it's so different than what we're used to. I think it demonstrates that we don't need threats and scolding and anger as often as we think we do in order to parent - and discipline - effectively. After all, the word discipline is derived from the Latin word for "student" and the verb "to learn." If our children are the students, and it is our job as parents to teach them, maybe all it takes is a shift in our own perspective - a movement away from punishment and toward joy and collaboration. It won't work or be applicable all the time...but, then again, neither will any other approach. 

As I attempt to incorporate play into my disciplinary style, I've found it helpful to understand some things.

Understanding Myself
I’ve noticed that the times when I have reached the end of my rope and have the urge to resort to physical discipline of some kind are usually the same times when my personal needs have not been met. Maybe I have been going non-stop since I got out of bed, changing diapers, getting meals ready, cleaning messes. I haven’t had a shower. I haven’t eaten. I need a break, a moment to do something – anything – for myself.  When I ask for help and take that time to make sure my own cup is full, that my needs have been met, I am a more empathetic, patient parent - and I'm more able to turn to play as a way to change how I relate to my child.

Understanding My Child
-        When I learned more about where my child is at, developmentally speaking, I became more empathetic to his needs and his behaviors. This is not to say that I excuse or condone him throwing tantrums when he doesn't get his way. But when I can realize just how big and overwhelming this world - and his emotions - can be for him, it makes me stop and think in terms of how I can help him manage, rather than how I can get him to "behave."

Understanding Our Family Values
-        This is an ongoing process. I may eat my words about Playful Parenting in a couple of years, or even a couple of months, when Little Man enters his next "stage." Parenting is an ever-changing landscape - what works today may not work tomorrow, and that's okay. What's important here is to continually assess whether you are acting in a way that aligns with your fundamental values as a person, and as a parent. One value I strive to incorporate into my daily interactions with my child is seeing discipline as teaching, rather than punishment. Another is to be consistent in setting and enforcing limits with my child - but to do so lovingly, and mindfully. I try to remember always that my child is a person, with his own needs and emotions - it is not my job to keep him happy all the time, and I can't take it personally when he needs to be upset. And I try to maintain a sense of joy in life - because without that, frankly, what's the point?
Understanding Why Playful Parenting is Important
As parents, we create the change we want to see. Our children learn from us, so it naturally follows that to foster positive traits in our children, we must first look to ourselves. Play - in parenting and, more specifically, in discipline - can model some really significant life lessons for our children. It can encourage cooperation, create a distraction from tension, help maintain a sense of joy, and foster mutual empathy. When you use play and humor in challenging situations, you can demonstrate for your children how to recover quickly when life knocks you down; to laugh at your mistakes; and to have self-compassion. Ultimately, using a playful or gentle approach to parenting and discipline can show your children how to foster deeply loving, empathetic and connected relationships. This can be a life-changing lesson - for you and for them.
Your Thoughts?
I realize the tone of this article is more opinion-focused than my usual posts. This is due in large part to the lack of research on the Playful Parenting method. The literature on the inefficacy of punitive discipline, however, is growing all the time, and I have included those links above. But is this research enough to support such a drastic change in our approach to parenting and discipline? Have you used - or would you use - play as a form of discipline? Do you think it can be effective? Please share your thoughts!


  1. While I don't have a lot to contribute to this yet, I am an aunt who has tried to be as involved with my niece as possible. To my knowledge, my brother has still never spanked his daughter (she'll be eight in November) and my ex-sis-in-law has spanked her only a handful of time (she is the primary caregiver and has always told my niece that she will be spanked and why - never while frustrated). I have always respected their non-corporeal punishment decision and we have all found ways to help sooth my niece or distract her from tantrums through singing, playing, counting, and breathing.

    I appreciate that there are researched methods to help expand the toolbox and WILL be showing this to the husband when our kids come. I think he needs some help seeing all the options that exist having been "knocked into line" as he was. Thank you for the post - I really do love your insights!

  2. Thank you so much for your feedback, Cory, and for the wonderful compliment!

    It's difficult to think outside the box about discipline, especially when most of us were raised with spanking and other corporal punishment methods being the norm. I'm a believer that it's all about what you surround yourself with - the more you hear and learn about this kind of approach and the practical ways you can put it to use, you are more likely to call on it in those moments of intensity and high emotion when you would normally turn to spanking or hitting. As many of the good Gentle Discipline sites explain, this is not "permissive parenting" - it is setting boundaries and limits lovingly and then enforcing those limits without violence. It is definitely a lot of work, but I think it can be just as effective - and ultimately better for your relationship with your child.