The PLAYFUL Parent: Building blocks for Healthy Relationships

blog parenting Aug 11, 2021

Many of you know by now that I read a lot of parenting books. I have also taught parenting workshops to parents and future pediatricians. As a parent, I am into the adolescence phase now, leaving behind diapers, daycare and the need for after school care.  With each phase of parenting, there is a constant need to connect, communicate and collaborate with your child and with others.

I love reading books and listening to podcasts. However, nothing ever goes "by the book." In fact, that is why I started the parenting book club on Facebook because I love hearing from and letting others share opinions and thoughts. How our childhood experiences shaped our values and attitudes, and how our cultures shape our belief systems. There is no one "right" way to parent...and we can all learn from each other. 

For the greater part of 15 years, I have been thinking about how to teach positive parenting principles to others. I have thought long and hard about the challenges of doing this in busy pediatric clinics and in the middle of a family crisis. 

So today I am going to share with you my evolving approach to parenting. One that I try to practice each day.  

In many parenting programs, the emphasis is on building and strengthening parent-child relationships.

How do we do this?

Through child-directed attention and praise, through connection and through communication. Even if a parent is struggling with high intensity behavioral challenges, we always go back to the basics

How do children learn?

From the earliest stages of child development, play is the vehicle in which children's social-emotional, physical and cognitive skills are honed. Play gives children a way to develop and practice life skills vis a vis  interactions with others. It encourages the use of their imagination and encourages exploration and builds confidence in their abilities as they interact with the world around them. 

As we get older, we often times forget how to play. We forget about its importance because we are constantly on the go and needing to schedule out our time. The pressures to stay busy is real in today's society, despite living in a time where we are facing a global pandemic.

It is only fitting then that I ground my approach to parenting in play with what I call the Playful Parent approach. The word 'playful' represents 7 essential skills or strategies meant to foster connection, communication and collaboration in the setting of relationships.


Let's go...

P: Pause 

I will be the first to admit that this is hard. It seems easy on the surface, right? But those 5 letters inherently mean to take notice, slow down and wait

This is not as easy as it seems, especially when we are feeling reactive and responding to our inner critic or the actions of a dysregulated child. The pressures and stress of life make it hard to remember to pause. PAUSE is a critical first step and one that can be learned and honed through mindfulness and meditation. The beauty is it is so simple and can be learned (or sometimes, re-learned) at any age.

L: Listen

This skill is much more than just listening with your ears, but paying attention to what is said and NOT said. This is especially true when your child is melting down. What is rippling beneath the surface? Is it embarrassment, disappointment, overwhelm, frustration? Or is it jealousy, resentment, hurt, insecurity or shame? 

It is important as a parent to be able to listen with our entire being. To not interrupt and allow the other person to freely share their feelings and opinions. Isn't that what we want for ourselves if given a chance? We must foster and encourage our children to be able to express what it is they need without judgement or fear. We can coach them through challenging times when we fully understand their point of view and knowing they need...when we take the time to listen first.

Sometimes the skill of listening requires flexibility and a willingness to think "outside the box." Maybe your toddler or preschooler still doesn't quite have the ability to tell you how they are feeling because they don't have the words. In this case, we may need to be willing to look for other ways to help our child communicate their needs and wishes--through art, role play, and movement. (Make sure to check out my YouTube video, Rolling with it, Dealing with BIG emotions.)

A: Acceptance

Too many times I see families who are stuck in a battle of wills. Unfortunately, when it comes to changing the dynamic, it is the parent who ultimately must be willing to change firs and be willing to do it differently so to stop the cycle. 

Acceptance works both ways. What I mean is, first the parent must learn to accept children where they are. Children want to do good and do the right thing. However, they may not always have the skills to do so. It is important to recognize in the heat of the moment that there may be a biological/neurological reason underlying the behavior. Instead of seeing the child as willfully doing something to make us mad or drive us crazy, it is important to give children the benefit of the doubt and seek to understand what the driver is. Many of the children I see in my practice have ADHD or anxiety, developmental delays, poor sleep or other problems that affect their learning, attention, behavior or mood. It is important, in the moment, to remind ourselves that we must meet our children where they are because deep down they are having a hard time navigating the road ahead and in need of better coping skills. 

On the flip side, it is important that parents also accept that they themselves are human and there is only so much we can do. Mothers especially often feel the inherent pressure of living up to this ideal image of parenthood,  When it doesn't materialize, we end up yelling at ourselves or feeling the shame or guilt of not living up to expectations. It is exhausting, both physically and mentally. 

We should get rid of the "shoulds" and "musts" and re-evaluate our "need tos." This is easier said than done, I know. But in order to be able to step outside of our first response, we need to accept that each "road bump" is an opportunity to try again and to learn more about ourselves. 

Y = Yes, You Can and You're Right

It is important to encourage autonomy and independence in our children so that they will be able to successfully take care of themselves when it comes time to "leave the nest." Look for opportunities to foster steps in this direction while staying upbeat. This is a reminder of not overstepping and doing too much for our children, but also stepping in when necessary. It is a fine balance to walk as a parent as our children grow and mature. When it is time to let go and when should we hang on a little bit longer? If we hold too tight, we may not see our children spread their wings. If we push before they are ready, they may feel unsettled, hurt and shame. 

Here are some general guidelines...

It is important to think about saying YES more than NO. When children hear too many negatives or NOs, they begin to internalize those thoughts and that is when self-doubt creeps in. "No, you can't do that." "Absolutely not!" and "No way" are examples. If you catch yourself saying giving out more NOs than YESes, I encourage you to try to flip it so that you are able to say "Yes" or  "Yep!" or "You absolutely can" more. This not only helps motivate our children to keep trying and to persist in the face of adversity, but it also says:

"I've got your back...I believe in you."

Does this mean we never say NO?


Children need limits and boundaries. There are times we must institute routines and curfews to protect sleep, get things done and stay safe, for instance. 

In the end, we want our children to develop a growth mindset so that no matter what life throws their way, they will have the stamina to problem solve and push through. They will want to set goals to move forward and not crumble at the first setback.  It gives children the permission to think for themselves and take action to learn what they themselves can do. This also means setting up the environment for success or giving them the space to fail and try again. Having a Yes, you can attitude creates opportunities for learning and growth. 

Another important piece of this is being able to tell our children that "yes, you're right" when indeed they are. As parents we don't always have to have the answers. At some point, we want our children to think on their own and come up with their own answers. It is validating to hear that they are capable. It helps them gain confidence in their choices. Therefore, it is important to look for opportunities to celebrate their wins and abilities.

F = Focus on the Now

Life is too short to live with regrets. Living through this pandemic has taught us that life is fragile. It is about being mindful of the moment and taking the opportunity to soak in the sounds, sights and all the feelings. Another way to look at it is to be ok with putting our work to the side, even for a moment, to just be with our loved ones when they need it. When thinking about this principle, it also means not being afraid to pivot and reconsider the bigger picture. Sometimes we need to take either a focused or broader view of life..or maybe consider both at the same time so we can make an informed choice about the present moment. 

U = Uncover Unique Abilities

Praise is an undervalued parenting tool, but it is SO powerful. It helps parents "connect the dots" for their children about expectations of behavior and their actions.  Paying attention in the moment to what our children are doing and saying can help us hone in and discover their strengths and abilities and what it is that ultimately makes them unique. 

It is not only important to recognize these traits but to call them out and celebrate those gifts. When we share our observations and provide feedback to our children, we help them feel seen. We all need and appreciate hearing when we are doing a good job, especially when we are putting ourselves into the task at hand, giving it our all or learning a new skill. Children are no different. 

This is especially true when children have siblings and we want to avoid comparisons.  It is important to strive to see each child as separate and unique human beings. It's ok to be "different," because there is enough room in this world for all of us. 

L = Let the Little Things Go and Learn from Mistakes 

This last skill is not any less important than the others. When we can let the trivial things not get under our skin and shift our attention and energies to what matters, we may find we have more mental energy and more time. This can show up as being able ignore the tantrum and not reacting to it, but instead getting curious about the root cause. It can also mean learning to substitute that inner voice inside our head that says: "Why is he doing this to me..." and replacing it with, "This too shall pass. He is just not there yet" or "I can choose to stay calm and give it a free pass. She doesn't mean it, she is angry."

The other caveat is that it also reminds us that no one is perfect and that we are always learning from our experiences. No time is wasted. There is always a lesson to be learned from situations or things that happen. When you respond angrily or lose your cool with your child, it is ok to go back to them, once calm, and say, "I should not have yelled at you. I was angry. Now that I am calm I am in a better place to listen and think through this with you." This is a powerful moment for your child to learn from YOU. Being vulnerable and being real helps our children come to see mistakes as opportunities to make another choice, to give grace to ourselves and others and work together. 

These 7 skills are my take on the "essential building blocks" for healthy relationships with our children. When practiced, these skills can be the tools to reset any relationship and put it on the right path. So the next time the going gets tough, review the skills from the PLAYFUL parent approach and notice where you might have gotten lax and commit to starting again.

And remember, it's ok. It happens to the best of us! I am constantly working on these skills in my own life, with my children, with my spouse and with others. Each day is a new day with new possibilities. Another chance to try again--with curiosity, fun and above all, playfulness.

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