Sunday, September 26, 2010

Weekly Column: The Power Of Playfulness

My toddler is standing alone, engrossed with her very favorite toy ever: a tiny Cinderella doll with tiny, rubbery, interchangeable clothing.

And I’m about to tell her that she has to put it away so we can sit down for dinner. I can see how this will turn out, even before it really begins.

I’ll tell her to put the toy away and to come to the kitchen. She’ll scream, running away from me as fast as her rebellious legs can carry her, and hide behind the rocking chair. Taking the bait, I’ll give chase, raising my voice with indignation; she will do as she’s told. Hearing the authority in my voice, she’ll begin to cry, breaking down into a sobbing tantrum, kicking her legs and flailing as I get closer. I’ll haul her out of her hiding place; she’ll chuck the doll across the room, narrowly missing my head; we’ll make our way to the dinner table, where now – coincidentally – the meal will begin in a frighteningly unstable fashion.

I’ll be sweaty and frustrated, and she’ll be defiant and grumpy. The evening suddenly doesn’t look like much fun at all.

But rewind.

I’m going to do this a different way.

I’m going to sidestep the inevitable tantrum – hopefully – by being silly instead. It’ll take a minute for my grown-up mind to switch gears into dramatic play, but I think it just might work…

“Oh, honey!” I croon with as much drama as I can muster. “Cinderella’s been dancing all day, I bet she’s getting terribly hungry by now!” My little girl’s eyes might squint as she tries to figure out my motive, but she’ll probably soak up my sudden involvement. “Do you hear her tummy growling? RRRRROOOOWWWWRRRRR! My goodness, she could eat a horse!”

By now, my toddler will be playing along, speaking in her best Cinderella voice. “I’m so hungwy!” she simpers. “What I’m going to eat!?”

“Well let’s see,” I’ll wonder. “What does a princess eat?” Tapping my chin theatrically, I’ll think of something: “Of COURSE! She needs fruit! We have just the thing!” I’ll dart into the other room, my toddler on my heels, to dig around in her sister’s bucket of toy food. We’ll set up a platter of felt apples, strawberries, and bananas, and Cinderella will dig right in.

“Whew! She’ll feel better soon!” I’ll sigh in relief. “But…oh, no! I hear your tummy rumbling, too! We’d better get you to YOUR food! Hurry! Hurry!” We’ll dash off into the kitchen, laughing at the roaring noises our tummies are making as we settle into our chairs.

And the doll will be forgotten.

Making something into a game is the easiest way I know of to subvert a possible tantrum. Every situation won’t call for silliness and hidden instructions, but sometimes it’s helpful to remember that FUN makes things easier for a toddler to handle. And while it feels more immediate to say “Put that away, and come eat,” the ensuing battle, argument, or tantrum makes it much more trouble than it’s worth.

I’m certain my kids will grow up understanding that when I tell them something, I expect my rules to be followed. But I’m also certain that I’m going to pick my battles on when to force obedience, versus when to make obedience into something fun and silly.

Plus, there’s no better way to release the pressure of a long day, than to play a little game of pretend with your adorable child.

The happy side-effects of an agreeable toddler are just a lucky benefit.

[Online version here.]


  1. Really enjoyed this and you are so right - we all need a little silliness from time to time to relieve the stress of life (and I'm not just thinking about toddlers here!).

  2. YES! Picking the battles is so important. Even if it feels so tiring at times.

  3. My daughter is still young enough that I have not had to implement discipline. However, with 2 nephews and 2 nieces who love spending the night with their Aunt Kimbo and Uncle M, I've had lots of practice. And like you, I want them to follow my instructions, but know that sometimes it is easier to make obedience fun - rather than create an unnecessary battle. Hopefully I can keep that lesson in the forefront of my mind as my own daughter grows.


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?