Saturday, October 20, 2012

Parenting through play

I was going through my drafts today (I should do this more often!) and found this old post from almost a year ago.  I'm not sure what more I thought it needed before posting, so I'll just post it as-is.

Last month, the natural parenting carnival topic was "parenting through play." I was so excited about it, because I've been learning a ton about this topic lately! But I was tired, we went camping, and the time just got away from me. So I decided to go ahead and write the post anyway, because I have some interesting things to share.

Usually, when I hear about toddler discipline, the big complaint is, "He makes everything into a game!" And the advice is to be very serious so they know you're not playing. That hasn't been very successful for us, to understand things. This kid thinks getting a spanking is hilarious. He loves seeing that what he does has a predictable effect, and he'll keep on doing whatever thing it is, just to get that interesting reaction -- even if the reaction is something you'd think he wouldn't like.

So what I've been doing lately is working with, and not against, his desire to make everything a game. He loves to learn things with a game -- like "guess that letter" and "open and shut the cupboard a million times" and "wow, if I spin the toilet paper, it unrolls" ... you know, the classics. I figured it might be helpful to teach him things like, "When Mama says sit, you sit" and "When Mama says stop, you stop" through games.

I think I've mentioned before that we have a big problem with this kid climbing on chairs and standing on them. He loves to do it, but it puts him in range of all kinds of forbidden stuff, plus he might tip over. So I was trying to teach him to sit on chairs. I would say, "Sit!" and he would laugh hysterically and say, "Stand!"

I know that looks like defiance. But I thought about it, and thought that maybe what he was thinking was more along the lines of, "Silly Mama. I'm not sitting. I'm standing!" He just didn't know what to make of a command. So I started to come over and sit him down, saying, "Sit," every time he stood up on a chair. He now understands that he's supposed to sit! However, he enjoys that game so much that he stands right back up again so that I'll make him sit again. He's learned the skill, but I don't actually want to play sit-and-stand on a teetering chair all day. So part II of the game is that if he stands up again, he has to get down. And then I chase him away from the chair, and he runs around laughing. I move the game away from the chair and to something that isn't dangerous. I don't want standing on chairs to be a game. Luckily, it does seem to have worked -- he knows he has to sit if he wants to stay on the chair (which he loves to do) but if he wants to play, he can get down from the chair and I will play with him.

Another big one is the "stop-go" game. We need to play it again, I think, because he may have forgotten all about it. It's just a very simple way to teach the meaning of the word "stop." He loves to walk on the street, and I mean loves. And he also loves to push the stroller. But with my hands on the stroller handles, he has to stop and go when I say. So that was an easy way to teach him. We would be going along, saying "go-go-go," and then I would say "stop!" and stop short. After a few seconds, it's back to "go-go-go." Later he learned "run" and "walk" as options, too, and he mostly does the one I ask for.

The big trick in making these games work, and not turning them into other games (i.e. "let's do the opposite of what Mama says, that's hilarious!") is to laugh hysterically every time he does the right thing, and to have no reaction at all to the wrong thing. If the wrong thing happens too much, we stop the game and I go do something else. And if he keeps doing something I won't allow him to do, even when I'm not playing with him, I take him into another room and distract him with a different game.

This post was really neat to come across because I've been feeling frustrated.  Why doesn't Marko listen when I tell him to do things?  Why is he so badly behaved?  But when I look backwards, I realize I've taught him loads of things.  He knows not to climb on specific things (some things are allowed now that he is a good climber).  He knows to hold my hand in the parking lot and the street.  He knows not to open the gate and wander out of the yard, even though he can now do so.  He knows what things are unsafe (knives, hot ovens, etc.) and avoids them.  If he finds a knife that's left in his reach, he handles it carefully and brings it straight to me.  If he does something dangerous, all I have to do is yell for him in a scared voice and hold out my arms, and he freezes and comes running to me.

He hasn't learned any of these things by being punished.  Not that there are never any consequences for things, because there are.  If he's driving me totally nuts, sometimes I put him in his room by himself for awhile.  However, I am realizing that he never seems to learn anything from this.  Those things that have gotten him sent to his room over and over, he still does.  Those things that I explained to him, or practiced with him, or made into a game, he knows.

I can't believe I was once afraid I would never be able to keep my child safe without spanking him.  Now I wonder why I ever thought that would help.  And I feel very, very proud of him just now.  Yesterday, we went to the store as usual, and I had Michael in the sling as usual.  I've worried in the past what I would do when Michael got too big to carry (as he's rapidly approaching that point -- he's over 20 pounds!) and had to ride in the cart.  How would I trust Marko to behave himself if he isn't buckled into the cart?  Well, today he didn't feel like getting in the cart right away, so I decided to let him walk beside me.  Not only did he not get into things, knock down displays, or run wild through the store -- he actually was really helpful finding things and loading them into the cart!

I've been feeling like I must be an awful mother, but now I'm realizing I may just be too close to things to see clearly.  I've made a ton of progress.  And I have two happy, relatively well-behaved kids.  I must not be a total failure after all!

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