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Book Review
Playful Parenting

by Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD
Ballantine Books, 2001
Softcover, 320 pages
reviewed by Kim Suhr
West Allis WI USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 38 No. 4, August-September 2002 pp. 94-5.

People often use the term "child’s play" to capture the simplicity of something. According to Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD, however, the play of children is anything but simple. He believes that play is the medium through which children communicate and make sense of their world. Therefore, parents who do not participate in their children’s play are missing out on a valuable opportunity to understand, influence, and connect with their children. Playful Parenting: A Bold New Way to Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Children’s Confidence offers parents practical ideas for establishing and reestablishing connections with their children through play.

Cohen’s training and experience as a psychologist drive the theory behind the book. He suggests that, while attachment between parents and their babies usually happens instinctually, it becomes more challenging for parents to maintain their bond as children grow and stretch their wings. According to Cohen, the opportunity to forge these connections and influence our children can come in the most unlikely of forms: the games children love but parents hate.

Do you have a son who constantly wants to play guns despite your refusal to buy toy guns or allow such play, even with pointed index fingers or sticks? Cohen suggests that, instead of prohibiting it, you join your son’s play, get inside his feelings, and help the play take new directions. Maybe you become a wounded soldier, and he becomes the medic who treats your wounds. Or, perhaps, he has just shot you with the "love gun," and you fall head over heels in love with him, complete with a big hug and a goofy, love struck look on your face. What a great way to "disarm" your little soldier—literally and figuratively!

How about a daughter who plays with dolls endlessly? Cohen shares an example of how his daughter, "the offspring of two ardent feminists," loved to play with dolls even though he found it "boring, stupid, and against everything [he] believed in." Still, he joined her in her play and shook things up a bit. One doll played up the sexist stereotypes while the other broke gender barriers. He helped his daughter get unstuck from the play he disliked rather than banning it all together.

What about a child who always dominates other children? Cohen reasons that this child is feeling powerless in his own life. Why not give him an arena—play—in which it is okay to be in control? Maybe he gets to boss you around in a role-play situation. Maybe he gets to make up the rules of a board game. What a great opportunity to talk about how it feels to be dominated by other people and how the child might deal with his own feelings of powerlessness. Examples abound in Playful Parenting. What they all have in common is an emphasis on taking children’s needs and feelings as a starting point. Much in keeping with "loving guidance," Cohen offers play as an alternative to traditional "discipline."

From his anecdotes and examples, it is clear that Cohen’s suggestions to parents are as much about being playful as they are about the type of play in which they engage their children. For those parents whose personalities don’t lend themselves to pratfalls, goofy faces, and wrestling on the living room carpet, Cohen provides lots of concrete advice. In Chapter 6, "Learning to Roughhouse," Chapter 7, "Suspending Reality: Reverse the Roles," and Chapter 8, "Empower Girls and Connect with Boys," Cohen offers ideas for everything from problems with bullying to sibling rivalry to kids’ sexual play. Looking through the table of contents, it’s hard to imagine a parent who has not dealt with at least one of the topics he addresses.

Playful Parenting is a great resource for parents who are looking for additional ways to connect with their children and positively influence their behavior. Perhaps it is that simple to connect with and influence your child. Perhaps it is "child’s play."

Kim Suhr has been a Leader in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA area for almost a year. She and her husband, Rob, live in West Allis, Wisconsin, USA and have two children.

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