It’s nearly impossible to imagine that there are playful discipline strategies. How can this be when there are battles over bedtimes, sibling rivalry, tantrum-throwing toddlers and other behaviours that can bring so much frustration to a parent? Most of us as parents were likely to have been met with hard words or hurtful actions when being disciplined as children. Discipline was serious business. I’m going to let you know that playfulness and discipline are not opposite ends of a spectrum, but playfulness is one of the key strategies for effective discipline that can address issues at their very core.

A great place to start is reflecting on what exactly we’re wanting from discipline. On the surface, it may sound like we are wanting compliance with rules, a well behaved good boy or a considerate nice girl. Underneath these expectations, I believe all parents are actually wishing for children to be innately aware of themselves and others in ways that they have a true sense of connection, harmony and belonging. Interestingly these very values are undermined by serious discipline approaches, and on top of that, some parents feel upset or guilty after they had yelled or forced their child into an imposed consequence like time out. Essentially, what I’m saying is that both the child and parent do not enjoy conventional discipline approaches.

On the other hand, we can see immediately how much play contributes to the very things we are wanting for our children – connection, cooperation, harmony and a sense of belonging. So let’s look at an example. To me, really ‘misbehaviour’ is just a result of being disconnected. I noticed one day, my son was starting to get physically and verbally aggressive, he hurt his sister and was being contrary to everything I said to him. It was obvious there was a big disconnection happening. So I asked him playfully, “Do you want a real fight, then?” He looked at me a little puzzled through his grumpiness. I jovially threw him a pillow and grabbed one for myself. I hit him with my pillow across his side with a ridiculous laugh, inviting his playfulness. He started whacking me back, and each time he hit me I flew across the room moaning making out like he had superpowers. Before long he was in belly laughs and embracing the play. We were connected again and enjoying each other, it was a blast!

So where is the discipline in this? To some it may seem like he had got away with hurting sister and acting up, so won’t he just continue to do whatever he pleases with no consequences?

A few things were happening here. The obvious ones being connection and fun are restored. On other levels, importantly, a pillow fight in this situation enabled emotional release through physical activity by re-directing the aggressive energy into a safe expression using pillows. Laughter too is one of the ways we as humans release built up stress or fears. How many times have you found yourself laughing after something frightening has happened to you? Sometimes we might even burst out laughing when it seems inappropriate. If we can have a good laugh about things in life that have troubled or scared us we find a sense of relief. I trust all of you have experienced something like this.

Another interesting thing was happening in the pillow fight with my son too, he was given enormous power over me as an adult. This enables an opportunity for him to release any stress built up around him feeling powerless. There are plenty of times in a young child’s life where they experience powerlessness, especially when they’re a part of schedules and important appointments parents are managing. Powerlessness may also occur when children are attempting to do something beyond their developmental stage. Pent-up frustrations resulting from a sense of powerlessness can lead to unruly behaviour and aggression. Meeting our children in a playful way for them to express these feelings can bring them back to in connection and cooperation.

Once the connection was restored I was able to talk to my son about how it is not ok to hit his sister and I would not let him do this. We talked about how he was feeling and how he was needing more connection. He genuinely understood and he said, “Dad, what I really wanted, was to do something fun with you.” I understood because I had been very busy during the week and had not played as much as I would have liked with him. For the rest of the day, he was very cooperative and harmoniously played with his sister. The art of playful discipline is focussed on connection and expression of feelings as a first measure.

Any attempts to reason with a young child who is feeling angry or upset typically leads to defensiveness and even more frustration in parents, giving the idea that traditional harder forms of discipline are the only option. Yes, I have been there before too and have come to the conclusion that no amount of rational reasoning is going to get through when there is no connection or big emotions present.  Playful approaches can melt through this barrier. The other great benefits of playful discipline, unlike traditional approaches, are building trust, maintaining and repairing healthy parental attachment, and it’s a whole lot more fun for both parents and children to implement.

If you are interested in this approach, I highly recommend the book “Attachment Play” by Althea Solter.