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Affection Play—A Powerful Antidote to the After-School Blahs

“Hi, Mallory. How was school today?” child ignoring adult
“What did you do?”
“Oh, I dunno.”
“Who did you hang with?”
“Same kids as yesterday.”
Exit to room, to a screen, or to a bowl of cereal.

We’re so glad to see our children after a long day. But our efforts to connect can fall flat. And when that happens, it’s hard to know what to do!

There’s a lot to be said for letting our children enjoy some time to simply decompress after school. Our habitual inquiry, “Tell me about your day,” falls flat because our children are tired of communicating on demand. They’ve had grownups directing their attention and asking for answers from them all day long. And it can take time to absorb the warmth of home after buttoning down to cope with the all-too-structured environment at school.

Special Time can help with after-school or early-evening connection—it allows a child to direct a grownup, for a change, and to decide, fully and entirely, what to do with a chunk of time we offer. It can start out tamely—with a request for a back massage, or a very clever request that you organize that messy clothes drawer and fold everything nicely, while your child tells you what goes where. As you good-naturedly take direction, the safety builds, and often, some kind of impish initiative gets laughter started. Maybe the massage turns into a startling display of farting or burping prowess. Maybe the clothes-folding request is followed by an order meant to really test your Special Time intentions—your child now wants you to now throw all the newly folded clothes around the room! And as you beg and plead not to “have” to do that, she laughs—she “got” you!

Laughter is the great connector. It’s the sign that the path to your child’s heart is now cleared, and your love is getting through. It’s the warming of your child’s spirit, and of yours, as well. It’s a healing force, melting the day’s separations and releasing the tension that has built because of the distance and busyness we all take for granted in our lives. Laughter can’t be forced, but Special Time is a powerful incubator.

And once the warmth is flowing again, affection games can help you remind your child that you’re still thrilled with him or her. They let your child stay in charge—you hardly ever get to plant your kisses. You hardly ever catch them to give that giant hug you offer. But the chase is the thing. Your loss sparks their laughter. And avoiding your affection lets them receive it, without compromising their independence or shutting down to do a ritual they don’t feel up for at the moment.

Affection games can start with, “Oh, I’m all full of kisses! I can’t stand it any longer! I have to give them away…” or with a robot voice saying, “Hug. Hug machine. Hug machine coming to hug somebody. Somebody needed for hug machine right now.” Or, “Hey, guess what we forgot! Hug and kiss! You came home, and we missed them. Come here, you!” with a big grin and arms held wide. You don’t force anything. But you do keep trying. You look for the laughter, and then create more play at exactly that distance, or with that kind of near-miss attempt, or with that goofy voice.

More than one child can be involved—three children might all team up to make sure that you don’t manage to hug any one of them. They pull you off the object of your affection, who makes an escape, and when you turn to try to give a big hug to the defender, they swarm in to free her, too. We call this Playlistening—you take the less powerful role in play, and do what you can to promote laughter, without tickling.

“100 hugs,” “I want you,” “I just want to kiss one little finger, pleeease,” and “How have I lived without you all day?” are great lead-ins to a good chase, laughter and connection. Be inventive. You might narrate your own action sequence like Howard Cosell:

“Oops, that father with the giant smackeroo for his son misses again!
“The son escapes!
“The father is looking, looking, looking…can’t find him anywhere. Hmmm, closet? “ “Under the bed? Nope. He’s gotten too big for under the bed.
“That one huge kiss is going dry…will he land it before it is all dried up?
(A suspenseful tune goes well here.)

Or you can keep score:

“OK, that was one try, but no banana.
“Oops, two tries.
“Arrgh! Three tries. When am I going to get a finger to kiss?
“Oh, no, foiled again!
“OK, attempt number five. Yes? No! Not again! She is so darned fast!
“Yes, one kiss landed! Victory! But I have so many more…”

Or you can spout irrational confidence, so your failures become juicier:

“I can get this girl! I know I can. I’ll just hide here, and she’ll run by, and I’ll have her!
“Hey, she’s not running by. She caught on to my scheme.
“Well, then, I’ll just have to run really fast. I can catch her. I’m big. She’s not so big.
“Hmm, she’s fast! Time for me to run faster! Darn! That’s not working either!
“OK, new tactic. I’m going to grab her shirt, surely I can grab her shirt!”

The more confident your child feels, the closer you can come, and the harder you will need to tussle to elicit laughter. Children who hold a good bit of fear need their parents to play at some distance in this game—that’s where the laughter is. Slow down, and fail more flagrantly, if you have a cautious child. Your child’s laughter will tell you when you’ve got it just right. Just keep close tabs on that feedback. If there’s screaming or shrieking, you’re playing too powerfully, and there’s fear mixed in with the play. Go back to bumbling more, to falling down as you try, and to goofy schemes that don’t work out.

This kind of play is really good for us parents, too. The light in our children’s eyes nourishes us in deep ways, and the challenge to be creative moment by moment is a healthy one. Their laughter becomes ours too as they invent their escape strategies. And bringing them our affection is exactly what we hoped to do as parents all along—to show our love, and to make every effort to see that they receive it. In affection play, we can go all out. We can run hard, we get to try and try again. What in play looks like our failure turns out to be a powerful delivery of love, our love, in all its glory. In all, a great antidote to a day at school or at work!

Here’s how it can work, with children of all ages:

“My teen was home from college for her first short visit and I wanted to connect with her in a close way. I knew she was in the process of learning to be independent, and I wanted to respect her freedom and the personal growth she had achieved. I had read about giving 100 kisses to your child as a way to playfully connect and show her how much you love her.  So I thought I would try doing this.

“My daughter was sitting on the couch and looked a little lost, being home for the first time. I snuck up behind her and kissed her forehead while counting to ten. She started to smile and said, “What the heck?” I told her I missed her so much that I had 100 kisses stored up for her and I was going to try to sneak all 100 in before she went back to college. I then gave her 10 more and said, “Whew, that is 20!” She started laughing and I could see her relax and start to settle into being home.

“As the weekend progressed, I continued to surprise her with 10 kisses on the shoulder, 10 kisses on the hand, 10 kisses on the leg. I don’t think I ended up completing the whole 100 kisses, but it didn’t matter. What it did do was give me an opportunity to show her she was loved and missed. She was able to relax, and it gave us an opportunity to talk about how different her life was at college than at home.  She opened up about what her days were like, and what was happening with her friends and her classes.

“Being playful helped me as much as it did her. I desperately wanted to make her feel comfortable being home, and didn’t know quite how. By being playful, I was able to tell her how much I loved her, get close to her and still respect her freedom. I played the “silly mom” role and was rewarded with laughter, closeness and respect.”
–a mother in Los Gatos, CA

Play is a powerful way to bring your kids closer. Find out why in Listen Launch Post: What is Playlistening?

You can also use play to help with sibling rivalry. Read 15 Playful Ways To Solve Sibling Rivalry for ideas

Having trouble responding playfully? Mental blocks could be the cause. Find out how to bust them away in What If I'm Just Not A Playful Parent?

Playlistening and Special Time are two of Hand in Hand's five tools for transforming parent child relationships. Learn about all five in 5 Revolutionary Ideas That Make Parenting Less Stressful

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