Playlistening is the art of using play to listen to our children. Since play is the way children process and express their thoughts and feelings, using play to listen to and connect with our children is sort of genius.
When we playlisten we show our children in their own language: “I’m here, I’m paying attention, I enjoy you, I’m flexible.”
When our children can feel those things from us, they become more capable of feeling those things themselves. In this way, play is a brilliant tool for confronting rigid, fixed behaviors, for working with tension and resistance, and for building more joy into our family’s culture. In playlistening we, as parents, are always less powerful, more befuddled and clumsy.
Our children lead us where they want to go and we follow by listening. Here's what I mean.
One day heading home from getting groceries my 5 year old son was hungry. I gave him a few strawberries and a plum to tide him over but he wanted more. I couldn’t reach the basket to give him another and wanted him to save his appetite for something a little more substantial, so I told him he could wait the few minutes it would take us to get home to get some food.
He was upset, scowling at me and huffing in the back seat. I asked if he’d like a sandwich or eggs for lunch and he said, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter,” and looked angrily out the window. I said, playfully, in a French accent, “Sir, could I zen make you a leetle mud pie for lunch? Oui?”
He said, “NO!” and scrunched up his shoulders. I could see he was getting angrier but also trying to act angry.
I tried again, “But zee mud, it iz so good!”
He screamed a high pitched scream and said, “STOP IT! No more jokes!”
I paused for a breath and said, with a little foolishness, “I am not so good with jokes, anyway. Oh well. At least I’m a good driver.” And then I flipped on my windshield wipers instead of my turn signal.
He started laughing (he usually thinks this is pretty funny).
I pretended to be an incompetent driver asking where I should go, what red lights are for, should I go through the stop sign, which way to our house? He laughed at each question, directing me while I answered, befuddled, “OH! Huh! I had no idea!” He laughed and laughed. And so did I.
When we got home we had a nice lunch and afternoon together. He played happily while I made lunch, coming into the kitchen occasionally to talk to me in his french accent. The clouds had cleared. Whatever difficulties he was feeling were replaced by a lightheartedness between us.
Playlistening helps you to go straight toward your child’s difficult behaviors with a light touch.
If they refuse to put their shoes on and you come close, gently lift a shoe to their foot but miss it every time. You stop and listen.
Do they think it’s funny? If you can tell they like the direction, do it some more. Maybe they throw a pillow at you out of anger and you catch it, calling, “OW!” as you fall over from the strength of their throw. And then?
Stop and listen. Did they think it was funny?
If so, keep going without overpowering the play with your physicality or humor. If they don’t think it’s funny, step back and listen. Does your child need you to come near and hold them? Do they want to tell you how badly they feel? Follow their lead.
How To Use Play Well To Connect And Gain Co-Operation
Playlistening is a lot like improvisation. Instructor, Kathy Gordon, suggests using the golden rule of improv. YES…AND… is what keeps the “scene” or the connection going. Think of it like this.
One actor is on stage. The second one comes on and says, “There's my long lost brother from Missouri” If the first actor says, “I'm not your brother” the scene stops. There’s a shutdown. To keep the scene going, the first actor has to move toward the second actor’s reality and build upon it. He could say, “Hello brother, how are you and your 42 children?”
How Do You Bring Improv-Thinking To Parenting?
Imagine your child refuses to brush their teeth. How can you apply “yes…and…?” We can say ‘yes' to their refusal. We might say, “Oh, then it must be time to brush your nose, brush your toes, you brush my teeth.”
But Isn’t Playlistening Distraction?
Sometimes confusion springs up around playlistening. Parents often ask, “Isn’t this essentially trying to distract our children away from their feelings?”
No. Not at all.
Laughter IS the release of feelings. When we playlisten, we see our child's refusal as a signal that they are disconnected. We lean in and play with their refusals. We reach toward them with openness, playfulness.
In the story I shared above, my son was upset that I had set a limit around eating more fruit. When I asked him what he would like to have when we got home, he turned grumpily away from me. I accepted his dissatisfaction (the YES) AND I went right toward it by offering something else I knew he would find disgusting (a mud pie).
Now, he didn’t think it was funny, and I gently tried a second time. When that didn’t work I didn’t keep going with the mud pies, but I also didn’t give up. Instead, I tried something else.
I guessed he was maybe feeling a little powerless after having me shut down the possibility of more fruit. I didn’t say, “Oh! You must feel like mama always tells you what to do!” but that’s what I heard as I listened. So I chose play that might restore that balance and give him some power back. I made myself befuddled and clumsy.
It worked. He warmed. He wanted me to keep going. Bingo!
So, How I Tell If Play Has Become Distraction?
As you playlisten with your children, notice where your focus is as a parent. Are you using play as a way to control or influence how they behave or feel, or are you using it to explore, to be curious about and open to however they’re feeling in the moment?
This is tricky stuff!
We seek out parenting support because we want something to change in our relationship with our children, with the ways they behave or our responses to their behaviors. What we learn when we use Hand in Hand tools is how to shift our effort and attention away from influencing their behavior and toward connection.
Playlistening is an ideal, light way to achieve this.
How To Tell If You Are Moving From Play To Distraction
Here are some questions and solutions you can turn to if you suspect you may be playlistening to exert control (and distract) rather than to connect with your child:
Question: Am I getting bigger, louder, faster than my child?
Solution: Reverse it. Let your child lead.
Question: Am I suggesting what we play and not listening when it’s unwelcome?
Solution: Try to go with whatever is suggested, no questions asked, even if you only manage two minutes.
Question: Am I rolling with it when my suggestions are rebuffed or taking it personally?
Solution: It can be hard to keep up with your child’s sudden switches in play. Try following what they suggest and give yourself an imaginary pat on the back when you do.
Question: Do I feel like I am working really hard and not enjoying myself?
Solution: Set yourself a time limit in your mind around what you think you can manage, and then go no holds barred for that time. If it’s still hard, call time or take a “toilet break,” moment away.
Question: Am I annoyed, bored or sleepy?
Solution: Give yourself permission to walk away this time and come to it later when you feel better resourced.
Question: If a limit needs to be set during playlistening, am I able to do it playfully?
Solution: If not, that’s ok. You can set a gentle firm limit instead.
Question: Is my child beginning to make eye contact as I progress through playlistening?
Solution: Count eye contacts as wins! If you are not seeing them so much, you may be overpowering the play or your child may not find it funny. Take a breath and hold back for the next few interactions.
Question: When my child shows me how they feel, am I correcting or diminishing their perspective by trying to replace it with a different “perspective?”
Solution: Take a breath before you reply next. Listen to what your child brings. Remember that just listening can be all that a child needs sometimes to feel heard and supported. You do not have to teach to guide. Being a warm sounding board is a good alternative.
These solutions may help you in the moment, but if it continues to feel hard, or issues come up regularly when you playlisten, explore your answers to these questions more deeply. These answers will probably give you a bunch of things to explore in your listening partnerships.
Taking time with a listening partner to explore your own feelings and experiences around play can go a very long way toward bolstering your ability to use playlistening with your children in a way that is connective and not distracting.
For example, if you start to notice that every time you start to playlisten you become fixated on getting your child to laugh, you might explore with a listening partner, what it was like as a child if you didn’t laugh or join in the fun of your own family.
If you feel overwhelmed or unenthusiastic, think about how adults of kids reacted when you played during your own childhood.
It's OK Not To Playlisten “Perfectly” Every Time
You won’t playlisten perfectly every time. That’s okay! You can use inquiry and questions like the ones above to begin to notice when you feel inclined to distract or control our children’s behavior in play. In doing so you build a mental map of your minefields, your own resistances and frustrations around play, so that you can be aware of them. Work on them, bring them to your listening partnerships, and you will see a shift.
When you can notice and get curious about your own desire to control or distract your children through humor, it becomes much easier to explore and get curious about your own children through play.