The Playful Parent: How to Stop Nagging

How do you get kids to take on tough tasks? Jordan E. Rosenfeld learns that silliness can work serious magic.

woman and child on swings Illustration by Jessie Ford

I've always admired the ease of those parents you see climbing on play structures, making funny faces during storytime, and putting their darlings' joy before their own self-consciousness. I confess I am not a naturally playful parent.

More prone to a scold than a scamper, I come from a line of humorless Germans who saw play as a waste, and worse, as an interruption from improving one's mind.

Still, I have tried in my way to be fun. When my son, Ben, was tiny, I'd pretend to make a stuffed animal fly, and that did the trick. But at age 7, Ben is a lot more sophisticated, and he lets me know it.

"Mama, you're supposed to make Batman talk," he told me recently, as I walked Batman stiffly around in circles.

"What should he say?" I asked. "He looks like he has a bad back."

Ben shook his head and sighed. "Don't you know how to do cool stuff like Daddy does?"

My husband, Erik, has a knack for adding levity to his times with Ben, using silly voices to bring toys to life or spinning fun imaginary scenarios. It's common to hear eruptions of glee during chores or bedtime, as they pretend the bed is a crumbling cliff and the floor is a pool of lava. Ben's question made me realize that I needed to take a cue or two from Erik's style.

    Thinking back on my interactions with Ben, it dawned on me that all too often we were engaged in standoffs over daily tasks, with me looming over him, hands on hips, issuing stern instructions to get started on homework or clean up his toys. Perhaps my behavior was the problem. A different, better approach to getting through our must-dos might be to meet him on his own playful level.

    Shaking free of my self-consciousness ("I'll look foolish!") and silencing my grandparents' voices ("Playful parents are not respected!") wasn't easy. But the next time I caught myself mid-scold, I grabbed the nearest toy -- a plush Minecraft creeper doll -- and adopted a goofy voice that would make SpongeBob SquarePants sound deadly serious.

    "Oh no, Ben," the creeper said, dancing unsteadily. "I think your mom is going to make me stand on my head if you don't do your homework." I balanced the armless creature upside down; he promptly tumbled over.

    Ben giggled. And grasped his pencil.

    "Oh, no, Ben! If you don't do your first math problem, your mom will make me juggle ... and unfortunately, I don't have any arms!"

    I felt silly, but Ben, now smiling, worked more quickly -- and with fewer complaints -- than he ever had before.

    Since then, I've used this simple tactic many times. Not only does a lighthearted approach inspire him to work, but it also gives us a new way of bonding. Ben feels encouraged, not chastised. "That was sooo fun," he said after finishing his homework. "You're the best mama ever."

    While I'm far from being the best mama ever, I am making progress toward being a less serious but more effective parent.

    "Remember that time we drove each other's feet like cars?" Ben will ask. Or "Remember that game you made up called Fart Lasers?" (Yes, that was a big win for Mama.)

    I do remember. What?I cherish about these moments is the way time and rules disappear inside our laughter, the way Ben's small hands reach for me, his eyes full of light because I've dropped the constraints of adulthood and embraced a child's love of playfulness.

      The Rosenfeld family of Morgan Hill, California

      The Rosenfelds of Morgan Hill, California

        Originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.