“Most parents do not play with their children,” the book explained, “and all too often the reason is simply that they don’t know how.”
I read this line again, first thinking I’d read it wrong, then rolling my eyes. What do you mean, don’t know how to play? Who doesn’t know how to play?
But as I read the next 9 pages of Dr Carolyn Webster-Stratton’s The Incredible Years parenting book, I realized I was ‘playing’ with my 3 year old son Hunter all wrong.
The core of her recommendation? Essentially : watch what your kid is doing or saying, accept it, repeat it back to them, and build on it. Watch, accept, repeat, build.
I tried out this approach out on my son the next day over some Lego. Previously Hunter would build a car, and I’ll grab some Lego next to him and build another car of my own, and then try to get them to drive around together. Wrong. The advice from the book was to not build my own thing, but instead to just sit and watch what Hunter does, and comment on it out loud, like a sportscaster.
So, awkwardly, I did. Hunter started taking the tires off his Lego motorcycle and then putting the wheels back on, without tires. My instinct was to correct him, to say ‘No, Hunter, that’s not right.’ Uncomfortably, I bit my tongue and just sports-commentated. ‘I see you are putting red wheels on the motorcycle.’
‘Yes,’ he replied excitedly, raising the bare-wheeled Lego up into the sky. ‘It’s a super flying motorcycle!’
I was gobsmacked with how much more awesome his motorcycle was than my ‘correct’ version would have been. How much my son had to teach me about playing!
We played for a while longer, him taking off wheels and putting them on, only asking for my help from time to time when one got stuck. He loved playing with me in this way, and I loved it too. First, it was a lot less work than trying to come up with a super awesome Lego of my own. And even better, I got to peer into his mind and glimpse, with wonder, how he sees the world.
In the weeks since, our relationship has blossomed. I am 9 months pregnant, due with his little brother any day now. I had thought he was avoiding me either because of jealousy of the incoming new little brother, or boredom because I’m too tired and immobile to run around with him.
But actually, I realized, he didn’t like to play with me because I didn’t know how.
It’s silly. In retrospect I have been taught how to play many times in my life: in improvisitional theatre class in college, in ‘active listening’ classes during my MBA, in ‘coaching’ courses at Shell, in articles, in books, on the volleyball court, in the sandbox. And while they use different words, the approach is always the same : watch, accept, repeat, build.
In Keith Johnstone’s book Impro about improvisational theatre, it’s called ‘accepting offers.’ If an actor during a skit says to you, ‘Doctor, my leg is broken,’ you can instantly kill the scene if you reply with your own idea about what the scene is about, like, ‘I’m not a doctor, I’m your aunt.’ Good improv actors watch attentively to see what story the other person ‘offers’ them, ‘accept’ it and then build on it. ‘Oh wow,’ you might say instead in your best doctor voice, ‘I see that your leg is horribly broken! Come this way into my operating room!’ The audience (and actors!) now wonder with excitement : what will happen next?
Similarly in ‘active listening’ class, I was taught to ‘park my thoughts’ to help listen better. Say your friend is telling you about a stressful meeting she had with a colleague at work. You think, ‘Wow, I had a similar situation at work with Bob, which I handled by…’ You then zone out, waiting for your friend to pause, so you can tell her about your own meeting with Bob and what you did. All the while, you aren’t really listening to what she’s saying, and miss the fact that she’s upset and seeking comfort and advice. You missed a perfect chance to be a good friend to her, to get some insights into her life at the office, and get to know her better. You’ve missed a perfect chance to play.
To prevent this zoning out, my active listening teacher told me : park your brilliant thought and go back to listening. I (still) find this hard to do, as I have lots of random thoughts from my life I’d like to share. Yet when I’ve succeeded at doing it, when I’ve just listened, repeated back what the other person they just said, and then asked questions that built on it, I’ve found that my friends and colleagues enjoy those conversations and get a lot of out of them. And I do too.
There’s one more place I’ve been taught the same lesson in a different guise, which is timely for this season. What should I get him or her for Christmas?
The advice? Watch, accept, repeat and build. Listen for what people say they like and would want. Accept that they like that. Repeat it back to them to confirm that is indeed what they’d like (and maybe get some detailed specifications at the same time!). And then either get exactly that thing or something that builds on that concept.
I bought my son some stamps, thinking I’d like him to do more crafty things. My ever wise husband Oyvind, however, has followed the rules above and bought him the same toy he has a dozen of already, because he loves them so much : a police car. (‘He’s a collector,’ Oyvind explains with a grin.) I suspect come Christmas day, he will play for hours with the car, and not at all with the stamps.
So this holiday, I wish you have time and the chance to practice playing with others. To play with your gifts. To play with your relatives (even those with different political views). To play with your guests who brought food you don’t normally like. To play with your friends going through great times, and with those going through rough times. To play with your kids and to learn how to play from them.
Watch, accept, repeat and build. And see what super flying motorcycles we can make together.