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Breaking: Oranges and Textas Save Family Dinnertime

By Michelle Higgins - 18th March 2011

While according to author Janette Winterson’s novel "oranges are not the only fruit", on one recent crisis-laden evening, oranges were all that stood between my family and a complete meltdown.

It was three weeks into my two-month period of experimental single parenting, undertaken while simultaneously packing up a house, getting it ready for sale and preparing to move our family overseas. To put it mildly, the stress levels were high and on that particular afternoon the temperature was rising, fast.

I was slumped on the couch in a stupor, relying on my oldest child whose (thank you Master Chef) current obsession was cooking, to prepare the evening meal. The younger children were busy learning important life lessons, like building resilience in the face of adversity.  The final straw came when one child threatened to stab another with a fork if they did not sit down at the dinner table. At this point I came to my senses, roused myself from a near catatonic state, and decided that a little parenting was in order.

Enter oranges, stage left.

I eyed off the fruit bowl sitting amongst the dinner plates and assorted piles of detritus on the dining room table. And from out of nowhere, inspiration struck. Armed with a marker pen, it did not take me long to add a badly drawn face to each orange and turn out a somewhat wobbly collection of Orange People. The kids' eyes lit up and we were a functioning family unit again.

The big kids saw the humour in the situation, the smalls the play opportunity, as Orange Dog interacted with Orange Baby and was visited by Orange Nana. There was even an Orange Kangaroo who was supposed to be a dog but my drawing skills took in a whole new direction.

Watching the transformation underway, not only on the bowl of oranges but also the faces of my children, I was reminded of one of my all time favourite books on parenting. Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen espouses using play and humour with children in place of more traditional approaches. And whenever I have had the presence of mind to take this approach I have found it to be invaluable.

Using the playful approach engages a child’s imagination. While it definitely takes more energy and creativity than traditional carrot and stick techniques, it is a far more engaging and less emotionally draining way to get through the day. Singing a marching song as a way to get your kids to leave the park rather than giving a marching order may make you feel a little silly but, I can almost guarantee, will inspire far greater cooperation from your children than “because I said so”.  

While play might make sense with young children it can be difficult to see its utility when thinking about tweens and teens. However, if you think of play in terms of humour, it can work a treat in diffusing tension and moving to a place of understanding. I recently found myself in serious lecture mode with my tweenager, and realising that I had misread and overreacted to the situation, switched to humour. The end result was that my son and I were left giggling rather than in combat – and I still got to make my point.

While playful parenting is not appropriate for every situation, I think as an approach to everyday situations with kids, it's a winner.  When you can get to the same place with your child through flights of fancy rather than fights, it's a sure fire way to have both happier children and parents.

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