Most girls get a great deal of opportunities and encouragement to interact well with young children. Even when provided with a variety of toys, by gender-neutral-valuing parents, many girls prefer to play out feeding and caring for young children; many girls get interested in being around babies, even when not directed to.
For many boys it is the reverse.
If you are a dad or a granddad, you may have had vast experience caring for young children, from a young age or you may have nearly zero experience. Whatever your expertise level in this regard, you might do well to learn from the “Great and Powerful Oz.”
The Wizard of Oz is a much-watched movie in the United States and Worldwide. It was one of the first motion pictures to use Technicolor. Before that, nearly all movies were black and white and in shades of gray.
If you have never seen the movie, here is your spoiler alert.
If you have seen the movie, remember there were four main characters, each with a serious problem. The scarecrow, who was stupid, a woodsman who was heartless, a lion who was cowardly and a girl who was clueless.
They were all from a rural area and traveled to a big city in search of answers as to how to compensate for their character flaws.
The expert on living they found to be a fraud and he insisted on payment up front for his help. What he wanted was for all four of them to die so he wouldn’t be found out to be an ignorant blowhard. Problem was, the four defied the odds, survived and gathered together what Oz wanted.
Oz thought he had no way to help these fools, but then had a brilliant idea. He could use his genuine care and concern for the characters to validate that they actually already had the skills they had thought they were lacking.
Oz went from being a “con man” to a confidence builder. He pointed to specific things the four had done on their mission to bring him the payment he requested that demonstrated the use of attributes they had forgotten that they had.
Much of parenting is about seeing to it that children are adequately fed and protected from harm. The other major part is teaching them stuff, including how to not be so annoying. Often neglected is giving them validation for their abilities.
Children are often encouraged to work on a new skill before having fully integrated the use of the skill that comes before the new one.
One of the simplest power tools for effective parenting uses Wizard of Oz Power.
When I was supervising social work interns, I usually would assign them at least one child play therapy case. It was often a preschool-aged child experiencing some sort of emotional difficulty.
A key concept in working with new counselors is to help them prevent the use of the, “I had a problem like the one you are having and here is what I did” approach, so they can help people as a professionals. There was often work to be done around the “I just read about problems like yours and here is what you need to do,” approach as well.
I enlisted preschool-aged children to help with this training. I worked with interns with many different backgrounds. Most admitted to being nervous about counseling a preschool-aged child. It’s hard to explain to a young child what they are doing wrong and how they should be doing things differently. Young children are not so good at pretending they appreciate a counselors’s learned advice, so as not to make the counselor feel bad.
I typically ask interns if they had any experience hanging out with young children in a way that was enjoyable. Most did. Many chose social work as a profession for this reason.
I told interns what they might lack in experience, they could more than make up for by their willingness to observe how young children do a good job of counseling themselves. I was not sacrificing any quality of counseling service by subjecting a child to a novice counselor for practice. I was giving the child the power of a mind that had less preloaded solutions to childhood problems, that could impede their ability to be helpful.
The essence of play therapy is to provide things for the child to play with and the space to do it in. Both the limits to that space and its expanse were important. Given adequate structure for the child to feel safe and enough room to guide their own play, children have a way of showing what is bothering them and how they are going about having it bother them less.
What can get in the way is the therapist asking too many questions and giving too many suggestions on what to play with and how to do it.
Some interns made the mistake of thinking that playing around was just a way to get the child to like the therapist, so when the therapist gave out their advice to the child, the child would listen to it. Wrong. The child’s play was the therapy.
Sometimes, I would remind interns about Oz before they started their work. In play therapy, the child is, in essence, given the task to “go play.” The therapist observes the skills the child uses in that play and praises the child for using them. The play therapy sessions provide the opportunity to practice these skills in a self-directed manner with the safety of common sense limits on the child’s behavior during the session.
When a child is being seen because of specific problems there is often a sense of urgency by the therapist to be sure that the child isn’t avoiding the problem by distracting themselves with play. In my experience, the best way to support focus on problems, is to trust that the child needs little to no help in doing this.
Experience and training often improves the therapists ability to read the symbolism in the child’s play in order to identify the skills the child is using more quickly.
As a dad or granddad, you are not doing play therapy. You will be appreciating the power of play therapy techniques for children who are not in need of therapy.
Here is what you do:
- Set aside some time in your busy schedule to engage your child in this particular type of play.
- In this play, resist the urge to teach the child anything.
- Resist the urge to draw the child’s attention to anything.
- Resist the urge to ask the child questions.
Be as prepared as you can be to answer questions, should the child ask any during this special play time. Don’t be surprised to be surprised by a question. Be prepared to compliment the child for asking a good question and to ask them what they think the answer might be. Don’t be surprised if they answer the question better than you were going to. If there answer is “I don’t know,” you can try, “What do you think the answer might be if you did know?” You can always fall back on, “That is such a good question, so good that I want to take some time to have the best answer I can think of. I will try to answer your question later.” Again, don’t be surprised if the child comes up with a good answer in the mean time.
My intent here is to not give you a list of “do’s and don’ts” to memorize and worry about. That might get in the way of you and your child having fun together. My intent is to encourage you to let your child lead their own play sometimes and to delight in the result. Having said that let’s add to the list.
Mirror your child’s play.
Resist the urge to embellish it. You already know that you can play in a more sophisticated way than your child. Now is not the time to prove it. For example, if they push a truck back and forth, you push a truck back and forth. If there is not another truck available, push an “air” truck back and forth. If they say, “I want to be a snake so I can fly to the moon,” repeat back, “You want to be a snake so you can fly to the moon.” Be curious about what your child is going to say next. Don’t teach your child about snakes, or the moon, or flight. You can do that some other time. Don’t ask your child why they want to be a snake or what color of snake they would like to be. No questions, get it. If your child says something that could put them or you in harm’s way, still no questions, at least, at first. For example, if your child says they want to ride their babysitter’s cat around the block a few times, first just repeat that back to them. Then use your common sense. If you feel the need to give a teaching. Give it. Then get back to business.
Pay careful attention to what your child is doing. Don’t look at your cell phone. Don’t day dream or worry about your life. This special play is about you and your child. It is not all about you.
Pay attention to cues from your child’s face, voice tone, rate of speech, movement and body postures, to guess what your child might be feeling, but resist the urge to tell them or ask them what they are feeling, at least, at first. Mirroring your child’s movements and imitating their facial expressions can help you feel what they might be feeling. If you are having trouble being an emotional mirror, then try to be neutral.
Again, these are not more “do’s and don’t’s” that need to be rigidly followed. I am only trying to set the mood of this type of play for you.
It is, of course, always smart to be educated on what common problems are experienced by children in the age range of the child you are playing with and what problems you might want to be sure to Google or seek professional help for.
Pay attention to parts of your child’s play that is repetitive to the point of being boring to you. Chances are your child is controlling something in the play, that they are working on mastering in their life. Stay with it. Keep mirroring. Avoid questioning.
If at any point the play becomes uncomfortably intense for you or your child, that is enough for today. Revert to whatever you can do that works to help sooth your child.
You may want to come up with a label for these play sessions, something like “follow the leader play.” Remember who is the leader. Just “special play time” might work.
You can look at this as a special treat. As with all treats, you are in control of when you can and cannot provide it.
When these sessions go well, you will probably feel relaxed and energized, not drained.
Don’t think of these sessions as being one more thing you have to add to a long list of time consuming things you are supposed to be doing. If these sessions aren’t a special treat for you too, don’t have them.
If you do engage in this kind of play with your child, you will improve at understanding your child in any situation.
You will improve at savoring the unfolding of your child’s development and less prone to force feeding a child.
If you are a dad or a granddad, who is not primarily responsible for the overall care of the child due to factors beyond your control and your access to being with your child is limited, this type of play is highly underrated as “quality time.” The sense of being there for your child through this type of play generates more worth than a thousand gifts or trips to amusement parks.
Cost per unit is very economical. It helps you and the child from getting stuck in the habit of getting excited about what’s in the package, followed quickly by “what else do you have?”
I have often been struck by the tragedy of dads who spend less time with their children because they are too busy working so they can buy them a lot of stuff. Believe me when I say there is something your child wants more than a new toy. The precious present of you complete presence.
It is sad, too, when a dad is waiting for their child to grow up to an age where the dad feels comfortable to begin playing with them. Many dads have forgotten how to play like a preschooler.
I am here to tell you that when you travel to the play space, you will find you already know what to do there.
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