Will You Play With Me? Lawrence Cohen Says “Yes” in Playful Parenting

Yea! Another Attachment Mama AP Book Snapshot courtesy of Sonya Fehér, the wise and endearing voice behind Mama True: parenting as practice.  Sonya is also a contributing writer and editor for API Speaks, a columnist for theattachedfamily.com and co-leader of the South Austin Chapter of Attachment Parenting International.

My vision behind AP Book Snapshots is to create an AP book summary community in which multiple mothers or fathers contribute “what you need to know” quick-read support for parents like me who would like to learn new tips for gentle, empathetic parenting and struggle to find time to get through all the great books out there. This way you can get the immediate tips you’re seeking and read the rest of the book when time allows. If you are interested in being a contributing AP Book Snapshot writer, please drop me a line.

Thank you Sonya for your fantastic contribution!

“Playful Parenting is based on an attitude of respect toward children and an attitude of wonder toward their world” (232).


If you’re a parent who has ever asked yourself, “How in the world do I deal with this?” Playful Parenting has an answer:  play.  Play out strong emotions and power struggles. Play to establish connection and build confidence. Children explore the world through play. Whether explaining how to roughhouse or “follow the giggles,” Lawrence Cohen, a psychologist specializing in children’s play, play therapy, and parenting, offers ways to connect with kids in their world in order to help them be confident, cooperative, and connected.

Though the title might imply otherwise, Playful Parenting deals with the not-so-fun parts of parenting too:  tantrums, sibling rivalry, and household chores. Through examples from Cohen’s practice and extensive research, Playful Parenting is an approach that will impact how you talk and play with, discipline and interact with your children.

“Playful parenting is a delicate balance between following a child’s lead and stepping in as guide. On one side, we let children be completely in charge of the play, in order to nurture their creativity and sense of confidence. On the other side, we actively intervene to help children get unstuck from situations that are repetitive, boring or potentially harmful” (151).


1) How can I be a Playful Parent when my child is doing something he knows he’s not supposed to do? Shouldn’t he be punished?

Cohen maintains that threats and punishments are not the way to handle problems with children’s behavior and he advocates rethinking the way we discipline. “Taking a fresh look at discipline and children’s behavior, we can see that closeness, playfulness, and emotional understanding are better bets than punishment, behavior modification, and too much permissiveness” (232).

2) I’m not the silly type. Can anyone become a Playful Parent?

Playful Parenting isn’t complicated and it isn’t just about being silly.  It’s about meeting kids where they are in order to see what they’re going through, connect with them and help them work through things that are difficult.  Often this can begin with, “Let’s pretend that….”  Maybe you’ll just follow your child’s lead or encourage your child to try on a role they wouldn’t normally inhabit, like being really tough. “You be the bully that won’t let me get by!”  When your child asks, “Will you play with me?” they want much more than a game.  If you feel like you need a little help figuring out how or what to play, Cohen offers plenty of anecdotes, examples, and research in Playful Parenting.


Pretend to scream when you want to really scream. Real screams scare kids and harm connection. Pretend screams are fun because they take the frustration and anger both you and your child are feeling and let them out in a way that restores your attachment. In our house, this has morphed into my asking my son if he wants me to use my mad voice, frequently when he has gotten super silly right before bed and I am past ready to go downstairs and get a break.

Mad voice accompanied by mad finger — the one that points and wags and makes kids’ eyes get big — pretend screams, “You have to go to bed right now!” I wiggle my eyebrows, purse my lips, and my son starts giggling.  If I pretend scream, then say we have five minutes to play or read or have a cuddle- or tickle-fest before sleep, he gets the connection he was looking for and I get to go downstairs so much sooner than if I give in to my anger and upset us both more by using my real mad voice.

Do whatever they want to do. Cohen gives an example of asking parents in his workshops to tell him their favorite things to do. While they answer him, he says “That’s boring…that’s dumb…who would want to do that….” to make the point that we give that message to our children when we don’t want to play the games they like, when we’re too busy to play or just go through the motions.

I found myself doing that with trains. Rather than playing the game my son loves the best, I couldn’t stay engaged with playing. So instead of telling him that didn’t like to play trains (as I had repeatedly done), I said, “I’m not sure I really know how to play trains” to which he responded, “Oh, I can teach you.” Now anytime he wants to play trains, he asks if he can teach me and then tells me what trains to push or which tracks to follow.  I have more fun, he gets to be an expert and have his mama play his favorite game. As a bonus, he doesn’t need me to play for so long because I’ve given him my full focus as we played rather than going through the emotions or constantly interrupting our play to try and do something else.

Containing feelings versus releasing them: I used to use the distract-and-redirect method when my son cried. I’d hold him and let him know I was there, but I was so focused on trying to make him feel better that I didn’t let him release all of his feelings. Now, I hold him and tell him it’s okay to be sad. He sobs in my arms until he’s done. If he’s still looking sad, I’ll say again, “That really hurt” or “You didn’t like that” so he can finish releasing his feelings. When he’s really done, he begins to smile and is ready to play again.

Before he could talk much (and even now), it helped to narrate the events: “You were running across the driveway having so much fun playing and then you fell down.” After naming the event, I try for what he might be feeling. When I get the emotions right, the tension he’s holding in his body leaves and his little arms and head relax into our hug.  It is as if he is saying, “Oh, you know how I feel. I’m not alone. I’m okay.” Taking time out for feelings rather than trying to make everything happy has been the most valuable practice any parenting book has offered me.

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One Response to “Will You Play With Me? Lawrence Cohen Says “Yes” in Playful Parenting”

  1. amy says:

    Thanks for this snapshot. I’ve had my eye on this book for a long time, but I’ve decided to order it now! I think I was under the impression that it wouldn’t cover the sticky, difficult to define situations that parents and children find themselves in, but it sounds like it has a lot to offer in this area.

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