Using Games to End Struggles

January 5th, 2011 by Dionna | 13 Comments
Posted in Book Discussions, Carnival and Special Series, Children, Eclectic Learning, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, Guest Posts, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, natural parenting, Preschoolers, Respond with Sensitivity, Reviews and Giveaways, Toddlers, Use Nurturing Touch

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Jamie will defeat you!!!!!

A while back, Jamie decided to take on the job of turning on the taps for the children’s bath each evening. That was fine by me, though I did add the condition that he put his clothes in the laundry basket first. The problem was that, lately, it was becoming increasingly difficult to get him to get on and do these things. He would get sidetracked in his own little games and routines, deaf to my attempts to chivvy him along. Since we would need to get up in the morning in time for him to get to school, there really were limits on how much time we could afford to spend on getting the bath ready.

The solution to this seemed very simple to me – if he wasn’t getting ready to turn the bath taps on in good time, I’d do it. Logical consequences, right? Nope. In Jamie’s mind, turning the taps on was his job, and he would freak out with autistic fervor if I tried to do it. But no matter how many times I told him “You turn the taps on or I’ll do it!” he couldn’t seem to grasp that this didn’t mean “You turn the taps on in your own good time after you’ve played all the games you want to play.” Evening after evening, I found myself reduced to a maddeningly frustrating mixture of playing along, nagging, and empty threats as I tried to get him to get the bath ready in good time.

Then I started reading Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting after seeing the proposed discussion on Code Name: Mama about it. And I started considering a different approach.

One evening, I informed Jamie that I was about to go into Bathtub Mode. Being in Bathtub Mode would make me go and start turning the taps on. The only way he could stop me from going into Bathtub Mode, I explained, would be to take his clothes off, put them in the laundry basket, and run the bath himself. As long as he was doing those things, I couldn’t go into Bathtub Mode, but I’d go into Bathtub Mode if he stopped.

The next evening, as usual, Jamie started messing around with something else when he was supposed to be going to get undressed. But this time, I didn’t issue ultimatums or yell threats – instead, I exclaimed in my best hammed-up dramatic tone “Oh, no! I’m going into Bathtub Mode! I’m going into Bathtub Mode! I’m going to turn the taps on!” and pretended to dive for the bathroom. And Jamie scampered for the laundry basket, got his clothes off in record time, and raced to get the bath running.

I was astounded by how well it worked. All I’d done, after all, was to give Jamie the same information I’d already given him over and over again – that if he didn’t get undressed and turn the taps on then I’d turn them on. But the simple change of framing it as a game that would appeal to him rather than as an ultimatum had somehow made it possible for the information to find its way through to his brain.

Hmmmm… would this work in other circumstances? Getting him to get changed out of school uniform at the end of the school day was another all-too-familiar struggle. One afternoon a few days after we’d started the Bathtub Mode game, as Jamie dawdled over getting changed, I put on my dramatic tone again and announced I was going into Clothes-Taking-Off Mode, and the only way he could stop me was to get his clothes into the laundry basket and his home clothes on.

This one took a little longer – Jamie (obviously remembering a phrase he’d picked up from a TV program or video game) launched himself at me exclaiming “I will defeat you! I will defeat you!” I was glad he was engaging with me, but this wasn’t getting his clothes off. I skipped nimbly out of the way, chortling in my best Smug Evil Overlord impersonation “You can only defeat me by getting changed into home clothes! Ha, ha, ha!” As soon as he made a move towards doing so, I switched to howls of mock dismay about how he was going to defeat me. Within a few minutes, Jamie was fully changed and our new game was fully developed.

And that’s how we’ve gone on since then. When I need Jamie to get dressed in the mornings, or undressed in the evenings, or changed after school, I muse aloud as though to myself “I wonder whether Jamie will remember to put his clothes on/take his clothes off? Maybe he’ll forget! Maybe I’ll be able to defeat him!” He promptly runs with delighted squeals of “I wiiiiiill DEFEAT you! I wiiiiiiiiiill DEFEAT you!” to do whatever he’s meant to be doing, while I pretend to howl in dismay: “Oh, no! Jamie’s getting his clothes off! Look, he’s nearly ready! Oh, noooooo!” When he gets off track, instead of ordering or nagging him, I start musing aloud again: “Hmmmm – maybe Jamie will forget to put his socks on!,” and the job promptly gets done. And, as he finishes getting ready, I fall dramatically to the floor with wails of “Ohhhh, nooooo! You have defeated me!” while he throws himself on top of me, giggling helplessly, his little face inches from mine; and the situations that used to disintegrate into shouting and tears instead end in laughter and hugs and connection.


Today’s gentle parenting post (#12 in a series) is a success story shared by Sarah. The post is also one of the two winning posts from the Playful Parenting contest (the other winning post was Playful Parenting Helps Children in Stressful Situations). To thank Sarah for participating, I am sending her a copy of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort. We’ll be tackling that book in one of our future online book club discussions.

Sarah is a family doctor in the UK, mother to Jamie, a mildly autistic five-year-old, and Katie, aged two. She blogs at Good Enough Mum.

If you have a gentle parenting success story or a question on how to gently handle a challenging situation with your toddler or preschooler, please read the contributor guidelines and contact me.

13 Responses to:
"Using Games to End Struggles"

  1. Meghan

    This is great, I used to be the Manners Monster…every please and thank you would make me grow smaller!

  2. Casey   CBerbs

    How fun! That’s such a great idea!

  3. Brilliant. I’m so going to use this to get my three kids into snowsuits every morning.

    I’ve got to read that book.

  4. Kate

    I don’t know where I picked this up as a technique but I’ve been doing it for a while. What I was surprised about was how well it worked with my son when he wasn’t even one. It shocked my husband that I was able to turn the screaming into giggling during the post meal wiping of the face simply by saying “I’m gonna get you” in a silly voice before I wiped him.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Absolutely! Being silly and playing games are effective with just about any age – you just have to adjust what kind of game you play to the age/stage.

  5. Rachael   RachaelNevins

    Gosh, I love this story. Though I totally believe Dr. Cohen when he says that being playful didn’t actually come naturally to him, when I read his book, I worry that I just. Can’t. Do it. What you’re doing seems so simple. And also, so brilliant.

  6. Rachel O

    Aww, that is so cute, I love it!

  7. Heather   xakana

    That’s SO awesome! I know this works and I wish I’d keep myself in the mindset for it instead of letting my permanent state of ‘toodamntired’ to get in the way.

  8. Mommy C   BeingMomNow

    This is awesome!!! My son just turned one and as a former teacher I believe that I have some good strategies for getting things accomplished. However, this one kicks all my strategies butts! I love how reframing the situation has made it one that you probably cherish vs. one that frustrates you to no end. I hope it is okay, but I am going to share this on my blog’s facebook page.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Reframing the situation is, for me, the toughest part. I have to work past the “but I AM THE BOSS” mentality – it’s so worth it though!
      Thank you for reading and commenting, and of course you can share!!

  9. Meghan

    I have heard about this book and of course have not read it yet!! But, I just feel awful, I mean I am actually crying, I have started to have such awful interactions with my oldest son and I feel awful as a parent and he is very upset as well…I guess my question is why do I lose my patients and scream and get mad, while other Mamas are calm and able to clearly and consistently implement these strategies? what is wrong with me that I fly off the handle? I am so tired and I used to think I was a really good mother…and now I am petrified that I am scarring my kids for life.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Oh Meghan – there’s nothing wrong with you, and I’m sure you are a good mother! You have just gotten into a rut, and you need to consciously give yourself reminders of alternatives to yelling (this post might help!). Playful Parenting is a great book for giving you ideas on specific behavioral challenges – it’s a really good jumping off point.
      I think the biggest thing that helps me is to interact with other parents who also believe in gentle parenting techniques. I feel accountable. And of course interacting online with parents who have similar goals. And remember – none of us are perfect. We are all works in progress.
      If you have specific questions, I’d be happy to post them to the group – there are some amazing, gentle mamas who would gladly share their wisdom and experience. Email me if you’d like! CodeNameMama {at} gmail {dot} com

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