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Children's Health

The Lighter Side of Parenting

Using humor to discipline and teach children.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

How would you discipline an angry child of 5 who called you a "poopyhead" (or worse) for insisting that he clean up his room or eat his vegetables? Would you:

            a. Demand an immediate apology

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            b. Put him in time-out

            c. Give him a spanking

            d. Say, "Shhh! You can't tell anyone my secret name!"

If you answered d, you're what psychologist Larry Cohen, PhD, calls a "playful parent." You've broken the tension with silliness and formed a bond with your child -- who might just be so amused (especially if you continue the game by declaring that your real secret name is Rice Crispies Cake) that he forgets he didn't want to clean his room.

Why Humor Works in Child Discipline

Child discipline seems like a very serious thing -- and that's the problem, says Cohen, the author of Playful Parenting and a play therapist. It's a lot less stressful, and a lot more fun, to use humor and play to connect with your child as you set limits and establish discipline. And disciplining children with humor and play, he adds, leaves everyone feeling much better than spanking children does.

The most important factor in child discipline, Cohen says, is the connection between parent and child. "Play and humor isn't the only way to make that connection, but it's probably the best," says Cohen, because play is a child's world, it's "where they live." And when everyone's stressed out and overloaded -- that's when we need play most.

4 Tips for Putting Play Into Child Discipline

So when your 3-year-old is battling over bedtime, or your 6-year-old has a meltdown because he lost at checkers, how do you discipline your child playfully? Consider these four playful tips from Cohen:

  • Voice yourself. Walk into your child's room and ask them to clean it -- in a fake opera voice at the top of your lungs. Funny voices and using different characters are a great way to diffuse tension. 
  • Fall down. A lot. Especially with toddlers; they think it's hilarious when adults fall down, since they do it a lot themselves. 
  • Fake cry -- especially with boys. "There's such a taboo against crying with boys that I do it all the time," says Cohen. "Kids will experiment with teasing or some mild aggression, and I'll go 'WAAAAAAHHHH!' They'll laugh and laugh and want to do it over and over again." 
  • Game it. Set up games where they can be symbolically aggressive without it being over the top, such as play wrestling and pillow fights.
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