The Lighter Side of Parenting

Using humor to discipline and teach children.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 04, 2010
5 min read

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

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.

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.

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.

Say that you have a strong-willed toddler who fights getting changed -- diaper changes, getting dressed, getting undressed. Every change is a battle, and you've resorted to just holding her down and wrestling her like an alligator into her clothes. Instead of disciplining your young child in frustration, think of what you can do to make getting dressed fun:

  • Find a play time, and then say, "Let's play the getting-dressed game," suggests Cohen. Maybe try dressing up all her dolls and stuffed animals. Just don't try out your new game for the first time when you really need to get out the door; wait for a good time, then take it to the "play zone." "The problems always occur in the serious zone," Cohen says.
  • Or have your child choose your clothes and be the boss and dress you! Or maybe race around the house at top speed, waving her snow pants or diaper, insisting she has to wear them while she's squealing and giggling and saying no.
  • "Stumble and fall and let her get away, and she'll laugh and laugh," says Cohen. The miracle is that all that laughing and goofiness loosens up the tension that has gotten connected to getting dressed for some reason. Play is the way kids release tension.

Remember that not every playful approach you try will work. "You have to be willing to try lots of different things." says Cohen. "I'll have parents ask me 'How did you know just what to do with that child?' and I'll say, 'I tried 10 things and the first nine didn't work.'"

With older kids, like 5- or 6-year-olds, play is a great way to learn how they're feeling about issues at school.

"A lot of these kids will spontaneously come home and play school, and they'll want to be the strict teacher and you the student who's getting in trouble," Cohen says. "They'll exaggerate and make it very dramatic, just taking some of the emotionally difficult things and bringing them to the play zone."

What about using play to teach things like respect and manners? Try using stuffed animals or hand puppets -- but you really have to get into it! Give one puppet great manners and the other terrible manners -- but both should be fun, super silly, and exaggerated. The goal again is to relieve the tension that gets in the way of them spontaneously being polite and thoughtful.

In Cohen's house, once a month the family has an April Fool's dinner, where they put food coloring in everything, drink from vases instead of glasses, and use serving bowls and serving spoons. "We're just as goofy as you can get, and it's really fun. Then it's easier for us to ask the kids to follow our rules the rest of the time."

Cohen is quick to stress that disciplining children with playful parenting is not the same as spoiling children. In fact, he says, spoiling doesn't make a connection at all.

"If you're giving in to a child's whining because you just can't stand it another minute, that's not making a connection. But if you give a warm hug, or say, 'Hey, let's play a little game first,' that's not spoiling a child or going against your values. Giving the whole box of cookies because you don't want to hear the whining, that's going against your values."

You may be thinking: But shouldn't disciplining children be -- well -- disciplinary? Isn't responding to bad behavior with play just rewarding it?

Think about discipline like food, says Cohen. "Most children and adults get cranky when they're hungry. Just because they're cranky doesn't mean we're not going to feed them. Connection is also a basic human need -- children will literally die without it. It's not optional, and it doesn't make sense to think of it as a reward for bad behavior. Think instead that the bad behavior is coming from disconnection, so the solution is reconnection."