Kate Orson suggests that having a laugh with your child could be the best way to make connection and develop good habits
Christian parenting has often been on the serious side. As believers we know the consequences of a child going astray and making bad choices in life. It’s no wonder that many Christian parents opt for firm limits for their children. Limits are, of course, a good thing. Limits give children boundaries to help support them to prevent them from sinning, hurting themselves and others. Limits help children feel safe, and, when set in a gentle way, allow them to feel loved.
When it comes to setting gentle but firm limits, laughter is one of the greatest tools in our parenting toolbox. This may sound surprising. Laughter is play and fun, it’s wild and unruly. What could it possibly have to do with times when we want to be serious and get our children to do something, or stop them from doing something?
When my daughter first learnt to crawl, I noticed that one of the first things she did was crawl away from me, laughing as she playfully escaped me. This would often happen last thing at night, when I got her pyjamas out for bed. It was like a trigger for play! I saw how natural play is to a child’s nature and how the kind of play that children love most is power role reversal. Babies, toddlers, and even older children just love it when the parent makes mistakes, get things wrong, or are in a position where the child has the power. A toddler will laugh and laugh if you try to get them dressed and ‘accidentally’ put clothing items on their teddy instead, and then act all confused and realise your ‘mistake.’ They will find it hilarious if you try cleaning their teeth but end up cleaning their nose, ears, or chin, and then keep trying to find the right body part, but constantly make mistakes. (For more on laughter with kids, go here.)
Feel good endorphins
Why is this kind of play so appealing to children? On the surface it’s just a lot of fun, but it actually goes much deeper than that. Laughter helps to release stress, it lowers blood pressure, and promotes the release of feel-good endorphins.
You might be reading this thinking, what could a baby or toddler possibly be ‘stressed’ about? In the mainstream culture there isn’t much understanding about how just coming into the world can be overwhelming for a newborn. They might have experienced a traumatic birth, or had a mother who through no fault of her own, experienced stress during pregnancy. All of these experiences impact a baby’s sensitive nervous system. Even if things went relatively smoothly, everyday events like a dog barking, or siblings fighting can cause a baby to startle, and momentarily go into a stress response. God has given us the most wonderful, natural healing mechanism to recover from the big and little traumas of life. Crying is one of the ways children release stress hormones and recover their emotional equilibrium. Laughter also plays a role in helping children to process emotions.
I remember when my daughter was young we took a plane ride during strong wind and had quite a bumpy landing. After that she loved to play ‘bumpy landings’ with stuffed toys on an imaginary plane. She would have fits of giggles about the toys falling everywhere. Children naturally use play to tell stories about the difficult experiences in their lives, or just to release stress and tension at the end of a hard day.
They want to co-operate
The good news about ‘bad behaviour,’ is that children, even toddlers, do want to co-operate with us, it’s just that sometimes their feelings get in the way. This is where the laughter comes in, in those situations where your child is saying ‘no,’ and not co-operating.
When you need your toddler to get dressed, or put their shoes on, and they are refusing, try a few minutes of play first. You might be thinking, ‘’but I haven’t got time to play! Can’t they just do what I ask?!’’ As Christians we know that the fruits of the spirit are ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.’ Galatians 5:22-23. If we can apply this to our parenting, and have patience with a ‘no,’ then we can help to create lasting positive changes in our child’s emotional wellbeing, (and their behaviour!) I think of this kind of parenting as ‘investment parenting.’ By playing and spending time with our children when we can, we invest in the connection. When children feel well-connected to us, and have opportunities to cry without being distracted from their emotions, or have a good laugh, they are less likely to express those feelings indirectly through behaviour.
Ephesians 6:4 says, ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.’ If you think about it, laughter is actually the perfect parenting tool, because it gives us a way to discipline, but without the anger and frustration that would be provoked by harsher parenting techniques.
There may be times when a child is not in the mood to laugh, and telling them it’s time to take a bath, leave the house, or go in the car seat might trigger a huge meltdown, or an angry outburst. While crying or the more ‘negative emotions’ can feel like we’ve failed as parents, it can actually be a positive sign, that connection, laughter and fun together has built a safe base for them to tell you how they feel. Just being there to support them through their emotions, without trying to distract or fix the emotions allows them to process it, so that it’s less likely to cloud their thinking and influence their behaviour in the future. With a loving parent’s support a child can return to joy.
It can be challenging being there for our children, and responding lovingly to the most frustrating of behaviour. It can trigger strong feelings from our own childhood because our parents didn’t always model the fruits of the spirit with us. But if we turn to God, tell him our challenges, and ask him to provide strength, we will find that the impossible becomes possible.