When creating a social game for your child, it is important to think about what you will be doing as the game proceeds. Many parents are too restricted to the role of telling the child to do something and/or providing praise of some kind. This can be more confusing than fun for your child which he or she will tell you by ignoring you or moving away. I thought about this situation because it happened again recently and it happens often.
I watched a devoted, loving, but highly discouraged father play with his son, Cory. Dad praised Cory, whenever Cory did something “right” like matching colors correctly in a game where Cory placed bowling pins on matching colored circles. That was Dad's only involvement after a while because Cory protested loudly when Dad picked up a bowling pin to place one himself. Non-verbally, Cory had told Dad, “leave my toys alone!” But Dad heard a more discouraging message. “He gets upset whenever I try to play with him” his dad said.
“Good Job! Cory!” “Wow! You did it!” “Cory, that is so cool!” and so on, Dad kept the praise coming, like that list of 50 Ways to Praise Your Child that you can buy in magnet form and put on your refrigerator. This Praise List has a good message, but it was the wrong message for the moment. Cory kept orienting his body away from Dad. He put his hands on one ear while playing still with the other hand. He took his toys and moved, eventually, to the other side of the room. If Cory had had the words, he would have begged his dad to stop talking. He could not play and process all that language at the same time. Dad was trying very hard to connect with his son, and instead, was pushing him away.
First, the whole idea of praising a child for playing should be reconsidered, in my view, because play should be fun in a relaxed "we are doing this together" way. Praise can add an unwelcome element of social pressure as in "I know the right way to play and I will tell you if you do it right". Imagine if you were in a conversation with a friend--which is a form of grownup play, and the person kept interrupting the conversation to say "Good talking!" or "Nice letting me talk!". This would be annoying on so many levels.
Praise can be welcome to any of us, but the timing needs to be right. The timing is not right, usually, while playing together. Praise not only adds pressure, it intrudes on the flow of a game. In play, it should just be fun to have a play partner. What you do should be fun for your child (although you may need to make a convincing argument on this point initially). What you do should also move the play forward, not bring it to an end or interupt it. Change the game, and what you do in the game if the game is not enough fun to keep your child engaged. Don’t use praise as an ongoing reinforcement strategy because you won't need it if you get the game right. Save praise for the natural end of an activity or, forget about praising and just play. At end points, instead of praise, I often use some little happy routine to communicate excitement and shared fun. This can work as a kind of endpoint reinforcement strategy. Or not.
With Cory's dad, I began to look for a way to make dad a part of the game that did not involve dad telling Cory what to do or praise. The game was a bowling game called Silly Six Pins which is already noisy—so adding language (more noise to this child) was not my first choice. The strategy that I suggested and modeled for Dad was to take all the bowling pins and send them to Cory down a length of gutter one by one. The video clip below is of a more complex version of the game that we used. I was just giving the pins to Cory, not talking about them at all. Cory struggled with me a little about me being the keeper of the pins but once I started sending them down a length of gutter, Cory acquiesced and started enjoying my part in the game as much as his own part, which was placing the pins in the right place. After Cory had all the pins set up, he took the ball and knocked them down.
I did a little celebration routine, punching the sky and yelling “Yeah!” Cory put his hands over his ears. “Well,” I told dad, “you win some, you lose some. We will have to find a quieter way to have a shared celebration at the end of this game." Dad was planning a trip to Home Depot for a length of gutter on his way home that day.
*Note, put heavy tape on the cut ends of gutter before you use it to play because the ends of the gutter are sharp.