Our role as parents means that most of the time we are the leaders (of our pack)! Our job is to set an example, teach our little ones what is right and wrong, and follow through on consequences if our rules are broken. As every parent knows, our authority is often challenged, especially if we are raising strong children.
The fact that we as parents need to lead our children is old news. But there is one part of parenting that requires us to be the follower and our child to LEAD us. This may be news to you; it definitely took me by surprise when I learnt this from Rach! Let me take you on the journey where I discovered this important part of parenting: how to be a follower.
The leading / following battle
I have always been strong-willed! According to my mother, my first word was “SELF!” I wanted to be independent and do everything MY way. I was (and still am) a natural-born leader on my own path. So when I was blessed (or punished according to my husband haha) with a daughter with the same strength of will and fierce independence, it quickly became a clash of wills.
I struggle to lead as Rach does not want to be a follower. My authority is challenged daily. I believe some kids find it easier to follow and that’s okay, but not my Rach. I am not going to pretend that at times our house probably sounds like a war zone as we clash over meals, bedtime, cleaning up or washing hands after making a wee. She knows how to make her voice heard when she doesn’t want to do something. In that moment, I often wish she could just be a follower. This challenges me to ask do we as parents want our kids to grow up as leaders or followers?
Part of living in our family means that we do things a certain way (most of the time) as this is what is best for all of us. I need to lead when it comes to routine, values and discipline. But part of living in our family ALSO means that we have fun together. I have found that the best leader when it comes to play, games and giggling isn’t me – it is my child.
5 ways to follow your child in play
Instead of seeing leading and following as a battle, try to see it as a CIRCLE: sometimes the parent leads, sometimes the child leads. By allowing this leading-following dynamic between me and Rach to flow, she learns compliance skills AND leadership skills (both of which I believe are part of being a happy and healthy little person).
Here are the 5 steps that helped me follow my child in play:
Step 1 : Pre-play listening
Open yourself up to your play expert’s world: what is your child saying? What did they recently enjoy doing? Rach is the master of having a good time. She knows what she likes to do and will take my hand and introduce me to HER world of fun. To follow your child, you need to know where they want to go. You get to know this by listening.
Step 2 : Pre-play preparation
To make the most out of play with your child, a little bit of prep is required. Once you know where your child would like to take you in play, create the perfect environment for that play to happen. This is often as simple as creating an environment free from distractions. Put off the TV, put away your phone and dedicate some time to just play.
Step 3 : Play
Participate in play by following your child. Invite your child to decide WHAT to play, HOW to play and WHERE to play. Be careful of not falling back into leader mode. Some little people who are still developing their leadership skills may prefer for you to be in charge. By you taking the back seat, your little one gets to practice being a leader. Some little people love being in the driver seat! If I try to lead Rach when it comes to play, it goes disastrously wrong. If I decide which doll to play with and what we are going to pretend to do, there will be shouting and stomping and tears.
Step 4 : Listen some more
Following in your child in play opens up so many opportunities for learning about your child and developing an understanding of their loves and frustrations. Never stop listening and learning about their world.
Step 5 : Choose toys they will love
I really love buying toys that I know Rach will enjoy. I remember how I used to go to the shops and pick something on a whim and she never touched it! But once you have followed your child in play, you really start to choose toys with purpose and reason. I now buy what I know Rach will love and this is shaped by what I’ve learnt from listening and following her in play.
Meet the play expert
In play, our children are the best leaders! They are the play experts. They know exactly how to make a mess, get dirty, laugh, make a mess, think outside the box, and make a silly sound. When we play, I am still the parent. I believe there are certain values that need to be respected when we play. Like ‘sharing is caring’, ‘we don’t break toys’ and ‘safety first’. I still need to lead in play to make sure these rules are being followed. But I can also be a follower in allowing my child to decide WHAT we play, HOW we play and WHERE we play.
I cannot tell you how much Rach LOVES bossing me around when we play together. She feels like she is in charge, which affirms her sense of self as capable and powerful and independent. She knows that we are not always lost in her world of fun all day. There are times we need to do the boring stuff like shopping for groceries, eating dinner and sleeping at night (oh the horror of bedtime!) She knows I am in charge of the boring stuff. But she knows now that she is in charge of PLAYTIME! Because she is the play expert.