Saturday, March 3, 2012

Leaving the playground

In this series of posts, I explore my personal challenges with each of the principles of unconditional parenting. In this post I discuss using my long-term parenting goals to find short-term solutions to a common parenting issue. These personal accounts run in parallel with a series of information-based posts where I explain each of the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting with links to all posts in the series.

I've seen it way too many times. The parents are ready to leave playground, but the kid isn't. This is the point at which I see many parents break out the promise of something great to follow, like ice-cream. When the child doesn't jump for the bait, they quickly renege on that promise. OK, no ice-cream then. Of course, the kid gets angry and hurt and is even less likely to follow the people who are toying with his emotions. Then the threat escalates to taking away other privileges, and when that doesn't work they throw in the threat of an actual punishment. They might even toss in some begging and pleading along with this deal making.

This process boggles my mind. It's kind of like watching someone shoot themselves in the foot and I often feel sad for both parent and child. Really, it's just so much easier to not use rewards or punishments to get a kid to stop having fun.  It's a lot easier to work together and to learn to cope with each other's disappointments and conflicting desires. It's a lot easier to be honest and creative.

I think about the process of leaving the park, or any fun time, in terms of long-term parenting goals. One of my goals is to have a good relationship with my son. I want Munchkin to trust that I will do my best to meet his needs and to fulfill his desires. I want him to respect my needs and desires and to trust my decisions. Broken promises and false negotiations would interfere with these ideals.

I'd also like to show him that losses and goodbyes are difficult, yet normal, parts of life. Ending a good time is hard enough. It's not a process that should be tainted with ultimatums or false hopes. Life will throw him plenty of those without me imposing them. I'd rather help Munchkin work through the feelings of loss and disappointment early on so he can learn to deal with them later...and learn to have faith that good times are sure to return.

Considering my long-term goals, what can I do in the short-term? How can I get a two year-old to leave the playground?  Here's a look at how I use my long-term vision to guide my actions in getting a toddler to leave the park.

I don't use punishment in general, but it's still important to point out that I never use the threat of "going home" to stop unwanted behavior. If leaving the playground is ever used as a punishment, it's likely that a child will come to view leaving as, well, a punishment. That definitely runs counter to my long-term vision of resilience after loss.

Before I even announce the prospect of going to the park, I make sure I plan ahead. Believe it or not, there is a time when a kid is ready to leave the park, often based on hunger, thirst, fatigue, and their threshold for stimulation. Figuring out how long that is makes it easier for everyone. My son takes up to an hour to settle in to a new environment, so I try to plan at least that long at any new spot. Even at our regular parks, I make sure we have ample time. If I try to leave after a half hour, he will undoubtedly get upset because his needs haven't been met.  Considering that the whole point of taking him to a playground is for him to play, the least I can do is allow that to happen on his terms, not mine. If we're short on time, we might go for a walk in the neighborhood instead. I also go equipped with snacks, water, and extra clothes depending on weather. Those extra few minutes of preparation can buy us a lot of extra fun time.

Once we've been at the park long enough, I start my exit strategy. First, I make sure that I connect and engage in play before leaving.  As I wrote about in one of my other posts, taking a moment to connect with your child can have a big effect on how willing he is to go along with your request. Intruding on a kid's fun to say "Let's go home now" is not likely to be well received! If I've been standing nearby just watching, I make sure to climb the ladder or throw the ball before I even mention that we're leaving.

As leaving time approaches, I give a heads-up a few minutes before it's time to go. We're leaving in a few minutes. Go ahead and finish up your game/climbing/sliding. I'm going to get our things ready and then we'll leave. I often hear parents give a five-minute warning at the playground, but I prefer to say a few minutes. "Five more minutes" sounds threatening to me (especially coming from yap dog parents) because it places too much emphasis on the clock and not enough on helping the child transition away from a good time. The point of giving a warning is to give the child some time to prepare for the transition. I view it as an opportunity for my son to wrap up his playtime (physically and emotionally), which may take five minutes, ten minutes, or even thirty seconds.  I use that time to pack up the bagful of snacks and extra clothes or get my transition activity ready (see below).

When I'm ready to go, I announce that it's time to leave. I wait for the right moment to step in with the expected  We're going to leave now. If he's still actively engaged in something, I'll say "after this next time down the slide" or "one more time." After that, it's time to go.

Of course, Munchkin often resists at that point, even if he really is ready to leave -- and especially if he's over-stimulated, tired, or hungry. If I need to reconnect with Munchkin again after the final announcement, I use a goodbye game. I like to use hide-and-seek to herd Munchkin from point A to point B (read more about it here). I also like to play chase with him, where I give him a few goes of getting away from me, then I swoop in and scoop him up.  He may let out a few cries of resistance, but if I stick with the playful attitude, he tends to settle into my arms or walk willingly next to me. It's amazing how much time and effort I save by creating a joint venture in the departure process.

Then, to help him focus on moving in the we're-leaving-now-direction,  I offer a transition activity that I've kept in the car, stroller, or backpack.  I don't like to refer to activities that can't be done immediately because then it's not really a transition. I often use a favorite snack that we only eat on the go, a toy he hasn't played with in awhile, or some item he picked up along the way to the park. Sounds like a bribe, I hear you thinking. Trust me, I struggled for awhile with whether I was bribing him or not and finally decided it's not a bribe. The difference between bribe and transition activity is a pretty fine line that has a lot to do with attitude and approach. I do not offer the transition activity as a reward for leaving the playground. Nor do I deny giving it to him if he throws a fit or puts up resistance. It's an option of what to do next now that we're leaving the park. I try to set it up so that it makes sense to move away from the playground to this new activity. Do you want to go eat a fruit bar with me? Are you ready for your snack? Hey, do you remember the red tractor we left in the car? Guess what I have in my bag? And so on.

Finally, I provide the chance for closure by asking him if he'd like to say goodbye. Saying goodbye to new or old friends, to trees, toys or play structures can help him process that this is the end. Plus, it's a nice way for a toddler to learn about cultural norms of bidding farewell. I model the phrase then ask if Munchkin would like to say goodbye (it's always his choice). Bye green ball. Bye bucket and shovel.

Usually, that's enough for us to leave the park peacefully. Sometimes, it's not. Sometimes there's whining and crying, even kicking and thrashing.  From what I've noticed, it usually has very little to do with not wanting to leave the playground. Did something upsetting happen recently? Have I been distant or cranky lately? Is he over-tired and beyond his limits? It is precisely during those emotionally wrought partings that he needs me to follow through. He needs me to be calm and assertive, yet gentle. I see you're upset. I hear that you want to stay, but we're leaving now. I'm really sorry but we have to go now. I pick him up if he runs away, but inevitably, he asks to get down after a moment...and comes with me anyway.  

In many ways, ending good times has brought us closer.  We become more connected because I'm there to guide him through the process, authentically. He's grown to trust my decision to leave, and I've learned to be more flexible about how and when we do that. I'm sure as he grows older I'll have to come up with new and better tricks to get him to leave, but I'm also sure I won't be using rewards or punishment to do so. Because really, love is a lot easier.

Do you have some good leaving the playground tricks? Please share them, I'd love to try them, too!


  1. I agree! these work wonders for me as well especially the 'saying goodbye' I also 'feel' it out, some days she needs more transition time and I give it...

    The big thing I notice is time, my daughter likes to spend a good amount of time playing, usually about an hour (at least). Often I see many parents come and go in that time, some kids fight it and it doesn't surprise me... I like being at the park/playground more than 15 minutes.

    1. Yes, time is a big thing for us, too. And it's true that some days transition takes longer than other days. I think it's really about being present and observant enough to work with a child rather than just be an escort.

  2. So much about this post makes sense, and the key I find is being able to put yourself in their shoes. They have the same emotions we do, just different triggers and navigating how to meet their needs positively is sometimes hard but the development of an authentic relationship is very worth it.

  3. I love this! So well put! And the goodbye game is great. I love how you point out the importance of calm follow through even during difficult transitions. Thanks so much for sharing this link with me!