A Positive Approach to Parenting: Playful Parenting: A Bold New Way to Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Children's Confidence by Lawrence J. Cohen. Ballantine Books. 320p. $23.95

by Jennifer M. Paquette

NOTE: This review has been changed substantially from the version I submitted. Some of the changes were warranted; others, I felt, were editorially intrusive. Original draft is available on request for comparison purposes.

Before reading Lawrence J. Cohen's new parenting manual, I was not sure that his advice and suggestions would jibe with my own sensibility--a sensibility informed by traditional Judaism--that children should treat their parents with dignity and honor.

But then I started reading and was quickly reassured. Rather than simply advocating "anything goes," Cohen, a clinical psychologist and parent, offers ways to teach children respect, as the title suggests, in a playful manner. Although, as Cohen recommends, I can't imagine calling my kids "poopyheads" or excusing their chutzpah, more often than not I found myself agreeing with him.

Cohen begins with the importance of play. He makes his point by asking the reader to envision a child's emotional "cup"--an image that represents emotional attachment. Even well-adjusted kids will have "leaks" or "spills," looking to parents for refills.

To that end, Cohen offers numerous examples of interacting with children at difficult moments. However, because of his clinical experience with children who are withdrawn or suffer serious emotional problems, some of the scenes he conveys are more extreme than the average reader may experience with his or her own children. Cohen also states the obvious, asserting that emotional refills of a child's cup "can occur only between humans--not between a child and a …computer, no matter how 'interactive.'"

Despite the title, this book isn't entirely fun to read. Cohen can't decide who his audience is--parents or psychologists--bringing in statistics and details from primate studies, that hold little interest to the former group.

Yet I found myself applying some of Cohen's theories as I interacted with my own children. My clingy, shy five-year-old daughter requires constant "refilling," an action that will hopefully plug any "leaks," and in the process build her self-esteem. On the other hand, my boisterous, independent son, who is seven, is too busy to stop for a refill--so he may eventually run on empty.

Cohen's solutions to some of the situations he poses are often grounded in a hypothetical universe in which one-on-one time with each kid is the rule. Yet in a single parent's world, it's almost impossible to make that happen. Cohen also discusses sibling issues, helping a parent to recognize the warning signs that a fight is turning dangerous. One of his solutions is to institute separate playtime for each child, something which isn't always an option. It would have been more useful for him to delve into handling the inevitable clashes that occur in larger families.

Another omission is a more thorough examination of pre-teen and teenage behavior. When he does focus on this group, his advice is bizarre. For example, he suggests letting them know that you are chewing gum that they have already chewed, or standing in front of the television dressed in their clothes to get attention. It takes a lot more than displaying this kind of eccentric behavior to build strong connections with teens.

Cohen's psychological insight does shine through in his outstanding hands-on descriptions of activities such as word games, staring contests, and more. The chapter on wrestling alone, is worth the price of the book. Like many mothers, I've never thought of myself as a "physical" parent. But since my son first toddled, I've searched for a way to connect with him on his turf, and Cohen demonstrates how physical connection can overcome emotional distance.

Cohen is also best when he shows how to transform negative situations into positive ones. I decided to try one of his strategies when my son through a tantrum at a picnic. He discovered avocado on his sandwich, and started complaining. I responded that he had ordered the sandwich, he'd had it that way before, and anyway, he loved avocado. Predictably, he got mad, kicking me and his sister and tossing leaves into our food.

Normally, I would have tried to stop him and then had a bigger battle on my hands. Instead, taking Cohen's advice, I did the first silly thing that came to mind. I grabbed a handful of dry leaves and crumpled them. "Oh, no!" I shouted. "These look like ordinary leaves, but if I crush them they turn into sneezing powder!" Then I tossed the leaves in the air and sneezed frantically.

None of us expected this. My son stopped and stared; my daughter started to fake sneeze. After some giggles, my son went off to gather more leaves for "sneezing powder." Eventually, he returned, we played, and then--miracle of miracles--he ate his sandwich without complaint.

Like most parents, I want my kids to like me. But I'm not willing to be lenient simply to impress them. Yet I shudder to think what I must sound like when I have to discipline them. After reading Playful ParentingI have a few strategies for defusing difficult situations, and--even better--a more positive approach to parenting.

Jennifer M. Paquette lives in Toronto with her two children. Her articles have appeared in Jewish Action, Horizons, and the Canadian Jewish News, and The Guide to Interfaith Jewish Family Life, available from JFL at http://www.jflbooks.com/iffguide.html


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