Sometimes I put a pair of cotton princess underwear on my head before I wake up my daughters in the morning. Sometimes I recite their breakfast options in a ridiculous French accent. I smear bubbles across my face while I’m giving them a bath and tell them absurd stories about the day their father and I selected them from the discount rack at The Baby Store because that’s where babies come from.
I open my mouth to yell at them and end up launching myself across the living room with a loud TRA-LA-LAAAAA ala Captain Underpants. (Speaking of which, we do, in fact, make our fair share of Uranus jokes around here.) I activate Mommy Robot Procedures and make loud beeping noises while I press the moles on their arms to change them from Grumpy Mode to Happy Mode and, most nights around 5:30 PM, to Sit Your Tushy In The Chair and Eat Your Dinner Mode.
I do all of this because a) I crack myself up, c) more often than not, I’m not entirely sure what the hell else to do, and d) it seems to work.
When I say it works, I don’t mean that this magically ends every single problem. Rather, what I mean is that when I stop taking myself so damn seriously and respond to my daughters with humor and silliness, the stress and tension in our family decreases—and the fun and cooperation increases. I feel less frustrated and more connected to them, and from that place of connection, everything else feels easier, too.
I hadn’t really thought about it this way until last week when I read an article in The New York Times entitled “How to Make Fun of Nazis.” (Just to be clear, although I may have made the occasional “I don’t give in to baby terrorists” joke, I am not, in fact, equating my children with Nazis. Ahem.) The piece, which was published in the wake of all the Charlottesville chaos, described how one town in Germany responded to neo-Nazis who marched in their community each year: with humor.
Through the use of a few clever signs and props (including a start and finish line stenciled into the street), the town turned a hate march into a walk-a-thon by donating money to an organization that helps people leave extremist groups. Rather than facing angry protestors and defending their rights, the Nazis were left looking ridiculous as they walked past cheerful banners reminding them that each step they took was raising more money against, well, themselves.
I love this response, and not just because it makes fun of Nazis. I love it because it offers a different, but no less powerful way of responding to them, one that doesn’t fuel their fire (which is what they want), but rather removes all of the fuel and changes the narrative completely. Not surprisingly, it turns out responding to anger and hate with violence is “simply a bad strategy.” Research has found that non-violent interventions are can be nearly twice as effective in changing behavior.
And I’ve discovered that non-violent (or in my case, non-super-cranky-and-snappy) interventions also work well in difficult parenting moments. Rather than getting into another fruitless power struggle in which nobody wins, or nagging my way through the day, I can diffuse the situation with a little hilarity.
My kids expect a fight, s when I respond to their whining or bickering by politely asking them to whine a little better—no, in fact, please go in the other room, practice your whining again, and then come back with a complete performance (after all, who doesn’t love a good whine with some cheese in the morning?), I catch them off guard and decrease their resistance, even as I’m holding the line on whatever they happen to be whining for in the first place.
This is an important point that bears repeating: setting limits and disciplining your child effectively doesn’t have to be a serious, deeply unpleasant interaction. You can be funny even as you’re making your expectations clear. Your kids have a lot of practice getting into power struggles with you, and they’ll rise to the challenge every time, but they likely have no idea how to respond when a sock puppet named Stinky McWinkerBean pops up from the behind their bed, cracking jokes about being lost and confused in the chaos of a messy bedroom that needs to be tidied.
Bonus: When you use humor in the midst of difficult moments, you’re modeling a great way to respond to, well, anything, and you’re strengthening your relationship with your kiddo, too.
Just a couple of caveats to keep in mind before you start making fart noises in response to your kids’ bickering in the back seat of the car— if your anger or frustration is too intense, your attempts at a joke might cross the line into disparaging humor or hurtful teasing, which will only make things worse. Ask yourself if you’re in the right headspace to be silly before busting out your Dad jokes.
In addition, if your child is too upset, he may need a little time to just feel his feelings before he’s ready to hear the interrupting cow knock-knock joke (which really is the best one ever: Knock knock/Who’s there?/Interrupting Cow/Interrupting Cow Wh-/MOOOOOO!).
So go ahead. Speak in a ridiculous accent. Fall down (toddlers especially love this one). Put food coloring in their milk. Check your kid’s nose for fairies (or dinosaurs, if that’s her jam). Sing a silly song or shake your tushy. Jabber some nonsense when you really feel like yelling. Do whatever comes naturally to you. Just remember–at the end of the day, thisparenting business is far too serious to be taken seriously.