I read an early-years parenting book and in the first chapter the authors said that the way to relieve parenting stress and become the parent you always wished you could be is to arrange your life so that you never have to be anywhere at a given time. The author was joking but the joke was made with the understanding that parenting becomes challenging when you have to get your pre-schooler somewhere by, say 3pm with: his or her teeth brushed, clothes and shoes on, and with a well thought-out day bag (packed, of course, by a sane and calm parent). Trying to accomplish this with a spirited pre-schooler is almost enough to make a grown man or woman weep. The reminding, the cajoling, the chasing, the wresting him into his clothes, the related parenting injuries (usually a head-butt to the lip) have at times completely depleted all my energy and ability to think or do anything except weep.
I was at a dinner party recently, describing my challenges getting my 3-year-old son Wyatt ready to go, and my friend Gary said, “Failures in parenting are due to failure of imagination on the part of the parent”. He explained that when he is able to make up an imaginative game to help get things done, everything goes so much better for both him and his three-year-old son.
I was momentarily stunned by his statement. These were my own words being spoken back to me! I knew exactly what he was talking about, but in the heat of my pre-schooler struggles, I had completely lost sight of this!
Allow me to explain: I am an expressive arts therapist. My clients dance, paint, play music, sing, write poetry, and act out scenes with the intention of overcoming psychological suffering. In my recently published book The Healing Dance: The Life and practice of an expressive arts therapist I wrote:
…psychological illness is a failure of our imagination, in that we become incapable of imagining a way out of our suffering. People come to see me, an expressive arts therapist, to train and strengthen their imagination. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life, but through creative ingenuity we can find resourceful ways through…
When my clients describe life stories or issues they are facing, no matter how intense or tragic, my response is always the same “okay let’s play with it”. A client who suffers from anxiety can create a painting that shows what his anxiety feels like, and then have an imaginary dialogue with the painting. I, as the therapist, am the play companion who helps “exercise” the client’s imagination. And in the same way, I, as a parent, can be the play companion who helps exercise my child’s imagination.
I had succumbed to the stress of getting our pre-schooler ready to go because I had failed to use my imagination. I had failed to make a game out of it. We had failed to play. It was time for this expressive arts therapist to take the medicine that I provide for others.
On the car ride home from the dinner party, with a sleeping child in the back car seat, my husband and I committed ourselves to using our imagination to find ways to make our everyday parenting struggles into play. We knew it would take extra initiative on our part. When facing a whiny toddler it’s easy to get stuck in frustration and resignation or to slide down the escalating anger spiral. It takes a leap of the imagination to see past your child’s resistance to the creative potential that lives within their “nooooooo”.
Wyatt’s pants now run away from him shouting “you can’t catch me”. He then catches them by putting his legs in them. His tooth brush has habit of hiding behind things and teasingly popping its head out. A whiny standstill at the front door changes into a car race or a flying dragon game down the front steps.
Things take just as much time to get done as before, but we all have fun doing them and by the time we get Wyatt into his car seat, I am no longer in tears. I find that I often need to push myself to initiate a game. But once I get involved in the fun of it, my stress level decreases and I leave the experience with more energy.
As parents we can model the use of imagination to shine light on the path ahead. This is one of the most important lessons that we can teach our little ones. A lesson they can use when they face the inevitable challenges life will throw them both as children and adults.