Upping your parenting game with playful intelligence

By Anthony T. DeBenedet

I first became interested in the study of play (oxymoron alert!) almost a decade ago. I was a new dad, desperately trying to figure out how to connect with my daughter, Ava. That desperation turned into a book called The Art of Roughhousing, which explored the benefits of parent-child physical play, especially how it helps parents nurture a lasting bond with their children. Maybe you have some joyful memories tucked away of playfully wrestling or pillow-fighting with a parent or child.

More recently, however, I found my life blurring into a frazzled mosaic of busyness, perfectionism, and exhaustion. Sound familiar? What I came to realize was that the playful parts of my personality were slowly being overtaken by the intensity and seriousness of adulthood. And it scared me.

So I went on a quest to learn how playfulness actually affects adult life in today’s age. I thought that if I could wrap my head around the benefits of playfulness, then I might be able to restore it as a balancing force in my life.

I started observing, studying, and interviewing people who live with a lighter step, who live a little more on the playful side of the coin. I also searched across a range of disciplines—like psychology, sociology, history, neuroscience, and economics—to try to make sense of how playfulness truly operates in adult life.

The result became a book called Playful Intelligence. And the big punchline of what I found is that playfulness in adulthood is best understood as a function of playful behaviours. What’s more, these behaviours affect our adult lives much differently than they did when we were kids. The book centers on the five playful behaviours that proved in my research to be of highest value in adulthood: imagination, sociability, humour, spontaneity, and wonder.

As you’re likely a parent, I thought it might be useful to share with you what I found to be the most important parenting benefit of living a playfully intelligent life. It became clear while studying spontaneity.

When I first started exploring what the playful behaviour of spontaneity looked like in adult life, I expected to see how spontaneous actions—doing unplanned things outside of routine—led to fun experiences. And I certainly did see this. But as I gathered more data, I also noticed something that I didn’t expect to find: spontaneity often reveals itself in our adult lives as psychological flexibility. Essentially, what I was finding and observing in the lives of playfully intelligent people was not only a high regard for spontaneous actions, but also a consistently flexible mental response to the often unplanned and unpredictable nature of life—such as, say, subbing a piece of masking tape for a band-aid (because you used the last one you had in the house last weekend) when your child has a phantom scrape on his leg. Note: band-aids have average physical-healing properties, but off-the-charts emotional-healing properties.

We traditionally think of spontaneity as something we can see or experience—a spur-of-the-moment vacation, or an out-of-the-blue phone call we make to an old friend. Psychological flexibility, on the other hand, is the spontaneity that we don’t always see in front of us. But it has the chance to act within our minds every time things don’t go as expected. It allows us to mentally ricochet in fresh directions when the unplanned happens, easing us through disruptions in our daily routines and helping us learn how to value them.

Thinking of psychological flexibility as mini moments of spontaneity inside the brain has helped me counteract the pressure I often feel to be a perfect parent and make perfect parenting decisions. When something happens in our lives that we didn’t necessarily think would, we can either respond in a flexible way or in a rigid, inflexible, perfectionistic way. Since life—especially parenting—is full of twists and turns, the former is much more valuable. It promises us that, even when something doesn’t go exactly as we had planned or hoped for, we can still make it to the other side and find meaning.

When we were children, the playful behaviour of spontaneity was more about having fun and experiencing new adventures than anything else. But now, in our adult lives, spontaneity is the power source for our psychological flexibility. And when we put this knowledge into action, slowly but surely, playfulness becomes a part of our story again, and we learn a valuable lesson: It’s not about taking life less seriously, but rather ourselves less seriously.

Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D. is a practicing physician and behavioural-science enthusiast. His interviews and writings have run in various media outlets, including the “New York Times”, the “Today Show”, the “Washington Post”, and “TIME Ideas”. He is author of “Playful Intelligence: The Power of Living Lightly in a Serious World” (Santa Monica Press, May 2018) and co-authored “The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It” (Quirk Books, 2011). He can be found on Twitter: @ATDeBenedet. His website, www.anthonydebenedet.com, will be launched soon.