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Gamification: Making toddlerhood fun... for parents

Updated: May 13, 2021

I don’t know about you, but “play” does not come easily to me. Most parenting philosophies and research strongly encourage “play” as an important form of learning, exploration and brain development among other benefits. But when my first son was a baby, I remember staring at him and the random toys strewn across the floor and thinking, “Ok what do we do now?” In those times, and even now that my boys are older (5 and 2 years old), I try to always put my phone away and stay present with them while they play, but that doesn’t make it fun. Or easy. I mean, I am still on the clock.

So then I got to thinking, there are lots of things about parenthood that are boring to me, or that I just downright don’t like. Don’t get me wrong, five years in and I am loving motherhood now. Still, who wants to clean up poop and pee or wrestle two screaming toddlers to get them to take a bath? Not enjoyable.

So, I decided to make it enjoyable.

Have you ever heard of the term “gamification”? It’s the process of making a laborious task fun for yourself so you’ll actually do it. It’s like rewarding yourself with a jelly doughnut at the end of the week if you’ve reached your savings goal. Or splurging on that new pair of jeans if you reach your goal weight. The same principal, I’ve decided, can also apply to parenting.

Take baths for instance.

I used to dread giving my kids a bath. The tug-of-war, the making them go potty, the endless piles of clothes to take off, the huge pool of water on the bathroom floor to clean up afterward and the long song and dance of drying off and getting dressed after. It was tiresome and frustrating to say the least, which probably explains why my kids went from nightly baths to weekly baths for a good while. But once I decided to “gamify” the process, my entire outlook changed. Now I look forward to bath days with great anticipation. Like a Pavlovian dog, I get excited at the very start of the whole ordeal.

How did I change my outlook on bathtime so completely? Easy. Once the kids are scrubbed and rinsed, I tell them they can play for ten minutes with their coveted bath toys (these are special toys they only get to play with in the bath, so it’s a huge draw, as you can imagine). Sometimes this ten minutes turns into twenty, but hey, who’s counting? Anyway, next I pull out my headphones and watch a sitcom on my phone while I sit in the bathroom with them. Oh that’s not all, folks. There’s more. I also do a crossword puzzle while I watch. Granted, it’s not a legit break. I still have to stop to squelch fights or yell, “No big splashes!” from time to time, but still. It’s enough to make it fun for me.

Once the bath is over, I also let the boys do a short yoga before dinner (we love Cosmic Kids Yoga). This not only adds an incentive for them to get dry and dressed more quickly, but it gives me a breather and a few minutes to get dinner started. It also calms them down after their wild water adventure. Win. Win. Win.

Bath time isn’t the only thing I’ve gamified. I’ve started to try it in other areas too. Waiting for my potty training toddler to poop on the potty used to be torture. Now it’s a nice break for me to catch up on reading or, again, take care of another yummy crossword. Laundry? What was once a huge stressful hassle is now another mom break where I get to sip tea and watch a movie or TV while I fold, after we put the kids to bed.

I’ve also employed another tool for getting annoying tasks done: habit stacking. It’s when you stack a task onto another habit you routinely do so that you’ll make the second, annoying habit, also routine. For me, some of these include washing the child proof knob covers on the stove. I’ve tacked this on to cleanup after our family night on Fridays. Those are typically light cleaning days for me, so adding one more thing to wash isn’t that big a deal.

Another way to get annoying stuff done is to assign a day for it. If the task has its own designated day and time it’s easier to stick to. For me, laundry day is Monday (and my mom-break folding party is always Monday night). Bath days are Tuesdays, Thursdays. I straighten my hair on Wednesdays. On Friday I wash inhalers and oven knobs and on Sundays I vacuum and clean the kitchen and living room floors. By the way, I gamify those chores too. I listen to my favorite podcast during vacuuming and mopping, so much so that now it’s instinct to want to clean the floor if I ever hear the intro to that podcast. Again, Pavlovian dog. But it works! My house is staying clean, my boys are getting bathed and I'm staying sane.

God knows the kids are having a blast running around, screaming and making messes everywhere they go, so why shouldn’t we parents have a little fun in this whole process too? As much as we love our kids and would die without them, let’s be honest. Parenting is hard freaking work. And a lot of it is also kinda boring. And kind of annoying. Making it a game makes it enjoyable which improves our view of our kids, our view of parenting and ultimately affects how we parent. It’s a benefit to everyone involved. No one wants a stressed out parent, struggling to get through each day without yelling at everyone. Your sanity makes their childhood, and the whole experience, better. So grab a Sudoku or your favorite book and start enjoying the bleh parts of parenting! And, as always, let me know how it goes!

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