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CaliforniaMom asks:
Q:

Imaginative play - daughter always wants mom to play the bad guy

My 6 yr old daughter likes me to play dolls with her.  I have to admit I would rather play any other game than dolls.  She always tells me I have to play the bad guy.  Should I read anything into that?  Also, she wants me to do all the talking.  Then, when I do talk, everything I say and do is wrong.  Not a whole lot of fun.  How do I make this fun for both of us?
In Topics: Motherhood
> 60 days ago

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Expert

lkauffman
Jan 29, 2010
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What the Expert Says:

Dear CaliforniaMom,

I think it is wonderful that you are taking the time to be with your daughter and understand her world of play. Please know that you are not alone in your struggle to "get into" the play. I have talked with many parents about the challenges of playing with a child on their terms (their little minds are just focused on different things!). However, research shows that this kind of time together, although sometimes more fun for the child than the parent, is very important for promoting attachment and setting a strong foundation for so much of parenting, including discipline!

As for the meaning behind your daughter's play, it is difficult for me to say without seeing and "experiencing" the feeling of her play, but I can say that doll play involving "bad guys" is extremely common at your daughter's age. Play involving bad guys is often a way for children to try and get control of little fears and worries that they have. Through the play (sometimes as the bad guy, sometimes as the "victim" of a bad guy), they can effectively "role play" their way through various situations. It's a form of practice, and typically, a soothing activity for thinking through something that is worrying them (on a subconscious level, of course). Now, as I mentioned, bad guy play is very common among school-age children because they are just beginning to become aware of strangers and bad guys through cartoons, stories, etc. Thus, I wouldn't be too concerned about your daughter's play unless you are seeing other signs of behavioral or emotional difficulties or her play is very repetitive (wants to play the same event over and over and over again).

Now, how to play with her? It sounds like you are already doing a wonderful job of doll play given that she likes playing with you and continues to ask you to join her. One strategy that you might try is asking for your daughter's input as to what to say while you are playing. So, for instance, as your dolls are playing, you could whisper under your breath, "What should she say next?"  Usually, children will whisper back, "She should say....." Or, if you daughter does not like this strategy, you could talk with her directly about it during a moment when you are not playing. For example, at bedtime, you could say, "I was thinking about when we were playing dolls yesterday...I was feeling like I wasn't doing and saying the right things, and I want to know how you would like me to play dolls with you. Should I just say whatever comes to mind? Should we talk about what the dolls will say beforehand beforehand? What is your preference?"

She may not know exactly, but at the minimum, you might gain some reassurance, that she's just happy to be playing with you and to have your undivided attention. She may be less concerned with the doll "script" than with the experience of just being with you!

Sincerely,

Laura Kauffman, Ph.D.
Licensed Child Psychologist
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