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When I was in college, I took an upper division psychology class on learning and motivation taught by a professor who spent his whole life working with troubled children and adolescents. At the time, I was seven years away from even thinking about becoming a parent, but there were two things he said that semester that resonated and stuck with me. The first was this:
“Individualized attention in the form of play is one of the single most powerful positively reinforcing things a parent can do for a child.”
Children love to play, and play is incredibly important! It contributes to a child’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development and is the means through which they best come to understand the world around them (Source, Source).
However, in our increasingly hurried, schedule-driven, results-oriented culture, play time has understandably fallen towards the bottom of our list of priorities. And as busy adults, it can be hard to make time to play with our kids when there are so many other demands on our time.
THE POWER OF CONNECTION
Play is a strong force with children because connection is powerful. Play facilitates connection, and connection itself is a critical tool in our parenting tool belt, one that can be really effectively used to positively influence behavior.
Unfortunately, it’s a tool that’s often overlooked and undervalued because it’s power isn’t always obvious.
But when you think about it, it makes intuitive sense. We enjoy cooperating with people we like, people we identify with, people who bring us joy, and people we feel close to.
Children cooperate because of two things: fear and love. Fear can be quite motivating to a young child, but it can also be damaging, and fear loses its power to influence behavior as a child ages. At that point, the only leverage you have left is love. Connection.
But connection is tricky, because it is quickly eroded by fear and not so quickly built back up again. It is a resource you have to put time and effort in to acquire.
MENDING DAMAGED CONNECTIONS
The second thing my professor said that struck a chord that semester was this:
The survival skills you learn in childhood turn out to be your biggest obstacles to growth in adult life.”
When tantrums, disagreements, yelling, anger and frustration erode the positive connection we have with our kids, they feel it. They learn to cope with it, and the habits formed as a result aren’t always healthy.
Anxiety. People-pleasing. Defiance. Feelings of failure. Low self-esteem. Depression. You get the idea.
Now I’m not saying that the way you and I turned out was “all our parents’ fault.” As adults we can take responsibility and be proactive about our personal weaknesses, so assigning blame is neither necessary nor productive.
But it’s important, I think, to consider the long-term effects of our interactions with our kids, and to remember that love has the power to heal.
It’s also important to have realistic expectations about what that healing will look like. Like all meaningful endeavors, building a strong connection–or repairing a damaged one–will take time.
But this doesn’t mean you need to drop what you’re doing to spend hours and hours of individual time with each of your children (although if you could swing it, that would be awesome!).
Often the assumption is that children benefit more when moms spend more time with them, but recent research has shown that’s not actually the case. According to one longitudinal study, the amount of time parents (mothers in particular) spent with their 3-11 year old children had almost no relationship to how the children turned out–not to their academic achievement, behavior, or emotional well-being–and only a relatively minimal effect on adolescents (Source).
That’s not to say that the time we spend with our children has no effect on them. What it means, though, is that quality time has the greatest impact on our kids. And you can’t have quality without quantity. Would you feel close to someone you spend 10 awesome hours with once every six months? Probably not.
It’s all about frequent, meaningful connection.
HOW TO CREATE CONNECTION WITH YOUR KIDS
So how do we create connection? It depends. For my toddler, simply being chased around the kitchen island is enough to elicit a fit of giggles from both of us. At her age, something as simple as this does the trick, but her needs have changed as she has gotten older.
How you create connection is going to depend so much on the unique relationship you have with your child!
I know from experience that getting stared on this process can be challenging. When I had my second baby, I felt extremely disconnected from my oldest, who clung to her daddy and probably felt a bit abandoned by me after a long pregnancy that turned me into an impatient grouch.
Her behavior was starting to reflect our disconnect, and I needed to do something–fast! There was some trial and error, but so far the results have been worth it.
This sort of thing is really a never-ending journey, so if you need help getting started, be sure to check out this resource that I’ve created just for moms like you. It goes over some key points so that you too can start building meaningful connection daily.
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What are some ways you create connection with your kids? How have those ways changed as they’ve grown older? Tell me in the comments!
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