I have a keen interest in every aspect of child care, but the advice I share is focused on one goal: Building healthy relationships with our kids.
There’s a lot riding on this. The quality of our connection will dictate whether teaching our children appropriate behavior is simple and successful, or whether it is confusing, discouraging and ineffective. It will decide whether our children feel secure and retain the sure sense of self and confidence that helps them fulfill their potential. And perhaps most importantly: Our relationship will be forever embedded in our child’s psyche as their model of love and the ideal they’ll seek for future intimate bonds.
In the impressionable first years especially, every interaction we have with our children is an opportunity to deepen our connection…or not. Sometimes a missed connection is just a minor wasted opportunity. In other instances, missed connections create distance, lessen trust, and are even invalidating for our children.
Connecting often means overriding our instincts and emotional impulses and thinking before we act. Here are some common examples:
1. We don’t want to hear crying.
Hearing and acknowledging our children’s emotions can be intensely challenging, but it is essential for raising healthy children who feel connected to us.
We disconnect when we discount their feelings (“Oh, don’t be frightened, it’s only a puppy”), or invalidate (“That didn’t really hurt” or “Those aren’t real tears”), or rush feelings through (“Okay, okay, that’s enough now”), or when we misread our infant or toddler’s cries and try to calm her before listening and understanding.
Since feelings are involuntary (and even if they seem forced, who are we to decide this?), these disconnected responses also teach children that they aren’t wholly acceptable to their loved ones, that they can’t trust themselves or their feelings.
The secret to connecting is to meet children where they are. Listen patiently and acknowledge. We can never go wrong or overboard when we acknowledge: “You are so upset we have to leave. Oh, this is terribly upsetting for you! I said we had to go when you really, really wanted to stay longer. You were having so much fun!”
2. We don’t want to be the bad guy who confronts and displeases
Distraction is the polar opposite of connection, yet I often hear it advised as an acceptable “redirection” tool for infants and toddlers. Really?
Distraction doesn’t teach appropriate behavior. What it does teach children is that they don’t rate an honest connection in their first and most formative years. So these distractions, along with other manipulative, controlling methods like bribes, tricks and (most disconnecting of all) punishments threaten the relationship of trust necessary for close parent-child bonds.
Children need simple, truthful, empathetic, but direct responses, especially when they are testing and learning limits. The parent who confronts situations honestly, acknowledging the child’s point of view and possible (actually more like probable) displeasure may worry about being the bad guy, but this will be the “trusted”, genuine guy, the brave person the child feels closest to and safest with. (For details, please check out my many posts on respectful, non-punitive discipline.)
3. We get invested in what our child plays or learns.
“Wouldn’t life be easier for both parents and infants if parents would observe, relax and enjoy what their child is doing, rather than keep teaching what the child is not yet capable of?” – Magda Gerber
Trusting your child, appreciating what he or she is doing right now will bond you and transmit positive messages of acceptance and appreciation to your child. Again, the key is to meet children where they are. The way children choose to play and learn is usually better than enough – it is the perfect thing for them to be doing at that particular time.
But sometimes our agendas get in the way and leave parent and child less connected and fulfilled. Anna Banas shared an evocative example of this recently on her blog “Every Moment is Right”. She concludes, “How easy is it to assume we know better what the other person wants. And why? It seems especially ironic when it comes to having ‘fun’, don’t you think?”
My own son’s birthday party last weekend was yet another great reminder of the power of ditching agendas and valuing what is. We’d spent the afternoon decorating our house with cobwebs, ghosts and other scary things at our son’s request and a dear friend, our son’s beloved godfather, had been “hired” for DJ duties.
We were all set for a house party, but our son and his guests had another plan. They took the glow stick party favors outdoors and spent the entire evening exuberantly throwing them at each other under the moonlight, a game they invented called “Rainbow Wars”. To another family, this might have been disappointing, but we were amused and totally thrilled about the great time the kids were having. We’ve since celebrated this success together.
5. We don’t have patience for exaggerated, over-dramatic, unreasonable behavior.
Toddlers can seem to have overblown reactions, emotions and behaviors. They can seem to be greedy, self-centered, oversensitive, crybabies, braggarts, and the list goes on. It’s as if toddlers are unconsciously auditioning annoying behaviors just to test our reaction. Will we be accepting, understanding, on their team? They need us to be.
I admire one of the parents I work with so much for realizing she needs help with this. She has a tendency (passed down to her from her own parents) to discount her daughter’s point of view. She feels herself going there almost against her will. For example, if her daughter complains that another child bumped into her and her mom sees that it’s obviously nothing serious, she might reflexively say, “Oh, he didn’t mean to. It’s fine.” I’m encouraging her to try to catch herself before she does this and instead meet her child where she is by acknowledging her perspective. “Oh, did that hurt you? Sorry to hear that. You and Peter bumped into each other? Ouch!” Subtle adjustments like these are the difference between connecting and invalidating.
6. We want to get care-giving duties over with.
Diapering, feeding, bathing and bedtime are important opportunities to slow down and connect. We do that by paying attention and inviting children to participate, even when it’s not going well — especially when it’s not going well. These activities are prime time for the kind of intimacy that not only deepens our connection, but also refuels our child’s body and soul.
I’m often asked, “How can I pay attention when the baby needs to feed 24/7?” Or, “But my toddler hates having his diaper changed. I have to distract him and get it over with quickly.” Ironically, these are common results of disconnection. Babies need to nurse less and appreciate diapering more when we are engaged during these activities.
“Whenever you care, do it absolutely with full attention. If you pay half attention all the time, that’s never full attention. Babies are then always half hungry for attention.” – Magda Gerber
7. We hesitate to express our love, appreciation, gratitude or apologies because our child doesn’t seem to be listening.
Whether our children are infants, toddlers, teens or somewhere in between, when we talk about the feelings that connect us, they’re listening.
One of my RIE Parent – Infant Guidance Classes met for the last time recently, and I bid farewell to families I’d sat on the floor with each week for almost two years. I started sharing with strong, sweet and sometimes feisty two-year-old Maren how much I had enjoyed watching her grow and play, but she walked away. I continued. The moment I finished she turned around and surprised me with the most tender hug and kiss.
“Don’t Waste an Opportunity to Connect With Your Kids” is included in my compilation:
(Photo by Sara Prince)