There are three “must-dos” when it comes to meeting this core emotional need—one is practicing Chapters Three and Four—do not exasperate! Another has to do with processing emotions, which we will deal with in Chapter Eight. This chapter focuses on the all-important “must-do” without which you will never be able to connect: Spend time with your children!
The Power of One-on-One
As we have helped various parents who are struggling to connect with one or more of their children, the advice they have found the most helpful is to commit to a regular one-on-one time with each child. Most parents do not have a scheduled time with each child—their interactions tend to happen on an ad hoc basis, i.e., when they go shopping, when they are on a holiday together, when they are driving together after school, and so forth. While these “normal” times have tremendous value in themselves, we believe that most children need more. When parents go the extra mile to set aside one-on-one time for their children, they are sending a loud and clear message, “You are more important to me than anything else right now. You have value because you are worth my time.” The busier the parents are, the stronger this message comes across to the children. Children themselves are also busier than they have ever been, considering the pressure to perform academically and athletically, but that is for a later chapter! Suffice it to say, children understand what it means to be busy, and they absolutely know what their parents value and what they make time for. So, when a parent sets aside individual time to spend with each child, it has a great impact.
Sonia and I (John) began going on “dates” when she was in kindergarten; I would say, “Hey, Sonia, let’s go to McDonalds!” and she’d always say, “Yea!” (In the early years, I wasn’t competing with much!). This became our habit; Sonia told me what was happening at school, with friends, and anything else she was felt like talking about. Once I made the “mistake” of asking her what she wanted to do for our date that week and she replied, “Draw.” “I can’t draw!” I exclaimed. Karen smiled maliciously and handed me some colored pencils. “What will we draw?” I asked, and Sonia replied, “Let’s sit on the balcony and draw what we see.” I was in uncharted waters, but that didn’t matter. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed herself, and we felt that much more connected.
I made the mistake of getting too busy with work and neglected our dates just when Sonia entered her preteen years. I tried to “reboot” but Sonia didn’t see the need to pick up where we left off. “I want to be close to you”, I pleaded. She retorted, “We are already close.” Desperate, I bribed her with the chance to order whatever she wanted from her favorite café—that did the trick! We ate cheesecake, I apologized for being too busy, and she chatted about schoolwork. The next week, I brought her to a CD shop where we shared headphones and listened to her favorite music. By the third week, she told me the latest updates on her friends and after a month, our connection was completely repaired.
When Sonia was in high school, the only time she could squeeze me in was early in the morning before school. It wasn’t convenient for me, but it was worth it. Sonia and I would talk for maybe forty minutes. Conversations ranged from light-hearted to really opening up about various worries or feelings—especially after a few sips of Starbucks coffee! She left for school feeling happy and secure, and I felt deeply connected to my teenaged daughter.
David and I always referred to our weekly outings as “our time” rather than a “date”—guess it’s a guy thing. We did all sorts of fun things in his growing up years. Once he was in high school, we also went for breakfast, but our connection felt the deepest on the courts—from the time he was 14, David and I played racket sports almost every week. Somehow when we were both covered in sweat, after getting out all our aggression, we had the deepest talks! Conflicts got resolved and dreams get divulged—real connection. I wouldn’t trade those times for anything!
Regular one-on-one time has other benefits—as an antidote to sibling rivalry (Junior can’t say his brother is your favorite if you make a point to have private time with each child!), to help a child with a more sensitive temperament, or to make up the difference when there is a special needs child in the home. One family we counseled had a child who had been on a strict insulin regime since birth—every two hours the mom had to wake up and check her younger child’s readings. Of course the mom was exhausted and barely had time for the older child, who tried her best to gain the mother’s favor. After putting this recommendation into practice for just two weeks (and hiring someone to help with housework!), the older child’s countenance has changed—the dad says she is like a new kid!
The Price of Privilege
Research has shown that lack of time spent with our children has a detrimental effect on our children’s emotional and intellectual well-being. So isn’t it ironic that parents from affluent societies push their children to be accepted into the best schools, fill their children’s time up with rigorous competitive sports, extra academic enrichment classes and extracurricular activities such as art, music, dance, debate, and acting, but have no time to build connection? Many of these affluent parents travel for or are consumed by work, and are not available to spend time with the family. Society may consider them successful but they have little or no connection with their children, which begs the question, “Are they really successful?”
The unrelenting standards of societies, especially affluent nations, are driving parents to push themselves and their children with a devastating consequence: Poor parent-child connection!1
In no way are we stating that getting involved in sports or being concerned with academic success is wrong per se, but when it is done at the expense of the parent-child connection, it is harmful to the family. There is no substitute for spending undivided time connecting and talking with our kids.
The Power of Daily Dinners
You’ve heard it before—one of the most important practices parents can perpetuate is to commit to regular gatherings around the dinner table. Having more meal times together is the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems such as depression, worry, fear, self-injury and social withdrawal. Parents giving attention to their children, responding to questions from their children, and keeping everyone’s behavior at the table well regulated is associated with enriched language development and academic achievement.2 The Putting Family First community found that from 1981 to 1997, American families had dinner together less often, spent less time talking as a family, took fewer vacations together, and participated together in religious observances less often, and that by the end of the twentieth century, fewer than one third of US families were eating dinner together regularly.3 (RR7.1)
The researchers also found that watching television during mealtimes is not helpful for overall family well-being (but half the families have a TV in their dining area). One reason is that some families turn their television on as a way to avoid further conflict.4 Another reason is that eating in front of the television is associated with significantly greater caloric intake in children and adults, partly because food ads cue eating behavior.5 The most obvious reason is that television impairs connection between family members—it’s hard to talk when the boob tube (or YouTube for that matter) is on! We strongly recommend that family members be attentive to one another during mealtimes, not be distracted by media of any kind, and spend their time sharing “highs and lows”. Make sure to avoid the exasperation interactions—otherwise the process will backfire!
For most families, no other shared activity is done with such regularity as the evening meal. If families spend 20 minutes together during dinnertime, in a given week, that’s more than two hours, with no agenda besides fun, (healthy) food, and “fellowship”. Such regular connection-building leads to many positive benefits for all family members. Can’t do it every night? Shoot for five nights a week. We insist on this whenever we lead marriage and family workshops, without apologies.
We began asking our kids about their “highs” and “lows” after watching the movie The Story of Us (1999). Our younger child would almost come out of his seat to share—“I’ve got five highs! The first high is, I’ve got more highs than lows. The second high is, I’ve got no lows.” His older sister would be rolling her eyes; undeterred, David would launch into the rest with gusto. If Sonia had a high, it was a real high, and she sometimes shared a low, or sometimes would say, “I don’t want to share.” (That was a sure sign that we would want to spend an extra long time tucking her into bed that night.) Highs and lows launched all sorts of discussions. Once when I (Karen) was driving David home from first grade, he blurted out, “I’ve got a low.” My instinct was to say, “Wait for dinner so Dad can hear”, but I stopped myself and said, “What’s that, sweetheart?” “The boy named Jack touched someone’s private parts!” Well, let me tell you I was glad I asked! We settled that matter at school the next day. As the kids got older, we shared more and more of our highs and lows, and shared about people we were helping or people who were sick and needed care, etc. Now that John and I are empty nesters, all four of us treasure our rare family dinners so we can share highs and lows together once more.
The Power of Early Attachment
While it may be common sense today for many parents to be close to their infants, this was not always the case even up to half a century ago. After World War II in England, conventional wisdom was that children were attached to their mothers for two reasons: food and “dependency”.6 In other words, the thinking of that day was that if young children were allowed to be too close to their mothers, they would be spoiled and helpless. As a result, it was the norm for mothers to not spend time with their infants. I (Karen) remember an article years ago about Princess Diana and how Princes William and Harry were the first men “in line for the throne” who were actually raised up by their own mother. It is hard to believe that this was the mind-set only sixty years ago.
John Bowlby challenged this view. He hypothesized that infants would experience loss and suffering when separated from their primary caregivers, and as a result of his own observations, put forward the theory of the importance of attachment of infants to mothers from birth. Bowlby’s findings stressed that children below two and a half years old become secure when they form special attachments to familiar caregivers (RR7.2).7
Another researcher found that mothers who are negative and who do not respond to their babies by connecting to them emotionally will end up passing these traits down to their children, even at this age! The infant grows up following suit and becomes depressed as well, with low energy, anger, and irritability. Further, if the mother’s depression continues for a year or so, the baby will show lasting delays in growth and development. Our mood and disposition are so important in developing a healthy connection with our infants. Tiffany Field, a leader in touch research, proved that massaging premature babies in incubators greatly improved their health”8 (RR7.3).
Children learn to relate on an emotional level with others by having a strong attachment. Susan Anderson, a professor of psychology, says when attachment is not satisfactorily achieved, children become concerned about it; but when it is satisfactorily achieved, then the issue of attachment falls to the background.9 In other words, when children are securely attached, they don’t notice that they are attached, and they are free to focus on learning and exploring, eager to explore their new world. Having a healthy connection with the parents, especially the mother at this stage, is crucial. When not securely connected, children become exasperated because their needs are not met. They seek ways to adapt to the mother instead of the other way around. As a result, a false self, as Winnicott calls it, emerges.10Later on in life this develops into what we call their “coping style”. Secure attachment also brings trust. Elkind says this sense of trust develops when the primary caregivers are consistent and dependable; it gradually instill in children the sense that the world is the same; that it is consistent and dependable and can be trusted. On the other hand, parents who spend time with their children inconsistently, and who are always busy with something else will cause their children to not be trusting of the world, and this will carry into their adult lives.11
The Power of Connect, Work and Play (and Dads Love to Play!)
The way a parent connects with a child varies greatly from stage to stage in the child’s development. It is important to take note of the needs of the child at the different stages so we have included these stages here, with an explanation of how to make the connection possible.
Connection begins in infancy; parents should not wait for the child to talk to focus on connection. At around three months old, parents are able to hold their infant’s attention. They use a high-pitched voice and talk slowly and repetitively; this type of tone gets a positive response and conveys connection. If the parent is in the right frame of mind, connection takes place throughout the day: during feeding, talking soothingly, cuddling, putting the baby to sleep, singing. Even when parents play with an infant, they are connecting.
We have borrowed from David Elkind, who wrote about the three inborn drives that power human thought and action; we refer throughout this book to the concepts of “Connect, Work and Play”.12 To put things simply, having the right balance of connection, work and play helps us on our journey to be good enough parents as we learn to meet the core emotional need of connection and acceptance without neglecting the other core emotional needs.13 Like Elkind, we believe that connect, work and play function together, and in the course of time they become increasingly separate. We would like to build on Elkind, and be more specific about the way these three drives evolve with age, as we talk about meeting the core emotional need of connection and acceptance (see Figure 7.1).
Figure 7.1: Connect, Work and Play
At the infancy stage (see Figure 7.1: 0 to 18 months), connect and play are dominant. Work is done as the child grows, from his five senses, but nothing intentional. Parents should not stress themselves out reading mathematical equations aloud so that their children will be good at the subject when they get older, or playing classical music for them in the womb to make them into geniuses; those theories are probably more urban legend than good science. From what we could gather, listening to classical music may soothe your baby and turn her into a classical fan later in life, but it won’t make her smarter. (RR7.4)
When parents are spending time with their infants, they should hold them gently and look at their baby lovingly during feeding time. This can be a special bonding time, since babies are able to respond to facial expressions and even imitate them. How fun when babies smile back—and it’s not just gas! Smiles begin at around two months. By the beginning of the second year, sustained joy can be seen in toddlers.
Babies need to feel nurtured and loved. Mothers should encourage them with a gentle and nurturing voice, which sometimes has to be pitched higher than usual (fathers please take note), as babies respond better to such sounds. Of course, this involves lots of affection, such as holding, kissing and cuddling. Infants cry in order to get their needs met. They are not being manipulative at this stage; there is no need for discipline. Their cries are for care, and parents need to respond appropriately. Infants are learning to trust the parents; this comes as parents respond to their baby’s cries.
And parents should sing to their babies! By all means, play classical music if you enjoy it! Play fun baby sing-a-long songs as well. Any music that promotes a healthy atmosphere is helpful, whether it’s Bach, Beatles, Bluegrass, Bollywood, or Brazilian samba! Did you ever hear the old adage, “You don’t sing because you’re happy, you’re happy because you sing”. I (Karen) find that singing calms me down when I am in stressful situations. How nice for children to be surrounded by song.
We have talked a lot about play. Babies love playing and do not need to work! Infants, however, can only handle a certain amount of play, and then they will turn their head away and will not be interested anymore. Do not pursue further, since overstimulation may cause distress.
Parents must provide consistent nurturing and care. We recommend that mothers stay at home with their children until the kids begin to attend school, or at the very least stay home with their infants for a year. In a perfect world, if mothers needed to go back to work, they could get a flexi-hour or part-time job. We applaud progressive countries like Sweden that mandate a three-year maternity leave for mothers and one year for fathers. (Perhaps that’s why Stockholm ranks in the top ten most livable cities even though it’s dark half the year!) There are many alternatives to the rat race. Perhaps parents can hire temporary help for household chores so that their attention can be devoted to the baby and a part-time job, or a work-at-home, flexi-hour job. Perhaps two couples can live in the same home and share more of the load so that the moms can be full-time with their babies, or they can help look after each other’s infants when the other needs to work. This calls for creativity and flexible thinking. We know that this is not necessarily a popular recommendation to make, but for the sake of seeing a generation of children whose need for connection and acceptance was met by their parents, we are willing to stick our necks out and say it.
Having said that, I (Karen) know some mothers who have no choice but to go back to work full time when their babies are small, and they have mixed emotions. This is not meant to make them feel like second-class mothers. I also know some mothers who are so miserable not working that they do not enjoy staying home and then they bring down the atmosphere in the home. The beauty of life today is that we are free to make the best choices we can for our babies and ourselves and we do not have to do what society or anyone else pressures us to do. I benefitted enormously from living in Asia when my children were born. In many developing countries, it is not unusual to be able to hire help at a relatively low cost. Since I was working a flexi-hour job, I spent much of my free time with my babies, but was able to pay someone to do other chores; for that I am eternally grateful. A guilty mother will have a hard time building connection, so whatever decisions you make about your schedule and lifestyle, believe firmly in your decision, don’t get “guilted out”, and build connection to the best of your ability.
Nigel Barber’s research on the windows of opportunity in brain development found that emotional security in future close relationships is determined by a child’s first birthday! Parents, this means that you would be giving your child a head start in having good friendships and a great marriage by connecting with them in the first year of their lives! Even more shocking is Barber’s finding that intelligence, the kind that is developed while feeling secure, and exploring and bonding with parents (not from rote learning) is determined in the first two years.14 So rather than spend all that money worrying about how to pay for some supersonic daycare, why not spend two years looking after your baby, giving them meaningful intelligence? You will see the benefits later.
Babies become very attached to their primary caregivers after about six to eight months. (But oddly enough to a parent, a baby will not have figured out that they are a completely separate person until they are around eighteen months old!) If they are crawling, they will enjoy moving away from their parents, empowered by their new skill, but then they will want to come back to as they realize, “I’m too far”. When that happens, parents should receive their new explorer with open arms and a big smile, “Where did you go just now?” (Of course mothers are actually watching to make sure the babies are fine; the babies just don’t know it!) Parents may become frustrated when their babies are very clingy. Before entering into this stage, babies will usually go to strangers and can be left in the dark without fear, but around eight months or so, they will start showing signs of separation anxiety, such as fear of going to strangers. It is normal. Enjoy this while it lasts—all too soon, babies grow up and the parents are the ones with separation anxiety!
Securely attached babies have mothers who respond quickly to their signals. Since the need for attachment is a natural part of an infant’s development, mothers should not get irritated. For example, if a mother needs to leave her infant’s room for a moment, she should be enthusiastic upon returning. This will help her baby to learn that the mother is dependable and predictable. If the mother is unreliable, the baby will feel insecure, and this lack of confidence may facilitate the development of lifetraps such as emotional deprivation, mistrust, or abandonment later in life.
Parents should beware of arguing with each other or with their in-laws in front of the baby, thinking the baby is too young to notice. Infancy is the time when pathways of a child’s autonomic nervous system are developing (see Chapter One). Gottman says, “Whatever happens to a child emotionally during this first few months may have a significant and lifelong effect on the child’s vagal tone; that is the child’s ability to regulate the nervous system . . . which makes a difference in a baby’s long term ability to respond to stimuli, to calm herself and recover from stress.”15
A definite routine for babies is important, especially when it comes to time to sleep. A bedtime ritual is one of the fondest memories for connection that a parent can build with a child. Here are somerecommendations that parents can adopt in putting their babies to bed (you will probably experiment with many options but these are some that worked for us).
Since we recommend talking to babies almost all the time, parents should begin by telling their baby that it is time to have a bath and go to bed. This gets parents into the habit so that when the child is in the toddler stage, the parents are accustomed to giving them an alert that bedtime is coming. Parents can give the baby a bath, rub their little gums, put on a clean diaper, get them into their pajamas, and sing lullabies during the final feed, all in a comfortably darkened room and relatively quiet environment. (Of course, with tiny babies, they fall asleep frequently for short spurts of time and it is not really your choice when!) Normally, parents will rock and sing to the baby until the baby is asleep, then they will place the baby into a safe crib with walls so that there is no chance of the baby falling, crawling or jumping out in the middle of the night. With newborns, it is not uncommon for parents to put their babies to sleep in a bassinette, or a Moses’ basket, that is set up in the parents’ bed room, which makes night feeds easier and puts parents at ease.
Once a healthy baby is over three months old, it is our opinion that parents can feel comfortable leaving the room even when the baby is awake. As long as the mother is bonding all day long and responding to the child at other times, the baby will not suffer if left to cry himself to sleep. In our opinion, helping babies learn to fall asleep on their own and stay asleep through the night is crucial for four reasons:
• Without it, the baby may not get enough sleep, and will not thrive
• The mother will not get enough sleep, and will not be able to meet her baby’s needs properly during the day
• The parents’ Love Connection,16 especially their physical intimacy, will probably suffer, paving the way for all sorts of other problems.
When babies do sleep on their own and sleep through the night, and when Mommies get enough sleep, then Mommies are happy and excited to see their babies the next morning—they actually miss them rather than be tempted to resent them. In the beginning, most children will cry for a few minutes before they go to sleep. Eventually they will come to accept that the separation will be only temporary and that the parent will be there when they wake up. When the mother sees the baby the next morning, it is important that she greet the child enthusiastically to show that separation is only temporary and that mommy can be counted upon to come back. This repeated pattern is important to the child’s sense of security.
By the way, all of this takes connection building with infants takes energy, so we feel compelled to remind parents to get help when fatigued. This is very important to prevent depression, neglect, and abuse.
After our oldest turned two months old, she slept for ten hours straight—a miracle—but she was only going to sleep at 3am! I (Karen) was completely wiped out so, after seeking advice from friends who had older children, John and I decided to start adjusting Sonia’s sleeping habits from the time she was four or five months old. Our first goal was to stop her from sleeping in the late afternoon which took about a week. The second goal was to make sure she went to bed at 8pm, not 3am. This part was harder but still not that difficult, since she had stopped the late nap. The third stage was the hardest—we had been rocking and singing her to sleep, at night, and we decided it was time for her to be put into the crib to fall asleep on her own. My “mentor” predicted this would take four nights. The first night, we did our bath and lullaby routine, then said, “Ok sweetie, now Mommy is going to go to sleep in her room, and you are going to stay here. I love you, precious.” There was a dim night-light, her diaper had just been changed, she was fed and burped, and intellectually I knew she would be fine. However, when I left the room, she started to wail, and I imagined her thoughts à la the movie Look Who’s Talking, “You guys are leaving me here alone? Mommy, Daddy, how can you be so cruel?” John and I sat in bed and cried, but we knew it was for her best, so we let her cry for a whole hour. She fell asleep exhausted . . . I went in at around 5am when I heard the first little peep from her, and I was so happy that she was so happy. The second night we repeated the routine and the wailing only lasted 40 minutes, the third night it lasted 20, and the fourth night, she smiled at me as I left her in the bed and all was well. The last stage of sleep training was when Sonia was seven months old and was no longer being breastfed; I was hoping to stop waking up to give her milk in the middle of the night. By this time, I was back to work, so I was putting her to sleep around 7pm, then I would work for a few hours. At 11pm I would take off her pajama bottoms, change her diaper, give her a bottle, sing softly, all of this in a fairly dark and quiet room. Sonia mostly slept through the whole thing, and would continue sleeping until 6 or 7am. When she was a bit older, I would leave a bottle of milk (room temperature, so it wouldn’t go “off” in her air-conditioned bedroom) in her bed when I was ready to go to sleep. I no longer had to go through the midnight diaper change; she would wake up and drink by herself and then go back to sleep. I know this routine isn’t for everyone, and maybe it would not work for all babies, but it worked for both of mine, kept me somewhat sane, and I believe the kids’ health prospered because of it.
The Toddler Years
During these years, parents have virtually all the say at this stage and can easily be directive all areas like selecting activities, topics of conversations, types of toys, and choices of playgrounds. However, parents need to be directive in such a way that the child can express his feelings and thoughts, not just follow “rigid” instructions of “yes” and “no”. Parents should make full use of the opportunity to interact with them at this age.
To quote again from Kagan, who was addressing the danger of very young children being given access to technology too soon:
There needs to be some preparation, but at the age of two or three, that is too young . . . A child that age needs to first pick up interaction skills, which can happen only if adults actively engage them in conversation.17
Erik Erikson, one of the world’s most influential developmental psychologists, says during this period a balance has to be struck between a child’s sense of autonomy and his sense of shame and doubt,18meaning when children are curious and ask all kinds of questions, parents should respond cheerfully, rather than coming across reproachfully, else a sense of shame and guilt can result. Kagan says parents should be careful to ask open-ended questions at this stage instead of closed-ended questions that demand only a yes or no answer. Otherwise children can become reluctant to initiate and can become withdrawn and these traits could be carried on into their adult lives.19
Of Elkind’s three drives, play and connect are still the most dominant (see Figure 7.1: 18 months to 3 years old). Work will start to be introduced, but in small doses, like learning the alphabet or identifying numbers and colors. The work component is therefore a little bigger than the previous stage. As Elkind said, the more their work is in the form of play, the better it will go down with young children. It is not necessary to expand on the work drive too early. Many societies are pushing children to learn at a younger age than in previous generations, even though much research has shown this can do more harm than good. Yet parents out of ignorance and fear are frantic about finding the most effective preschools to prepare their children for the future.
Dr. Sharon Kagan is the co-director for the US-based National Center for Children and families, as well as working in a leadership capacity on children’s issues with Columbia and Yale. She had this to say about sending children to school too soon:
There is simply no evidence to show that preschool would help very young children more than the care of a loving, dedicated parent. When children are young they need intimacy, they need the nurturing of caring adults, they need to be held. Society doesn’t necessarily benefit from having children be required to go to an institution when they are very, very young.20
So while there may be a rush to get young children educated and exposed to math and in-depth reading, resist going with the flow! Parents should focus on connection, rather than education. And play, not work, is the best way for a parent to connect.
Children enjoy make-believe, and a great way to connect with them is by participating in their fantasy play. Kids enjoy making forts and tree houses, playing dress-up, and pretending to be superheroes on their own, but also have fun when parents join in. (We should note that we are not saying parents have to play for hours on end everyday.)
Mothers should find ways to spend enjoyable time with their toddlers—not just feeding or bathing them, but playing and reading lots of storybooks to them. It is important that they make time for tasks such as putting together simple puzzles with them. Mothers should engage with their children in something that they like. It is tempting for working mothers to use fatigue as an excuse not to play, but if moms only give the leftovers of their energy to their children, then, in the long haul, the children’s growth will be affected. We encourage mothers to make sure they are giving the best of their lives to their children and not their bosses. Meeting the core emotional need of connection and acceptance will pay far better dividends than any annual bonus.
Another important aspect of connection with children at this age is related to setting healthy limits. When the core emotional needs are met adequately during the first stage of life, children will be much less likely to act out in aggressive ways towards other children or to get attention from their parents in order to have their needs met.
It is hard for children to develop a proper connection with anyone when they are moaning and whining due to lack of sleep. Sticking to regular bedtimes should be taken seriously. Children need to learn that sleeping times are not negotiable. Young children need to be in bed so they can get to sleep by about 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. They need lots of sleep (See Chapter Seventeen about basic safety and the need for sleep.) Boundaries should be drawn here not just for the good of the children, although that is the main reason, but also so that parents can devote time to each other in continuing to build their marriage, or have friends over, go to the gym, etc. Over and over again in counseling situations, we find that marriages are compromised because young children have not been trained to go to bed at a certain time. This infringes on the time that the parents need for each other, and over time this can damage the parents’ marriage. A poor quality marriage will end up hurting the children.
Here are some recommendations for putting toddlers to bed:
Parents should give about fifteen minutes’ notice to their children that it is time to begin the bedtime ritual, which would include giving them a bath, brushing teeth, and so forth. At this age, they will still enjoy lullabies, but also bedtime stories. Connection is being built as parents enthusiastically and lovingly read stories with lots of pictures and colors. Toddlers will enjoy books about hugs and kisses and falling to sleep, or even pop-up books, and parents should read in a position that enables lots of cuddling and affection. In addition, at 18 months, children may be able to fill in words as parents read along in a picture book. This kind of repetition is really helpful for their cognitive development. Parents can say “goodnight” with kisses and cuddles.
Some children love to talk just before they go to bed while some do not, depending on their “unique wiring”. Parents should not be too busy and get impatient if their child is a talker and needs some time with their parent to get healthy closure for their day. It is not helpful for children’s emotional security if a parent sends the message that putting them to bed is a nuisance. They will at this stage be deliberately disobedient and difficult in order to get attention from their parent(s). They would rather face the consequences of being disobedient than not having their core emotional needs met, especially of connection and acceptance. They need lots of cuddling, affection and a feeling that they are special, even if they make mistakes.
Speaking of bedtime, from the time they were small, we taught our children to stay in bed and not come out of their rooms after bedtime unless it was really important. This had to be repeated often, and eventually they learned these limits and adhered to them—well, most of the time. This gave us more time for our work, which often included evening appointments. When they were younger, we would put them to bed by 7:00 p.m. By the time they were in primary school, we usually had them to sleep by 8:30 p.m. until third grade; in fourth and fifth grade they were in bed usually by 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. (Bedtimes are a personal preference; see Ch.17 about the need for adequate sleep.) At that age, our reading was quite fun. I (Karen) would read chapters from The Chronicles of Narnia or books about heroic characters, and then I would spend time with David for a bit, before going in to talk to Sonia for a while. Even though they are now adults, we still talk about the times that we read the Harry Potter books together!
The Power of Dads
When it comes to connection and play, fathers should take the initiative. More and more research is showing how crucial fathers are in the lives of children at this age. When it comes to meeting this core emotional need, we must emphasize the relationship between fathers and play specifically. Here are some important findings on the impact that fathers have on their young children:
• One study that began in 1950 showed that children whose fathers were involved in their lives from the age of five grew up to be more empathetic and compassionate adults than those whose fathers were absent. The children also ended up having better social relationships and as a result they tended to have better marriages, better relationships with their own kids and were more likely to engage with others in recreational activities later in life.21 Wow!
• Another study published in 1986, conducted by Parke and MacDonald, researchers from California State University and University of Illinois respectively, showed that children who had the best relationships with their peers were those whose fathers engaged in high levels of physical play and who were affirming verbally. Children whose fathers were authoritarian and critical had the worst peer relationships, regardless of amount of physical play.22 Go dads!
Gottman states, “Many psychologists believe that dad’s raucous style of ‘horseplay’ provides an important avenue for helping children learn about emotions. Imagine a daddy ‘scary bear’ chasing a delighted toddler across the yard, or lifting and twirling the child over his head for an ‘airplane ride’. Such games allow the child to experience the thrill of being just a bit scared, but amused and aroused at the same time . . . Having roughhoused with dad, the child knows how to read other people’s signals when feelings run high. He knows how to generate his own exciting play and react to others in ways that are neither too sedate nor spinning out of control. He knows how to keep his emotions at a level that’s optimal for fun-filled play.”23
Fathers who devote twenty minutes a day during the week and a longer time on the weekends to playing and having fun with their children will reap lifelong benefits from the connection and their kids will reap lifelong benefits in a myriad of areas!
When spending time with your children at this age, try to really enjoy it, and let go of your inhibitions. The house will get messy but that’s ok—connection is being built! Avoid prolonged time spent on computers, tablets, etc. In this day and age, many parents buy their kids electronic devices to keep them occupied. Interacting consistently and personally with your children is not something that can be replaced by expensive toys. The most important focus at this stage is learning to interact and socialize. (A wise parent we know said that the best “software” for teaching a child how to read is a parent’s lap!)
Playing is a lot more fun if the siblings are close in age; if the age gap is too large, playing may need to be done separately at times. The kind of activities will determine when they should be combined.
As parents, we sometimes get bored with repetition, but children at this age do not get tired of the same old “hide and seek”; they like to hide in the same places! Do not get put off by this—see it as part of the child’s development. Learn to enjoy it as much as they do! They will read your face and know if you are as engaged as they are.
Fathers, remember to allow the kids to win some of the time. It’s a good idea to win occasionally so you can see their reaction; we believe in helping children to be gracious losers. When siblings are playing, help everyone to win at different times. Even if one may not be the fastest runner, you as a father can work it out to help the weakest child win from time to time. This helps everyone feel confident that playtime is fair.
Mothers need to be supportive about fathers roughhousing with the children. Many mothers caution their husbands about what is or is not safe, which can put an unnecessary damper on the spirit in the home. If the house is too calm, life can become boring, and other needs will not be met. Mothers should not overreact when there are small cuts and grazes. When a child falls, the mother’s reaction often has a strong influence on the child’s reaction. If the child is crying and the parents are calm, this will help the child take the fall in his or her stride. Do not criticize the child, such as calling on him to be tough. Empathize, but at the same time, do not overreact. Accidents do happen, and in the course of their childhood, hopefully nothing serious will take place.
At this age, children generally are still more excited to play with their parents than with their peers; connection and play are still very much a part of the same activity. Work can now be increased, but notice that it sits predominantly within play (see Figure 7.1, 4 to 7 years old). Good enough parents will avoid the panicked mind-set to rush their children and cram information, which does more harm than good. Children need to enjoy their childhood. We need to ensure that our children have time for organized play and free form play; both are important for healthy development. The reason we keep repeating the need for play is that research shows free time, playtime and unstructured outdoor activities have all fallen drastically over the years (RR7.5).
For a quarter of a century, we have lived in Singapore, a tiny country for whom education is practically a religion. The Prime Minister of Singapore recently voiced his concerns about “over-teaching” as he addressed parents who are worried that allowing their children to play will put them behind in school:
Instead of growing up balanced and happy, he grows up narrow and neurotic. No homework is not a bad thing. It’s good for young children to play, and to learn through play.24
Hot on the heels of the Prime Minister’s comments, the Singapore paper, The Straits Times, reprinted an article from The New York Times, entitled, “Simon Says Don’t Use Flashcards”. It reported:
Parents who want to stimulate their children’s brain development often focus on things like early reading, flashcards and language tapes. But a growing body of research suggests that playing certain kinds of childhood games may be the best way to increase a child’s ability to do well in school. Variations on old-fashioned games like “Freeze Tag” and “Simon Says” require relatively high levels of executive function, testing a child’s ability to pay attention, remember rules and exhibit self-control—qualities that also predict academic success.25 (RR7.6)
So parents need to play with their children and facilitate their children having time to play, both free play and organized play.
At this age, children need to be exposed to a variety of activities. They are just starting to develop peer relationships, but usually at this stage these relationships are not strong. Gottman says that usually children at this age play best in pairs with another child,26 but group play on the playground is also very helpful.
Parents should also take advantage of the fact that these are the years when children will not resist being with their parents. In fact they look forward to playing with the parents. These are the years that they think their parents are cool. If parents make sure they are spending lots of time with all the children together and also with them individually, it will serve as a good foundation for the years to follow. Parents finding ways to play and create laughter is absolutely crucial. Habits like spending time individually will be part of their long-term memories, and parents may be able to avoid a stage where their child does not want to speak with them at all. If done in the name of fun, parents, over time, will develop the connection with their children and also lay the foundation for their children to become healthy and capable adults.
Here are more pointers about spending time with children in this age:
• If parents have a certain passion about a sport or hobby, getting children exposed to this will allow them to also be part of their lives. However, this should not be taken to mean that children should just follow and observe the parent. Rather, individual time needs to be taken out to introduce these activities to them. As they get better and better, it may develop into a routine that both the parent and the child enjoys (or not!)
• At this age, they may or may not want to play the same old games over and over; if they like variety, work together to be creative. Some children will enjoy sitting and talking, others will not. In general, play is still the best way to connect. Talk is important, too, but we will cover this in the next chapter.
• Having imaginary friends is not uncommon, especially when children may be going through a transition or feeling upset. Don’t worry—Agatha Christie is one of the top-selling authors of all time. In her autobiography, she recounted that many of her early memories involved imaginary friends, and she continued her conversations with some of them into adulthood—so who knows? You may be nurturing a budding best-seller!27
When our children were two and four years old, we told them we were moving to Australia from Jakarta for work. Around that same time, Sonia started playing with two imaginary (Indonesian) friends who she named Noni and Toto. She would tell me elaborate stories about these two friends. She talked to them and about them in many different ways.. They were around most of the time and I affirmed her little buddies, not wanting to make a big deal out of the phenomenon. Our Australian house had already been chosen by our employers, so the day we moved to Sydney, we were able to go directly from the airport to our new home. Our backyard was filled with trees and birds, something the kids had not seen in Jakarta. Sonia was thrilled, and asked, “Mommy, may I go look around by myself?” She ran excitedly throughout the whole house, up and down the stairs, looked in every room, and came back to where I was standing by the window. With eyes as big as saucers, she happily announced, “Mommy, Noni and Toto are already here and they love this place!” And she never mentioned them again. With the benefit of hindsight, I guess the imaginary friends were her way of coping with the fear and uncertainty of moving to a new country and a new house!
Children this age may not want to engage in long talks, but it is still helpful for parents to teach children to identify and be attuned to emotions such as sadness, joy, fear, excitement, disappointment, longing, or anger. This can be achieved by routinely asking about “highs and lows” as previously suggested, and also by using feelings charts, which parents can easily find on the Internet.
Children this age also continue to need lots of affection. Many fathers at this stage withhold from kissing and hugging their children but this is a mistake. Both boys and girls both need this from their fathers.
Children should be encouraged to be involved in cooperative and competitive games, where they can be aware of how other people feel. For example, children can be asked how cheating makes others feel? If someone wins all the time, how would this make others feel? If someone is not cooperative, how would this make others feel? As a parent on the playground with other children, you will be able to observe all of this taking place, and possibly even facilitate some of the games. If so, you can change the games in such a way that different children get to win, not just the fastest or strongest. If you’re not facilitating, you can ask questions later to draw out some of the lessons from what you observed. The single best childhood predictor of adult adaptation is not school grades, or classroom behavior, but a child’s ability to get along with other children.28 This should be given top priority. Principles such as give and take, trust, sharing, friendliness and selflessness should be taught over and over again so that they will be able to increasingly see things from other’s points of view.
It is important for parents to learn to encourage children by being specific about who did what well. For example, parents can be encouraging about who was cooperative; who was honest; who played hard; who did not give up; who was nice to others; and who had a good attitude.
So often encouragement goes to the person who won, or criticism goes to those who made mistakes. If parents make a big deal about winning, then children will follow suit. When winning does not become the parents’ focus, then children will be more likely to focus on other people’s feelings and not just their own.
Do not choose a game where one child tends to lose continually, assuming the children are close in age, and roughly the same size, etc., else they will eventually not look forward to playing. It may cause them to be envious of siblings who always win. Parents can and should set it up where a different child wins, including the parents, and that the spread is fairly even, or at least not so skewed toward one family member.
During the time our children were in primary and middle school, we had our “family day” on Sunday afternoon from about 3:00 p.m. until bedtime. We swam and played pool games, went for bike rides, and frequented various amusement parks. On rainy days, we played cards and board games. During puberty, Sonia became very distracted and for a few years, playing any sit-down game with her required restraint and patience. I (John) became frustrated and would reprimand her. My wife would politely signal to me to “back off” —that when I acted like this, it defeated the very purpose of playing and having a good time as a family—duh! I was impatient and ruined the atmosphere on more than one occasion. Thankfully, my better half continued to point out the error of my ways, and I was eventually able to prioritize fun and connection over accuracy and efficiency. I am glad to say my children forgave me, and as young adults, Sonia and David have both expressed appreciation to me for choosing to invest my time with them on a regular basis.
In terms of the three drives of connect, work and play, work will begin in more earnest at this stage. It is important for parents not to expose children to the pressure of learning at a level more than that for which they are mentally prepared. Connect and play will still be the largest of the three drives.
Elkind frequently speaks up about how parents today are hurrying children to grow up too fast and the harm parents cause by plunging their children into learning that is not age-appropriate. Children who are confronted with demands to do math or to read before they have the requisite mental abilities may experience a series of demoralizing failures and begin to conceive of themselves as worthless.29(RR7.7)
Reading loads of books to and with children is a fantastic way to increase connection, teach values, and at the same time, help them academically (in a quiet way!) Bedtime reading with classics by Robert Louis Stevenson, or more modern reads, such as The Children’s Book of Virtues,30 or inspirational books with pictures will provide hours of fun, bonding time, and help set the tone for later years. When children are finished reading, and the kids are tucked in bed, this is a good time for parents to ask their children how they felt about the day, or repeat highs and lows. Bear in mind that even though this may have been shared during mealtimes, sometimes there are other lows that they would prefer talking about when alone with a parent, or they simply may have just forgotten to bring it up earlier.
During this age period, the shift among connect, work and play continues. Even though children are approaching adolescence, they still need to play, especially with their father (see Figure 7.1, 8 to 12 years old). At this stage, work will now accelerate a little, especially at school and time for play will decrease correspondingly. Parents should take care that play is not eliminated. Some parents may want their kids to be so well equipped academically that they push them to study hard, even after school hours, with little time to play other than during recess time at school. No matter what, the connection must be maintained, which surely involves play.
Remember, children this age still really want your love and connection, but they may not want others to know it. They may resist open displays of affection and love. Boys especially would rather give high fives than kisses in public, but parents must not stop showing affection in private. Kids this age still love to have bedtime reading along with mom or dad putting them to bed, believe it or not.
This is an age where many issues like winning, losing, looking bad, shame and fear will become real to them. When these emotions are discussed, children should be able to process their feelings and make sense of things without feeling weird. They will still need their parents to help them focus on other people so they understand that life is not just about them, or about them winning. Like we mentioned before, when watching children interact with other kids, or with family members, specific encouragement needs to be given in the same areas.
Also during this stage, play will gravitate more and more toward gender based activities. At the latter part of this stage (ten to twelve years of age), boys would rather play with boys and girls with girls. This would also be a good time for parents to watch team sports in which their children are involved. It is shocking how competitive parents get on the side-lines, more so than their children on the field.
Kids this age will see their strengths and weaknesses more clearly. It is likely that they will talk more. They want and need their parents’ constant encouragement and acceptance. If they are taking part in a sport or in a competition, and feel during the course of play that their parent does not value them, or that a parent is spending time with them out of a sense of duty, it will send the opposite message of connection and acceptance. So many times when a child does not win, a parent may say “Great job” or “It’s okay, winning is not everything”, but the tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language convey that winning actually mattered to him a lot. Most children can sense what their parent is really feeling; this sends a strong signal to the child about what their parent values the most.
In his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, Alfie Kohn talks about the adverse effects of competition that many parents model for and breed in their kids.31 He posed some of the following questions upon which parents would do well to reflect: Is competition more productive than cooperation? Is competition more enjoyable than cooperation? Does competition build character?
If not being the top or not winning gets in the way of cooperating, enjoying the game and/or building character, then how is competition helpful?
To most parents, getting their children to succeed is about helping them to be more hardworking. However, while this may be the case, parents have no idea about the stronger message that is being sent to their children:
I am not good enough.
I do not fit into my family.
I am a failure compared to my siblings and friends.
This develops the lifetraps of defectiveness, social isolation, and failure. Children who are internalizing these messages may start to feel exasperated and discouraged, and when these feelings are not processed, may become resentful and then perhaps rebel in later years.
The adolescent period is described as being the years from puberty to adulthood. The American Academy of Pediatrics divides this period into three stages:32 early adolescence, generally ages twelve and thirteen, middle adolescence, ages fourteen to sixteen, and late adolescence, ages seventeen to twenty-one.
Puberty is defined as the time when biological changes are taking place, and for many it takes place during early and middle adolescence. At this stage, adolescents tend to see things as black and white and are not able to set their sights on long-term goals or the consequences when they do something right or wrong. But by the time they hit late adolescence they are able to think in a far more complex and rational way. Recall the insights of Nucci33 on the different kinds of morality (see Chapter Two). Some teens will resent parents insisting on adherence to certain rules if they feel that those rules are not truly important. In the interest of connection, parents should not make a big deal out of these things!
Adolescence has been seen as a transition point between childhood and adulthood. They still have their childhood ways, but at the same time, they are also striving to be adults and can react aggressively when parents do not give them the independence they crave. More than any other stage, this is the time when they will start to pull away, and perhaps not want to be as attached to their parents. Even though they inwardly desire to know that they are loved by and close to their parents, teenagers will come across as if the opposite were true. (The Putting Family First community reports that in a national poll of a representative sample of American teens in the year 2000, 21% rated “not having enough time together with parents” and educational worries, as their top two concerns.34) So they will act like they do not need to connect, but parents need to persevere and find a way into their lives. We strongly caution parents to avoid giving up spending time with their teenaged children because of the mistaken thinking that their adolescent children’s peer relationships are more important than with their parents. Regular one-on-one time is crucial. It takes hard work and a lot of patience, but the end results are well worth the effort.
Adolescents care a lot more about their peers. Their social circle widens and they want to make their own decisions about who to spend time with and get close to. When they were younger their parents had more influence over these decisions, but at this stage they want to have more say. They are striving to have their own identity as people yet care a lot about what others think of them. There is a tremendous amount of entitlement that creeps in but generally speaking, this type of entitlement is temporary. It eventually disappears as the teens mature, provided parents continue to adequately meet all their core emotional needs.
When children hit this stage, the interplay between connect, play and work will shift fairly dramatically (see Figure 7.1, 13 to 17 years old). They will find new interests and work at school will increase drastically. To parents, it seems like our teens suddenly have little or no time to “play” with their parents, but always manage to find time to play with their friends. Peer relationships are a huge part of an adolescent’s life and will continue to be as they progress from being a young adolescent to an older adolescent. However, most teens who spent regular time in the preceding years with their parents and who feel connected and accepted will enjoy spending time with their family. Even then, they may resist. To that we say, persevere, persevere, and persevere!
Spending time with adolescents takes being very purposeful and intentional; it demands that we make our way into their schedule. Some parents have found it helpful to make the most out of the following opportunities:
• When their teens need to be driven somewhere
• When they need help with their school work
• When they need a ride to school—almost all teens would prefer to ride in the car with parents than take the school bus. (Of course, if they have a driver’s license, they would prefer to drive!)
So, in the end, the interplay of the three drives of connect, work and play changes as children move from one stage of growth to another. Parents should ensure that they maintain the connection with their children at all stages. Parents who do will never regret it.
We end this chapter on spending time by mentioning the importance of making memories. Our parents had strong convictions about that: John’s family has wonderful holiday memories of going to the beach in Malaysia and Karen’s family continues to holiday at the Gulf Coast.
No matter what stage of life your children are in, plan holidays with your family. Take pictures. Take the time to file them and create memories. As a family, look at them periodically. Place them in the house where they are accessible, in beautiful frames so that all can be reminded of the precious memories built over the years, adding new ones every so often. Going up and down the stairs of our home, we see photos like these that remind us of many great family times together. A momentary glance sometimes brings out a memory and lifts the atmosphere. As you get older, sweet memories will flood your minds as you reminisce together. Not only will this benefit your family connection directly; this will give your children a blueprint of how they would also want to manage their respective families when they start to have their own in the years to come.