Often parents come to me feeling quite frustrated with the relationship they have with their child. They report that the child is defiant, disobedient and rude. Often the child has ADHD which only compounds the difficulties. Whatever, the cause, it is a painful situation for all involved. Parents feel unappreciated and angry. Children report that they feel their parents don’t like them. In fact, they all love each other, but they do not know how to improve the situation. Hence the visit to the child psychologist. Parents want to find out how to get their children to do as they are told. This is a reasonable goal. Children want their parents to stop nagging; this is also a reasonable goal.
Some parents are taken aback when I recommend they spend twenty minutes a day with their child doing whatever the child wants. “What? they wonder. ” This child is disrupting the family, and I am supposed to spend special time with her? Shouldn’t I wait on that until she is compliant? Are all child psychologists on the child’s side?” Here is the reasoning behind this. Before you can assert your authority without nagging and scolding, you need to build a better relationship. Children comply and obey in large part because they feel cared for and understood. It is not a good relationship if a child obeys only because the parent has authority. I think of this twenty minutes as investment. It gives you relationship capital to draw upon when you have to tell her to turn off the television and start her homework.
Here is what you do. Tell your child that you want to set aside twenty minutes a day (or fifteen but not less) to do an activity that she chooses. That’s right. You might end up playing blocks, Barbie, or X-Box. You might watch a television show. As long as this is an activity that you allow in your home, it’s an acceptable choice. Your job is to take an interest in the play and let your child take the lead. Perhaps you will only watch your child play a video game, but you can ask questions and remark upon his or her skill. Perhaps you’ll be ask to take a controller yourself in which case, you might be soundly beaten. Again, you can ask for advice and model good sportsmanship. I think you are getting the picture now. This is time that your child structures.
You might think that this would be a good time to ask about homework or to remind your child to take out the trash when you are done. This is a conflict free zone. Your task is to interact with your child without asking questions about anything besides the present activity and without giving advice. Of course, if your child asks your thoughts on how to play a better game of mancala, you can reply.
I have been interested to note that many other professionals recommend this strategy when beginning to work on children’s behavior. In his excellent book, Parenting Children with ADHD, Vincent J. Monastra, Ph.D., recommends spending fifteen minutes a day “doing something nice with your kid.” He recommends this because, “kids need a reason to learn” new behaviors. Your relationship with your child is a big motivator. Russell Barcley, Ph.D., another expert on ADHD, (www.russellbarkley.org) also makes this recommendation in his writing about parenting children with ADHD. Some of you might be familiar the work of pediatrician, Stanley Greenspan, M.D., author of The Challenging Child (www.icdl.com). He has strategy he calls “Floor time.” Floor time encompasses much more than I have described here, but it starts with joining your child in a pleasant activity of the child’s choice. From there Greenspan explains how a parent can involve the child in interactions that ask for more mature complex behaviors in very small steps.
Look for my newsletter coming soon with more ideas about using play to improve your relationship with your child.
One night last week I came home from work and heard unfamiliar sounds in my back yard. There was a whiffle ball game going on in the back yard next to mine. Five or six children played on their own and their voices drifted over to my screened porch. Every now and then the game spilled into my not so neat perennial garden when the fielders missed a ball. “To your left, Matt, in the tall flowers,” I called. He tiptoed over, found the ball, and resumed play. It’s clear to me that it’s more pleasant to have children playing in the neighborhood than to have a pristine garden. No six foot fence separates our yards. By dusk all was quiet. I presume they went inside for a bath and bedtime.
Last week was the first full week of summer for children in my town. Many summer programs start this coming week. Last week, there were lots of opportunities to hear parents and children hanging out. Prior to this the children were busy with homework after supper. If they weren’t doing homework, they might have been at a baseball or soccer practice. Maybe they were practicing their instruments. They were busy.
But last week there was leisure for many families. Parents did not need to get the children up and out by a certain time. And children could play outside on their own. I heard from families I work with that the relaxed schedule was very welcome. Of course, not every family can enjoy this respite. Many working parents must have their children in some sort of care unless they are on vacation.
Nonetheless, last week gave me a welcome reminder of the benefits of free play. I could hear children settling disputes on their own, developing their social skills. I heard parents playing ball with their children and teaching them the finer points of sports. I heard older children teaching the younger ones the rules of the game. All of these facilitate child development. Children develop socially and cognitively through play. Many of these same processes happen in organized activities. But we tend to forget that children can experience these benefits without the structure of a sports team or a dance class. Our lives are not organized to allow this much of the time. Next week it is likely that most of these children will be in organized camp activities where they will continue to experience the benefits of play, I hope.
Last week it was a pleasure to hear and see children and families enjoying summer play.