This parenting nugget will sound like bad news if you’ve never heard it:
Our kids’ development hinges on whether or not we make a regular, solid, meaningful connection with them.
Connected kids do better in school, better in relationships, and have a better chance of growing into high-functioning adults.
The state of Colorado requires somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 hours of parenting classes for people who’ve chosen to adopt kids. These classes are a ton of time and energy to attend, but forever changed my understanding of what’s most important in the life of any kid.
We’ve adopted 3 kids now, so we’ve racked up almost 100 hours.
One of the biggest take-away’s for me was this: Our kids’ development depends on whether or not we connect with them in ways that are meaningful to them, not us. All the movie dates, trips to the ice cream store, reading before bed, etc., don’t matter if our time together doesn’t communicate – to them – that they are loved and valued.
In a nutshell, I play one of the most fundamental roles in their lives. If I do the connection piece well, they’ll form a view of themselves that nobody can mess with. If I fail here, they’ll wander zombie-like through life, letting everyone and everything define who and what they are.
That’s unacceptable. So I went into early parenthood scared to death that I’d fail here and damage my kids. Fear and shame have always been great motivators for me, unfortunately, so I tried hard, really hard, to plan opportunities for connection, which seldom went well.
For example, I’d plan some game-time with my oldest. She’s very competitive, and prone to cheating, so this always ended up with her crumpled up on the floor because she landed in Molasses Swamp and didn’t appreciate my lectures on honesty and fairness.
I’d then get angry because a) I have all this anxiety about connecting with my kids and felt like a failure and b) 20 minutes of Candy Land with a close-minded cheater is no fun.
Fortunately, about 5 years into my journey, I noticed something about her that applies to my other two kids as well.
If I could offer one piece of parental guidance, what follows would be it.
Connecting on Their Terms, Not Ours
My oldest comes alive at around 8:00 PM, which is unfortunately the worst time of day for me.
But if I can muster the energy to be present with her, even if it’s for 15 minutes, boom. Problem solved. I don’t have to plan anything, or come up with creative ideas, or spend tons of money. All I have to do is show up, forget about the stuff I’m worried about, talk, play, answer questions, watch the occasional funny cat video, and she feels loved, heard, valued.
It takes a ton of energy for me to get over my tired-dad-8PM shtick, but it works wonders for her.
If I try to connect with her at any other time throughout the day, with rare exception, she ain’t havin’ it.
So I made a game-changing rule. I’ve decided to let her run the show on the whole connection thing. If she wants to talk, or show me her school work, I try like hell to drop what I’m doing and be present in this window of opportunity that’s not always open.
This is So. Much. Easier.
In a nutshell, I can’t more highly recommend learning the fine art of being sensitive to those times when our kids want to connect. Dropping what we’re doing and responding to them is light years easier than planning, spending, and failing – not to mention the hopelessness that comes from botched connection attempts.
No Such Thing as Bad Kids – Child Development 101
My kids are more well behaved when they feel good about themselves, and it’s impossible for them to feel good about themselves when I’m constantly blowing them off.
Connection is just as fundamental to raising good kids as anything else.
When they’re not getting the time they need, they feel shame, and shame causes anxiety. Most of the time, anxiety causes kids to go berserk. They don’t know what to do with it, so they act out. As parents, we’re tempted to focus on the behavior, not thinking about what’s underneath, so we punish, lecture, raise our voices, etc., which exacerbates the bad behavior, which makes us less likely to connect…
…wash, rinse, repeat…
They’re like any other human who’s dealing with anxiety. Have you noticed how hard it is to be the parent you want to be when you’re experiencing high levels of shame, fear, and worry?
The only reason kids treat other kids like crap is because they’re feeling like crap. The same goes for adults.
My oldest, like any other kid, has a “tell.” When she’s not feeling connected, she picks on her middle sister, which drives me insane because her middle sister’s adoption story is the hardest of the bunch. She’s not in need of more people treating her like crap.
Best Seat in the House
To respond to my daughters bad-behavior-that’s-actually-a-cry-for-connection, all I have to do is put the two younger kids to bed early, sneak into my oldest’s room around 8, climb into bed with her, maybe prime the pump with a couple of easy questions, and she’ll take the reins. We’ll hang out for 15-20 minutes, and it will mean the world to her.
Unless it’s been awhile since we’ve connected.
If that’s the case, it’s harder for her to get back to that place where she knows she’s loved. It might take us a couple of tries, there might be a few nights where I go out of my way to spend time with her, only to get rejected. This is a big deal for her, there’s a piper to pay if I’m not consistent.
But I’m getting better at seeing the signs, and better at making consistent routines so that I’m not always spending my energy playing catch-up.
I’m also getting better at laying my worries/anxiety aside so I can be present with my kids. Consistently flexing this muscle makes me stronger, more likely to flex it, even when life is difficult.
We’ve got one kid that I have no problem connecting with. I’m not sure why, we just “click.” At any time in the day, barring the times when she’s mad about something, we hug, snuggle, laugh, kiss. It’s tempting to think “why can’t the other kids be like her?”
Parents do this all the time. I’ve done it for most of my parenting life.
We find all kinds of ways to blame our kids for their bad behavior. Who wants to take that kind of responsibility? And if we’re really good at blame-shifting, we can excuse ourselves from the whole connection piece and get on with our “lives.”
As a pastor/coach/mentor, I’ve spent a ton of time helping people work through the damage caused by parents who consistently failed to connect. These people deal with a mountain of shame/anxiety, and will take a lot of it to their grave.
But it’s a mistake to go at this with some kind of fear that we’re going to screw up our kids if we don’t get this right. I’ve done that, it doesn’t work – the last thing us parents need is more anxiety.
It’s a guarantee that our kids, multiple times throughout the day, are going to make a bid for connection. They’ll start talking about something important to them, or crawl into our laps, or do something annoying, or a host of other things that might be difficult to see as a request for closeness.
If we can manage to see these gestures for what they truly are – untimely, inconvenient, and annoying as they may be – and if we can drop what we’re doing and be present, we can nourish our kids, give them something powerful, and sit for a moment in a place that we all need to be.