Modern parents experience ample access to information when seeking parenting solutions. An array of information is at our fingertips: a plethora of books, websites and articles span topics from pregnancy and childbirth to preparing your child for college. Thanks to smart phones, parenting advice is on demand anytime and anywhere. A second, third and fourth opinion is easily obtained.
However, there often does not seem to be agreement amongst these informational sources and resources. At what age should your child sleep in his or her own bed? How can parents raise a child who understands the value of money? How is empathy encouraged? What can a parent do to curb lying? The proposed answers to these questions are wide-ranging. In addition, parents are on the receiving end of well-intentioned advice from grandparents, friends, acquaintances and even strangers.
Beyond parenting debates and opposing viewpoints, one basic and foundational principle remains. Growing and sustaining a positive parent-child relationship is an unquestioned cornerstone of positive parenting. Parent-child relationship quality is shown to yield impressive impacts on child development and outcomes. In 2014, the Search Institute conducted a study of 1,085 parents of 3- to 13-year-olds and found that the quality of parent-child relationships is 10 times more powerful than demographics such as race, ethnicity, family composition and family income in predicting whether their children developed character strengths such as being motivated to learn, being responsible and caring for others. One key quality in these relationships was what the researchers referred to as “expressing care.”
Asking about the day: One common way for many parents to express care is to ask their child about their day. Sometimes asking, “how was your day?” is sufficient to get the ball rolling. Stopping to really listen to the entire answer is important. If parents are met with the characteristic grunt or conversation-stopping “fine,” a different approach may be needed. Try adjusting the time you ask the question, maybe first thing after school is just too soon. Wait and look for signs that your child is ready to talk.
Show and tell: Another way parents connect is by being available when their child has something to tell or show them. These moments when children seek their parents out are golden opportunities. Of course it is not realistic to let your child interrupt you constantly. When you cannot stop what you are doing (i.e. end the important phone call or stop tending to baby sister) let your child know that you will get back to them and then remember to do so.
Play time: Yet another way to express care is playing with your child. Children learn, communicate and relate through play. Fortunately, the research indicates that dedicating hours of your day to child-centered activities is not necessary. Rather, it is the quality of one-on-one time. One exercise to try is to spend 5-15 minutes focused on your child. Think of activities that your child already enjoys, for younger children this can be building with construction toys like Legos, coloring and drawing, playing with dolls, play food sets, cars or trains. For older children, activities such as baking, doing artwork, crafts and interactive video games are of more interest. It is best to avoid an activity that will involve a high level of competition, will be messy or is highly aggressive. This is because one-on-one time is time for you to connect with your child, not direct. For example, if you cannot tolerate blue Play Dough getting mixed in with yellow Play Dough, you may spend more time coaxing your child to not mix the colors and less time enjoying your time with your child.
Here are some skills to practice to help you let your child lead the play. Show interest by describing what your child is doing. Show approval by praising their efforts and accomplishments. Show you are listening by reflecting what they say. Try to avoid directing the activity by telling your child what to do or asking questions.
Growing a positive parent-child relationship and staying connected with our children is not always easy and requires intentional work. But the payoff is well worth all the effort.
Byron Manering is executive director of Brigid Collins Family Support Center in Bellingham.