Recently, an acquaintance shared this incident with me. His daughter had been wetting the bed at night. Frustrated that he needed to wake in the middle of the night to help her change her sheets and get situated back into bed, he was often short with her. Each night as he awoke, he felt impatient and angry. This resulted in scolding his daughter, which made the experience unpleasant for both of them.
One night as he awoke to help her, it occurred to him that he wasn’t treating his daughter with the respect or kindness she deserved. Her behavior was not in her control. She needed his help getting cleaned up, but she also needed to know of his concern for her and his understanding of how she felt as she woke up uncomfortably each night facing the prospect of being reprimanded.
He changed his entire approach. He treated his daughter respectfully and gently. His relationship with his daughter improved—not just at night, but in their interactions during the day as well. And then, suddenly, mysteriously, the bed-wetting ended.
One way to understand a child’s perspective and emotions is to observe the child’s interactions and play. Take time occasionally to just play with your child. There is probably nothing that would delight a child more. Take note of your child’s interests, abilities, and the type of activities he or she enjoys. Observe transitional times during the day such as waking, mealtime, leaving and returning home, and bedtime. Are there ways that these could be less stressful? Also note how your child is interacting, playing, and sharing with other children. It may take a week or so to really observe when your child is feeling and behaving well, and where improvements can be made.
Ask and Listen
As adults and parents, we talk a lot to our children. We monitor most of their actions, often asking or reminding them to do something we have asked. Do we take a proportionate amount of time to listen to our children? Once, when my son was about four years old, several members of my family were talking in the kitchen. My son was frustrated and said loudly to my husband, myself, and three other children, “Go on time out!” Dutifully, we all went and sat on the stairs. Suddenly his frustration seemed to lift, and he felt so affirmed that we had listened to him. For a minute, the tables were turned and he knew that we could understand what he experienced and felt at times.
Listening carefully to your children without minimizing their concerns is very validating and can show children that they can trust you to respect their sensitive feelings. Ask questions to invite discussion. Then take time to listen to the child’s responses, and to understand the child’s perspective. Try to remember what it felt like when you were a child. Children have little control over many situations. By showing real concern for their feelings and well-being, you help your children feel understood and better able to cope with their problems.
Here are a few examples of questions you might ask:
Who do you like to play with?
What is your favorite thing for lunch? (I still remember a time when I was in first grade and was asked what I wanted for lunch. I was so happy to open up my lunch box that day to my own quirky preferences.)
What is your favorite toy?
What is something you would like to learn to do? What do you like doing with me?
What would you do if you could choose what to do all day?
By listening empathically to your child, you will also be providing a valuable example for your child of how to listen to other children and family members.
Give Encouragement and Praise
While visiting a good friend when I was younger, I talked with her mother. My friend was an intelligent, beautiful, caring, and fun young lady. Her mother told me that she believed it was important never to tell a child that she was smart and pretty or praise her because it would spoil her. I felt sorry that my friend was raised with this apparent lack of attention or caring because she deserved praise and acknowledgment from her parents. Every child does. It is helpful to a child when we are specific in stating what we notice, such as, “I like the way you got dressed all by yourself.” But, our intent is probably even more important than our words. Our child will know if we are genuine in our approval. So as long as we focus on giving as much positive feedback and reinforcement as possible, we don’t have to worry too much about our precise dialogue. Unlike my friend’s mother, I believe that a parent’s love and positive attention are like water and sunshine to a blossoming plant.
Be cautious when speaking about your children to friends and relatives—or on social media. Although it is tempting to tell a friend how challenging your child’s behavior is in an effort to gain sympathy, or even advice, others may then view the child in a negative light. Sometimes the stories don’t die, and your child will hear of them later. This lack of loyalty doesn’t reflect well on you as a parent and will do nothing to strengthen your bond with your child. Make a point, instead, to focus on and share the positive actions and efforts of your child, and let these be the stories that come back to your child. My father has told me that when he was about twelve years old, his parents stood at his door one night when he appeared to be asleep. His mother said to his father, “Vic is such a good boy. He has never given us any trouble.” These kind words that were overheard by my father are a treasure to him, which firmly cemented his loyalty to his mother and motivated him to give his best efforts to making her words come true.
Plan activities in your family schedule that will broaden your child’s horizon and allow you time to interact together. Setting aside a weekly family night is helpful so that other commitments don’t crowd in. You might include a special dessert, games that the children enjoy, trips to the park or library, reading together, or making crafts.
Traveling in the car is also an excellent time for conversation, singing, games, and special snacks. Sure, putting on a movie during a long ride can help children sit quietly, but there are lots of ways to interact and make great memories together, as well.
Mealtime can be another opportunity to connect with your children. For many years we placed each person’s name or picture into a bowl. At dinner we would each draw a name. The challenge was always a variation on giving a compliment like “Tell something this person has done for you,” “What is this person good at?” or “What is something you admire in this person?” Mealtime is also a good opportunity to ask what children enjoyed about the day, what they learned, or what they have done to help someone. You may have to resist the urge, at times, to micromanage what your children are eating and how they are eating it. Focus instead on nourishing your children’s spirits as well as their bodies, and mealtime can be one of the most pleasurable, relaxed times of your day.
Build Up Your Child
Besides giving praise and encouragement, there are other ways you can build up your child. Here are a few:
Laugh and tell jokes; be silly together.
Let your home be a safe place for your child to ask questions.
Let your child know that it is always okay to come to you with any problem or concern.
Apologize when you make a mistake.
Keep your promises to your child. Don’t promise things that you know you can’t deliver. Likewise, try not to cancel plans you have made with your child.
Support your child’s wise decisions, friendships, and accomplishments.
Be an advocate. Speak up for your child when needed.
When you need to correct your child, do it with kindness and gentleness. Many small, inconsequential things your child says and does can be completely ignored. Some things can be treated with humor. But, if a child’s actions may hurt something or someone, it’s time to intervene in a caring way. Once the child is engaged in something else, make sure to praise the new, appropriate behavior.
Your relationship with your child will change as the child grows, but it will always be rooted in the type of relationship that is developed now. A child’s early years will largely shape the child’s entire personality. Your relationship with your child is more important than any issue that may come between you. Now is the time to consider how you might add a dose of understanding and kindness to solidify your relationship and help your child become all that she or he can be.
How have you worked to understand your children better? How do you let your children know that you appreciate them? What do you do for family time? I would love to hear your stories in the comments below.
Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband, David, have six children and two grandchildren. They live in Laurel, Maryland.
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