Another typical day at the Miller residence. Meghan has been critical of her 10-year-old son, Jackson, all morning. He was slow to get ready for school, left his pajamas on the floor, barely caught the bus, left his cereal bowl on the kitchen table, and left his partially completed homework that was due that day in his room. When he gets home from school, she lets Jackson know of all of the things he didn’t do right that morning. He tells her that he will go into his room to finish his homework. He trudges to his room and shuts the door. An hour later, Meghan explodes when she finds Jackson has been playing games on the iPad in his room instead of doing his homework like he promised. He continues playing on his iPad and says, “I’m almost done with this level! I just needed a break! I’ll get to my homework in just a minute!” “You NEVER get off of that darn iPad!” his mother says sharply through clenched teeth. An argument over his reluctance to stop playing games on the iPad escalates. The long, emotional struggles leaves them both tired and resentful.
As I said in my previous blog, we can influence our kids, but we can’t really control them. We definitely cannot control them in any sustainable, effective way. Attempts to control our kids can start to backfire for a number of reasons. We all want to be a positive influence as parents . But what is the best way to do that? In the above example, how can Meghan get her son off of the iPad more effectively?
Influence Through the Relationship
As parents, indeed as individuals, our leverage of influence is directly related to the quality of the relationship. The stronger the relationship, the more influence that we will have. If our relationship with our kids mainly consists of commands and criticisms, it isn’t much of a relationship. For instance, a sampling of Meghan’s verbal interactions with Jackson might consist of:
- Clean your room
- Do your homework
- Put your shoes away
- How many times do I have to tell you to TURN OFF the iPad?!
- Quit horsing around and get to bed!
- Take out the trash
- Eat your vegetables
- What did you make on that math quiz?
- You are making a mess at the dinner table
- You didn’t try at all in soccer. You need to at least try your best while you are out there!
Now, Meghan isn’t a “bad” mother for such statements. Our kids need direction and guidance, but we do want to spend time in other types of interactions that build the relationship. When we want to build a positive relationship with our kids, it’s critical that we do activities with them instead of just to or for them.
Why Investing in the Relationship Is So Important
We are meant to be in relationship with one another. We are inherently social creatures. That is hard-wired into us. We are literally dependent upon one another for relationships to survive. Because relationships are essential to our survival, it feels good to be connected with one another. If we think of our best times in life, those were most likely with other people – family, friends, loved ones. By some estimates, around 70% of our happiness in life comes from relationships. Conversely, when we think of our worst times in life, those probably had something to do with being alone, alienated, isolated, or in conflict. Indeed, relationships are so central to our well-being that scientists have found that social rejection activates some of the same areas of the brain that are involved in the experience of physical pain. We suffer when we struggle in our relationships.
We all need to be in positive relationships for our happiness and even survival. Thus, when we are in a positive relationship with others, there is an inherent need to maintain that relationship. We don’t want to jeopardize a need-satisfying relationship. We are more willing to give up some of what we want in order to maintain the equanimity and our connection.
Meghan and Jackson make chocolate chip cookies from scratch together. They have a good time and enjoy sampling their freshly baked cookies with cold milk at the end. Afterward, Meghan reminds her Jackson to put away the toys in his room. Although he typically argues with his mother or passively avoids such responsibilities, he agrees to go put his toys away. While in his room, Jackson is briefly tempted to play on the iPad, but he knows his mother will be upset. So, he puts his toys away with the satisfaction that his mother will be pleased.
Activities That Build the Relationship
When we want to build the relationship with our kids, a great place to start is finding some activities that you can enjoy doing together.
- Build Legos
- Throw the football
- Shoot baskets
- Go to the park
- Fly a kite
- Find insects
- Play tag
- Play board games
- Play card games
- Read with them or to them
- Play video games with them (can be some great connecting time)
For me, I will admit that I’m a bit of a geek. I have 3 sons, and the two oldest ones (ages 11 & 8) have become completely obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons – not online, but the kind in which you sit down with other people, play different characters (e.g., wizards, barbarians, rogues), and go through imaginary worlds to be the heroes that save the day. I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons with my best friends, so this is back to my old stomping grounds. My wife, along with various other kids and adult friends, play as well. We have a fantastic time, and it definitely builds the relationship bond.
An Investment That REALLY Pays Off
As Ben Franklin noted, there are no certainties in life except for death and taxes. Spending quality time with our kids doesn’t guarantee that they will listen to us or follow our directions. It’s not a panacea. But it improves the odds and, the more we invest into building the relationship, the more likely kids will respond favorably to us. Relationships are powerful, and when we want to influence our kids positively, we need to invest in the relationship. No, this isn’t manipulation. We are happier and our kids are happier too.
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating that parents step back and just have an “anything goes” attitude. Kids need limits set and guidance. It is important to remember that discipline is about teaching, not punishing. The root word of “discipline,” after all, is “disciple.” To be a positive influence as parents, we need to figure out how to be involved in our kids lives in ways that build the relationship. That’s our best bet if we want to be effective parents and raise happy, successful children.