Parenting: The Basics, Revisited in 2012 – Do

Do things with your child.

I don’t mean that you don’t already do things with your child. I know you do. You help her read and do homework, you do chores together, you drive her to school sports activities parties…

But the things I’m talking about doing with your child are the things that your child wants to do – that you probably don’t want to do.

Like when your 2-year old wants to play ball, and all you have energy for is sinking into bed. Or when you have a deadline looming and your child is determined to lay out all her dolls and have an elaborate fashion show.

If I were faced with either of the above situations, I would beg to be excused. “I’m too tired / tense, so it wouldn’t be much good my playing with you right now, but I will definitely play with you …” (I’d mention a specific time).

And then, I’d make sure to do what I said I’d do.

Whenever your child asks you to do something with him, you may be willing and able to do it – or not, but know this: what your child will remember is how often you put him off. So you need to make a conscious decision each time your child asks you to do something – will this be yet another instance that he ‘remembers’, or will you both have a great time doing something together?

But maybe only your child has a great time doing the thing – you don’t!

When she was little, my daughter loved imagining stories with dozens of characters, each of whom she named. She described each character’s traits in detail, and if the name didn’t match the character sketch, it was changed. As a result, a 2-hour marathon session of ‘playing’ could result in a hundred-odd characters which were related to each other in some way, whose names and personalities were defined, but no story had been finalized – there was no sequence of events.

And every time we began the game, we played it from the beginning; or at least so close to the beginning, that we never really got the story off the ground. I love imagining games too, but it was a terrible strain trying to remember what the fifth daughter’s smallest doll was called, and how she looked! 🙂

My daughter would accuse me of not being interested, of having a bad memory, and of not ‘playing’ properly. I told her I simply couldn’t remember so much detail, especially since some of it changed every now and then. And what was the point of going on about all these people (and animals – but there I still tremble to go! 🙂 ) when the story just didn’t move forward?

But she was adamant. “You don’t play properly. And if you don’t play properly, I’ll be very angry with you and when I grow up, I won’t let you come to my house to visit me.” I was being threatened by a 2.5-foot high piece! 🙂

She loved the game and I didn’t. From my point of view, I was being the loving parent, sacrificing so much time and mind space towards utter banalities, indulging her, and she was threatening me because she didn’t appreciate what I was doing for her. Impasse.

This is a trap most parents tend to fall into. We do things ‘for’ our children, things we would rather not do if left to ourselves, and then we resent it when our kids don’t appreciate that we’re doing all this ‘for’ them.

Hmmm – time to introspect. I stepped away and told her I needed a few days of not playing the game to see what we could do to make things better.

I realized that my daughter didn’t care two hoots about my playing the game with her. What she really wanted was that I should ‘enjoy’ the game as much as she did. My playing the game was no good unless I got into the spirit of it. She didn’t want a martyr-type attitude from me – which is what she was getting.

I, on the other hand, wanted to put in the least possible effort towards playing the game to get the maximum parental mileage out of it: “My mom plays with me all the time! We have a great time!” And it wasn’t happening.

So which was more important to me?

I decided on a compromise. I told her I’d love to play the game “properly”, but I couldn’t play it as often as she wanted me to. So I could either play “not properly” 4 times a week, or “properly” twice a week. The ball was back in her court.

She chose (predictably) “properly” twice a week. And so, I put my best foot forward and really got into the spirit of the game. She was delighted, and I was thrilled too – because my ‘doing’ things with her was finally getting me the brownie points I wanted as a parent.  

The lessons I learnt about ‘doing’ things with your child?

1. Do what your child wants – This is his game. Let him set the rules (but not change them to his convenience if he’s losing! 🙂 ). Let him decide what kind of game it will be. Let him be in the driver’s seat. Don’t tell him how to play; it is his game – you’re just playing it.

2. Concentrate on enjoying yourself – Unless you are clearly enjoying yourself, your child doesn’t register your ‘doing’. Get into the spirit of the game. Just as eating requires that you chew every mouthful to get the maximum flavor, apply yourself to every move, concentrate on every roll of the die, deliberate on every swing of the bat… Discuss the game afterwards – this is a big one. Usually, you only discuss things afterwards if you’ve had ‘fun’ doing them. 🙂

3. Ignore winning and losing – Do not play to win, but don’t play to lose either. The first is competitive, and remember, you’re ‘doing’ because you’re trying to make parenting easier on yourself and your child. The second smacks of ‘lying’, and though your child may appreciate your effort in the beginning, in the long run, the falsity of what you are doing will far outweigh any potential (if at all) benefits of such ‘playing’.

4. Go with the flow – As your child grows older and his interests change, the game may change rules, players, or it may be a completely different game. The little girl who only wanted to play with dolls may be fixated on chess now. And then it might be video games. Whatever it is, do it.

5. Let your child teach you – This is perhaps the most difficult thing for parents to do. I don’t know anything about dance, and my daughter lives, breathes, eats and sleeps dance (and a few other things). She’s always telling me about the new moves they learnt in class or exercises they do that will help me get fit or asking me to watch dance movies and videos with her.

So much of the joy we get is from sharing the things we love with the people we love. Even if it is not your ‘thing’, let your child tell you about how to animate a character, or play golf, or play a tune, or write a software program. When we refuse to participate, when we turn our face away, we deprive ourselves of shared joy and love; we extinguish the spark in our children.  

You’ve spent your life showing and teaching him things. Let him experience what it feels like to be in your shoes, and let yourself be the one taught. Go ahead and let him teach you about the things that excite him. Learn actively, eagerly from him. If you pay attention, it will open up a whole new world of communication and connection with him. 🙂 

Do write back and share your experience as you try out these parenting basics – I’m sure you’ll find you’ve put the zing back into your life with your child. Happy carefree parenting! 🙂

Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂

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Dangerous Games You Might be Playing With Your Child

R-O-A-R! You growl, a ferocious frown on your face, your expression fierce, your fingers imitating claws, as you advance menacingly towards your child. She shrieks and runs away, and you give chase to capture her. Once you capture her, you can imprison her in your arms, or ‘eat her up’.

As you keep playing, one fine day, instead of running away, she will retaliate. She will glower at you, unsheathe her claws, and roar to frighten you out of your skin. You will drop your claws (and your false bravado! 🙂 ) and run for your life as she chases you. Eventually you will give up, and acknowledge her as big, powerful, scary, and the winner of the game – at which point, you will both collapse into giggles or into each other’s arms or both.

This is a game we have all played with our children, or will play in the future; if not this exact game, then some variation of it.

You are careful not to start playing this game too early in your child’s life. You want him to be accustomed to your presence, the varying expressions on your face, in your voice. Then, when he is comfortable, you can try some play-acting, ready to stop the game the moment you see the slightest sign that he is truly scared or uncomfortable.

As he gets used to the game, he actively asks to play this game; he wants you to frighten him, and devises strategies to deal with the threatening animal you turn into. There comes a time when you realize that there are overtones of real menace in his play-acting. He really wants to win.

He is now old enough to understand competition, no longer worships the ground you walk on, and wants to exert the force of his personality, the force of his SELF. So he really tries to scare you; his punches and kicks hit hard enough to hurt, and he’s putting all his might into getting the better of you. This is true, whether your child is a boy or girl. This is true whether you are the mother or the father.

At some level, you both realize this is a game. Neither of you is a predator, and neither of you is prey. But it has stopped being a game. Your child is actively pitting herself against you, and is straining with all her might to win – more accurately, to defeat you. It is only one of the ways in which she is trying to assert her independence, her identity as a person separate from you.

But it is still only a game, and a harmless one, at that.

Recently, I happened to have meetings very close to my daughter’s school. The meetings would get over about the time school lets out, and I was contemplating whether or not it was a good idea for me to collect her from school so we could have a day out in town. (My picking her up is a sort of treat for both of us, since it happens so rarely.) After thinking it through and talking it over with her, I decided against picking her up. She should take the bus home, and I’d drive home as and when my work got done.

“But why can’t you pick me up? You haven’t done it even once this academic year!” (And the year was almost halfway through then.)

I told her it was not convenient – I wanted the flexibility to get other work done, if I could manage it.

But she’d set her heart on my picking her up. “I so rarely ask you to get me from school. And now that I’m asking, your work – which is not even set up yet! – is more important than your picking me up! If you really loved me, you’d pick me up from school tomorrow.”

Right then and there, I dropped what I was doing, and asked her to follow me into her room. “What did you just say?” I asked her, in a no-nonsense tone I rarely use (even more effective because it is softly spoken 🙂 ).

She stumbled over the words as she repeated them, her eyes glued to my face.

 “What do you mean by saying that?” I asked her.

No answer. She’s still looking at me, as if I were a cobra about to bury my fangs into her.

Listen to me, and listen carefully, because I will not say this again. Are you listening?”

She nods.

“Okay. My picking you up or not, from school or wherever, tomorrow or on any other day, when you are 12 or 22 or 42 or 62, does not say anything about whether I love you or not. Have you understood that?”

She nods again.

“Did you really think that if I didn’t pick you up it would mean that I don’t love you?”

A nervous shake of the head. I waited. She said, “No, I didn’t really think that. I mean, I don’t think that.”

“Then why did you say it?” I persisted.

“Just like that,” she said. I waited.

“I said it because I thought if I said it, you would pick me up from school tomorrow.”

That is when I relaxed, and became my ‘normal’ self again.

“This kind of behavior is called playing games”, I explained to her, “and these are not good games to play. They mess with your head and my head and make us unhappy and suspicious. These games put poison in our heads and our hearts and make us destroy the love and happiness we have – inside ourselves, as well as what we share with each other. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You and I have never played these games with each other, and I don’t want us to start now. Yell at me, shout, throw a tantrum – whatever, but don’t play games with me. I’d say don’t play them with anyone, ever, but definitely do not play them with me, because I won’t let you. If ever you try such a thing with me, I will point it out and stop the ‘game’ immediately – because I’m not interested in playing these games – with you or with anyone else. I’ve played them in the past, and they are not my cup of tea. You can play them if you want, but not with me. Get it?”

“Yes, Ma. I’m sorry,” she came to hug me.

A really lovely hug followed. 🙂

“You don’t need to be sorry. I’m glad it came up, because at least now, you know the kind of games that people play with each other, and how meaningless they are, and what kind of harm they can do.”

Yes, we made it over a big speed bump that day, my daughter and I.

Your child may start such a game, and you may let him get away with it, till the game is on autopilot, and your relationship has deteriorated. Worse, you may be playing such games with your child (“Won’t you do this for me, please?” “It will make me so happy.” “You did as I asked? You are a ‘good’ boy!”), till one day you look at the tatters of your relationship and wonder what happened.

You know, don’t you, that this is a game that nobody wins – because nobody can win it. All you can do is lose. And you do.  

Take a good, hard look at the games you play with your child. Then dismantle them – right away. What you have with your child is too precious to be lost to a game.

Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂