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Q. "I have a 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. I was raised in a family of girls. Now that my son is older and very much into "boy stuff," I am having a hard time relating to him. I try to play with my son but he says everything I try to do is "boring." But the stuff he wants to do is either dangerous or dirty. We both end up frustrated because we can't seem to find common ground. Any advice?"
A. Here's a way to start connecting with your son. Tell him you want to spend 15 minutes with him each night before bed. He's to choose the activity and be in charge. Whatever he wants to do, you will follow his lead. This idea often frightens parents; they fear their child will pick an outrageous, dangerous, or complicated activity in which the parent couldn't possibly agree to engage. This usually isn't the case.
He might choose to play a game, build with blocks, play with action figures, paint, or simply choose a book for you to read to him. The worst activity he might request is wrestling, which you may or may not decline. Once the activity begins, the parent copies the child's behavior. If he builds a building with blocks, you build one too, just like his. It's very flattering for the child when the parent does exactly as he does. If he wants you to play a board game, play by his rules (not necessarily the game's rules) and remember: He's the boss.
This is not a time to teach, make suggestions, or offer insights into the activity at hand. Parents do enough of that the rest of the day. This is a time to build the parent-child relationship, and nothing more. The bonus to parents is that by taking the back seat in this play or activity time, the parent has the opportunity to see the child as a competent problem solver and planner.
As your son plays or engages in an activity, if you can't copy what he's doing, describe it. "I see you're zooming down the slide. Now you're climbing the ladder." Offer a play-by-play account as if you're a sports commentator at a baseball game. The reason? It affirms the child's choices and level of competency; he feels loved. Watch him as you describe his positive actions. You'll see love and happiness written all over his face.
This approach may sound too simple. You may be skeptical. You may wonder just how your son will respond and what the benefit could be. All you can do is try it. What do you have to lose?
As children travel the road to maturity, they push to satisfy four needs: the need to be loved and to belong, the need to develop a wide variety of competencies, the need to have freedom to make choices appropriate to their age, and the need for fun. Letting the child lead an activity addresses all four of these needs in a positive way.
Another benefit to parents is that when the 15 minutes are up and it's time for bed, the likelihood is great that the child will readily comply because he feels so good about this positive parent-child interaction. In time, this approach will spill over into other activities and interests between you and your son, which can only benefit your relationship for the short term and the long term.