What Kids Need More Than Anything
As a stay-at-home mom, I spend a lot of time with my kids. My days revolve around meal planning, mediating sibling disputes, shuttling kids to basketball practice and trying to tame the never-ending laundry pile. (Notice I said tame and not conquer, because we all know it’s really just a losing battle.) So, I was shocked when I realized early in my parenting career that being physically present with my kids didn’t equate to the prized individual attention my boys craved.
This isn’t to discredit my intentions: We read together daily, have designated family movie nights, and I oftentimes take a child out alone to run errands so we can have time to talk in the car. But at the end of almost every night, I’m still sure to hear the same refrain: “Mom, would you cuddle with me for just a little bit longer?” This often leaves me equal parts smitten and confused. I mean, yes, of course I’d love to spend a few more minutes with my kids. But the reality is, I’ve spent all day with each child. Wasn’t that enough?
Both stay-at-home moms and working moms often wrestle with wondering whether the time they spend with their children is quality time. One of the greatest challenges I struggle with as a stay-at-home mom is the tension between being productive and still being fully engaged with my kids. Working moms have a unique challenge all their own, with time limitations being thrown into the mix. Regardless the number of hours we have with our kids, I deeply believe every good parent wants to make sure those hours are well spent. And that is good—because more than anything else we can give our kids, our attention is what they really need.
Face to Face Is the Place
One-on-one, individual attention is critical not only to a child’s self-esteem but also to the formation of his character. Children need parents. But parents don’t need children. So, children are always on the lookout to deduce whether or not their parents really want to be with them. Deep within the heart of a child is a need to know that Mom and Dad think the world of him.
“A child’s identity is shaped by spending face-to-face time with Mom or Dad and
scouring our faces for clues about what we think about them and what we believe about them,” renowned pediatrician Dr. Meg Meeker said in a recent podcast titled “What Kids Really Want and Need.” “When a child’s in a room with a mom or a dad, they’re listening very carefully for what Mom thinks about them at that moment. Is Mom happy about them? Is she angry at them? Is she irritated at them? Is she happy that they’re in the same room? And the same is true with Dad. If kids collect these clues from Mom or Dad, positive or negative, and internalize them, that’s who they become.”
The Secret Recipe for Happy Kids
Want happy kids? Then be a happy parent. Of course, you’ll have days when life throws lemons (and let’s be honest, not all make great lemonade). Everyone has them. But how we view life with our kids in general speaks as much to our kids as what comes out our mouths. Self-care is a huge component to that. By living a contented life, we shape our kids’ view of the world for the better. And confident parents raise confident kids.
Praise Character over Performance
One of the best parts of the parenting job is that we get to play head cheerleader in our children’s lives. But living in such a highly performance-driven culture, we may have a natural tendency to praise our kids far more for what they can do than for who they simply are. Naturally, if a child gets great grades, makes the varsity team or wins a music competition, we feel as though we’ve done something right as parents. So what do we do? We typically lay on the praise. The problem is this: If we solely praise our kids’ accomplishments, they will soon realize the attention they get from Mom and Dad is purely performance based. And that’s not the type of attention kids want. Children don’t want to feel like marionettes.
Meeker offers an alternative. “Find a character quality in your child that is innate or that you want to develop,” she says. “Is your child tenacious? Is your child stubborn? Is your child patient? Is your child kind? Is your child a giving person? Find times when your child exercises that. And that helps you not focus on your child’s performance but focus on their character, because no matter what your child’s skill level, intelligence or abilities, every child has some character quality you can praise.”
Parents can’t spend every waking second of the day focused solely on a child. And that’s not the goal. Small windows of time daily quickly can add up to make a big difference in your relationship. So play a board game, build Lego structures or don a cape and join in on some imaginative play. With older children, consider going on a walk or getting drinks together at a coffee shop. When possible, let your child choose the activity. Don’t feel the need to provide commentary or ask contrived conversation starters throughout your time. Let conversation take place organically. Avoid using electronics as the sole way to connect, because the goal is to have a conversation. Turn your phone to silent and, if possible, keep it out of sight. Above all, gently pursue your child and love him unconditionally. Don’t demand he talk with you or respond in a certain way. View quality time as an investment because it is—an investment in your relationship with your child and an investment in the formation of who he will one day become.
Lauren Greenlee is a boy mom of three hailing from Olathe. She currently can be found bonding with her firstborn over Beverly Cleary books, her second born over ice cream and her youngest through endless rounds of Candyland.