Last month we wrote about the importance of connecting with your children - so that this connection pulls us through when the going gets tough. I never quite realised (but it makes total sense), that this is one way Nature helps us to parent. When our children are securely connected to us, they listen better, they follow our lead, stay close (as toddlers) and they trust us to guide them. No shouting, bribing or force needed. We have all experienced this. On days when we laugh and have fun with our children, if we then ask them to help us with something - like setting the table or unpacking some shopping - chances are, they will. On the other hand, if we are all having a bad day and we shout from the other side of the house: 'Get down here now, and help me with the table!' that gets us far less positive results... So, without that connection parenting (and family life in general) becomes much, much harder. Then, how DO we connect? Day to day, in ways that are easy and sustainable?
Below is a list of really small ideas that you can try and that will literally take less than 30 seconds each to do. Some of them are more suitable for young children, some work better with older children. Some will resonate with you, some won't. Take a look through and try those that feel good to you.
Make up a secret code word, or code sign. I have one with my oldest for when he is allowed a treat while I put the younger two to bed at night. It is a wink and he (or I) will do this from across the room - with a knowing smile. We connect every time.
Whisper something to them like it is a secret - I do this with my daughter sometimes. And she now does this back to me, whenever she wants to feel close and share a special moment. Often it is nothing spectacular that is shared, yesterday for example, at the dinner table, she whispered to me: 'Mummy, I ate my carrots.' But it was the eye contact and connection that really mattered.
Tell a story. This is something that I remember from my own childhood and that I have continued with my children. We make up a storyline that involves characters that are similar to them, and that have similar names, except for the first letter, which becomes a "b" (so Anika is now "Banika" in the story). The kids love it, and it is a great way to help them digest some of the themes they are dealing with in their lives. For example, if the real Anika is moving house, Banika in the story would be going through the same thing and figuring it out too - feeling excited, or worried, or both. It gives the children a way to express their own thoughts and feelings in safe way and it is a story that is completely unique to your own family.
Put a little note in their lunchbox, or send them a gratitude text, if they are older. If your children are bi-lingual, this could be in their second language. Then this becomes an opportunity to practice the language as well as connect with you.
When they come and hug you, wait until THEY release you. I am often astounded at just how long the hug will go on for and it feels really, really good. It also makes me realise how often I used to rush them, thinking about the next thing on my 'to do' list, rather than staying in the moment with them, and enjoying every bit of that connection.
Have a special 'goodnight' or 'good bye' ritual that is unique to you both. Whether that is a special handshake, signing 'I love you' from afar, or something you both say, like: 'I love you, love you more, love you most!' A friend of mine used to always, without fail, say: 'See you later, alligator;' to her daughter and her daughter would always respond: 'in a while crocodile' with a knowing smile.
Do something wrong on purpose, or tell them to do the opposite of what you want (with a twinkle in your eye) - for example, at dinner, when Rupert or Isla don't want to eat their food, we play: 'Whatever you do, don't eat that' And I put a mouthful of food on a spoon and leave it in reach on their plate, telling them not to touch it under any circumstances. And then I turn away and busy myself with my plate. When I look back at their plate, the spoonful is eaten, and they are in stitches and eating the food without any fighting... ;-)
Use the 'second hand feedback' principle: what this means is, tell someone else how amazing you think someone is (in this case your child), or how you appreciate him/ her while she/ he is in earshot. This is something that really lasts for individuals. I used to teach it as part of my work as an Employee Engagement consultant. Adults and children alike will notice when you give heartfelt appreciation, especially when it is to another person. It makes everyone feel 10 feet tall.
If your little one is struggling to leave you for a day at nursery, draw a heart on your and their hand and tell them to look at it, or touch it, every time they miss you - and that you will be doing the same - and think of them. I did this with my youngest after half term a few weeks back and he loved it. Now, whenever he feels not sure about going to nursery, he asks for a heart on his hand and then he happily goes off to pre-school with a big smile on his face.
Another way to connect with our children is to love and accept them just as they are. And even though we may feel that we are doing this, we are often not. I realised this the other day with my oldest son. I was so keen to help him solve an issue he was having, that I kept focussing on what he could do to improve things, to grow, to learn, to change stuff. But what that was actually doing, was adding more pressure and making him feel inadequate. What he really needed, was me to forget about the solution for a moment, and focus on just him - and reassure him that he was loved and accepted just the way he is. And trust that the rest (i.e. figuring the solution) will follow from that place naturally. So instead, I tried to take a step back and use some of these 'soul-building' words:
'You make my day better.'
'Mistakes mean you are learning.'
'It's good enough for today'
'Be kind to yourself'
I started to focus on building his confidence by playing games together - he often picked things that he was going to win, which was fine, and exactly what he needed. I also told him often, in lots of different ways when I thought he'd worked really hard on something, the effort that he was putting in, that I was listening, and the way I loved him, no matter what the outcome of things. He gradually relaxed and eventually came to me with a really insightful solution to the issue he was having - staying in his good place. All by himself! :-)
I used the first sentence - 'You make my day better' with my daughter too, and the effect was heartwarming. Isla had woken up in a tricky mood and nothing seemed to be going right for her. I ended up sitting her on the kitchen counter while I made her a hot chocolate and she helped me make myself a cup of tea. I have a list of soul building words hanging on the inside of my kitchen cabinet where the tea bags live (to help me to remember to use these wonderful phrases!) and 'You make my day better' jumped out at me. So rather than talking about any of the grumbles that had just been going on, I decided to change tack and out of the blue, when Isla was looking at me, I told her that she made my day better. She paused, looked at me a number of times in seeming disbelief, and then a small, wonderful, warm smile spread across her entire face, lighting her up from the inside. And I knew that I had reached her and communicated what we both really needed in that moment.
So often I don't get this right, and when I don't, I have to remind myself to be kind to myself as well. To keep trying, to keep learning and growing. Part of this is living by example as much as I can - where the focus is on good intentions, asking for what I need and noticing what I love about others and the world around me. Each and every day. As cheesy as it sounds, I truly believe we are all here to live our best lives, one day, one moment, and one experience at a time.
Let me know what things you do to connect with your children. And if you try any of the above ideas - which ones resonated with you and what worked best (or didn't!)? I'd love to hear from you.