Every time I go to a public restroom with my kids, I hear myself the way I heard my mother and I repeat the words every mother knows: “Don’t touch anything!” It comes out like it’s our duty and like somehow you’ve said the motherly thing you are supposed to say. One day when I took my two youngest children to a restaurant’s public restroom, I was reminded of a valuable lesson.
My two-year-old was not only completely dismissing the universal “don’t-touch-anything norm” but she was practically lying on the floor with her cheeks pressed against the concrete floor.
Sitting on the toilet, there was nothing I could do except keep yelling “the rule” one, two, three, four times… Each time louder and growing angrier, and each time she smiled and ignored me completely. She was now circling her little arms like she was Cinderella cleaning the bathroom floors with her tiny hands while I tried helplessly to lift her up with my arms. Like a rag doll, she put her weight back on the floor.
I tried bargaining, explaining, even blackmailing her until I gave up. Then like a lightning bolt of wisdom, I remembered something from my parenting class. I said to my germ-covered baby, “Hey, can you reach this?” as I pointed with my hand at something in the bathroom stall. Magically, she stood up and tried to reach for it. Then I said, “Can you reach that?” pointing to the other side. Now she was willfully and happily off the floor. We continued playing until I flushed the toilet and walked out of the stall triumphantly.
Children have a need for fun. That’s what I remembered my teacher Geri Clouse saying to us. She explained William Glasser’s Choice Theory which resembles Maslow’s Hierarchy. Glasser points out the five basic needs we have as humans, which are survival, love, power, freedom, and fun. When basic or survival needs are met, we seek to fulfill the rest of them. Children, however, have a much greater need for fun than adults. Here lies the key to better understanding our children’s minds.
I don’t like giving advice to other moms. Sometimes even when I am asked, I tend to focus on what’s worked for me and instead I try to encourage other moms to seek the answers from within, to read books, and to find a path that fits their dynamic with their children. I am passionate about parenting, but I am not an expert. But if there is one thing I am sure can help any parent—following any method of parenting—with almost any issue and for all ages, it is this: make it fun.
Adding playfulness to a situation can increase the connection with your children and thus make cooperation easier. Instead of rushing your kids to get dressed, have them race with you. Let them pick a silly accessory. Give instructions in a funny voice or sing to them. We even made up a song to help my daughter with her potty training.
I know it’s hard to think of silly things when you are trying to get them out the door, but sometimes all that needs to change is your tone. I say to myself, “Dial down the hectic; bring on the cheerful.” I’ve been there, trust me. When it is 7:00 p.m., you’ve hit the point where your neurons are slowly giving up on you and you have yet to bathe the kids. They are not going to listen to your exhausted voice, but you might have a better chance if the rubber ducky is calling them into the water in a playful voice.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to spend 30 minutes playing with them. It can be free play, an outdoor activity, a board game, or anything you both enjoy doing. Our teacher gave us a challenge the first week of parenting class, and I found that by doing it we were happier and my children were more receptive afterward. After all, playing truly is what kids are supposed to do.
Going back to the public restroom with my two-year-old, if I would have kept shouting at her, it would have inevitably ended up with her crying and me feeling frustrated. Instead, by making up a game, I was able to connect with my child and meet her where she was.
Contrary to what you might have heard that kids, and especially toddlers, are constantly trying to defy us, it is more like we are constantly trying to fit them into our world. We forget that even if we are both going to the bathroom, both getting in the car, both eating at a restaurant, our kids are not having the same experiences as us.
They see a shiny bathroom floor and they want to touch it; they see a car door that opens with a button and they are going to try to push it 100 times; they see a bowl of chips in a restaurant and crushing them into tiny pieces will seem like a better idea than eating them. Much like the Cindy Lauper song, kids just want to have fun!
Ultimately, if our goal is to create strong and meaningful connections with our children, we must acknowledge that their needs are different than ours. They do need love, and much of it, but they also need the element of fun. If love acts as a bonding agent, consider fun and playfulness the super glue that will hold it even stronger.
Next time you find yourself in a challenging situation with your kids, just ask yourself: “How do I make this fun?” and go from there.