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Play, Work, Participate

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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How to Get Kids on Track

Once children reach school age, one of the first questions on a parent’s mind is this: how do I get my kids to do what I want them to do? The answer to this question gets even trickier when kids become adolescents. Whether it’s cleaning up their rooms, chewing with their mouths closed, doing chores around the house, saying “please” and “thank you” both at home and in public, or doing their homework, parents find themselves in a constant state of trying to direct behavior in a productive direction. Some parents negotiate with their children, some parents take the “my way or the highway” approach, but most parents find that their parenting style lies somewhere in between: they’re not dictators, but they’re not pushovers, either.

As a parent, you have to choose your battles – some things you absolutely have to put your foot down about, and some things are not such a big deal. Where those proverbial “lines in the sand” are drawn is up to the individual family. Some things that are important in some households aren’t in others, and vice-versa. That’s as it should be: every family has its own style and its own way of doing things. What experts are starting to understand, however, is that no matter what the parenting style, there’s one sure way to get your kids on board with your parenting program, and that’s to spend quality time with them. Whether it’s playing, working, or participating in activities the kids are interested in, shared time—especially shared quality time— makes all the difference in the world.

Play with Your Kids

What is quality time? It’s when your kids have your full, undivided attention. Quality time with your kids is time when you’re not also surfing the internet, talking on the phone, or trying to accomplish anything else at all. Even the best parents attempt to multi-task during kid time, but research shows that it’s actually counter-productive.

In a study published in 2013 in The Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, researchers discovered that when parents were asked to engage in “child-directed play” with their toddlers—meaning toddler’s games with toddler’s rules—the result was astonishing: the more time the parents spent in “child-directed play”, the more cooperative the kids became when their mothers asked them to follow directions. Further research shows that not only is this true for toddlers, but it’s true through early childhood, pre-puberty, adolescence, and even into early adulthood.

No matter which developmental period, the more uninterrupted, one-on-one time a child has with the parent, the better the outcome is for the child.

Work With Your Kids

Every busy parent knows that there are times to play, and there are times to get things done. Rooms have to be tidied up, laundry has to get clean, and dishes need to get washed. Busy parents also know that it’s tough to get kids to do any of the tasks listed above.

So what’s the answer?

How do you get reluctant kids to participate in the regular work of managing a household without it turning into a battle?

The experts agree that the best way to get kids to do household chores, from easy things picking up toys to harder work like raking the yard or cutting the grass, is to do the work with them. Doing chores with kids teaches cooperation, gives them a sense of belonging, and makes them feel a sense of responsibility. Doing them together can also be fun, and believe it or not, it also counts as quality time. In fact, it’s almost worth double: not only do you get to spend time with your kids, and they get to spend time with you, but they also learn things at the same time.

Participate in Their Interests

As kids grow up, they develop interests of their own. Some kids like to play Pokemon, some kids like to play soccer, and some kids like to build model airplanes. There are times – especially during the teen years – when it’s hard for parents to understand why kids like what they like, but nevertheless, it’s essential that parents participate in and express enthusiasm for their interests.

Keep your level of engagement up as they grow.

Just like playing “toddler’s games with toddler’s rules” when children are little, it’s essential to follow their lead and take part in their activities through every developmental stage. When they want to try baseball, get out in the driveway, yard, or local park and throw the ball back and forth. If they want to try a musical instrument, listen to them practice and play. Interested in dinosaurs? Go to the library, check out dinosaur books, and spend time reading them. If they start getting into pop music, listen with them – even if in your opinion what they’re listening to doesn’t seem to be music at all. Let go of your preconceptions and try to hear it the way they do.

It can be fun.

What About Television?

The same goes for the TV shows they start to watch as they transition from kiddie material to preteen and teen shows: you may not love them, but you can use them as points of contact. As they get older, the circumstances their favorite characters navigate can serve as teachable moments. Pause the show and talk through a topic. Ask your child what they think about the situation, why the characters behave the way they do, then compare that behavior to the behavior you want them to exhibit.

While this may seem obvious, remember to make sure they know they way people act on TV does not make it okay: in their lives, they have to follow basic rules like respect, kindness, and inclusion, or whatever norms your family culture espouses. This kind of interaction might not seem as valuable to you as, for instance, deep conversations while on a hike in the woods, but to them, it counts: it means everything to them when you meet them where they are, with an open mind, and without judgment. No matter what the activity, shared time means the world to children of all ages, from toddlers to teens. It makes them feel loved, it makes them feel important, and it validates them emotionally.

Strengthening the Bond

Playing, working, and participating in activities with your kids strengthens the parent-child bond that’s essential to their positive development. Scientific research shows that when parents make a daily habit of giving kids their complete and total attention from an early age, it’s very good for the both the children and the parents. I

n other words, when parents spend a little bit of quality time with their kids each and every day, the results are amazing: when they’re older, kids return the favor by being more cooperative, collaborative, and much more willing to do what’s asked of them.

Spending quality time early and often is also the best way to establish the open, honest, and direct lines of communication that are crucial when kids reach the more challenging stages like pre-puberty and adolescence. Finally, to circle back to the question posed at the very beginning of this article: “How do I get my kids to do what I want them to do?”
According to the experts, the answer, surprisingly, is this: first, when they’re little, do what they want you to do.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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