As a child therapist in Washington DC, I often ask parents about their goals for their child in therapy. Parents usually say that they will want to see improvements in their child’s behavior at home or school; they want to feel less worried about their child, and they want their child to be happier. After discussing these goals, I ask parents, “Do you often experience joy with your child?” Parents tend to give a variety of responses to this question, mostly about it being absent or feeling hopeful for it to enter back into their lives: “We used to,” “Not anymore,” or “Yes, that is a great goal for our child/ for our family!”
Children’s behavior problems and the overall stress of parenting can lead us to be more focused on the daily obligations in life rather than our hopes and dreams for our family and children. Especially around the holidays, we are so busy scheduling activities with our children, family and friends, that we forget to enjoy the little moments of the holiday season. A great question to ask yourself at this time of year is, “Why did I decide to have children in the first place?” or “What are are my hopes and wishes for my child and my family life?”
We are all busy, I know! As parents who have careers and perhaps demands of multiple children or other family caregiving obligations, we can easily let ourselves get too stressed in our daily parenting lives. Yet, our children are not just “routine machines” that need to brush their teeth, get out the door on time, and do their homework. Children thrive from having good connections and relationships, especially with their parents. When life becomes all about the “have to’s,” we forget about the “want to’s” of why we wanted to have a family in in the first place. We want to have meaning in our lives, and children provide meaning for us.
Why is experiencing joy with our children an important part of being a parent?
1. Joy helps us feel rich!
The more positive experiences we have with our children, the stronger our relationship will be, which makes our children feel more connected to us, as parents…. Which makes them more likely to respond appropriately and comply with our requests. Our children know if we are in fact having fun and enjoying the moment with them, which strengthens our bond with them. The more we seek joy in our relationships, the more grateful we feel for those relationships, and vice versa.
2. Joy helps our children want to listen!
Experiencing joy increases the chance that our children will listen! As my colleague Amanda Good mentioned in a previous blog post (https://thesibleygroupdc.com/tips-for-improving-communication-just-in-time-for-the-holidays/), “Relationship expert John Gottman emphasizes the need for couples to maintain a “magic ratio” of 5:1 positive to negative interactions in order for marriages to last. In a good relationship, there will be more positive than negative interactions, enough so that it creates a sort of cushioning for the negatives… By communicating these positive feelings, we bring more joy into our relationships.”
A strategy for trying this at home would be something like this: if you notice yourself using a frustrated tone at your child to hurry up, clean up, etc, your next few words to them should reflect on what your child is doing well. Maybe you saw your son help your daughter tie her shoe, or maybe you noticed your child woke up happy this morning. Say it out loud! Each positive word you say to your child will really stick.
How can we experience more joy with our children?
It doesn’t have to be a big ambitious activity, or require much planning. Many ways to experience joy with our children are free. An activity can be as simple as trying to make each other laugh (or not laugh!), baking cookies in silly shapes, going outside and playing “I spy,” playing music from your teenage years and having an impromptu dance party, or simply blowing bubbles outside. Basically, if our children see that we’re in the mood to have fun, they will be more inclined to join in.
Over the holidays, there are plenty of joyful experiences to share together: cooking a special meal, decorating the house, going to see Christmas lights, or volunteering for people in need. So spend a few more joyful moments with your children this season, and let go of some of those “have to’s” on your list. Your relationship will benefit, and so will your children.