You would think this strategy goes without saying, but let’s be honest: sometimes your child’s idea of fun isn’t fun for you at all. Especially when your child wants you to act out the same scene over and over again (a frequent occurrence at our house). But the reality is how you relate to your kids has a big impact on how they learn to relate to others.
Before we can talk about strategy 11, we need to know some more about the brain. Our brains do not function best alone as a “me”; “the brain is a social organ, made to be in relationship.” The brain has mirror neurons which enable us to mirror what we see others doing, feeling, etc. So it’s our job to model the kinds of relationships we want our kids to have, and to model the skills you need to make relationships work like empathy. If we are modeling the kind of behaviors we desire, our children will be able to mirror our behavior and emotions.
In regard to emotions, we need to set the right emotional temperature for our child. The authors explain the concept of emotional contagion: “The internal states of others—from joy and playfulness to sadness and fear—directly affect our own state of mind.” If we are stressed, our child will fee stress. If we are anxious, our child will feel anxious. If we are excited and playful, our child will be excited and playful.
We also need to create an open, receptive state of mind, or as the authors say, a “yes” state of mind. We don’t want a closed, reactive or “no” state of mind. The reactive state of mind is the “fight-flight-freeze response state.” We do not want to encourage those responses; they originate in the amygdala, which we have been trying to learn to integrate. Remember, we don’t want to exclusively engage with what The Whole-Brain Child calls the “downstairs brain.”
So if you’re trying to model behavior, keep an appropriate emotional temperature, and cultivate a “yes” state of mind, what are you doing with your children? You should be having fun. Here’s Siegel and Bryson:
“Playful parenting is one of the best ways to prepare your children for relationships and encourage them to connect with others. That’s because it gives them positive experiences being with people they spend the most time with: their parents … With every fun, enjoyable experience you give your children while they are with family, you provide them with positive reinforcement about what it means to be in loving relationship with others … Experience strengthens the bonds between you and teaches your kids that relationships are affirming, rewarding, and fulfilling.”
We need to be intentional about playing games and having fun between parents and children, as well as among siblings. Our intentionality can positively affect long-term relationships. I desire to have a close long-term relationship with my girls, so I found the following words from the authors encouraging:
“So if you want to develop close long-term relationships between your kids, think of it as a math equation, where the amount of enjoyment they share together should be greater than the conflict they experience. You’re never going to get the conflict side of the equation to zero. Siblings argue; they just do. But if you can increase the other side of the equation, giving them activities that produce positive emotions and memories, you’ll create strong bonds between them and set up a relationship that has a good chance of remaining solid for life.”
So, what does this look like in my house? It’s blowing kazoos for way longer than I wanted to because the girls are making each other laugh uncontrollably. It’s drawing and painting together. It’s teaching games like “Ring Around the Rosie” or marching around the house with instruments. As long as I stay interested, my girls will stay interested.
We just got back from a week at family camp, and I enjoyed the opportunity to do activities together as a family: bowling, nature walks, swinging and more swinging. I think what I like most about family camp is seeing my girls enjoy each other. Now, they have their moments of conflict, but I forget about that when I see them playing and laughing and smiling together. It’s contagious and makes my husband and I smile and laugh, too.
Having fun and positive experiences are good for our children’s brains because they release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is like the chemical of “reward.” Basically our brains reward us for having fun. So go out and have some fun. I have a package of water balloons that I am debating on whether to have a water balloon fight with the girls or have the girls ambush dad with water balloons when he gets home from work. Either way should make for some good fun and lots of dopamine.