My new book with Dan Siegel, The Whole-Brain Child, comes out on October 4, three weeks from today! Below you’ll find the second in a four-part series where I post excerpts from the book. I hope you enjoy it. -------------
Do you ever feel like you’re spending most of your time disciplining your kids and carting them from one activity to the next, and not enough time just enjoying being with them? If you do, you’re not alone; most of us feel this from time to time. Sometimes it’s easy to forget to just have fun as a family. Yet we are hardwired for play and exploration as well as for joining with one another. In fact, “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 the people they spend the most time with: their parents.
Of course children need structure and boundaries and to be held accountable for their behavior, but even as you maintain your authority, don’t forget to have fun with your kids. Play games. Tell jokes. Be silly. Take an interest in what they care about. The more they enjoy the time they spend with you and the rest of the family, the more they’ll value relationships and desire more positive and healthy relational experiences in the future.
The reason is simple. With every fun, enjoyable experience you give your children while they are with the family, you provide them with positive reinforcement about what it means to be in loving relationship with others. One reason has to do with a chemical in your brain called dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means that it enables communication between brain cells. Your brain cells receive what some people call “dopamine squirts” when something pleasurable happens to you, and it motivates you to want to do it again. Scientists who study addiction point to these dopamine surges as factors that lead people to maintain a certain habit or addiction, even when they know it’s bad for them. But we can also help produce dopamine squirts that reinforce positive and healthy desires—like enjoying family relationships. Dopamine is the chemical of reward—and play and fun are rewarding in our lives.
What that means is that when your son squeals in delight when you dramatically “die” from his Peter-Pan sword thrust; when you and your daughter dance together at a concert or in the living room; when you and your kids work together on a gardening or construction project: all of these experiences strengthen the bonds between you, and teach your kids that relationships are affirming, rewarding, and fulfilling. So give it a shot, maybe even tonight. After dinner, call out, “Everybody take your plate back, then find one blanket and meet me in the living room. We’re having popsicles in a fort tonight!”
Another fun family activity that also teaches receptivity is to play improv games together. The basic concept is similar to what improv comedians do when the audience gives them suggestions, and the comedians have to take the random ideas and combine them in funny ways that make some sort of sense. If you and your kids are performers, you can actually do this kind of “stand-up improv” together. But there are simpler versions of the activity as well. Let someone begin a story, then after one sentence, the next person has to add to it, followed by the next person, and so on. Games and activities like these not only keep the family fun factor high, but also give kids practice at being receptive to unexpected turns life presents them. You don’t want to turn the game into a serious classroom experience, but watch for ways to explicitly connect what you’re doing to the concept of receptivity
The fun-factor principle also applies to the experiences you give your kids as siblings. Recent studies have found that the best predictor for good sibling relationships later in life is how much fun the kids have together when they’re young. The rate of conflict can even be high, as long as there’s plenty of fun to balance it out. The real danger comes when the siblings just ignore each other. There may be less tension to deal with, but that’s also a recipe for a cold and distant relationship as adults.
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.
Some sibling fun will occur naturally, but you can help it along, too. Break out a new box of sidewalk chalk and have them create a crazy new monster together. Let them use the video camera to make a movie. Have them team up together for a surprise project to give to a grandparent. However you do it—family bike rides, board games, making cookies, teaming up against mom with the water guns, whatever—find ways to help your kids have fun together and strengthen the bonds that connect them.