Photo: Martin Yaffe
It could be a model, a jigsaw puzzle, something complex that needs to be assembled, a mural. It doesn’t matter what it is but it’s best if it’s something that will take a long time. Start working on it and leave it unfinished in a spot that is visible to you and your child. You don’t need to finish this in one sitting. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. This project then serves as a visual reminder of your connection to each other. Every time your child sees this project, he will be reminded of your connection to each other— “That’s what Dad and I are doing together!”
Even if you don’t have time to sit down and do the actual project there will be many times during the day, or on the phone (if you’re a week-end parent or even if you’re a full-time parent) that you will find it useful to be discussing the project— ideas about the next step, how you feel about it, anything at all that communicates to your child that you haven’t forgotten the project, which then communicates that you haven’t forgotten him/her.
Children under the age of 12 live in a mostly concrete universe—if they can’t see it or touch it, then it doesn’t exist. The project then serves as a concrete reminder of the existence and strength of your relationship. Remember words disappear as soon as they are spoken, but concrete things endure; they exist in time and space and are thus a constant reminder of the continuing nature of the relationship.
Many people feel they don’t have time to play with their kids because they think about playing as taking up lots of time. It doesn’t have to. Think about when you might have 10 minutes. Maybe it’s right when you come home from work, maybe it’s after dinner, before you do the dishes. Just pick a time and make a commitment to play catch or a new game on the computer.
There are many advantages to this. When you know something is going to happen, you get all the benefit of anticipation. If every once in a while you play catch with your child, then he will never anticipate or expect it. But if your child knows that every day, when Dad comes home, he plays catch with me, then many times during the day or week your child will be thinking about that activity, realizing that he can count on you, that there’s an enduring nature to your relationship. Remember, it’s not enough to tell kids we love them, we have to show them and by making ten minutes a day to DO something that we both enjoy, communicates that loud and clear!
Think about what happens when you purchase a vacation—the benefits of the vacation start the minute you give your credit card number. At that point you begin to fantasize about the vacation and anticipate all the enjoyment that it will bring. If you are not leaving for another three months, then you have three months of anticipation to enjoy. If you make a commitment to your child in some small way, he/she will be able in like manner to experience the joy of anticipation. Also, doing something every day is how we all build competence. Plus, it communicates that this is something we value and want to instill in our child.
Young children pay more attention to what we do than what we say. Children watch and see much more than they listen and hear. They often pay little attention to all that we say, partly because we say too much and partly because we use language that is too complex and abstract for them to understand.
For most children, a relationship is about what we DO together, not about our conversations with each other. Think about activities, even small ones, playing cards, a tumble on the carpet, thumb wrestling, etc. When you can’t be actively doing the activity, because you are busy doing other things, you can talk about the activity and when you might do it again.