I am a solo parent, a homeschooler and a freelance writer. Even though I’m with my kids a lot, some days it feels like I’m just rushing around doing tasks and not really “with” my kids at all.
There’s housework to be done, I’ve got clients to deal with, and when you’re homeschooling there’s that teacher/student dynamic that can often be more about getting your child to produce or do something (“Have you done all of those math questions yet?” “Make sure you check your spelling!”) rather than about building relationship with them.
Why the big exciting stuff is great but the tiny things matter more
My girls and I have just come home from four days away together. It was fantastic! We went to see one of our favourite musicals (and spent hours singing all the songs together). We played at TimeZone, had sushi, rode on the escalators (a bit of a novelty for my small-town kids) and went to the museum. The four days together built amazing memories and closeness, but times like this are rare.
It took me six months to save for this trip away. It’s certainly not a regular thing for us. So I can’t rely on these big special moments to be our only relationship building times.
We often put a lot of emphasis on the big stuff in our lives — the overseas trips, the birthday parties, the adventures — when the small everyday things are what actually matter the most. I think we get confused by the quality over quantity argument with parenting and think that quality means doing a lot of big amazing things with our kids. It’s a lot of pressure!
Most days my girls and I are not actually doing much at all — just the usual housework, schoolwork, eating, sleeping standard routine. But this is where the real relationship building is happening!
John Gottman, a psychologist and researcher and author of “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” talks about an idea called Emotional Bids. Everyone makes emotional bids all the time. It’s why we post to Facebook and Instagram. We’re asking people to respond to us, to show us some attention and approval. If we tell someone about the marathon we ran last week we want them to celebrate with us. If we text our friend to say we’re sick we’re hoping they will show us some love and sympathy, send us a “get well soon!” message back. Emotional bids are made to get three things.
Everyone wants these three things: Attention, acceptance and approval.
You’re kids most definitely want them from you. And most of what they do — asking you to watch them on the swing, tugging on your sleeve, calling your name over and over, drawing you a picture at kindy, even doing something naughty — is just them trying to get attention, acceptance and approval.
I made a mistake with this the other day with my daughter Lula. She picked an outfit to wear that she thought was pretty (she’s 12 and discovering her own style). She did look nice — she had on a lovely skirt and off-the-shoulder top — but I thought it was a bit dressed up to wear in the middle of the day and told her to change. Her reaction was explosive! “You always think I’m wearing the wrong thing! I can never get it right!” That’s when I realised I’d missed a huge opportunity to offer her my approval. She looks up to me and thinks I dress well (so sweet). And here I was telling her she’d missed the mark.
I had rejected her emotional bid. When we reject or turn away from bids it says “you’re not worth it” or “you’re not okay”.
When our kids say “Look at this mum! I made a lego car” and we respond with “cool” and then quickly turn our attention back to our phones we are rejecting their bids.
Now, I know, kids make a lot of bids. They always want us to look, pay them attention, come play or ask questions. We can’t respond to them all!
The studies Gottman did around emotional bids were on marriage relationships. He showed that couples who responded to a high number of bids (above 80%) stayed together, while those who ignored each other’s emotional bids most of the time split up. So the aim for us as parents then is not to exhaust ourselves responding to every single bid our kids make for attention, but just to try and catch as many as we possibly can.
It takes a bit of effort but if we turn towards them, make eye contact, smile, nod, and be present (even for a short time) we’ll pick up emotional bids without even trying.
Our kids need our attention, approval and acceptance in a few different ways.
Touch — “hug me mummy”
Touch is lacking in our society. People need to be touched. Some kids don’t like full tight hugs but they will still need some form of touch. It might be sitting side by side, just touching arms, holding hands, or a little stroke of their hair.
Attention — “Look at me mummy!”
It builds relationship when you share an experience. When your child says “Look at the train!” it’s because they want you to enjoy what they are enjoying. They want to share it with you. They want you to know what they find interesting, exciting, or even upsetting. Even if you don’t feel the same interest as they do (not everyone can get excited about trains) if you acknowledge their interest you’re telling them they are important to you. “Wow, it’s a cargo train! I know you love those.”
Learning together -“But why?”
I don’t know about you but I have incredibly curious kids. They seem to be constantly wanting to know about everything. “Why?” is a common question in our household and sometimes I’m just too tired to answer.
I’ve found a little trick though! When I still want to encourage their bid to learn with me but I’m too tired to answer it myself I say, “Why do you think it might be like that?” If they say they don’t know I either say “Why don’t you find out and then tell me what you learn,” or “If you did know what do you think it would be?” They come up with some amazing theories! Whether they are right isn’t really important, they’ll find out over time, but the learning and thinking together is another way to build relationship.
Playing together – “Play with me!”
Recently, Lula and I realised my 8 year old was making a lot of “play with me” bids that both of us were ignoring. (When you’re over the age of ten playing can be pretty boring!) We decided that we needed to make more of an effort to respond to Little’s emotional bids and give her some attention. We set aside 30 minutes a day to play whatever Little wants to play. The first day she picked a board-game called Blokus (which is great because it’s easier then using my dusty imagination to play My Little Ponies!) It made a huge difference for her because she felt she was worth spending time with. That half hour had a huge pay off for our relationship.
It’s still something I’m working on. I definitely need to catch more of those tiny moments when my kids are asking for my attention, acceptance and approval. It takes practice to become more aware of those bids. To stop and turn towards them. Emotional bids can be so easy to miss! But if it makes my relationship with my lovely girls stronger then it’s 100% worth the effort.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. What ways do your kids make emotional bids? If you are following my series on communication and emotional intelligence I’ll be posting one more next week. If you haven’t already, check out the last two posts on this topic too. Tuned in: How tuning in to your kids’ emotions will help them control their feelings better.
Non-violent communication for mums (and dads too obviously!)
Looking forward to next week and hearing how you went with your parenting journey
References (I recommend these awesome sites if you want to learn more about this topic and other communication tips)
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