Q: My husband and I have two kids, ages 8 and 3. I know that we created this monster, but both kids are relentless in pestering us to play with them. From the moment I walk in the door after work, they’re both on me to do this with them, do that with them, on and on until bedtime. I’ve tried spending time focusing on each one when I come home and setting timers for how long I can play before I need to make dinner, but the pestering doesn’t end. On the weekend, when there’s more free time, they’re either badgering me or begging for more screen time. I never thought I was raising kids who can’t entertain themselves, but apparently I am. What is an appropriate amount of time for me to play with my kids, and how do I nip the pestering in the bud?
A: I know this scenario well. Children pestering parents is fairly age-old, but it is made doubly worse when you are following all of the parenting advice. You are spending time with the children, including one-on-one time with each of them, trying to put a lid on the technology use on the weekend and encouraging free play.
I can find no fault in any of your parenting techniques. Seriously. You are doing the best you can.
So, if you are giving your children all of this attention, what is the disconnect? Why are they so needy?
The standard parenting advice will work on “fixing” the neediness, but we can’t give children what they need unless we understand why they are that way.
Let’s take a look at this.
First, let’s consider the quality of the connection. Are the children driving the activity between you? Are the children in charge of connecting to you first? Are the children constantly competing for your attention? For your spouse’s attention?
There are two points in these questions: 1. Although you are clearly spending time with your children, when they feel that they are the ones in charge of the dynamic, it actually breeds more insecurity. Why? Children (especially the 3-year-old) are not meant to be the ones pursuing the adults for connection. This responsibility lies firmly in the hands of the adults in their lives. When your kids are chasing you around the house, their neediness and insecurity are growing.
So, take a moment to reflect on who is in charge of the connection in the family. Ask yourself: “Are they calling the shots of what we do, how and when?” If the answer is “yes,” you will find that your children’s cups will never fill up.
You need to get ahead of this and lead the connection. You decide what you are going to play with, with whom and for how long. If your child loves playing Uno, you would say, “I have been thinking about playing Uno with you all day!” In essence, you are taking the words out of their mouths. You are the orchestrator of the play, and although this may require some acting on your part, you have to really enjoy this. Smiling, eye contact and warmth must be apparent to the child in order for this to work.
My second thought is that there are going to have to be tears here. If you take charge of the play and you are having a wonderful time, your children are going to want the play to last forever. Setting a timer and ending the play is going to upset them, and this is okay. Your goal isn’t to have no tears. Your goal is to expect the tears and let the child know and feel that that is okay.
This is also going to happen (a lot, I fear) when you are setting limits on technology. When the time is up, ending the tech will bring all kinds of drama. Wait it out.
Then there is the drama of “fixing the children’s” boredom. The more ideas you supply, the worse it gets — and the more the children whine, drag themselves about, cry and beg.
Again, if you have already connected in a deep way (and that doesn’t need to be hours and hours), it is perfectly acceptable for you to empathize with their feelings (“I know it is hard to be bored”) and then distract yourself with some real work so that you don’t stay in the struggle.
The only caveat in all of this is that the 3-year-old is young. There will be more hunger/fatigue/illness cues to pick up on, and the child’s ability to moderate their feelings is simply not there. The 3-year-old is too little. And so this is a dance of meeting the child’s needs while allowing them to mature. Essentially, each child will need something different. And that is okay.
My last point is that, as two working parents, you need to take care of yourselves. Get in your own exercise, friend time and alone time. I know that guilt can sneak up and tell you that you haven’t seen your children all week, but trust me: Two hours away on Saturday morning taking care of yourself is worth its weight in gold. Your mood will be light and positive, and your ability to stay patient with, and kind to, your children will bloom. Taking care of yourself is money in your parenting bank.
So, be sure that you are in the driver’s seat for the connection, don’t be afraid of the crying, and take care of yourself. Good luck.
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