Six-year-old Evan was a willful child. At bedtime, he relentlessly argued to stay up later. His mother, Donna Bardell, generally gave in to his demands, caving in to his strong personality and the guilt she felt over her divorce when Evan was a toddler.
"He was defiant and argumentative," says Bardell, "trying to negotiate the limits."
Today, at age 9, Evan still has a strong personality, but he has changed since his mother began spending time focused solely on him. At bedtime, Bardell spends a few minutes talking with her son, running a finger along his eyebrows, nose and lips, and commenting on his "strawberry blond hair, freckles and pug nose."
In simple terms, what Bardell does is a "ritual." Although the word ritual might evoke images of religious rites, in this sense it refers to repeated practices involving parent-child interaction. Parenting experts say such rituals are a way for parents to connect with their children using talk, nurturing touch and empathy.
Recent brain development research supports this notion. Scientists have found that repeated positive experiences form strong connections between neurons in the brain and foster a sense of security in children. Children who have safe and predictable interactions with others also do better in school later on.
But for many families racing at the Mach speed of life today, there’s little time for family members to just be with each other. Not only are 51 percent of children now being raised in homes with two working parents, but other distractions abound, ranging from electronic games and computers to keeping kids on a full schedule of organized activities.
"When life was slower, there were fewer demands and less clutter in our minds," says Becky Bailey, Ph.D., whose "Loving Guidance" approach to parenting was adopted by Bardell after she attended one of Bailey’s conferences. "When we get into a harried lifestyle, our mind tends to think about what we need to be doing next, and our time spent with our children is non-existent because we are not there."
To counter this, family therapists advise parents to carve out time to perform one-on-one rituals with their children. Such moments – labeled everything from "floor time" to "playful parenting" – can be as simple as finger-play songs or weekly appointments to talk.
Nourishing Emotional Ties
These rituals differ from routines. Daily or weekly schedules foster structure, but don’t necessarily nourish emotional ties. Taking a bath, brushing teeth and Saturday morning ballet class, for example, are routines.
For younger children, a nursery rhyme done with playful touch can be a ritual. With older children, parents can involve the child in developing the ritual, or encourage them to initiate their own. One mother set aside time where she let her 8-year-old daughter choose what to play, and then went along – enthusiastically.
As Bardell discovered, Evan’s bedtime ritual, along with an occasional game of catch, made the two closer and more responsive to each other.
"Now, he’s more compliant, more emotionally mature," says Bardell. "He has compassion toward others because I have compassion toward him."
If family members don’t take the opportunity to slow down and reconfirm their bonds during day-to-day life, relations will wither, parenting experts warn. Adults might be able to endure stress or find socially acceptable relief, but most kids have yet to develop these skills. When a child is in need of understanding and compassion, she’s likely to whine, stop listening or get angry.
"Rituals give children a language they can come back to when they’re in need," says Bailey, author of I Love You Rituals. "By asking for the ritual, children are saying, ‘Would you take time for me, would you reassure me that all is well?’"
It might seem like commonsense parenting advice – spend time with your children – but being together doesn’t guarantee these bonds. Taking a child on a trip to the toy store to get the latest toy or watching TV is time generally not ripe for parent-child emotional bonding, experts point out.
"Attachment and connection are not just about relating and being together," says Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. "They’re about finding joy and pleasure in being together."