I know you are busy. I know that some of the things your kids like to do are boring to you. I know that your child’s understanding of the world is rudimentary. I also know that your child thrives, learns and grows every time you set aside time and create intentional bonding experiences.
In a book that was just published in February 2017 (see Amazon link next to this paragraph), one chapter in particular discusses this very topic. In that chapter, the authors discuss how intentional bonding experiences help to satisfy children’s psychological needs of belonging, safety and love. As a consequence, “When children’s psychological needs are satisfied, children report more well-being, engage in activities with more interest and spontaneity (intrinsic motivation), more easily accept guidelines for important behaviors (internalization), display more openness in social relationships, and are more resilient when faced with adversity and distress.”
WOW! That is an amazing list of results to be gained from sitting down on the floor, putting down your phone, or leaving work for a later time, in order to create intentional bonding experiences. Let’s unpack this list further:
When you look for intentional bonding experiences with your child, your child knows that this is a special opportunity. Your son knows that you have work and chores. He sees you taking care of business, even if you never hear him say it. In fact, he likely doesn’t even notice that he notices. But he does. So, when you take time out of that schedule to connect with him, deep down, he knows that this means you love him, and are grateful that he is in your family.
In a fascinating study, three Norwegian scholars, wanted to know more about foster children. Specifically, they wanted to study differences between the home environments of foster children who succeeded academically and those who did not succeed. As I’ve stated in my article about protecting your children from online predators [link], home environments that are saturated with love, care, warmth and empathy create resilient children who can bounce back from difficulty, and seem to be magnets for positive outcomes.
The results of this study confirm the importance of your home (different from your house!) on your child’s future. The foster children who were academically successful had parents who made them feel like they belonged, treated them like their own biological children, showed genuine interest in their lives, and made them feel defended and fought for. The home environments of these children also had predictable daily schedules, which included things like regular family meals and homework routines with support.
If intentional bonding experiences, which communicate a “sense of belonging to reliable and responsive people” can lead to stellar outcomes with foster children, many of whom face tremendous obstacles, how much more can you influence your biological child’s success with your time, care and genuine interest?
Intrinsic motivation describes the delight, curiosity and internally driven motivation you feel when you are engaged in something you really like. When I was in school, I remember being forced to take Human Biology. Now, I don’t want to dismiss the importance of Human Biology, but I couldn’t have cared less. The amount of time I spent studying for that class, and the grades I received, reflected my lack of intrinsic motivation. Many of my students feel the same way about statistics.
Think about something that you really enjoy learning about. Maybe it’s a sport, like tennis, football or baseball. Maybe it’s a niche interest like Hollywood starlets, colonial history, or architecture. Maybe it’s a hobby, like sewing, video games, or jewelry making. Chances are, you don’t need anyone to force you to learn more about this topic. In fact, you may look forward to having free time, so that you can learn more about it.
Now think about the joy you receive when you are fully immersed in learning about that topic. When you seek out intentional bonding experiences with your child, you model for your child that same joy, and teach them how fun it can be to dive into the questions, ideas and creativity that stem from interested, spontaneous exploration.
As I’ve argued in my articles about rewards and nonviolent punishments, the purpose of intentional parenting ought to be to not only enforce rules, but to help children understand the reason for and importance of those rules. If you’ve ever encountered a rule that didn’t make sense to you, you may have had difficulty being convinced that you should obey it. The same goes with your child. Strong-arm tactics, such as spanking, yelling, and rationales like “because I said so!” may work in the short-term, but they do nothing to help children understand why the rule you are enforcing should be followed as a general life principle.
Your time, intention, and interest open your child’s mind to your teaching. Moral lessons that you teach your child are internalized in her mind as truthful representations of how she “should” act. Your use of rewards and praise, which should infuse the intentional bonding experiences you create, build on a loving relationship that makes your child feel secure. Your use of nonviolent punishments, when they are necessary, are more likely to be accepted as valid when your child knows that you care about them and genuinely want to be a part of his world. This is internalization at its best – if your daughter feels safe in your care, then your parenting will be accepted as in their best interest.
Openness in social relationships
One of the most widely used measure of bonding between parents and children in psychological research is the Parental Bonding Instrument (PBI). This measure contains a series of questions about parenting practices and beliefs, and scores the parent on two continua. The first range that is measured goes from care, warmth, affection and involvement all the way to neglect, coldness, rejection, detachment, and aloofness.
The second range they measure goes from control, constraint, and infringement of freedom all the way to autonomy and self-sufficiency. The creators of the PBI crosstabulate these four extremes to place each parent in one of four categories:
- Neglectful parenting – the combination of neglect and lack of control or structure. There is very little interaction between the parent and child. There are certainly very few, if any, intentional bonding experiences.
- Affectionless control – the combination of neglect and control/constraint. The only interactions between the parent and the child is to enforce rules.
- Affectionate constraint – the combination of care and control. The child knows that the parent cares for them, but there are few opportunities for the child to explore without high amounts of supervision. This category includes “helicopter parents.”
- Optimal parenting – the mixture of care with attempts to encourage autonomy and eventual self-sufficiency. I’ve written about an exemplar of this type of parenting in my article about courageous daughters and sensitive sons.
Optimal parenting, according to the research I am attempting to cover on this site, is the goal. The message you send when you set aside time for intentional bonding experiences is care, and the home environment you create is a safe base for exploration, curiosity and bravery. In my article about whether parents should together-for-the-kids/”>stay together for the kids, I talk about how vulnerable we must become in order to make any relationship work. Your parenting creates the possibility of your child being able to be open to that vulnerability, and in turn, to sustain healthy relationships.
Finally, intentional bonding experiences allow you to shape your child’s resilience. Have you ever played a board game with a child, and your child lost the game? You had the chance to teach your child a variety of lessons, delivered calmly, with kindness, about how no one wins every game, about how to control your emotions, about being a good sport, etc. Those lessons, even though they are in the context of a board game, are the building blocks for relying on those lessons in the future, when there are other experiences of loss.
Think back to your most cherished memories of your parents. For most people, they aren’t monumental events. They include the time you went camping and your father burned the marshmallows and you all laughed. They include the time your mother spontaneously kissed you and told you she was proud. They include that time when you scored a goal, and your parents went crazy with excitement.
Your child will have cherished memories of your own parenting, too. The more intentional bonding experiences you create, the more of those memories she will have. The events themselves don’t have to be expensive or elaborate. Play Legos with them, go for walks, go to the park and run around, go out to lunch and ask them questions, read a book together. Whatever you do, put everything else aside, and just focus. One day, the time for creating those experiences will be gone, as your child moves out into the world and carves out her own path. Hopefully, she will take that journey with boldness, and your parenting will be a main reason.
Happy parenting! I look forward to your comments, ideas, and thoughts. What intentional bonding experiences do you create in your home?