The Best Christmas Gift to Give This Year
A parent often passes by the most important 15 minutes of the day.
Posted Dec 21, 2019
Parents strive for the perfect Christmas gift, yet the most meaningful gift a parent can give a child is the gift of play. Forget teaching moments or quizzes about colors and numbers during playtime. Save counting and color reviews for a long car ride.
Take a few minutes to join a child on the floor, observe what he or she is doing, and reflect it: “That race car is fast!” When a parent enters a child’s play space, he or she is entering a sacred space—the internal world of that child.
Play is a medium through which a child works out his or her inner anxieties, feelings, worries, and conflicts. Pretend play is often a way a child processes and masters past trauma. When a parent reflects and validates a child’s play, he or she is actually validating a child’s sense of self.
This is very different from validating a child’s achievements. Recognizing a child’s performance does not affirm who the child is. When a parent solely recognizes a child’s achievements, the child often believes he or she is only as good as his or her next achievement. Frequently, the result is an anxious child who is a perfectionist.
One important way to gain a child’s trust is to play with him or her. Sit next to the child, and without guiding, leading, or directing the play, occasionally and warmly reflect the child’s play. After a few minutes, the child may invite you to be a character in the play.
When the child does this, the parent has an opportunity to help the child with deep anxieties and worries. As a character in the child’s play, empathize with the person in the play who is scared, hurt, or lonely. This is a way to empathize with the child.
For example, recently, during a therapy session, the child wanted to play school. She was a teacher, and she asked me to be a student. I agreed. She went on to set up the classroom, instructing the pretend students where to sit and what work they needed to do.
She looked at me and asked, “Where is your homework!?”
I paused, and wanting her to guide the play, I whispered to her, “What should I say?”
She put her head close to mine and whispered, “Say you forgot it at home.”
I resumed character as the student and said, “I’m so sorry, teacher. I forgot my homework at home.”
The child, as the teacher, reprimanded me strongly. I looked at the child and said, “I am so sorry. I did not mean to forget. I’m so worried you are mad at me.”
The child stayed in character and said to me, “That is no excuse! You are punished! Go to the principal’s office now!”
I broke character and whispered, "What do I do?”
She whispered, “Go to the corner.”
I went to the corner of my office and sat on the floor. The child walked over and said, “You are a bad girl! You cannot forget your homework! I am calling your mother!”
I took the opportunity to verbalize the feelings of the character who was hurt, frightened, and worried (my character). “I am so scared. I did not mean to forget my homework. I am so scared I am disappointing my mother. Please do not call her.”
The child looked at me and said, “You have to learn responsibility! Your mother will take away all of your electronics!”
Again, I used the opportunity to verbalize the feelings of the vulnerable character in the play, “I am really really sorry. I did not mean to forget. I feel so ashamed, and I am so scared of disappointing my mom.”
The child looked at me, broke character, and said, “That’s how I felt the other day when I forgot my homework, but I could not say it. I was frozen.”
I empathized with the child: “Forgetting homework is really hard. It hurts to disappoint people. I get it.” She smiled at me and agreed. We continued to play, and she invited me to be involved in several additional scenarios. I empathized with the character who was hurt, scared, or worried, i.e., the child.
Once a child receives empathy, he or she feels understood, connected to the person who understands, and far less alone with the troubling feeling. This is healing. Identifying and verbalizing feelings states is the first step towards healthy emotional regulation.
Yet, a child often needs help identifying and verbalizing feeling states when they feel shame. Helping a child become aware of his or her emotions is essential. Empathizing with the feelings allows the child to have empathy for himself or herself.
Parents spend a great deal of time caring for their kids: driving, cooking, helping, cheering. But a parent often passes by the most important 15 minutes of the day. The time in which a parent has access to a child’s internal world, worries, struggles, and confusion.
Do not let precious time slip away. Stay close to your child. Become aware of their worries. Empathize with their struggles with self-esteem. Every parent can remember a time when they felt small and vulnerable. Go there. Understand.
Honoring a child’s play is a way of honoring who the child is. Meaningful play with a child is one of the best ways to enhance a child’s self-esteem. It may be more important than convincing him or her to eat vegetables or earn good grades.
Humble yourself. Give your child the most meaningful gift he or she receives this year. Play.