How She Connects with Her Kids
Rachel’s oldest child, her son, is a lot like her. He was a relatively calm toddler who liked to sit and read books, and just snuggle in and talk about life. It was easy for her to connect with him, and they had a great relationship. Then along came Sally.
Sally is a whirlwind. “She’s is wild and crazy and makes messes and gets into trouble and climbs all over everything,” Rachel says. “When I got this little crazy lady I wasn’t sure what to do with her. I was feeling disconnected from her and feeling bad that I was disconnected from her.”
Rachel talked to her counselor about it, who suggested that she needed to find a way to connect with Sally on her level. She asked Rachel what Sally liked to do. Rachel responded, “The only thing she loves is making messes, climbing all over things and Frozen. She is obsessed with Frozen and princesses and wanting to look like Elsa.”
Rachel’s counselor’s advice surprised her: “You need an Elsa dress.”
After the two of them had a good laugh about it, Rachel went home and ordered an Elsa dress for herself on Amazon. Even while she was scrolling through the dresses, trying to find the right one, she couldn’t help but bust out laughing. “That alone lifted my spirits and got me out of this place where I was feeling discouraged about my relationship with my daughter and just made me feel lighter and more playful and joyful and thinking about how funny it was going to be to bust out in this Elsa dress.”
Of course, she bought the dress, plus a new Elsa dress for Sally. “One day I just put it on and I came out in the Elsa dress—like a queen. She was amazed, of course, and thought it was the greatest thing ever.”
They played Elsa together, and then every morning, before the day even really started, Sally would bring Rachel her Elsa dress and they’d play for a while. Rachel says, “It was just a really fun way to connect with her. It brought out the kid in me and made me laugh, so it really did make me feel more connected to her.” (Rachel is the host of one of my favorite podcasts, the 3 in 30 Podcast. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts, or at 3in30podcast.com.)
Connecting with our kids is the big “why” of motherhood—the payoff for all the hard work and sacrifice. Sometimes it comes naturally and easy, sometimes it’s more complicated, and sometimes it’s unspeakably hard. But even then, we keep trying, because that’s what moms do.
While researching for this article, I learned about many things—both big and small—that real mothers are doing in their own families to connect with their kids. But these moms are not doing all of them at once, and they’re not doing them perfectly. Many of these ideas would not work at all for your situation or personality or family dynamic. But I hope you'll find one or two simple things that will be easy to implement. And maybe one or two of the bigger ideas will inspire you to come up with your own big ideas.
As often happens as I collect ideas, common tactics started to emerge, eight to be precise:
Plan Connection Opportunities into Your Routine
Make Time to Talk
Show Interest in their Interests
Carve Out One-on-One Time
Tell Them You Love Them
Identify Pain Points and Find a Workaround
Plan Connection into Your Routine
Sarah’s dad was a fighter pilot in the Air Force, so of course he’s full of great flying analogies. When Sarah and her husband got married, he counseled them to always make sure to create meaningful takeoffs and landings. “He likened the comings and goings of our lives with takeoffs and landings. They’re crucial to the success of a flight. And so it is with us. When we are sending each other off for the day, or greeting each other at the end of the day, how important it is to make those meaningful.”
Similarly, Lisa makes a conscious effort to make sure her eyes light up when she greets her children. She tries to be enthusiastic and excited to see them at the crossroads—first thing in the morning, when they come home from school, or anytime they come in the door. (Lisa blogs at betterwayparenting.com)
This is a great example of how we can incorporate connection into our daily routines—our comings and goings. Part of it is just a mindset change, making sure we keep connection as a top priority and making it a habit.
Molly has six children, so it can be hard to give each of them individual attention. A few years ago, she started trying to connect one-on-one for three minutes each, three times a day. This may sound like a small amount of time (until you multiply it by six) but even three minutes of undivided attention can really help a child feel noticed and loved. Molly’s kids have really loved even that little bit of extra individual attention, and Molly has enjoyed it too.
All of us have regular daily transitions or rituals that we can use as reminders to connect with our kids.
I used to make the rounds and snuggle with each my kids every night at bedtime. They loved it, mostly because it postponed their sleep; I gritted my teeth through the process. Don’t get me wrong, I love to snuggle my kids. But by the end of the day, I just need some space. Finally one day I realized that I wanted to enjoy snuggling my kids, before they got to the stage where they no longer wanted them. I wanted it to be enjoyable, not just a task to be endured.
So I decided to switch to morning snuggles. I love mornings. I wake up early and work before my kids wake up, and I’m actually excited to see them when they wake up. Now I go into their bedrooms each morning and snuggle them awake. It’s a great way to start the day. I ask them what they’re looking forward to that day, and what I can help them with.
When April was growing up, her mom would usually be in the living room studying when she woke up. Her mom would always greet her with an excited voice and say, “Oh, look who woke up!” (April shares this and other beautiful stories about her mom in Episode 29 of the 3 in 30 Podcast.)
Julie remembers the wonderful year when her youngest son was in afternoon kindergarten. Recognizing that this was her last year before he was in school full time, she decided to really savor their mornings together. She protected that time to just play and hang out with him and did all her work and errands when he was at school. They played board games and read stories and hung out at the park, and both of them treasure those times together.
Wendy used to drive her kids 20 minutes each way to school. At first she dreaded the long commute, but soon she came to love it, as a way to connect with her children, a captive audience. She tried to utilize her time in the car deliberately. They’d say family prayers, work on homework, spelling, and math facts, and just talk about their day.
Emerald uses the drive to school to ask each of her kids to share their purpose for the day, whether it’s to do well on a spelling test or to make a new friend.
Of course, the same thing applies after school, when many moms find themselves back in the car, carting kids around town for various activities. This is another time to connect and hear about their day.
Amy Wilson who co-hosts the parenting podcast What Fresh Hell, suggests that an even better way to connect is walking (and I would add biking) together to as many activities as possible. This obviously may or may not be possible depending on where you live, but walking together, whether just around the block or toward a specific destination, can really allow for some good conversations.
A couple of years ago, I decided to change my attitude about the dreaded after-school runaround and use it to connect. Sometimes that means taking all the kids to the park during one son’s soccer practice and playing with them. Other times that means taking just one extra child with me to drop off another at piano lessons and working on homework together in the car. During one son’s guitar lessons, my three youngest and I worked out a whole routine where we’d go to a “secret park,” which was just the lawn in front of city hall, and we had to touch the trees in a specific sequence to enter.
Dinnertime is another obvious time to connect with each other. Van's family likes to play "Glad, Mad, and Sad." They go around the table and ask everyone to talk about one thing that made them glad, one thing that made them mad and/or one thing that made them sad—parents included. It gives them each a chance to talk about their day and to talk about being thankful for the things that made them glad. They also coach each other through the situations that made them mad or sad.
Joy came up with a fun way to get dinner conversation going. She gives each family member three poker chips. The goal is to get rid of your chips by asking someone at the table a question (not "yes or no"). You can read more about the game on her blog: joysfunstuff.com.
I’m sure we’ve all heard research about how important dinnertime is for children’s confidence and well-being. That’s actually been a sore spot for me over the years, because we’re really not our best at dinnertime. My husband’s schedule rarely allows for him to be home at a reasonable dinner hour, so we typically eat without him. The dinner conversation often revolves around coaxing people to eat or stay in their seats or stop fighting.
We’ve been much more successful gathering as a family right as kind of a bedtime kickoff, at 7:00. My husband is more likely to be home by then, and we gather in the living room for a family devotional where we read scriptures, pray together, and sometimes sing a song. This is better time for us to talk about the day.
Then comes bedtime. I’ve already confessed that I’m at my worst by bedtime, and I’m guessing that many of you feel the same. But bedtime can be a great time to connect.
After her divorce, Emerald’s kids were struggling. There was constant bickering—they just didn't know where to place their anger. They especially had a hard time at night, calming down and getting to sleep. She decided they needed to figure out how to reconnect as a family.
So they started a new nightly tradition, where they choose a person and everyone shares what they like about them, and then continue until everyone has a turn. When they first started this, the compliments were mostly about physical traits, but as we went on, it would be more about personality or talents. "Mom, I love the way you cook," or "I really love how tender-hearted you are."
They now do this every single night, and it has really helped them sleep better, manage anxiety and stress, and anything else they're dealing with. It builds positivity, self-esteem, and friendship for the whole family.
One of the best ways to connect at bedtime is reading or telling stories. My mother-in-law, Marjean, is a pro at this. She invents fabulous, adventurous stories that kept her kids, and now mine, riveted. Marjean liked to read and tell her children stories that were touching and/or sad so they could learn to feel and process deep emotions together. She joked to me once that it wasn’t a great story until everyone was crying. But in a good way.
I love reading chapter books to my older children at bedtime, but, as with snuggles, I realized that reading to my youngest kids was just dragging out bedtime. I would rush through the books as fast as I could, skipping pages when I could get away with it, just to check the box. This year I started reading to my three-year-old every morning after we drop the other kids at school, instead, and it’s the best! I have the energy to do voices and everything. We talk about the books and look more closely at the pictures—it’s one of the best parts of my day.
Sharolyn gathers all of her children on her bed to read a bedtime story. They all pile in and snuggle and read together.
Rachel and Paul Salley take turns lying in bed with their kids at bedtime and talking about their day. They call it “Talkin’ Time.” They discuss anything and everything the child want to talk about. Sometimes it lasts 10 minutes; sometimes longer, but if they miss for some reason or another, the kids notice and say it’s the best part of their day.
Emily also lies down with her kids at bedtime and scratches their backs and talks to them about their day. She has eight children, so she has to pick a few kids each night, trying to identify which ones might need it the most.
2. Make Time to Talk
On the first Sunday of the month, Lori and her husband set aside the afternoon to meet with each child individually. These meetings usually last 10 minutes, but sometimes up to 30 minutes. They try to make them more of a conversation than a lecture or intervention. The purpose is to check in with their kids and discuss goals, challenges, and what's going on in their lives. To read more about these meetings, click here.
Brooke Romney has three teenage boys, and communicating with them has been harder than she expected. To get the conversation flowing, she designated Tuesday as Teen Talk Tuesday. She picks a topic that’s either something practical she wants her sons to know about or something that helps them engage with the world, from vaping to friendship to current events. Then she writes a sample conversation, conversation starters, and/or questions to get the discussion going. Luckily, the rest of us can benefit from her wisdom—she posts them each Tuesday on her instagram account: @brookeromneywrites.
Several years ago, I started a book club with my kids. We rotate who gets to pick, and whoever reads the book (or at least makes a good effort) gets to go out to dinner or dessert to discuss the book. It’s a great way to talk about big ideas and how they relate to us. We don’t have a regular time that we do this, we just start up again when we think about it.
Joyce incorporates her teenagers into her exercise routine, which works out great for all of them, because she’s a social exerciser and is much more likely to do it if she has company. They shoot hoops or go running before school starts.
3. Show Interest in Their Interests
Beth and the Infinity war figurines.
Let them show you stuff. Legos
Adrianne’s daughters are obsessed with becoming veterinarians. So she encouraged their enthusiasm by helping them turn a corner of their basement into a clinic, complete with a reception desks, check-in forms, business cards, patient forms, a grooming station, and all the requisite medical supplies.
Kelli — researching questions at the library.
One of the best podcasts I listened to on this topic was episode 44 of What Fresh Hell, entitled “Getting Your Kids To Talk.” Co-host Margaret Ables talks about a morning that her seven-year-old son came in and snuggled into her bed and they talked about dinosaurs and sea life for a half and hour, looking up questions like, “Does the chambered nautilus bite?” and “Does the cuttlefish have ink sacks?” Then they took some time to consider how much cooler a chambered nautilus would look if it’s tentacles were just a bit thicker.
Really delving into our kids’ world shows them you take a deep interest into what matters to them. That said, it’s also good to have a cut-off point, because a mom can only take so much Pokemon.
Jana has always been really good at making sure every family member feels supported in their activities. As much as possible, the whole family would attend, even thought it was often inconvenient when her six kids were little. They’d cheer each other on at cross country meets, plays, and band concerts.
4. Play Together
When I was a young mom, I used to wear out the knees on all my jeans from crawling around on the floor playing with my kids. Sadly, my jeans last a lot longer now that my two little people have turned into five. I just have a lot more work to do these days. But talking to moms who still make it a priority to get down and play with their little kids has inspired me to set aside a few minutes each day for a rollicking game of hide and seek or some good-old-fashioned ball rolling with my toddler, or a round or two of Uno with my older kids.
Jana plays when they’re at the park. Encouraged parents to play at the Frei for all.
Family movie night, Jennifer Brimhall
Hikes and bike rides, ski lifts
Lori is a master at orchestrating family activities that are fun for all ages (her kids range from 7 to 16). Some favorites: American Ninja Warrior competition in the backyard, semi-annual lipsync battles, nerf wars, laser tag, etc. Read more about the fun things they do in her profile.
Christmas gifts — experiences
A few other fun (and easy) family activities from contributors:
Timed obstacle courses at the park
Dodgeball with rolled up socks
Flashlight tag (See joysfunstuff.com)
Park hopping (See joysfunstuff.com)
Hide and seek in the dark
Family movie night (Jennifer Brimhall, who blogs at raisethegood.com has put together a great list of family movies, which she'll send you if you subscribe to her newsletter.)
Paper airplane flying contests
Water balloon toss with towels (two-person teams hold towels by corners and toss balloon back and forth between teams)
Family sports tournaments
For Nichole, the best family activities involve adventure. Close to home in Colorado, her family makes skiing trips a priority. They also love going hiking and rock climbing together. They even installed a rock climbing wall in their living room so they can have adventure right at home.
But big adventures are Nichole's real specialty. Every few years, the family chooses a big trip and then works together to make it happen, saving money and finding deals. They try to go somewhere unfamiliar to everyone, and centered around a peak experience—a big adventure that challenges the family. Most recently, that meant diving with sharks in the Bahamas.
5. Work Together
Working together as a family can be every bit as important as playing together. Many moms I talked to attribute some of their best family memories to times they worked hard together on a project, such as landscaping or painting a room, and experienced the satisfaction of completing it.
For many families, most of their work together happens on Saturday mornings, putting the house back together after another busy week. Instead of dividing and conquering Saturday chores, Jana makes a master list of the jobs that need to get done, and the whole family works through the jobs together until they're done. Weeding is an especially great chore for connecting one-on-one, because you can work right next to each other, and it’s mindless.
Recently I noticed that I was spending great effort to occupy my preschooler while I did household chores instead of finding ways we could do them together. I was really good at finding ways my oldest son could work along with me, but I had gotten out of the habit. So I filled the sink up with suds and he had a blast scrubbing pans while I filled the dishwasher. Making beds and hiding under sheets is another fun, albeit inefficient, chore to do with little ones.
The Searle family is as adventurous with work as they are with play. A few years ago, they decided to work together to finish their basement. It took them a year to complete, but they did all the major work themselves. One son loved the experience so much he is now studying construction management in college.
6. Carve Out One-on-one Time
Many readers have a weekly or monthly tradition of parent-child date nights—some with both parents, some one-on-one. Sometimes all this means is that the child gets to stay up 30 minutes later than the others to play a game or watch a show with mom and dad. Other times it means that they get to choose an outing like bowling or a movie, or that they just run errands and grab a bite to eat with one parent.
Reba was looking for a good way for her husband and one of her sons to connect, so she encouraged them to get scuba certified together. They had such a great time diving and studying together and once they finished, they were able to go on a couple of diving trips together. As a bonus, now they always have a default conversation topic.
Amanda — special time
It's no big surprise that the Searle family goes big with one-on-one time as well. When each of her kids turned 10, Nichole and her husband took them on a U.S. history trip to teach them about the country and give them some individual attention. Then, when their kids graduate from high school they get another trip with mom and dad, for a more adventurous trip, such as scuba diving in the Florida Keys.
We’ve decided to try some of these one-on-one trips as well, and are planning to take each kid on a weekend away with parents when they’re 13 and a longer trip when they’re 17.
7. Tell Them You Love Them
My grandma had the cutest way of showing us that we just delighted her. She’d grab us in a hug and say, “Ooh, it’s a wonderful thing and a ring-a-ding kid!” I had no idea what a ring-a-ding kid was—still don’t—but I knew it was something amazing.
Simply making a practice of telling our kids we love them goes a long way. Saying it out loud is great, obviously, but sometimes it means even more if we write it down, because it lasts longer.
My sister Cassie keeps a journal with her son. She starts each entry by pointing out something positive she noticed him doing, and ends with a question. Then she leaves it on his bed to indicate that it’s his turn. It's a great way to get him writing, and a fun way to be able to tell him she’s thankful for him or proud of him. Sometimes, it's also a good way to apologize. He likes that it's just between them.
When one of her kids is feeling down, Joy writes him a love note and leave it for him to find on his pillow or on the counter. It’s a quick, simple way to let her kids know she’s on their team.
Brenda found it harder to communicate love in a meaningful way when her kids were teenagers. Often, she’d write notes to them and stick them on the headboard of their beds for them to find. Brenda shares lots of wisdom about showing love to kids in episode 69 of the Family Looking Up podcast, entitled, “Loving Kids When They Act Unloveable—No Matter What!” I highly recommend it.
8. Identify Pain Points and Find a Workaround
I could do an entire episode about solving specific issues that make it hard to connect with our kids. Sometimes it’s the child’s special needs. Sometimes it’s just that your personalities are so different, or so similar. Sometimes it’s just that the child is going through a difficult or especially obnoxious stage. But even in these difficult times, and probably especially at these times, we still need to prioritize connecting with our kids. And we might have to get really creative.
Julianna is really good at this.
Julianna hired a piano tutor—a 13-year-old pianist who lives nearby—to help her daughter practice once a week (in addition to her regular piano lessons). Anyone who has had to fight a child to get them to practice knows why this tip fits in the category of building relationships!
Lisa Thriving Motherhood from Instagram — tantrum
Julianna rewrote the story of her mornings
Sunkissed Becky — working out — Instagram
There are obviously a lot of other ways to connect, and it will be different not only for every mom, but for every distinct relationship each mom has with each child. The key is to find what kind of connection works with each child and making time for it.
Family Looking Up: 69 Loving Kids When They Act Unloveable
Brenda Garrison. Post-it notes on headboard before they got home from school.
What Fresh Hell: Getting Your Kids to Talk to You
3 in 30: 26 How to Praise When It Seems Like There’s Nothing to Praise
3 in 30: 50 How to Actually Listen
3 in 30: 41 How to Really See Your Children
3 in 30: 38 Get Teenagers to Talk to You
3 in 30: 29 April Perry