Special Play Time

Children work very hard to get adult attention. Children will get your attention one way or another, it is better if you do it on your terms, not theirs. Some children will act badly, just for attention. Parents usually think that giving angry attention by scolding, lecturing, arguing, they will teach the child to act better. However, for a lot of children, any attention is good and for those children if you follow a bad behavior with a lecture, you might make it worse. As a rule, any behavior that is followed by a lot of parent attention, either good or bad, usually gets worse.

In order to increase your child’s good behavior, you need to learn to give them attention at the right time. If you want to break that negative cycle of nagging and arguing, you need to start by giving some attention when it does the most good.

In order to increase the amount of good attention, you need to first set up a “special play time” each day for your child to give him or her attention. Pick a practice time of 15 minutes per day. Try to do it the same time each day. Either parent can do this. During this time your child will have your undivided attention. Do not answer the phone, have the TV on or other distractions. Find something else for your other children to do during this time.

During the special time, you give your child a choice of play activities. These should be indoor, quiet activities. It should not be TV or video games. Some games, toys and activities are recommended here. You should start by getting down on the floor with your child to play. If he does not choose something, go ahead and pick something out that you think he may like. You start putting it together and talking about it. (For example: “I’m getting out the Hot Wheels cars, and I’m going to put together the track to see how fast they are...”). Usually once you start playing, your child will join in.

After your child starts playing, talk about what he is doing, like a sportscaster describing a game. Don’t ask questions. Don’t give commands or directions. Don’t tell him how to play. Don’t criticize. There is no “right” way to play.

As your child plays, keep talking. If there is any bad behavior, ignore it. If he or she becomes disruptive (for example: throwing toys around), warn once, and if it keeps up, end your special time early. If you do this once, you probably will never have to do it again.

During the play, observe, comment and RELAX. This should be an enjoyable time for both of you. There are several benefits to this daily session.

The first is that paying attention to quiet constructive play will increase that type of play. It also helps your child to have a longer attention span to that type of play.

The second is that your child “tunes in” to your normal voice. They are listening when you are speaking quietly. The third is that this helps with language development. If your child starts to narrate his play himself, it also helps him develop that “inner voice” that guides behavior.

Third, your child gets undivided positive attention for a while. We all do a little better with some of that. The mood will be better and everyone should be a little less grumpy.

Article by W. Douglas Tynan, PhD
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