One-on-one date a 'turning point' for disconnected dad

This is part four of a seven-part series on the SPECIAL emotional needs of children. The S is for Smile. The P is for Powerful. The E is for Explore. Today, we tackle C — for Connection.

Connection is like a faucet. It's either on and flowing, or off and dry.

While writing our book, my coauthors, Ty and Linda Hatfield told me a story. One of their clients, a father of four, had been going through a rough patch with his 10-year-old son. They weren’t seeing eye-to-eye, and arguments erupted easily and often. The situation was especially tricky since the man's attention constantly was being divided among all his children.

Ty and Linda told him, as they are wont to do, about the emotional needs of all children, specifically their need for Connection — and suggested he take his son on a one-on-one date, which he did.

The date changed everything.

In an email, the dad told the Hatfields he took his son to a waterpark — and adventure he would normally share with his whole family. But this day was just for the two of them.

“I had such a wonderful time with him,” he wrote. “We had no distractions, only floating on inner tubes, just me and my son. It was one of the best times I have ever had with him. Something as easy as going to a water park can be a turning point.”

Connection is like a faucet. It’s either on and flowing, or it’s off and dry. When we look at, talk lovingly to, play with and show affection for our kids, the connection is flowing. When we nag, yell, walk away from, ignore, guilt, shame or punish our kids, the spigot is turned off. Vickie Falcone, author of the cleverly named book Buddha Never Raised Kids & Jesus Didn’t Drive Carpool, points out that parents are constantly facing the decision of whether to “disconnect now” or “stay connected” with their kids. In her book, she describes three levels of connection: Low, Medium and High.

  • Low-level connection: You buy your kid a karaoke machine and then watch TV while he plays with it.

  • Medium-level connection: You set up the machine and show your child how to use it before getting back to your TV program.

  • High-level connection: You and your child take turns singing your “Achy Breaky Hearts” out.

We can’t always be connected to our kids at a high level, of course. And that’s totally okay. But when you know what high-level connections look like — being physically present and fully engaged with your child, mentally and emotionally — you are far more likely to feed your kid’s need for connection on a regular basis, preventing a good many problems from cropping up and giving yourself a little wiggle room to correct your child's behavior. After all, as Aha! Parenting founder Laura Markham once said: "Ninety percent of your interactions with your child should be about connecting, so he can accept the10 percent that are about correction."

"Ninety percent of your interactions with your child should be about connecting, so he can accept the 10 percent that are about correcting." — LAURA MARKHAM

Were we connecting for real, or just for the photo? Neither of us can remember.

It's worth noting that connecting is related, but decidedly different, from the child's need for attention — which we'll discuss soon. That's because attention can be bad or good. (You give your child attention when you scold him, just as you do when you listen to him.) But connection is a heart-to-heart thing; scolding may be necessary at times, but it's not connecting you with the child. Likewise, a parent can be "connected" with a child without actively giving her any attention at all. Moms and dads who are serving their country oversees cannot "attend" to their children, per se, right? But those children may feel deeply connected to their parents nonetheless.

Want to make a connection with your kid? Here are three simple but superbly useful ideas:

  • Get on their level. When you are eye to eye with your kid — and "heart-to-heart," as it were — it balances the energy between you and establishes rapport instantly. It tells the child, “I’m willing to meet you where you are.”

  • Reach out, literally. Ever wonder why teachers and pediatricians often ask to high-five or fist-bump young children? Offering your friendly physical touch is a great way to connect with a child, as long as the child is game. Holding hands or giving the child a shoulder ride also are great connectors.

  • Set up one-on-one dates. One-on-one dates take a little more time, but are phenomenal ways to fill a whole bunch of your child’s emotional needs at once — especially her need for connection. If your kid isn't treating you great these days, or is engaging in a lot of power struggles, this is a no-brainer solution. Just be sure to follow these five steps to get the most bang for your buck.

Oh, and one last thing: We can’t expect children to keep the connection going. Children depend on us for a great many things, and nurturing the relationship is one of them. Gordon Neufeld, a psychologist who developed a groundbreaking theory on attachment and coauthored Hold On to Your Kids, once said: “It’s a parent’s responsibility to preserve the connection with their children, to preserve the relationship, so that the children can let go and become their own selves.”

Interested in doing a one-on-one date with your child? Here’s how it works.

Read the next in the series here.